The Gift of Rules

Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, March 8, 2015

Preaching the Ten Commandments is a unique challenge. The task of preaching is to help people understand the Bible more completely, so they can live a life guided by the message of the Bible. What could be clearer than the Ten Commandments? And what could a preacher hope to say about them that will make them any clearer?

We know that they are in the news sometimes. There was that judge in Alabama who commissioned a monument of them and had it placed in the Alabama Judicial Building. Later a federal judge ordered that the monument be removed. The judge refused and was removed from office. He was later elected the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

He got a lot of popular support and angry reactions from people who firmly believe that monuments like this make us a better nation. And what could be controversial about passage from the Bible common to Christians and Jews? Who would want to take a position against the Ten Commandments? That’s like arguing against Mom and apple pie, right? Well, things are a little more complicated than they might first appear…and I’ve got about another 12 minutes to explain why.

The fact is there is not uniformity across traditions about the Ten Commandments. Both Christians and Jews agree there are ten commandments, but we count them differently. So if you are commissioning a 5,200 pound granite monument of them, say, you have to decide whose version of the numbering to use. For the record, Judge Moore in Alabama’s monument abridged the text, and numbered the commandments in a way not recognized by Jews, Roman Catholics or Presbyterians.

This might seem like nitpicking, but I really believe that the way we choose to number the commandments is significant. And I believe in this case, Jews get it right. Jews regard, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house as slavery;…” as the First Commandment. Now the grammarians among us will say, “That’s not a commandment! No one’s being ordered to do anything in that sentence!” And that’s true, most Christians regard that sentence as something like a preamble; the actual commandments start with “you shall have no other gods before me.”

Here’s why I believe we should start numbering the commandments as Jews do. That simple statement: “I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” establishes a relationship. It gives a context for what is about to follow. The Lord did not impose these rules on the people arbitrarily, the commandments are rooted in a relationship, which God initiates. In fact, this is a relationship in which God has already acted to set the people free, to break them out of slavery. Think about that—most of us find it kind of a paradox that the one who sets us free is also the one who is imposing rules on us.

Think about rules. And if you’re over 30, remember how you used to think about rules when you were a child. I remember hating it when Mom would defend a rule by saying, “Because I said so.” That did not answer my question! That response did not explain or defend what was obviously unfair, unjust and probably unconstitutional! Sometimes Mom would answer “Because I’m your mother.” Which did not explain or defend her decision—because to my 14 year old mind, this decision was indefensible! It just reinforced the relationship she had with me. It was her way of saying, “I put limits on your behavior for your own good. I do this because I love you and want to protect you.”

That’s what God is doing in reminding Israel of the relationship God had established with them even before the Exodus. This rules are a reasonable set of expectations that one’s liberator can make. Perhaps those who are truly hard-core grammarians could image the first commandment this way, “Remember, I am the Lord your God…”

As I read about the controversy around the Ten Commandment monument in Alabama last week I found something that surprised me that I had never noticed before. There are ten commandments; and some people believe passionately that they should be displayed in all courthouses—yet only three of the things mentioned in the ten commandments are against the law! Everywhere in the US murder, theft and perjury are illegal. But the other seven prohibitions: misusing the Lord’s name, idolatry, working on the Sabbath, dishonoring one’s parents and coveting are all legal. Even adultery isn’t forbidden by law anymore.

One of the bars I drive past most days used to have a sign over its door that said, “Rules just slow you down.” And every time I thought about that message I said to myself, “Exactly, that’s a good thing!” I think about a rule like the speed limit. It’s intended precisely to slow drivers down—for everyone’s good. Maybe we need more rules to slow us down. Maybe we spend too much energy doing too many things, and a few well-thought out rules might help us to live more deeply and even more joyfully. That’s what Psalm 19 tells us.

It’s an odd psalm, and one that I have preached many, many times, because the first six verses are all about the majesty of God, who created the heavens, the sky, Sun and stars. I am moved profoundly by the wonders we see in the sky. But every bit as wonderful to the psalmist are the laws, decrees, precepts, commandments and ordinances of the Lord. The rules God has revealed to Israel show not just the Lord’s intention for the people, but also the Lord’s profound concern for their well being. There is delight in recognizing their clarity and the intention that they are presented by a loving, empassioned God, who wants what is best for the people.

Sure, one can look at them as the bar sign says, as just things that slow us down. But one can also learn to honor and value the gift of slowing down.

I want to return to the fact that there are different versions of the Ten Commandments as I conclude my thoughts this morning. It is true that different traditions number the commandments in different ways, though they all agree that there are ten of them. Those who do not count “I am the Lord your God…” as a commandment, have two prohibitions against coveting: we are forbidden from coveting our neighbors’ house and our neighbors’ wives, slaves and livestock. There 10!

There is also a significant difference in the two versions of the commandments that appear in

what we call the Old Testament—there’s the version that Joann read from Exodus, but there is another version in Deuteronomy that has some significant differences.

And that difference revolves around slowing down. In the Exodus version, we are commanded to remember the Sabbath day, “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.” That’s pretty cool, don’t you think? Observing a day of rest every seven days reminds us, shapes our lives to remind us, that God made everything. Because God rested when Creation was complete. We should also rest, and in so doing, we permit God to be God, and trust that God will provide for us even when we don’t have our noses to the grindstone.

Deuteronomy--the word means “second law”--has a different reason in the Ten Commandments for keeping the Sabbath. It says we are to observe the Sabbath day for this reason: “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.”

This reminds us the first commandment, as counted by Jews. This reminds us that God acts in history, decisively to set people free. And that’s God’s desire, that we are not slaves to work, or anything else. It’s telling, I think that we are not commanded to work, but we are commanded to rest, to cease from working. I think God knows people pretty well. And yes, rules just slow us down. And God’s rules are great gifts to all people, they guide us in keeping us faithful, they remind us of who we are—and most importantly, they remind us of who God is. Amen.