Decalogue discipleship

September 29, 2008

No preacher should miss this week’s opportunity to preach on the Ten Commandments.

Ten Commandments just won’t go away. Though Israel misplaced the
tablets of stone long ago, the Jews never forgot their decisive
encounter with the living God at the foot of Mount Sinai. They heard
God speak the words that were meant to forever shape their common life.
But as Paul later told the church at Corinth, their story reminds us
that hearing doesn’t guarantee doing—that observing the commandments is
not something we do with our eyes but with our actions (see 1
Corinthians 10).

• I have a friend
who preached a ten sermon series on the Decalogue this summer. His
intentionality contrasts with a profound amnesia about the Ten
Commandments in much Christian worship. Whereas it was once common to
rehearse them as part of weekly Sunday worship, they have now all but
disappeared from not only our worship, but from our consciousness. It
is important to note that the original, canonical context for the
commandments is worship (see Exodus 19), and that rightly practiced,
these commandments ground our worship in the living God and guard our
worship against every false god. A story to illustrate: a few years ago
I called my denomination’s bookstore to order a book. The person who
answered the phone said, “Hello, would you like to order patriotic
worship bulletins or flags today?” “No, and don’t get me started,” I
replied. What I should have said is “No, as a Christian I am forbidden
by the Ten Commandments to worship falsely.”

• Don’t hear my
suggestion that we reclaim the Decalogue as more strident calling for
commandment displays in schools and courthouses, or another nostalgic
rant about America declining because we’ve lost sight of the
commandments. I did suggest once, tongue in cheek, that “Coveting
begins with television rather than kindergarten teachers; it flourishes
at the mall more than the school. Let the Ten Commandments be engraved
over the entrance to Wal-Mart, let them be read aloud at next year’s
Super Bowl halftime.” In fact, Israel lost sight of the commandments
pretty quickly. Sure, God inscribed them on tablets of stone, but
almost immediately had Moses hide them in the ark of the covenant,
never to be viewed again. Israel was supposed to keep the tablets
well-hidden because Israel was supposed to keep the commandments in
plain sight. That is, they were to live out these commandments in such
a public, visible, obvious way that the world would sit up and take
notice. The appropriate display of the Decalogue is not a plaque on a
wall, nor a replica out front, but the faithful people of God.

The key for any preacher is to find the gospel in the text, and that
can be tricky if the text is a list of laws that we are most prone to
take as constraints or limits. After all, eight of these ten words are
“no” or “don’t.”Yet in the end and on the whole they articulate God’s
active, saving “yes,” the same “Yes” that takes flesh in Christ and
takes form in faithful ministry (see 2 Corinthians 1:19-20).

place I find gospel in this text is by considering how Jews number the
commandments. Some Christians will be vaguely aware that Catholics and
Lutherans count commandments differently from Presbyterians and
Methodists; the former see the first commandment running from “no other
gods” to “make no idols,” whereas the latter count “no idols” as
commandment number two.

Less well known is the fact that Jews
count “no other gods” as the second commandment. The first commandment
in Jewish tradition is “I am the Lord your God.” Let’s parse the
grammar of that for a moment: grammatically, commands and laws have the
imperative form. But “I am your God” is not an imperative; there is no
rule to keep or action to do. It is an indicative, an announcement:
gospel news for a people desperate to hear it. It is a creative word
that speaks into reality a new existence: I am your God and you are my
people. This reorients the grammar of the Decalogue, for it means that
the one who keeps the first commandment—on which all the other
commandments rest—is the faithful One of Israel. The other nine
commands for Jews—all imperative in form, all engaging Israel’s active
response to divine initiative—simply shape a life of gratitude, a life
poured out in grateful response to the gospel announcement that
precedes: I am your God.

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