Our sermon series on the stained glass windows continues with a retelling of the story of the Ten Commandments. My hope is, as you sit back and listen to this old, old story of faith told once more, you’ll hear a fresh word of grace, one that will speak to where you are on your faith journey today.
As backdrop, the people of Israel lived as slaves in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years before God set them free. (see Exodus, chapters 3-12). Once free, they got away as quickly as they could. For example, they didn’t even wait for the dough to rise to make bread. That’s why we use unleavened bread in our service of Holy Communion to this day.
When they got to the Red Sea, God parted the waters and allowed them safe passage to the other side. This cleared the way for their long voyage through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
To guide them, God gave them a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; and to feed them, God sent manna from heaven and water from the rock.
Well, after wandering for about three months in the wilderness, the Israelites came to the foot of Mount Sinai, which, if you’ve ever been to the Sinai Peninsula, is in the middle of nowhere.
And, when you think about it, this is where we often encounter God – wherever we happen to be, when we least expect it. As often as not, God comes to us in the middle of nowhere.
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Moses left the people at the foot of Mount Sinai and climbed to the top to talk with God. A few hours later he came back all out of breath: “Good news,” he said, “God’s coming to meet us!”
He could hardly contain himself. He went on to say, “God said he’d come on the third day, so quickly – everybody get ready. Take a bath. Comb your hair. Brush your teeth. Wash your clothes. Polish your sandals. We want to make a good impression.”
Some of the people asked Moses: “What does God look like? How will we recognize Him?”
And Moses answered, “Oh, you can’t see God. He’s covered by a thick cloud.” The people looked at each other and thought to themselves: If God’s covered by a thick cloud, how do you know if it’s really God? But they didn’t say anything. They just kept quiet, at least for now.
For the next couple of days the Israelite camp was a beehive of activity – everybody running to and fro, getting ready for their big meeting with Yahweh.
On the third day, Moses had all the people get up bright and early and line up at the foot ofMount Sinai to wait for God to appear. You should’ve seen them – men, women and children all lined up in rows, the little ones at the front, the taller ones at the back. Some of the parents put their children up on their shoulders so they could see. Sure enough, the whole mountain was covered by a thick cloud. Up above they could see great flashes of lightning and hear the clamor of what sounded like a thunderstorm.
Moses stood in front of the people, clearly excited, waiting for God to appear. All of a sudden, before anyone knew what was happening, Moses started speaking to God, and, evidently, God started speaking to Moses. Why, it was unbelievable – Moses’ standing there shouting at the mountain at the top of his lungs. The people looked at each other in amazement. They couldn’t quite believe what was happening, because what Moses took to be the voice of God was plainly to them … the sound of thunder!
And that’s a problem. I mean, what would you do if you were camped in the middle of nowhere and your fearless leader was standing in front of you and there was a thunderstorm going on, and he said that the thunder was God Almighty speaking to him?
Well, I’ll tell you. The people of Israel didn’t do anything. They didn’t have time to. Because before they could say, “Jimeny Cricket,” Moses took off running. He ran up the little trail leading to the top of the mountain and disappeared into the cloud. Meanwhile, the people just stood at attention. They were afraid to move. Nobody knew what to do.
It seemed like hours before Moses came down out of the clouds. Then, all of a sudden, he reappeared – just like that. He came down the hillside running as fast as he could, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Everybody, come at once. Come and listen to what God just told me.”
The people gathered around Moses to hear what he had to say. Well, what else could they do?
They listened as Moses blurted out what God had told him up on the mountain. “God has revealed to me the secret of life!” he panted, trying to catch his breath. “And it’s so simple! Ten Commandments. That’s it. That’s all there is to it,” he said. “Abide by these Ten Commandments, and you’ll have life!”
With that, he listed all Ten Commandments by memory: “Don’t worship any other God than Yahweh, don’t make any idols, don’t take the Lord’s name in vain, keep the Sabbath holy, honor your father and your mother, don’t kill, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet. That’s it!” he said once more. “Do this, and you’ll live.” All day Moses went around reciting these Ten Commandments, telling everybody who’d listen that this was what God had told him.
Early the next morning Moses got ready to go back up the mountain. Several of the old men were up milling around the camp drinking coffee when Moses walked through. As he passed by, they overheard him mumbling to himself, “If only I can get him to put them in writing.” They watched as he stomped up the path and disappeared into the fog. When evening came, Moses hadn’t returned. He was still up there on the mountain. Somewhere. Talking to God.
After a few days some of the elders were concerned that Moses had still not returned. Others just shrugged their shoulders and blew it off. After a week, though, everyone started to worry.
“Why, the old man may have just laid down up there and died,” they said. “He could’ve been attacked by a wild animal,” someone said. “Or, maybe he and God just walked off together, hand in hand, and left us here to fend for ourselves,” said another.
