Count them on your Hands – Lectionary 03/07/2021

Exodus 20:1-17

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.

Sermon Text

            We continue through Lent by coming to the ultimate expression of God’s teachings. We look back in time to behold Sinai, the mountain of God, in its glorified splendor. Our nose smells the smoke that surrounded the mountain as God rests upon it. Our eyes are full of the radiance of God’s light. Now we close our mouths and listen carefully to the words which God speaks to us, the instructions that are given for us.

            Sinai is not the first time that God appeared to people, nor was it the last, but on Sinai God literally set in stone the Covenant that was to stand between humanity and God. The expectations which the Covenant places upon the people of God and upon the Godhead itself are numerous. While we as Gentile members of God’s covenant family are not held to all commandments found in the Torah, they still provide a window into God’s plan for humanity. More than this, there is much of the Torah which does still apply to us, those matters beyond ritual purity which guide our conduct toward one another.

            The Ten Commandments, properly called, “The Ten Words,” are not the sum of God’s instruction, but they serve as the general guidelines by which we understand God’s desires for the world. We can guide so much of our life against whether or not it aligns with the ten core teachings of God that were given at Sinai. Traditionally, the review of our conduct based upon God’s teachings is called an, “Examination of Conscience.” Today, using the Ten Commandments as a guide, we will model what this kind of examination looks like and think about how we can be more aware of the ways that we develop into the kind of Christians we are called to be. We must be willing to look at the standards which God lays before us and evaluate how well we are living up to them.

            The first word of God which is given at Sinai is one that we usually leave out of the list of commandments. Yet, in the Hebrew tradition the first word that God gives us at Sinai is God’s self-identification as a deliverer. God begins the decalogue with the memory of the people’s exodus from Egypt. When we begin to reflect on our lives, we must do so by rooting ourselves in the goodness of God. We examine the choices we make and the things we do because God has been good to us, and that goodness sets the stage for how to make our way back to God in repentance.

            The second word of God is that we should not put any other God in place of the God who saved us, nor make an idol of any kind. While this is a command we may easily write off as irrelevant to our lives, deciding that we are not tempted to worship things other than God, we cannot be casual or brush off this command. We as humans are constantly seeking to replace God with something or someone else. The idols we build are seldom made of stone or wood, but of ideals and desires. While there are many criterion, we may use to examine our life against this teaching, I propose a simple one. The idols we build for ourselves are those things that we are willing to disobey God for. If something moves us to violate a commandment over, then it has become an idol to us. When we examine our life, we must root out all idols within it.

            If we define idols as those things for which we are willing to sin, then we can also understand God’s fourth teaching. We usually understand, “taking the Lord’s name in vain,” to mean using “God,” or, “Christ,” as a swear word. While it is admirable for us to respect God enough to not invoke any holy name in anger, taking the Lord’s name in vain is a deeper issue than this. A person’s name in the ancient world was tied to their reputation. Taking God’s name in vain includes blaming God for our bad behavior. Are we ever difficult, cruel, vindictive, or in any way wretched for reasons we decide are in service to God? We must be willing to accept our service to God as a reality we aspire to and not an excuse for our own feelings or desires.

            Our next commandment is one we are all guilty of abandoning. We all push the Sabbath aside. The complete cessation of rest is something required not only of all people, but of creation. We excuse our unwillingness to rest in a million different ways, but ultimately it betrays some important aspects of our life. We set up productivity as an idol. Sometimes even work in a church can take on an idolatrous place in our heart when we are so obsessed with “doing” that we lose track of God’s part in our work and God’s command for us to rest from that work. We must rest, and we must not make excuses.

            The fifth commandment is to honor our father and mother, and perhaps has the most complexity of any of these ten teachings. We are not all of us blessed with parents who have acted in a way that motivates us to honor them, nor are some of us able to enjoy the presence of our parents who have gone before us into glory. Our honoring of our parents should not be taken lightly, but the obstacles to it should not be neglected either. This, more than any other teaching of the decalogue, is often personal in its scope and requires careful reflection on our part.

            We all feel good when we come to the command not to kill, but it is part of three commands we commit consistently whether we mean to or not. Murder takes place in the heart before it takes place in our life. Hate, the progenitor of murder, rests in our heart. Do not write off the rage or aggression you feel when someone drops a person’s name, there is the root of murder in this. Adultery likewise is committed long before someone stands ready to open a motel door but begins in our hearts and minds first. To live out these commandments we must not only look to our actions, maybe not even our intentions, but examine even our inclinations.

            Theft, while not a matter of cognition, is a deceptive sin. We steal not only by taking but withholding. Who have we failed to give their due? What pleasures do we cling to while our neighbors freeze and starve? At what point does withholding help become theft? At what point does theft become murder?

            False witness, our penultimate teaching, is more valuable a teaching than ever before. To bear false witness is to speak against someone falsely to their detriment. This happens in gossip and court rooms, on social media and in newsletters. In an era defined by commercialized truth, where you can find any number of people who will support you and villainize your, “opponents,” we must seek what is true in life. Look beyond the headline and beyond that first text or sentence a person sends or says. Seek truth and seek life.

            Finally, we must ask where we have turned from our own blessings to look upon the blessings of others. Where do we scorn people for having things that we would like to have for ourselves? Avarice can motivate all manner of evils in our life, but it in itself is a sufficient evil to reject.

            What we have done here is a surface level examination of conscience. We are given the teaching of God to keep before us at all times. We went through all ten teachings of the decalogue today, but each has a depth to them that can never be fully plumbed. We must be willing to hold onto them, one by one, and ask ourselves whether we live up to the standard they establish for us.

            We cannot fail to examine our own motivations and actions, especially during this season of repentance we currently observe. The teachings of God are not far from us, and they hold a freedom we have not yet known within themselves. Hold out your hands at the end of a long day, count the commands of God on your hands and ask how you have succeeded and failed to keep each one. Start with the goodness of God and end with a prayer asking God’s continued instruction in your life. Repent and trust God to lead you onward to perfection. – Amen.

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