October 4, 2015
“Commandments and Command”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
5 Moses convened all Israel, and said to them: Hear, O Israel, the statutes and ordinances that I am addressing to you today; you shall learn them and observe them diligently. 2 The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. 3 Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.
4 The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain, out of the fire. 5 (At that time I was standing between the Lord and you to declare to you the words of the Lord; for you were afraid because of the fire and did not go up the mountain.) And he said: 6 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7 you shall have no other gods before me. 8 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. 9 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 fourth generation of those who reject me, 10 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 11 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. 12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. 16 Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God commanded you, so that your days may be long and that it may go well with you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 17 You shall not murder. 18 Neither shall you commit adultery. 19 Neither shall you steal. 20 Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor. 21 Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife. Neither shall you desire your neighbor’s house, or field, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
In the movie the Shawshank Redemption, woven into the narrative of injustice and friendship and redemption, there is also this story of slavery and freedom.
One of the minor characters, Brooks Hatlen, is the prison librarian and one of the oldest inmates in Shawshank prison. Imprisoned in 1905 he spends 50 years incarcerated with guards telling him when he can eat, when he can use the bathroom, when we can work and play, and when he can sleep.
After 50 years this bondage has shaped him, and when he finally gets his freedom, he finds the world a terrifying and unfamiliar place.
He does not know what to do, how to act, how to live, and with nothing to live for, he hangs himself in his little apartment after carving his name in the ceiling beam.
Years later Red, played by Morgan Freeman, gets his freedom after serving 40 years of a life sentence. And he struggles, just like Brooks, and finds himself in the same little apartment.
But the thing that saves him is that he remembers a promise he made to his friend Andy, who escaped from Shawshank (by using a small hammer to dig a hole to freedom which he hid in a Bible which opened to Exodus) — that if he was ever set free he would find something left for him in a hayfield.
He finds what was left for him and then he violates his parole to go meet his friend on a beach in Mexico.
And the final word of the film, as the two friends see one another again and are both free men, is hope.
Dan talked us through this theme of slavery and freedom last Sunday. This is a theme that runs throughout scripture – it is the most defining moment for the people of Israel in their understanding of who they are and who their God is. It is absolutely essential to our understanding of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ.
Because the Gospel is a rescue story – it is a story of enslavement and freedom – we were slaves to sin and death and everything that separated us from God – we were lost and broken and blind – we were hurting ourselves and others – we were alone.
But God in Jesus Christ sets us free. Jesus was enslaved in the tomb and up from the grave he arose – that is the Easter story and it turns out that is our story too.
We were a people enslaved in the darkness and now we walk in the light.
But what comes after freedom? That was the question that the Shawshank inmates struggled with. It is a question that the Isrealites struggled with. We see them, after they have been set free, lost and needy and whiny.
Freedom requires structure, a new identity, a new self-understanding. Freedom requires a new kind of community and new kinds of relationships.
And that is what we see happening in our texts this morning. God says, I am the God who brought you into this freedom and I am making a covenantal promise with you – that I will your God and you will be my people, and here are the commands you need to follow.
I was struggling to figure about how to talk about commands, God’s laws, because first of all, we don’t always like being told what to do.
I will give you a personal example. When I was a camper at Ligonier, we were told we had to do a trust fall. Now I was an 11 year old with, what I would like to call, a sturdy Norwegian bone structure, and I was a head taller than the other girls. So when my college-aged counselor told me I had to jump off a tall post into the spindly arms of a handful of pre-teenage girls, I said no, I would not do it. She said it would be good for me but I knew better.
We don’t always like being commanded to do things.
Second, while we see God’s law talked about throughout the Bible, we get some mixed signals about the purpose of the law. For the Israelites the commands of God are the things that give them identity, that help them live with one another, that establish what justice and forgiveness look like — the law makes them holy, set apart. The law and obedience to it, as individuals and as a community, is the foundation for their relationship to God.
When Jesus talks about the law, he talks about how he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law, and we, as Christians, have struggled to understand what God’s commands mean for us.
Jesus is the fulfillment of the law, does that mean we don’t need God’s commands anymore?
But Jesus always talks about expanding the meaning of the law – there is more to it than just what you do on the outside. It is not enough to simply not murder someone, you also need to not hate them in your heart. Under Jesus, the laws got more challenging.
When we get to Paul, writing in the letter to the Romans after Jesus death and resurrection and trying to spell out what it all means, we get another take on the law.
Paul believes that God’s law is “holy and just and good” (7:12) but also the law causes sin to be known and even incites sin, bringing on God’s judgement. Paul tells us that perfect obedience to the law is not the foundation for a relationship with God, grace is.
So maybe the most helpful way to think about commandments and commands is to think of these, not as things which bind and restrain us, but as things that form us. The basis of our relationship with God is not the law, but grace and freedom. But in freedom we need formation – and the laws of God are the things that form us.
Because of the way the Ten Commandments are recorded first in Exodus and second in Deuteronomy (which literally means “second law”), almost identical in form and wording, we are meant to think of these as foundational. They are the first, they are unchanging, they are separated from the other laws.
There are many, many rules in the Old Testament, over 600, many of which we do not observe as Christians.
But the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue are enduring and relevant and they form a kind of constitutional law.
If you read through these 10 laws you will notice it deals with, in order, responsibility to our God and responsibility to our neighbor.
Here is the beauty of the narrative lectionary – we jump ahead to when Jesus is questioned about the law, and we find that even though he simplified the law down to just two requirements – the point remains exactly the same – what is our responsibility to our God and what is our responsibility to the people around us.
The whole biblical narrative hinges on these two things.
Let’s walk together where we have been.
We have been enslaved, for so long we don’t even know what it is like to be free people.
We have been set free by our God who is a God who rescues us.
And what are we set free for?
We are set free to have a new identity, a purpose, a hope, a calling, a relationship with God and neighbor – and to accomplish all that we need something that guides us and forms us – something we can cling to when we just want to know what we should do – what is the good and right thing to do . . .
Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’
The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”