You know, I’ve got most of this text that we read for today memorized. I never sat down and tried to memorize it. But I know it because when I was growing up, this chapter was read every week by our pastor at church. Each week, he would read out the ten commandments from the pulpit. And each week, sitting quietly in our pews we would absorb these words to the point where they were burned into our memories without us ever consciously learning them.
I don’t think this is the message my pastor was trying to get across at all by reading these out from week to week, but the message I heard was that being a follower of Jesus is about obeying rules. Which were mostly surrounding what not to do. I don’t think I’m the only one that got that message. Most of the friends and co-workers I’ve had, when they found out I was a Christian would say something like, “Oh, so that means you can’t swear or drink or have sex, right?” I would mumble something like, “yeah, I guess that’s part of it…” and confirm my status in their eyes as a major dud or prude or both. Maybe because of the air time they got, it seemed to me that the 10 commandments were read out as an all-encompassing vision of what it meant to live out the Christian life. And frankly, to me, it didn’t seem like all that compelling a vision. Party because a lot of the rules didn’t seem to apply to me—I had never killed anyone, still haven’t. I didn’t have oxen or donkeys or aliens. Up until 8 years ago I wasn’t married so I didn’t have to worry about committing adultery. And the Ten Commandments didn’t seem like that compelling a vision of what it meant to be a Christian because I didn’t want my walk with God to be defined by what I didn’t do. It didn’t seem all that compelling to me to think about following Jesus as making sure I don’t do bad stuff. Is that really what it’s all about? “Make sure you don’t kill or steal from anyone and it's all good? Don’t drink or swear or have sex and it’s all good? If you can not do these things you’re in. If you slip up and do them, you’re out. God may let you back in but you’ll have to feel really bad about it for the rest of your life.” Is that what it looks like to be a Christian?
One other thing I’ve found troubling about this passage is that it seems to solidify the tension that many people feel between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Often we can view the Old Testament God dangerous, out to punish and angry. While we think of the New Testament God as gentle, loving and kind, one who is close. Reading about a God who reveals himself on a mountain shaking and billowing with smoke because of his presence, who gives warnings about what to do to make sure you don’t die in his presence, who then speaks out commands for the people to follow seems to confirm that picture of an angry God who only wants his people to keep in line, or else.
Is that an accurate picture of what’s going on here? Have the people of Israel come out of Egypt only to exchange one harsh master for another? Did God free the people only to make them his own slaves? The people of Israel know what slavery is. They heard these words in the wilderness with the memory of slavery real and near as the wounds from the whips still on their bodies. They all knew people who had been worked literally to death. They all knew what it was for their life to have no worth. They knew what it was like to live under the oppressive power of Pharoah who required their work for his benefit and his alone. Not three months ago God snapped their chains of slavery and set them free. So I know that they had to have heard these words from God in an incredibly different way than how I heard them as a little girl on Sunday mornings. I’d like to try and hear something of what they heard that day.
To get a sense of that, we need to remember what happened in the chapter that came before, chapter 19, because its really important. God gives Moses a message for Israel. He says, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although all the earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The people respond by saying that they want to do whatever God says. Then God says he’s going to come down, he’s going to come close to them, so that the people will hear his voice.
What’s striking about this whole conversation between God and his people is that on one hand it is so tender, so compassionate and gentle. God describes himself like a great eagle, swooping down and rescuing Israel to bring her to himself. He speaks with strength about his desire to make Israel his own treasured possession. Even though the whole world is his, he desires her especially. But on the other hand, God’s presence is dangerous. Protections are needed. The mountain billows with smoke and the ground shakes.
The God we encounter in this passage is a fiery, passionate, good but dangerous lover. And that God needs to be approached in a certain way — but not in the way you think.
A poet named Hafez gives us this advice in approaching God:
All your begging bowls at God’s door,
For I have heard the Beloved
Prefers sweet threatening shouts,
Something in the order of:
My heart is a raging volcano
Of love for you!
