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 "The Big Ten" Exodus 20:1-17 Minimize
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Posted by: Brad Miller11/11/2007 11:00 AM

When it comes to picking scriptures for worship, we at Brookhaven do things a little differently than some churches. A few years ago we decided to try and coordinate our scripture for worship with the scripture being studied in the children’s Sunday school that day. Thus, the sermon topic is tied in somewhat with the Sunday school lesson. We view this as a holistic approach where the whole church, the whole faith community, is focused on the same theme each week. We see this as a way to bring our community even closer together through the study of God’s word.
Here’s how it works: the Christian Education Ministry, headed by our Director of Christian Education, Debbie Kinney goes through various curricula and makes some suggestions as to monthly themes and weekly scriptures. Then we meet together to tweak the suggestions to take into consideration special Sundays, special church seasons and celebrations and the like.
This month the theme is centered on the leadership of Moses, and the topic today is the 10 commandments. And I must confess that when I first saw the suggestion, I thought, “Do we really have to spend time on the 10 commandments again?” I know it’s important for the kids, but for us adults? But as I saw the theme and the other scriptures for the month, I realized that you can hardly talk about Moses without talking about his delivery of the 10 commandments. And so, here we are.
But the question still bothers me some. Do we really need to go over this again? Really?
Do we really need to be reminded that Moses, leading his stiff necked Hebrew brothers and sisters out of Egypt and toward the promised land, had several conversations with God and on one occasion was given these 10 commandments to share with the people? Do we really need to rehash that the Hebrew community in the desert was an unruly bunch, complaining about their ordeal, never seeming to quite understand that God was on their side? Do we really need to revisit Moses’ continually prodding and pleading for the people to follow God’s will and word? Is it necessary to remember that in preparation for the day that the law was delivered Moses continually told the people to fear not, to not be afraid. If they are faithful, he says over and over, then God will be faithful. If they will do their part for what is right for the community of faith, God will do right by that community of faith?
I don’t know. We’ve heard it so many times before.
We can almost say the 10 by heart: I am your God of deliverance, you shall have no other gods. You shall make no idols for worship. You shall not misuse the Lord’s name. You shall remember the Sabbath, honor your parents. You shall not kill or commit adultery or steal or lie about your neighbors or covet your neighbors spouse or possessions.
Yeah, yeah, we’ve heard them before.
We’re conversant about the disagreements about how we interpret them: when God speaks of idols, does this mean golden idols that we construct and actually physical worship, or does it mean anything that becomes more important to us than God? That issue is dealt with fairly directly in the Jewish rabbinical tradition. A philosopher asked the great Rabbi Gamliel: “Why does God legislate against idols instead of simply destroying them?” Said Rabbi Gamliel: “People worship the sun, moon, stars, planets and so forth, even human beings. Shall God annihilate them all?”
We can get into a long argument about whether or not God means we should not kill, or we should not murder. It makes a difference doesn’t it?
We can be at odds as to what bearing false witness technically means. Does it mean in a court of law legal sense, or does it mean that we should never gossip and spread rumors?
But, we really do know what they mean, don’t we? The arguments are theological exercises dealing with nuance and detail, but we get the gist of it without too much trouble.
Don’t we?
Understanding the origin of the 10 commandments and the history of the Hebrew people is important. But I sometimes wonder if we really do grasp the importance of what Moses heard God share with the Hebrew people?
When it comes right down to it, there is nothing in the 10 commandments that constitutes any new or profound philosophical insight into personal ethics or the law. These things would have been understood and practiced in many faith communities, and the last six commandments would be understood by virtually every civil community as well. They are rules that provide order to a community. They are rules that would ensure a measure of domestic tranquility to a community.
We understand them that way today. They are just good common sense codified into a series of commandments. Any society, including ours, must find a way to follow these sorts of straightforward laws if they are to survive.
So, the question of the hour: Do we as a society follow these laws?
Ahhhh….maybe that’s why we need to be continually reminded of the ten commandments, because we do not follow them. I’m not necessarily talking about us as individuals, but then again, I might be. I’m talking first and foremost about us as a society. See if you agree with these statements:
As a society, we promote the worship of false idols through our media and advertising aimed at turning us into consumers of the latest, fastest, and best.
As a society, Sabbath has become an anachronistic concept, a quaint practice of a bygone era. Places of commerce never close; youth athletic teams practice and play games all day every day; we have become overscheduled, overburdened, and underrested.
As a society we have too often shunted our senior citizens aside, having been nurtured by them, but not having time to listen to them, to care for them and honor them as we should.
