Exodus 20: Living with the LORD - 19th October 2014 - Dave Walker

Bible reading: Psalm 119:1-16                                                                     

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Those are pretty amazing words from Psalm 119 that we’ve just read. “I rejoice in following your statutes, as one rejoices over great riches… I delight in your decrees.” I don’t think we get God’s law, do we? Not like that. We don’t find laws exciting in general, and that’s true of God’s law too. The British are famed across the world for being law abiding, but even we have a pretty dim view of the law in this day and age. That phrase “law abiding citizen” tends to have a sarcastic edge to it. Our heroes tend to be law breakers, or at least law benders, rather than simply law keepers. We don’t find keeping the law exciting. And I think that’s true for us as 21st century Christians too. Today we’re going to be looking at the Ten Commandments, and that’s one of the most familiar parts of the Bible, one of the bits you’re most likely to remember. But it’s probably not what you’d see as one of the most exciting parts of the Bible. We might struggle to say with the Psalm-writer “I’m thrilled with these laws, like I might be thrilled if I came into a massive amount of money.”

I think the reason for that is that tend not to read these laws in the way they should be read. We tend to rip them out of the story of Exodus, we read them on their own, we see them as a stand alone thing “the Ten Commandments”; we write them on the walls of church buildings instead of reading them as part of God’s story. And if we do that they just become rules to us. And rules might be useful, but they’re hardly exciting.

Today I want us to see that this law of God is not just about rules, it’s about relationship with God. It’s about knowing and living with the God who loves his people. To understand that we have to see how these laws fit into their context. We need to remember where we left off last time, back in July, when we finished looking at the first half of this book of Exodus. It was an amazing story of rescue – God has saved his people from slavery in Egypt and brought them to himself. Like a hero who slays the dragon and gets the girl, God has defeated the enemy and saved his people for himself. For total exclusive relationship with himself. Covenant relationship. That’s already happened. That’s where we begin today’s reading (p.77).

Exodus 20:1-21  And God spoke all these words:  2 "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  3 "You shall have no other gods before me.  4 "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,  6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.  7 "You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.  8 "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.  9 Six days you shall labour and do all your work,  10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.  11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.  12 "Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.  13 "You shall not murder.  14 "You shall not commit adultery.  15 "You shall not steal.  16 "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.  17 "You shall not covet your neighbour's house. You shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour."  18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance  19 and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die."  20 Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning."  21 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

So if the LORD has saved his people for exclusive, covenant relationship with himself, then these laws are not just rules, they’re marriage vows. In fact they’re very personalised marriage vows because these laws themselves are a revelation of God’s character. They’re not a random selection of laws, a few good principles to help you get on in life, no, these are drawn up specially to show what God is like. The first couple of verses set it all up for us: And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” We always think of these as the Ten Commandments don’t we? They’re even called that in the little subheading in our Bible version. But they’re never called that in the Bible itself. In the Bible, like in verse 1 here, they are the ten words. And in the Bible, God’s words are windows on his character. These ten words are all about God declaring to his people “I am”. “I, the God who has saved you, am this sort of God. So this is how you live with me.”

Let the words of the Law show you your God.

Do you see? It’s relational. Deeply relational. It’s God showing himself to his people. If we ignore the context then we miss all of that. If we rip these out of context, then these ten commandments become just about trying to be a good person, just moral principles, just rules. So that, well, either we start to ignore them because well we know that Christianity is really about relationship with God, and so, we feel, rules have little part to play in that. So we sideline his laws. Or we become fixated with the laws themselves; perhaps achieving trainspotterish attention to detail in our standards for living, but missing out on the relationship. Moral people who don’t know our God. Or at best we hope that our good moral performance might buy us some standing with God. Either way that’s no good. That’s not relationship with the God who saves his people for himself.

You only have to have a quick listen to Jesus in the gospels to see what he thought of the sort of person who thinks that they’re doing ok morally but have no living relationship with God. Jesus had a way of exposing their hypocrisy, and pulling the rug away from under them. He was similarly dismissive of those who claimed to know God but had no interest in obeying his words. In the Bible relationship with God and obedience go together. Always. Trust and obey. There is no other way. These ten words, this law, is all about real, functioning relationship with the God who saves his people.

