“A Conversation About Covenant: A Covenant Compromised”

A Covenant Compromised

First Baptist Richmond, March 3, 2024

Exodus 20:1-17

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

Often someone will say to me after a sermon, “You know what I’d like to hear? I’d like to hear a sermon on the Ten Commandments.” And when I say “often” I’m not exaggerating. In nearly four decades as a pastor I would guess that I’ve gotten more requests for a sermon on the Ten Commandments than on any other topic. Maybe that’s why, in the summer of 2020, I went off-lectionary and spent ten weeks preaching that very thing. I called the series, “People like Us,” as in, “People like us don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery.” I thought it was one of my best series ever, but after worship the next Sunday someone said, “You know what I’d like to hear? I’d like to hear a sermon on the Ten Commandments.”

You have to remember: it was summer, when people regularly take vacations or head to the river; attendance is spotty at best. But it was also the summer of 2020: we were struggling through the deadliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic during a bitterly divisive election year while monuments were coming down on the street in front of the church and people everywhere were protesting for racial justice and there I was trying to preach a ten-part series from a 3,000 year-old document. We were all a little distracted. But what did that person want, the one who asked me for a sermon on the Ten Commandments? He wanted things to be better than they were. He wanted to restore some sense of order, some decency. He believed that if everyone would just obey the Ten

Commandments, all would be right with the world.

And he wasn’t wrong about that.

I believe that if everyone would just obey the Ten Commandments all would be right with the world, or at least, the world would be a better place than it is if people didn’t murder each other or steal from each other or sleep with each other’s wives or covet each other’s possessions. That just makes sense! And that’s the kind of thinking that leads some people to say, “We should post the Ten Commandments in every public school in the nation! We should set up a monument in front of every courthouse with the Ten Commandments chiseled in stone!”

That’s fine until you realize that the Ten Commandments are not just rules for making the world a better place, not some simple moral code. No, the Ten Commandments are the very heart of the covenant God made with his people after he brought them out of slavery. They are ancient words, sacred words, holy words. As such, they are deeply religious, and America has a problem with posting religious words on the walls of public schools.

Let me remind you.

Baptists came to this country from England in search of religious freedom. They had separated themselves from the Church of England because that church insisted on baptizing their babies. It was how they became citizens of the State, how their names were added to the national census—through baptism! The people who would come to be known as Baptists couldn’t find anything in the New Testament to support the practice of infant baptism. They came to believe that it was unbiblical. And they weren’t about to participate in the government-sponsored baptism of their babies.

So, they left England. They came to this country in search of religious liberty. And it was Baptists like John Leland from Virginia who put pressure on James Madison to write religious liberty into the Constitution of the United States of America. It’s there, in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These new Americans didn’t want the government telling them they had to baptize their babies or that they couldn’t baptize their babies. But even before the Constitution was amended it was there, in Article VI: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” They didn’t want the government to decide you have to be a member of the Church of England in order to be president. So, let me say this as gently as I can: I don’t believe that America was founded as a Christian nation. No, I believe that what made America remarkable—both then and now—is the promise of religious liberty for all.

So, the next time someone asks you to post the Ten Commandments on the wall of a public school or even in a public restroom, say no, not because they aren’t ten very good rules and not because the world wouldn’t be a better place if everyone obeyed them, but because they are fundamentally religious; they begin by insisting that whoever follows these rules will have one God—no more!—and that the God they will have is the one who liberated the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from their slavery in Egypt, the One who brought them through the treacherous waters of the Red Sea, the One who led them to the foot of Mount Sinai, where this covenant was made. If you read it in the right way this covenant is not only religious, it’s almost romantic.

God is like the handsome prince who rides across the desert to the place

where his beloved is being held captive by an evil king. He climbs over the wall of a fortress, fights his way past a dozen guards, props a ladder against the tower where she is being held, rescues her, and then gallops away to a secluded spot where he kneels in front of her, takes her hand, and says:

You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. If you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure. The whole Earth is mine to choose from, but you—you’re special.

That’s Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Exodus 19:4-5 from the Message, and you can see why the Ten Commandments aren’t for everyone. This is God’s marriage proposal to Israel, out there in the wilderness, and the Ten Commandments that follow in chapter 20 are the wedding vows. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to post my wedding vows on the wall of a public school! They are the sacred promises I made to my wife on the day we were married, and the Ten Commandments are the sacred promises God’s people made to him on the day they embraced his Covenant.

