A sermon on Exodus 20:12-17 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 27 December 2020
This morning is our third and last message on the Ten Commandments. As we’ve been looking at them, we’ve been guided by Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 21. “Teacher,” he was asked, “which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” He replied,
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
Jesus’ words summarise all the commandments in just two. Love for God and love for our neighbour. Love for God with all our heart. And love for our neighbour as we love ourselves. The first four of the ten commandments detail our love for God. To love him first and to love him only. To not bow down to idols. To treat his name with respect. And to keep his Sabbath day. The last six commandments spell out what it means to love our neighbour. Honour your father and your mother. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not steal. Do not give false testimony. Do not covet.
Notice firstly, that our vertical relationship is the foundation of our many horizontal relationships. We love God because he first loved us. And because we love him, we love our neighbour. In fact, we love them, because he commands it. He commands us to love, because he has made us for himself, he has made us to love as he loves us, and he has made us for each other, to love and to be loved by each other.
Notice secondly, that this love is shown in practical ways. It doesn’t remain an idea. It isn’t just something we aspire to. It is something we choose. It is something we do. Every day, in every way, we show our common humanity with the people we meet by how we treat them.
Notice thirdly, how most of the commandments are put in the negative. The ten commandments are not an exhaustive list of what we have to do. Stand up straight. Stomach in. Shoulders back. And on and on. No, what the commandments do is to set a few simple boundaries which we dare not cross. Within them we have extraordinary freedom. Beyond them are terrible and lifelong consequences. We live like a carpenter in his own toolshed. We have a license to be creative and to make beautiful things from our life, to make other people’s lives better. But there are just a few tools in the shed that are dangerous, and we have to respect them or our life will be short and painful.
The fifth commandment says, “Honour your father and your mother.” It reminds us that the first neighbours we meet are the members of our own family. We honour our father and mother because we know God as our heavenly Father. We honour them by obeying them when we are young and by caring for them when we are older. We honour them by caring for their grandchildren just as they cared for us.
The sixth commandment says, “You shall not murder.” Murder is a kind of stealing. Stealing someone’s life. Stealing the time that they would otherwise have had. Stealing someone’s father or mother or son or daughter. Murder strikes at the heart of the community, robbing it of the trust that holds it together. Murder is always wrong because even when it is done for what seems the right reasons, it is still playing God with someone else’s life.
The seventh commandment says, “You shall not commit adultery.” When I was just a boy reading my Bible I had no idea what adultery was. I just assumed it was something that adults got up to. When I grew up, I discovered that I was only half wrong. But it’s also only half right to think that adultery is a sexual sin. A married person sleeping with another person. But it is more. It is a broken promise. A breach of faith. No other relationship like a marriage mirrors the love between God and his people. Of giving all to the other in an exclusive partnership. In marriage we promise before God our first love, our best love to our spouse. For better for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. Marriage in the real world is often liking fighting back to back against unnumbered enemies threatening to tear you apart. It requires an intense knowledge of and trust in each other. But adultery takes that trust and throws it in the mud and then treads on it. If murder strikes at the heart of the community, adultery strikes at the heart of the family. It is not a victimless crime, but ends up hurting everyone.
The eighth commandment says, “You shall not steal.” Stealing is showing no respect for the difference between what is yours and what is someone else’s. Someone else’s money. Someone else’s car. Someone else’s TV. In my short military career as a Navy chaplain it was interesting to learn that stealing among the ranks is considered the worst of all crimes. In that intense, stressful environment you need to know that your mate has your back. And nothing saps morale like stealing. But it’s true in every community. No one likes being robbed. Even the pettiest theft makes us angry. What the commandment says, then, is treat everyone else the way you want to be treated. You don’t like being robbed. Don’t steal.
The ninth commandment says, “You shall not bear false testimony against your neighbour.” It’s more than just lying, though, of course, lying is wrong. But false testimony is lying in a court case against someone. False testimony is judicial stealing, robbing someone of their money, their reputation, their freedom. False testimony is judicial murder if it takes a life.
The tenth commandment says, “You shall not covet.” To covet is to envy what someone else has so much you want to take it. It is when we covet that we want to cross the forbidden boundaries. We covet, so we steal. We covet, so we murder. We covet, so we commit adultery. The tenth commandment reminds us that it is not being obedient to not steal, to not murder, to not commit adultery, just because we are afraid or don’t want to be caught. As Jesus reminds us in his Sermon on the Mount,
You have heard it said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you, Whoever looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
That is coveting. It is not just an external act but an internal state of the heart. The tenth commandment convicts us all as sinners whose hearts are far from God. And it reminds us that the key to avoiding sin, is not conforming to an external standard like a legal code or community expectations, but creating attitudes of the heart that are in harmony with the will of God, respecting what belongs to other people, being happy with what we have, and working for what we want.
These are the ten commandments. We must remember, however, that there is a big difference between not sinning and doing good. No one ever won a prize for not killing someone. No one ever got a round of applause for walking into a shop and not stealing anything. No one ever got a scholarship for not cheating in an exam. No, people get prizes for saving lives. They get a clap for singing well or winning a game. People get scholarships for coming first in an exam. So don’t go home today thinking that pleasing God is about cautiously avoiding doing wrong. No, love God, live well and do good. When you meet someone, focus on leaving them better than when you found them.
Consider the example of Jesus. He didn’t obey his Father by refusing to join Satan in rebelling against him and staying in heaven. He didn’t save us by keeping himself pure from the evil of the world. He obeyed his Father by leaving heaven. He saved us by sharing our nature, by living as a servant, and becoming obedient to death on a cross. Every knee will bow to him, every tongues will confess him Lord, not for tip toeing through life avoiding sin, but for seeking and saving the lost. Jesus said,
A new commandment I give to you. Love one another as I have loved you. All people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
This is love. This is obedience. It isn’t shown by keeping a bunch of rules, but by treating people the way we want to be treated, by treating people the way that God has treated us in Jesus. It is surrounded by very firm and clear boundaries that we dare not cross. But it is shown within those boundaries in the very active example of Jesus.
Love God. Follow Christ. Live well. Do good.