Let these words show you your God. If you’re someone here today who hasn’t yet become a follower of Jesus, please make sure you hear this. My prayer for you is not that you would become a more moral person. If that’s all that you get from studying God’s law like this, that’s a great shame. My prayer for you is that you too would be someone who has been saved by this wonderful God. Someone who can call this God your God.

So let’s have a go at reading the law like that, shall we? Let’s look through these commands in their context, listening carefully to what they show us about our God, the God who saves.

It’s totally clear in the first commandment, isn’t it? Verse 2 again: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” I, only I, am the God that saved you, says the LORD. So don’t go after any other. Well of course not. If the people understand and remember who God is and what he’s just done for them, there’s no way they’ll go off after any other God, is there? He’s just rescued them from Egypt, crushing their enemies, saving them from death. What other god has done that? None. What other god could do that? None.

The first commandment is telling us to learn the lesson of how incomparable God is. He is the saviour. He and no one else. If we remember that, there’s no way we’ll go off in search of something else massively inferior.

Of course the tragedy is that we do forget, don’t we? Sin always does that. Sin compartmentalises, it chops reality up into tiny bits and puts those bits in little boxes, none of them connected to the rest. Temptation is most effective when we forget the big story, when we forget the wonderful things God has done, his saving acts for us in Jesus and we just home in on that one little thing that is tempting us. That’s when we’ll fall. That’s when we’ll turn away from the God who is to go after a nothing.

Remember how incomparable God is. God has proved himself to be the one who saves. He did that for the people he saved from Egypt, he has done it for us by defeating our greatest enemies – sin and death itself – through the death and victorious resurrection of Jesus. The apostle Paul tells us in the book of Ephesians that when Jesus rose from the dead he was placed “Far above all rule, authority, power and dominion.” The risen Jesus has no rivals.

We know that don’t we? Just consider the alternatives for a second. Other gods do not match up. Whether that’s religious gods, Allah the god of Islam, who sets his people an innumerable list of laws which they must keep in order to be saved, like climbing up a really, really long ladder, and even if they do there is no assurance whatsoever that he will accept them. Or secular gods: human progress which wages war on disease and death but is powerless to stop something really big like Ebola, or human evil, or the affluence and comfort which we seek but which falls apart all so easily when relationship breakdown or serious illness come along. None of these things are a god that saves. They are no gods at all. The living God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has no rivals.

And so he will accept no rivals. He wants us for himself, exclusively. That gets underlined in the next command about the idols. Idols, whether they are representations of God, you know “I like to think to think of Jesus like this” our ideas of him as opposed to what he has said in the Bible, whether it’s that sort of idol or something or someone else which takes that place of supreme importance for us, that thing or that person which we simply could not live without, the thing which would cause our lives to fall apart completely were it taken away. Either way, idols are an abomination to God because he wants us for himself. He will accept no rivals for the place of God in our lives.

That’s what is meant by that expression in verse 5 “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.” We find that difficult, because we think of what it means for us to be jealous, and we think “how can God be like that?” By jealousy we tend to mean “wanting something we can’t have” which is what the Bible calls ‘covetousness’, and which God talks about plenty in these laws a bit later on. No, God being a jealous God means that he is a God who loves intensely. Who wants us for himself. Who hates it when we are lured away by some other lover. This sort of jealousy is just the flipside of real love, isn’t it? This God is not an impersonal unfeeling life force, a watchmaker who makes the machine and then leaves it to run its course while he goes and does something else. Who writes the rules and then just watches like an umpire or a referee. This God loves, he loves deeply, he loves exclusively. He has demonstrated that already in the lengths he has gone to to save his people. So now, if we’re saved, he doesn’t just want from us obedience does he? Obedience doesn’t require relationship. He wants us to be faithful. Faithful like a husband or wife. Idolatry is spiritual adultery.

