March 8, 2015

posted Jun 24, 2015, 11:26 AM by David Hawkins

"A Foolish Covenant"

Old Testament Reading: Exodus 20:1-17

Then God spoke all these words:

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 an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work — you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so 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 male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

New Testament Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

    “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,

         and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Sermon: "A Foolish Covenant"             Rev. David Hawkins

For this season of Lent, we will be looking at both the Old and New Testament Lectionary scriptures, focusing especially on the many different covenants that God has made with his people.

We began Lent with the promise that God made to Noah. In the wake of the flood, God promised that he would never again allow us to be destroyed, regardless of our decisions, regardless of our actions. God would never again set his face against us, and that he would always save us from our own devices. This promise was symbolized by a rainbow, but it was sealed by the coming of Jesus Christ to our world, God, walking, living, healing, teaching among us.

Last week, we talked about God making a promise to Abraham. God told Abraham that he would be a blessing to all the nations, that he would be, not just the father of a people, but the father of all people. And in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, this promise to Abraham was extended and made real to us, even now, today, that we, too, are to be a blessing to all the world.

This week we are looking at another covenant, the giving, and the receiving of the ten commandments.

And while the previous covenants were made with all humanity, this covenant wasn’t made with everyone. It wasn’t necessarily extended to all nations. This covenant is much more specific, and it was made to a particular people. Specifically, it was a covenant made with the Hebrews as they wandered the desert after being freed from slavery in Egypt.  

We tend to think that the ten commandments are somehow handed down without any sort of context, that God simply told Israel that this is how they have to live, and if they don’t, He will smite them. As though the law was somehow simply a thing that God wants, and that the tribes of Israel simply passively accept, without any input, without any dialogue.

And when we think about the law in that way, it’s easy to think that these commandments are set in stone for all the world. That they simply are, in the same way that mountains are, that the ocean is. But there is more to the ten commandments than God simply speaking from on high, and when we forget the  background of the giving and the receiving of the ten commandments, we forget that they are part of a wider agreement between God and Israel.

Our scripture today comes from the twentieth chapter of Exodus, but the context of the commandments begins before that, in chapter 19. There we read about how Moses gathers the people, and reminds them that God has heard their cries for deliverance, that he has freed them from slavery, that he has fed them manna from heaven and given them water from the rock.

And now, it’s time for Israel to make a decision. Do they want to be in a specific, particular covenant relationship with God? God has already moved in mighty ways: do they desire to take their relationship to the next level? Are they ready to be the people of God?

It almost kind of sounds like a wedding proposal doesn’t it? God is asking the Hebrew slaves if for their hands in marriage. I don’t mean to trivialize this but it seems to me like God is saying, “I’ve been good to you, and I promise to be faithful to you. I will be yours forever. Will you be mine?

Now, it seems strange to me that God would make this covenant with the Hebrews slaves. Why not with a powerful country, with an empire? Why didn’t God make this covenant, say, with Egypt? Or Persia?  Why would God choose this ragtag group of wandering slaves, no power, no influence, no prospects? If God wanted his word to be spread to all the earth, why would he choose this people? It seems like a foolish choice. A foolish covenant with a people on the brink of extinction.

But this is the background to the ten commandments. They are aren’t simply handed down from on high. They are part of a larger agreement that begins with God’s desire to be in a particular, unique, mysterious, unexplainable relationship with Israel.

And when we look at them this way, we see that the ten commandments aren’t what keep us in relationship with God. The ten commandments are what relationship with God looks like. They are not abstract laws enforced by a cosmic policeman, judged by a distant, aloof judge high above in the heavens. They are the intimate wedding vows we make to God and to each other when we agree that He is our God, and we are his people.

And when Moses asks the tribes if they are willing to enter into this relationship with God, they say, in one voice, “yes.” They begin a three day period of ritual purification, ending with Moses bringing the commandments down from Mt. Sinai. It is the most elaborate, significant wedding party ever recorded.

But even then, it’s not quite over. In chapter 19, we read about the wedding proposal. In Chapter 20, we read about the wedding vows. In chapter 24, we finally see the wedding ceremony itself. Moses pours sacramental blood on the altar and on the people, and says “this is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

This is the full context of the ten commandments. They are part of an agreement that God’s people have made to live with God. They are not an arbitrary list of ‘Thou Shalt Nots’. They are part of a larger promise to live in faithful community with God. They are God’s expression of love to us and for us, and most importantly, his description of what love in community looks like.

And I wonder what it would feel like if we read them like that.  Not as imperative statements, but as wedding promises.

“If you love me, and if you love one another, then you will not have any God’s before me.” Well, that kind of makes sense. When you get married to someone, the assumption is that person is the most important person in your life. It would be weird if I was married, say, to Karen, but paid more attention to somebody else. Amirite?

“If you love me, and if you love one another, then you will not abuse my name.” When we use God’s name to get our own way, we have usurped God’s place, and we have replaced him with ourselves.

“If you love me, and if you love one another, you will take some time to rest.” God loves us enough to want us to take care of ourselves.

“If you love me, and if you love one another, then you will honor your parents.” God wants our families to get along with each other.

“If you love me, and if you love one another, then you will not kill each other.” Evidently, God is saying that people of God don’t kill each other.

“If you love me, and if you love one another, then don’t sleep with each other’s spouses.” For God, being in relationship, means being faithful.

“If you love me, and if you love one another, don’t steal from each other.” God know that stealing is just going to make everybody suspicious and angry.

“If you love me, and if you love one another, then don’t lie about each other.” God knows that in any community, the social fabric depends on an assumption that people will tell the truth. Don’t lie for your friends, and don’t lie against your enemies. Tell the truth, especially when it counts.

“If you love me, and if you love one another, don’t be envious.” Jealousy will tear any community apart. Jealousy is at the heart of the previous five commandments. Don’t worry about other people’s stuff. Enjoy and take care of what you have.

The ten commandments describe what love looks like, in terms of our relationship with God, and with each other other. The problem is, we have come to see them as a prison, rather than a promise. We have come to look at the ten commandments as an expression of God’s iron will for our lives, rather than as an invitation to live in peace.

And ultimately, we have come to see the commandments as a litmus test of our faith. For some, they have become the means to salvation, rather than the promises of grace. But the commandments were never meant to be a weapon against us, or the measure of our relationship with God. They were meant to show us what a life lived before God might look like.

Every year during this third week of the Lenten season, churches around the world are remembering the ten commandments. I invite all of us today, and for the rest of this time leading up to Easter to consider the invitation that God has made to his people, this wedding invitation to be our God, and for us to live with one another as his people. I invite all of us to see these commandments not as the standard against which we will be judged, but as the vows we make to live as beloved people of God.

This is why Jesus came to us, not as an enforcer of these commandments, but as the culmination of them. Jesus is the bridegroom, come at last to claim us. In him, these wedding vows of God are fulfilled.

These vows may seems foolish to a world that is more interested in self-fulfillment than in self-giving. This covenant made in a desert so long ago may seem archaic and restrictive in our modern world. But this is the nature of our faith. God made these vows to wandering nomads for his own strange and foolish reasons, and in Jesus Christ, he fulfilled these vows on behalf of all mankind. We can’t explain our faith, we can only confess it. It’s not question of wisdom or discernment. It’s question of belief and trust.

And so today, God invites all of us again, to say ‘yes’ -- to say ‘yes’ to a God who comes to us in the desert of our lives, and who promises to be with us, and to save us, and to love us until the end of our days.

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ

we bend our knees

and lift up our hearts,

giving glory to God forever. Amen.