A Sermon on the Ten Commandments

Blessed is the one who delights in the Law of the Lord, who meditates on it day and night. For she will be like a tree planted beside the quite waters. She will bear fruit in its season, and her leaves will never wither. As we turn now to meditate upon your Law, Oh Lord, we ask that you give us your blessing. May the words that I speak and the meditations of all of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen  

Do you remember Roy Moore?  A long forgotten icon of the Religious Right.  On November 12, 2003 Moore was deposed from office as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for defying a Federal Court mandate to remove a two-and-a-half-ton, granite statue of the Ten Commandments from the courthouse lawn.  At the hearing, Moore stood council in his own defense, arguing that, by refusing to remove the statue, he was simply upholding his constitutional and judicial duties, by recognizing the sovereignty of God, which is—I’m quoting—“the source from which all morality springs.”  Moreover, Moore argued that the Ten Commandments are the moral foundation of the United States legal system.   

I’d like to begin our reflection on the Ten Commandments this morning by making a claim that conflicts with popular religious sentiment, so I’ll have to make a case for it. But just stick with me for just a moment. I want to suggest that Chief Justice Moore was wrong, not for defying the federal court—Christians have a long and noble history of civil disobedience, going all the way back to Jesus himself.—No, Moore was wrong in his theology. The Ten Commandments are not the moral foundation of the United States legal system.  Neither are the Ten Commandments a guideline for, or the source of, a universal morality which is applicable to all people at all times.  Perhaps more to the point, I want to suggest that what Moore and others were defending on that day in the Fall of 2003 was not the Ten Commandments at all, but a cheap parody of them.

Why do I say that?  Well, to place the Ten Commandments on the lawn of a United States court house or a public school is to suggest that they can be followed outside of the context of Christian worship. But what I want to suggest is that outside of this context of the worship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Ten Commandments make absolutely no sense. Because before the commandment are ever about us, they are about God.

Notice that the first few verses of Exodus chapter twenty are not commandments at all. Rather they are an introduction of the speaker: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” (v. 2). So the first thing we notice right off the bat is that the One who give the commandments is not some vague, unidentified divinity—the giver of a universal morality—like the “Higher Power” of Alcoholics Anonymous or the Unmoved Mover of the Ancient Greeks—this is “the Lord” God. Okay, maybe that doesn’t sound much different, but perhaps some basic biblical Hebrew would be helpful. When “the Lord” appears in the Bible in all capitals like that, it doesn’t just mean ruler or master, like some middle-manager who strutting around constantly reminding everyone that he’s the boss.  No, the Lord is God’s name.

The name is revealed to Moses at a brush fire when he is minding his own business in the desert. First Moses receives his vocation: he will lead his people, the Israelites, to freedom by the power of the God of their ancestors. But how could Moses possibly convince anyone to uproot their families and walk away from the only life they’ve ever known? Who would follow this unknown God of the desert? So the voice comes from the bush: “Tell them that I am who I am has sent you.”  God’s name is related to the Hebrew verb to be: I am who I am, or perhaps its better translated I will be who I will be. The name is very difficult to pronounce.  The English transliteration is just four consonants—no vowels: Y-H-W-H.  In fact Jews will not pronounce this Name. (Christians shouldn’t try to pronounce it either, by the way. I will not pronounce it, because it is disrespectful to Jews). So, because they would not say The Name, when Jews would read the Bible aloud in the synagogue they had to come up with a word to use as a replacement. So when they were reading a passage of the Bible and came across The Name they would say instead Adoni, which means Lord.  So in English translations of the Bible when you see the world Lord in lower case, what’s there in the original is the word Adoni, or Lord.  And when you see the word Lord in all capitals, what’s there in the original is God’s name. You see, this is the whole point: the Lord resists being spoken about, figured out, tied down or universally applied. The Lord is the Hebrew un-name for God.

But the Lord does not stop with his name, he says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Now we have not only a name, but a history to connect this God with. God reveals himself to us the way we reveal ourselves to others, through story.

You know the story.  Moses goes to confront the most powerful man in the world insisting that the Lord—I am who I am—demands that Pharaoh let his people go.  Why?  Because God opposes slavery?  No.  (Surely God does oppose slavery, but that is not the point of this story).  No, the Lord insists that his people be set free to go and worship him.  Pharaoh resists—he is a hard-hearted man. There are negations, then gnat, plagues, frogs and lots of blood.  Finally the Israelites are freed. But by the time they actually make it to the desert it has been so long since anyone has worshiped the Lord, they don’t remember how.  So Moses is summoned to the top of Mount Sinai, and there come the list of commandments: “Don’t have idols.”  “Don’t steal.”  “Don’t have sex with other people’s spouses.”  Moses must be thinking, “this doesn’t sound like any worship service I’ve ever been to!”  So it turns out that God is less concerned with the kind of music we sing, with whether our liturgy is low-church or high, with whether we wear vestments or use incense, than he is with the way we live our lives.  To worship the Lord, the story seems to suggest, is to be the people redeemed by God—rescued from slavery in Egypt—in order to live in faithfulness to his commandments.

So the Ten Commandments are not principles for the moral society in general. Rather they constitute a way of life for the people who know who they are and whose they are—people who are freed from the Pharaohs of this world for the worship of the Lord. If you and I are to learn to live the commandments, we will do so first by learning to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—by identifying ourselves with the people of Israel. Not least, this will mean identifying with the one true and faithful Israelite, Jesus Christ, as members of his body, the Church. We simply cannot understand what it means to live the Ten Commandments outside of the communal worship practices of the Church.  Our Church Mothers and Fathers teach us that the one who has more than enough and does not give to those in need, commits theft.  So we cannot understand what it means to steal outside of the Church that teaches us what it means to have property.  Likewise, we cannot understand what it means to commit adultery outside of the Church that teaches us what marriage is.  And we cannot understand what it means to bear false witness outside of the Church that teaches us what it means to bear witness to the truth.

