Eleven months ago, I had this sermon all planned out. The clergy of the diocese had spent a few days with Nathan Jennings of the Seminary of the Southwest. Nathan tried to demonstrate the relationship between the Temple in Jerusalem and the eternal Temple to which we will all one day go. As a classical studies major, I was having all kinds of “aha!” moments. Some details deserve some significant discussion, and those who attend midweek Bible studies around here can testify to the fact that I thought some of it really cool! One of those interesting details that Nathan shared that I had never really caught was the “whipping of blood” by the high priest onto the altar during the Day of Atonement. I think I have that detail right. Since I went another direction, I may have days confused. In any event, during this whipping of blood, the high priest made a specific action which Jesus emulates in our Gospel story today as zeal for His Father’s house consumes Him and He whips the businessmen out of the Temple. For you all, it would have been a new sermon. For me it would have been great study. Alas, God clearly had other ideas.
The root of today’s sermon is from the First Sunday in Lent. At the second service that day, a parishioner asked me why we read the Ten Commandments during the Penitential Order. From his perspective, few of us are idolaters, fewer murder, hopefully none of us steal, and the like. Why then, he asked, do we remind ourselves about sins we do not commit? Leaving aside a few of those commandments and whether we break them, I reminded the parishioner of the purpose. Suffice it to say he was a bit gobsmacked. As we continued our discussion, though, I tried to remind Him how we should respond, vis-a-vi Israel and what God has done for us, in Christ Jesus our Lord. He was blown away. In all his years attending the Episcopal Church, he had never heard the Ten Commandments tied to the work and person of Christ, except for the fact that Jesus was sinless. Moreover, he had never been challenged to consider how the contemplation of those same words should have been preparing his heart. He ended our chat with “you really should preach that someday or teach a class on it.” Lo and behold, the only week during Lent when we will not observe the Penitential Order, today is Morning Prayer and Eucharist as your fumbling around in the red books has reminded you, is the day when the assigned reading from the Old Testament is the giving of the Ten Words by God in the book of Exodus! Do you think blind Bartimaeus could see where to preach among us this week?
Now, before I begin, this will more along the lines of a homily. Our focus today is prayer and then the Thanksgiving. I may only gloss over some items that, in your mind, deserve greater attention. Perhaps for some of you, I will muddy the waters. That’s what the rest of the week is for. Feel free to come to Bible Study or Wednesday Eucharist and chat some more if I raise questions. Ask me over soup on Wednesday night. Phone, text, and e-mail work, too.
How does the reading begin? Then God spoke all these words . . . There are only six words in English, but they are powerful. More significantly, they remind us of the context in which the Israelites received the Ten Words. Then. In some ways, this word has the most significant meaning wrapped up in it. It is the author’s shorthand way of say “after all this had happened.” What has happened? Everyone here has seen Charlton Heston’s version of the events that immediately preceded this section. God spoke to Moses from a burning brush and instructed him to go to Pharaoh. Moses was to tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites come to the Holy Mountain, where they are now standing, that they might worship Him. Pharaoh rejected God’s instruction, and he paid a great price. You know the ten plagues, you know the eventual sending out of the Israelites, you know the deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh chariots at the Red Sea, and the rest of the story. After all that, then God spoke these words. There’s a lot of history in that “then”. And we are well reminded to consider it as we ponder our relationship with God.
What happens next? God speaks. The distinguishing characteristic of Yahweh from the pantheon of the other ANE gods was the fact that He could hear and speak! Often, the prophets will mock idolaters for worshiping idols with ears that cannot hear and lips that cannot speak. One of the great worries for Israel we just read. Remember Moses comforting the people with the certainty that God will raise up a prophet from among them? Fast forward to the people’s response to John the Baptizer. God has been silent since the days of Micah. When John appears in the wilderness, he is like one of the prophets. And let’s not forget how God speaks. Most often, God tells Israel He is about to do something, He tells Israel to watch as He is doing it, and then He reminds Israel that He told them in the beginning He was going to do that thing in their midst. Speaking is an important characteristic of God. We are not left to fumble around guessing at what He demands of us. He tells us plainly. He tells us plainly and reminds us of the consequence of our disobedience.
