Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 4, 2018
Exodus 20:1-17 Commentary
If we were to poll North Americans about what God is like, most of those who believe in God might say God is nice or forgiving. If we were to poll them about what God looks like, many would answer God looks like a loving grandparent or kind uncle or aunt.
How can we know what God is like? John Calvin identified three uses for God’s law that makes up the bulk of the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. It convicts us of our sin by reminding us of to what we’ve failed to live up. Calvin also noted that God’s law is also a good guide for civil law that structures orderly living.
However, Calvin thought that the most important function of the law is to teach us how to faithfully respond to God’s grace. As Reformed Christians profess, God’s law shows us how to be thankful for all God has done for us. God’s law shows God’s adopted sons and daughters how to glorify God and lovingly witness to our neighbors to the gracious God whom we serve.
Yet an incident that takes place shortly after God graces Israel and her leader Moses with the gift of God’s law got me to thinking about another function of God’s law. According to Exodus 32, Moses was gone so long from the Israelite camp at Sinai’s base that the Israelites doubt he’ll ever return to them.
So they begged Aaron to “make for us gods who will go before us” (Exodus 32:1). Among other things, that plea suggests the Israelites wanted a god they could actually see. So Aaron collected and melted the Israelites’ jewelry from which he created a god that looked a lot like a calf. The Israelites then sacrificed burnt offerings and present fellowship offerings to that visible god.
However, that, of course, infuriated God so much that God longed to destroy the Israelites so that God can effectively start over with Moses. Moses convinced God to spare most of the Israelites. Moses, however, seemed to need further assurance that God would not obliterate the Israelites. So he begged God to show him God’s “glory” (Exodus 33:18).
In response, God offered to somehow cause God’s “goodness” to pass in front of Moses. However, God insisted God could not show him God’s face because “no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). God only graciously gave Israel’s leader a glimpse of God’s “back.”
Yet while no one can live to tell about seeing God, the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday gives us a kind of glimpse of God. For example, in the seventh commandment God calls God’s children to “not commit adultery.” If, after all, spouses couldn’t trust each other to be faithful, we’d always be suspicious not only of each other, but also of any threats we might perceive to our marriages.
Of course, some of God’s adopted sons and daughters expand that to call all people, whether single or married, to faithfulness. The seventh commandment invites all of us to live decent and chaste lives. After all, sexual intimacy outside of marriage undermines our self-control, faithfulness and patience, among other things.
Yet God is also so concerned about such faithfulness because marriage closely replicates the bond between God and God’s people. God’s law challenges you and me to mirror in our relationships God’s undying affection for us. God is utterly faithful to God’s promises and people, no matter how unlovely or unlikable we are or become. So spouses who remain faithful to unlovely or unlikable spouses mirror God’s faithfulness to God’s sometimes unlovely or unlikable children. People catch a fleeting glimpse of God in such unconditional faithfulness.
God is also concerned that we not give false testimony against our neighbor. Yet God doesn’t want us to be truthful just because deception, slander or gossip puts other people in a bad light. God also doesn’t want to us to give such false testimony because God only speaks the truth about himself, God’s creatures and God’s creation.
You and I want to be truthful in all our dealings because God is always truthful. You and I speak well of others not just to protect their reputation, but also because God always says what helps people. People catch a fleeting glimpse of God’s truthfulness when God’s adopted sons and daughters always and only lovingly speak the truth.
Because this Lord alone is the giver of every good gift, we’re free from the need for other gods. We’re free to rest in God’s good provision for everything. We’re free from the need to envy, hate or be angry with other people.
Because the Lord is our God, God’s people are free to love and be loyal to not only our parents, but also to all whom God has granted authority over us. We’re free to do what we can for our neighbors’ good and treat them as we’d like them to treat us.
Of course, the negative formulation of eight of the Ten Commandments may make it hard to see how they show us God. After all, they may lead people to assume that God only closes down our lives. However, God’s law actually opens up life. It protects not just individuals but also society from actions that have the potential to destroy it. God’s law recognizes the damage things like disrespect for authority, murder and theft can cause.
Of course, even the negative commandments also have a positive side. Even God’s gift that is the “You shall not’s …” invites us to do certain things that imitate God. The sixth commandment, for example, calls us not to murder. However, that at least implies that we must also love our neighbors as ourselves, as well as be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful and friendly towards them.
God’s call not to murder also challenges us to protect our neighbors from harm as much as we can. It even calls us to do good even to our enemies. This is, after all, exactly how God behaves toward all those God creates in God’s image. When we work to protect the dignity and sanctity of all of life, from the moment of conception until the moment of death, as well as everywhere between for every person, people catch a fleeting glimpse of what God is like.
We see this behavior, of course, most clearly in the third person of the Trinity, Jesus the Christ. While no one can see God and live to tell about it, when we look at Jesus, we see God. In Christ, Christians profess, we see as much of God as we’ll ever see anywhere on this side of heaven’s curtain. In fact, in John 14:9 Jesus even tells his disciple Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
So even if those who proclaim Genesis 20 choose not to partner it with the Lectionary’s gospel text for the day, John 2:13-22, they may want to refer to it as an example of how we see God in Jesus Christ. There, after all, Jesus makes it clear that God’s house that is Jerusalem’s temple is the symbol of God’s presence among God’s people rather than a marketplace. Jesus’ actions show that just as God tolerates no rivals for God’s people’s affections, so God refuses to tolerate anything that mars God’s people’s worship of God.
A dentist had extracted EMT Jack Casey’s tooth under general anesthetic when he was a child. The procedure had terrified him. However, a nurse told Jack, “Don’t worry; I’ll be right here beside you no matter what happens.” When he awoke from surgery he found her still standing right next to him.
Nearly twenty years later people called Jack’s ambulance crew to the scene of a terrible accident. Jack crawled inside the flipped pick-up’s cab to pull the driver out of the wreckage.
Since gasoline was dripping all over the place, there was a real danger of fire. The driver kept telling Jack how afraid he was. So Jack told him, “Look, don’t worry. I’m not going to abandon you.”
After Jack had rescued him, the shocked driver told him, “You were an idiot. My truck could have exploded and burned up both of us.” Jack answered that he felt he just couldn’t leave him, just as his nurse had earlier felt she couldn’t leave him.
When we lovingly care for our neighbors, we also imitate God. Jack Casey’s faithfulness gave the accident victim, his ambulance crew and others a glimpse of the God who stays right beside God’s people to the very end of measured time and beyond.
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