Paying Attention to the Ten Commandments

The text for this sermon is Exodus 20:1-17, which contains the Ten Commandments.

Test.  Find a list of the Ten Commandments.  Read them carefully.  When you hear one that you have broken in the last few weeks, you can stop. 

What is going on here?  Why is there not one person among us with their hands raised?  What is that all about? The great church founder in the New Testament Paul himself at one point said that he was blameless under the law and he encouraged other Christians to strive to be blameless, too. Even though he preached we were freed from the law, he still thought that we should be following the law. Have we forgotten this as Christians? Does it matter if we are all saved by grace anyway and God promises to forgive us no matter what laws we break?

Back in the 80’s the Toledo police officers went on strike.  Memory tells me it was less than a day, but for a while there were no traffic officers. Think about it. You could do whatever you wanted on the streets of Toledo. My initial thought was that there would be chaos on the roads, but there wasn’t. I followed pretty much every law and from what I could see, everyone else did, too. I say pretty much, because admittedly there was that red light at Harvest and Talmadge at 10 pm with no one around that I thought, why not? Everyone seemed to agree that day, without having to have police there to remind us that the world is a safer place if all the drivers simply obey the law.

Paul knew what I know you know that the world is a safer place if we all follow the laws. Paul was clear that following these laws do not make us right with God. Only Jesus makes us right with God. Yet, to live a life that God hopes we will live, following these laws is a good place to start. The Ten Commandments are meant to be boundaries for us that define our relationship with each other and our relationship with God. God, who conquered chaos on the first day of creation, gives us these laws so that we can conquer chaos in our lives.

I wonder though, what would have happened if the Toledo police had stayed on strike longer? My guess is that all of us would have begun more often to decide that this or that particular law was not especially important to follow at this or that particular moment. For myself, I have no doubt that cautiously going through a red light on an empty street would be followed by increasing the speed limit by twenty miles per hour on a dry street, followed by quickly zipping down an empty one way street just for a block because why drive all the way around when there is no one around anyway and of course why not park for a minute in front of a fire hydrant. I mean what are the chances of a fire breaking out while I run into that store?

It seems like this is how our human mind works when we are freed from the law. I am not talking about the laws we break by doing horrible things, it is the little ones that don’t seem to matter that we easily justify to ourselves. Should it matter that no one had their hand up at the end of our exercise this morning? I am guessing for the most part you were thinking of “minor” infractions in your own life as I read off the Ten Commandments.

Thou shalt not lie, well I just filled out my taxes, how can you do that and not lie, right? Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, if holy includes worship, which I believe at a minimum it does, than half of our active people at Messiah missed that one by missing worship last week. Thou shalt not use the Lord’s name in vain. If I could get through a day without inserting God’s name into a sentence where it doesn’t belong that would seem a miracle.

Paul thought it mattered. Even though he passionately preached that we are only condemned by the law and that
the law only serves to prove we are hopeless sinners. The most perfect among us will still fall short of being sinless.  Paul preached that we are saved by Christ alone. Yet, in the same letters he laid this out so clearly, he also taught that it mattered how we acted in the world. As children of God, followers of Christ, we should strive to be blameless Paul said and we should grieve when we fall short.

The goodness of laws is that they define our relationship with others. They are a contract, a promise that this is who we will be and we will trust that this is who our neighbor will be. Every day at a traffic light that is green we trust this promise will be kept by all the strangers waiting at the other road in the intersection. We break that promise when we turn right on red even though the sign says clearly not to. Chaos may happen immediately when a car hits us. Or the results of breaking that relationship might be harder to pin down. Maybe, a sixteen year old driver behind us sees us turn and figures he can do it too without incident. A month later at that same intersection someone smacks into him when he does this. Laws define our relationship with others. When we break them, even the little ones, ripples of chaos are sent out. It is hard for us even to know where the ripples will end up. Maybe they will wash up on shore. Maybe they will become waves that capsize the boat.

What Paul knew was that while Christ saved us from being condemned by the law, he didn’t free us to live without the law. As individuals, our humanity becomes distorted when we begin to disregard the laws that society has agreed to. We begin to justify our needs before others. It starts as no big deal, and likely that one time was not, yet each compromise, each justification, each rational reason why the law does not apply this time, harms us a little and harms the world just a little, too. It becomes easier to put our needs before others the next time. The ripples of chaos from our life become larger, stronger and cause more damage. We no longer live the life God had hoped. The creation is no longer moving to the hope God has held.

In baptism, God made a promise to each of us to love us no matter what. We can trust God’s promise.  No matter whom we become. No matter how distorted our lives become.  No matter how far from our promises we fall, God will love us. God will continue to love us. God can’t break God’s promises so God can’t stop loving us.

The promise God made to us in the waters of our baptism is answered by our promise to love God and God’s creation no matter what. Take that promise seriously by trusting like Paul that our life is better with these Ten Commandments than without them. There are consequences when we disregard them. Consequences that injure our lives and that injure God’s world.



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