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Our Scripture text this morning comes to us from the Book of Deuteronomy. The words will sound quite familiar as this text is a re-telling of one the most well-known stories in all of the Bible. The Ten Commandments. But, before we listen to the text from Deuteronomy, I want to take a step back and look back into Exodus to remember what was going on when the Ten Commandments first came into play.
So, back in Exodus, the Israelites had escaped from slavery in Egypt and Moses was their guide. After God parted the Red Sea, after manna came down from heaven to feed them and after water sprang from a rock, the third new moon passed, or as we might better understand it, 6 weeks had passed, since they left Egypt and the people of Israel gathered at Mt. Sinai (also known as Horeb). Their ultimate destination was the land of the Canaanites, the promised land – but their journey took them through the wilderness for a while. They camped there at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and twice, God summoned Moses to the top of the mountain. Up on the mountaintop, God spoke to Moses telling him that no one should come up the mountain lest they be killed. Twice, Moses went back down and told the people and the people were so fearful they did not even touch the mountain. Then, God spoke the Ten Commandments for all the people to hear with a voice of thunder and lightening. And, twice, the Ten Commandments were written on stone tablets – first by the hand of God and the second written by Moses after he smashed the first copy when he discovered the people worshiping a golden calf. The repetition is important here. God’s patience runs deep. God is slow to anger and quick to forgive. Then, God explained how God would slowly and methodically go before the people of Israel to clear the way to the Promised Land of Canaan – a journey was ahead of them, not a presto-chang-o moment – and God would be with them the whole way.
Over the next 40 years, the Israelites went through turmoil as they adjusted to the changes in their midst. They went through the process of learning to live as a covenant people – from having no framework for living as a freed people, to understanding themselves in relation to one another and to God. They journeyed from captivity, through the wilderness of discovering a new way of being to the edge of the Promised Land – and this is the place where we hear the words spoken again by Moses today in the Book of Deuteronomy.
So, let us turn to our Scripture lesson for today and listen for God’s Word to us from Deuteronomy 5: 1-21.
Let us pray: Gracious and Loving God, who lives and breathes and speaks to us today, open our ears for us to hear your voice. Open our minds to understand your commandments and open our hearts to be vulnerable to your love. Amen.
Moses convened all Israel, and said to them:
Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently. The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today. The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire. (At that time I was standing between the Lord and you to declare to you the words of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
Neither shall you commit adultery.
Neither shall you steal.
Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.
Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.
Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
So, here we are, on the cusp of the Promised Land and Moses reminds us of the Ten Commandments. Before we get to the meaning of the law, let’s back up and talk a little bit about the Book of Deuteronomy. I’m going to go fairly in-depth into the history here, but bear with me, because this is foundational to our faith and the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Deuteronomy is the name for the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible and it is the last of the five books that traditionally comprise the Torah or Pentateuch. The name reflects the Greek word deuteronomion – I’m sure I have the pronunciation incorrect here but bear with me. Deuteronomion means “second law” or “repeated law,” which is loosely translated from the Hebrew phrase found in chapter 17 mishneh hattorah hazzot, which means ‘copy of the law.’ The Book of Deuteronomy is the only one of the five that explicitly and repeatedly describes itself as a record of the Mosaic law, or torah. And, the Torah is looked to as the comprehensive and divinely sanctioned instructions for life as faithful people—what we Presbyterians often call polity.
The first four chapters of Deuteronomy set the scene for Moses’ great speech that we read in our text this morning. The Israelites are camped on the banks of the Jordan River, looking over into the Promised Land, and Moses knows he will not go there with them. So, he gathers the people together and speaks to them one last time – his retirement speech, if you will – and he reminds them of how they will thrive as the people of God, repeating much of what they have heard before.
Through Moses, God speaks to a people in transition. They were once and enslaved people – a people understood only as a commodity on which the privileged built their wealth. Delivered from slavery by God, they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years – generations of families traveling together, dwelling together as a community in motion in confusing and difficult times. Exposed to a life of freedom they have never known before, God taught the people through the voice of thunder and lightening, and through Moses, how they will be known as the people of God, free and beloved.
A hush falls over the crowd and Moses begins to speak. He opens by reminding the people of the first time the law was given. It was some 40 years prior. At least one generation, if not two, had been born since that initial hearing. The people in the crowd, those Moses is speaking to on the banks of the Jordan, were born in the desert. But they will be the generation that moves to the Promised Land. And, generations to come will live in this land of promise, this land where milk and honey will flow, this land where justice will reign and God’s mercy will be abundant. And, when they move into the new land, they will not perish nor become enslaved again, they need not fear that they will be forgotten by God. Their old habits and rules and ways of life from when they were enslaved in Egypt and from when they wandered through the wilderness will be useless to them in this new place. The law, Moses reminds them, isn’t just advice given by their parents – the law is God’s gift to help them rebuild life together.
Now you, like the Israelites, might be skeptical about these Ten Commandments. After all, if your community had come out of slavery just 40 years earlier, the last thing you would want is restrictions on how to live your life. If read literally and without context, our text today can feel legalistic and restrictive. But these commandments are not given to a people in a vacuum – they are given to a living generation, a living, breathing people of God, for whom God desires abundant life. And, what’s interesting about these particular laws, these Ten Commandments, is that there aren’t any specific punishments for violating them. Because, you see, this is a covenant with God. The people obey these laws and God will be their God, steadfast in love, deliverer from all enemies. These laws are intended to be remembered daily and daily God’s people try to keep them to honor God and the covenant God made with them.
