The Gift of God’s Commandments

A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Year B – March 11, 2012

David Hathaway Knight, Priest Associate

Let us pray,

Lord Jesus, Sun of Righteousness, shine in our hearts we pray;
dispel the gloom that shades our minds and be to us as day.
Give guidance to our wandering ways, forgive us, Lord, our sin;
restore us by your loving care to peace and joy within.

Hymn 144, stanzas 1 and 2


 The Psalmist writes,

 The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul:
the testimony of the Lord is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.
The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart;
the Commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.

                                    Psalm 19:7, 8


Recently, I was enjoying a conversation with a good friend whose faith journey is an inspiration to me. We were talking about the change in the pace of this season of Lent. I mentioned that I was preaching on the Ten Commandments soon as the Exodus passage containing them was the first reading for the day. Now this friend is someone whose honesty is refreshing. She said, “I have trouble with the Ten Commandments.” It wasn’t that she was saying that they weren’t important, or that we shouldn’t take them seriously, but rather that so many of them seem to emphasize the negative as they are phrased “You shall not…” Even those phrased in the positive are strongly imperative. If, for example, whenever we told our children not to do something, what often, was the first thought that came to their minds? Of course they thought of what it might be like to do it! Some of us never grow up. There is a sign taped on the back of an oven on the counter of the Café at the Jewish Community Center where I go for my exercise program early each morning. The sign reads, “DO NOT TOUCH. OVEN IS VERY HOT.” I pass by that sign every day, but last Tuesday, I simply could not resist. I looked around to see if anyone was watching. I went up to the counter thinking no one was looking. I reached out to touch it to see if it was hot. Suddenly, I was surprised by the voice of a young lady from behind the counter. She said, “It’s OK, Mr. Knight, you can touch it. It’s not turned on this morning.” Did I ever feel stupid. She surely had my number!

 I suspect my friend speaks for many of us, however, even as we recognize the importance of God’s Commandments to us. Yes, the Ten Commandments are all phrased as strong imperatives. They can seem harsh, but my friend then led us to a source that, for both of us, puts a refreshing perspective on our understanding of why God gave these Commandments to us. Eugene Peterson in his book, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language,  puts the Commandments in this context when he writes, “Moses spoke to the people: ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to … instill a deep and reverent awe within you so that you won’t sin.’”

 Do not be afraid, God has come to instill a deep and reverent awe within you and me so that we will not sin.

 I immediately thought to myself, “That’ll preach!” Today’s reading from the Book of Exodus describes the vision of how the relationship between God and the people of   to be ordered. It is a vision that follows what God had done for the people of Israel Whom he loved, and for whom God continued to care deeply. It is a vision that follows after God had led the people through the Red    safety. Through all, God sustained them with manna in the wilderness. God’s passionate love for the people of Israel Would never end no matter what. When God spoke these words of the Commandments, God gave them a gift. These commandments would show the people of Israel then, and they would come to show us now, how to live in relationship with God and in relationship with one another. John Calvin, not always the most cheerful of fellows, once said that the Commandments “expose our sin, cutting through our self deception that we are really ‘good’ people and revealing some of the many ways in which our lives are not what they are supposed to be.” They are a gift to us because they provide a framework for us in which to live our lives.  Without this framework, all becomes chaotic. We need boundaries. As Scripture says, they are a “lamp unto our feet.” The Commandments do not show us what we must do or how we must behave in order to receive God’s grace. Rather, the Commandments light our path. They show us how we should live because we are people who have already been given God’s grace. One of the treasures in our Prayer Book is what is called An Exhortation. It begins on page 316. It is sometimes done as part of the services especially during Lent. In this Exhortation, we hear these words, “Having in mind therefore, Christ’s great love for us, and in obedience to his command, his Church renders to Almighty God our heavenly Father never-ending thanks for the creation of the world, for his continual providence over us, for his love for all mankind, and for the redemption of the world by our savior Christ, who took upon himself our flesh, and humbled himself even to death on the cross, that he might make us the Children of God by the power of the Holy Spirit, and exalt us to everlasting life.”

 Having in mind, therefore, his great love for us, and in obedience to his command, his Church renders to Almighty God, our heavenly Father, never ending thanks. . .

