Freedom and Fulness: Duncan’s sermon on Exodus 20:3-11

Putting God First

Yesterday’s sermon from Duncan was the second of a series reflecting on the ‘10 commandments’ or ’10 words.’  This time, we were looking at the first four commandments – Exodus 20:3-11:

‘You shall have no other gods before me.

‘You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 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 parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 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 male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 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.

Ideally, Duncan said, we’d have a longer series of sermons in which we could adequately cover the ’10 commandments’, but we are following the Narrative Lectionary, which assigns just four weeks for the task. This means that there’s only time to look at the ‘stand-out’ points in the passage.

The commandments: living life to the full as God’s people

Before beginning, Duncan reminded us of what we earned last Sunday from Exodus 19-6. We do not obey the commandments in order to win a relationship with God, but because a relationship with God already exists.  The ancient Israelites were rescued from slavery in Egypt, and led into the desert by God.  Their ultimate destination was not a place, however, but a relationship. ‘I brought you to myself,’ said God (Exodus 19:4)

The commandments helped the Israelites, and have helped people down through history to live the best kind of life as God’s beloved people, living life to the full.

Applying the commandments to everyday life

Duncan pointed out that the place we are in history, and the culture in which we live, affects how we live out the Bible. For instance, the Israelites rescued from Egypt by God lived in what we would call a ‘theocracy’ – there were at that point no kings or prophets, only Moses and the leaders he appointed as time went on. Obedience to God’s teaching, as communicated by Moses shaped their living.

We, in contrast, live in a democracy, where each citizen has an opportunity to shape the laws which are passed. Sometimes as Christians, we will find that laws are broadly in line with the commandments, at other times the laws of the land may not reflect the commandments.

Each society presents people with different challenges in living ‘the good life’ God calls us to.

Living for God as community

We have a strong tendency to focus on ourselves as individuals, thinking about how things affect ‘me’, thinking as Christians about the personal implications of following the commandments. But Duncan pointed out that they were given to the whole community.

Because it’s only when together we enter into the freedom which the commandments offer, and together express it in our lives, that we experience the fulness of life which God intended.

The community we know as ‘church’ should be the place where, more than anywhere else on earth, this freedom and fulness is glimpsed. Duncan reminded us of the first Pentecost (Acts 2) when the Spirit of God came, and broke down barriers of culture, language and ethnicity, uniting a disparate international group of people who found unity, and the peace of God.

But how can rules bring freedom?

We may scratch our heads and wonder how a law leads to freedom – surely, laws are restrictions placed on our freedom?

Duncan told us about his visit, seven years ago, to South Africa with David and Ruth Shepherd.  Duncan originally comes from Skye, and when he was young no-one locked their doors, and would think nothing of leaving the ignition key in the car overnight.  He was startled by the contrast in South Africa. In Johannesburg he lived in a house which was protected by a massive iron fence with a security gate. There were reinforced metal grills on the doors and windows. The folk whose house it was were extremely hospitable, but Duncan found it hard to get his head round the experience of being locked in.

Shortly after this, one of the sons of this household was carjacked and murdered not far away.

When a society or a community moves away from the principles enshrined in the commandments, it has an impact: you fear for your safety; life becomes chaotic and unpredictable.  Community is torn apart.

On the other hand, when the principles of the commandments are lived out, freedom increases, people look out for one another and express love for one another. Community grows, and people are free to become what God intends them to be.

The first four Commandments

‘You shall have no other gods before me.’ (v3)

The context of this command was the multiple gods worshipped by other nations. The Israelites are to have nothing to do with these other gods, but worship Yahweh, the one true God. This God is the God who saved them – it makes perfect sense to worship this God alone.

Jesus taught the same thing.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’ (Matthew 6:33) and we read that in one conversation, ‘Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  (Matthew 22:37)

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. (v4)

‘Don’t make images.’  Duncan reminded us that in most Highland Churches, the walls are bare, and there is no stained glass in the windows. The people who built these churches wanted there to be nothing at all which could get in the way of worshipping God.  Increasingly, however, Christians are seeing art as an expression of worship, and a way of connecting with God.

We realise that ‘idolatry’ is often much more subtle than images and physical idols. Someone has referred to the human heart being an ‘idol factory’, and there are countless things which can become idols – money, family, possessions, security, sports, for example. We can ‘bow down’ to these, rather than to God, giving ultimate value to things which have no lasting value in comparison to God.

May God be first in our lives.

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God (v7)

Duncan told us that the name of God is so reverenced by orthodox Jewish people that they will neither write nor say the name of God, Yahweh in full. When he was younger, Duncan would have seen this command referring to people who use ‘God!’ or ‘Christ!’ as an oath, and pepper texts with ‘OMG.’

People do speak in this way, and if the name of Jesus is special to us, we notice. But the commandment goes deeper, Duncan said. He mentioned Christians who ‘lift up’ God by the quality of their lives. But there are other Christians, whose lips are full of fine words about God, but whose lives are a disgrace. We misuse the name of God if we do not, as Christians, match what we say about God with how we live.

Duncan suggested that in Ireland the ‘name of God’ has been ‘completely undermined’ because of the horrific failure by many church leaders to safeguard children. These leaders spoke of God, but what they said had no influence on their behaviour.

‘Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. (v8)

The commandment to keep the Sabbath occurs twice in the Bible, Duncan told us. Once here in Exodus, reminds is that as God rested after six days of creation so we, made in God’s image, can also rest from our work.

The second reference to keeping the Sabbath is in Deuteronomy 5, where the reason is said to be not rest, but freedom. The Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. We should not allow our lives to be dominated by work, which can become a form of slavery.

We now live in a culture of 24/7 consumerism, and it is much more of a challenge to find rest and freedom. And when a society fails to take a day of rest, it is often the less well-off who suffer as they work in service industries like shops and cafes. This in turn has a big impact on families – often there isn’t a day in the week when everyone can be together.

Our society frequently highlights the problem of stress – perhaps the answer lies in this 4th commandment.

Duncan admitted that ‘these are challenging issues to grapple with in a pluralistic society’ and challenged us: ‘I wonder how you build rest and freedom into your life.’

And we shouldn’t forget our call to seek the best for our neighbour too. We want everyone to have the freedom to rest, to take a day off each week from the pressures of work. How we seek this in contemporary society for ourselves and for others requires imagination, discussion, and mutual encouragement.

Duncan concluded by telling us of his appreciation, since he was a student, of the freedom which is brought by recognising rhythms of work and rest.







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