“They’re Not Ten Suggestions”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, March 19, 2023
Reading: Exodus 20:1-17
A few weeks ago, we had a lovely event at the church: Songs of Love and Passion. That night one of you came up to me and suggested I change my sermon title for the next day to: “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” I smiled in that, “I have no clue” sort of way, until I turned on the radio on the way home and heard about our mayor’s troubles. It is striking how on-point the Bible can be at times. I feel for public servants—when they misbehave it is world news. When most of us break a commandment—when we, say, covet or lie or break the sabbath or take the Lord’s name in vain no one stops the presses. Or changes the sermon title.
Some years ago, the great news anchor Ted Koppel spoke in chapel at my alma mater, and basically, all he did was read the ten commandments. He said if we all live this way everything will be better. And he sat down. Brave move in a secular age. I wish we Christians would be so bold. These are good ways to live. Pay attention.
Christians historically have said there are three chief reasons for all the laws in the Bible, especially the ten commandments. One is to guide the people’s life until the coming of the Messiah. We Christians know we are not saved by following the law, not by gritting our teeth and trying hard to be moral. Christians who do that often end up judging other people as less holy—that is, they go in the opposite direction from love of God and neighbour. The law is meant to prepare a people for the coming of the Lord in flesh. This is why we don’t follow as much of the law as our Jewish neighbours—we think the giver of the law has come in person. Two, the law is there to drive us into the arms of grace. It shows us exactly how far we fall short of the righteousness God demands. Just try, after leaving this sanctuary, to go a half hour without coveting—desiring something somebody else has. You can’t do it. Neither can I. The law is a mirror held up to show us how dirty our face is. And Christ is the only way to get clean. The third use of the law is to build a Christian people. After the law points us toward the Messiah, after it shows us how much we need a saviour, it then instructs us how to live holy lives. And this is good—if we commit ourselves and ask for God’s grace not to lie, ever, about anything, we could spend a lifetime learning how to grow into that one commandment.
Okay, ten commandments, all in one sermon. Buckle up.
The first commandment: You shall have no other gods before me. Now I’m guessing not too many of us in this room are tempted to worship Molech or Baal, but idolatry is more subtle than that. Martin Luther said, “Wherever your heart is, there is your God.” Wherever your loyalty lies, wherever you spend most of your time and money and worry and energy, that’s what you worship. I wonder if someone examined my life without knowing me they might not say I actually worship Duke basketball. Some sports fans are being buried in their team’s colors these days—what you trust will save your body from the grave is probably what you worship. The way many people talk about their political parties or the stock market or the US Constitution, you can tell what has their ultimate allegiance. The way some parents speak of our kids’ schools as though it will make sure they don’t die homeless and alone makes clear they worship our child’s future success. Or, we can worship the right God in the wrong way. We can pray to Jesus, and then ask him to give us riches instead of a cross, or to curse our enemies. Israel is absolutely passionate in its worship of the one God, a jealous God, who will not tolerate rivals.
The second commandment: You shall not worship any graven images. Last week during the Oscars one of my kids asked out loud who would win the next idol. Those little statues look like that, don’t they? They kiss them, cradle them, throw them in the air. Few of us have bowed down to a statue of a god. But some say this is the chief commandment of them all. Sin is a matter of failing to worship the one true God. What we worship instead is something we made, some creature, something that cannot speak or act or save. I had a friend once who didn’t get tenure at his university. As he grieved, he said, “I’d have had another child if I knew this would happen.” An idol is what demands that you sacrifice your kids. Here’s looking at you, gun culture in the US.
Scripture takes the long view here: those who worship the wrong thing will be punished to the third and fourth generation, those who do God’s will will be rewarded to the 1000th. This is not a threat, it’s just reality described—those who worship alcohol often have ripple effects that harm children and children’s children. But those who do well are rewarded for 1000 generations—99.7 percent longer—by this math something good your ancestor did 1000 generations ago could still be blessing you. Or something good you do today could reverberate 40,000 years from now. There is justice with God, but mercy devours justice.
