God’s Big Story (8) Rescue & Life
How shall we live?
In 1630, John Winthrop preached an important sermon in an unusual place. He was on board the ship Arabella, and at the head of a group sailing away from England to found a new colony in what is today Boston. Before he landed, Winthrop made a speech laying out what kind of community they were to make:
We must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. … We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. [Graham Beynon God’s New Community Chapter 4. See also for the full text of the sermon ‘A Model of Christian Charity’ http://winthropsociety.com/doc_charity.php (March 2015)]
What a wonderful vision of a community ‘knit together in love’. In stark contrast is another speech, made nearly three hundred years later, in 1928. Herbert Hoover finished up his Presidential Campaign with a speech that came to be known as the Rugged Individualism’ speech.
Two speeches that set out a vision for society. What is God’s vision for society, and for humanity? As we have followed through God’s Big Story we see that his big vision is to bring God’s People into God’s Place to enjoy the blessings of God’s rule. So far Abraham’s descendants (God’s people) have multiplied to vast numbers: in the Exodus he brought them out of slavery in Egypt to be on the way to the Place he promised to give them. What kind of people are they to be? What is God’s vision for society?
Rules? We love them and hate them! (v1-2)
The Ten Commandments, which we find in Exodus 20, set out God’s vision for society. They are, as the DVD showed, also ‘Ten Ways to be Perfect’.[Sally Lloyd-Jones and Jago The Jesus Story Book Bible DVD]
They show us how God wants his people to live.
And they are Rules.
Many people imagine that the Ten Commandments are a test to see whom God will accept: you can be a Christian if you’re good enough.
Last week we imagined a Border Post at the crossing of the Red Sea, to allow only Israelites through when in fact a mixed multitude crossed (Ex 12.38). Now imagine there was a kind of ‘Cricket Test’ instead – you can cross if you have kept these commandments.
That’s is utterly wrong! For a start, the order of events is wrong. See how the Commandments are introduced in verse 2:
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Exodus 20:2)
God gave the commandments three months after the Israelites left Egypt (See Ex 19.1-2). The Commandments are not rules for earning God’s favour. Before we look at what they are we must recognise we have a love-hate relationship with rules:
We hate rules when we want a relationship
Rules can describe a relationship but they cannot define it. Take marriage as an example (I know this will be sensitive for some, but you will understand better than most the seriousness of the issue being illustrated). Yesterday I took part in a service of thanksgiving for 50 years of marriage. It was a wonderful celebration. All the women present were jealous because the bride/wife wore her original wedding dress from 50 years ago!
Part of the ceremony was the renewal of marriage vows: for better for worse and so on. But the relationship is not about the rules: it is about loving the other person through think and thin. We hate rules when we want a relationship that goes further
On the other hand, the rules can reveal where we fall short: and nobody enjoys that experience! Those vows are in a sense rules – if you fail to keep the obligations, there are grounds for divorce. The problem with God’s rules is that they present us with God’s standards. We’ll return to that.
We love rules when we don’t want a relationship
On the other hand, we love rules when we don’t want a relationship because rules mean you can know when you have done enough. That is not a relationship! I don’t reach a certain point in the day with Christa and tell her, ‘I’ve been nice about your hair (once today) and clothes (once today) now I have done your duty. That’s it for the day’! Relationships don’t work like that.
The Commandments are rules that describe the relationship God wants, but they do not define that relationship. God called Israel to a relationship that would mean they obey the commandments: but we will see in coming weeks that Israel preferred to settle for rules rather than relationship. If we focus on the rules, we lose sight of the wonderful relationship God wants.
There’s a well known story of a man who was recruiting a new driver. The last three candidates were invited to a cliff-top car park. The challenge: “How close to the edge do you think you can safely drive me?” One drives to within 1 metre. Next to within 50 cm. Third walks away. “I’m not going anywhere near the edge!” Who got the job? The third man because the man wanted to live!
Do you see that by seeing how close to the edge they could go, the two others lost sight of the objective: to keep the man safe! And in the same way, by concentrating on seeing how close to disobedience they could get, Israel and us lose the real prize, which is knowing God.
The rules are pointers to God. They reveal God’s blueprint for us – the Good Life – We learn this from what they forbid and what they promote. After that we’ll see they point to the Good News of how God works today.
The Good Life: A Compelling Vision (v3-17)
Behind each negative commandment is a positive vision or virtue that God commends to us. Let me show you:
(1) “You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3)
The heart of this commandment is to worship knowing there is only one God. It forbids God’s people to worship other gods in order to promote joyful worship of the one true God. True delight comes from worshipping the true God, and that comes by avoiding false gods.
(2) You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them;… (Exodus 20:4–6)
If the first command was about whom to worship, the second is about how to worship. Within a a few chapters of this part of Exodus, Moses’ own brother Aaron will set up a golden calf for Israel to worship. He thought it would be a good way to worship the Lord. It seemed a good idea. But God is not like the others gods: he is real, living, and unseen: he reveals himself by words not images. Aaron failed to listen and so led Israel into a great sin. We too must constantly ask, ‘What does God say about how we are to worship him? And how can we do it?’
(3) “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. (Exodus 20:7)
This command is about treating his name as weighty. God is not to be taken for granted: he is to be taken seriously. In the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, when Susan first hears about Aslan she asks, ‘Is he safe?’. No Dear, says Mrs Beaver, ‘I never said he was safe. But he is good.’ Aslan stands for the God of the Bible: good, but not safe.
