“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