  As God therefore gave to the people Israel this gift to shape their love of God and of one another, so you and I too receive this gift. Focusing on the Commandments during this Lent draws us once again to see them as a gift that molds our witness to the gift of God’s grace, a gift so freely given to us. Focusing on them helps us to shape how we respond to God, and what we say and do about others. We begin by giving thanks for these Commandments, these boundaries within which we then live our lives.

 Each Commandment addresses a particular realm of human behavior and could be discussed individually but time here would not allow, but take the ninth one, for example: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” God addresses this one not only to trivial lying but also to higher levels of dishonesty that can, in the course of things, bring serious harm to one’s self and to others. There’s a true story that was once told about a boy I actually knew when I was a kid. (All of the stories I tell you are true. Some of them actually happened.) When this all happened, this 8-year-old-boy was in Miss O’Brien’s fourth grade class. It was a crisp,New England Autumn day in the new school year. This young boy was riding on the school bus when, for some inexplicable reason, he decided to commit a little prank on the bus. It was harmless one, you understand, nobody got hurt—it was only mischievous—yet it was a prank that would merit an interview in the principal’s office upon arrival at school. Now, nothing could instill more terror into a child in that school in those days in the mid ‘50’s than a summons to the office of Clarence Newton Blair, the principal of the Stockbridge Plain School. Nothing, but as the story goes, the boy was summoned to the principal’s office shortly after morning opening exercises.  Come to think of it, this little kid, as I remember him, could be bad, innocent looking, you understand, but naughty at times. The interview took place with Mr. Blair. It would come to pass that night that the boy, as usual, would sit at dinner with his parents and his sister. I recall, it was said that this family had a custom. It was that the sins of the children were not discussed at the dinner table. Dinner was for family time together over a meal carefully prepared by their mother. It was only after dinner that discussions of the sins of the children took place when necessary. Dinner was quiet that night after which the boy’s father called him into the other room for that necessary discussion. He inquired about his son’s day at school. He inquired about the morning ride on the school bus. The boy knew immediately what was coming down the pike. His little mind began to work. He proceeded to offer his own creative account of the day. Sitting there before his father, he put his own positive spin to the events on the school bus that morning, but you see, the principal had called home earlier that day. This, mind you, was in the days during which, when the principal called home, the parents and the principal found themselves on the same page. Parents acted in concert with the school and presented a united front to the child. His father, however, first listened that night to his son’s carefully spun yarn as the boy weaved his own version of the truth until he ran out of yarn. Then the father said to his son, “Is that all, young man? Is that all?” There was silence. It was then that my father began to speak. I will never forget what he said to me that night, that crisp New England Night, in the autumn of 1954. He said, “David, it is very important that we tell the truth even in the small things in life, for if we don’t, we will end up not being honest about bigger matters. Telling the truth in the little things,” he said, “will shape how we live the rest of our lives.” His words were prophetic and they reach into the lives of all of us. It was, as I recall, not many years later, for example, that, in the company in which my father worked, some of the top executives got into big trouble over how they handled the truth in high places. Their manipulation of the truth made the national headlines. They had gotten involved in price fixing. Heads in high places would roll. My father’s words to his son were true. Thou shalt not bear false witness. It is important to tell the truth beginning with the little things in life.

 Personal stories throughout the ages will give testimony to the fact that each of the Ten Commandments speaks to particular occasions and events in the lives of God’s people, for they all relate to virtually every aspect of our lives. Today’s reading from Exodus reminds us that these Commandments, these boundaries, have been around for a very long time, and have been a benefit to generations of God’s people. You and I stand among those counted as God’s precious ones, those for whom Jesus was willing to suffer and die on the Cross, those who have been set apart for generations by God’s holy speech and action, called to be about the business of mending God’s holy, yet broken world. It was Jesus himself who would add a further dimension to these Commandments when he said, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” The Commandments are a gift to us, a framework upon which to live our lives in thanksgiving to God. Eugene Peterson’s words to us about the Commandments give life and hope to us as we carry out our work of reconciliation in this world in which we live, and so,

 Do not be afraid, God has come to instill a deep and reverent awe within you and me so that we won’t sin.

 Therefore, today, and for this coming week, and for all time,

 Lord, grant that we in penitence may offer you our praise,
and through your saving sacrifice receive your gift of grace. Amen.

Hymn 144, stanza 3