Covenant and Commandments – Sunday, October 5, 2014 (NL Week 5)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 5:17
Preaching Text: Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

 Over the first four weeks of our journey through the unfolding story of our faith, we have encountered four individuals who were called by God to carry on the work of extending God’s blessing to creation. Noah saved a remnant of the world’s creatures and enabled God to make a fresh start in a world wracked by sin and violence. Abraham left behind his ancestral home and his extended family in pursuit of the promise of land and descendants. Joseph plumbed the depths of the human experience and soared to unimagined heights to bring the Egyptians (and his own people) through seven years of famine. Moses heeded the call of God – reluctantly, at first – and became an instrument of God’s salvation for the people of Israel.

If we were watching a movie version of this story, perhaps this week the filmmakers would be calling for the camera to zoom out and take in a bigger picture. Instead of focusing on one figure (or a small group of people), today’s reading concerns the entire people of Israel, a community that is addressed as one and invited into a deeper relationship with the God who had moved in power to save and redeem them from slavery and oppression.

Before we get to the commandments themselves, I think it’s important for us to take a look at the verses we read from chapter 19 of Exodus. Listen to those verses again:

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.” (Exodus 19:3-6, NRSV)

We need to pay attention to what’s going on here, because I think we sometimes take the mistaken view that it is the commandments that establish the relationship between God and God’s people. The Scripture that we have been reading the last few weeks (including the passage we just read) tells a different story: God has been choosing people from the beginning and calling them into relationship. From Adam and Eve through Moses and the people in today’s reading (and on into the present), God’s desire that is we would respond to this gracious invitation to be God’s treasured possession, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. It is only after that invitation has been extended that we encounter these commandments, laws that have never been designed to put up walls or barriers to God, but to create space for God’s people to flourish in relationship with their creator and with one another!

That’s why today I’d like to invite you to consider the role these commandments play in the on-going life of our community, not only here at St. Paul’s, but throughout the world. My suggestion to you is that the commandments have been given to us as a gift, a guide, and, in light of the good news of Jesus, a goal.

How can the commandments be a gift? For a start, the commandments are a reminder of who we are. We are called into relationship with the God of creation, and enjoined to place our trust in that God above all else. We are given the opportunity to call upon God’s name and called to use that name well, in ways that contribute to our well-being and the well-being of others. We are given the gift of Sabbath, an opportunity to break from the relentless pressures of work to enjoy God and the people we love. That’s just the first three commandments, and hopefully you can see how what seems constraining is in fact a gracious invitation to remember who we are and whose we are.

Now what could it mean for us to look at the commandments as a guide? This is perhaps a more familiar way of thinking about the commandments for many of us, but it bears repeating. In one respect, the commandments are a guide because they represent the widest possible boundaries for considering what our life together might look like. We still have to wrestle with what it means to keep these commandments. As just one example, how does the commandment against killing function in our society? Are there certain instances in which taking life can be justified, or is this a hard and fast rule that needs to be enforced at all times and in all places? That’s a broader discussion than we have time for today, but if the commandment reminds us that taking life in any circumstance is a matter of grave importance, that the decision to end the life of another human being is never to be taken lightly, then this commandment will guide our conversations surrounding issues of life and death in important and fruitful ways.

Last, I described the commandments as our goal, and I realize that this last bit requires some explanation. Our ultimate goal, of course, is abundant life in relationship with God and with one another. How do the commandments contribute to that goal, especially when we as Lutherans recognize that we are incapable of doing what the law requires of us on our own? This is where our complementary reading from Matthew comes into play. As Christians, we believe that Jesus has fulfilled the whole law for us. Sometimes we take that to mean that the law isn’t important for us, but that’s not quite what Jesus is saying. Rather, Jesus is making the claim that it is in him that the law finds its true purpose. We who have been freed by the gospel of Jesus Christ are called to see the law as a tool for discerning how to live well with one another and with God. We are always in danger of using the law for our own justification, for showing others how holy we are. Jesus has no patience for that kind of thinking; instead, the law is given so that we might tend to our relationships with God and one another and learn how to steward them well. So, to return to our previous example, the commandment against killing can cause us to think more broadly about everything we do. Yes, we may not literally take the life of another person, but how have we contributed to their well-being? Have we done anything to injure another person in mind, body, or spirit? How does the way we live build up the community around us and glorify God? As they did for the people of Israel, these questions arise not out of a need to justify ourselves before God, but in response to the love that has already been poured out upon us all. In that way, the commandments represent the goal of our daily lives: by keeping them, we help to create the kind of world where blessing and freedom and joy and hope are extended to all. This is our calling, and in Christ we find the strength we need to carry it out each new day.

Brothers and sisters, today we read of how Israel was joined to God and given the law as a gift, a guide, and a goal, and we remember that we too are heirs of God’s covenant love and faithfulness. As we enter a new week, let us consider how these commandments and that covenant help to shape our life together. Let us think deeply about how the gospel frees us to love and bless others in God’s name. Above all, let us pray that God will continue to bear us up on eagles’ wings and draw us to Godself, that we might be a treasured possession, a priestly kingdom, and a holy nation for the sake of the world. Amen.

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