And Then God Spoke | A Sermon on the Ten Commandments
A Sermon Preached at Christ Church, Georgetown, the Third Sunday in Lent
Good morning! I am so grateful for the warm welcome that this community has extended to me. Being the new kid is never easy, but you all have made it a real joy.
We still don’t know each other that well yet, so I want to start with a short preface about my thoughts on being a preacher, which is such a humbling experience. Standing here, in front of all of you, I am overcome with gratefulness that you are listening (or at least seem to be) and I am very aware that you can’t talk back. I mean, you could, but it wouldn’t really be in keeping with our tradition. Preachers in our tradition preach and people listen and any conversation that might be had around what it said from the pulpit comes somewhere later.
I note this because attentive listening is so rare in our culture. And, honestly, so is attentive speaking. The risk of preaching is that you use the opportunity to say what you’d like to say, what you think people want to hear, and you aren’t really attentive to who you preaching to, or for, or, even worse, on behalf of. You end up preaching your own agenda, and that, in my opinion, is not acceptable.
I fell into this trap myself this week as I struggled to write a sermon for today. When I looked at the lectionary, I was excited to see that I could preach on the Ten Commandments. I blame that on the fact that I’m a recovering attorney. Laws! I thought. That’ll preach. As I began crafting my sermon, however, I went down path after path and it just was not coming together. I knew what I wanted to preach. I was committed to this idea I had (which was brilliant! really!) and I fully intended to preach it today.
I am not preaching it today. Because, while I was writing one sermon in my head God was writing another in my heart. As it turns out, considering the content of the Ten Commandments leads one to think about their character and that leads to a different sermon entirely. So, here that is.
Our Old Testament reading on this 3rd Sunday in Lent opens with a profound reality: Then God spoke. These words recall Genesis and the creation of the world, as God spoke all that is and all that will ever be into existence and declared it good. It is that God, the Creator God, who speaks now, which is made clear by the opening words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
God has led the Israelites through the Red Sea out of slavery in Egypt, feeding them in the wilderness with manna from heaven and leading them here, to Mount Sinai. God has freed them. God has fed them. And, now, God is speaking to them.
Who God has been to them —Creator, Sustainer, Liberator—leads to what God will say to them now: the Ten Commandments. Some of the most familiar words of Scripture and of Christian tradition. Because the ten commandments are familiar, we think we know them. We may be too sure of them. And this tempts us to lift the words out of their context, which is God’s context, and to set them instead within our own.
You see, the Commandments are part of a pre-existing covenant between God and the Israelites gathered at Mount Sinai. God has already chosen and established a covenant with Abraham. God has already displayed a passionate love for God’s people. Now, God offers the Commandments as a gift, describing a way of common life that will allow for freedom, fruitfulness and flourishing amongst God’s people. The Spirit of the Commandments professes a profound reality: this is the way of love. This is what it looks like to love the Lord your God and to love one another. This is what it looks like to live in fullness. To live with integrity.
When we take the Commandments out of context, when we reduce them to a list of rules, to a series of moral principles —to mere words —we miss the life breathed into them by the very God who spoke them. We miss the splendor and glory of God’s intentions the moment that we make the Commandments words on a page, a checklist like any other.
There is a temptation to translate the Commandments into our own finite language, the language of rules, of right belief. A language that seeks ownership of the Commandments, that turns the heart away from God and instead takes the measure of those around us and of ourselves. This is a language of noise and not of substance, of individualism and not of community, of moralism and not of Christian transformation.
While the response of the crowd on Mount Sinai is not a part of our reading, it is worth noting. Because, as soon as God stopped speaking, the crowd turned to Moses and said, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” This encounter with God left them afraid. In it was a call to transformation, which necessarily involves death. And who wants that?
So, it happened that God spoke all of these words and then God, at the request of the Israelites on Mount Sinai, spoke no longer. God’s next direct speech act is Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word made flesh.
Jesus is the Word spoken to us and for us. A word not dependent on our ability to understand or reciprocate. A word that cannot be mastered by us. A word for us, but not owned by us.
As Christians, we profess a faith in this Word and a commitment to following him. As one preacher puts it “the way of faith is to follow Jesus the Christ not the rules that have grown up around the faith through the millennia, but Jesus. This is not to say that certain rules and disciplines might not help us to focus our attention on God. But, all too swiftly, the rules and disciplines can become ends in themselves, rather than a holy life lived.”*
The Ten Commandments offer us a way to consider the very shape of our lives, a way to lean in to the fullness that God offers. They are not a means to an end, but a call to transformation —to Holy living.
Barbara Brown Taylor, in considering the Commandments, writes these words into God’s mouth.
“Here is a way of life that works, God says. Sink these ten posts in the center of your camp, hang a tent on them and together you may survive in the wilderness. Ignore them and you flirt with your own destruction. Guard your life together. Guard your life with me. Here are ten rules that will help you do that. Please accept them as a gift from me.”*
In this season of Lent, let us take inventory of our lives and hold what we find there before God, asking “Is this what you want for me? Is this what you want for us?” Let us then listen attentively to the gift of what God has already said, prepared to hear it with new ears, and to what God is saying to us now.
*The Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick as quoted by the Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, in “Holiness of Life: The Vicar’s Sermon for Lent III,” delivered March 8, 2015: http://theadvocatechurch.org/holiness-of-life-the-vicars-sermon-for-lent-iii/.
* Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (New York: Cowley Pub., 1995), 52-53.
The image is Cosimo Rosselli's "Moses and the Tables of the Law," which is a fresco on the southern wall of the Sistine Chapel. The work is actually linked to Exodus 32:19, but I love it. So, that's that. You can read more about it here: https://www.artbible.info/art/large/661.html.