17th February 2013


The Ten Commandments & Lent (introduction): “Voices in the wilderness”.

(Exodus 19:1-9; 19:16 – 20:3).

I wonder how many of you have been following David Attenborough’s TV series on “Africa”. I’ve dipped in and out of it and must say that it has left me we mixed feelings: the filming is amazing, the soundtrack is sometimes overbearing, and I find the constant emphasis on evolution and natural selection a little bit oppressive. But no-one can doubt the sheer dedication and enormous patience of the naturalists, cameramen, sound recordists and other technical staff who have made these programmes; they are a remarkable achievement.

A couple of weeks ago the focus shifted to the Sahara desert – not the place that always springs to mind when we think of Africa, I suspect. And this time the producers had set themselves a challenge: to film the movement of a sand-dune over a two year period. This required cameras mounted on stout stands that would withstand not only strong winds but camels rubbing up against them. The cameras themselves had to be able to cope with the day-time heat, the night-time cold and the constant dust. Security guards had to be employed to prevent thieving – all this for a sequence that would ultimately last for under 30 seconds. But the results were stunning.

Of course, not all deserts are either hot or sandy; they can be cold and rocky. But all of them are bleak, barren and dry places, offering little shelter or provision for humans; I suspect that, while many of us might find a short safari into the desert to be quite exciting, most of us would be very happy to return home with a few days. This morning, however, I want to take you on two trips into deserts: one involved just one person, lasted just over a month and took place in the interior of Palestine; the other involved a whole community complete with its goods and chattels, took place in the Sinai Peninsula and lasted for so many years that the people who finally left were a whole new generation from those who had first entered.

We’ve already thought about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness this morning; but now I want to take us back to that Sinai desert and, in particular, that momentous occasion when the Hebrew people were given the laws that have guided them ever since. And, as we heard in the reading, it was a pretty dramatic event. The question I want to ask – this morning and into the coming weeks – is about how we should treat these laws, and specifically the ones we know as the “Ten Commandments” – over three thousand years later on.

There are so many things one can say about the Ten Commandments; but I want to limit myself to three today. And the first is so simple that it is easily overlooked: these Commandments allegedly come into existence because they are spoken by God. Now, I know that this is a difficult concept to grasp; indeed, the whole story of Moses going up a mountain, communing with God for forty days and nights, and coming back with tablets of stone supposedly engraved by God’s own finger, is a difficult one to believe literally. It seems to fit more into the category of myth or folk-tale than true story – although it is certainly presented as historical fact.

And so other explanations have been given for what was going on. All right, we might quickly want to dismiss the notion that Moses met with aliens from a more advanced planet on the top of the mountain! But there are many folk who would say that these divine encounters never took place, that what happened was that the leaders of Israel codified their laws and then “wrote back” (or made up) a story which appeared to give them divine authority and “clout”.( And of course people have said much the same thing about the story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus: none of those visits actually took place; the Gospel writers made them up in order to make the idea of Jesus-as-God more acceptable to the early Church).

But I digress! I think it is pretty clear that something happened out there in the desert, although the writers of Exodus probably did struggle to put it into words. And that “something” was so significant that it has defined the essence of Jewishness ever since; indeed it has also shaped Christianity and, to a degree, Islam. For I believe not only that God did speak to Moses and his people in the wilderness, but that that communication is entirely consistent with the entire Bible story which begins, “God said, Let there be light” and concludes with, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God”. Our God speaks; and the meeting between Moses and God in the desert has had an incalculable effect on the history of the entire world – as, in a different century and a different wilderness, did the meeting of Jesus and something which represents all that runs contrary to God.

The second thing I want to do is grapple with this actual word “commandments”. And the reason I want to do this is because it is a word which can provoke very negative reactions; people today often see laws as a set of restrictions to their freedom, a list of “thou shalt nots” which makes them respond, “Hang on a minute - you haven’t got the authority to tell me what I can and can’t do, I’ll behave as I think fit, thank you very much”. And I’m afraid that the Christian Church has often given the impression that it is a very critical and censorious institution which simply loves stopping people from doing things that they might just find enjoyable.

