Scripture Readings: Exodus 20:1–4, 7–9, 12–20 | Psalm 19 | Philippians 3:4b–14 | Matthew 21:33–46
“Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…”
We have been given a lot of new rules and guidelines to follow these past seven months… helping us try to navigate this new world COVID-19 has brought to us. Here in New Brunswick, our Provincial government and medical experts did their best to communicate the seriousness of this new threat we were facing… and thankfully, most of us trusted them enough to follow their lead. Although back in the Spring no one really liked the idea of shutting down the economy, of closing schools, wearing masks, and isolating at home… we were told these would be the best ways to protect ourselves, and those around us. And though today we know that our country and world still has a long path ahead before this pandemic is over, these guidelines and rules have played a big part in helping us to move forward.
Our journey through the book of Exodus this fall has brought us from the banks of the Nile River, to the foot of Mt. Sinai… to the moment when the Living God meets with Israel His people and gives to them a brand new way of living in this world.
Just before our reading today, in Exodus chapter 19, the stage is set for Israel to receive this gracious gift. (Exodus 19:3-6): Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
From this company of ex-slaves, God was going to make something new: a priestly kingdom, a holy nation, a people set apart to reflect the character and saving grace of God out into the world… to become His own treasured possession by trusting in Him. Obeying the LORD’s voice, keeping His covenant, and walking in His ways was to be the path forward for Israel to share in the new life of God.
Here at Mt. Sinai, the Living God was entering into a covenant with Israel; a sacred relationship defined by faithfulness, and upheld by rules, by clear expectations of what the relationship required. In many ways, it’s like a marriage between God and Israel: solemn vows were made about the shape of their future life together. And so, the LORD spells out for Israel what it looks like to be His people. As the scholar Brevard Childs points out, these rules were not simply pulled out of nowhere, “[r]ather, they reflected the essential character of God himself.” So to empower them to reflect God’s own goodness and character into the world, God gives them the Law, most notably the portion we read this morning: in Hebrew, their called the “Ten Words”, or as we know them, the Ten Commandments.
Many of us know these words well… they have been treasured for generations… but the story of when and why they were given can easily fade into the background, which, unfortunately, can make it easy to misunderstand their purpose. But they were not handed down from heaven as timeless truths meant to stand on their own… or as bits of spiritual advice for those looking to better themselves. No, these words, these commandments, play a part in the bigger story of God’s great rescue mission, as the LORD of all the earth seeks to save His captive creatures.
Taken all by themselves, it can seem like God’s just given us a checklist for how to get in His good books… for how you and I can earn His approval. But if we are following the story of Exodus and the Bible so far, we can see that the people of Israel were already in God’s good books! He has already stepped in to save them, in pretty dramatic ways, not because they were awesome, or perfect, or good, but out of compassion and mercy. In fact, up to this point, Israel had more often been a pain in the neck… stubbornly doubting God’s faithfulness at every bump in the road. Yet still, God desired to give Himself to this people, to share His holy life with them, and through them, with the world. This covenant relationship, and the Law that came with it, were God’s gracious gifts to a community of messed up people that could not earn or deserve it… but they could receive it, and believe in the One who was giving it. With His help, they could become a people who truly shared in God’s new life. The LORD did not lay down the Law so Israel could make themselves worthy of His love… No, the LORD first loved Israel, as messed up as they were, and so He gave them the Law to draw them even closer.
We don’t often think of rules and commandments as gifts, but through them God was at work bringing about His rescue mission: first for Israel, and then through them, for everyone. Through the Law, God was requiring the Israelites to trust Him with their lives… with how they existed in their communities, their families, and their hearts. These Laws were given to protect and preserve the wellbeing of everyone; as individuals, and as a wider society. Shaping their life together were rules defending the weak from the strong, guiding everyone together into the good future God had in store for them.
At the heart of the Law was wholehearted devotion to the Living God, and along with that came the commitment to defend and honour each other. In other words, the people were to love God, and to love their neighbours.
Though there were many other laws and commandments given at Sinai, these ten serve as a central core which the others connect to. But one could ask this morning, how do they connect with us today? Where do the Ten Commandments fit into where we are now in the Christian story? In the story of God’s rescue mission in the light of Jesus Christ?
Over the years, there have been may ways Christians have tried to answer this question… some much more successfully, and faithfully than others. Some see them as the core of what it means to obey God… as if the Christian life was basically about following these Laws. Others seem them as obsolete, as no longer needed, just some ancient relics from the past, that we should do away with.
Thankfully, the Bible, especially the New Testament, has much to say about the Law, and about the role it plays in God’s ongoing mission to save the world. And it offers us another perspective on how Christians connect to the Law: one which, not surprisingly, points us to Jesus.
For Christians, the Law remains a treasured part of our story, for the same LORD who rescued Israel, and gave them the Law at Sinai, gave Himself to the world through Jesus Christ to rescue us all at the cross. The Law played an essential role in preparing the people of God for the coming of God’s Messiah, guiding them towards this brand-new reality that the LORD always had in the works… that is, to reconcile and reunite His lost and lawless world to Himself through the life, death, and resurrection of the Eternal Son of God.
Brevard Childs again points out that “[t]he intent of the commandments is to engender love of God and love of neighbor.”  Christ came to fulfill the commandments, to do what even Israel could not: to completely embody the character and goodness of God, to be utterly devoted to the will of His Father in Heaven, and in self-giving love, to lay down His life to rescue sinners… to set them free to receive the gift of God’s own Holy Spirit, so that they too can share in God’s new life, now and forever.
For Christians, the commandments point us onward to Jesus Christ: to the one who is Himself the saving love of God in the flesh. They draw us towards a deeper devotion to Him, and trust in His love for us, so that through His Spirit within us, we can share God’s love with our neighbours. Our relationship with God is not based on obeying the Law, but on Jesus Christ, and on what He has done to rescue us. The Ten Commandments, give us a taste of God’s faithful love, inviting us to trust Him, with the whole scope of our entire lives.
So may we receive them as God’s gift to us, preparing us to take part in God’s new life through Jesus His Son, and empowering us through His Spirit to play our part in His story: reflecting the goodness and saving grace of God out into the world. Amen.
 Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, ed. Peter Ackroyd et al., The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 397.
 Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, ed. Peter Ackroyd et al., The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 439.
ville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 439.