Preached by Rev. George Yando on March 4, 2018.
The Old Testament lesson we just read recalls God’s giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses. Whatever happened to the Ten Commandments anyway? In asking that question, I’m not talking about the tablets of stone upon which they were written, but rather, the words themselves, the decrees God delivered on that mountaintop so long ago and so far away. What has happened to them in our day? Once in a while you’ll hear someone trot out one of them to support an argument or to chastise an offender with a rebuke, “Shame on you! Don’t you know that goes against the Fourth — or the Sixth — or the Ninth Commandment!” But what of the Ten Commandments as a whole?
Do the Ten Commandments really figure anymore in the lives of average people? Many church members would have difficulty reciting them at the drop of a hat. Many more people outside the church would scarcely know what we are talking about. Granted, many of our older church members will recall having memorized them from the catechism in preparation for Confirmation.
But educators nowadays both in the school systems and in the Christian church seem to shy away from learning by rote. (I may be in trouble with school teachers and Christian educators alike when I say this but I think in some ways, our children are poorer for it.) Nevertheless, the larger concern in our time together here is with the serious diminishing of the influence of the Ten Commandments upon moral living. It begs the question: What happened? What are some of the underlying reasons for it?
First of all, some people find the Ten Commandments to be uncongenial to the lifestyles that have been adopted by so many these days. There’s an old story told about how, as Moses came down from the mountain, carrying the two stone tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments, Joshua ran up to Moses and asked, “Well, how’d it go?” Moses replied, “Well, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is I got him down to 10. The bad news is adultery’s still in.”
I’m not sure whether the punch line of that story provoked a smile or a chuckle, but when I’ve told it on other occasions, it’s often prompted both. In a way, it’s cute, funny. I suspect however that if the same story had been told from the pulpit eighty or a hundred years ago, there would probably have been more people frowning than chuckling. The very fact that we’re tempted or even moved to laugh at the punch line is, I think, the result of an insidious moral laxity pervading our society, one that trivialises these injunctions, commandments serious enough in God’s estimation to warrant carving them in stone, insisting that people obey them for their own good or ignore them at their peril.
The popular emphases of our day are currently upon the positive. By contrast, the Ten Commandments seem so negative, laden as they are with all of those “Thou shalt nots.” Our age responds more far readily to free expression; as a consequence anything that smacks of repression just doesn’t sell.
Our forebears lived in an age of discipline, whereas today almost everywhere, authority is suspect. Freedom of choice and creativity are good; discipline on the other hand carries with it a whole freight-load of heavy-handed negatives. Mistakenly, many people today feel that Christianity means only being against things, be they certain values and attitudes, behaviours and lifestyles. Consequently, people aren’t so clear about what Christianity is for. The Ten Commandments seem to be incompatible with the present-day lifestyles of many people.
Secondly, the Ten Commandments fall today on the deaf ears of a generation which no longer feels the claim of a moral order upon them. Unless I miss my guess, the attitude of a large segment of people toward the Ten Commandments nowadays is simply a matter of “So what?” And perhaps we ought not to be surprised. Maybe that kind of a reaction is to be expected from a generation that has for the most part pushed God out of their world and out of their lives. The Russian religious philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev once remarked, “Man without God is no longer man.” In effect, Berdyaev is saying, humankind without God is reduced to “animalkind.” Is he overstating the case? Not of you ask the survivors of genocide in Sudan or Rwanda, or Kosovo, or the Nazi death camps of the Second World War.
And notice as well how modern literature and television reflects increasingly the thinking of a generation warming to the possibility of a universe without God, or at best a one in which God and the world are identical everywhere and in everything. From that kind of a world view, however, less and less good emerges, and hence, “So what?” becomes the popular, acceptable moral stance.
The grim reality is that many people today have lost any concept of a Being who loves us and therefore has a moral claim upon us. So if nothing matters and no one cares, there is no feeling of the pull of any ultimate meaning to life. There is no rationale whatsoever for the Ten Commandments in an outlook such as that.
Thirdly, our idea of Christian love has been reduced to the level of sentimentality. Love has been taken over by one or the other of two modern concepts. There is the notion we find in the secular culture that suggests Love is a matter of emotion only; it has no depth, no fibre, no substance, no lasting quality. Then there are some who promote the idea that love is something without any cost. It’s merely a mushy, good-neighbour kind of feeling. Both of these understandings of love however, are sadly lacking and just plain wrong.
