20Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. 8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
1The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
2Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
3There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
4yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
5which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
6Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.
7The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
8the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
10More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
11Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
12But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.
13Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
14Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
I’ve played dominos with a number of people from our church and it seems like each family plays just a little differently. How many free trains do you allow, when can you play on another person’s train and when can they play on yours? Do you allow multiple paths off of a double, and if so is that open to everyone to play on? Do you draw one domino if you can’t play or do you keep drawing until you can play? These are all different rules for how we play dominos, and it is always best to know the rules by which you are playing before you start to play. This prevents problems in the middle of the game. Clear rules make games more enjoyable for everyone.
But rules aren’t just for games; we need rules in many different areas of life. We need rules when we are driving down the road so that we know which side of the road to drive on and when to stop, when to go, when we can only turn left or right. We need rules in society, even if they are unwritten, so that we can interact with other people. What do you do when you walk into an elevator? You turn around and face the front of the doors of the elevators rather than looking at the other people in the elevator. Try not facing the doors sometime and just walk into that little box and face the other people. Believe me, you will notice the tension within the elevator. You don’t stand too close to another person when you talk to them. We all have probably known “close talkers” that don’t seem to understand personal space, and often those people don’t know how important breath mints can be.
So we encounter rules every day of our lives. In our homes, places of work, in the market place, on the street, and yes, in our religion. I believe that most of the rules that we find in the Bible can be placed into two different categories: Love God and love your neighbors. And today I would like to look at our passages from Exodus 20 and the 19th Psalm to see why these rules are sweeter than honey and more valuable than gold.
Our scripture from the 19th Psalm begins with praise to God. The Psalmist, who is said to be (King?) David, declares that the heavens and the earth proclaim the glory of God. The God that we serve is a good god, creator of all things, provider of all that we need. God has put the sun in the sky to warm the earth, thus providing life to all of the living organisms that we can perceive. That is why David is writing this Psalm, praising the giver of life.
But then David takes a sharp turn from talking about our loving, caring, providing God, to talking about the laws of God. And not only does David talk about these laws, he seems to like these laws!
Look at verses 7-9. David says that the law of the Lord is perfect, the decrees of the Lord are sure, the precepts of the Lord are right, the commandment of the Lord is clear, the fear of the Lord is pure, the ordinances of the Lord are true. I don’t think that I’m stretching the truth to say that David liked the law! God’s law, according to David, is more precious than fine gold and sweeter than honey. Now this is a guy that likes him some law. But why?
I don’t always like rules and I don’t always like laws. I didn’t like being home by 10:00 when I was in high school, and I don’t like that I have to have my taxes done by April 15th. I don’t like the fact that I can’t turn right on red when turning off Churchville Rd. onto Springhill on my way home. I’m not a rebel and I’m not an anarchist, but I feel so boxed in by rules sometimes. So why did David love the laws of God so much that he would say that the law was more precious than gold and sweeter than honey?
What David is doing here is hammering in the point that the law is good, it is life giving. Now the word that is translated as law in our English versions of the Bible is the Hebrew word “torah”. The Torah is the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, the Pentateuch. To use the word law to describe the Torah is a bit misleading and it has been suggested that it would be better to translate this word as teachings or instructions, teachings and instructions that are life giving.
As a part of our readers’ forum for this morning, we heard excerpts from what we commonly refer to as the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments seem to be the foundational ethical teaching of the Hebrew Bible. If you want rules, here are 10 or more of the clearest rules you will find in the Bible. Just a quick recap of the 10:
ONE: ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’
TWO: ‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image–any likeness of anything that is
in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’
THREE: ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain.’
FOUR: ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.’
FIVE: ‘Honor your father and your mother.’
SIX: ‘You shall not murder.’
SEVEN: ‘You shall not commit adultery.’
EIGHT: ‘You shall not steal.’
NINE: ‘You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.’
TEN: ‘You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s
wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor
anything that is your neighbor’s.’
(Different religious groups tend to number the commandments differently. I’m not arguing for one way or another, just trying to get these out there and fresh in our memories.)
I would put the Ten Commandments into two different, yet equally important categories. But they aren’t my categories, they are Jesus’ categories. When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees which commandment was the most important, he replied by saying that the most important commandment is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and mind. The second most important commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says in Matthew 22:40, “On these commandments hang all the law and all the prophets.”
Now by saying that all of the laws and the prophets hang on these two commandments, he wasn’t saying that no other commandments matter. He was saying that these two commandments are the foundation of all other commandments. And that includes the 10 Commandments.
The Ten Commandments can be divided into these two greatest commandments of Jesus. Under loving the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and mind, I would put commandments 1,2, and 3. You are to have no god before the Lord. You are not to have any engraved images that might be worshiped as a god. And you are not to take the name of God lightly or loosely. Essentially, these three commandments are ways that you love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and mind.
Take for instance the drivers in NASCAR. In NASCAR you either love a driver or you hate that driver. Jeff Gordon is either your favorite or your least favorite. There is no in between.
I’ve never been to a race, but I’m told that when your favorite driver drives by, you cheer at the top of your lungs, jump up and down, and wave your arms as that driver goes by. But when your least favorite driver goes by you throw things at the car and boo that driver.
