A Sermon Series on the Ten Commandments
Exodus 20:1-3; Matthew 22:36-40
Rev. Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
January 10, 2021
Each week in this sermon series I will be preaching from a different location around the church property because I think that the various locations can help underscore something important about the particular commandment that we are looking at that day.
Today, we’re in the Sanctuary and I am standing in the chancel area where we sometimes have weddings. Some of you have been married in this very spot. As we will see, this has much to do with today’s commandment, and much to do with our call as Christians in this nation in this time.
First, though, some background information on the reading you already heard from Exodus 20:
Exodus chapters 19 and 20 are a wedding – complete with vows. In chapter 19, we hear God address the people of God whom he has just taken out of slavery to Egypt as say, “My treasured possession.” That is wedding language. That is a phrase a groom would call his bride.
We also read in chapter 19 that the people do a ritual cleansing, as a bride and groom would have done before marriage. We read that a thick cloud covers Mt. Sinai – like a chuppah, a wedding canopy because what is happening as the people gather before God at Mt. Sinai is actually a wedding. In fact, throughout the Scriptures, we hear God speak of Israel as God’s bride. God and the people are married. And this is the wedding.
Where, we say, are the vows? Those enduring promises for better or for worse? They are the Ten Commandments. Or the Ten “Words” as the actual translation goes.
And the first word in these vows is as you heard: “You shall have no other gods before me” (or beside me or next to me or above me as it can also be translated).
This is marriage, and it doesn’t work if there are other lovers.
Jesus declares the same thing in the positive on a number of occasions, including in Matthew 22:36-40: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. ’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. ’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
The way the church asks about this vow in our contemporary context is by way of a question when one is baptized or joins the church:
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Lord and Savior, trusting in his grace and love? I do.
We, alongside all of God’s people, affirm our vow in this covenant relationship with God. And that is right and good we do it that way, but it is also good never to lose sight of the way the first commandment, the word names the vow, because as short as it is, the way it is worded makes it quite clear that there are other gods out there who are attractive and empty and will threaten this covenant. Other gods whose promises in certain seasons will seem so good, so much better… and so tempt us to break the vow.
Famously, Jesus himself, right after his baptism, do you remember what happened? Jesus is tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. The devil tempts him to turn stone into bread and to take all the kingdoms of the world – which is to say, right off the bat Jesus is tempted with other loves. In particular, Jesus is tempted with the god of power – take stones and do what you want; take kingdoms and lead according to whatever vision you have. Jesus for President. He refused.
Right from the outset of his ministry, Jesus refuses to tie his kingdom’s power and influence to any of the powers of the day. His kingdom may at times and in part overlap with the powers and nations of the world, but his kingdom is and always will be fundamentally different and never readily aligned with any one power, platform, or party. And we know this because ultimately Jesus’ way of redeeming the world is not by overcoming it with all the strongest worldly powers available…but by becoming a servant, a servant even unto death for the sake of all people. He tells the devil, ‘no.’
Some of you follow fellow Texan Beth Moore – maybe you use her devotionals and Bible study material. As she saw the amount of Jesus signage and t-shirts and crosses enmeshed in, on, and among the political movement and violence storming the capitol, she lamented, “They may be acting in the name of some other Jesus but that’s not Jesus of the Gospels.” That’s not the Jesus who refused to tie his name and ministry to political platforms and power and told Peter to put away the sword.
As Presbyterians, we have a Book of Confessions, a book where we have adopted certain statements of faith that help us articulate what really matters – and I find those statements to be really important to dig up and look at again in times when we are not sure where to find the words for how to think or act. This really is a repository of wisdom from the saints of yesterday as they went through any number of significant challenges.
One of those is the Barmen Declaration written in Germany in 1933. Listen to this portion:
“With both its faith and its obedience, with both its message and its order, the church has to testify in the midst of the sinful world…that it belongs to (Jesus) alone and lives and may live by his comfort and under his direction alone…”
Our vow is to Jesus first and Jesus above all other vows, however good or important other vows are.
And then it goes on to spell out some significant implications of that statement, including… “We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.”
The church cannot and will not hand over all that it is about to any politician or platform or prevailing movement of power – left, right or otherwise.
It’s not that the church seeks to dishonor governing authorities – no, there are certainly Scriptures that call us to that. It is that we have long recognized – certainly, since the Reformation – the inherent danger whenever the church and political power and platforms become too indistinguishable. When the way of this platform, this person is what Jesus wants and what Jesus wants is the way of this platform, this person.
Reinhold Niebuhr, the famous American theologian of the early and mid-20th century, he named the danger of this enmeshment in this way, saying that in every generation there is such a strong “tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends (and that) is the source of all religious fanaticism.”
That is the source all forms of intolerance, violence and lies enacted in the name of a righteous, religious cause.
“You shall have no other gods before me, beside me, next to me.”
