So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him.
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. Ex. 19:3-7, 20:1-17 (NRSV)
Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Last week, we heard how God saved Israel at the Sea of Reeds. To catch us up to our story today, we’re going to watch this closing scene from the Disney movie, “The Prince of Egypt,” which begins at the edge of the sea.
“Look!” Miriam says to Moses after God has saved them from Pharaoh and his army of chariots. “Look at your people, Moses! They are free!” she says. God has freed them from the hand of their oppressor. From Pharaoh, their oppressor. God is their Liberator.
The movie ends in the wilderness at Mt. Sinai, which also known as Mt. Horeb in Scripture. It is here where our story picks up today. Yet, we know there were many other scenes in between. Israel traveled from the shore of the sea through the wilderness. It was in the wilderness where they began to be afraid--fearing the future. Not knowing the future, they began to lose trust in God and to complain. About the lack of food. About the lack of water. As in our story last week, they even cried once again to go back to Egypt. To slavery. To return to live under their oppressor. In each scene, God hears their cries. And God answers them.
Finally, they reach their destination. Now, we know that Canaan--the Promised Land--is their final goal. But, in looking back, it is the story here at Mt. Sinai that is the climax of the Exodus story. It is here where everything happens. Where God’s first promise to Moses at the burning bush is fulfilled. Where the first request of Moses to let Israel go into the desert and worship comes true. And where God’s promise to form and shape Israel into a chosen people, or as in today’s lesson, to be God’s most precious possession--a kingdom of priests, a holy nation--is begins to be fulfilled. It is here at Mt. Sinai, where this forming and shaping begins. With the giving of the Ten Commandments. Or the Ten Words, which is what they were called in ancient times.
So, why would God give Israel these Ten Words? (I just gave you one hint!) There are a couple of reasons.
This summer, when we spent four weeks studying these commandments, we noticed that there are a variety of ways that they are numbered. There are also differences with the first commandment. In our Lutheran tradition, as with most other Protestant traditions, we begin with “You shall have no other gods.” But, in the Jewish tradition, the first commandment is “I am the Lord your God” - the same words we read earlier - “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of slavery.”
For Israel, this first commandment is a reminder to them of who God is. And, in particular, it is intended to create a contrast between God and Pharaoh. Liberator vs. Oppressor. “I am the Lord your liberating God, who heard your cries--the cries of an oppressed people--and freed you from Pharaoh, your oppressor.” Embedded in this first commandment is this memory of who God is. Israel’s Liberator.
The second purpose, which I hinted at before, is also connected to memory. To the memory of who they were in Egypt. Enslaved. Beaten down. Pharaoh’s oppressed people. With no identity apart from their captivity. God’s purpose in giving Israel these Ten Words, or these rules, or these boundaries is to begin to form and to shape them into a new people. A kingdom of priests. A holy nation. God’s most precious possession. This was to be their new identity. The Ten Words were that vision of who they were to become. A people in loving relationship with God. And a people in loving relationship with one another. The Ten Words were God’s covenant with Israel and a promise of what God’s kingdom would be. If Israel kept them.
We know that Israel didn’t. When Moses came down off the mountain, he saw the people worshipping the Golden Calf. He saw that they had quickly forgotten who God was. And this is the ongoing story of God’s relationship with Israel throughout the Hebrew scriptures. A story of God, Israel’s Liberator, seeking to bring Israel back into relationship over and over and over again.
What does this story mean for us? As New Testament people for whom the Law has already been fulfilled in Christ Jesus, what does this important story in Israel’s history have to do with us?
We are living in the midst of turbulent times. These past few weeks have been one more example of this. The institutions we have placed our faith in over centuries seem to be dismantling. Our government seems to be splitting in two. The rule of law seems irrelevant. Our churches are diminishing. Society seems to be crumbling. Everything that we have known - the systems and the institutions that we have built - seem to be breaking down. Dismantling. It is a frightening time. But, what if? What if God is at work in this? What if?
We like to think of ourselves as a free country. A nation where anyone might come and live freely. Much of this is true. And, yet, throughout our history, it can also be said that we have created our institutions to oppress. To do the work of oppression on our behalf. We only need to look at these photos to remind us of our history. A history of oppression. Not much different than Pharaoh in Israel’s time. Native Americans. African-Americans. Women. Japanese citizens. Gay and lesbian people. The poor. Immigrants. And more.
What if God is at work in this dismantling? What if God has heard the cries of the oppressed? What if God is saying, “No more, Pharaoh!” Let my people go! Let them go so that everyone--all humankind whom I have created in my image. Everyone. And all creation. Might. Live. Freely. Without oppression. In full relationship with me. And in full relationship with each other!”?
Because this is what God’s kingdom looks like. A kingdom covenanted with Israel. Fulfilled in a new covenant for us in Christ. A kingdom where God is sovereign and not Pharaoh. A kingdom described by these Ten Commandments, that is envisioned by these Ten Words. A reality of shalom--of wholeness. Of whole and complete love. Love of God. Love of self. And love of others.
This is the hope these ten words gave Israel. It’s the hope that they give us as we continue to move towards God’s promised kingdom--a kingdom of justice and peace.
May God grant it. Amen.
Preached October 7, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Matt. 5:17; Ex. 19:3-7, 20:1-17