One God, Ten Words, One Table
October 4, 2015
You know the Ten Commandments. You've heard them, or you’ve heard about them. Once upon a time you may have memorized them. Note, however, that this is the second presentation of the Ten Commandments in the Bible. The first rendition (which is almost – but not exactly the same as this one) is found in Exodus 20, right after the exodus itself, the escape of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. In Exodus, Moses is called up to the top of Mt. Sinai and is given the Ten Commandments and other laws. And while he’s up there, the people at the base of the mountain dance around a golden calf they've built for themselves.
That dance of idolatry is just a foretaste of things to come. That generation of Israelites, the ones who saw the mighty acts of God against Pharaoh, the ones whose sandals stayed dry as they crossed through the Red Sea -- they don't trust that God will indeed bring them into the Promised Land. For their disbelief and for their repeated rebellions, God vows that that they will not enter the Promised Land.
Between that first presentation of the Ten Commandments and this one, then, the biblical narrative says we have a span of 40 years. The Israelites wander in the wilderness until that first generation dies off. Their children, the second generation, come to the edge of the Promised Land, and then Moses preaches…and preaches…and preaches. Almost the entire book of Deuteronomy consists of Moses’ three long sermons; and Deuteronomy is not a short book! [So the next time my sermon lasts longer than 20 minutes, I don’t want to hear any complaining!]
Gateway students will know that the book of Deuteronomy is actually more complicated than that brief description. Historians have long agreed that it was most likely written centuries after the final part of the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings; that it was probably part of a religious reform movement led by King Josiah in the 7th C BC.
But part of the joy and wonder of the Bible is that it’s not a news report or a historical or scientific study. Biblical truth is deeper and more profound account of the relationship between God and God’s people than history or science is designed to provide. We read Scripture not to answer our “how” questions, but to help us answer our “why” questions. We read it looking for the truth about the human search for God, and the divine search for us.
Keeping that in mind, then, we turn to Deuteronomy and read that Moses is part of the generation that will not set foot in the Promised Land. Even he – the one who led them out of slavery, the one who put up with their complaining in the wilderness, the one who spoke with God on their behalf – even Moses must concede to future generations the goal for which he worked so hard. Surely there is timeless truth in that!
But Moses gets a consolation prize: he gets to give a speech. And he starts here, with a re-iteration of the law. The name we give this book, “Deuteronomy” in fact means “Second Law” in Greek. Who are God’s people now? They are free from slavery, but who are they going to be when they enter the land? Moses repeats the 10 Commandments to remind them of who they are. These are laws for a free people. They aren’t restrictions, they are the boundaries within which their freedom can be exercised.
It’s like a big backyard that opens up on an unknown wilderness, Professor Rolf Jacobson says. Without a fence around their yard, the children are too afraid to play. They huddle close to the house, afraid to try anything new or creative. But with a fence, they can relax and exercise their freedom; they can be curious and adventurous, because they feel safe. Within the space of the boundaries of the Ten Commandments, God is creating a space for a free world.
“The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Mount Horeb,” Moses says, using an alternative name for Mount Sinai. “The Lord didn’t make this covenant with our ancestors but with us—all of us who are here and alive right now.” On the face of it, what Moses says is wrong. The people to whom he preaches are not that first generation of Israelites who stood at the base of Mt. Sinai. These are their children, 40 years later. Everyone listening to Moses now was born in the wilderness, in the desert.
But Moses' concern is not history; it's transformation. He seeks to persuade this new generation to re-commit to the covenant God made with their parents at Sinai. “The Lord didn’t make this covenant with our ancestors, but with us.” The “with us” in Hebrew is intense, forceful. Literally it reads: “But with us, we these here today, all of us, the living….”This isn’t factual information about history. Moses is speaking to all the generations who are part of the covenant with God. We are Sarah and Abraham, we are Rebekah and Isaac, we are Miriam and Moses. God gives us the Bible so we might find ourselves in it, so that we might – each one of us -- find God in our own stories. And more importantly, so that God might find us in God’s story.
Scripture seeks to inform, but even more, it seeks to transform: to invite us to enter into the story of God and Israel, and the story of Christ and the church.
We, here, all of us living today, stand at the foot of Mount Sinai. And to us God is giving the gift of the Law. It is a gift, not a burden placed upon us by another oppressive taskmaster. It is a gift given to promote life, life with God, and life with one another.
The commandments begin with this: "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" When Jews recite the commandments, they don't count the "no other gods" as part of the first commandment. In fact, they don’t call these “commandments” at all. In Hebrew, they are “Words,” the Ten Words.
Translating the term this way makes it even more clear that the Law God gives us is not meant as punishment; it is a description of what life in right relationship with God looks like. And from the very beginning, that relationship is established as a gift.