The third commandment: “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God. The Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” In our day, of course, to use the Lord’s name in vain is no different than any other common cussword. We even have abbreviations for it, OMG. Perhaps our Jewish older brothers and sisters in faith know better. When they say the name of the Lord, they don’t even say “Yahweh,” they simply say, “the name,” ha shem. A name so holy we can’t even say it. Think of the way people pray when they’re desperate, at death, or giving birth, or in great joy. They cry out to God. When we say God’s name because we can’t find our shoes or are upset about an email, it’s like the boy who cried wolf. God rushes to our side, but we didn’t mean it. God promises his name will be glorified in all the earth. People who don’t know his name will treasure it when they come to that knowledge, from one end of the earth to another God’s name will be praised. And we toss it around when we miss a yellow light.
The fourth commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” Pharaoh, back in Egypt, made the Israelites work every day. There was no Sabbath in Egypt’s economy. I love the labour movement, but I think of this command when I see the pro-union bumper sticker: “The people who brought you the weekend.” Actually, that would be the Jews. This commandment goes on and on, specifying that neither you, nor your son, your daughter, your slave, your livestock, or the resident alien are to work on that day. It probably adds these details because Israel was so tempted to break the fourth commandment! We are too. There’s money to be made! Can’t we just rest in the morning and work in the evening? Can’t I just check a little email while I watch sports? What about the people who work for me, can’t they get in some extra hours? And God says, no. Even God rests on the seventh day. God works rest into the very rhythm of creation. To fail to rest is to disrespect the way everything is made, as if you or I are more important than God. If even God could take a sabbath and the world didn’t disappear, surely you and I can take one!
I don’t have to tell you how seldom this commandment is obeyed. With technology many of us have a computer in our pocket all the time. Even when we’re at a table with friends, at red lights, having a conversation, we’re checking email—that is, we’re working. The promise of technology has always been that it’ll free us up for more leisure. When machines do our laundry or dishes we’ll talk to our kids more. But instead technology keeps us working, or feeling guilty for not working, every hour. So take a Sabbath from technology, email, smartphones. Talk to your spouse, your parents, your kids, the lonely neighbour. Put aside the work for 24 hours. You’ll not only come back refreshed. You’ll not only be more productive the other six days, and there’s data to show that. If you cut out from work you acknowledge you’re not God. Only God is. That’s the heart of the ten commandments
The fifth commandment: Honour your father and mother, so that your days may be long in the land.” Interesting, the suggestion that honouring parents allows you to live longer. An older saint at my church in Vancouver asked for prayers for her mother-in-law.
I said, Susie how old is your mother-in-law?
She said she’s 108.
When I was in Vancouver to preach a few weeks ago I saw her granddaughter, so I got to ask, hey, uh, is your great-grandmother still living?
Yup. She’s 111, the oldest person in Canada. Wow.
I think one key to living a long time is being Asian. And basing one’s diet on soy instead of butter. More seriously now, an African friend tells me he intends to leave America when he retires and go back to his village in Uganda. Why? You can’t get western health care there, why do it? He said, “It’s the way you treat your elderly here. They are not respected in America. In Uganda I will not have health care, but I will have respect. That’s more important.” Honouring father and mother, like the Sabbath, shows we did not create ourselves. We came from another. Honouring every older person you see is a way of honouring God.
The sixth commandment: You shall not murder. The scripture outlawing these behaviors gets a bad rap. One scholar notes we have to get their tone right. The commands don’t say “do this or else.” They say something more like this: “Seeing that you are who you are, this is the way ahead, the way of being and living in the truth, the way of freedom.” Does anyone remember when you’d go out on a Friday night your mom hollering after you, “Remember who you are?”
You must not murder. God gives life. We don’t. God takes life. We shouldn’t. It’s God who judges who lives and who dies. What worries me here is how quickly we Canadians have embraced MAID, which is now the sixth most common way to die in Canada. I know why it’s there: for extreme cases of irremediable suffering. But we’ve seen reports from CBC and CTV of MAID being suggested to people who are poor. Disabled. In pain that isn’t mortal. I’ve bumped into folks planning to die by MAID who really aren’t dying any more than the rest of us, and with the money changing hands from the baby boomers to their kids this worries me deeply. How do we know it’s not murder? I appreciate President Carter refusing further medical care and going home with hospice. Pope John Paul II did the same. That’s not physician-assisted suicide, it’s just recognizing death is imminent and not fearing it. There’s deep integrity there. But offering MAID to those who fall through the gaping holes in our medical and social welfare systems? The sixth commandment would like a word.
