[God said,] You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about Little Johnny who was at Sunday school and his teacher asked him, “If I went to Church every week, and tried to live my life following the Ten Commandments, would I get into heaven?” “No!” answered little Johnny. “If I sold my house, my car, and all of my other possessions, and gave all the money to the church, would I get into heaven?” Little Johnny replied, “No!” “Ok, well if I spent my whole life being charitable, loving my family, and being kind to everyone I met, would I get into heaven then?” “No!” The teacher was somewhat surprised by little Johnny’s intelect. “So how do I get into heaven?” “You have to be dead.”
Silly teacher…always overthinking things! Or maybe that was her clever approach all along. Rather than teach the complexities of works righteousness or moralism or sacrifice or altruism or civility, subjects that adults build entire lives around understanding, she simply had to pose the questions to Little Johnny who had a profound clarity that comes with child-like innocence. I mean, he isn’t wrong, you can’t get to heaven without first dying. Unless, of course, you believe in the notion of heaven existing in this world in which case death is not the entryway into heaven. Love or beauty or solitude or peace or nature or art or drugs or any number of things could get you into heaven in this world, but death most assuredly not getting you into the heaven of this world. No, death is the key to the heaven of the next world as Little Johnny so astutely pointed out. We can’t get into that heaven without first dying so all the lessons on works righteousness and moralism and sacrifice and altruism and civility really don’t matter in the end. The teacher’s clever approach revealed this truth, that nothing we do can earn our way into heaven, only what is done to us in death.
So if obeying God’s commandments aren’t the key to heaven, why do we have them at all? Well, because we live and have our being in this world and this world is not heaven. We need God’s help to exist in this world and his commandments help us to do that. They help us to be in right relationship with God and with each other so that we can all co-exist in this world. God exists in this world whether we acknowledge him or not and God will always exist in this world. It’s his world, his creation! We, on the other hand, aren’t guaranteed to exist in this world forever. We exist only by the grace of God. We exist because God guides us and protects us through his commandments. We exist because God loves us, plain and simple.
Okay, that’s a lot to throw out there and ponder! Let’s focus our attention a little. I’m sorry I wasn’t here last week to get this 4-week series on the Ten Commandments properly underway but hey, a family camping trip took priority. The reading for last week would have given us a proper introduction as it lifted up God’s authority prior to the commandments being given. Recall that God gave his commandments to the recently freed Israelites as they fled from Egyptian slavery. Moses had led them to Mt. Sinai where they gathered while he reconvened with God on the top of Mt. Sinai. The Israelites were a freed people without any governing power or direction. They didn’t know where they were going or how they were going to get there. They were simply glad to be away from where they were. Moses understood this and asked for God’s help in providing some type of governance and/or direction. God’s solution was his ten commandments. Recall from your confirmation days that the commandments are divided into two primary sets: those governing our relationships with God and those governing our relationships with each other. The first three help us be in right relationship with God while the last seven help us to be in right relationship with each other. These were important commandments because the Israelites were newly in relationship with our God and each other. They didn’t know our God and they only knew other as fellow slaves. They didn’t know how to think for themselves and provide for themselves and be in working relationships with others. God understood this so He graciously gave Moses his ten commandments. Not before reminding them of his authority: “it was I who brought you out of slavery, it was I who freed you from oppression and hopelessness.” Why? To give the Israelites a reason to follow his commandments in the first place. Our God is a mighty God who can do mighty things. It behooves the Israelites, and us, to obey his commandments. Why? Because his mighty hand can change our situations in an instant. Because we aren’t guaranteed to exist in this world, let alone exist as free persons, free to think for ourselves and provide for ourselves. God wants the Israelites, and us, to remember this about just how mighty He is.
In our reading for today, we heard his first three commandments that help us heed and honor his mightiness: we shall have no other gods but him, we shall not take his name in vain, and we shall honor the sabbath day and keep it holy. Obeying all three commandments conveys our respect for him. And there’s a reason why they’re the first three commandments. Honoring and respecting God is of utmost priority. Why? Again, because our situations, our very existence, are a direct result of his love and grace. It is only fitting that we should honor and respect him above all else. Our God is an awesome God! Our God is a mighty God! Our God is a good and gracious God!
Undergirding all his commandments is this notion of obedience. The commandments only mean anything if we choose to obey them so I think any discussion on the commandments ought to also stress the importance of obedience. We don’t have to obey his commandments. We aren’t mindless slaves! No, it benefits us to obey his commandments. The prophet Isaiah says, “if you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.” (1:19) Our lives are better when we heed his commandments…we eat the good of the land! Recall when God spoke through Moses a little later after giving him his commandments, “but if you listen attentively to his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and a foe to your foes.” (23:22) That same mighty hand that determines all our situations protects those who heed his commandments! And again, we hear Jesus say in the book of John, “very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” (8:51) And thus we come full circle to Little Johnny! God’s commandments help us in this world and, unless you want to die and enter into the next world, obeying his commandments will keep us here in this world. Yes, it greatly benefits us to obey his commandments!
So as we continue reflecting on God’s commandments, let us reflect with obedient minds and hearts. His commandments only stand to benefit us! And they so clearly convey God’s love for us. God wants us to live in this world…to thrive in this world! Let us give thanks for his commandments. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.