Moses told them to wash their clothes and consecrate themselves. God himself came down on top of Mount Sinai in a cloud of glory. And then, like the minister at a wedding, Moses said, “Do you, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, promise to have no other gods than this one, the one who brought you out of your slavery in Egypt?”

They said, “We do.”

“Do you promise not to make idols for yourselves, or to bow down before anything other than God? Do you promise to keep his name sacred and his day holy?”

They said, “We do.”

“And when it comes to your relations with each other, do you promise to honor your father and mother, so that your days may be long in the land? Do you promise not to murder each other or steal from each other or sleep with each other’s spouses? Do you promise not to bear false witness against your neighbor or to covet your neighbor’s things?”

They said, “We do.”

And Moses said, “I now pronounce you God and people. May you honor these vows and hold them fast as long as you both shall live.”

Or something like that.

And that’s why you can’t ask just anybody to keep the Ten Commandments. Do you remember what those fifth and sixth graders I used to teach in Sunday school would say when I asked them to define a covenant? They would say, “A covenant is a promise.” “Just any kind of promise?” I would ask. “No,” they would answer, “A special kind of promise, like the kind you would make at a wedding.” They were right about that, and in this series we have been looking at the special promise God made to Noah, when he put that rainbow in the sky and told him he would never again destroy the world with a flood. And the one he made to Abraham, when he told him that someday he would give to him both a land and a people. But the covenant at Mount Sinai is different. Here, for the first time, God’s covenant is conditional. Here, for the first time, God says, “If you will be my people, then I will be your God.” But the corollary is also true: “If you will not be my people, then I will not be your God.”

We need to be careful here because it would be easy to misunderstand. It would be easy to believe that if you don’t keep the Ten Commandments you won’t

be saved. Old Testament scholar John Hayes writes, “When it comes to the Ten Commandments we need to remember, first of all, that God has already saved his people [he has delivered them from slavery]. To obey the commandments, then, is to act in grateful response, to live out one’s role in a covenant relationship. Second, the basic force of these, as well as other Old Testament laws, is to define the limits of what it means to be a covenant people. One who fails to live by these stipulations has placed himself or herself outside the covenant.”i So, imagine this covenant as a circle—like a wedding ring, but a really big one—with God at the center, inviting you to come inside. You don’t have to do it; it’s completely voluntary, just like marriage itself. And you don’t have to keep the Ten Commandments—these wedding vows—to get inside the circle, but once you are in you will keep them just so everyone will know you belong to God.

Back to that person who asked me to preach on the Ten Commandments: I think he knew that if everyone would just keep them the world would be a better place. It would be, but it has to be voluntary. You can’t force people to keep the Ten Commandments (can you imagine what America would look like if that were true, if you got written up for coveting your neighbor’s possessions?). But can you imagine what America would look like if those of us who call ourselves Christian simply kept the Commandments? The latest surveys indicate that there are some 210 million of us in this country—nearly two thirds of the population. What if we had no other god but God? What if we didn’t make idols out of anything else, not money, sex, or power? What if we kept God’s name holy and kept God’s day holy? What if Christians were the ones who took the best care of their aging parents, the ones who never murdered, never committed adultery, never stole. What if they could be trusted to tell the truth in every circumstance and celebrated when

their neighbor got a new car. The world would be a better place, friends, the nation would be better, if only those of us who belong to God would live as if we were his.

—Jim Somerville © 2024

Decisions, Decisions: “Is the Lord Among Us or Not?”

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.

Friends, we are flying through the Old Testament!  It was only two weeks ago that we were standing with Eve in the Garden of Eden, trying to decide whether to obey God or eat the forbidden fruit.  We skipped over the subsequent stories of Cain and Abel, the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel, but last week we were there with Abraham, trying to decide whether or not to accept God’s invitation to go to the land that he would show him.  He said yes, and eventually became the father of Isaac, who became the father of Jacob, who became the father of 12 sons, most notably Joseph, who ended up second in command over all of Egypt and invited his entire family to join him there.

That’s where God’s people became slaves, and for 400 years that’s what they were, but in the Book of Exodus we learn how God set them free through a series of devastating plagues and with the help of a man named Moses.  Moses led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness, and that’s where we find them in today’s reading: in the middle of the desert with no drinking water. 

And that’s a real problem.

