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I Will Be Your God

Part Three of “The God Who Makes Promises”

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
March 11, 2012

The Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 20:1-17 

Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. 12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13 You shall not murder. 14 You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor (NRSV).

This is the third sermon in a series called “The God Who Makes Promises,” and I want us to pause for a moment and consider just how remarkable that is—that God would make promises to us.  You would expect it to work the other way, that we would make promises to him.  But here is a God who purges the evil in the world with a cleansing flood and then comes to Noah and says, “Never again.  I promise”; A God who comes to Abraham in his childless old age and says, “I promise, someday your descendants will be as countless as the stars”; a God who, in today’s reading, comes to the children of Israel and says, “I promise, if you will be my people, I will be your God.”  God comes to us making covenants, and as I used to tell the children in my fourth and fifth grade Sunday school class, a covenant is a promise, and not just any kind of promise, but a special and solemn promise, the kind you might make at a wedding.   

It’s been a long time since I was in seminary, but as I recall in Old Testament times if one person wanted to make a solemn promise to another he would do so by “cutting a covenant,” and I use the word cutting quite literally.  He would slaughter an animal—perhaps a sheep or a goat—cut it in half, and lay that bloody offering before the other person, saying, “May the Lord do so to me and more if I do not keep my promise to you.”  Now, that’s the kind of visual aid that will stick with you.  If you ever thought about breaking your promise to that other person all you would have to do is remember the two, bloody halves of that animal’s carcass to convince you that promise-keeping was a good thing.  In fact, it’s almost a shame that we don’t do that sort of thing with our modern-day covenants.  The marriage covenant, for instance.  Don’t you think it would be memorable if, somewhere during the ceremony, the father of the bride put a live chicken up on a chopping block, hacked it in two with a meat cleaver, and said to the groom, “That’s what I’m going to do to you if your ever break my daughter’s heart!”  I think the divorce rate around the world might begin to drop.  As I said, it’s a visual aid that sticks with you.

But remember that in the original covenant-making ceremony no one said, “That’s what I’m going to do to you if you break this promise,” but instead, “May the Lord do so to me, and more, if I ever break this promise.”  That’s an important distinction.  You weren’t threatening someone else with death when you did it, you were wishing it on yourself.  That’s how committed you were to keeping the promise.  Seen in this way the covenant is not a mandatory, but a voluntary, thing; it’s not a shotgun wedding where the father of the bride forces some young man to marry his daughter, but a wonder of love in which two people gladly make promises to each other through the expression of their vows.  “I John, take you, Mary, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, as long as we both shall live.”  Can you hear it?  “I, John.”  It’s a personal responsibility.  “Take you, Mary.”  It’s a voluntary commitment.  “To be my lawfully wedded wife.”  It’s a solemn and binding covenant.

Without having to sacrifice a single chicken most marriages could be made stronger if both partners simply kept the promises they made on their wedding day.  Think about a marriage in which each partner really had and held the other, when things were good and when they were not, when there was money and when there wasn’t, when they were sick and when they were healthy.  Think about a marriage in which each partner really spent some time loving and cherishing the other, every day, as long as they both should live.  It would be a wonderful marriage, wouldn’t it?  But a marriage like that is made only be free and mutual covenant-keeping.  Push too hard from either side, make too many demands, and the whole thing will collapse. 

Now, I say all this about marriage and covenants and chickens in order to say this about the Ten Commandments: they are not just a list of ten rules to live by, although we sometimes think of them that way.  I once heard a woman say that if we could all just live by the Ten Commandments we would be fine, and she was right of course.  If no one ever murdered, or stole, or lied, if no one ever coveted or committed adultery, if everyone always honored their parents we would be fine, wouldn’t we?  All of us.  It’s that kind of thinking that put the Ten Commandments up in the public schools years ago.  “There!” someone said, after nailing them to the wall.  “While you kids are learning, learn this.  Ten good rules to live by; one for each finger.”  The only problem with that kind of thinking is that it violates the nature of these commandments.  These are not just rules to live by, but the particular terms of the covenant between God and his people.  They are intimate and sacred, and in that sense more like wedding vows than anything else.  You wouldn’t nail those to a schoolhouse wall, would you?  Of course not.  You whisper those vows in holy places, in the sanctity of a wedding ceremony.  You speak them to your one true love, making promises you intend to keep forever.

Now maybe it would be nice if everybody lived by the wedding vows, but they can’t can they?  You can’t have and hold everyone (although some people try).  You can only live out those vows in the context of marriage to another person, and it’s the same with the Ten Commandments: you can only live them out in the context of a covenant relationship with God.  That’s why they come where they do in the story.  In the opening chapters of Exodus God sees the plight of his people, who are slaves in Egypt.  He comes to their rescue, and delivers them by the hand of his servant, Moses.  He leads them through the waters of the Red Sea, and woos them in the wilderness.  And then in chapter 19, after they’ve had plenty of time to get to know each other, he proposes: “If you obey me and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession.”  And the people respond, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”  In chapter 20 God writes his own vows, what we call the Ten Commandments, and the priest—Moses—pronounces them.  Then he asks the people, “Will you do all these things?”  And they respond, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.”  In chapter 24 Moses says, “I now pronounce you…People and God!” And then oxen are slaughtered for the marriage feast and Moses throws some of the blood on the altar and some of the blood on the people and says to them, “This is the blood of the covenant.”

