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Chosen People, Chosen Ways

Sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., on Mar. 15, 2009.

Exodus 20:1-17

It is really very simple, you see. We “ you and I “ are descendants of the Judaeo-Christian tradition that holds to a basic, central conviction: Human life is to be lived before God. That’s the first part… Human life is to be lived before God. If you are into outlining, it is Point One. Human life is to be lived before God. One A is this: life before God has an order and structure.

Have you got that?

Point One: Human life is to be lived before God. Point One A: life before God has an order and structure.

To be honest, we’re not very good at it, especially the One A part that has to do with order and structure. From the very beginning, human types have shown their inability to follow the rules.

It started with Adam and Eve. They had only one, simple rule. You can have anything, you can do anything, you can eat anything. Except for one thing. There is a certain tree that is off-limits. So what did they do? You know, don’t you?

See what I mean? We’re just not very good at following the rules.

You’d think that if Adam and Eve couldn’t obey one commandment, the Hebrews would find it difficult to handle ten. But that is what God gives them, through his servant Moses, on Mount Sinai. Still, it’s pretty basic stuff. Ten commandments, one for each finger. Four Thou Shalts and six Thou Shalt Nots. The first five have to do with one’s relationship with God, the second five with one’s relationship with one’s neighbor. And there is no fine print, no wiggle room. Just do these things and you will be okay. That’s what the Bible says.

The fact that God gave these commandments to his children implies the notion that they could do otherwise, could behave in ways contrary to God’s obvious will. In other words, the Ten Commandments give God’s people choices.

For four hundred years the Hebrews didn’t have choices. Their choices were taken away when they were enslaved by the Egyptians, so all they had to do was what they were told. The consequences were as simple as the rules. You step out of line and you die.

But now that they have been freed and find themselves on this unplanned “ and perhaps in some cases, this unwanted “ journey through the wilderness, to a land that God has promised them, they find themselves in a situation that calls for order and purpose. And, to a certain extent, they have been given the freedom to follow the rules or not. When you’ve got that many people running around in the wilderness, not really understanding what is going on or why, there has to be some rules. If you don’t follow those rules, there will be consequences.

It really is quite basic stuff, when you stop and think about it.

I am told “ or at least I have heard “ that some criminals who have been imprisoned for long terms, when they are finally released, will commit another crime so they will be incarcerated again. Prison life has become the only life they know. Their meals and clothing are provided, the rules are handed down, and life is simpler and easier. On their own… well, they find very quickly that they just can’t handle the pressure of having to live by the rules on their own initiative.

I wonder if that’s not the way it is with this wandering bunch of Hebrews. They’ve been enslaved all their lives and they don’t know how to deal with this newfound freedom. They’re like children who have always been told what to do and now are on their own and can’t function without close supervision. So, God gives them rules to live by. After all, Moses can’t be in all places at all times telling them what to do. Some things they’ve got to figure out for themselves.

But they quickly discover, that just like Adam and Eve, order and purpose “ following the rules (the One A of our outline) “ is not their strong suit.

Last Sunday, the basketball Razorbacks played at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym. I’ve attended quite a few games there and can tell you firsthand that Memorial is unique in the way it is set up. Quirky is the way the Democrat-Gazette’s Bob Holt describes it. For one thing, the team benches are on the baselines, rather than the sidelines. The floor is raised so that the benches and press corps are looking up at the game. It definitely makes for an interesting perspective.

John Pelphrey, the Razorback basketball coach, played for Kentucky back in the early 90’s when Rick Pitino was his coach. He said, Because there’s no press row or chairs or benches on the sidelines, you can easily run out of bounds when you’re running your lane. He tells about one game he played in Memorial. I caught a ball standing out of bounds. Coach Pitino told me there is a new rule, that you had to stand inside that line or they’d blow the whistle and call you out of bounds. He wasn’t very happy with me. I got myself inside the line.

Well, here are the Hebrews. They’re in the wilderness, they’re trying to figure out what to do. Moses is doing his best, but he finds himself in a situation that is new for him as well. He’s never done this sort of thing. In fact, he did his best to beg off the job, but that Voice that came from the burning bush just wouldn’t see it any other way. God has his mind made up. Moses was his man. But right now, Moses is feeling like a failure. Herding cats would be a breeze compared to herding this recalcitrant bunch of Hebrews. They just won’t stay inbounds. In fact, Moses isn’t even sure where the boundary lines are. So if Moses doesn’t know, how can they?

Perhaps the hardest lesson Moses has to teach these people is that they have been chosen by God to be his people. This is not a recent development. Many, many years before, God had made covenant with his servant Abraham that from his loins would come a nation of people devoted to serving their God. There’s been a bump in the road… more like a crater, really. They have been enslaved by the Egyptians. But now they have been freed from such tyranny. It is a new chapter in the life of God’s chosen people.

A hard lesson to learn is that being freed from is one thing. Knowing what to do with that freedom is quite another. It is the quite another that Moses is facing now with these chosen people, and what he is trying to teach them is that chosen people are expected to behave in chosen ways.

And they need to understand that following these rules will not save them. They’ve already been saved. God makes that very clear from the outset: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery… (vs. 1). They are to follow these rules out of gratitude for what God has already done for them.

Approaching the Ten Commandments out of gratitude doesn’t seem to be a natural fit. Instead, we look at these rules, these boundaries, as telling us what not to do rather than what to do. We see them as burdens and not blessings.

But look at how God frames these commandments. God begins by reminding them of who he is. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery… They are a blessed people.

Maybe it’s the fact that the Ten Commandments are rules, and there’s something about our nature that doesn’t like rules. A little tomboy was sitting on her front porch one day when her daddy came home from work. It was obvious she was stewing about something, so her father asked her mother what was going on. Oh, said his wife, she just found out there’s a law of gravity, and she’s mad about it.

Would you jump off a ten-story building thinking there would be no consequence? Well, there are consequences when you step outside God’s boundaries as well. When God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, he was saying, in essence, ˜I love you. Look what I’ve done for you already. Now I want to give you something wonderful, which will help you to live joyfully and productively in the land I’m going to give you. Here are these sayings. Learn them and live by them. They will bless your lives.’

It is true that in the ensuing years there would be those who took these laws and interpreted them to death. They expanded these ten basic rules into such a restrictive state that it made them well-nigh impossible to live by. But one day a man came on the scene who embodied the essence of God’s intent for his children.

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets, Jesus said very clearly. I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. In fact, I would go so far as to say that God’s law cannot be adequately fulfilled without the counsel Jesus has given us, for the greatest law of all is the law of love.

Remember that after Jesus had died on the cross and was resurrected, he met with his disciples. He spoke to some of them individually, at least as it is recorded in the gospels. Most notably, he spoke to John and to Peter. To both, he did not ask if they were willing to obey him; he asked them if they loved him.

He still puts the question today to you and me. We can show him our love and devotion in no better way than to live out the spirit of these commandments, to remember that to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbor as ourselves is the greatest law of all. Do that, and these ten rules before you will take care of themselves.

Lord, help us be your people by following your law. May that law always lead us to Christ, and may Christ continue to teach us how to love. In your name we ask it, Amen.