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The Covenants God Keeps (3): Stone

. 6 min read

2015/03/08
Christ Church, Mountain Top
Call
to Worship, Psalm 19
Children,
John 2.13-22
Message,
Exodus 20.1-17
We
are looking at the covenants – the treaties or agreements – that God makes with
human kind. In each case, they are initiated by God and, though they are made
with certain individuals or groups, are integrated into God’s larger plan for
the human race. They teach us what it means to be God’s people, fulfilling the
ancient purpose of Lent, to train initiates to make their baptismal vows as
disciples of Jesus.
      The first covenant we explored was made
with Noah, with “all flesh” including the creatures, and its sign was God’s bow
– a weapon – hung in the clouds, retired from use. The second was one made with
Abraham, expressed and developed in at least three separate encounters between
Abraham and God, designed to bless him and make him a blessing to “all families
on earth”, and to claim him and his heirs as “my people” and be to them “your
God”. Its sign was circumcision.
      Today, we explore a covenant God makes
with the people of Israel – the heirs of Abraham – focused in the commands
given at Sinai out of a terrible vision of God’s glory, so glorious that no
one, and no creature, could approach the mountain unbidden, or touch it, lest
they die. When the LORD finishes giving these commands, we are told that all
Israel heard the voice but could not endure before it: You speak to us, and we
will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die (Exodus 20.19). The
sign of this covenant, the covenant of Torah, a word for “Law” or “Teaching”,
is the stone tablets. As in, “take two tablets and call me in the morning.”
Despite the humor, much spiritual guidance boils down to a slogan-like “just do
it” obedience. If we refuse to obey, why wonder that we struggle to find
ourselves close to God?

Yet,
God’s “top ten” list is hardly a simple list of rules. There is so much in this
passage. We could focus one at a time on each of the commands individually. “Do
not murder” and “do not commit adultery” open up the controversy can of worms
around human life and human sexuality. “Honor your father and your mother”
interestingly, does NOT say “obey”. There is an implicit understanding that our
highest loyalty and deepest obedience is to God alone, not to mom and dad. And,
at the same time, a command like this prevents adult children from kicking dear
old dad to the curb just because he can no longer earn his keep. In addition,
it reminds us of how important it is in the community of faith for our story to
be passed from one generation to the next (see Brueggemann, 847, 849). “Do not
covet”, command number ten, is linked thematically with the first command, “you
shall have no other gods before me”. How so? Well, Paul describes “greed” as
“idolatry” (852, Colossians 3.5).
      Beyond examining the commandments
individually, the passage invites us to consider the commandments, as a group,
in the context of moral development. My father-in-law did a lot of work
applying Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development in a number of unique
populations, from gifted young persons to dual-diagnosed adults with felony
convictions. The stages begin with obedience to avoid punishment, move on to
self-interest (seeking the benefit that comes with obedience), to conformity to
social expectations, and eventually to “universal ethical principles”
(Wikipedia). The New Testament looks back at the Law and remarks, “The law was
our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith”
(Galatians 3.24). Despite this, many followers of Jesus have not moved on to
what could be called the “faith” stage of spiritual development; we’re still
stuck in disciplinarian mode: “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not
let God speak to us, or we will die.”
      We can also look at the commandments as a
group in the context of the development of a nation. When Israel went down into
Egypt, Israel was a large extended family. While there, they became slaves.
They had never been a nation, never had the opportunity to develop their own
government and leadership, their expectations and accountability. Our own
nation was formed by free men, with experience and academic training in
governing and leadership, and even then their first stab at government, the
Articles of Confederation, was a failure. These commandments, and this
covenant, were crucial to structuring the identity of a nation.
      We can look at these commandments as
summarized elsewhere in the Torah and by Jesus as “the first and greatest
commandment” to love the Lord your God and the “second, like it” to love your
neighbor (Matthew 22.34-40). Our confirmation class studies this each year and
we hear from them that we are called to “love God, love everyone”. In so many
ways, this “top ten”, along with the top two summary, are the foundation for
all Christian ethics.
But,
today, I want us to focus on what this covenant teaches us about our God. In
the covenant with Noah, we learned that God is a God of second chances. In the
covenant with Abraham, we learned that God wants to lay claim not just to
Abraham and his offspring but to the entire human race, to declare “mine” over
each one of us. In this covenant with Israel as an emerging nation, we discover
that God has a personal history with two major themes – liberation and creation
(see Moltmann, 50-65).
“I
am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the
house of slavery;” (Exodus 20.2). Worshiping a God who liberates slaves has
certain social consequences (see Brueggemann, 840).
·        
We once worked like slaves. Now we are called to
practice rest (not leisure, but rest). We must not allow the desire for more or
the struggle for survival to take from us this basic dignity, part of being set
free by the God of liberation (see Moltmann, 40).
·        
We once were slaves, and our lives were cheap.
But we are redeemed and our lives are priceless. Honor, cherish, protect, value
all human life.
·        
We once were slaves, traded like breeding stock.
But our sexuality is now bought by God and can only be given in faithfulness to
an equal.
·        
We once were slaves, someone’s property, and not
even treated well as property. If we are to honor one another as human beings,
created in God’s image, then we must respect them and their property.
·        
We lived too long under the lies of those in
power, the lies of “victors” who “write history”. We must value the truth of
the oppressed and never let their voice be silenced.
“For
in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them,
but rested the seventh day” (Exodus 20.11). Worshiping the God of all creation,
the God who made the heavens and the earth, has tremendous social consequences.
·        
We once worked like cogs in a machine. Now we
are called to practice rest (not leisure, but rest). We must not allow the
voices of power and market economics to turn human beings – creatures of God –
into numbers. No, we refuse to give up this basic dignity, part of being made
in the image of a God who rested after the good work of creation.
·        
We once allowed someone else to define human
perfection and beauty, having forgotten the pleasure of the God who created us
and declared over each one: “It is good”. Meghan Trainor is right on target
when she declares, “Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top.”
·        
We once utilized sexual intimacy as an easy path
to transcendence. But now we recognize that the God who breathed life into us,
made us a living soul, desires an intimate and covenantal life with us, and
desires that we experience and celebrate our sexuality in the context of
covenant faithfulness.
God’s
history in creation and liberation/redemption have huge and countless
implications for ethics. No surprise, then, that God gives us the ten
commandments. Walter Brueggemann writes: “The commands are a decisive way in
which Israel (and Yahweh) intend to sustain and institutionalize the
revolutionary social possibility that is asserted and enacted in the exodus
narrative” (839).
      However, the institutionalization of the
exodus, the implications for ethics, are secondary to what we learn about God,
that God’s history is found in creation and liberation. As I introduce myself
as Robin’s husband and the pastor of Christ Church, defining myself in terms of
my major relationships and actions, so Godself is introduced as creator of the
entire universe and redeemer of slaves.
      In the first case, creation, we discover
that God’s affection and passion have no boundary. In the second, we are
stunned to find God entering our suffering, joining us in the pain, and
liberating us from our slaveries not simply as a power greater than the slave
master, but as a slave with us (see Philippians 2.5-11 and Exodus 3.7-8).
      Speaking personally, this is a God whom I
would love to know and follow, one whose boundless love includes me, one who
joins me in my suffering and pain, one who sets me free from all the other gods
that compete for my loyalty – the gods of security and success, the gods of my
relationships, the gods of pleasure and desire (see Brueggemann, “theological
emancipation”, 841).
Resources:
Walter
Brueggemann, New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol
I,
Exodus.
Jurgen
Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the
Spirit.

Meghan
Trainor. “All About that Bass”, Title,
2015 Jan 15.