The Gift Of Learning To Love God's Way - Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost (October 8, 2023)
Scripture Readings: Exodus 20:1–20 | Psalm 19 | Philippians 3:4–14 | Matthew 21:33–46
This weekend, folks all over Canada are marking this holiday, which reminds us of the joyful gatherings and feasts that would accompany the harvests each year in the Fall. It’s a time to stop and reflect, and give thanks for the blessings of the past year, as well as to share both food and fellowship with those who are in our lives.
And it's a nice tradition in and of itself. But it can also become a true blessing if it can help teach us to live with gratitude, not just one day, but every day of the year… if it can help us respond to the many gifts we have received by encouraging us to work towards making thankfulness a way of life.
And as strange as it may sound, that’s what our Scripture readings this morning are doing as well: inviting us to stop and reflect on what we’ve already received… to express our gratitude, and to respond rightly with our words and actions… not just once and a while, but always… sharing in a new way of life together as God’s people.
Turning first to our Gospel reading this morning, we hear a less joyful harvest story: Jesus tells a parable about unfaithful workers in their master’s vineyard… a story meant to expose the unfaithfulness of the powerful leaders of Jerusalem… the chief priests and the elders of God’s people, who were resisting and rejecting Jesus, instead of receiving Him as God’s Chosen One… the rightful Son of the Master, sent to fulfill God’s good will once and for all.
In the parable, Christ compared these leaders to ungrateful, greedy servants who cared more about scheming after their own gain than with faithfully handling their Master’s harvest. It comes as a pointed rebuke of the profoundly self-centered motivations of those leading God’s people, motivations that would in the end cause them to reject Jesus, and pave the way straight to the cross.
Knowing what we know now, that the cross was not the end of Christ’s story, we can give thanks that God turned their envy and murderous rejection of Jesus into God’s gracious gift of salvation offered to all. But even so, this parable sheds light on a problem that we still face today.
After all, it can be easy to listen to other people be criticized, and their hypocrisy exposed… but Christ’s words serve to expose the sin at work in our hearts as well, laying bare our own tendencies towards self-centredness.
Our Gospel reading invites us to stop and reflect on some difficult questions: How might we be like the chief priests and elders in Jesus’ day? Preoccupied with our own concerns, and with what we can get, instead of being dedicated to our LORD? How are you and I driven by self-centredness as well?
When push comes to shove, who are we really devoted to? What does devotion to the Living God actually look like?
Turning now to our reading from the book of Exodus, we are given an important glimpse of what godly devotion looks like in the famous Ten Commandments, the cornerstone of the Law of God given to Israel at Mt. Sinai.
To modern ears, the idea of divine commandments can seem quite restrictive and limiting… an unwanted imposition from the outside, keeping us from experiencing the supposed ‘joys’ that come with the freedom to do whatever we want.
But in fact, God’s commands are actually meant to bring us freedom… to set us free from fruitless pursuits and destructive patterns of life, and to guide us towards the joys that come from putting God’s good ways into practice.
In short, these commandments are God’s good gift to help His people learn to respond to His saving love with joyful devotion to the LORD, and to each another.
But to be clear from the start: these commandments were never about earning God’s favour or good graces, but about learning to respond faithfully to what God has already done. The foundation for the Covenant relationship between the Living God and His people was not Israel’s obedience, but the saving love of the LORD.
The reading begins in Exodus 20:1 with this vital reminder: “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…” Long before God asks anything of His people, He had already shown them His mercy and love, rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, and graciously inviting them into a whole new and blessed life with Him.
The commandments were then given to teach Israel how to live with Him, and with one another… how to share in God’s good and life-giving ways… shaped not by self-centeredness, but by His holy love.
And so, the Ten Commandments show us what this holy love, this new way of life looks like:
No worshipping other gods beside Yahweh, the Living God who had rescued them.
No making idols… graven images that seek to reduce the Creator of all that is into something of our own design.
No misusing or dishonouring of the Name of God, wrecking His reputation.
No forgetting of the Sabbath day, which set aside sacred time each week for God’s people to worship and rest.
No dishonouring of ones parents.
No committing adultery.
No bearing false witness, distorting justice.
And no coveting.
That’s a whole lot of “no’s”… lots of things we’re being commanded not to do. These days, we tend to think of the word “no” as a challenge… or even as a violation of our free will… as a barrier, keeping us from experiencing the joys of life that come from pursuing our hearts’ desires. But the truth of the human heart, as the stories of the Scriptures and our whole history makes plain, is that so often what our hearts naturally desire would bring about all sorts of pain and destruction in our world. Unchecked, the human heart does not tend to bring freedom and joy, but enslavement and devastation… especially to those who are the most vulnerable.
And so yes, God’s commandments to Israel are restrictive, but in the sense that they guide His people away from self-destruction and exploitation… from turning on one another. His commandments are given to restrict His people’s self-centredness, and to teach them to love God, and to love one another… to be devoted to their LORD, and seek the best for their neighbours, not just for themselves.
In his book on the Ten Commandments, the scholar Peter Leithart makes this point: “we are genuinely free only if our desires are trained, only if we have been brought out of the Egypt of self-love to embrace proper objects of love.” In short, God wants His people to grow in love with Him and with one another… and to be free from only serving their own interests. And so, the Ten Commandments, the Law of Love, teaches us to learn to say “no” to to ourselves… self-centeredness in all of its many forms.
The first commandment calls us to place the Living God at the very centre of our lives… allowing no one else to become His rival for our devotion. When we elevate anyone or anything above Him in our hearts, we’re on the path away from freedom and life.
