The Ten Commandments

The Ten Commandments

(Exodus 20:1-17)

A sermon by the Rev. Canon Dr. George R. Sumner, Principal, Wycliffe College, Toronto

Preached the Third Sunday in Lent 2009, St. George’s Anglican Church, London, ON

This is a sermon about the Ten Commandments, but my preaching teacher in seminary had ten commandments about sermons! One of those commandments was: “Never preach on love” – to preach on love is surely to mislead. He was right, but I’m wading in anyway – for the place to start with the Ten Commandments is with marriage. The Ten Commandments are the nuptial agreement between God and Israel.

Several years ago I heard a wedding sermon in Toronto whose point was something like this: ‘We are gathered here for this service, but this is only a ceremony to mark the thing that really matters: the loving relationship between the two of you, which is a gift from God.’ And so it may be. But the preacher got the order exactly wrong. Feelings ebb and flow. Our capacity to deceive ourselves, and to attribute to ourselves the best motives, is not to be underestimated. Who has not known people (or been the people) for whom an intense love has clouded the vision of what was good for them (or for us)? Whose deepest wounds in life are not from someone or some moment which involved what we call ‘love’? And yet if one were to ask what is the heart of real Christian ethics, who would not say ‘love’? Nowadays that same couple might resist marriage altogether, since what, after all, does a loving relationship have to do with rules and regulations, do’s and don’ts? In our culture we think that love and law are opposed – we only know our own willful choice, and for that reason can find no real place for law in the counsels of God – and there, brothers and sisters, is the rub.

My son recently asked me why the Bible would call God ‘jealous’, since jealousy is not a good thing. I told him it meant something special in the Bible: The Commandments are about the surpassing love of Almighty God for this people whom he has marked out. It is love that marks us out as God’s own people – God’s sons and daughters in Jesus Christ. This setting us apart and making us his own defines love. It is the same act by which a parent creates a home for his child, guards her child, rebukes the child when his hand touches the stove. The Ten Commandments quite simply are the intense love of the God who claims us and names us. In the Ten Commandments this love is given shape and concreteness. The Commandments are the great ‘Yes’ of God to us, said ten times over – but as every parent knows, the loving ‘Yes’ implies a series of lesser, but no less loving, ‘No’s’. With God there is no gap between love and law – we are the ones who add the gap by our own hardened wills.

The Ten Commandments are the love of God shaped into real life. They are God’s concrete ‘Yes’. How so? God says: My love would protect you from the harm that all the abusive and addictive false gods will do to you. I would save you from wasting your life worshipping yourself, for that cannot save. I would remind you of my holiness – in my reflection alone can you receive holiness. I would insist that you stop and remember who I am, and who you are, lest you grind out your life in meaningless toil. I would remind you that you do not possess the power over life – that you are not gods unto yourselves so as to dishonour your earthly life-givers or take a life – so that you can enjoy real life as my creature. I would put you in loving and faithful covenants with one another, in keeping with your creation as man and woman, so that you may have a living, breathing sign of my unbreakable covenant with you. I would create a space of honesty between you, so that you can find me in it: the God who is truth.

The Ten Commandments are not harsh legalisms, soul-killing straitjackets; they are the lived parameters of divine love. And the One who delivers us from our false gods, ourselves, our joyless toil, our controlling of life, our faithlessness, our dishonesty – that One is Jesus Christ. The Ten Commandments are God speaking love into us, a deadened people, so that we have a way to live out that love in God’s presence. The important thing is that God speaks it, and God’s word is powerful, so that it brings into existence what it says. On our own we have no power really to love God, to answer in obedience and praise. In other words, we have no power to save ourselves. The Word that is Jesus Christ speaks these Commandments into reality with the Holy Spirit, and that is called grace.