Do you see again how these laws only make sense if you have already been brought into relationship with the living God? Then they make sense. A relationship like this must be exclusive. Like marriage – when people get married they make that promise “forsaking all others”. It’s just how it is. Any less wouldn’t be marriage. Of course breaking those promises is possible; sometimes married people do not forsake all others, they have affairs. But when they do it’s disastrous for the relationship. It has massive consequences; everything is broken. When people turn away from the true God in pursuit of some rival it is disastrous. Disastrous for the relationship with God and, because relationship with God so foundational, it’s disastrous for almost everything else. That’s what the stuff about the third and fourth generation is about. “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those that hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my laws.” God doesn’t attach that threat to any other commandment, he puts it here. This sort of relationship-breaking has a knock-on effect. Sin goes further than we think. We know that from Adam & Eve, don’t we? They broke relationship with God and it mucked everything up, not just for them, for their descendants too. We know that from day to day experience with divorce. When a marriage breaks down because of sin it’s not just the couple themselves that suffer. The children do too. The grandparents too. Relationship breakdown is disastrous. God warns us of that here. If you really want to love your kids, make sure you love the LORD.

The law of God is all about God showing us himself so that we can continue in our relationship with him. That relationship remains central in all the rest of the laws. Third and fourth commands are just the same. “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God…” “Remember the Sabbath day…” Both relational. Misusing the name of the LORD your God, taking the LORD’s name in vain, what’s that? We tend to think of think of swearing; saying “Jesus Christ!” or something like that. But it’s much more than that. Literally it means “You shall not carry my name into worthlessness.” It’s about the way we carry his name. How do we carry God’s name? Think of the baptism last week. When we become followers of Jesus God writes his name on us: “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” We carry his name. He stakes his name on us. Again like a marriage – since that fateful day 12 years ago Sarah has carried my name: Sarah Walker. So now she can bring either honour or disgrace to the name of Walker. The people of Israel were known as the people of the LORD. They carried his name; the way they lived made his name either a sweet perfume or a nasty stench. So with us, we who are believe are Christians. We can bring either honour or disgrace to his name. You shall not carry his name in a worthless way. Sabbath is about trusting God. It’s trusting God enough to rest on him; not depending on our work and our effort but resting on him. It’s relational.

And actually as you go on through the rest of the laws you see the same pattern – the things God commands are reflections of the God he is and the sort of relationship he has brought his people into. Honouring your father and mother fits with living with a God who is a father to his people, who has called us to love him and to love each other, and that love begins at home. Not murdering fits with a God who is the giver of life, a God who alone has authority over life and death, as he had displayed in Egypt, especially in the Passover. Not committing adultery fits with a God of faithful covenant love. Not lying fits with a God who is the truth. Not coveting fits with a God who is the provider, and who is sufficient for his people.

Do you see? These laws are beautiful because they are all about God, and they flow from his goodness. These laws carry weight because they’re all about God and breaking them makes you answerable to God. It’s all built upon who he is.

So here’s a challenge for this week: read through these ten words, these Ten Commandments, and as you do so, ask God to help you to understand him better from them. Pray them through. As you read each command, ask “What does this command show me about God my Father?” And, more so, ask “what does this command show me about Jesus my brother?” Because Jesus is the only human to have ever kept God’s law fully. These words are a picture of God as we see him in Jesus. Spoken by God the Father, lived out in practice by God the Son.

Let these laws fuel your devotion to this incomparable, passionate, generous, truth loving God, who we see in Jesus Christ. He is the God who saved his people from Egypt. He is the God who, if we trust in Jesus, we have the privilege of calling our God.

And as we focus on God’s goodness and his love for us in Christ, it helps enormously with the day to day business of actually obeying what he says. Because when deep love undergirds the relationship like this, obeying becomes a privilege rather than a chore. The best picture I can think of for this is how we feel about obeying loving parents as we grow a bit more mature and see how deeply they loved us. I have been very privileged to grow up with parents who loved me deeply. They issued commands, yes. They told me to do things and not to do things, they laid down laws, they made rules. And sometimes I didn’t want to obey those rules. But as I matured a little, I came to see that they came out of deep love. Obeying parents that love you is a privilege. I can see that now.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you have a God who loves you. He’s demonstrated that by giving his precious, perfect son to save you from the land of slavery, from sin and death itself. He loves you fiercely, faithfully, exclusively. Obeying a God like that is a privilege. If we can see that, well maybe we too can start to pray what the Psalm writer prays:

Psalm 119:12-16  Praise be to you, O LORD; teach me your decrees.  13 With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth.  14 I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches.  15 I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.  16 I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.