The seventh: You shall not commit adultery. The primary marriage in the Bible is that of humanity to God. This is why no one has to be married to be a full person: we’re all married to Christ. Singleness is great. For God is our true bridegroom, we, the church, are the bride. And God is always faithful to us. When we humans go worshipping other gods the Bible often accuses us of, you guessed it, adultery. That’s the primary reason to be faithful to our spouse. To do so tells the truth about God: that God is always faithful, for richer or poorer, for better or worse.
There was a story in Vanity Fair or Esquire or some similar place decades ago with the title “Want misery? Try adultery.” The author said they thought sneaking around would be fun and sexy. Instead they ended up lying to everyone they cared about, including the new person in their life. The commandments have a reputation of trying to take away fun. Actually they’re trying to keep you from sorrow. If Esquire can say this, why don’t we in church?
Every time I hear of a couple that’s been together for decades I think wow, what a picture of what God is like. I met a widower who’d just lost his wife of 69 years. He said, “I met that girl when she was 16 and I have loved her every day.” To use the kids’ lingo, that’s hot. How much more beautiful and to be desired than some fling. GK Chesterton said, “any marriage is more interesting than any romance.” Romance is frivolous and fun. Marriage is a running argument about how to load the dishwasher, how to raise the kids, deal with the difficult neighbour. How to love. There is nothing better. Or hotter. Except maybe singleness, to show Christ is the only spouse we need.
The eighth commandment: You shall not steal. All the commandments presume a positive. This one, not to steal, presumes that we give to each her or his due. Not only should we not steal from someone, we should regard every person as a neighbor, and see to it that their needs are met, they are safe, well-fed, loved. One striking thing is to imagine how hard it would have been to steal from Jesus! He had, it appears, nothing, though some wealthy women seemed to have bankrolled his ministry. The disciples had a money bag, but they gave it to Judas, not exactly the most prudent business decision. Friends of mine grew up as missionaries in Brazil in the favelas, some of the world’s biggest and most dangerous slums. Asked how they did it they say it’s easy: you just can’t own anything you don’t mind walking off. To steal is to fail to trust in God’s providence. God has given us all we need to worship him and love others. To steal is to suggest God has not been gracious. And that’s true if we steal a loonie or millions.
The ninth commandment: You shall not bear false witness. That is, you shall not lie. I suppose this is why the commandments show up in courtrooms—it sounds like the oath before testimony. Sure enough, a system of justice depends on truth-telling. But I wonder if the presumption isn’t more important for us: not only shall you not lie, you will speak well of others. Let us all be caught speaking of others in the best light possible. The Buddhists have a three-fold test to determine whether to speak or not. They ask, is it true? Two, is it necessary? Three, is it kind? If a word fails on any of the three, then silence is better. The point is this: God gave us language to love one another. We should use it to build up and not to hurt, not undermine another’s reputation.
Finally, the tenth commandment: You shall not covet. Now you may feel like you’re off the hook on this one—no one here likely covets your neighbours slave, ox, or donkey. But then again our entire economy is built on coveting. It’s called advertising. They make billions to convince us we need stuff we don’t. Dave Ramsey says of our credit card culture that we buy things we don’t really want with money we don’t really have to impress people we don’t really like. Søren Kierkegaard said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”
I have it on good authority, though I’ve never been able to find it, that CS Lewis himself said our modern global economy would fall apart if we all obeyed the 9th and 10th commandments. That is, if we didn’t lie and didn’t covet (hello advertising!). It can be scary how apropos the Bible is to our day. No wonder we prefer to spiritualize it, make it about heaven and hell and not our life now.
You all hear these commandments in this lovely sanctuary this morning, but God’s people first heard them in the desert, on the mountain, which shook with thunder, lightning, smoke, and cloud. Impressive. But I wonder whether they followed them any better than we do. In fact, I don’t have to wonder. They didn’t, despite the visual effects. The very moment Moses came down the mountain with the ten he saw the people worshiping a golden calf and cavorting in pleasure, violating the first, second and, seventh commandments and probably a few more. We’ll hear more about that next week. If we hold these ten up before ourselves we won’t make it to lunch before we’re tempted to break half of them. These commandments hold us still before Jesus. They show us just how far we fall short. And they point to a saviour, the same one whose finger first carved these commandments, now nailed to a cross. Friends these ten words are the true way to life, and their way to life is by pointing us to the cross. Take these words, treasure them, teach them to your children, live by them. For they mark the way to Jesus. Amen.