Posted by: Johnold J. Strey | March 6, 2018

Sermon on Exodus 20:1-6

WHEN GOD TALKS, WE LISTEN!

  1. Listen to his commands that require our obedience
  2. Listen to his promises that inspire our obedience

Based on Exodus 20:1-6

 

Introduction

“When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” If you are my age or older, you probably remember the television commercials for the brokerage firm, E.F. Hutton. The gist of many of these commercials was the same. Two people in a public setting, surrounded with all the noises one hears in public, are having a personal discussion about their finances. One person asks the other what his broker thinks about an investment. The other person replies, “Well, my broker is E.F. Hutton, and E.F. Hutton says…”. At that moment, all the background noise from the scene in the airport or restaurant or other public venue stops, and everyone in earshot is suddenly leaning in to the conversation in order to hear the financial advice that E.F. Hutton has to say. Finally, the announcer’s voice speaks to end the commercial: “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

 

We are not here to discuss finances or brokerage firms today. We are not here to reminisce about old commercials from the 1970’s and 80’s. We are here to hear the Word of God. Today we specifically are going to spend the next several minutes listening to the Word of God in the First Reading for today’s service. We will lean into the account in Exodus chapter 20 where God himself speaks and gives his authoritative commandments for the people of Israel and for all people of all times to follow and obey. And as we review the first declaration of the Ten Commandments, we will do well to pay attention to these very real words of God with the same careful attention as the actors in those old commercials gave when someone mentioned the name E.F. Hutton. After all, when we hear the Ten Commandments, we are truly hearing the words of God. And the Commandments teach us that when God talks, we listen! Listen to his commands that require our obedience! Listen to his promises that inspire our obedience! 

I.

It was now the beginning of the third month since the nation of Israel had escaped slavery in Egypt. The mass of people working their way through the desert had seen God’s mighty acts of deliverance with their own eyes. Now they were camped in front of a mountain in the desert of Sinai. And at this site, God appeared to them in a thick and thunderous cloud accompanied by lightening bolts and trumpet blasts. With his own voice, God himself was going to speak his very important commandments to his people.

In Exodus 34:28, Moses wrote about the ten words that God gave him—what we normally call the Ten Commandments. But there are more then ten commands in the Ten Commandments. The people of Israel would have easily recognized which commands were meant to be brought together into a single group, though there are differences of opinion today about how the commandments are to be grouped together. We are going to focus on the First Commandment today, though some other Christians view this group of commands as two commandments rather than a single unit.

“You shall have no other gods before me.” God required perfect obedience from his people, and that began with God demanding that they allow no rivals to him in their lives. This wasn’t merely a command to make sure that he was their number one deity; this was a command that there be absolutely no other gods either from their own making or from the surrounding heathen nations. God defined exactly what that meant: You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” In the world that existed 3,500 years ago, this is what idolatry looked like: Crafting a statue of stone or wood or metal and then bowing down to it in rituals of worship. In our world today, idolatry can take the forms of atheism and agnosticism, or the outright selfishness that puts my wants above God’s commands. But in all cases, God wants no competition—and truth be told, there is no competition to the one, true, almighty God!

God went on to explain: “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” Sometimes we think of jealousy as something bad, but at its core, jealousy is the proper desire to keep what is yours. God has every right to be jealous of our faithfulness. The false gods of carved wood, chiseled stone, or even modern science do not deserve the credit for the fact that this world exists or that our lives are preserved to this day. A holy and jealous God has every right to require our obedience and commitment, and to punish those who fail to do so, including those who continue in the sinful ways of their parents, grandparents, and great grandparents.

Before God thundered out these commandments, the people of Israel said, “We will do everything the Lord has said” (Exodus 19:8). They were going to listen to his commandments that required their obedience. How long did that last? Page forward about a dozen chapters (Exodus 32): Israel is still camped at the foot of this holy mountain, and we soon discover how long their obedience did not last. They fell into the sin of gross idolatry, melting some of their gold jewelry into a calf, a symbol of power and fertility taken from the pagan religions of their day. In such a short time, they went from promising obedience to completely ignoring the God whose power they had seen with their own eyes. In such a short time, they went from a holy fear of God to a complete failure to even care.

In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, he provided an explanation for each commandment. Luther’s brilliance in these explanations is that he connected every one of the Ten Commandments to the First Commandment. His explanations of the commandments begin, “We should fear and love God that we…” do or don’t do what God has commanded. Luther recognized that when we fail to obey even the commandments that tell us to love our neighbor, we are really sinning against God who told us to love our neighbor in the way he prescribed.

We may listen to this First Commandment and think to ourselves, “I haven’t broken that commandment—certainly not like Israel did at the foot of that mountain!” But Luther’s comments show us that we really have broken this most basic of all the commandments. When I fail to love God’s Word and going to his house (Third Commandment), when I fail to respect earthly authorities (Fourth Commandment), when I harbor hatred toward someone (Fifth Commandment), when I trash the reputation of another person (Eighth Commandment), am I not failing to honor God who gave me these commands? Am I not placing myself as an idol above God? Are we not all guilty of our own versions of idolatry?

