Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Covenant and Meal

The first lesson designated for this Lord’s Day gives us the Ten Commandments. The phrase “ten commandments” was one that we heard not too long ago on America’s air waves. That was the time when the hanging of the ten commandments on the walls of the schools and public buildings incited controversy. Opponents clamored for their removal. There should be a strict separation between church and state, they insisted. Since the ten commandments came out of the church traditions, hanging them in public buildings violated this principle. Supporters, on the other hand, feared that removing them from the public square was tantamount to removing the foundations of public morality. How would ordinary people know right from wrong if they could neither read nor ponder the ten commandments?

Now, I am not sure how each of you stands on this issue. But these debates have already receded into the past. The society that was sympathetic with the Judeo-Christian tradition, is disappearing. Authors Victor Lee Austin and Joel Daniels write of the emerging Christian minority. The old is gone; the new is coming.

But whatever the new may turn out to be, it does not vitally affect us as God’s people, because we learn the commandments, not to promote or defend a political agenda, not to restore their place in a nation that has lost its moral bearings, but to understand them in the context of the covenant community, a community that extends to include even us.

Most of you are probably already aware that we began Sunday school last month. Our small class and I talked about covenant together last week, interestingly enough. Then we discovered that covenant means a coming together, an agreement, a pact between two parties. With this agreement comes a mutual set of privileges and responsibilities. It is important to see that God initiated the covenant. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God identifies himself by his action. This law-giving God is the liberator of Israel from Egypt. We now know why he did these things.  He did them for the purpose of making Israel his own people. And he confirms this purpose by making a covenant with them. “I will be their God and they will be my people”—that is the fulfillment and goal of the covenant. From God Israel can expect provision and protection and deliverance. From Israel God expects loyalty, dedication and worship. How does Israel show this loyalty? By obeying God’s law, by following the ten commandments.  

Most commentators divide the ten commandments into two halves. That is why we speak of the two tables of the law. The first have to do with our relationship with God (including honoring our parents since, like God, they brought us into being.) The second have to do with our relationships with our fellow human beings. But author Jonathan Sacks argues that it makes sense to see them as three groups of three.

The first three—no other gods besides me, no graven images, and no misuse of God’s name—are about God. The first states that God transcends all other loyalties. He ought to have first place in our lives. The second tells us that God is the living God, not an abstract idea that can be represented in images. The third tells us that the proper stance before God is reverence and respect. If we revere and respect God, then we will not carelessly misuse his name.

The second three—the Sabbath, honoring parents, and the prohibition of murder—are all about the createdness of life. The Sabbath is dedicated to contemplating God as creator, and the universe as his creation. Honoring our parents acknowledges our human createdness. Murder is not just a crime against man, but a sin against God, in whose image we are created. Sacks notes that these three commandments form the basis of Jewish jurisprudence or legal theory. They teach us to remember where we came from if we want to know how to live, and how to order our lives together.

The third three—against adultery, theft, and bearing false witness—establish the basic institutions on which society depends. We mean here marriage, property and the laws and courts. There is no justice without each of us accepting responsibility for honoring our commitments, our contracts, and telling the truth.

That counts nine. The tenth one stands on its own. It forbids us to covet. Put in other words, it warns us not to envy. Sacks points out that only if we succeed in obeying this one commandment, then we can keep the rest of the commandments. It is all-embracing; that is why it stands on its own. Sacks further reminds us that envy led Cain to murder Abel. Envy made Abraham and Isaac fear for their lives because they were married to beautiful women. Envy led Joseph’s brothers to hate him and sell him into slavery. It is envy that leads to adultery, theft and false testimony, and it was envy of their neighbors that led Israel time and again to abandon God in favor of the pagan idols and practices of the time. And envy led those tenants in our gospel lesson to seize and kill the landowner’s son, whom he sent to collect the produce.  

This leads us to our next observation about covenant. We cannot keep it. We violate its terms. That is to say, we break the commandments. To be responsible before the Lord of the universe is awesome, and to be a member of God’s covenant people is a demanding privilege. But it is one that Israel did not uphold.

We already know how their history unfolds. God sends the prophets to warn them. When Israel persists in their disobedience, the prophets pronounce judgement. There is disaster, foreign invasion, captivity. But when the people are at their lowest, the prophets announce a new covenant. It is based on God’s promise rather on Israel’s devotion, on God’s faithfulness, rather than on Israel’s waywardness, on inner renewal rather than on outward conformity.

This means a new orientation to God’s law, to the ten commandments.

To illustrate the old orientation, let us compare the law to a dog leash. Of course, the purpose of a dog leash is to make sure that the dog stays close to her owner. But have you ever wondered what the experience is like for the dog? Now some dogs are docile. They will not resist the leash. Other dogs strain against the leash. They want to be free to stay longer at that fire hydrant. They want to be free to chase that squirrel. But the leash restricts them. Still other dogs really hate that leash. They would break the leash and run if given the chance.

This is how Israel, this is how all of us are, towards God’s law, in our hearts. We feel it to be binding and restricting. We long to break free from it. That is to say, our hearts are inclined at one time or another to break the commandments, to have extramarital sex, to lie, to cheat or to steal. And all of us at one time or another have broken one or more of the ten commandments.  

But let us return to our illustration. We see the dog and his master walking together. The dog stays close. It is clear that he enjoys his master’s company. He looks up now and then to see if his master is pleased with him. The master appears to enjoy thoroughly walking with this dog, whom she loves. There is no leash, because there is no need for a leash. Dog and master walk and play together.

This is how Israel, this is how all of us are, when our hearts renewed from within. Listen to God’s promise in the words of the prophet Jeremiah: ‘The day will come,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. . .. But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,’ says the Lord. ‘I will put my law in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people’” Did you hear the covenant language here? “I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

We have been speaking about covenant. Now let us talk about the meal. By meal we mean the Last Supper that Jesus shares with his disciples before his arrest, trial and crucifixion. They come to that part in the meal when Jesus blesses the cup. He says: “this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” These words have real weight. With them, Jesus announces that the covenant between God and God’s people is renewed.

This is the good news that we proclaim every time we have communion. To break the commandments is to violate the terms of the covenant. Israel did this. We did this. But God does not hold this against us. He does not want our disobedience to separate us from him. That is why for Jesus’ sake he forgives us. That is one side.

The other side is this. God makes us new. We already mentioned the words of Jeremiah. There is another passage in Ezekiel that expands on them. Here God is speaking to the covenant community: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” That new heart makes us inclined towards God. It finds pleasure in God and in God’s ways.  

Before we were like that dog that wanted to break free from that leash. After, we are like that dog that enjoys walking and playing together with his owner. That is our hope. That is what is in store for us as God’s people, as those who belong to his covenant community. And that is good news worth believing.

So let the truths that we have considered this morning soak in your hearts and minds as we come to the table of the Lord to share in communion on this World Communion Sunday. Amen

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