Whatever became of Moses, there didn’t seem to be much anyone could do about it, what with the thick cloud hanging over the mountain and all. And so, day after day, the Israelites watched and waited for Moses to return. In all, they waited for forty days and forty nights. “Forty days and forty nights on that God-forsaken mountain,” one old codger kept saying, “Without food or water, he’s a goner for sure.” And some of the men began placing bets, whether or not they’d ever see Moses again.
In time, the Israelites became restless and afraid. All this business about God talking to Moses in clouds and thunder sounded more and more far-fetched. And what about these commandments God said they ought to live by? What were they again? No one could quite remember. They started arguing among each other. Fights began breaking out in the camp. There was constant bickering. The place was on the verge of chaos. As slaves in Egypt, they’d had overlords to settle their disputes. They didn’t know what to do with their newfound freedom.
Finally, one of the elders stood up and said, “What we need is a God we can see.” “Amen, Amen!” the others shouted.
The old man continued. “What we need is a God we can touch.” “Amen, Amen,” the people said.
“What we need is a God we can understand,” he went on. And all the people said, “Amen.” So the people called on Aaron, Moses’ brother, his right hand man. They explained to Aaron what they’d decided, and Aaron agreed with them. “Yes, yes,” he said, “a God we can see – no more thunder in the clouds … a God we can touch – no more vapor and smoke … a God we can understand – no more mystery and doubt.”
And the people let out a resounding, “Amen, Amen!” And Aaron liked the feeling of his new place of authority. So he took charge. He ordered everyone to turn in their gold. He collected all their rings, earrings, pennants, gold watches, good luck charms, Krueggerands – everything that was made of gold, they gave to Aaron. Why, he even had them take the gold fillings out of their teeth.
“Put it all into one big pot,” he ordered, “and melt it down.” Aaron then took the molten metal and poured it into a mold, and he made the most beautiful calf god you’ve ever seen in your life.
It was a real work of art.
And Aaron was pleased. And the people were pleased. And they voted to give him a raise and a more prominent title. And to celebrate their accomplishment, they threw a big party.
Meanwhile, back on the mountain, God said to Moses, “I sense the presence of an intruder. Your people (note the second person pronoun here), Your people are backsliding. You’d better go see about them.”
By this time, Moses had gotten the Ten Commandments down in writing, so he grabbed the two stone tablets God had helped him carve and he started down the mountain. Before he got very far he stumbled across Joshua, his loyal servant, lying on the path. Little did he know it, but Joshua had been waiting for him all this time, much like a faithful dog.
Joshua jumped up to greet Moses, and the two of them came down the mountain together. When they got near the bottom, they heard the sound of music and laughter and dancing. It sounded like the old days on Bourbon Street in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. The Israelites were having one big orgy down below. In the middle of their drunkenness and revelry there was the golden calf with graffiti painted on its sides – slogans like, “Do your own thing,” “If it feels good, do it,” “The one with the most toys wins.”
Moses was shocked. Then he got madder than a wet hornet. He got so mad he threw the stone tablets down on the ground and smashed them against a rock. Then he walked right into the middle of the party. The music stopped. Everyone froze in their tracks. Time itself seemed to stand still. They watched in silence as Moses took the golden calf and built a fire and melted it into ashes. Then he scattered the ashes over the water so that, when the people went to get a drink of water, they had to consume their own wrongdoing.
As for Aaron, Moses took him off to one side and gave him a good tongue lashing. Then he put his arm around Aaron, and he said: “Listen, brother: A God fashioned by your own thinking can never exceed the limits of your own imagination. The only God who is truly God is the God of the clouds, the One you cannot see, or touch, or fully understand.”
Aaron looked at Moses, and he asked – well, he asked the question the people had never had the courage to ask before. He said, “But, Moses, if you can’t see Him, how do you know it’s really God?”
And Moses looked at Aaron and said, “That’s just it, Aaron, you don’t know! You have to believe and accept Him on faith.”
The next morning Moses went back up the mountain and met with God. He confessed the sins of his people. He told God all they’d done. He told Him about the golden calf, the big party – everything. And he asked God to give them a second chance.
And do you know what? God said, “Yes.” And do you know why? Because God is love, and God is always willing to give us another chance. All we have to do is ask. And so, the two of them – God and Moses – cut out another pair of stone tablets, and they carved into them these ten, simple commandments:
1. Don’t worship any other God than Yahweh.
2. Don’t make any idols.
3. Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.
4. Keep the Sabbath holy.
5. Honor your father and mother.
6. Don’t kill.
7. Don’t commit adultery.
8. Don’t steal.
9. Don’t lie.
10. And don’t covet what other people have.
Ever since that day the people of Israel have known exactly what to do to please God, to get along with their neighbors and to experience for themselves life in all its abundance.
To this day, God’s commandments are the same. If you keep them, you’ll enjoy the goodness of life, and if you don’t, you’ll suffer the consequences. It’s as simple as that. And that’s the story of the Ten Commandments.
Copyright 2006, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.