Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014

Exodus 20:1-17 Commentary

Growing up I heard the “Reading of the Law” every single Sunday morning in church.  In our Calvinist stripe of the Reformed tradition, this recitation of the Ten Commandments served the dual purpose of at once convicting us of our sin but also of laying out the rule of gratitude for how we should live (Calvin’s “Third Use of the Law”).   But to be honest, most Sundays those words just created a general buzzing in my ears.

It got to be like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school or singing the National Anthem before a baseball game: you just did it and got through it.  It was rote.  It required no thought.  Once in a great while some guest preacher would gussy it up, using fresh language for the Ten Commandments, or applying them in some other clever way, and that was surely always enough to make me sit up straight in my pew and pay attention.  Otherwise the sheer repetition of it week to week caused few if any to even raise an eyebrow.  It surely quickened no one’s pulse to hear Exodus 20:1-17.

“And God spoke all these words . . .” my pastor, Rev. MacLeod, would intone each Sunday.  And then we heard “all those words.”

But how very different it was the first time around!  At Sinai in the middle of the harsh and terrible wilderness, when God spoke “all those words” on that long ago day narrated for us in Exodus 20 (and yes, Exodus 20 is a narrative and not a set of principles meant to be rarified so as to be suitable for framing) the words and the sound of the words blew the people away.   There was, we are told in verse 18, “smoke on the mountain” even as the sound of Yahweh’s majestic voice shook the roots of the mountain and caused the Israelites a kind of terror they had rarely before known.

The people were undone by God’s having spoken all those words.  No one slouched in a pew that day.   No one heard these words as a familiar buzzing in the ears.  And no one—not Moses or Aaron or Joshua or anyone else—needed to gussy up the words to get people’s attention.   The words very nearly laid waste to the entire landscape around the mountainside and were as frightening to the ordinary hoi polloi of Israel as if a dangerous tornado were swirling their way.

Of course, it’s relatively easy for us to chalk up this spectacle to merely the sights and sounds of it all.   We could imagine, for instance, the good folks at Industrial Light & Magic at Lucasfilm pulling out all the CGI stops to create a special effects masterpiece meant to recreate all the splendor in living color and in 3-D.

But would that really get at the heart of what unhinged the hearts and minds and nervous systems of the Israelites that day?  Partly.  But only partly.  Because the real truth of the matter is that what the people encountered that day was not just a sight-and-sound event that we could try to recreate with THX Surroundsound in a movie theater.  What they encountered was raw holiness.  What they encountered was the presence of the Creator of heaven and earth entering his creation so as to give out—for the first time in a sustained way—the blueprint for living and flourishing in the cosmos he had set up in the beginning.  What happened in Exodus 20 was a collision of the unstained and utterly pure God of the galaxies with a world that had quite badly gone off the rails for the very reasons that would get spelled out in the Law that God spoke “in all those words.”

In other words, what the people encountered—and what blew back not just their hair but their very sensibilities—was God’s vision for life as it should be and could be.   The people encountered goodness, holiness, shalom.    They encountered in “all those words” a vision so powerful in its beauty, so weighty in its moral splendor, as to render the world around them tawdry, bland, and tragic all at once.

It goes without saying that we don’t quite sense the power of all this when we hear the words read in church these days.   It also perhaps goes without saying that neither do we convey such moral grandeur when we use the Ten Commandments as a finger-wagging rebuke when we try to post them in various public places as though just displaying these laws will turn things around in schools or courtrooms.

There is a majesty to the Creator’s intoning the instructions for shalom, a majesty that is simply the sheer heft of holiness—a heft we often fail to appreciate today.  In too many places (even in places of worship) we value familiarity, conviviality, and casual latte-sipping atmospheres over a sense of a grand encounter with the God of the galaxies.    That may be bad enough but in Lent we can reflect on this from also another angle: a failure to engage fully with who God is and what his vision for shalom is really all about diminishes also the cross of Jesus.

Golgotha properly bowls us over with another form of divine majesty and holiness when we see what even the holy God who blew the Israelites away at Mount Sinai had to do to realize the reality of a world of flourishing and shalom.   The cross is God’s answer to the question, “What can make things right again?   What can realize God’s vision for this cosmos?”

If we downplay that vision, we downplay what Jesus had to do to realize it.   But downplaying all that is most surely not what the Season of Lent is all about.

Illustration Idea

One of my favorite scenes in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy comes in the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring.   Gandalf the wizard had just fallen in the mines of Moria, felled by the terrible Balrog, a fiery and demonic creature of the ancient world that had been attracted to the Fellowship by the powerful Ring of Power that Frodo carried.   That had been a spectacle of sheer horror as a creature of intense power and evil undid the great wizard.

But it’s the next scene that I like even better because it has a grandeur to it more powerful than any Balrog.  The Fellowship arrives in the great realm of the Elves, Lothlorien.   This is a realm ruled by the goddess-like Galadriel, Queen of the Elves, and a figure of significant moral power and (one could very nearly say) righteousness.  As Galadriel greets the Fellowship, she looks at each member in turn.   When she looks upon Frodo’s Hobbit companion Sam—a figure of sheer moral goodness in Tolkien’s world—Sam is able to smile at her and she at him.  They share a bond of goodness.

But when Galadriel’s gaze falls upon the duplicitous Boromir—who has already been sorely tempted to take the Ring away from Frodo by force so as to wield its power for himself and for his people of Gondor—Boromir cannot abide her gaze.


He begins to quake and shiver and must look away.  When Galadriel’s goodness meets Boromir’s badness, the guilt and sorrow of the disconnect between who Boromir wishes he could be and who he actually is becomes simply too much for him.  You can watch the clip here (the moment with Boromir comes at about the 2:30 mark).

Something of this was going on for the Israelites when God spoke from the mountain, too.  It wasn’t just the smoke and the fire and the thunder.

It was the holiness of it all that unmade them.


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