In 1955, The Fraternal Order of Eagles placed monuments of the Ten Commandments in public parks, at schools, and in front of municipal buildings around the country as gifts to honor individuals and special events. The first one was donated in Milwaukee, Wis., in a public event involving the director of the movie Ten Commandments and actor Yul Brenner, who played the Pharaoh in the film.
Since then, there has been a lot of discussion about these monuments. In courtrooms all across the U.S., public displays of the 10 commandments have come into question. It is estimated that there are some 4,000 such displays in the U.S. and more and more of them are coming under scrutiny.
In 2002, in West Union, Ohio, a federal court ruled that 3-foot-high stone tablets displaying the Ten Commandments should be removed from the county’s four public schools because they appear to be a government endorsement of religion. The tablets were donated by the local ministerial association in 1997. The school board voted to appeal.
The arguments on both sides are interesting. On the one hand, some Christians seem to deny that these commandments are religious. They call them expressions of our culture or part of our tradition. On the other hand, some atheists say they are religious and that they refer to the Judaeo-Christian God.
These arguments remind me of the time a man got a permit to open a tavern in a small town. The members of a local church were strongly opposed, so they began to pray that God would intervene. A few days before the tavern was scheduled to open, lightning hit it and it burned to the ground. The people of the church were surprised but pleased, until they received notice that the tavern owner was suing them. He said their prayers were responsible for the burning of the building. They denied the charge. At the conclusion of the preliminary hearing, the judge remarked, "At this point I don’t know what my decision will be, but it seems that the tavern owner believes in the power of prayer and these church people don’t.”(Source unknown)
If you had asked Moses and the people of Israel about the 10 commandments, their answer would have been absolutely clear. These 10 words, as the Jews called them, were the words of a holy God, given to guide his people, to help them understand his plan, his power and purpose.
During these weeks leading up to Christmas, we are focusing on the book of Exodus. On the first Sunday we considered God’s plan for his people. While it appeared to the Hebrew slaves in Egypt that God had forgotten them, we learn in the early chapters of Exodus (2:24) that God heard their groaning and that God remembered his covenant. God was not sleeping during their oppression; he had a plan and he was working it out, just as he did in time for the birth of Jesus.
We need to be reminded that when the floor gives way, the walls fall down, and the roof caves in, that is not the end. God is working in ways we don’t see or understand. He has a plan. He may take a long time to develop it, but he never fails to fulfill it.
Last Sunday we focused on God’s power and we saw how God delivered his people from slavery. These were people who had no riches of their own. They had no military might. They had no government. The Bible makes clear that the power of God set them free. God persuaded the pharaoh. God instructed them how to get out. God parted the waters that blocked their path.
God works through his power. Eph.3:20.
When we read Luke’s account of Christmas we see how God’s power operated. A woman too old to have children became pregnant. Mary, a young woman who had no way of bearing a child, gave birth to Jesus. God’s power was evident everywhere.
Many of you can attest to God’s power at work in ways you didn’t expect. God surprised you in the way he provided for you or healed you. And you give thanks to God.
Eventually, these Hebrew people get to Mount Sinai, the mountain where Moses had seen the burning bush. And there they receive the 10 commandments. (Ex. 20). For most of us, the idea of having 10 commands to obey doesn’t give us a warm fuzzy feeling. Maybe we see laws and commands as rules that restrict our behavior, keep us from having fun and enjoying life. But let me see if I can frame this picture in a different way.
Let’s begin with a story of suppose. Suppose you need a new kidney and a friend of yours offered one of his or hers to you.
If someone does something for you that is unexpected and undeserved, what is your response going to be?
That is the way to think about these 10 words --10 ways of saying thank you, 10 rules to live by to honor God. Because of what God has done, this is how we will live.
In the time of Moses, people often lived by agreements which were sealed by a vow. These agreements were called covenants. Two parties were bound together in a covenant, but there was no way to enforce it, except for the vow. The witness to the agreement was God. God would keep the covenant in case the human participants broke it. Maybe you have heard the prayer “May the Lord watch between me and thee while we are absent one from another.” This doesn’t mean that God will keep us out of trouble after we part. It is a part of the covenant. We have made our vows but we are human and sinful. Our agreement is in danger if we are left to our own devices. So we ask God to guard our vows, to watch over us in our weakness.
Covenants in the Bible are used to describe the relationship of God and his people. Covenant was a way of making a picture out the relationship so that the people would understand what it meant.
Archeologists have found evidence of covenants that began, “I, king so & so, have done thus & so, and in response the people will do this & that.” The 10 commandments have a similar pattern. We find it here in Exodus and we find it in Romans 12:1.
Look at 20:2. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This covenant begins with a statement of who God is and what he did. If they didn’t know who he was before, they knew now. God is not just some god or other, some impersonal force, some superstitious imagination. No, He is a living, acting, saving God, a God who loves, and one who wants us to know Him. We don’t have to seek him; he comes seeking us. He wants to rescue, renew, restore, and recreate. He is the God who saves.
Look at the next line, “You shall have no other gods before me.” The understanding is that since God has been so gracious, kind, and giving, Israel will dedicate itself to serve only Him. A covenant has two sides. The people were to be undivided in the service of God. The prophet Hosea says that God is jealous of our devotion as a lover is jealous, that he should be the only God for man. God is not inclined to share his claim to man’s worship. Deut 18:13. Undivided loyalty. That means we need to separate ourselves from powers that would take the place of God.
Probably no one here is tempted to bow down and worship a stone image or a wooden statue, some god of another religion. But let’s ask ourselves how we explain what happens in our world. Do we say it is political power that determines what happens in our world? Do we say it is the money pushers and grabbers who run our world? Does the alignment of the stars or scientific knowledge explain what happens? Or do we say God is in control. I don’t know what all God is up to in our world today, but the Bible tells us that God is guiding it with some purpose in mind.
Look at their response. Read 19: 8.
Keep in mind that these people had no organization. They had just come out of slavery where they had no privileges, no rights, no hope and no future. Everything about their lives had been decided by someone else. But God had delivered them from the strongest military nation of that time and now here they were gathered at this Mountain. And God transformed these poor, hopeless, disorganized people into a nation because he had a purpose for them.
And so these ten words became their constitution, their charter of freedom. These 10 lines would shape the life of the community. These commands provided a framework for a relationship with God. These commands gave direction for relationships with each other. How can a society function if people don’t respect the property, life and promises of others? God has set the boundaries.
The people vowed to obey the king. They said they would reject any other power and be true only to him. God doesn’t assume control of our lives to enslave us but to empower us so we can become more like him. So we can say Ps. 119.112, “I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end.”
Every year the Hebrew people had a ceremony in which they renewed their relationship with God through this covenant. The priest would recite the 10 commandments and they would once again promise that God would take first place in their lives.
On Friday a man came to our door to return a doorknob bag. He said “I don’t need church. I worship God in my own way.” If there is anything the covenant says it is that God’s people don’t do things their own way. They do them God’s way. And we begin right here with this book.
Next week we celebrate the birth of Jesus. Back in the OT, the prophet Jeremiah recorded God’s promise to make a new covenant with his people. (Jer. 31:31-33) The coming of God’s son made this covenant possible. OT/NT. The Bible says this new covenant was made through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In our church life we renew that covenant when we take communion.
And as for having the 10 commandments in public places? Sure, I wish we lived in an atmosphere that would welcome them, but we need to recognize that the 10 commandments won’t do any good in public buildings until people have them written in their hearts.