Old Testament Sermon Series
Lent 3 B, Exodus 20:1-17
Today we continue the summer series of sermons that focus on major Old Testament personalities.
I love the Old Testament. I love the stories of the Old Testament. I love the gigantic personalities of the Old Testament. Knowing how much I love the Old Testament, it was a surprise to me to examine my preaching of the past thirty years. 95% of my sermons have been based on Bible passages from the New Testament. Only 5% of my sermons or about two sermons per year have been based on the Old Testament. Most preachers rarely preach on the Old Testament, and I am like my colleagues. This summer is the time to make amends and I will focus this entire sermon series on Old Testament Bible passages.
In the book of Ephesians, chapter four, we are told that we Christians that we are to mature in Christ, that we are to grow to the full measure and stature of Christ, that we are to mature in our faith and become like Christ. This summer, we will study the personalities of the Old Testament so that we mature in Christ, so that we growth spiritually, so that we become more like Jesus Christ.
Each personality of the Old Testament has a major theme. That is, each name in the Old Testament is synonymous with a certain emphasis or mental association. For example, Abraham is synonymous with faith, David with the Psalms, Solomon with the Proverbs, Job with suffering, Isaiah with peace, Micah with justice, Ezra with the Temple. So what is the major theme that is associated with Moses? When we think of Moses, what do we think of?
When we think of Moses, do we think of the story of his birth, when all the Jewish boy babies, under two years of age, were to be killed, that Moses was put into a floating basket in the bulrushes and reeds of the Nile River, that the name Moses means “pulled from the bulrushes?” What is the major theme of Moses’ life? Is it when he stood before the burning bush and heard the voice of God say, “Take off your shoes, Moses. You are standing on holy ground.” Or is the major theme of his life the ten plagues like the river into blood, the locusts and flies? Is Moses primarily remembered because of the Passover, when the angel of death “passed over” the houses of the Jews with the lamb on their doorposts, but killed each first born Egyptian in the houses without blood on the door? What is the major theme of Moses’ life? The parting of the Red Sea? The forty years in the wilderness? Not being able to go into the Promised Land?
Of course, none of these are the most defining moment in Moses’ life? And what was the most defining moment in Moses’ life? The giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. There on Mount Sinai, Moses was given by God the Ten Commandments, the Ten Moral Principles for all human civilization for all time and history, the moral map for human society. Mount Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments is the most defining moment in Moses’ life.
This moral map or Ten Principles for human civilization are found in all cultures of the world, in all generations of the world, in all centuries of the world. Scholars have called these Ten Moral Laws the Tao, pronounced Dow. All societies of the world have similar moral laws that protect language, family, sexuality, property, reputation, etc.
What are these Ten Commandments, these Ten Moral Laws? Most Americans are aware of the number ten of the Ten Commandments, but can recite and remember only a few of them.
Let us recite the Ten Commandments right now. Please compete the following sentences.
Commandment 1: You shall have…no other gods before me.
Commandment 2: You shall not take …the name of the Lord your God in vain.
Commandment 3: You shall remember … the Sabbath day to keep it holy.
Commandment 4: Honor your … father and mother.
Commandment 5: You shall not k … kill.
Commandment 6: You shall not commit… adultery.
Commandment 7: You shall not st…steal.
Commandment 8: You shall not … lie.
Commandment 9: You shall not covet your neighbor’s … wife.
Commandment 10: You shall not covet your neighbor’s … possessions.
These commandments have not changed for the past 3400 years. Why? Because human nature has not changed. During the past 3400 years, there have been all kinds of changes in the lives of human beings. Civilizations have changed. Knowledge has changed. Medicine has changed. Science and technology has changed. Politics and political systems have changed. Nations have changed. Government has changed. Perpetual change is the mark of the human experience during the past 3400 years of history.
Meanwhile, while all these changes have been going on for 3400 years, human nature has not changed. Today, 3400 years later, people still worship various gods in their lives. Today, 3400 years later, people still swear and curse. Today, 3400 years later, people still don’t find time to worship. Today, 3400 years later, people still have problems honoring their parents. Today, 3400 years later, people still murder, still commit adultery, still steal, still lie, still covet other peoples’ spouses or property. Change is all around us human beings, but human nature has not changed. People still need the Ten Commandments, the Ten Principles for human community as much today are people did 3400 years ago.
Every century, generation, and society applies these Ten Moral Laws differently to their particular time in history. Every century, generation and society needs to interpret these Ten Commandments afresh, a new ways that face new situations. Let me explain. We find such differences of application in the Scriptures themselves. How many basic commandments are there? Ten you say? It depends on how you count. We have two recitations of the basic commandments in Exodus 20, and Deuteronomy 5. In two Biblical lists, we do not have ten commandments but eleven. In our list of the Ten Commandments, we didn’t even mention the commandment about making no graven images and the commandment against making graven images is a long commandment in one of the Biblical accounts. The third commandment, remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy, took eight lines in one account. The fifth commandment too, you shall not murder, took merely four words.
Every generation needs to apply the Ten Commandments to its situation in a fresh way.
Let us briefly walk through the Ten Commandments and see how they apply to our situation today.
The first commandment. You shall have no other gods before me. In Old Testament times, gods were small statues, about ten or twelve inches high, often made out of wood. Today, in the twentieth century, none of us have small pieces of wood in our homes that we worship. Rather, for us, we realize that we modern human beings have other material gods. We have material possessions that we worship more than God such as money, homes, cars, retirement accounts, bank accounts. Martin Luther said that our god was anything that we fear, love and trust above all things.