So what does it mean to live the Ten Commandments not as general principles of a universal morality, but as the worship practices of the Church of Jesus Christ?  Martin Luther makes three suggestions at this point—what he calls the “three uses of the Law.”

The First Use of the Law

The first thing the Law does, Luther says, is terrify us, because it reminds us that God has a standard that we have no hope of living up to. When you and I consider our sinfulness—that we have not lived up to God’s standard—we associate it with a mild sense of guilt.  Luther was terrified. I doubt Luther every had anything like the modern sense of guilt—that’s our experience. When Luther read the Law, he was scared to death that God would damn him to hell. But his terror was ultimately good news for Luther, because it drove him to the gospel. This is the first use of the Law: it teaches us to see ourselves as sinners so we can learn that our only hope is in the good news of Jesus Christ.  This is one of the reasons—maybe the most important reason—that the Ten Commandments do not work as general principles of morality, because we come to the Law of God, not primarily to learn how to be moral, but to learn how to be sinners. That’s good news, of course, because it’s sinners for whom Christ died.  And that’s why it’s important that we learn to follow the Law in the context of Christian worship in which there is regular opportunity for confession of sin, reconciliation and words of forgiveness.

The Second Use of the Law

The second use of the Law in Luther’s theology is that, in the end, God’s Law is good news for the whole world. So even though we cannot understand the Ten Commandments, from the outset, as principles of universal morality applicable to everyone in the world, they are, in the end good news for the whole world. This is, in fact, the way the structure of the Bible generally goes: from the particular to the universal.  A particular little, nomadic, near-eastern tribe, called Israel, is chosen for the blessing of the whole world. From the particular to the universal.  The life and death of one particular Jewish peasant from a town no larger than Beckley turns out to be the key to the history of the whole world.  The particular to the universal.  So the Ten Commandments are good news for the whole world, not because they are, from the start, the universal pattern of morality, but because through them a small group of people—the Church—are enabled to live in faithfulness to Jesus, as an alternative to the world, so that the whole world may be wooed into a life of faithfulness. 

The second use of the law is an affirmation that God has not done everything that needs to be done in the world. That he graciously invites us to be a part of his project of redemption.  The back ground to this use of the Law is the notion that Israel—and by identification with Israel—we are called to be an alternative society, a royal priesthood who intercede for, and who mediate God’s presence to the world.  To live into our calling to as a royal priesthood means to live in faithfulness to the commandments for the sake of the world.

The Third Use of the Law

So what you and I do—and the kind of people we are becoming—is of universal importance.  The Ten Commandments are a sign of this, too. That this thing between us and God matters. That God cares how we make our schedules, how we treat out parents, how we deal with our property, how we have sex, and that we tell the truth. The Ten commandments were given to Israel as a community of the redeemed. They had just been freed from slavery in Egypt to worship God and to be a blessing for the world, but the commandments were a sign that Israel, too, was still in the process of being redeemed. This is what Luther calls the third use of the law.  Learning to follow it—to delight in it—we are shaped into the image of Christ for the sake of the world.

For Luther, the good news about this third use of the law is that it frees us from spirituality.  There’s a wonderful passage in Luther’s commentary on the commandments where he says that when a maid in a house obeys the master of the house’s command to sweep the floor she is obeying the commandment to honor father and mother (since the master is the father of the house).  So a maid sweeping the floor is more spiritual than monks in any monastery with all their prayers and liturgies and fasts.  All of those spiritual practices you are told we have to do to have a relationship with God—all of those things you feel guilty when we don’t have the time or the gumption to do them—forget about them! God has given us Ten Commandments.  We can spend the rest of our lives working on those and that’s enough.  For instance, we don’t have to worry about the practice listening in our hearts for God’s will in our lives, because we already know what God’s will is: to follow the commandments.

I remember one time talking to one of my college professors. I was all tangled up in knots about what I should do with my life.  I knew what I wanted to do—what I was good at—but I was afraid that I might not be choosing what was most pleasing to God.  My professor was trying to explain to me how to make wise decisions about my career.  “Yeah, I know all that,” I said, “but how do I know what God wants me to do?”  My professor paused for a second and then said “O’ that’s easy! Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  When you’ve mastered that,” he said, “come back and I have ten more for you.”  The good news of the third use of the Law is that we don’t have to guess at what is pleasing to God. We know exactly what pleases God.  There’s plenty enough in the Ten Commandments to keep us busy today.  Let’s focus on that and let tomorrow worry about itself.

So, what does God’s law do?  It terrifies us by keeping before us God’s standards which we cannot meet, teaching us to be sinners, and causing us to flee to the gospel.  It invites us into God’s redeeming project as royal priests bearing witness to an alternative way of life for the sake of the world.  And it reminds us that we too are in need of redemption, and forms us into the image of Christ for the sake of others.  Did you know that the Law did all that?  We Protestants, and we Lutherans in particular, have a rather troubled relationship to the God’s Law.  We tend to think of it as a burdensome list of rules and regulation, that at best is obsolete and can be discarded now that we have the gospel of Jesus Christ.  But like the gospel, the Law is God’s word.  It cannot save us, but it is good for us.  So take delight in the law.  Meditate on it day and night—or at least sometimes.  You will find that it begins to refresh you like a quite stream, that you will bear the fruit of transformation in its season, and you faithfulness will not wither. 

Amen.

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