"Three Portraits"

September 3, 1995 Message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Exodus 19:16-20:3 and Jeremiah 2:4-13
(part of a series on the Ten Commandments)

There are three portraits before us this morning. We don't need to be art critics in order to appreciate what they seek to convey to us. All that is necessary on our part is a willingness to enter into each picture - not as disinterested bystanders, but as people who passionately care about what is happening.

The first portrait is of Moses on Mount Sinai and the children of Israel waiting at its base. While reading the Exodus account of this scene recently, I was also listening to Bruckner's Fourth Symphony. Just as this piece of music was reaching its peak, I got to the "blast of the trumpet" growing "louder and louder" part, with Moses speaking and God answering in thunder. It sent chills down my spine. Later, I thought about how the symphony's composer, Anton Bruckner, was considered a simpleton by his contemporaries. He was a bumbling teacher from the boondocks, according to the music critics of his day, someone who lacked social graces. In a way, that description sounds a bit like Moses. Moses was hardly the bronzed and muscled Charlston Heston, the actor who portrayed him in Hollywood's version. God has a habit of choosing the most unlikely characters as leaders, and Moses was no exception.

In this portrait of Mount Sinai, we see Moses receiving and passing on a Word of God. Actually there are ten words, but for the purposes of this morning, we are encountering only one. By the way, if you haven't picked up on it yet, this is the first in a series of sermons on the ten commandments. I have chosen to refer to them as "words," because that is literally what they are called in the Bible. These are ten Words of God.

I choose to call them ten Words rather than Commandments, because this portrait is not of a courtroom, or a judge's chamber filled with volumes of legal decisions. These ten Words (in Latin the Deca-logue) are not statutes which stand by themselves. They are connected to the mouth of the One who spoke them. As Jesus once said, quoting Deuteronomy, "One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God." (Mt. 4:4 Dt. 8:3)

In this portrait we witness not the signing of a constitution, but a conversation - albeit one of the most important dialogues ever. On the one hand is God. On the other are the people of Israel. In the middle is Moses, the mouthpiece of God, as well as the mouthpiece of the people. Together, in conversation, they covenant with one another. Of course, this is not common chit-chat. We're talking about the awesome voice of the One who is not limited to that mountain, but who has chosen to be revealed there on Sinai. We're also taking about the frightened response of folks who've already seen a mighty Pharoah brought low, and the waters of a sea parted. The Words spoken are momentous. Though they are etched into stone tablets, however, we dare not leave them there.

The first Word is spoken: "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me." When we list the 10 commandments, we often begin with the last phrase, "no other gods," but the beginning statement is the foundation upon which the entire covenant depends. "I the Lord am your God." It's a declaration that demands a response. Remember, I said this is a dialogue, not a legal treatise. Though it is directed to an entire people, it is very personal. Each one must respond. This is one step beyond today's discussion about God's existence. We debate the possibility that there is a God, but this portrait takes such existence for granted. The only options in this dialogue are "You are my God," or "You are not my God." Without that most basic choice, the rest of these 10 Words or Commandments are just stone etchings. Our Jewish friends include the phrase about having "no other gods" along with the second commandment when they number them, in order to emphasize this very point. "I the Lord am your God" is the first Word of the Holy One of Israel. "You are my God" is the word of each person in reply.

However, there is more to our first portrait. There is a story. "I am your God, who brought you out..." The ten commandments are based on a particular story, and whenever the Words are repeated, the story must be told. Those who seek to instill the 10 commandments back into our present social fabric need to find new ways of telling the old story, such that people, today, can respond to it with: "This is my story ... You are my God." The 10 Words then fit into place.

