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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Lent 3/15

          The people of Israel agreed to the Ten Commandments before they even knew what they were.  Did you know that?  The commandments are given in chapter 20 of Exodus but back in chapter 19 Moses, after a first visit to God on the mountain, summoned and addressed the elders of the people who answered as one, “Everything the Lord has spoken we will do,” but they didn’t know yet what the Lord had spoken.  Now that runs contrary to our world where we’re cautioned not to sign anything, not to agree to anything until we’ve read the fine print.  I can’t imagine that the print on those tablets of stone was very fine but the people hadn’t read it yet, yet they say, “Everything the Lord has spoken we will do.”

          They didn’t know the commandments of the Lord yet, but they did know the commandments of Pharaoh and that’s what prompted them to respond as they did because they knew that whatever the Lord commanded had to be better than the commands of Pharaoh whose commands from the brickyard are back in chapter 5 of Exodus.  They go something like this:

          Get to your labors!  Make bricks!  Don’t look to us to gather straw for the bricks anymore; gather your own!  But make the same number of bricks!  Complete your work:  the same daily assignment as before!

You’re lazy!  Stop crying about going to sacrifice to your God!  Make bricks!  Let heavier work be laid on you!  You’re lazy! Lazy!!  Make bricks!  Produce!  Make bricks!

          Those were the commandments of the brickyard, an unrelenting brick quota and an impossible production schedule, so you can imagine that even though they didn’t know the particulars of God’s commands, the people were not hesitant to say, “Everything the Lord has spoken we will do,” because they figured it couldn’t as bad as what Pharaoh expected of them… “Get to your labors!  Make more bricks!”  They were ready to take a chance on the new boss, because they already knew the old boss.

          When we think about the Ten Commandments we probably have a tendency to think of them in a prohibitive sense, restrictions on what we can and can’t do; or maybe we think of them as a nice set of good moral ideas, ways to order society and keep things under control.  In their original biblical context though, when the God of the mountain spoke he offered an alternative to the brickyard.  God’s commandments provided an alternative to brickyard quotas where humanity was not honored and all that mattered was production.

          The Lord offered the people a new identity, identity based on love of God and love of neighbor.  He spoke three times about love of God, six times about love of neighbor; but that only equals nine.  In the middle, there is what might be the most radical of all the commandments, one that might speak most clearly against the commands of Pharaoh, as it is a command to stop work and to rest. 

We’ve come to interpret “Remember the Sabbath Day” to mostly be about church and worship and that’s not a bad interpretation but in the Old Testament there is little connection between the Sabbath and worship.   In Exodus it is mostly about “You shall do no work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns;” none of you!  With this commandment there is something more important than brick quotas and production schedules.  With this commandment there is trust that for one day, for one day out of seven, the order of creation that God has provided will be OK on its own, without the work of human beings, because after all, as the Genesis account of creation tells us, even God rested, trusting the creation that is called good.

Today’s psalm is Psalm 19.  It is linked to the story of the commandments because Psalm 19 is classified as a Torah psalm, one which affirms the goodness of God’s law and the life giving power of God’s law, the Torah.  But this is a good time to point out that instruction is a much better translation for Torah than law.  Instruction is a better way to understand the commandments, a better way to understand them positively as the path to a viable way of life that honors God and the neighbor rather than just being a bunch of “Thou shalt nots.”   Instruction for a viable way of life identifies the commandments more clearly as what they really are; an alternative to “Get to your labors; make more bricks.”

Torah psalms take delight in these words of instruction.  “The teaching of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the simple.  The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes.  More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold.”  That is pretty high praise on the part of the psalmist and it better reflects the divine, positive intention of these commands.

All this though, is in the last half of Psalm 19.  Verses 1-6 at first seem very different as they are essentially a celebration of the joy and wonder of creation; “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims its maker’s handiwork.”  That doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the law.  Verses 1-6 are so different from verses 7-14 that it has led some to wonder if we don’t have two different psalms here rather than one, that somehow the verses got put together but they shouldn’t have.  Are the themes of creation and torah, law contradictory, or did the psalmist link them intentionally?

At first the themes might seem contradictory; but for ancient Israel observing the commands of the Lord was the way to respond to and honor God’s gift of a well ordered creation.  This instruction in essence becomes understood as an act of God’s creation, part of God’s creation, part of the created order as these commands are provided as the best way for us to be who we have been created to be as we too live as part of God’s creation.  Obedience to these commands is part of our worship of God as our whole life should be an act of worship!  All of life is to be ordered in accordance with God’s purpose and order of creation including the order of God’s law.

It’s a different way to think about the commandments, the law, a more positive way rather than to see them only as a bunch of restrictions we want to push against.  It’s also different than the way Martin Luther talked about the law as in some ways he saw the law negatively as the means by which we are convicted of sin so that we are driven to the positive truth of the gospel.  What is similar to the psalmist’s understanding of the law though is how Luther explains the commandments in the catechism as in all the “what does this mean” responses that many of you probably memorized a long time ago, the “thou shalt nots” become positives; what you shouldn’t do is followed by what you should do and all of this so that we can join the rest of creation is declaring the glory of God.

God has provided a way.  Instruction has been provided not in order to keep us in line but to allow us to live in harmony with the rest of creation.  This is what a psalm like Psalm 19 celebrates.  But this way is always an alternative, always counter to the way of the world which, as much as we might not want to admit it, is more in line with the brickyard mentality of Pharaoh where God is not honored and humanity is not respected; we’re just producers or consumers or both and when that system of produce and consume breaks, as it has, the world panics and people feel worthless and hopeless.

But then, with the psalmist we note that the sun still comes up in the morning and runs its course.  It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens and runs about to the end of it again.  We note that God’s creation is reliable; God’s way, God’s commands are reliable.  Jesus said he didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it, because it is God’s way, a way sweeter than honey and more to be desired than gold, more than much fine gold.  God has given us a way.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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