In that sense we should be cautious about singing songs in which God’s my ‘mate’: there is intimacy in our relationship, but he’s Almighty. (And Scripture never calls God our friend).
(4) “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. (Exodus 20:8–10)
God works on the Sabbath and rests when he has finished his work. We are to rest on the Sabbath, whether our work is finished or not. We can keep the sabbath because we trust that God can cope without us for day.
(5) “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)
The first four commandments have been mainly about our relationship with God. The last five are mainly about our relationship with others. This, fifth, Commandment is the bridge between the two. We honour our parents because the family is the basic building block of society that God has given. It’s a continuing obligation: I am to honour my parents now: my mother who is alive; and my Father’s memory now that he gone.
The Family is also the place we learn about all our other relationships, including the value of life, purity, truth, treasure, and contentment. That is why the family is the link between the first four Commandments and the last five.
(6) “You shall not murder. (Exodus 20:13)
Jesus made clear that the commandment reaches far beyond shedding blood: it means loving others and cherishing their life and their wellbeing. It means loving life when it is weak and strong: when it is kind and unkind; when it is just and unjust. Remember that it is Christians who have led the way in caring for the sick, the weak, and the dying. And it is now non-Christians who are leading the way in calling for the removal through assisted suicide or euthanasia of the sick, the weak, and the dying. It’s a beautiful vision of loving life.
(7) “You shall not commit adultery. (Exodus 20:14)
Here is a vision of pure relationships in which men and women honour one another as people not sexual objects, and find right ways to delight in their love and desire for one another. We have seen many cases recently to illustrate the ways in which there are wrong relationships: historic sexual abuse (it’s not OK to molest or sleep with teenage fans); grooming (it’s not OK to seduce vulnerable women and men); rape (it’s not OK to have sex where consent has not been given); teenage pregnancies and disease (it’s not OK to be pregnant under 16). What is lacking is any positive vision of relationships in which men and women, boys and girls are safe and cherished and protected and able to delight in the sexual pleasure God gives the human person. Many people see Christian sexual ethics as repressive, when they hold out a vision for purity and protection. We Christian believers shun immorality because we’re captured by a better vision.
(8) You shall not steal. (Exodus 20:15)
This commandment is about treasure: what’s mine, what’s yours: of course it can all come, and it can all go. We can’t take it with us. When we seek lasting treasure, that is when our attitudes to possession in this life come right: everything we have is given by God for his service: we spend our resources – time, gifts, money, use of home and car – to serve God’s purposes. And there is great joy in putting those gifts to work.
(9) You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. (Exodus 20:16)
Jesus memorably said that when satan talks, “he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44) The positive vision is of a community that is held together and built up by the truth. It’s the vision for the church that we are speaking the truth in love (Eph 4.15) and
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)
And then finally
(10) You shall not covet your neighbor’s house (Exodus 20:17)
To covet is to desire what you don’t have. Coveting or Covetousness is a ‘gateway’ sin because it opens the door to other sins. You might know the expression ‘gateway drug’ alcohol or pot can open the door to abuse of more serious drugs like heroin or cocaine. Covetousness is a gateway sin because coveting leads to other sins. For example, when King David saw beautiful Bathsheba bathing on her roof, he desired her. His coveting led to first adultery, then lying, and then murder. (2 Samuel 11)
The thing about Coveting is that it’s hard to catch someone at it. With murder and theft and adultery, you can be caught doing at least the outward forms of those. Coveting is all in the mind and in the heart. Only God sees the coveting until it makes you do something else.
=> Thus while the commandments paint a wonderful picture, a vision of how God’s people should live, they tell us all too clearly that we don’t match up to that in our hearts at least. You may be a respectable, law abiding person outwardly: but inwardly you fall short of God’s standards and cannot love him and please him fully. The Law brings our sinful hearts to light, as Paul discovered:
For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. (Romans 7:7–8)
The Good News: God’s Building Site (v18-20)
The commandments spell out all too clearly how great is the distance between us and God. Let’s return to the end of Exodus 20:
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” (Exodus 20:18–20)
We must take that God, and God’s holiness, very seriously.
The Commandments cannot save us. We need a mediator, and Moses points to the one, true mediator between men and God, Jesus Christ. He is able to deal with sin through his perfect life and atoning death:
For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. (Romans 8:3)
Those whom God pardons (when we become Christians), he renews. The Holy Spirit’s work is to dismantle your sinful nature and to rebuild your heart and soul according to the pattern of the Commandments, all of which Jesus kept.
When work begins on the Parish Centre (and by the way do use this week to pray for the funding which will be decided on Friday 27th March and we’ll find out after Easter), we will see the old outbuildings taken down, and the new building take shape. For a long time there will be mess: but for those who know the plans, you will see the new building taking shape.
=> Which Commandments are you most comfortable with? Thank God for the strength he has given you in that area, and pray that he will further build the character of Jesus through your obedience. Remember the Cliff top: not how close to the edge, but how much more like Jesus you can become.
=> Which Commandments are you least comfortable with? Are you fighting against sin or have you surrendered already to it? Remember the building site: God wants to transform your life in every area, including that one. Pray for God’s Holy Spirit to convict you of sin, to assure you of forgiveness, and to strengthen you to change.
Let me read the Commandments through, then pause and then pray.