"You shall have no other gods before me." These other gods get in the way. If I have claimed this God as my God, then there is no room for any other god in our relationship. Our God is a jealous God, the scriptures say. Now, as a parent, I struggle with how to convey that idea to children in a positive way. After all, we tell them how harmful jealousy is, and then we say that our God is a jealous God. Right, Dad! To speak of divine jealousy is to reveal how passionately God cares about us. The Holy One of Israel is not apathetic about our affairs. When we mess up, God's justice and mercy are there to help pick up the pieces. But it doesn't work if we aren't face to face with him, so to speak. Once we are out of dialogue, a bunch of rules won't cut it. These Words matter only in so much as we take the One who spoke them seriously. "Look toward me," our heavenly parent says, "read my lips." (Of course, God doesn't necessarily then tell us what we want to hear.) We can't look toward God, with other gods, other stuff in the way, can we?

Well, that's the first portrait. There is God, in reality unpaintable by any artist, as surely as his name is unspeakable by any human. On Sinai is also Moses, God's mouthpiece. And then there are God's people. A Word is spoken, the first of ten. Our portrait captures a moment in the middle of an incredible conversation.

The second portrait is of these same people, many generations later. There is a different mouthpiece. The prophet Jeremiah fills that role, a pretty eccentric character in his own right. The people also have changed. They are no longer wandering around some desert, pitching tents here and there. They are settled folks. Prosperous, too. But, in a way, they are still in a wilderness. There is no mountain. God, after all, is not confined to one particular place. The Holy One of Israel is also in this portrait but, again, how could one paint him, let alone speak his name?

This might be a courtroom scene, for an accusation is brought by God against these people. They have broken the most foundational of commandments. Perhaps many others, as well. But, remember, this is a covenant, not a contract or a constitution, that we have in these ten Words. It is a dialogue between God and his people, a Holy Conversation between a passionate God and those whom he created and redeemed. Therefore, this is not so much a courtroom, as it is a living room.

Unfortunately, God's people have forgotten him. Through their actions they have said, "You are not my God." They have stopped telling the story of their rescue by God, how he brought them out of slavery through the wilderness to the promised land. It seems to have no meaning in their lives any more. Instead they have gone after other gods, "things that do not profit" (2:8), "worthless things" (2:5). As a result, they have become worthless themselves. Since God cares so passionately about them, since he is jealous about their welfare, he is willing to allow their actions to bring the fitting consequences.

Of course, we know the rest of the story. Ten Words will not save a people apart from the One who spoke them. If they are willing to live as if God is not their God; if they could care less about the story of their beginnings; if they aren't going to let God be an active part of their present experience - well, God's not going to get in their way. If they want to drink out of cisterns that don't hold water, instead of having their thirst quenched by God's living water, well, so be it. And that's what happened, according to the story as we have received it. However, God is intentional even in these affairs, for he continues to care passionately - like a parent who allows a teenager to grow by mistakes, as painful as that may be for both child and parent.

I confess that I have revealed more of the first portrait than of the second. You'll need to view the latter more on your own, to ponder its meaning for you. I turn now to the third portrait, which is, as yet, unfinished. You see, we are its painters, each one of us here today. There is no Mt. Sinai in this portrait. God is not limited to any particular place. One thing we have in our picture, though, that the people in those earlier ones did not, is this God in human form. The Holy One of Israel has made it possible to paint himself into our portrait. God has, likewise, given us a name to speak. In this illustration which is, as yet, unfinished, we see Jesus. And Jesus is God's mouthpiece. Or, better put, God is speaking for himself in the form of Christ.

Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill" (Mt. 5:17). These ten commandments are not just legal statutes embedded in stone tablets. They are Words of God, and Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. And through this One who passionately loves us, so much so that he willingly died for us, we hear again the Word. "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me."

Speaking now as a mouthpiece for Christ, let me end with some questions. Are you, today, willing to once again respond, "You are my God"? Are you willing to keep telling the story - the Biblical story, as well as the story of how God has redeemed and saved, and continues to lead you today? Are you willing to lay aside other gods, whatever they may be - the list is endless of things that are worthless in the long run, that don't really profit. We'll talk more about them next week. Are you willing, therefore, to continue painting this portrait of faith?

hymn "I will sing of my redeemer" 344

1995Peter L. Haynes

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