You better start kissing me—
You know why he tells us to worship God in this way? He tells us to worship God in this way because we become like what we worship, and God’s love in this story is like a beautiful raging volcano. The dark smoke billowing from the trembling mountain is a picture of the force and power of God’s uncontainable love for his people, so powerful that instructions are needed for the Israelites to make sure they don’t get burned. The smoke and the earthquakes are another expression of the power behind the words of compassion and tenderness that God speaks to his people.
This poem brought together for me the tension I was feeling in the story between the dark, smoke billowing from the trembling mountain, and the 10 commandments themselves, and the words of tenderness and compassion God speaks to his people. The poem invited me to picture this mountain at Sinai literally smoking and shaking with the power and force of God’s burning love for his people. Love so powerful, strong and uncontainable that it was both dangerous and healing at the same time. What if this whole story—God’s sweet words to his people, the smoke billowing up from the mountain like a furnace, even the giving of the 10 commandments themselves are God’s sweet, threatening shout, “Hey, beloved, my heart is a raging volcano of love for you! You better start kissing me—or else!”
Because the truth is, these 10 commandments are descriptions of how to embrace God and how to embrace each other. They’re ways of living into who we really are as human beings—people designed to live in loving relationship with God and with each other. These words aren’t meant to restrict our freedom and flourishing. They’re not meant to be read out as rigid rules of what good people are not allowed to do. The people of Israel were very familiar with rigid rules that restricted their freedom and denied them their dignity. Slavery taught that lesson well enough. They were familiar with what it was like to live under Pharaoh who required obedience no matter what. These 10 Words from God are very different from that. These are 10 Words on how to love and embrace God and one another and in doing that, how to find your true freedom and how to stay free.
Look first together at these first two commandments: You shall have no other gods before me and you shall not make for yourself an idol. These are the words of a jealous lover. They come from someone who desires all of you. God loves all of you. He doesn’t just want part of you. He doesn’t just want some of you some of the time. He doesn’t just want the part of you that is compliant and obedient. He wants all of you because he knows and loves all of you. God wants all of your heart and for you to bring all of yourself to him. Your doubts, your questions, what makes you sad and what makes you laugh. It means he wants your attention, your presence, your heart, your mind your strength.
What about not making an idol? In those days, carving an image of a god had to do with the image acting somehow on behalf of the god or being the gods intermediary somehow. If you wanted to talk to the god, you might need to talk to the god’s image so that it could hear you, for example. But in the second commandment, part of what God is saying is, “I want you face to face.” God says, because you belong to me, because I love you, don’t even think about speaking to me through a piece of wood. I want to hear you without any help from a middle man. I want to talk to you directly.
Keep listening in this way and you’ll hear that the Sabbath command as a call from a Lover to spend time together. God says, "Enjoy me! Rest from your work and delight in my world and delight in me!” Can you imagine someone commanding you to do the thing you most enjoy doing? Hey, you need to go swimming and enjoy the feeling of the water and your body moving in it. Or hey, you need to go into the mountains, and take in all the views. Or, you need to sit down at a table full of people to your favourite meal and slow down and enjoy all the delicious flavours and smells. What a delightful rule! The Westminster Catechism says the main purpose humans exist is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. That is what the Sabbath Rest is all about, our enjoyment of God. What a shame that it’s been so misunderstood. Jesus was often showing people what Sabbath meant, no doubt because he felt passionately that it not be made into a burden of rules and instead that it was for the restoration of life. In the Sabbath command, God is saying you were made for more than work. Your worth is not tied up in what you can produce. No one’s worth is defined that way. You’re not a slave, you are not a machine. God says don’t exchange your freedom for the lie that you are what you produce or accomplish. You were made to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Anything you can do on your Sabbaths to free and invite yourself and others to enjoy God and his world will be a faithful response to this command.
Notice too, how in the commands that follow, God is guiding his people in how to love and embrace others. God is saying, in order to live into the freedom I have brought you, you must give honour, dignity and care to others. These commandments are a way of saying, you’re not allowed to make slaves of others. People aren’t for what you can get out of them. They are made for love.
The freedom that God brought the Israelites into was a freedom to love him and to love others with the same fierce, selfless, passionate love with which he loves us. This same freedom is the one he gives to us. Amen.