How’s that for a visual aid?

Do you see how no one was forced into this agreement?  It was voluntary.  It is still voluntary.  We don’t have to be God’s people.  God isn’t going to point a shotgun at us or chop a chicken in half and say, “That’s what I’ll do to you if you won’t be mine!”  We don’t have to keep these promises.  But I want you to think about how different things might be if we did, beginning with commandment number one:

  1. You shall have no other gods before me.  Think about a relationship with God in which we really didn’t, in which our loyalty and allegiance were devoted to him and him alone.  When anyone asked us who was in charge of our lives we could simply say, “He is.  No one forced us into this arrangement.  We volunteered.”
  2. You shall not make for yourself an idol.  Think about a relationship with God in which we never bent the knee to the gods of money, sex, or power; never gave undue reverence to houses, clothes, or cars; never depended on wit, or charm, or good looks to save us—just God.
  3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.  Think about a relationship in which we never took the Lord’s name in vain through constant and casual use, but instead whispered it like a prayer, sang it like a love song, recited it like poetry, and lived our lives in such a way that he was never ashamed of his association with us.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  Think about a relationship with God in which, rather than discussing whether or not we should cut the grass on Sunday, we eagerly looked forward to that one day each week we could devote entirely to him, thought of ways to spend it with him like you think about spending time with a lover.
  5. Honor your father and mother.  Think about the generosity of a God who not only includes himself in these vows, but includes our parents as well.  What kind of world would it be if we really did honor our fathers and mothers?  If we not only did what they asked when we were young, but asked what we could do when they were older?  If we never rolled our eyes when we talked about them, but instead mentioned their names with the kind of reverence appropriate to those who gave us life and sustained it through our youth, who loved us and sacrificed for us?
  6. You shall not murder.  Stretch your imagination even more, and think about what kind of world it would be if it wasn’t only us but everybody who obeyed the Ten Commandments.  The one about not murdering, for instance.  What if nobody ever murdered anybody anymore?  If you didn’t have to be afraid of that?  If you could walk down the darkest alley, in the biggest city, in the dead of night, without trembling, without your heart beating faster?  What kind of life would it be if there were no fear anymore, and no need to fear harm from anyone?
  7. You shall not commit adultery.  What kind of world would it be if no one ever did that, so that wives never had to wonder and husbands never had to suspect?  A world where the institution of marriage was regarded with such reverence that no one would even look on a married woman with lust in his eye, and no woman would ever long for a married man.  A world where the wedding band was a strong, circular wall that kept proper desire in and improper desire out.  It might put an end to jealousy and suspicion!
  8. You shall not steal.  And what kind of world would it be if no one ever did that, so that you could leave your doors unlocked, and big piles of money on the bed.  A world where you didn’t have to have a security system, where you didn’t have to be obsessed with locking, guarding, protecting your things because no one would take them anyway.  Think of the freedom that would bring, the peace of mind!
  9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  What kind of world would it be if no one ever talked about you behind your back, so that you didn’t have to spend time clearing your name, responding to rumors, dealing with slander, but instead had the freedom to live the life God had given you? Think about how much time you would save in not worrying about your reputation, and not watching your every move through the eyes of others.
  10. You shall not covet.  And, finally, what kind of world would it be if no one else wanted your things, if they could celebrate with you when you got a raise or a new car rather than making snide remarks about it?  If they could admire your home, your family, your job, in such a way that you knew they were genuinely glad for you and not just wishing you would drop dead so they could have it all for themselves?  Wouldn’t that be a wonderful world?

          It would.  Of course it would.  But it is not a world that can be forced.  You can’t make somebody enter into a covenant just by hacking a chicken in half.  This is a voluntary thing in which you and I are absolutely free to keep the commandments or ignore them.  But what a world it would be if we kept them.  What a world it would be if everybody kept them!  I think that’s part of the problem.  We begin to see the potential in this covenant agreement.  We begin to think how wonderful things would be if everybody just kept the Ten Commandments.  We start petitioning Congress to put them back up on the schoolhouse walls.  But in the end we have to remember that these are not rules but vows, and God’s proposal in Exodus 19 gives that away.  “If you will be my people,” he says, “I will be your God.”  And then he waits to see if we will say yes.

          Even God doesn’t force us to say yes, and we can’t force anyone to keep his commandments.  But we can do this: we can decide that whether or not anybody else keeps them, we will.  We will make God our only God.  We will not bow down to any idols.  We will keep his name holy.  We will keep his day holy.  We will honor our fathers and mothers.  We will not murder.  We will not commit adultery.  We will not steal.  We will not slander.  We will not covet.  The world may not do all those things, but on this day, in this place, we can answer God’s promise with a promise of our own.  “Yes,” we can say.  “We will be your people, we will keep your commandments, from this time forth, and even forevermore.”

          Amen.

—Jim Somerville 2012

 
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