On this day where we are still despairing and angered and hurting by what happened on Wednesday… In this age of heightened political identity and even calls for civil war along those rigid lines… In an age where the temptation is so strong to ‘stick with your partisan side’ no matter what…
…How does the church untangle itself?
…How does the church on one hand remain involved in the ordering of our society? After all, our own Confession of 1967 exhorts, “The church is called to command to the nations as practical policies the search for cooperation and peace.” We have a voice unto truth and goodness! How do we remain involved in the critical matters that bear upon us all?
…and at the same time….
…How does the church refrain from giving Jesus over to any one platform or party or movement that we might always be free to speak to Gospel truth to any form power, always free to stand with the poor and most vulnerable above all else, always free to pursue and proclaim the kingdom of God whose kingdom calls into question every other platform at some level?
In short…How is it that we remain in the world but also not of the world recognizing our singular and first allegiance to Jesus, Love Himself, Who alone has died for us, risen for us, and is worthy?
That is a question every generation of the church of Jesus Christ faces, and let’s admit at the outset that is difficult on-going work.
But, I saw a photo this past week that gave me an image for something of what it looks like to be the church in our time that is both in but not of the world. It was a photo of a Christian on his knees, in the rotunda of the Capitol building, very early on Thursday morning. He had a bag in hand, and he was cleaning up the water bottles and clothing items and various pieces of trash left behind by those who had stormed the Capitol on Wednesday. And the more I thought of this particular photo, the more I felt the posture captured two things directly related to what God is calling the church to be about today.
The first is this: we remain in the rotunda of competing and complex issues with humility and confession. As much as Wednesday’s events may have stirred any number of emotions within us, we also have to recognize – all of us – have a part in letting other gods be put ahead of Jesus.
Often, it is has been the gods of our party, our platform, our preferred president. And if Wednesday’s events did not give us enough of a glimpse into what that can look like…I want to invite a brief thought experiment.
I did not tell you the political affiliation of the man in that rotunda photo. Maybe you already know. But if you do not, and if you were to go look it up…would one of two things happen for any of us?
Would any of us look, see that is from our preferred party – and so gain a smug satisfaction. “I knew the Jesus way people are these people.”
Or would if we saw he is of the other party from our preferred party – would we roll our eyes and quickly wonder about what forms of hypocrisy that this person may have in his political closet.
I would suggest the degree to which we would have either of those responses – either a smug, prideful, I-knew-it satisfaction or a disdainful, eye-rolling, I-bet-you-he-is-not-as-good-as-you-think…the degree to which we have either of those betrays the degree to which we are letting a partisan god or gods stand with or above Jesus.
Because in both instances we are blind to the fact that foremost what we have is a child of God, serving amid the mess – and so we give thanks to Jesus.
“In each time and place there are particular problems and crises through which God calls the church to act,” declares the Confession of 1967 at one point in our Book of Confessions. “The church (in these times), guided by the Spirit, humbled by its complicity…seeks to discern the will of God and learn how to obey in these concrete situations.”
Notice the wisdom of our fore-bearers…every age faces challenge and crises…we lead never from a place of righteousness, and always from a place of confession.
We are complicit; we begin our work in the rotunda on our knees.
The other thing that photo made me mindful about is this: we are called to be about cleaning up the mess right now.
Certainly, humility and confession is part of that. But when I think about cleaning up the mess, especially in the context of wedding vows and marriage, I am drawn to think of the couples who have come to me to talk about renewing their vows.
Sometimes couples will renew their vows at a significant anniversary. But the other main time I find couples have interest in renewing their vows is when they are working through a really tough spot.
They see hope – they see a good direction…but they have been through one of those seasons where so much of who they were or who they thought they were has been stripped away.
They have been living through some measure of the carnage and pain that happens other things are put above the vows or the vows are just forgotten…
They come in those seasons where they have been chastened, humbled, and also paradoxically revitalized.
And so it is precisely then that they want to renew their vows. They want to name those truths with fresh clarity and conviction – having seen how bad it can get when those are not foremost, and also having a sense for how much joy is to be known when keeping them central.
Perhaps we’re are in such a season today. Amid our brokenness, our anger, our pain, our confusion…perhaps there is a whisper rising from within the soul of the church to come back to where it all started and renew our vows.
for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health as long as we shall have breath – we will love the Lord our God will all of our heart, mind, body, and soul above every other allegiance…and then without respect to party or citizenship or economics or race or allegiance – we will love our neighbors as ourselves.
And if for a moment we worry about how our Beloved looks back upon us as we renew our vows…take heart. This scene has already unfolded in Scripture. The bride who is Israel has cheated on God time and again.
In the book of Hosea we read how God is furious in grief and hurt and pain…and he ultimately says this to the bride in Hosea chapter 2: “Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her.”
May we be a people who remain in the rotunda, on our knees, ever-renewing our vows – confident that in every season God takes us – all of us – back. God is faithful. Amen.