Promises of God: The Ten Commandments

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, March 7, 2021
Exodus 20:1-17

    As a seminarian and then as a pastor, I’ve had to do my fair share of personality assessments.  Perhaps you are familiar with some – StrengthsFinder, Meyers-Briggs, the Enneagram (which, by the way, if you are into the Enneagram, let me know what your number is!), even looking at family relationships and birth order.  While I find that these tests aren’t always 100 percent accurate, they are helpful in helping us understand more about ourselves and what makes me “me.”  How do we deal with conflict? What kind of work gives us joy?  How do we relate to others?  And to really simplify human personalities into two basic groups, when it comes to the ten commandments, I’ve found there are the people who want rules, who like following the rules and who feel that everyone else should follow the rules, too; and then there are the people who like breaking them or at least think the rules don’t apply to them.  A sign in a museum says “don’t touch,” and they do…”no smoking” and they light up the cigarette…the speed limit is 50 so they go 80…you know who I’m talking about.  If it isn’t already obvious, I am not in this rule-breaking category of people, but put myself solidly in the first “rule abiding” citizen!
    What is God’s response to all people, to the people who like to follow the rules and to the ones who like to break them?  As the oldest in my family, I am used to being the responsible bossy person who makes other people follow the rules.  Most of us in this room, I would think, take rules like the Ten Commandments very seriously.  God asks us to obey them, so we try to.  We may recognize that some are easier to follow than others, but most of us want to be good people.  There’s another part of my personality related to this that loves achievement.  I like getting things done and feeling a sense of accomplishment.  It is easy for me to look at this list of Ten Commandments as a checklist of “to-dos…” OK, don’t swear, check, tell your parents you love them with a text or email, check, don’t murder (that’s easy) check, don’t covet other people’s stuff…well that mom walking her daughter to school had nice shoes but I didn’t want them THAT badly, check…”. I would guess most of us who grew up in the church were raised to think of the Ten Commandments in this way, a list of rules to follow and if you don’t, to confess those sins to God and try to do better.  We typically use the Ten Commandments as a measurement of how well we are doing in God’s eyes, as God’s standard or bar for us.
    Here’s what may be a bit mind-blowing for me to tell you today:  the commandments are not a list of God’s expectations of us in the way we typically think.  In the original Hebrew, they are not written in the imperative “do this” tense but in the simple future tense.  This means that more accurately translated, it isn’t “thou shalt not” but “you will not have no other gods before me.”  In other words, we’ve been taught to think of the 10 Commandments as a checklist to follow to earn God’s love and approval, as if God is saying “IF you do these things, THEN I will love you and be your God.”  Instead, if you read more closely the entirety of Exodus 20, God makes a promise to love us as his people FIRST, then the rules follow.  Rather than if-then, God’s promise is a “Since-then”:  “Since I love you and am your God, you will have no other gods, and respect my name, and remember the sabbath day, and so on.” Why?  Because as we’ve seen with other so-called covenants in previous weeks, this covenant is not an actual agreement between two parties, but a promise from God to us without conditions.  When Old Testament scholars compare the Ten Commandments given to the Israelites to other contemporary law codes, they discovered that Israel’s list of laws was unique in two ways:  1) they are very short, just ten and 2) there is little in the way of concrete consequences listed for those who break these commandments.  Instead, God gives these rules or laws to live by to the Israelites with an unconditional promise at the beginning: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” and we might end this way, “therefore, you will have no other gods before me.” Because why would you do anything else for a God who loves you that much?  Well, sin, that’s why!  Regardless, the promise is the reminder to the people of Israel and to us that we have already been redeemed and claimed. God is our God, on a very personal, wholly committed level.  We start with our relationship with God, knowing we have a God who loves us in spite of our inability to follow all of the rules, no matter how well-intentioned and good we want to be.
    So as a brief review, the first promise to Noah and all of creation in Genesis 9 is that God will never again destroy the earth even though he knows the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth.  God loves the world that much.  Last week, we remembered how God promises that we are a part of God’s family and that we have a home with God because of our relationship with him through faith, to Abraham and Sarah all the way down to us, their spiritual descendants.  And today, we remember that we have a God who promises us deliverance, freedom, and redemption – not after we agree to follow certain rules, but before.  The gift of the law, the ten commandments, are God’s gift to people he has already called his own and saved so that they might live an abundant, quality life in a good relationship with God and with each other.  They are not God’s checklist for us to earn salvation or worthiness.  Rather, they are rules for us as people of faith to strive to live by.  God paints a picture for us of what being in a healthy relationship with God and with one another looks like.
    As we make our way toward the cross this Lent, today is also a good reminder for us as Christians that this is why God sends his son Jesus into the world: to die and be raised for us.  God does not love us because we are good enough people.  Our inability to completely check all the boxes and live strictly by the Ten Commandments is a pretty clear indicator that even the most well-intentioned, achiever, rule-followers among us can’t live up to God’s expectations of us all of the time.  We don’t love God and our neighbors as we should all of the time.  We live in communities that do not always uphold the rules that God gives us.  As individuals and as communities, we do not live in the wholeness that God wants for us.  Today we remember that just as God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to a land where they were free, God sends his son Jesus so that we might be free.  Not free to do whatever we want, but free to live as God wants us to live in loving relationships with God and one another.  And we are free to live with our mistakes and our failures, because we know that God loves us as broken individuals and communities and is working for our restoration.  Since God loves us no matter what, therefore we will love God and one another.  That’s Exodus 20 in a nutshell.  Amen.