What does God speak? These words. In our culture, the words have become commandments. It’s rather unfortunate, I think, as that understanding helps lead us away from what should be happening as we read these words, especially during the season of Lent. Commandments are too related to laws. We associate laws with limiting our behavior. Those of you who drove up or down I-65 to get to church this morning understand the limiting nature of laws, right? If you came up I-65 from Williamson County, you could drive at 70mph, assuming no wrecks. Those coming south on the interstate had to pay closer attention. The speed limit is 70, then 65, then 55 as you go north. For Joel and Emily, they really need to pay attention as that speed limit changes a number of times between here and Hendersonville. What if you were running late this morning? Could you ignore the limit? You could, but what happens if a police officer is around a bend holding a radar gun? That’s right, we pay a penalty. We think we have a good reason to be in a hurry, but the law tells us that there are other concerns, like the safety of other drivers, and limits the speed at which we travel. We can ignore that law, but there will be a financial consequence.
It’s also important to remember that God gives these words. I know outside the Church and within the Church there is an effort to credit Moses with this legal system, as if he was the Jewish version of Hammurabi or some other author of famous ANE law codes. There are some significant differences, not the least of which is, if Moses meant to cast himself as some great man, all those pesky details about how he whined at God for making him lead these people, about how he sinned, and about how he was denied entrance into the Promised Land. I think all of us could do propaganda about ourselves a bit better than that!
The Jews call these the Ten Words. And I think that descriptor would serve us better. Later, the Ten Words will become known as the torah. Torah has a meaning of law or commandment, but those are secondary, or even tertiary meanings, compared to teaching and learning. Instruction is a good way for us to render torah, Instruction is hopefully we are getting today.
How do the Ten Words begin? I am the Lord your God. Again, like the very beginning of the passage, these words are deep in meaning. Chiefly, God is reminding the people of Israel who He is. He is the Lord. He has bound Himself to them. When they are honored and glorified, He is honored and glorified. When they are dishonored or mocked, He is dishonored or mocked. When they behave as He instructs, He is glorified and they in Him. When they ignore Him or chase after idols, He is mocked and dishonored and they will be, too. It’s an incredible reminder that they are in relationship with the Lord God, the maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.
And, while the collective sense is important, there is also a personal reminder. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. That relationship which exists between God and the people of Israel extends to the personal level. He is your God. He is your God. He is my God. That binding of honor and dishonor exists both corporately and individually. Can you imagine?
And God reminds the people, both collectively and individually, of His relationship to them. He is a deliverer. He is a redeemer. They were slaves in Egypt, and He freed them. They did nothing to secure their freedom. God did all the work. He instructed Pharaoh to free them; they did not ask Pharaoh if they could go worship the Lord God. He executed the curses in Egypt, thereby signaling His power and the Egyptian gods’ status as mere idols. He destroyed Pharaoh’s army. He provided all that they needed—food, water, passable terrain, everything—to get them to this point in their collective and individual journey. This identifier by God as their redeemer is so important, so significant that the Rabbis considered this the first word of the Ten Words!
Why does that matter? We talked a moment ago about laws and commandments and limits and penalties. That’s not what the Ten Words are! The Ten Words are a relational affirmation, a reminder of Who it is that they serve and worship and of what He’s done for them! Put in English, a Redeemed people has learned what life in relationship with a redeeming, holy, righteous, hesed-filled God is like. They should want to know this! With joyful and thanksgiving hearts, they should long for this freedom to live in relationship with God. The Words themselves affirm this.
