The Ten Commandments and God’s grace
Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA
by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, October 4, 2020
Year A, proper 21: Exodus 20: 1-20
Exodus 20: 1-20 (NRSV): Then God spoke all these words: 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 the 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. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 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, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
I went to a party at someone’s house a while back. Being a priest at a party like this generates some interesting conversations. One couple I met rather quickly informed me “We don’t go to church that often, but we live by the Ten Commandments.” This made me wonder if they remembered the commandment about keeping the Sabbath day holy…
The Ten Commandments used to be central in our culture. Now we seem to pay lip service to the Ten Commandments. Do we really take them seriously, even as Christians? Rarely can anyone rattle them off quickly—I couldn’t even do it until I decided to learn them all sometime during seminary (I figured it would come in handy—but even then, I get them out of order).
The Ten Commandments can be seen in two categories. The first four deal with right relationship with God, and the last six deal with right relationship with each other. You hear this twofold focus of the commandments in the summary of the law: ‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength; and the second is like it—you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Upon these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’
Let’s review these commandments, though perhaps a little out of order. The sixth through ninth commandments sound very familiar to us. We must not murder, commit adultery, steal or bear false witness. I think that everyone here would nod our heads vigorously up and down in agreement that we as a society should uphold and strengthen these kinds of boundaries. Indeed, our laws enforce these boundaries fairly vigorously, with the exception of adultery and lying, perhaps. These commandments are the ones that usually come to mind when we say with pride that we uphold the Ten Commandments.
And yet, if these sins became fashionable, I think that many people would follow the fashion, rather than follow the commandments. I suppose adultery has become fashionable among celebrities from the look of it. And being dishonest or misleading is almost expected from all sides in election season. And we’re hearing more and more excuses for violence and the kind of hatred that Jesus equates with murder.
Then there is the tenth commandment: not to covet. We say openly that greed and desire for what belongs to others is bad, but this kind of greed seems to be an important driver in our economy, and we forget about the spiritual impact of all that push for things and experiences to please ourselves. This commandment is interesting because it is less about particular behavior and more about the direction of one’s heart. Jesus builds on this commandment when he challenges us that when we call our neighbor a fool, we are liable for murder, or when we look with lust we are guilty of adultery or that our yes should be yes, and our no, no.
The assigned reading this morning skips over several verses. For instance, the commandment to keep the sabbath gives details that we missed today—details about rest on the seventh day because God made that day holy. We also miss the warning and promise in the commandment against idolatry. God will punish to the third and fourth generation—what we do in our relationship with God influences the generations ahead of us and their relationship with God. But there is also the promise: that God will show steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love him. Yes, our relationship with God influences the generations ahead of us with blessing too.
The commandment to honor father and mother comes with a promise, because honoring them means honoring the God they followed, and walking in the ways of faithfulness they learned and passed on to us. Keeping the sabbath and honoring God in how we speak of God is also about the habits of life that keep God at the center and the first priority of our lives, sanctifying all of our speech, all of our days.
The crux of all of these commandments comes in the first commandment, of course. We are to love the Lord our God above all others. In loving God, we learn how to love each other. Without the love of God, we will stumble and fall into our naturally self-destructive ways. But with the love of God, we will thrive.
Notice that when the people are afraid, Moses tells them, “do not be afraid.” A better translation of what follows is “God has come only to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” God has not come for us to be afraid, but to know that sin, or departing away from God brings fear. Following God’s ways, walking closely with God, brings faith and safety and thriving in life.
To be clear: the Ten Commandments are commandments. They are not ten suggestions, or ten easy ways to live a good life, or ten pieces of ancient advice. They are directives from the God who loves us, the God we claim as Lord and ruler of our lives. So we are right to obey him, to acknowledge his rule. We are also right to see the invitation to life that God gives us through these commandments.
How does God invite us to new life today through these commandments?
Our world is full of strife and chaos and bitterness and division, violence and hatred, disunity and mistrust. We are inspired to descend to the worst of ourselves, rather than called to the best that we can be—the best the God invites us to be. I think this situation describes most of human history. Empires rise and fall pursuing their own glory, but God’s steadfast love stands forever, blessing those to the thousandth generation of those who love him. God has quietly sustained the faithful over the generations, and God sustains us today—as we walk closely with God where we are. When we are present in the world with our faithfulness, when we call for kindness and grounding in what is good and true, when we call for and pursue grounding in God, we bring God’s blessing to the world around us. And quietly, we watch God roll back the darkness.
In the ten commandments and elsewhere in the law and the prophets and Jesus’ teaching, God invites us into relationship with him and shows us how to be in relationship with him. God didn’t demand that Israel follow the law perfectly, then he would save them from slavery. No, God first saved them from slavery, then he gave them the commandments to show them how to stay in relationship with him, so that they might enjoy the fruit of his promises, that they might live in his steadfast love. This is the promise of the ten commandments, and the love of God that gives them to us.
God does not give the commandments to make us feel guilty. We often are guilty, of course, but God’s hope is that we will see our mistakes and turn back toward God, to walk more closely with God. We pursue the commandments not to be perfect, but to pursue God.
Paul writes in Philippians about his history as someone who pursued the law. He was a pharisee, trained in the law of the Old Testament, and faithful. Yet, despite all these achievements, he says that he counts these achievements all like rubbish in comparison to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus! What truly brings us closer to God is Jesus’ love for us, in his life, death and resurrection that forgives our sins and gives us new life. Yes, we should take the commandments seriously and do them. But as we stumble, for surely we will stumble, we can rejoice that Jesus forgives us for our sins and empowers us to come back to him and be in relationship with God again. And that relationship brings its own blessing to us, and to the broken world around us.
God invites us into relationship with him and shows us how to respond—how to walk in relationship with him. The commandments and the grace of God in Jesus Christ that enables us to follow them, helps us lay hold of the promises of God, the promises of rest and peace and a blessing that will last—for this generation and for thousands to come.
Continue to follow the commandments and pursue God each day. Walk with God and be present in the world with your faithfulness and your joy in God’s grace. Watch as God quietly pushes back the darkness and blesses you with his presence each day.
 I’ve printed the whole section for this document, but the Lectionary leaves out some verses.