I think that this is what it means to love God with all of your heart, soul, and mind. To love God with all of your heart, soul, and mind means that you are dedicated to God and God alone. If there is any other god or any other human organization that competes with the one true God for our affection and our praise, than we are to avoid it. That is why the first three commandments tell us to put no other god before the Lord, that is why we are not to have engraved images of other gods, and that is why we are not even to make light of the name of God. God alone is holy and worthy of praise. Even more so than any NASCAR driver, even more so than Jeff Gordon or Michael Waltrip.
But then the second greatest commandment: to love your neighbor as yourself. How do these other commandments from the 10 fall into this category? Especially the 4th commandment, which tell us to remember the Sabbath day? Well the 4th commandment tells us that not only are we to take a day for rest, but to make sure that everyone in our care takes the day off as well. This is an issue of justice.
By taking a day of Sabbath we are saying that getting ahead financially at all costs is not our main objective. We are going to take it easy, if only for one day, and put our trust in the Lord everyday. Now it is probably obvious that some people, while they took a nice day off once a week, might be tempted to exploit their workers and have them do more than their fair share of the work. But Exodus 20 tells us not to make our sons or daughters, our servants, the foreigners, even the animals work on the Sabbath. We are to show love for all of these people and animals by giving them time to rest and worship God. I would say that observing the Sabbath actually fits into both categories of loving God and loving our neighbor.
Then look at the other commandments. I think they are a little clearer as to how they apply to loving your neighbor. Honor your father and mother. Don’t kill people. Don’t commit adultery, or steal, or lie about your neighbor, or be envious of your neighbor’s possessions. These commandments clearly apply toward the second greatest commandment to love your neighbor.
So I come back to the passage from 19th Psalm about how all of these rules are finer the gold and sweeter than honey. And when we strip down these rules to see why God might have given them to us in the first place, then we can begin to understand why David believed that they were so fine. The rules that we find in the Bible point us toward God, a good God, a loving god, and these rules help us to love one another, putting their wellbeing before our own selfish ambitions. Many of the rules in the Bible are there to help bring about equality.
So I come back to NASCAR. I don’t know a lot about NASCAR, but when I think of this sport, I don’t tend to think about rules. It’s just about seeing who can drive 500 miles the fastest, right? Wrong! There are rules on top of rules on top of rules in NASCAR, and many of these rules are in place so as to make the race fair and safe for everyone.
Before every race, cars are inspected for the size and angle of their rear spoiler, the cars are weighed and measured, and the engines must meet certain criteria that prevents drivers from having an unfair advantage (no overhead cams or fuel injected engines, for example). Then after the race, the top five finishers and one random finishing car are re-inspected to make sure that these things weren’t changed during the course of the race.
So why do they check these cars and check them again? Because some people don’t care about the rules. All they want is to win, even if it means that they have to cheat at someone else’s expense.
I think that even though God gives us some clear rules and guidelines, some people today don’t care. All they want is to “win” and usually that means that they want to acquire the most money, power, or prestige that they can, even if it comes at the expense of someone else. The rules that God gives us that fall into the category of “love your neighbor as yourself” seem to be intended to prevent people from living like this, taking what they can get, stealing, cheating, committing adultery, coveting, exploiting our employees.
So I ask you to compare two stories. The first is of our US Senate. Last week the US Senate made the decision that they would skip their pay raise in 2010, saving the US taxpayers about $4,700 per senator. The average pay for a US senator is currently $174,000. Now I don’t mean to dismiss the significance of the senate choosing to bypass their annual pay raise. But I don’t feel too bad for someone who will be making $174,000 next year instead of $178,700. Especially when we are living in an economic recession, unemployment is high, and our savings are low if not non-existent.
Now I compare this to a church that I have only heard stories about. There was this church where when someone needed a shovel, rather than go out and buy a new shovel for their self, they would be able to borrow their neighbor’s shovel at no cost. If someone needed money and there was no money to be had, the church members would sell things that they owned and give the money to those in need. And as these church members lived together in this community, sharing one another’s possessions and giving to those who had need, a phenomenal thing happened; they saw that there was no longer such a thing as needy people. And this church was drawing in people by the hundreds. People wanted to be a part of this church. They wanted to be a part of a community that loved God and loved their neighbor.
This church is the New Testament church that we find in Acts. The people did these things because they truly loved God and loved their neighbors. They followed the rules that God have put before them and they realized that these rules weren’t meant to keep them down, to oppress them, or to keep them from having fun. These rules showed them how to truly have life and to have it in abundance.
Like the NASCAR fans of today have their favorite drivers and would never think of cheering for another, the members of the early church put the love of God first, worshiping no other God, making no engraved images of fake gods, and recognizing the holiness of God. And like the rules of NASCAR that are meant to keep the playing field even, preventing people from trying to cheat to get ahead, the early church practiced the rules that God had set before them to love their neighbors through radical sharing.
I believe I am beginning to see what David meant when he said that the laws of God are finer than gold and sweeter than honey. Because when we live by the rules and laws of God, we get a little taste of heaven that is yet to come, the time when everyone will love God with all of their heart, mind, and soul, while loving their neighbor as themselves.