Exodus 19 & 20
This fall we are considering God’s covenants with people in the Old Testament. We’ve read several stories about how God was faithful to people. Now we are going to switch gears and consider what it looks like for people, for us, to be faithful to God. Even if you didn’t grow up in church, our text for this morning is going to be very familiar to you. It’s the 10 Commandments in Exodus chapter 20. We’re going to start in chapter 19, which is page 117 in the Bibles in your pews, but if you’re using a different version, it will be on a different page. The 10 Commandments are the guidelines for life given to the Ancient Hebrews, after they have been liberated from bondage in Egypt. These descendants of Abraham are inheritors of the covenant with God; they are blessed to be a blessing, but currently find themselves wandering in the wilderness. For four hundred years they have been living outside of the land of their ancestors, trying to keep their traditions alive in a culture determined to squash them. There is no one in their community who knows what it’s like to be free, but suddenly, they are. No Pharaoh to fear, no masters to obey, just the God of their ancestors speaking through the prophet Moses and doing miracles, sometimes right at the last minute. The question for these people now is who are they going to be? Who will God be to them in this new phase of life? What does God’s covenant with them look like now?
Then Moses went up to God, who called from the mountain and said,
“This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.”
And God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
- “You shall have no other gods before me.
- “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, accounting the sins of the parents to the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
- “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses God’s name.
- “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
- “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.
- “You shall not murder.
- “You shall not commit adultery.
- “You shall not steal.
- “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
- “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
From strength to strength, may we be strengthened. Thanks be to God.
A covenant is a sacred commitment to relationship, initiated by God on behalf of the other, and it shapes identity and conduct. There are several covenants in the Old Testament, but the ones everyone agrees are important are these five: 1 after the flood where God covenants with all of creation never to destroy creation again. 2 with Abraham and Sarah that they are blessed to be a blessing and that the whole world will be blessed through them. This morning we read the third covenant, at Sinai in the desert, God makes a covenant with the ancient Hebrew people. And this one seems to involve a lot more rules than any of the others have. As we’ve said several times this fall already, when there’s a lot of rules, it can start to feel more like a contract than a covenant. Is this a transaction? Have we switched things up here? Do the people, do we, have to do these 10 things in order to be in good with God? Some Christians would say yes. You can read it that way. But I think if we look at the whole story of God’s people, there’s a different way to understand what’s happening with the 10 Commandments.
Remember how we said a few weeks ago that in covenant belonging shapes behavior? If you have to earn your way in, that’s not a covenant. In a covenant, the relationship comes first. And that relationships shapes our identity and our conduct. In this case, being in relationship with God shapes who we are and how we live. So what does it mean for us to keep a covenant with God? How are we to walk humbly before God? Well first we have to ask what kind of a relationship we have with God. And remember covenant is all of us together. Obviously we live it out personally, but it is not individual.
At the core of God’s covenant with us is God’s commitment to us. Before we do anything, God calls us blessed and declares that we will be a blessing. If the idea of being blessed and being a blessing shapes who we are, then we can start thinking about what blessed blessing people act like in the world. And there is where I think we get to the 10 Commandments. These are not things that we have to do to be in good with God. They are things we choose to do because we already are in good with God.
In this story, we have people who have lived for hundreds of years in bondage. They have not had any freedom. The Bible story seems to indicate that they don’t even remember that they have a covenant with God. And now suddenly they are free. So the first thing that God needs to remind them that freedom itself is not a theological virtue. We have to choose what to do with our freedom. Being in covenant shapes our choices. Covenant is not bondage; covenant is boundaries.
Boundaries are good. You know this right? We hear a lot about boundaries these days. The boundaries we choose for ourselves keep the good in and the bad out. Boundaries are healthy. And as we all know, healthy relationships have boundaries. Boundaries on what is appropriate within the relationship, and also boundaries on what is appropriate because of the relationship. Marriage is the obvious example here. Sam and I just had our fourth wedding anniversary on Thursday. And there are lot of things I don’t do because I am married. I chose that relationship and so I chose those boundaries. They are good.
Here’s the beautiful irony: ultimately, boundaries give us more freedom. God is not limiting what the people can do here. God is helping them understand the parameters in which they will experience the most freedom and safety. The purpose of the 10 commandments are freedom and safety. Pastor Kara shared a paraphrase of the 10 commandments with me this week and I want you to hear them. As I read these, think about how free and how safe you would feel if you lived in a community where everyone kept these boundaries. Ready?
Remembering who you are and who you belong to, these are your boundaries. First, practice loyalty to the sacred. Second, remember every image of God is only just a glimpse. Third, do not use God’s name to do harm. Fourth, do not allow productivity to dominate your life. Fifth, care for those who have cared for you. Can you feel the freedom and the safety in this? Sixth, do not be unnecessarily destructive. Seventh, be faithful to the commitments you make. Eight, do not take what doesn’t belong to you. Ninth, do not hinder justice from coming to fruition. Tenth, do not use power over others to get what you want. Thanks be to God. What a world it would be if we all chose to live with freedom within those boundaries.
Now sometimes people make it sound like those who choose to live without limits are having more fun. Teens, you know what I’m talking about. Usually this is related to things like drugs and alcohol and sex and money. It’s important to remember that, especially as people of faith, it is not our job to impose our boundaries on other people. That would be bondage. Everyone gets to choose for themselves. But, beloved people, life without boundaries is not more fun. Life without boundaries, whether they be physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual is not amusing; it’s EXHAUSTING. It’s dangerous for our bodies and our minds and our spirits. We choose boundaries, so that THANK GOD, we know when to stop.
God never forces us into a relationship. God woos and invites us to something beautiful and redemptive and we always get to choose whether we want to say yes. When we say yes, these are the basic boundaries for a life of freedom, the mold that shapes us into the kind of people who are blessed to be a blessing. THAT is the kind of community that God desires for the world and that God calls us to model. Freedom within the boundaries of a covenant. We are committed to God and one another. Amen.