If you read the Preparation for Worship statement on the front of your bulletin about “the Rule of Threes” you know that you can survive for three minutes without oxygen (or in icy water), three hours without shelter (in harsh conditions), three weeks without food (Jesus would be an exception), but only three days without water.  People who spend any time in the wilderness know this and try to be prepared for it.  When my brother-in-law, Chuck, and his friend Lyndon went hiking in the desert years ago they started by driving out to the spot they hoped to reach by day three, and hiding a five-gallon container of water behind some rocks so they would have something to drink when they got there.  Because there is no water in the desert.  If you don’t bring your own you won’t have any.  So, they started off carrying a couple of gallons each, thinking that would easily get them to their hidden supply of water on day three.  But it was hotter than they thought it was going to be and they drank more water than they had planned to drink and by the end of day two they had run out.

They went ahead and camped, thinking they would get up early the next morning and start hiking before the sun got hot.  They could cover those five miles and reward themselves with a long, thirst-quenching drink of water.  But somewhere in the night Lyndon nudged Chuck and said, “What if it’s not there?  What if someone found our secret stash and stole it?”  And then Chuck couldn’t go back to sleep.  Seasoned hikers call this state of mind “water panic,” where you become so obsessed with finding water you can’t think of anything else.  Somewhere around midnight the two of them got up, packed up, and hiked five miles by the light of the moon to their secret stash where they each enjoyed a long, cool drink of the most delicious stuff in the world: water. 

But the children of Israel weren’t there yet.  They were in the middle of the desert, at a place called Rephidim, where Moses told them they were going to set up camp.  I’m not sure Moses had done a lot of camping.  My father used to have the complete set of Appalachian Trail guidebooks.  I remember looking through them as a boy and at every place the book suggested you might want to camp for the night it also gave directions to the nearest source of drinking water, usually within a hundred feet of the campsite.  Because that’s what made it a good campsite: an adequate supply of drinking water.  I know there weren’t any guidebooks for the Wilderness of Sin, where Moses and the Hebrew people were wandering, but still, if I were Moses, I might wait until I found an adequate supply of drinking water before announcing, “This looks like a good place to stop for the night!”

So, picture Rephidim: hot, dry, rocky, barren, with no drinking water in sight.  And then hear Moses saying, “Let’s camp here.”  The people would have just stared at him.  “Have you lost your mind?  Have you brought us out here to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?  Don’t you know the Rule of Threes?”  Some of them began to think it was time for a change of leadership.  Others began to pick up rocks.  Moses cried out to the Lord: “What shall I do with this people?  They are almost ready to stone me!”  And apparently some of them had already begun asking the question: “Is the Lord among us or not?” 

They should have known better. 

Today’s Old Testament lesson is Exodus 17:1-7, but if you turn back to chapter 16 you will find that the whole community of Israel set out from Elim and journeyed into the wilderness of Sin, between Elim and Mount Sinai.  They arrived there on the fifteenth day of the second month, one month after leaving the land of Egypt.  There, too, the whole community of Israel complained about Moses and his brother Aaron.  They said, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat and ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  You see?  In chapter 17 it’s thirst, but in chapter 16 it’s hunger.  There’s always something to complain about on a camping trip.  But God said to Moses, “I’m going to rain bread from heaven for these people.  I’m going to feed them till they want no more.”  So Moses said to the people, “Get ready.  You are about to see the glory of the Lord revealed.  He’s going to give you bread in the morning and meat in the evening because he has heard your complaints and plans to do something about them.”

And then quails came and covered up the camp.  The author of Exodus doesn’t say much about that.  He seems far more interested in the manna, this bread from heaven that he will spend the rest of the chapter talking about.  But the author of Numbers tells a story about a time when “a wind went out from the Lord, and it brought quails from the sea and let them fall beside the camp, about a day’s journey on this side and a day’s journey on the other side, all around the camp, about two cubits deep on the ground” (Numbers 11:31-32).  This was because the people were complaining, saying, “We have no meat to eat!”  The Lord said, “You want meat?  I’ll give you meat.  I’ll give you meat until you’re sick of it!”  And so these quail fall to the ground, exhausted, in a pile that is two cubits deep.  And a cubit, as you will recall, is the length of a man’s arm from his elbow to his fingertips—about 18 inches.  Two of them would be 36 inches.  Which means quail were lying three feet deep on the ground for a day’s journey in every direction. 

That’s a lot of quail! 