We talked earlier about laws and the limitations on our behavior. If we are caught speeding, we pay a fine. If we steal, unless we have really good lawyers, we go to jail. We know the laws and the consequences that come from violation of those laws. Perhaps for some of us, it is only those consequences that limit our behavior. Read these Ten Words again. What is the consequence for failing to live as God instructs? I heard death. That’s the correct answer in the fuller revelation of the Lord God who speaks, but is it the answer at this point in the unfolding of His covenant with His people? No. There is no consequence for stealing. There is no consequence for murdering. There is no consequence for adultery. Using His name in a vain manner gets a general “will not acquit”, but there is no punishment described. Even idolatry, idolatry—think of that particular sin in this context of the Deliverer speaking, why would one ever think to worship another God?!—has a vague warning. The children of those who reject Him will be punished to the third and fourth generation; but the children of those who love him and keep His commandments will be blessed to the thousandth generation. What will be the punishment? What will be the blessing? They do not yet know. But even in that warning and encouraging word, the people are reminded of their relationship with God. Now, standing at the foot of that mountain, they are experiencing the benefit of the faith credited as righteousness of Abraham, their however many times great grandfather! Like them, their future generations will experience blessing because their faith in the Lord God!
How does all this speak to us in a time centuries later and at a distance of thousands of miles? Why do we remember the Ten Words each week of Lent and ask of God that He write all these in our hearts? I would think the answer obvious, but I have noticed a number of expressions today that make me think many of you are considering this event in a new way. You and I live after the completed revelation of God as found in the work and person of Jesus Christ. Put in simpler language, we know our Redeemer! He suffered torture and humiliation during the events of Holy Week. He was nailed to a tree on Good Friday and died. On that glorious Easter morning we learned unequivocally that He was God’s Anointed, that He was the means of Grace and the hope of our Salvation. He was the means by which most of us were grafted into the promise made to Abraham and Sarah, that their progeny would be a light in the world, a nation of priests. That inheritance is both corporate and individual. As a body, we know we are redeemed and have a commission from God to share His love and mercy with all those around us. As individuals, we know ourselves to be well-loved sons and daughters, princes and princesses in His holy family. What should be the condition of our heart? How should we receive this news and promise? With joy and thanksgiving!
Brothers and sisters, we are very much like those who came before us and stood at the foot of that holy mountain from whence God spoke these Ten Words. Week in and week out, He reminds us through His Scripture that He is our God and our Redeemer. Week in and week out, He reminds us that the appropriate sacrifice is a thankful heart, a generous heart, a loving heart. Week in and week out He reminds us that He is slow to anger and quick to forgive those who with truly penitent hearts repent of their sin. Week in and week out He calls us to remember the death, Resurrection, and Ascension of His Son our Lord, whose work made it possible for us to live in communion with a holy, righteous, good, justice and whatever grand adjective you want to add God! When we gather at Lent and celebrate using the Penitential Order, when we gather intentionally in a season of self-examination and self-denial, we do so as a people cognizant of the fact that we have been freed from the bondage of sin. We should be called to joyful and thankful expressions of God’s mercy in our lives. And we should be propelled by that same joy and thanksgiving to share His offer with the world around us, a world that has bought into the myth that this, all this nonsense around us, is all that is. You and I, brothers and sisters, know better. You and I, brothers and sisters have experienced far more! There is a deeper truth, a redeeming truth, a wooing love that seeks not only us but everyone we encounter in the world around us. If we were really to consider what God has done for us collectively and individually, if His words were truly written on our hearts, how would we be changed? As individuals? As a parish? As a diocese? As the Church? If we truly understood what He has accomplished for us, how could we ever keep silent?
Brothers and sisters, if Lent for you has been a burden, if Lent for you has been a season when you concentrate on the fact that you are a miserable sinner, you have missed the more significant truth. If you have accepted Christ as Lord, you are already redeemed; you will one day be Resurrected; you are an Easter people! The Lord God has promised that, in the end, no matter what happens, all His sons and all His daughters will be vindicated and share for all eternity in His glory! He has promised. And if we really believe that He has redeemed us, if we really believe in His promises, how can we ever keep silent! How can we ever stop giving thanks!
In Christ’s Peace,