Message Delivered on March 8, 2015
A group of American tourists once listened to a story told by their Jewish guide, Moshe. He claimed that he could explain why Moses came down the mountain with two tablets of stone containing the commandments of God. First Moses met some Kenites and asked, “Do you want God’s commandments?” “What do they say?” asked the Kenites. “Thou shalt not kill,” replied Moses. “Thanks, we will pass,” responded the Kenites. Next, Moses encountered the tribe of Hittites. “Would you like the commandments? asked Moses. “What do they say?” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” answered the prophet. “No thank you. “We will just move on,” retorted the Hittites. Finally, Moses came upon the Israelites. “Here are God’s commandments,” he said. “Would you like to have them?” “How much are they?” they asked. “Nothing. They are free,” answered Moses. “Fine, we will take two,” they replied.
In reality, the Kenites were a clan of the Midianites, who are thought to have been part of Moses’ exiles and later confessed Yahweh as their God. Sinai was a holy mountain for the Midianites before being “discovered” by the Hebrews. Moses met God in a wondrous way atop the mountain. God chose to ally himself with the Hebrews and made an offer. Spokesperson, Moses, extended God’s special favor and the “gift” of the rules of life uniquely to the band of slaves who had made a run for it out of captivity in Egypt. The Hebrews had already experienced God’s favor or they never would have gained their freedom.
God deepened his relationship with Israel by proposing, “You shall be my people and I shall be your God. Giving the “law” to the people constituted a contract, a law that was absolute: Don’t even think about disobeying! A law can be a paritycontract (made between two equal partners to the agreement) or a unilateral contract. It is a law between a much superior party to be subscribed to by a weaker party, which has been aided or rescued by the superior party. In the ancient Middle East, a superior party (a king) might save the hide of the inferior party and the weaker recipient would agree to the terms of the contract out of gratitude.
In the case of the Hebrew refugees, God revealed a grace not capable of human desire or effort. God did not say, “Look what I did for you, now guess what you get to do for me?” God saved them and gave them an additional gift–guidelines for living life and for loving God, for loving those within the community and for loving those who would become Israel’s neighbors. God’s gift and his unique partnership with those in the desert was nothing that could be denied by sane human beings. The God of Sinai was proving himself to be a good ally.
The event of Jesus marked the birth of the new Israel. The pact with God at Sinai, incorporating God’s goodness extended to people in the wilderness, was taken off the shelf. Jesus came to endorse the contract and its stipulations and to elaborate upon them in his teachings. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). What does it mean to love one’s enemies in our culture today? It is not easy for modern Americans to avoid making “graven images.” A man began to lose his commitment to his church over a period of time. HIs attendance waned, he stopped pledging and his occasional checks in the offering plate disappeared. First class letters sent to his home were returned stamped, “No forwarding address.” He was not angry at the elders or deacons and not offended by changes in worship. He had no bone to pick with the pastor. He just did not find church “exciting” anymore. Christianity cramped his style, so he sought more interesting friends and more exciting diversions–and the thrill of less respectable activities. One day he appeared at worship and the pastor said, “You have been gone a long time. Why did you come back today? His answer: “I have missed the morning trumpets.” (Was that a “wake-up call?”) What will it be? A lifestyle without responsibility? A stimulating social life with the local movers and shakers or will it be trumpets in the morning? It is difficult to imagine that God would condemn anyone who must work on Sunday. How does one obey the commandment to observe the Sabbath in an industrialized economy?
What about the commands not to take God’s name in vain, not to steal and not to covet? Some folks observing American culture are concerned about the passing of civility. Jon Alter wrote a piece for Newsweek in which he lamented, “We see vicious politics, abominable manners and a dangerously atrophied civic spirit.” He optimistically believed that people could still say “Thank you” on the bus and “Excuse me” in passing on the stairs. There are still the cell phones that ring at the movies, drivers who exhibit road rage (even the ones with the Christian fish symbols on their bumpers) and the clerk at the checkout counter regards the buyer as if he/she was a robot or inanimate object. What has happened to common courtesy? The commandments are more than the sum of the total, they are guidelines for living in a community. (After 200+ years folks want them removed from court houses and other public places where they serve as a reminder to better living.)
When God is our ally, God’s commandments are not mere “suggestions” as Roseanne Barr once said on her sitcom. They are the backup system for the law written into the hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). We already know the differences between right and wrong. If the gift of the law was not enough evidence for our partnership with God, then there is more: God’s Son died on the cross for us, bestowing the greatest gift of all from our strong ally–entrance into the kingdom where rules will not be needed. For the ancients, graven images were poor divine allies. The God of Moses spoke from the mountain; he did not threaten. God gave the people of Moses a great gift: the gift of the law. If the law were taken seriously, it would go well with the Hebrew people. Nowthe law has been fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus. The law helps us to get along with one another but it cannot save us. Only God’s Son can do that, and praise God, Jesus did!