Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 7, 2021
Exodus 20:1-17 Commentary
On this Third Sunday of Lent, the RCL continues its focus on the theme of covenant. Though our immediate text does not mention covenant, it is very clear from the context (Exodus 19-24) that the Ten Commandments are part of a covenant making ceremony between the God who liberated his people and those liberated people. These 10 words are the terms of the covenant for Israel, God’s gracious rules designed to keep them liberated. Since I wrote on these very words only 6 months ago (see my Sermon Commentary for October 4), I refer you to that piece for extensive comments.
Here I will add only a few thoughts related to how you might preach this text in a Lenten setting. But first I want you to notice the way the Lectionary is developing this covenant theme. Last week we focused on the third iteration of God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17), in which God gave Abraham one simple command (“walk before me and be blameless”) and one painful sign (circumcision) of that covenant. In that text God made covenant with one man and his family with the promise that he/they will become numerous, even many nations. Now, God gives Ten Commandments to the Nation of Israel and gives not a painful sign, but a terrifying theophany. Next week we will see how Israel broke that covenant and how God restored it.
As I mentioned above and elaborated on in the October 4 Sermon Commentary, God intended these Ten Words to be Israel’s guide to continued liberty. They have just been freed from the house of bondage, having spent over 400 years under the thumb of a pagan people. That was the only life they knew. So, God gives them 10 clear, strong rules to keep them from slipping back into pagan bondage, so that they could live the life of God’s liberated children. Only if they lived this way could they be the blessing to the nations that God had intended when he began this covenant relationship (Genesis 12:3).
That original setting of the Ten Commandments reminds us that our covenant relationship with this same God is not simply a hand holding, arm swinging skip through the park. Yes, we are saved by grace and sustained by grace, but to enjoy that grace we must live as God outlines here. As Paul said in a different context, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery (Gal. 5:1).” Liberty is not lawless living. The law helps guard our liberated living.
I know perfectly well that Paul was fulminating in Galatians against an illegitimate use of the Law of God, particularly the “law” of circumcision. God had given that “law” as a sign of his gracious covenant, but some in the early Jewish Christian church had turned it into a requirement for salvation. Faith in Christ wasn’t enough; you also had to be circumcised in order to be part of the Abrahamic covenant and truly saved. Paul said such a theology was a wrong use of the Law of God and, playing with words, thundered that those who preached that kind of theology would be “cut off from Christ.”
Which raises the perennial question, how then should Christians use the Law of God? How should we preach on Exodus 20 on this Third Sunday of Lent? In my theological tradition, we talk about the three uses of the law. On the broadest level, God’s revealed law has a civil use. It can help restrain evil in society. Thus, it can contribute to civil order. Heaven knows we need such a voice of restraint in our culture today. So, you could use this text to call for civil righteousness, though I’m not sure who will hear that word in the wider culture. But such a sermon could serve as a reminder of how God intends our common life to function.
Closer to home, we could preach on this text focusing on a another classically Reformed use of the Law, which we often call the First Use. The Law of God is a mirror for sinners, reflecting the perfect righteousness of God and our own sinfulness. By looking into the Law, we gain a knowledge of our own sin and our need for pardon. The Law, then, is a teacher of sin and a schoolmaster that leads us to Christ. This kind of emphasis surely fits into the season of Lent. A straightforward, no holds barred sermon on the details of our sin as outlined in the Ten Commandments could remind our people how much we need salvation in Christ. Such a sermon could end with a call to repentance and faith in Jesus.
Or we could focus on the Third Use of the Law. It is a guide to gratitude. Focusing not on the guilt of our sins but on the grace that forgives our sin, a sermon on the third use of the Law would help us live the kind of lives that please our gracious Father in heaven. This use of the Law is not sub-Christian. Indeed, when Jesus gave his disciples the Great Commission, he told them to go into all the world and make disciples, “teaching them to observe all I have commanded you.”
While Exodus 20 ends with a strong call to fear the Lord who gives these commands, Jesus gave his disciples a different orientation when he said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command (John 14:15).” So, you can preach a very loving sermon on these Ten Words. Here is our loving Lord calling us to live in love, a love outlined in clear, strong commands. His intention is not to restrict our lives, but to help us live truly abundant lives (John 10:10). That would be a very welcome Lenten sermon.
When he was just a toddler, our youngest grandson had no sense of danger. He careened around the house wildly with no regard for potential harm to his person. He had a particular fascination with the steps going down to the basement. He would charge up to the brink and peer down with a delighted grin on his face. We babysitting grandparents would sternly say, “No, no!” But he continued to court danger. So, his parents put up a gate that barred his entrance. He would stand on his tiptoes to gaze over it. He would shake it. Try to open it. Sometimes shout at it in frustration. He hated that gate. Then one day, we forgot to close the gate and before we knew it, he had taken one wild step into the void. We heard him bounce down those stairs and found him unconscious at the bottom. He came to and was fine, after we nearly died in fear. Were our stern “No’s’” and that annoying gate intended to ruin his life? No, exactly the opposite. So it is with God’s Law.
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