Now, a moment’s thought will make us realise that it is silly to be quite so negative about laws. After all, many of them are there simply to make sure that life regulates itself in an orderly fashion, for living in a community is a complicated business! So just think of the chaos and carnage that would ensue if we had no traffic laws; or consider how the entire world of business would collapse if there were no rules governing financial transactions. Just this week we have seen the worry and fear felt by many people as it appears that some food traders and abattoirs have sat lightly to the laws on labelling meat. All these laws are actually beneficial to us; yes, they may restrict us to some degree but they also facilitate the operation of society.

A moment’s more thought will take us a bit further and help us realise that these Ten Commandments are not concerned with detail but principle. If you go to the rest of the books of Leviticus or Numbers you will find inordinately precise rules about tending your fields, of preparing your food, of how to respond when someone has a deadly disease, or of how to sort out property disputes with your neighbour – and that’s only the tip of the iceberg (not that the ancient Hebrews would have ever seen an iceberg!) If you are like me, you probably skip over those passages because, to be perfectly honest, they aren’t very exciting to us; they set out criminal, civil and religious law for a society which is very different to our own.

But the Ten Commandments are different simply because they don’t contain those details. In fact they are the foundational principles which undergird all the other, more detailed laws; they are the fundamental parameters which define the sort of society that Israel was supposed to be. If you like, these Ten Commandments work in much the same way as a nation’s Constitution or Charter: they provide the basis on which everything else is constructed. And if you see them in this way then you will realise that they do not need to belong to a specific time and place. They, in fact, are God-given guidelines which can be applied to any society, anywhere. The difficulty lies in working out the way they should be applied today.

But I want to say that there is still more, for these Commandments are not just about running society in a sensible and just way. Ultimately – and if you remember one thing this morning, make it this! – the Commandments are about the relationship between God and his people. Listen to how they begin: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”– this is not the way that legal documents usually commence, it is a statement of relationship, a declaration by a God who loves his people and has acted on their behalf. In other words, the commandments, even those which talk about relations with other human beings, are actually a response to God’s goodness. Slaves in Egypt have been liberated and now need to know how they should live. Indeed, it is not too fanciful to say that the Commandments define the relationship, not with the Hebrews’ old Egyptian overlords, but with their new and divine lord and master.

The very last thing I want to say links us up again with the story of Jesus and his temptation; it is the thought of food. For one of the motifs which dominates both the stories of the Exodus and Jesus is that of hunger: the Hebrews journeyed through the desert and, not surprisingly, didn’t find much to eat along the way; while Jesus fasted for over a month in his bit of wilderness. The Old Testament story tells us of the apparently divine provision of both manna and quails – a diet which the Hebrews were to get thoroughly fed up with! – while the New Testament account tells us of Jesus being ultimately tantalised by the prospect of turning hard stones into fresh-baked bread. Our stomachs and our taste-buds are important to us!

But what has this got to do with the Ten Commandments? – you may well ask. After all, the Hebrews were not asked to eat those two stone tablets which Moses had brought down the mountain; they would shatter one’s teeth and be completely indigestible! Yet, in a sense, that impossibility is precisely what I am suggesting. For once we stop thinking of the Commandments as a legal code, a list of dos and don’ts, and once we start thinking of them as words of love from a caring God who acts, then I think they do become a form of spiritual nutrition, words not just of love but of life itself. The Psalmist said that he regarded God’s laws as “sweeter than honey” (I don’t think we’d ever say that about the Highway Code); equally Jesus himself told the Devil that “man does not live on bread alone”, but on the words of God himself. These Commandments are not cold and hard and legalistic: to the Hebrews they were as full of nourishment and life as the manna from heaven, and they still offer life to us today.

I hope that I have helped you begin to see these ancient laws in a new light this morning; not as cold and dusty restrictions, nor as mere authority imposed from above. I hope that you will be seeing them in a different way: as sensible, broad and just principles that God our Creator has given us to regulate human society in the best way possible; and also heavenly food which will provide the best possible nutrition and sustenance of that society (and of the individuals within it). But above all I hope you will be able to understand better than the Ten Commandments exist to establish and sustain our relationship with the living God, the one who spoke in the beginning, who spoke at the time of Moses, who spoke through Jesus and who, we believe, still loves to speak to his people today. Let us listen for his voice of love!