210307 Lent 3B
March 7, 2021
The Gift of the Commandments
More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold,
sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb. (Psalm 19:10)
This is the third in our series on the unfolding covenant between God and God’s people.
And before I go any further, maybe I should take a moment to define our term. “Covenant” feels like a religious, churchy sort of word, but it didn’t start that way, and even today it is still used in legal contexts. Basically, a covenant is a formal agreement or promise between two or more people (Cambridge Dictionary online). A covenant is an agreement, a contract, a treaty, an accord.
Now, given this definition, if you think back to the way the biblical covenant unfolded in the last two weeks – first with Noah, then with Abraham and Sarah—something odd should stand out. It is that, so far, the “covenant” between God and God’s people is entirely one sided. It’s not so much an agreement between two equal parties as the giving of unilateral promises by one. I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature… for all future generations: my bow in the clouds shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth, said God one day to Noah. (Gen. 9) And to Abraham it was: I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous. While Sarah heard: I will bless you and give you a son. You shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from you. (Gen. 17) In this covenant, God acts first. God makes the commitments and promises while God’s people simply listen and receive in faith.
That changes a little bit in the next stage of the developing covenant that we heard about today, the covenant at Mount Sinai with Moses and the people of Israel. Going forward there will be commitments and obligations from the other party. God’s people will be expected to contribute – to worship and bless God in turn by living according to the ideals of the covenant. It’s by living in this way that God intends the promised blessing to be extended to the world. But the foundation has been laid, and as we have seen, it is one of promise and grace from God. In this single covenant—because that is what it is, not separate deals with different people—God speaks, God acts, and the people respond in gratitude.
So. The covenant at Sinai, the giving of the 10 Commandments.
It’s important to set them in the context of the story of the Exodus. Remember that the people of Israel had groaned in slavery in Egypt for generations. They suffered in a world where the only law was the whim of the powerful, a world where “might makes right.” Out of that world God led Israel “with a mighty hand and outstretched arm.” Crossing the Red Sea was more than a physical escape; it was a spiritual exodus from the world of domination and power-over to the covenant-world of freedom and power-with. In the wilderness around Sinai God’s people were to slowly learn the new ways.
The spiritual exodus was going to take time. 40 years of wilderness wandering, in fact. But, with all those hardships, it was a time of grace. Daniel Erlander imagines God cooking up a wonderful plan:
1. I will tenderly raise this child-people. I will teach them how to live as mature partners with me. (Hos 11:1-4)
2. The nations of the world will notice how these people live. They will see how joyful life can be. Tired of war, oppression, and greed, they will ask these people to teach them how to live. (Mic 4:1-2)
3. Through these people I will teach all nations to live as partners with me. Then the DAY OF SHALOM will come to all humans and to the whole creation. (Mic 4:3-4, Isa 11:6-10)
At the heart of this plan was the renewal of the covenant through the gift of the 10 Commandments.
Yes, the gift.
We often think of the 10 commandments as oppressive orders from God. They seem at times like an impossible burden, especially when we remember that the meaning of each one is very broad. “Thou Shalt Not Murder,” for example, seems simple and obvious and easy to fulfill… until we remember Jesus saying that anyone who is even angry with their neighbour has already broken this commandment. The Law seems to be made only more intense by the Gospel. We may feel like Martin Luther once felt. As he testified:
I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God. I said, “Isn't it enough that we miserable sinners, lost for all eternity because of original sin, are oppressed by every kind of calamity through the Ten Commandments? Why does God heap sorrow upon sorrow through the Gospel and through the Gospel threaten us with his justice and his wrath?
Yet today I’d like to invite you to feel the Ten Commandments as a gift, part of God’s gracious covenant.
They are a gift because they offer a way for a community to live in shalom. A gift because they teach us in specific detail how to love God and neighbour with all our hearts, souls, and minds. A gift because even when they show us our sin as we fail to follow them, the Commandments still point us to a God who is tender and compassionate and gives life to the thousandth generation of those who turn again to God’s mercy.
Luther himself came to love the Law, distilled as it is in the 10 Commandments. You might remember from your Confirmation classes how Luther “translated” the negative injunction of each command into a positive invitation to a beautiful way of life. “You Shall Not Murder,” for example, becomes “We are to… help and support our neighbour in all of life’s needs.” “You Shall Not Bear False Witness” becomes “We are to… come to our neighbour’s defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.”
In the Large Catechism he wrote: “[The Ten Commandments are] the true fountain from which all good works must spring, the true channel through which all good works must flow… It seems to me that we shall have our hands full to keep these commandments, practicing gentleness, patience, love toward enemies, chastity, kindness, etc., and all that these virtues involve. But such works are not important or impressive in the eyes of the world. They are not unusual and pompous, restricted to special times, places, rites, and ceremonies, but are common, everyday domestic duties of one neighbour toward another, with no show about them.” (LC I.311-313)
Conclusion ad lib…