As a society, we have reached an epidemic of killing and murder, no matter how you define it.
As a society, we are continually dealing with rising crime rates and theft as a serious problem. We lock ourselves in to gated communities because of the threat. We must protect our pertinent information because of identity theft. We must keep a close watch on our bank accounts because of computer fraud.
As a society, we tune in the radio talk shows and hear almost nothing except rumormongering and half-truths about political opponents.
And let’s not even get started about covetousness in the age of “keeping up with the Jones’s.”
You may not agree with me about each of those individual statements. But there is no doubt that we live in a society that would not be seen as a great example of strict adherence to the “Big Ten” that Moses brought down from the mountain.
But what about us as individuals? Can we simply say, “Well, I’m not doing those things?”
We are not killers. We are not thieves. We do not abandon our elderly. We come to church each Sunday and we pray to God, and we confess our sins, and we honor God’s word. We are good church people.
But what about when we leave this place?
Are we covetous? Do we spread rumors about people even if we aren’t sure they are true? Do we make achievement or fame or acquiring the next big thing our idol that consumes are time? Do we spend so much time with our other idols that we find no time for Sabbath?
Oh, but even if we do those things, sometime, at least we are not killers, or thieves, or adulterers…
I don’t know about you, but anytime I hear someone begin a statement with “At least I’m not as bad as…” I know that I am dealing with a person who is feeling some guilt. Saying I am better than a murderer because all I do is lie is not a ringing announcement of a clear conscience.
It is up to each of us to decide where we fall on this topic. Do we uphold these 10 commandments or do we sometimes not? Do we try and compartmentalize that we are good Christians because we come to church and do our religious duty, but then fudge the commandments just a bit when it comes to our business and personal dealings?
Last week Carol and I went and saw the new movie “American Gangster” a true story of a drug dealer and the cop who put him out of business. It is not an uplifting, happy movie. It is violent and turns the lens on a side of life that we would rather not believe exists.
There is a scene where the police officer, a good cop, a clean cop, is going through a divorce and uses the fact that he IS a good cop as an excuse for why he was a poor husband and father. His wife calls him on it and says, “You can’t compartmentalize it. Being a good cop means nothing if you don’t live up to the rest of your obligations.” And as he hears these words, he knows she is right.
So it is with us Christians. We can’t be a good Sunday Christian unless we strive to be a good Monday through Friday Christian. We cannot look at society as out of control as we pick and choose which commandments to follow. And that is what is at the heart of these 10 commandments.
The scholar G.E. Mendenhall has written, “The 10 commandments are rooted in the covenant relationship. This relationship is understood to have been initiated by a saving God who has demonstrated graciousness and authority in the deliverance of God’s people from Egyptian slavery. Obedience to the fundamental covenant law is thus an obedience born of gratitude and praise, not mindless submission to a an arbitrary God….”
In other words, for the ancient Hebrews and for us today, these 10 commandments are followed because of a trust in God, in thanksgiving for what God has provided. They are followed because they are God’s way of helping to form a community. A community based not on common interests, but on common obligations to our creator God.
You see, when we truly do follow these commandments, we are saying thank you to God for watching out for our community, and honoring God by doing everything in our power to safeguard that community. By following these 10 commandments we are fulfilling our obligation to our covenant with God. God loves us. God wants our community to thrive. But when the very fabric of the community is strained by basic lawlessness and ignorance of community standards represented by the 10 commandments, our community, our society will not thrive. And not because God will strike us down. Rather, because we will strike ourselves down.
These are sometimes hard commands to follow. We like our comfort, we are titillated by gossip, we are attracted to the feeling that being an achiever brings. And so we must recognize their importance and honor that importance, in joy and thanksgiving that God is really looking out for us.
Not by making sure they are written on the courthouse walls. But by making sure they are written in our hearts and practiced in our lives.
Almost always when we bring up the 10 commandments, someone will say, “Well, Jesus superceded those laws.” I would take some issue with that. Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophecy, and wanted us to know that underlying all of God’s law is the law of love: love of God, love of neighbor. There is some reason to believe that Jesus thought the 10 commandments were important to follow because they were good preparation and practice for an even more demanding command that he issued on several occasions: “Follow me.”
Let us pray: Lord, we are torn between what the world offers us and what you offer us. Help us to see that when we accept your offer, when we faithfully uphold our end of the covenant with you, what the world offers will pale in comparison to what you can deliver. Help us to be agents of change, starting with the first laws that you handed down to Moses. And as those agents of change, help us to be living examples of what it means to be children of God. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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