So how many of you learned the 10 commandments as a list of rules you should follow? And if you did follow them…well, then you were a good person…God put a stamp of approval on you. And if you didn’t…well, then…you were in big trouble. All the “or elses” in these verses were held over you like a threat…do this — or else “God will punish you and your children to the third and the fourth generation”….do this — or else “ God will not acquit you”.
So here’s the problem: these commandments were meant to be a covenant…a kind of mutual life giving promise God made with God’s people. But too often, we just hear that promise as a threat. We use them to judge people …and mete out punishments accordingly. In fact, God’s people took these commandments and wrote whole books…. Leviticus…and most of Deuteronomy and Numbers…about how they should be enforced. And they kept expanding them over time…meticulously spelling out small details and scenarios…just to make sure people kept them correctly. And somehow, in doing that, they found ways to say killing actually was justified…that is, if you were killing people who were wrong…you know…all those OTHER commandment breakers. And stealing was justified…if it was from your enemies, you could plunder all you want. Every commandment was expanded into minute details…because that is what we do with the law isn’t it? Any lawyers here? Every law…no matter how good it is…just begets a hundred more…because life is messy. And there are always extenuating circumstances…it’s never cut and dried. We know that. So…when this covenant with God was reduced to simply laws…it became worthless. Or more like a prison, holding us captive….that’s how Paul saw it.
But that’s not what God intended. The commandments were not given to micromanage people’s actions…to analyze and parse details and use this as a way to control people. No…the intent of the commandments…of the covenant is spelled out in the beginning…it was given by God, God says, so “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.”
After bringing people out of Slavery in Egypt…God wanted to give them a new life. And so God made a covenant…a promise with them. God promised to be with them…to love them to the thousandth generation of any person who loved God (and just in case you’re counting…we’re not even close to the thousandth generation since Moses….and I know my grandma really loved God….so my kids are good for roughly another 30,000 years.) In other words….the “threat” wasn’t to terrorize them. It was simply an acknowledgement of the fact that there are consequences…often generational consequences…to the wrongs we do…to the pettiness we choose…to the violence we do to one another. That’s real. We know that. Kids have to deal with all the ugly stuff their parents did…and sometimes that pain goes inward…sometimes they just repeat it onto the people around them…sometimes, they find a way to heal…and find a new way. But they are affected. There’s no way around it. But God’s love for them is absolute. It cannot be shaken. It is steadfast…to you and your kids and their kids ….even when we mess up.
In these commandments, God made a promise to these folks who had known nothing but brutality…nothing but life under the control of others. Because God wanted to give them life….that they might live knowing they were beloved, treasured by the God of all creation. And that they might be priests for the whole world.
So what does that mean? What is a priest…a pastor’s job?
Friends, it is not to judge people. Not my job. It is not to tell people what to do. It is simply…to point out where God is. To help people see God’s fingerprints around them. On them. To open people’s eyes to see God’s holiness in the world…God’s presence in their lives. To help people see that the whole earth is God’s and the fullness thereof. To help people see that God walks with them. And God loves them. To bear witness to God’s steadfast love and mercy.
That was what God wants for God’s people. That was the intent of the law. It was to help people see the holiness of life. The wonder of God’s world. The treasure in all creation.
Coveting is greed…and greed makes everything a commodity. Instead of treasuring what we have…we simply grasp for more, like stuff and money are going to give us life instead of God.
Adultery makes people into commodities…using and betraying people for pleasure..instead of treasuring the wonder of the people in our lives.
Murder, War — is wholesale destruction of the precious lives that God knit together.
Each commandment….is meant not to micromanage…to control…but to invite people to see their lives…to see the world differently. To walk with God as partners…to see the world as God sees it. The beauty and wonder in the people around us…in creation…in ourselves.
And then to help others see it as well. To be priests…helping the world see God’s fingerprints.
Some of you may be familiar with the poet Mary Oliver. I love her poetry. She has one called
The instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
I think that is a summary of the Covenant. Pay attention. I am your God. I am with you. I love you. The whole earth is mine. Be astonished. Wonder at the beauty in you…in creation…in each day…in all life. Tell about it. Point out the goodness…help other people see their goodness.
We are surrounded by people who are telling us how bad the world is. How awful people are. All the things that are wrong. God invites us to be priests in this world…seeing the holy all around us. Seeing our everyday lives as holy and God-filled. Seeing beauty and showing kindness.
The 10 commandments…is not a law to be followed but an invitation to live differently . To live as a child of God. To live in a relationship with God. To make promises back to the God who makes promises to us…because you want to. Not because you have to. But because it’s good.
Years ago, we did a book study here on Sabbath keeping. And there was a story that stuck with me…because I thought it was beautiful. It was about a young Jewish basketball player, star of his high school team…whose family observed the Sabbath. That meant he couldn’t play in any Friday night games. He was home with his family for the Shabat meal. But his friends would come over after the games on Friday, to tell him all about it. And eventually they couldn’t help but ask – “don’t you resent this?” Aren’t you angry you can’t play like everyone else? I think most kids would be…but he wasn’t. You see, his family had truly taught him what the covenant was about. He understood….it wasn’t about rule following or being holier than thou. It wasn’t about missing out on things or deprivation….it was a reminder of who he was. What really mattered about him. Staying home on the Sabbath put everything in perspective. He was reminded that God held everything and the world could get along fine without him if he took time to stop. To rest. To eat with his family. Basketball was a joy to him…but it wasn’t his life. Life was much bigger and more beautiful. And stopping to observe the sabbath helped him appreciate basketball as well as all the other gifts and treasures of life.
The covenant law – the 10 commandments are meant to be a gift. To help us live differently in the world…in a way that fills us with life…instead of sucking us dry. They are an invitation to stop and see the holy in every aspect of our lives…all we do is connected to God.
They are NOT a checklist that determines whether you are good or bad. If they were, we would always come up short. No, obeying the law doesn’t save us…In fact…thinking it can can drive us to despair. We’ll never be good enough.
What saves us is God’s love…the love that spans all generations. Thousands of generations.
What saves us is the new covenant in Jesus…who says that grace wins. That love wins.
But this old covenant…well…it still stands. As an invitation to be priests for this hunting world. It still stands…as instructructions for living a life. As an invitation to pay attention. To be astonished. And to tell about it. Amen.