But God gave the people an equal amount of bread to eat, only not all at once.  He gave them manna every morning (except on the Sabbath, when they had the extra portion they had picked up the day before), enough for every person to eat until they were full, and he did it for the next forty years.  Let’s just say that every person was able to eat what we would call half a loaf of bread per day.  Over 40 years that would be 7,300 loaves for every person.  That’s a lot of bread!  I’m telling you that at the beginning of Exodus 16 the people complain because they don’t have any food to eat, and at the end of that chapter they have been stuffed with bread and quail.  So when we get to the beginning of chapter 17 and they don’t have any water they should know better than to complain.  They should know that the same God who rained down bread from heaven can certainly give them something to drink.

And he does. 

The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.  Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place massah and meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exodus 17:5-7).

Decisions, Decisions.

In the past two weeks we’ve looked at the decision Eve had to make when she was tempted by the forbidden fruit, and the decision Abram had to make when God invited him to go to a land that he would show him.  But today’s decision might be for all of us.  I think we have to decide: “Is the Lord among us, or not?”  Because we are living in a time when the church in America is struggling, and it’s not just because of the Pandemic.  The church was struggling long before that.  If you’ve read the little book I just published on Amazon—When the Sandcastle Crumbles—you know that it’s mostly about that.  The subtitle is, “Why is my church dying and what can I do about it?”  I talk about the church’s Golden Age, back in the 1950’s and early 60’s.  I talk about the collapse of Christendom in the decades that followed.  I talk about rebuilding the foundations on Christ, the Solid Rock, and finally about obeying his clear commands no matter what. 

We’ve been trying to do that here at First Baptist Church, and I think we’ve been successful, but every once in a while we get anxious anyway.  It happened a few months ago, when we were trying to approve the 2023 budget.  At the end of 2021 we had been optimistic.  We thought the Pandemic was pretty much over and we wanted to come out of it strong.  Somebody suggested a budget goal that seemed way out of reach but we approved it anyway.  That was before the stock market took a tumble at the beginning of 2022.  That was before inflation hit a 40-year high.  That was before we knew that the Pandemic would drag on and make people nervous about coming back to church.  As a result we didn’t reach our budget goal, and when it came to this year’s budget everyone was suddenly very conservative.  “We’ve got to cut back,” they said.  “We’ve got to cut way back!”

And so I sat in on staff meetings where our ministers were doing their best to cut expenses, but doing it at the expense of programs that have been life-giving and life-changing.  I’m fairly sure I saw tears in some of their eyes.  I sat in on a meeting where every person who had anything to do with church finances was at the table, and what they were saying was this: “We’ve got to come up with a realistic budget, one we can actually meet.”  And I didn’t disagree, but I wish I had remembered this passage from Exodus 17, because then I might have been inspired to ask, “Friends, is the Lord among us or not?  This is the God who rained bread from heaven, the God who fed his people quail in the wilderness, the God who brought forth water from a rock!  Do you think this God is unable to bring forth enough money to meet the church’s annual budget?”  But I didn’t think of this passage.  I just nodded my head and accepted the situation as it was. 

Last week we had staff meeting in the Adams Room, which is not where we usually meet, but it serves us as a kind of church parlor and history room: there are portraits of several previous pastors hanging on the walls.  We started our meeting with Bible study, as we usually do, and we looked at today’s reading from Exodus 17: “Water from the Rock.”  I told the staff what I wish I had said to the Finance Team at that meeting last year.  But then I looked up at the portrait of John Lansing Burrows, who was pastor of this church during the Civil War.  “Don’t you think he faced some hard times?” I asked, “When the Union Army was pouring into Richmond and the city was on fire and flames were coming up the hill toward First Baptist Church?  Don’t you think he had to ask, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’  And what about Ted Adams, for whom this room is named?  He was pastor during the latter days of the Great Depression and all of World War II.  Don’t you think there were times when he wondered, after hearing that another young member of his church had been killed in battle, ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’  And what about Jim Flamming,” I asked, “who held this church together when the denomination was splitting apart, when brothers and sisters in the Baptist family were calling each other horrible names and making terrible accusations.  Don’t you think he wondered, ‘Is the Lord among us, or not?’  I’m telling you, this church has been through some hard times in its 242-year history, times much harder than these, but the Lord was with us, and we made it through, and it’s going to take a whole lot more than a budget deficit to do us in.” 

I think the question in today’s Old Testament lesson could become a kind of watchword, not only for the church but for each of us, in our families and in our personal lives.  I think when things get hard we could ask ourselves: “Is the Lord among us, or not?”  I don’t know how you will answer that question, but as for me and my house,

The answer is yes.  

—Jim Somerville © 2023