As quickly as Israel forgot what God required, our sinful nature finds convenient ways to “forget” God’s demands too. Do I hear God’s requirements on Sunday and then ignore those commands when they are not convenient on Monday? Do I respect God’s requirements on Sunday morning and then disobey them when they get in my way on Friday night? Do we think of God as the CEO of a company who can do no worse to me than to fire me? Do we fail to recognize that God is the CEO of the universe whose righteousness demands that those who have not obeyed him will not be fired but should be bound for hellfire?

II.

One of the difficulties with the numbering of the Ten Commandments is that they are not actually called “commandments” in the original language. Our translations may do that, but in Exodus 34:28, where Moses writes about ten commandments, the Hebrew phrase is really “ten words.” This might be a hint that not all of the ten words are necessarily commandments. The ancient Jews believed that the first word wasn’t what we call the First Commandment, but the lead-in statement that precedes the First Commandment. That statement is in verse two of our First Reading: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

Think about it! God was about to give his moral law with its demands for obedience in convenient, compact form that would be used for generations and generations to follow. What could he have said to draw attention to these commands? “Listen up, everyone! Time to shape up! Pay attention and don’t mess up!” No, nothing like that. He precedes his commands with a statement that describes what he had done for them. “I brought you out of slavery! As I promised your forefathers, I led you out with compassion from that miserable existence you endured and am now brining you to the land I promised your ancestors!”

If you need a reason to obey God, if you need a driving force that’s greater than guilt, look at how God inspires obedience! After pointing out his past track record of keeping his promises to Israel, he gives them a promise that’s connected to their obedience: “I, the Lord your God…[show] love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” In contrast to the threat of punishment to repeat offenders from multiple generations, God promises his faithful love to a seemingly endless line of generations who obey him.

Notice that this promise is not an equation that promises heaven or the chance to earn God’s forgiveness if we’re good enough. We know from the rest of Scripture that God doesn’t operate with us in that way. We are glad that he doesn’t because there is no way we could achieve the law’s demand for perfect obedience! But we also recognize that there are earthly blessings that flow from obedience. When we obey the Fourth Commandment and honor our parents, we are blessed with a peaceful home life. When we obey the Eighth Commandment and speak well of others, we are blessed with trust and respect. When the Israelites heard God’s promise to bless obedience, and when they reviewed God’s past track record of keeping his promises, they had every reason to be inspired to obey him.

Parents do not want children who obey them in a robotic, mechanical way; they want to teach their children to obey willingly and cheerfully. Employers aren’t looking for employees who carry out their tasks with rote obligation, but with faithfulness and eagerness. That’s what God produces in us. God inspires our obedience with his track record of perfectly fulfilled promises.

Near the end of Israel’s journey to their promised homeland, Moses told them that some day God would send his people a prophet like him, to whom they should listen. And when the time was right, God sent his Son Jesus to enter our world as a human being and preach the law of God and the love of God to all creation. Later in the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah predicted a suffering Savior who would suffer for our sins and pay the penalty for our guilt. And when the time was right, God directed history so that Jesus Christ was handed over to his enemies and hung on the cross, where he suffered our divine penalty and freed us from the slavery of our sins of selfish idolatry. In the Gospel for today, Jesus promised his opponents that if they destroyed the temple of his body, he would raise it again in three days. And on the third day—on Easter Day—God the Father kept his promise, raised his Son from the dead, and proved that our forgiveness is complete and our path to heaven is opened through faith in the risen Lord Jesus.

God does not thunder to you from Mt. Sinai. He calls you to see Mt. Calvary. God does not frighten you with his demands. He inspires you with the perfect track record of all his promises kept for you in Jesus. God does not leave your head hanging low as you leave his house, but he lifts your eyes in joy to live in this grace and forgiveness today and tomorrow and beyond. Listen to God speak, and he will inspire you to follow him!

Conclusion

“When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” Not anymore! In the 1980’s, the company was caught in a check fraud and money laundering scandal. Eventually E.F. Hutton was bought by other firms and “merged” out of existence. Nobody listens to E.F. Hutton anymore!

When God talks, we listen! Our sinful nature may be tempted to ignore God’s Word, to “merge” God’s Word with the “wisdom” and ways of this world until we have merged his Word out of our lives. But God makes sure we don’t miss out on his important and inspired Word. God has every right to require obedience from us, but he does not merely make demands we will not keep. In his undeserved love in Christ, he enables and inspires us to follow his commands with willingness and eagerness. The God who speaks to us with words of grace and forgiveness and mercy inspires us to listen when he also speaks to us with words calling for our loyalty and obedience. That’s a God who makes the Christian life enjoyable! That’s a God who makes obedience a pleasure! So when God talks, let’s listen! Amen.

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