If then we start with what God is and does – with God’s love for us, with his powerful word to make it so – then more things follow. The Ten Commandments are God’s love for us in action; but because he wants us to see and feel that love, they are also the basis for real love between human beings. As Jesus said, the first great commandment “To love the Lord your God” is followed by the second: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Both of these are cheek by jowl in the Ten Commandments. And that means that these Commandments are not just rules for you and me as individuals as we try to thread our way through our days. They are commandments for Israel, for a people, for us – they define what church, ekklesia, the people gathered out of their selfish isolations, really are. We are the people gathered in fear and joy around the Holy Name. We are the people of Sabbath who have surrendered our efforts to save our sad selves. We are the people with a consistent ethic of life. We are a continent people witnessing to a promiscuous age. We are the place where truth can be spoken in love, and we hang together by a power not our own. We are a people full of our own desires who are given the grace this season to bend down in humility. The Ten Commandments are the short version of a doctrine of God’s chosen people, of the Church.

But if that is true, then, again, more is true as well. The Ten Commandments tell us to whom God has given a special name, a special identity. They tell us what life is really for: To obey God and praise him as ways of receiving his love. But we are meant to do that as lamps on a stand, as cities on a hill. In other words, the God of Exodus has not forgotten Genesis, in which he created all peoples as his own. And so the Ten Commandments lay out a vision of how all peoples ought to live before God. The Reformers Luther and Calvin were very insistent here: These are the laws by which all human beings are to live, no matter their tribe or context or values. And this has a very important implication for our own time. In an increasingly secular age, in which God is forgotten, what is also forgotten is how to live as humans were made to live. We may soon design our future babies, and our deaths too. We wonder if there is such a thing as truth, as opposed to spin of various kinds. We resist the brakes God would place on our own economic willfulness. We bathe ourselves in images which are a swirling chaos far from God. Faith is not just cultural sourness, but it is admitting that we are called to be one of the few memory banks of what we were made for, and so of what a human being really is. We will increasingly learn that that is a calling far beyond our powers, for which we will need to pray for clarity and for grace. Our culture is an amnesiac, wandering a house; the church, cluttered and dusty though it at times seems, is where his memory lies hid.

These past ten weeks I have been teaching an online course on Christianity and other religions. For one of the assignments the students need to find a service of some kind, Hindu or Muslim or whatever, attend it, and tell their compadres what they saw. One student from Ottawa ventured forth to the local Buddhist meditation centre. He was most hospitably welcomed, sat during the quiet time, and over really great tea afterwards talked to the participants. One was a Canadian who told him: “I tried various churches, but it always seemed that what they had to offer was what they believed; when I came to the centre they gave me a way to live.” As an Anglican, my first reaction was that being offered clear beliefs sounded pretty good! But there are also reasons – good and not so good – for why it is hard for us to offer people a way of life with the beliefs baked in. The best reason is that we are afraid of what St. Paul calls ‘works righteousness’ – the idea that we can and should earn our favour with God. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to live out our faith, only that we need to understand things differently. In other cases we don’t really imagine that the shape of our Christian life could or should be very different from the lives of seculars around us. This may be because our beliefs don’t really touch ground, or it may be because Christians believe less than they admit. At any rate, those words of that Buddhist convert are worth hearing, and are a valuable rebuke to us as Christians. Christianity is not just a lifestyle or a technique; belief should be baked into our lives. My point is this: God loves us, and builds that love into our life through these Commandments. God’s love takes shape in a particular people, marked by God’s story. And that storied peoplehood is what we call Christian believing, Christian doctrine, the Creed. And so it is not only God’s love embedded in the Commandments, but our beliefs about God as well – that God is the holy God, the life giving God, the one God, the covenant-faithful God, the truthful God. All that is who Jesus Christ proves to be, so that the community that obeys the Ten Commandments worships the Son: “the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments,” and “this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith,” says John in swift order (I John 5:3-4, NRSV).

And yet it is hard for us, who are still being healed of our sin, to see it. God’s love is his command, which is our life, which embodies our faith and hope. Think of it finally this way: Will there be a law in heaven? If law were the opposite of love, there would be no need for law – we would be free from law. But Jeremiah tells us that the new covenant, Jesus’s promise, will, finally, engrave the law in our very hearts, so that obeying and praising will be what we desire. Who we are; who we were made to be – ten ways to be lost in wonder, love, and praise.


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