Preaching text: Exodus 20:1-17
My mother informs me that one of the very first words I learned as a tot was “NO.” Having mastered it, I delighted in using it to comment on everything from the food on my dinner plate to the idea of going to bed at a reasonable hour. There’s a special delight in autonomy, and it can be a little heady when you first discover it.
I suspect the Israelites were realizing the same thing when they arrived at Mt. Sinai soon after God freed them from slavery in Egypt. They’d just spent their entire lives doing what someone else told them to do. They had to discover what this freedom thing is all about. And one of the very first things they learn, there at the foot of Mt. Sinai, is that freedom isn’t getting to do whatever you want.
Enter God, speaking the 10 Commandments into stone-chiseled certainty.
At first glance, it’s hard to understand how the 10 Commandments can take their place in a series of promises…but fear not, the covenant connection is just offstage, God having spoken these words just one chapter previously:
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.”Exodus 19:4-6
Like God’s covenant with Abraham, this one follows the traditional “if/then” formulation of contractual covenants: if the Hebrews obey God’s voice and keep the covenant, then they shall be a treasured possession out of all people.
However, that if/then formulation doesn’t seem to extend to the following sentence. God intends for this people to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. And that’s the way it’s going to be, kids. It seems like the only part that’s up for debate is whether or not they will be a treasured possession out of all peoples.
A promise for the Israelites
This is rather prescient of God. The rest of the biblical record reveals that the Israelites did break these commandments, regularly. And when they do, God creates avenues for both justice and mercy, administering consequences and crafting ways for the Israelites to be restored to a right relationship with God and with their neighbors.
But God never loses that expectation that Israel will be different than other peoples. I imagine God in a rocking chair, gazing excoriatingly at her adolescent nation in the generations that will follow this moment in Exodus: “How many times have I told you not to be like the other nations? If Babylon were running off a cliff, would you do it too?!”
Expectations like that are a powerful thing to offer to a people who have been no people, who have learned to value themselves only as the property of others.
It’s up to you whether or not to bring the covenant language from Exodus 19 into the discussion. And something quite interesting DOES happen if the lection is presented without that context: without that exposition, God isn’t contracting with the Israelites for good behavior. Instead, God is offering guardrails. “Here are the ten best ways to go about this work of being human,” God says. “Do this. Trust me. Other ways exist, but they don’t work.”
A promise for God
If the rainbow promise shows us a God who’s willing to curtail God’s own power for the sake of relationship, this week we see a God who’s asking the same of us. The 10 Commandments—or, ahem, the 10 Best Ways—are guides to how to live in right relationship with God and with one another.
A promise for us
“The 10 best ways” is how Pastor Emily labeled her commentary about this week’s reading from Exodus 20. I love this, partly because I don’t think the word “commandment” carries much meaning in our culture of individualism and personal freedoms, and partly because the word functions like a little semantic air-traffic controller, waving its tiny orange cones to the gracious part of this story: that God intends the Law to be a gift, not a burden.
Luther’s writings on the Ten Commandments, in both the Small and Large Catechism, provide a wealth of material for a preacher who wants to consider these commandments from the “Best Ways” perspective. But the glorious little pithy nutshell of Luther’s thinking around the Law and the Gospel is boiled down in this one line from a different treatise:
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”On the Freedom of a Christian
The 10 Commandments—or the 10 Best Ways—are a promise that freedom from sin doesn’t mean freedom from God. Being released from bondage doesn’t mean we’re suddenly in ethical freefall. We are tied through bonds of love to a God who chose to give up some of God’s own freewheeling, chaos-taming, Leviathan-delighting, flood-creating power in order to be in relationship with us. And even once God has freed us from the powers an principalities that pull on our loyalties, God doesn’t leave a vacuum: God asks us to give up—of our own free will—some of the freedom we have to do whatever the hell we want.
It’s a crazy thing to do.
It’s a stupid amount of trust to put in a person (or people) who haven’t demonstrated that they can handle the responsibility. (*cough cough masks cough*)
And it’s exactly the kind of leap of faith that has the power to change who we are, and how we see ourselves.
We can do anything. Anything.
But what God invites us to see through this promise is that there is more freedom in choosing not to do whatever we want. There is freedom in choosing limits out of love for God and one another.