The second commandment calls us to resist the temptation to try and shrink God down, and remake Him according to our own ideas and ideals… to worship a god of our own creation, instead of worshipping the One Creator of all. When we pick and choose what kind of ‘god’ we want to believe in according to our own preferences, instead of seeking to know what the Living God is actually like, we’re only fooling ourselves, and devoting ourselves to lifeless objects, instead of to our loving Saviour.
The third commandment calls us to be devoted to honouring God with our whole lives. It’s not just about avoiding curses with our mouths, but lifting up God’s holy name with every action and choice we make. When we claim to be God’s faithful people, and yet live in ways that would drag His name in the mud, even when no one else sees it, we’re guilty of slandering our LORD, which He does not take lightly.
The fourth commandment calls us to devote out time to God… to reorient our days and lives in ways that nourish deep faith and genuine worship. Setting aside time, which is one of the most precious gifts we’ve been given, to be with God and with God’s people sets us free from the competing claims of our world, and gives us a taste of the sacredness of life. When we let busyness our preoccupation rob us of this sacred rhythm of rest and adoration, we forget our place in God’s good world, and the peace He longs to share with us all.
The fifth commandment calls us to honour our parents… to show devotion to the ones that God used to bring us into the world, and to give us life. It reminds us that no one is truly self-made… that life itself is a gift we have received, and that we are meant to respond to this gift with gratitude. Again, Peter Leithart words it well: “Your parents aren’t God, but they’re God’s gifts to you, as you are God’s gifts to them.” When we refuse to honour our parents, and treat those who raised us up with indifference or worse, we’re closing our hearts to those God has placed in our lives, for the benefit of all.
The sixth commandment calls us to be devoted to the preservation of human life. To recognize that we have no right to take God’s gift of life from one another. When we begin to disregard the sacredness of our fellow humans, created in God’s own image, we end up serving the forces of death and darkness, and defying the Living God who is the merciful Father of all.
The seventh commandment calls those who are married to be devoted to our spouses… to be faithful to those we have pledged ourselves to… in thought, and word, and deed. It calls us to say “no” to every opportunity that tempts us to break trust with them, and to reaffirm our commitment to them, again, and again, and again. When we turn our backs on those we’ve vowed to share our lives with, we turn our backs on the faithful love that God has shown to us all, and has called us all to share in.
The eighth commandment calls us to be devoted to our neighbour’s wellbeing, and to resist the temptation to simply take whatever we want from those around us. At the heart of this commandment is not simply the need to protect ‘property rights’, but the recognition that we must protect and not exploit one another. When we steal from others, we’re not only hurting our neighbours, we’re also embodying a lack of trust that God can provide what we need without us having to seize it for ourselves.
The nineth commandment calls us to be devoted to upholding the truth. Bearing false witness is not simply lying, it is perjury… building a picture of reality that is untrue, and which undermines a whole community’s integrity. When we bear false witness, we distort justice, and soon start confusing evil with good.
And the tenth commandment calls us to be content. To not covet, or long for what others have… which can be so hard in a society like ours built around consumerism… where we’re constantly told we’ll only ever be happy if we buy the next new thing… or have a house, or a job, or a family, or a life like those other people. When we chase after what others have… or even what we think they have… we cut ourselves off from gratitude, and embrace self-centredness, which is at the root of all kinds of misery.
These Ten Commandments are God’s gift to us, to teach us how to love Him, and to love each other… and to avoid the trap of self-centeredness that can so easily ensnare us. They are a gift I think we too often take for granted, forgetting the role they play in our lives… and we do well to stop, and reflect, and give thanks to God for them.
And yet, we need more than God’s commandments alone… we need His own holy love, which they teach us about, to actually be alive in us. To transform us from the inside out.
And this is what Jesus Christ, God’s greatest gift, offers to us: pouring out God’s holy love not simply written in stone, but now engraved in our hearts through His Spirit… empowering us to actually live God’s way in the world today.
The chief priest and elders of Jerusalem knew all about the Ten Commandments, and yet they continued to resist Jesus, and His work bringing God’s saving love to the broken and lost. And as our reading from Philippians tells us, St. Paul was once fully devoted to following the commandments, but he still found himself trapped by the same self-centeredness that had blinded him to the Good News of Jesus the Risen Lord… that is, until the Risen Christ forced him to stop and reflect, and ‘opened his eyes’ to the wonderous truth… that our relationship with God is never based on how good we are… but on the gracious gift of God’s Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ… the Cornerstone of our faith.
Listen again to St. Paul’s words:
“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” (Philippians 3:4-11).
Jesus Christ our Saviour is the living embodiment of God’s Law of Love… the One that the Ten Commandments prepare us to trust in, and point us to. And it is Christ’s power at work in us that enables God’s people to actually begin to overcome our slavery to self-centeredness, and to grow in true devotion to the Living God, and to our neighbours.
So today, may we stop and reflect on the great gifts that God has given to us all: sharing His self-giving, holy love with the world, first at Mt. Sinai, and ultimately in Jesus Christ His precious Son. May we express our deep gratitude to Him, and respond with sincere devotion all of our days… and may we share together in the joyful freedom and blessed new life we have been given in Jesus. Amen.
 Peter J. Leithart, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty, Christian Essentials (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 121.
 Peter J. Leithart, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty, Christian Essentials (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 68.
Rev. Rob serves as the Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Gondola Point, and as the School Chaplain at Rothesay Netherwood School