So, let’s break down the Ten Commandments to see how this works in practice. The commandments can be broken down into three sections – laws about our relationship with God, a law about our relationship with oneself, and laws concerning our relationship with the community. Moses reminds us that God gives the commandments not to restrict freedom but as a framework to promote free and life-giving relationships with God, with others, and within ourselves.
So the first three commandments help us understand how to be in relationship with God: God tells us that God is the Lord our God and we shall have no other gods. We are not to use the name of the Lord for wrongful purposes – Showing respect and love for God does not include invoking the name of God for personal gain, to win an argument, to belittle or besmirch another human being, to uphold power over and against another person or people. And, we are not to make idols for ourselves – God’s being and likeness are not meant to be harnessed or captured, nor are we to think we have a full grasp on the power of God enough to create something of our own making and worship it. Now, this might seem like an easy one for us here today because we’re not often inclined to create our version of the physical golden calf – but for us, this is often the most challenging of all commandments. Idols are those things that distract us from remembering that God is God and there are no other gods. Our need to be right, our need to be in control, our reputation, our rank or title or membership on a church committee, our self-conciousness or our pride – these are the idols of our time, among many others I’m sure, that prove to be most challenging to our understanding that we are children of God and therefore, we are not God nor are we expected to be.
These first three commandments help us live as children of God – each of us recipients of God’s grace and love and not a single one of us is a purveyor of it. These first three commandments offer us the freedom to be the mortals God created us to be and for us to recognize that every single one of us who walks this earth is in need of a merciful God of abundant life. Our first understanding of ourselves in law is that we are children of God – we are not God.
The fourth commandment helps us to experience peace within ourselves – understanding of that we are children of God, created to delight in God’s creation as free people. We are no longer slaves. We are no longer captive to a grueling master – whether the master is an Egyptian Pharoah, a controlling presence in our lives, or an ideal we seek to achieve. We are to take a whole precious day of each week to take a break from over-programmed schedules and to rest from laboring for earthly favor and riches. On the Sabbath day, we, and all those we employ, are free to take time to rest and play and remember that we are a beloved child of God first and all other identities from all other weekly activities second. It is a time set aside to remember that I am child of God and so are you and we are more than our economic statuses, our genders, our races, our sexual orientations, our careers, or our titles. We are free from the bondage of all our labeling and we are children of God created to delight in resting from our demanding schedules.
The remaining commandments help us understand how to be in relationship with one another. We are to honor our ancestors and remember what they have been through and taught us. We are to recognize the humanity in one another – we are not to destroy one another and take life away from one another. We are not objectify one another, but we are to live as if no one is replaceable. We are not to commit adultery, so that we might not disrespect and inflict pain upon the one whom we have promised love. And, jealousy among neighbors is toxic, therefore we are not to lie, cheat or steal to get what someone else has. These remaining commandments help us to recognize that we are created to flourish with one another, not compete against one another for the prize of mere survival.
I can picture Moses and the Israelites sitting there on the bank of the Jordan River, looking out into a new land of promise and hope based on their understanding that God is God and trusting that they, as children of God, are intended for fullness of life and peace. And, it makes me wonder – what do we, people of God sitting here at Western Presbyterian Church, see from where we’re sitting? We have the benefit of hindsight and God’s refrain of love. Time and time again, we have heard God commit to this life-altering and life-giving covenant with God’s people – from the first proclamation of the law during the exodus, to sitting on the banks of the Jordan to the Temple in Jerusalem where Jesus spoke the greatest commandment to love God, to love neighbor and to love self, to the resurrection where love has been loosed in this world and dwells with us today. This message of God’s love for us and for all humanity is absolutely extraordinary and bears repeating day in and day out. So, I wonder, what do you see from where you’re sitting? Can you imagine a world where we actively lived into these commandments?
The screens of our televisions, tablets and phones, the newspapers dropped at our doorsteps or greeting us at our favorite coffee shops – they describe the myriad ways in which we have failed to live into this covenantal relationship. But, all is not lost – remember, even the ten commandments had to be etched in stone twice because Moses, a human, was not able to have the patience of God – we will make mistakes sometimes, and we will fail sometimes, yet God’s grace will abound. So, can you imagine if we, as a community, were to even attempt to live into our end of this covenantal relationship with God and try, try again when we fall short?
Just take a moment and ponder the possibilities of that.
We are not bound to God or to one another by a restrictive law. As children of God, we are intended to be in mutual relationship with one another and under God’s covenant, we are free from being in competition with one another. Showing kindness and respecting one another, understanding one’s own need for God – these are tasks we are all intended for – whether we’re wandering in the wilderness or nestled safe within the promised land. This law is a gift to help us develop habits that will enable all generations, present and yet to come, to live life abundantly. And, above all, we shall love our God – this magnificently loving, freeing, creating, merciful God – with all our heart, all our soul and with all our might, remembering that we are beloved, remembering that we are not alone, remembering that we have purpose in loving God and loving one another well. Amen.