October 2, 2011

Then God Spoke All These Words

Passage: Exodus 20:1-2

Then God spoke all these words:  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

In April of this year (2011) the last typewriter factory left in the world closed its doors.  Godrej and Boyce—the last company still manufacturing typewriters—shut down its production plant in Mumbai, India with just a few hundred machines left in stock.  The computer has made the typewriter obsolete; no one who has experience with both prefers the typewriter.  The first typewriter was produced in 1867—obselete in less than150 years.  Other things pass their usefulness because they are antiquated. A two-hundred year old tea-cup is antiquated; it is old, very old, and too fragile for everyday use.

It was about thirty-five hundred years ago that a motley group of runaway slaves, assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, received what Israel calls the “ten words”: “then God spoke all these words”.  Are they antiquated or obsolete?  We creatures of modernity and post-modernity all too hastily conclude that old means obsolete or antiquated; thus when we read from the “Old(er) Testament” it seems more a museum piece for those who enjoy nostalgia.  If old is a problem the “New” Testament doesn’t fare much better; it is, after all two thousand years old.

I invite you to recall that when Jesus is tempted in the wilderness he sustains himself by quoting the "old" testament; for instance, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God". Plainly he regarded it as neither antiquated nor obsolete. What he had read and absorbed for years from Genesis, from the law, from the prophets, from the Psalms was a lifeline to him throughout his ordeal.

1. I am grateful that the computer with word processing software has replaced the typewriter.  I never learned to use a typewriter so in the first years of ministry I would handwrite my sermons.  The challenge was that my penmanship skills needed development; deciphering my handwriting in the pulpit sometimes made for “interesting” theology while preaching.  I recall reading some of those early sermons years later and admitting that I would never say some of those things now.  I ever marvel that in spite of the frailties of the preacher the gospel is heard in the hearts of people.

Is it not true that those of mature age from time to time look back in life and say they wish they knew back them what they know now?  We are ever learning and I suspect that I am not the only one who would “rewrite” earlier musings.  But what about God who is not bound in time and for whom there is never a lack in understanding.  When God speaks it isn’t like our speaking where the word spoken or written is separate from the doing.  God is forever the God who brought Israel out of the slavery of Egypt; hence his people of any generation were to live a delivered life.

Consider the introduction to these Ten Commandments. The introduction is one brief sentence which says it all: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage". Before God asks anything of his people he reminds them that he has already done everything for them. His people know once again that they owe him their gratitude, their love, their obedience, their trust -- and they are glad to render it. It's plain that everywhere in the bible gospel precedes law; God's deliverance grounds God's claim; God's mercy elicits our obedience.

Let's think for a minute about the commandments themselves. The Israelite who knew herself released from bondage at God's hand knew too that the commandments marked out the sphere in life where she would continue to enjoy and revel in her God-given freedom. For this she was everlastingly grateful, for she knew just as surely that if she ever wandered into areas of life beyond those marked out by the commandments of God she would find herself plunged into misery all over again. The commandments permitted her to move freely, joyfully, richly through life's minefields.

The newer testament has the same core, exemplifies the same pattern, and breathes the same spirit: a declaration of what God has paid to rescue us, together with a summons to render him the very life that we owe him. Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, "You were bought with a price". This is a declaration of their deliverance at measureless cost to God. "You were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body." This is the summons to yield to God the glad obedience they owe him. The pattern of both testaments is identical.

2. As you read the Bible you will notice that when God speaks—whether to Moses or Jeremiah or Peter or Paul—hearers know who has spoken, and what he has said.  There is no sense in these hearers they are unsure of who spoke.  Scripture attests that the characteristic of the living God is that God speaks.

When we read the story of the testimony of Israel that at Sinai “God spoke all these words”, we read the human witness to the God who acts upon His people and simultaneously informs them of the meaning of His acts.  Not only does God convince His people that He has spoken but also what He spoke. Eventually their witness to God was written down. Scripture appeared.

On the one hand the Scripture is the human witness to God’s saving incursion among us; we must never confuse Scripture with the Lord of Scripture.  On the other hand God owns and blesses the human witness as His own witness to Himself; this is what we speak of when we say the Scripture is inspired of God.

It is the Holy Spirit who stirs the reader of Scripture and illumines the text of Scripture God,; in this God speakss afresh.  When you read the Bible God is not deduced or inferred from it as if this were merely dependent on our cognitive skills to apprehend.  Rather, you are being apprehended by God.  As God works among his people readers of Scripture are brought face to face with Jesus Christ in an encounter not less immediate and intense and intimate than Peter’s encounter on Easter morning or Paul’s on the road to Damascus or of that innumerable people throughout the Church’s history.

Scripture is infallible in that it unfailingly accomplishes that for which it is given.  Without fail, as often as it is read, the Father will send the promised Spirit and the Son will loom before us to seize, save and sustain.  Therefore the Scripture never fails with respect to its purpose, an ever-renewed encounter with Jesus Christ.  People become Christians as the crucified One, risen and ascended, steals over them.  The point I want to underscore with you is this—God is speaking this word and its meaning to you and me now.  It is God who makes known to us that this word of Scripture is his own and its meaning; astonishingly, God does this in spite of the preacher’s frailty.

