Exodus 20:1-17; The Third Sunday in Lent; March 8, 2015;
Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Creston & Mount Ayr, Iowa;
And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. “You shall not murder. “You shall not commit adultery. “You shall not steal. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”” (Exodus 20:1–17, ESV)
Grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Always the most important thing to understand a given text of Scripture, is to know its context. This is especially true of the 10 Commandments. You can post the 10 Commandments on the walls of any state building you want, but it isn’t necessarily going to mean that the people who read them are really going to understand what God has in mind with them. The context, that is what was going on when God gave them, is critical in knowing what they’re all about.
The 10 commandments are a covenant, that is, and agreement between God and his people. You see it in the first words of our reading today.
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
God rescued his people, the Israelites, from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. He rescued them with “a mighty hand”. You know the account of the 10 plagues that God used to convince Pharaoh to finally let his people go. The thing also to remember, is that they had done nothing to deserve God’s rescue. He claimed them, apart from anything they had done to earn their freedom. It was a gift of God’s grace.
God’s gift of freedom came with expectations. But they weren’t arbitrary. They were also a good gift, a great loving gift. They were a plan for enjoying their identity as God’s creatures and his children. God was saying, “Because I rescue you, you shall live this way.” It’s like a father who says to his children as they walk out the door, “Remember what family you belong to.”
God has those same expectations for you and me. It’s very similar to the people of Israel. God has rescued us from slavery to sin, death, and the power of Satan. He has given us an identity as his children. It is our adoption in Holy Baptism. God makes promises to you and me that are connected to the water in the font. Those promises that come directly from our Savior’s death on the cross. Forgiveness is ours because Jesus takes our punishment as his own. Life is there because Jesus rose from the dead and promises the same for us. Satan has no power over us because Jesus has taken away his greatest weapons, the threat of God’s eternal punishment. That’s what forgiveness of sins bring to us. And again, this is all God’s grace, his undeserved love. He saves us not through anything we have done, or could even do, but simply out of love. It is very important to understand all of that as context for the Commandments. They have been given us to follow, but they don’t determine whether we are his children. They don’t earn any special status with him. We do them because we have a relationship with him that he established. When we keep them, we are showing that we have faith in his word to us. He says, “Do these things and you show that you are my children.” Martin Luther incorporated this idea in his “Close of the Commandments” in the Small Catechism.
God threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Therefore, we should fear His wrath and not do anything against them. But He promises grace and every blessing to all who keep these commandments. Therefore, we should also love and trust in Him and gladly do what He commands.
The grace and blessing come because living according to the commandments will, in general, lead to a well lived, blessed life. As St. Paul wrote to Pastor Timothy:
… godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8b, ESV)
But we should also be aware that the law, especially the Commandments come with a “handle with care” label. While the law is certainly a good and gracious gift from God, our sinful nature twists it about until it is a dangerous thing.
Firstly, we like to apply it to other people. If you hear yourself agreeing with the preaching of the law in regard to someone other than yourself, you are falling into this trap. I most often hear it something like this. “Your sermon was good pastor, but the people who really needed to hear it weren’t here today.” You might have in your mind, “You get ’em preacher!”
But secondly, when we apply the law to ourselves, wanting first of all to keep them because of what God has done for us, we find it bites us and convicts us of our own falling short. I once heard one pastor say it like this: The law is like a wolf that you train as a guide dog. Good guidance, good protection, but you never know when it will turn on you. (James Nestingen) When we seek to keep God’s law and see our failure we end up with great guilt and shame instead of blessing. That’s what happens when with the law we focus on our sinfulness instead of recognizing that Jesus has taken our sins to the cross and the grave. He has adopted us into his kingdom through Holy Baptism. Living according to God’s commands is something that we do, naturally, because of whose we are.
This is what Paul means when he says:
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16, ESV)
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18, ESV)
The power of God is living in the forgiveness of the cross. St. Paul also wrote to another pastor:
He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying. (Titus 3:5–8)
We are heirs, we have forgiveness, and we don’t need the good works of the Commandments for ourselves. We serve best when we look at what our neighbor needs and live according to the commandments for their sake, because of Jesus. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.