The second commandment for today’s world. You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain. That is, you shall not curse or swear. If you have visited any junior high schools recently, you know how filthy and dirty the language has become and how God’s name and Jesus’ name are regularly abused and cursed. People 3400 years ago and today still have foul mouths that can spit out obscenities. Watch a few movies or televisions shows today and compare the language of such films with thirty years ago and you realize that the volume of filthy language has increased enormously.
The third commandment: Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. If you read the text for today, the third commandment, from Deuteronomy 5, you hear a Biblical application of that commandment. There is to be no work on the Sabbath, including no work for one’s donkey, oxen, manservant, or maidservant. What day is the Sabbath referring to in the Old Testament. Saturday. For Christians, does the word, Sabbath, refer to Saturday or Sunday? Sunday, of course. Do any of you own a donkey? An oxen? Do any of you have servants? Men servants? Women servants? How many of you have jobs that demand that you are employed on Sunday? The details of the Third Commandment in Deuteronomy 5 clearly refer to another culture and generation other than our own. So what does the Third Commandment mean for us today who often have to work on Sundays? The Third Commandment teaches us about the importance of rest and community worship. That is, there needs to be a period of time for your body, mind and spirit to truly rest. Also, we Christians need a time to focus on this book, the Bible. We need to come together as a community to listen to the word together, pray together, sing together, worship together, be together in the Spirit of Christ.
The fourth commandment. Honor your father and your mother so that it will go well with you. A friend of mine was just here in Seattle for a visit. His name is Rollie Martinson, a professor of family life at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul. Dr. Martinson says that one of the most important parts of mental health of seminary students (and anybody) is to heal the frictions and factiousness with your parents. Knowing that we cannot be Pollyanna about frictions with parents who may be deceased, you and I know how important it is to reconcile our differences with our parents. Honoring parents is to heal the frictions. Also, parents are living much longer today and another way of honoring parents is caring for them in extremely old age. What does it mean to honor your parents when you have moved away from them decades ago? When they are divorced, two or three times? What does this fourth commandment mean in today’s world in which families are fractured and people are living to such extraordinary ages?
The fifth commandment: You shall not murder. Four words, but so much complexity. How do these words apply to our society today when abortions are more common than births? When wars become nuclear and hundreds of thousands are killed. When 54,000 men were killed in one battle during the Civil War which was anything but civil. When the United States has far more people imprisoned for murder than any other modern industrial state.
The sixth commandment. You shall not commit adultery. What does this commandment mean for us today when 90% of young people live together before marriage, where parents and grandparents often can’t say anything about the living arrangements of their children or grandchildren without alienating and losing contact with their adult children? What does this commandment mean when people have access to the pill to prevent pregnancy? What are the sexual boundaries to be in this sexually stimulated world where almost all advertising sells some part of the human body?
The seventh commandment. You shall not steal. Is this commandment only about shop lifting? How does the world "stealing" apply to different cultures and centuries? Does this commandment have anything to do with 10% of the earth owning 90% of the earth’s resources? Do the rich steal from the poor when they keep the poor down and poor? How do you feel when you see pictures of hungry and starving people in other nations and you know how fortunate or lucky you were to have been born into such societal opulence? You shall not steal? Does it have anything to do with the rich and poor nations?
The eighth commandment. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Do we human beings still have problems with gossiping and spreading false rumors about other people?
The ninth commandment. You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse. I feel that this is the American commandment. That is, in a world in which both men and women need to work in the marketplace, men and women often find themselves in close connections with each other in the work place. All I know is that many people in our parish who have worked for major and minor companies have found themselves drawn into illicit relationships at work.
The tenth commandment. You shall not covet your neighbor’ possessions. Possessions like cars, homes, clothing, boats, vacations, cabins, life style. We are taught to be envious at any early age.
What I am suggesting to you today is that every generation and every culture needs to freshly apply the Ten Commandments to their own situation and wrestle what the meaning of the commandments are for our daily lives. It is not easy doing this.
Let us now move to the New Testament. How does Jesus handle the Ten Commandments.? In the first five books of the Bible, which are called the Law, there are more than 600 laws, rules and regulations for human society. But Jesus seems to ignore all of these 600 laws, rules and regulations. Instead, we find Jesus highlighting two laws in a special and sacred way. Jesus said that there were only two commandments and the whole Old Testament rested on these two commandments. Without doing these two sacred commandments, the whole Old Testament was worthless. The first commandment was this, quoting from Deuteronomy 5. “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” In this commandment, Jesus invites us to love, not only our husband or wife or children or grandchildren or family or friends or neighbors. More than that, Jesus invites us to love God, who is the source of all life. And we are invited to love God, not just a little bit, but with all our heart, soul, and mind. For Jesus, this is the first and greatest commandment. And the second it like it for Jesus. Jesus quotes from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That is, just as you look after your own self interest and life, so you are to work for the benefit of your neighbor as you would work for the benefit of your own life. Jesus said, “Do these, and you shall live. Do these, and you will understand what it means to find life. Happiness in life consists of loving both God and your fellow human beings.”
Years have gone by and I have discovered that by giving us the two great commandments, Jesus did not nullify the Ten Commandments. That is, human nature has not changed in the past 3400 years and my own human nature has not changed in me since my birth. For me personally, I know that I am attracted to other gods around me and within me more than the True God, that I have trouble with language and swearing, that I am too busy to worship, that I did not care for my aging parents as they needed, that I kill with my tongue and anger, that I still lust even though I am a Christian, that I still do almost nothing for the poor of the world even when I am so comparatively rich compared to the poorest of the poor, that I still gossip and still pass on salacious rumors, that I covet other men’s wives and possessions. In other words, knowing me and knowing other human beings, we still need the Ten Commandments, God’s laws for human community. Even after 3400 years of human history, I need those laws just as much today as the human race did more than 3000 years ago.
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