For love to rise to the level of that modelled by Jesus, it must involve caring, justice and a reaching out to others — sometimes at a fearful price. Otherwise it is simple sentimentality without any ethical framework.
That’s where the Ten Commandments come in. They supply a kind of road map for living, and the Gospel of the New Testament gives us the will and the spirit to abide by them.
Remember Paul’s dilemma, the one he wrote about in Romans chapter 7: “For I do not the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do . . . Who shall deliver me? . . . Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ!” It’s too easy to say off handedly, “God loves you, and so do I,” to say it with little regard for the consequences of such a daring admission. Frankly, the Ten Commandments call us instead to declare, “Since God loves us we should love God and our neighbour as ourselves.” And that kind of love demands heart and soul and strength and mind — dimensions of attitude and action we far too easily avoid or neglect.
So on what basis then can a case be made for the Ten Commandments? Simply this: In the Ten Commandments we have two basic principles underpinning our religious lifestyle, namely our accountability to God and, our accountability for our neighbour.
With regard to the first, our accountability to God, the Ten Commandments are essential to resolving the way we mishandle life’s priorities. Note how the Commandments begin: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Every one of us worships something. But it is to our peril when we give our allegiance to any but the One, True God. Our besetting sin becomes idolatry.
Once upon a time we criticized the heathen in their blindness for their bowing down to images or idols made of wood or stone. But by definition, idolatry is the worship of anything other than God. The idols that would claim our allegiance today are money, class, power, success, prestige, security, all those other things that would demand our devotion. But for every Christian, God must have first place, or else God has no place. Whatever we value most in life will be what we worship, and it is by this choice that our conduct and character are determined.
Moreover, this God we worship is not some unknown being. We see God in the face of Jesus Christ. As one theologian put it, “God always was what he was in Christ Jesus.” And through Christ, God sought to bring the world back to Himself, a world filled with people that have broken His laws and put themselves first. The Ten Commandments declare our basic need then to be accountable to God, because of Who God is and what God has done for us.
The Ten Commandments also outline our second priority: our accountability for the whole of humankind. The first four commandments spell out our accountability to God; the next six embrace our duty to other human beings. And these last six aren’t just social suggestions with no greater moral claim upon us than, “Be kind to the elderly, kids and pets.” Rather, they are really the outgrowth of the first four. In other words, the quality and meaning of our worship of God find their results in the way we treat other human beings. That is to say, if our worship of God is half-hearted, than our service to other people will be no better. There is little point in being concerned about what’s the right thing to do if we don’t have the will to do it.
And that’s the ultimate contribution Christianity brings to human existence, namely, that in and through Christ we receive the power to perform what the Commandments urge us to do and to be. It is why our services of worship conclude first with a Commissioning, a command concerning how we are to leave and to live in our going out from worship, and then with a benediction, a reminder of the promise of the power that goes with us, and helps us to fulfil that command in our living and in our loving.
To those who would argue that the Ten Commandments have become passé, irrelevant, powerless to impact the self-indulgent, carefree and creative independence of free thinking individualistically-minded modern folk, Christians are compelled by conviction to assert otherwise. The commandments of God were given to provide a moral, ethical and even yet today, a legal framework for compassionate, respectful living that recognizes the call to live as faithful stewards of God’s creation, loving God and loving all that God has created, includes one’s self, one’s family, and one’s neighbours.
The Ten Commandments give us a window on the heart of God, a glimpse into the nature of God and God’s desires and purposes for our relationship not only with God, but also our affiliation with the rest of the human race. As such they are an expression of divine wisdom that is timeless, and as relevant today as ever.
God’s covenantal promises were not limited to the pact God made with Israelites, those to whom God first delivered those divine decrees. They are for all, those of every tribe and nation. God has promised to those who would honour God as God, that God’s presence would go with them and remain with them always. Moreover, God has not only promised to go with us in our living and in our loving but God also empowers us to live and love as we are so called. We are blessed that we might be a blessing to others. God binds up the brokenness in our lives so that in turn, we become the means by which God binds up a broken world. This is our faith, this is our calling. We have no higher priority. Thanks be to God.