Sunday, October 9, 2022

Sermon: "Let Faithfulness Rain", Exodus 19:3-7, 20:1-17 (October 9, 2022)


By the time we get to this point in the story of God’s people, we’ve learned a lot about the many benefits that come with being chosen by God – we’ve read about God’s deliverance in the stories of Noah, Joseph, and the parting of the Red Sea, we’ve read about the promises that God has made to humanity in general and to Abram specifically – but this is the first time we’ve encountered the RULES of being a people set apart by God. As it turns out, being God’s most precious possession comes with some obligations, and this is the first time that they’re formally laid out in Scripture.

While the Bible contains hundreds of laws that are overlooked or flat-out ignored in modern Christianity, these ten have managed to persist as authoritative standards for the followers of Jesus into the 21st century. Because they were literally written in stone by the literal finger of God (at least, the way Moses tells it), it’s little wonder that they’ve earned such a prominent a place in our collective memory. And if that weren’t enough, their importance has been further cemented thanks to the Hollywood treatment – I imagine that the law forbidding clothes made from multiple kinds of fabric would have made more of an impression if we’d seen Charlton Heston dramatically throwing stone tablets and bellowing at the Israelites over it.

Because of all this, we tend to think of the Ten Commandments as intimidating “lines drawn in the sand”, lines that we must never cross; walls of righteous behavior that stand between us and damnation. For many Christians, the Ten Commandments are the bedrock upon which all morality stands; woe to any who break them, whether intentionally or accidentally! But while that makes for a pretty straightforward Sunday School lesson, it’s not the most accurate reflection of the commandments’ biblical purpose. God doesn’t give the Law to Moses as a THREAT, but rather as a PROMISE. God says, “If you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession…you will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.” The Ten Commandments aren’t meant to be feared; they’re meant to be joyfully embraced as a gift: a tool to help us live life more faithfully.

The fact that the Israelites happened to be breaking these commandments at the very moment they were being given – the whole “Golden Calf” debacle – is definitely not a great look for them, but it actually proves my point. If the Ten Commandments were intended as absolute edicts with no allowance for error, the Bible would end halfway through Exodus. The Israelites would have blown it, and God would have had to start all over again with a new people. But, of course, that’s not what happens. Ours is a god of grace and mercy, and so while the Israelites’ actions are definitely problematic, they aren’t covenant-ending. God doesn’t abandon the people. God still loves them, and God still chooses them as the holy nation called to share God’s love with the world.

It turns out that God’s laws serve a different function than human laws do. The Ten Commandments aren’t monolithic regulations meant to deter us from committing unforgivable acts. Their purpose isn’t to winnow out the sinners and leave only the righteous. In fact, the Ten Commandments seem to be more about regulating ourselves than about creating societal order (as secular laws tend to be). I wonder if it might be more helpful for us to think about them less as laws and more as a set of good habits for us to personally cultivate throughout our lives. I know it sounds strange to talk about (for example) the decision not to commit murder as a “good habit”, but the Ten Commandments are definitely about more than just ten things God says we shouldn’t do. At least, Jesus seems to think they are.

In the Sermon on the Mount,(Mt. 5) Jesus digs deeper into some of these well-known “rules”. He tells the crowd, “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t commit murder’…but I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger…” He continues, “You have heard it said, ‘Don’t commit adultery’. But I say to you that any person who looks at another lustfully has already committed adultery in their heart.” And then, “You have heard it said, ‘You shall not swear (or testify) falsely’…but I say to you: do not swear at all…let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no.” He concludes these teachings by saying, “Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” His point here isn’t that we’re all hopelessly sinful and beyond saving (although, of course, we technically are – that’s just not his point). He’s saying that these commandments are more than just a list of extreme behaviors to avoid. These ten practices are the building blocks for a holy, faithful, and – most importantly – loving world. Therefore, this list is all we need to bring about God’s kindom on earth.

Now, you may be thinking, “There’s no way that we can create a holy world with just TEN rules. It’s a good start, but not NEARLY enough to usher in the kindom of God.” But if we allow these rules to guide our whole lives instead of just regulating specific behaviors – if we consider them as thoughtful, intentional habits for us to cultivate instead of just “the divine no-nos” – we begin to realize that they’re actually quite comprehensive in nature. They cover both our relationship with God and our relationships with one another; they address spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental violence; they cover the golden rule and the Greatest Commandment, they engage both our internal and external lives…they may not dictate every specific action in every possible context, but they certainly more than cover the essentials for creating and thriving in a divine kindom.

During our Capital Campaign for the Westminister roof, we’re thinking about how we don’t need to be big, wealthy, or especially powerful to make a difference, how our small, seemingly insignificant actions can lead to “ripples” that have an impact beyond what we anticipate. It turns out that our application of the Ten Commandments can work in the same way. Picture the way that we keep God’s Commandments as rain falling on a lake, which represents the world. We COULD choose to apply these Laws like a storm pummeling humankind into soggy submission. But that doesn’t seem to be God’s intention.

Instead, we should live out these commandments like the individual raindrops of a spring shower. Individually, they don’t seem able to have much of an impact – a drop here or there can’t change the overall surface of the lake very much. But if the drops keep coming, if they’re constant and steady and persistent, their resulting ripples begin to run into each other, eventually covering the whole surface of the lake and transforming it from a passive, stagnant body into a moving, living thing. It refreshes rather than destroys.

Transformation of the lake’s surface doesn’t require a heavy curtain of water violently crashing down from the sky. It just takes the right drops at the right time working together. In the same way, we don’t need a legal tome to create heaven on earth. Ten simple rules are enough to touch every single human life and to cover the world with God’s love, when we understood them comprehensively, apply them habitually, and practice them faithfully. It doesn’t take perfect obedience to invoke God’s presence with us. It just takes FAITHFUL obedience – a commitment to return to the things that are important to God, no matter how many times we falter, no matter how meager our individual contributions might be.

So let us keep the covenant, not with fear and trembling, but with joy and thanksgiving. Let us practice our faith in a way that’s like spring rain falling on a lake: gently, patiently, persistently, lovingly. Let us live lives of simple obedience – not for the purpose of protecting ourselves from condemnation, but in the hopes of expanding the reach of God’s promise and of hastening the coming of God’s kindom. It turns out that the faithful ripples of a life lived according to God’s covenant are more than enough to transform the world. May our ripples, together, cover the whole earth with the Good News. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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