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Exodus 20:1-4; 7-9; 12-20
From our earliest childhood we remember the words ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son" (John 3:16). God loves the world. Even when God had quarrels with it, it is, as Robert Frost would say, a lover’s quarrel.
We too love the world because it is God’s world-because God loves it. When we quarrel with it, with its falsehood, its brutality, its selfishness, its greed, we love it. We quarrel with it because we love it; for we remember the world as God made it, and we hope for the world that which by God’s grace it may become again. We are responsible for the world because it is God’s world, because God loves it, and because we are servants of God. 1.
This is a good thing to remember from time to time. You might think given all of the injustice and brokenness in our world… given the fact that we fail to live out God’s intentions in this world… again and again… you might think that God would learn to hate the world.
Given the ways we break all of his commandments again and again… individually and as nations of the world… you might think God after all of these centuries- God just might hate us by now. But that is not what the Gospel says: It says: For God So loved the world.
For God so loved the world… when Jesus spoke those words to Nicodemus, he was not stating something new. Jesus knew that God loved the world… that God had loved the world for a long time, since the beginning of time.
In fact, Jesus, knowing the story we’ve been following in the Exodus must have known that God loved the world enough to form a special relationship with a people – the Israelites… God loved the world enough to ask them to become a Kingdom of priests and a holy people… for the whole earth is mine (Exodus 19:6) and the reason they were chosen was to be God’s servants in the world God loved. They were chosen not simply for salvation… but also for service.. to care for the world in need of love and redemption. God so loved the world… that God chose a people to be his priests in the world to represent God… to bring redemption to the world… to help God work out God’s purposes in a broken world.
But God also so loved this very people he had chosen… he was, in the words of a popular novel, "especially fond of them" (The Shack) … God loved them/ us so much… that he gave them/us the 10 commandments.
I wonder if that sounds odd to you. That God loved them so much that God gave them rules to live by. Rules that would govern their relationship with him, and their relationship with each other.
God so loved the world, that God gave the rules? Well, yes. And we know it. When we get married, we agree to certain rules… we will stop dating others… No Dating… (called an affair)…. We say we will love our spouse in any circumstance… "in sickness and health, richer poorer…" that kind of love will run deep over the years… it will be a gift to those who are married. Rules of love, I tell you!
Every parent who loves their children gives them rules. We give them rules… boundaries is the way we say it today. We give them rules because we love them. Rules I lived by were things like, "don’t play with matches."
One day when I was about 8 years old, I learned why my parents gave me that rule. It was the day when I broke the rule thanks to my friend David Taylor. We were over at his house…and he had matches…. A can of gasoline… and well, it was just so tempting… it was going to be so neat to see what happened when that gas was lit. Do you want me to tell you what happens? There is a big fire that can singe your eyebrows off. And try going home… thinking you can hide that from your parents. Not only do you not have eyebrows… I learned that there is a smell to burnt hair. Rules? Who needs them? Well, I did. And my parents gave them to me because they loved me.
So why do we not see the laws of God in this way? It took me a long time to see the 10 commandments as much more than a "thou shalt not list" which no one really knows… even those who push to have them placed in public places often don’t even know them very well.
Not long ago on the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert was interviewing Lynn Westmoreland, a congressman who co-sponsored a bill to require the display of the 10 Commandments in the House of Reps and the Senate. After needling the congressman for a couple of minutes Colbert asks:
What are the 10 Commandments?
Lynn Westmoreland: What are all of them?
LW: You want me to name them all?
LW: Uhhh. Ummmm. Don’t murder. Don’t lie.Don’t steal. Ummm …I can’t name them all.
Truth is, how many of us have really bothered to learn them? If we did, we’d find out they are tricky to enforce in a pluralistic society like ours. For example, how do you enforce, "No other gods before me" in a nation with many religions?" Which god?
The sad part in all of the discussion over the years about the 10 commandments is that we seem to miss the whole point. We miss the point because we misunderstand why God gave them to us… that God gave them to us because God loves us.
Tom Long set me straight when he said:
"In the popular religious consciousness, the 10 Commandments have somehow become burdens, weights, and heavy obligations. For many, the commandments are encumbrances placed on personal behavior. Most people cannot name all 10, but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-wagging ‘thou shalt not’. For others, the commandments are heavy yokes to be publicly placed on the necks of a rebellious society… Understanding the Decalogue as a set of burdens overlooks something essential, namely that the are prefaced not by an order- ‘Here are the 10 rules. Obey them!’ – but instead by a breathtaking announcement of freedom: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Ex 20:2). We will probably always refer to the declarations that follow as the ‘Ten Commandments’ but we can also think of them as descriptions of a life that prevails in the zone of God’s loving liberation. ‘Because the Lord is your God," the (commandments) affirm, ‘you are free not to need any other gods. You are free to rest on the 7th day; free from the tyranny of lifeless idols; free from murder, stealing, and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in the land. The (commandments) begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom (and the way of life… or the way that leads to life) that follows. If we want to symbolize the presence of the 10 commandments among us, we would do well to hold a dance. The good news of God (who loved us enough to set us free) is the music; the commandments are the dance steps of those who hear it playing. The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s spirit to soar." 2.
I thank Tom Long for setting me straight. Those commandments are gifts of love to you and me… gifts to guide us into a way of life that draws us closer with God and one another… gifts to help us avoid the pitfalls that lead to our demise and death… guides to show us the way out of bondage to things we know too well: The 7/24 day work week that leads people away from their life with God and a life with burnout… God would save us from that, you know… God would save us from following gods like the god of greed that is fed by our fears… fears that we never have enough… the god of greed is an all consuming god… there is never enough with this god… our God would save you from that. Or the god of family or marriage… where we place unrealistic expectations on our spouse or our family to meet our every need or desire. Let me tell you, from years of counseling couples who have tried this… it doesn’t work. God loves us enough that God would save you from the lies that complicate our relationships. Have you ever noticed how in the end lying is a poor strategy for healthy relationships?
God loves us enough to try to free us from bondage of covetousness consumerism… we are taught by the gods of this age that freedom and peace and joy are just a credit card purchase away? How is that working for us these days?
God loves us … loves the world enough… that God would give us rules to help free us from all that would hurt our relationships with each other and would get in the way of our relationship with God.
Gifts of love… words of life… God has given us to help us build a rich life with God and one another. God loves us just that much. Thanks be to God for such a gift. Amen.
1. Opening adapted from sermon by John Leith to the Christian action Conference in Mntreat. P54ff
Pilgrimage of a Presbyterian
2. Christian Century, March 2006