"I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." A relationship of intimacy and faithfulness existed before the Ten Words/Commandments were given; and it is out of that relationship, that they emerge. God gives them to Israel so that they will know how to be God's own people, "a priestly kingdom and a holy nation." To put it in Protestant terms, here in the Old Testament, the Good News (the Gospel) comes before the Law.
It would be possible to preach a 10-Sunday sermon series on the Ten Commandments, each one is so rich with history and meaning for our times. In these days when we hear an endless stream of news about mass shootings in our country, we could certainly consider the sixth Commandment, “Do Not Kill,” and its importance as a God-given boundary to the exercise of our God-given freedom.
Someday maybe we’ll have a series like that. But our worship services are on a monthly rhythm to coordinate with our Gateway Bible Study groups…and the Ten Commandments are only one part of the whole Book of Deuteronomy. So let me encourage you to join – or start! – a Gateway group so that you can pursue important conversations about Scripture and contemporary life.
And let me say here a few words about the 4th Commandment – Keep the Sabbath day and treat is as holy – because it is the only commandment that is described differently in this “Second Law” of Deuteronomy than it is in the first recitation of the Law, in Exodus. And because today is our Sabbath.
In Exodus, we are to rest because God rested. Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. 9 Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. 11 Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
But in Deuteronomy, we are to observe the Sabbath because of what God has done for us:
12 Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the Lord your God commanded: 13 Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Don’t do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you—so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.
To observe the Sabbath is a way of honoring God and caring for your neighbor. Once, you knew what it was like to work like a slave, because you were a slave. Now you can rest, and your children and your servants and your animals and the immigrants who live among you can rest…because God has rescued you from your oppression.
It is a counter-cultural commandment, a word of promise and hope in our frenetic 24/7 world. We are not automatons. We can stop and rest; our children and those who work for us can stop and rest; the people who mow lawns and bus tables and work in meat-packing plants and clean the bathrooms can stop and rest. Because God has provided our ancestors with freedom and security before, and God will continue to do so for us.
It is one of the great ironies of ministry that those of us who work for the church, work on the Sabbath. Not just clergy, but Education Directors and church musicians and other staff members. Many of you fulfill Sabbath obligations, too – you sing, you prepare communion, you teach our children – and you don’t even get paid!
It’s not always possible to find Sabbath rest on Sunday.
My solution has been to find chunks of Sabbath time in the week – a couple of hours here, an afternoon or evening there. This is time for me for rest, for activities that are renewing and life-giving. I leave the phone in the car, I turn off the email, I am temporarily out of touch… and I rest in the lesson of the 4th Commandment: that I have enough, I am enough, that God will provide me with what I need.
When the people of Israel escaped from Egypt and wandered in the wilderness, they cried out to God for food. God fed them with manna from heaven, bread that tasted as if it was made with honey. The manna was sweet, but it did not keep overnight. Moses told the people that they could gather as much as they could eat, but they couldn’t gather more than that. If anyone took more than they needed and kept it overnight, by morning it would breed worms and become foul. Each day, whatever God gave them was enough.
When we work all the time, never stopping for rest, nothing is enough. We see only what is missing; we are never satisfied. We are enslaved to our work. When we stop for Sabbath rest, we find our freedom, we see that what we have is sufficient, and we bless it.
When we gather around this communion table, we share in a meal that is not – in scientific terms – literally a meal. There is enough here only for a taste. The sense of being filled that we find in this meal comes from the community with which we share it.
Today, on this Worldwide Communion Sunday, as Christians around the globe celebrate and give thanks, let us remember that together, we have all we need. Together, we have enough. Together, we are enough.
From the poet and artist Jan Richardson:
And the table
will be wide.
And the welcome
will be wide.
And the arms
will open wide
to gather us in.
And our hearts
will open wide
And we will come
as children who trust
there is enough.
And we will come
unhindered and free.
And our aching
will be met
And our sorrow
will be met
And we will open our hands
to the feast
And we will turn
toward each other
And we will give up
And we will taste
And we will become bread
for a hungering world.
And we will become drink
for those who thirst.
And the blessed
will become the blessing.
will be the feast.
Jan Richardson. And the Table Will Be Wide: A Blessing for World Communion Sunday. http://paintedprayerbook.com/2012/09/30/and-the-table-will-be-wide/
Rolf Jacobson, Kathryn Schifferdecker, and Craig Koester. Narrative Podcast - Narrative Lectionary 005: Law. October 09, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=214
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker. Commentary on Deuteronomy 5:1-22; 6:4-9. October 09, 2011. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1107
Wayne Muller. Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives. Bantam Books. 1999.