Scripture: Exodus 20:1-11
Today we begin a close look at the 10 Commandments, beginning with the first 4. Last week we saw the promises of God in the covenant – being a precious possession, a kingdom of priests, & a holy nation. And we saw Israel’s responsibility – obedience. Today we begin to see what that obedience entails.
Israel’s special relationship with God under God’s commandments is rooted in the self-disclosure of God. These commands should be seen not as a series of rules, but as a proclamation from God’s own mouth of who God is & how God is to be “practiced” by this community of liberated slaves. These commands are somewhat abrupt. There is nothing in chapter 19 that tells us that commands are to follow. Israel’s history, however, shows us that God’s self-giving is typically in the form of command. God is known in Torah, or Law; God’s nearness is expressed in right-living.
Read vv. 1-2.
The self-disclosure of God begins with a brief reference to & summary of Israel’s liberation. It begins with I am Yahweh. This phrase is designed to reassure Israel. It also imposes a claim upon the people. The event of the exodus provides the authority for God’s commands, which begin with:
Read v. 3.
This uncompromising demand is voiced in a world of unspoken polytheism. We have always lived in a world of options, alternative choices, & gods who make powerful & competing appeals. It does us no good to pretend that there are no other offers of well-being, joy, & security. In pursuit of joy, the Israelites could choose Bacchus; we can simply choose the right car (or TV or cell phone plan). In pursuit of security, the Israelites could choose Mars; we can choose ADT. In pursuit of love, the Israelites could choose Eros; we can choose E-Harmony. It is clear that these choices are not Yahweh; that these are not gods who have ever performed an exodus or even executed a covenant.
In Christianity, baptism is the dramatic form of making a God choice, where we receive a new name & make promises of following this covenantal faith against any other choices. In Christianity, living out baptism means living by a single loyalty – Jesus – among a mass of options. But do we - really?
Read vv. 4-6.
The second commandment, in its reference to the heavens above, the earth beneath, & the waters under the earth, is of course referring to all of creation. This tells us that nothing in creation is useful in making God visible or available. God’s sovereign mystery is separate from everything & anything in creation. Our propensity to encapsulate God in an image is because we like to attempt to gain control over God for ourselves. Paul wrote of this tendency in Romans 1:20-25: Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – God’s eternal power & divine nature – have been clearly seen, because they are understood through the things God has made. So humans are without excuse. Although they knew God, they didn’t honor God as God or thank him. Instead, their reasoning became pointless, & their foolish hearts were darkened. While they were claiming to be wise, they made fools of themselves. They exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images that look like mortal humans: birds, animals, & reptiles. So God abandoned them to their hearts’ desires, which led to the moral corruption of degrading their own bodies with each other. They traded God’s truth for a lie, & they worshiped & served the creation instead of the creator, who is blessed forever. To imagine that anything in creation could possibly embody the creator God is a result of pointless reasoning & foolish, darkened hearts. The result is false worship based on a lie instead of the truth.
In today’s church (esp. UMC), these powerful words often get side-tracked & related only to issues of homosexuality. The confusion of creator-creation, however, is much more ominous than arguments about sexuality. Human attempts to “image God” by taking creation in our own hands are seen more in the technological abuse of creation & in military exploitation. “God as power” comes into play without recognizing that “God as power” is also “God as Holy Mystery.” The moral corruption men commit with men may be more military & technological than sexual. The prohibition against idols & images has profound implications, for the practice of worshiping idols is never simply a church matter, but always social, ideological, & political. Where the church is soft on idols, it becomes silent on social criticism. (Sunday sports leagues, for example.) Do we worship idols? Have we stood up – individually & collectively – to the use of idols?
Read v. 7.
The third commandment tells us that God cannot be put to use & is never a means toward an end. The idea that the ultimate human purpose is to “glorify & enjoy God” means that God is pure end & never means. Using God’s name mischievously however, is an enormous temptation, because our holy God is vulnerable of being made into a tool for our use.
The threat of this command is ominous indeed. Yahweh will not forgive anyone who seeks to use God for their own purposes, but will hold such persons guilty forever. We are reminded of v. 5: our God is a passionate God. I wonder, do we truly recognize the significance of invoking God’s name?
Read vv. 8-11.
This Sabbath commandment stands at the mid-point between 2 other references to Sabbath in the book of Exodus. The story of manna in chapter 16 shows that rest is possible because God gives enough food. All who gather little or much have equally enough. Chapter 31 tells us that God needs to be refreshed, & therefore those made in God’s image also need refreshment. Sabbath is necessary because of God’s own vulnerability. So, in Sabbath, Israel relies on God’s generosity & participates in God’s vulnerability.
The Sabbath command is given its foundation in the creation story. The Sabbath eventually becomes one of the 2 major distinguishing marks of Judaism. (The other is circumcision.) The importance of keeping Sabbath is shown in Leviticus 26, where it is paired with not making images in order to receive covenant blessings. And in Isaiah 56, keeping the Sabbath is a key marker of keeping the covenant.
Sabbath is critical to the Jews because during & after the exile, they are endlessly at the behest of someone else. Sabbath becomes a way to be distinctive & show loyalty to Yahweh. It is also a statement of protest against economic systems of productivity that never have enough. Judaism, in its covenantal work stoppage, shows that it finds its safety, secure rest & well-being in Yahweh alone.
We must be careful not to confuse Sabbath with a system of restrictions & “blue laws.” Rather, Sabbath concerns the periodic, disciplined, & regular disengagement from the system of productivity where people are used up to exhaustion. Typical disengagement in our day can lead to frantic leisure, frantic consumption, or frantic exercise.
Our challenge: to develop habits & disciplines that break those patterns of behavior. Sabbath is not something to be added on to everything else, but is an intentional breaking with our busy lives. Sabbath may mean terminating some routines, disengaging from social conventions, or even lowering our standard of living. The very concreteness of Sabbath is a sacrament, witnessing to the reality of the exodus & to the lordship of our Creator who can break our tendency for productive activity. The healing of creation, & of our lives as creatures of God, requires disengagement from systems of power & wealth. Sabbath is the daring recognition that with the change in lordship brought about by the exodus, an unrewarding expenditure of labor is no longer required. It is only a bad habit we continue in our disbelieving foolishness. (Jesus told a story about a fool building bigger barns…)
This fourth commandment is a good place to stop for today, for it honors the majesty of God. We have looked at God’s sovereignty, God’s freedom, God’s holy name, & God’s holy time. It also begins to lead us to the next set of commandments; how we live with our neighbor. The affirmation of God’s rest leads to a command about human rest. Sabbath acknowledges the worth & dignity of all creatures, especially human creatures. There are limits to the use of human creatures, & of all creatures, as means to other ends. Sabbath is a day of special dignity, when God’s creatures can simply rest in being loved.
When putting this message together, I was at first tempted to begin by asking if any of us had broken a commandment today or this week. After putting this message together, I am more tempted to ask: Is there a commandment that any of us hasn’t broken?