3.  Also as you read the Bible of God speaking to people you will note that God’s address is personal in that the individual knows herself addressed by God.  “I am the Lord your God”, this is how God speaks to his people, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt”.  To be sure the whole nation is being addressed, yet it is for each individual assembled at Sinai as well.  Yes, Jesus Christ is Lord of the whole church and also the Lord of each believer as well.  God always seeks to be up close and personal.

I am not sure if I am just being picky but I find being addressed by the name of the town or city I live in—well, annoying.  I go to a music concert at the Millennium band shell up the street in Unionville and inevitably the performer will begin with “Hello Markham” or “Hello Unionville”.  (Good morning Central United Church!) It feels so impersonal.  I understand the dilemma the performer faces in trying to find a way to address a crowd of people the have just met.

This is not how God addresses Israel at Sinai (or us in any generation for that matter).  He isn’t shouting “hello Israel!” God never faces the dilemma of addressing a crowd he just met and doesn’t know yet.  Somehow when I read the Scripture I have the distinct impression it means me.  The other side of this is if you were in the crowd at Sinai you couldn’t duck down in the crowd and pretend he was talking to the person standing behind you.  If the performer shouts “Hello Markham” and you happen to reside in Stouffville you could assume the performer is speaking to the others; not so with God.

4. It was the question at the beginning of an article that intrigued me: “If being insecure is so socially undesirable, they why is it so common?”  The article proposed the idea that some amount of insecurity may actually be beneficial for groups.  I am still convinced that our insecurities handcuff us more that help us.  Indeed being insecure is common; insecurities abound with respect to our appearance, our skills and abilities, our capacities, our health. Insecurity makes us hesitant and afraid to reach for what seem beyond us; people also try to hide insecurity with often unbecoming behaviours.

I know of nothing that helps slow the trembling of the insecurities of my heart like knowing myself to be loved by God.  This is the very foundation of God’s address of us; he comes to us as our Saviour to set us free to live for Him.  The idea that God wants to speak with you is heard in humanity more like being called before the judge to have the riot act read to us.  This is because of sin that doubts that God wants our good. (Garden of Eden)

Now some read the events of that day at Sinai when “God spoke all these words” and see something terrifying.  Listen to part of the account of that day.  (Exodus 19:16-18)  “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.”

It is indeed an awesome event and I understand that some would say fearful particularity in that God further said to Moses ‘Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish”.  The people were to keep a safe distance.  Even still God’s purpose is so that he can speak to his people for whom he is Saviour.

One of the enterprises that were part of the farm life of my childhood was selling eggs; each year in late February or early March about 200 baby chicks would arrive that our family raised for the egg production part of the farming business.  When any of us went into the place where these tiny chicks were housed to feed them they would crowd around your feet; you had to move carefully so you didn’t injure any of them simply because of the size difference.

In an earlier sermon I shared with you a note about what we call black holes in the universe.  They really aren’t holes at all but stars that have gone what we call supernova; they have imploded in on themselves and the gravitational pull is so strong that not even light can escape its force—that is why they appear black to us.  Such a star is so dense that one thimble full weighs more that the entire population of humans on earth.  If God created this then how dense is God?  If God bumped into you what would happen to you.

Can we not, then, understand the awesome features of God coming to the top of Sinai a display of God’s grandeur; could we not see the precautions set out by God as appropriate for the purpose of preserving his people?  God’s holiness cannot allow evil in his presence; event still, thought my heart is corrupt I am welcomed into God’s presence through the Son.  Somehow God had made this possible and provides for my preservation; it is the cross of Christ that makes this possible.

We can then say that God addressing us is God loving us.  Profound help us with all manner of insecurity is to be found in the faith experience of knowing that I am loved by God.

5. I would like to offer you a final reflection about these “ten words” of God.

This story at Sinai is part of the oft-told story of God's rescuing the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt and bringing them safely through the Red Sea. The portrayal of this story is so very dramatic that those beholding the event would have to be startled, know that God alone had done it, and forever suspend their unbelief in the Holy One of Israel. Actually, the event appeared so very ordinary to the Egyptians that their annals record no more than that a relatively small group of slaves escaped during a storm and were never missed since they were never going to accommodate themselves to Egyptian ways in any case.

Then what did happen? Something happened apart from which our civilization is unthinkable. Can you imagine our civilization without the Ten Commandments? Can you imagine public institutions or our social environment or our society's "illumination by indirect lighting" in such areas as care for the marginalized or the value of the individual apart from what Israel has always called the "Ten Words"? And all of this from a handful of recalcitrant slaves so few in number and so despised in any case as never to be missed!

God’s word isn’t like posting a sign on a billboard and then waiting for someone to call.  God’s speaking is God achieving his purposes and we know his purposes include our good.  Then God spoke all these words:  I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;