Working Preacher’s introduction to the Ten Commandments series can be found here. RevGal Julia Seymour’s introduction to the series can be found here. And this week’s passage (plus the two preceding verses) can be found here.
In theory, we are ready to preach the “first table” of the decalogue this week (in Hebrew, there is no designation of “ten commandments;” the Exodus 20:1 simply tells us that God “spoke all these words”). These are the words/ commandments concerning our relationship with God, and our relationship with God has been put into context by last week’s passage. At the risk of redundancy, the relational aspect of these commands cannot be stressed strongly enough. If one function of our preaching is to help God’s people come to maturity of faith, it is essential that we move from a focus on rules and prohibitions to a sense of individual and corporate openness to God’s claim on us, and our response to that claim. It is possible, therefore, to see the first table of the commandments as describing a putting down, or letting go, of anything that would interfere with that openness.
Exodus 20:3: you shall have no other gods before me.
We tell children about the storm-gods and the war-gods that were worshiped and revered by ancient peoples, and it is comforting to think ourselves as having evolved beyond such childish notions. It is less comforting to notice the many gods we still serve. In Colossians 3 we come across the verse, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).” Anything that interferes with God’s primacy in our lives is, in fact, another god. It is relatively easy to identify other people’s gods- money, power, position, sex, possessions, mind-altering substances. Any pastor who is paying attention can probably name a dozen or more gods held dear by her congregants. Therefore, a necessary spiritual exercise for anyone preaching this passage would seem to be spending some time identifying our own gods. Try completing this sentence with brutal honesty: “I confess that _______ is my god.”
Exodus 20:4-6: You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
We serve a Creator-God who is still creating, and to be made in God’s image is to participate in creation. Many of us have experiences of God that are mediated through God’s creation: awe at the beauty of a waterfall or sunset, spine-tingling terror during a powerful storm. Nature has the ability to tune our attention to God. But to make an idol for worship, in a sense, is to worship in precisely the wrong direction. We are warned against worshiping our own creations because, in truth, we end up worshiping ourselves, our own cleverness and artfulness. Again, preachers should ponder those things of their own creation that thrill them- even, alas, our sermons.
Exodus 20: 7: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
As children many of us learned this commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” which I still find a useful formulation. To ‘take something in vain’ is to use it for no good purpose. It is a waste of breath. It is a waste of the Name, which is treasured in Hebrew scripture and in Jewish practice to this day. My seminary was located across the street from Jewish Theological Seminary, where, we learned, there is a repository (called a genizah) for all seminary-generated paper printed with the name of God. The Talmud Tractate Shabbat prohibits the destruction of anything bearing God’s holy name; such items are to be given burial in the earth. Until that burial, they are kept in genizahs.
Such care with God’s name has slipped away from many (though not all) Christians. Try this: imagine using the name of a person you deeply love in the way we or others often use God’s name. If we wouldn’t use the name of a cherished child, parent, friend or spouse that way, perhaps we can unlearn the habits that permit us to use God’s name ‘in vain.’
Exodus 20:8-11: Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
The commandment to honor the sabbath may be the place a preacher can get the greatest foothold in helping our people move from understanding the commandments as rules to understanding them as foundations for relationship. We are told to honor the Sabbath (which, for Christians, has moved from the seventh to the first day of the week, in light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ) and to keep it holy– in Hebrew, a word meaning “set apart.” The sabbath is to be set apart for God, but also for us. The rationale for Sabbath presented in Exodus connects it to God’s act of creation followed by rest. The rationale in Deuteronomy (6:15) focuses on God’s rescue of God’s people from slavery. In Rolf Jacobson’s words, “The Sabbath was the first fair labor law.” Again, as preachers, it would be a good preparation for this sermon to ask ourselves: how do we honor the sabbath? DO we honor it, doing this work in which, so often, overwork is a source of pride?
Early on I said we are ready to preach the first table “in theory.” It’s my hope that we- that I- can prepare to preach this sermon with more than exegetical work, but with real soul-work.
How about you? Please share your thoughts, responses, plans, etc. in the comments. And blessings upon you in your study, reflection, and sharing God’s good news.