Ten Laws to Live By

Exodus 20:1-21

Sunday, September 16, 2012


One of the things that I deeply miss in life is the daily Far Side cartoon in the newspaper. Gary Larson’s classic single frame comics ran in papers around the country from 1980 until 1995. I enjoyed them all but I especially liked the ones that had some sort of faith element to them. Over these last two weeks as we have been reading Exodus, I have thought a lot about Larson because one of the biblical characters that he featured in a number of his cartoons was Moses. One of my all-time favorites is a picture of Moses standing in front of a mirror while holding both hands up. The caption below the picture reads “Moses parting his hair.”

Another of my favorites has nothing to do with Moses but it is incredibly relevant in light of our passage for today. The caption below says “God’s computer” and in the picture, God is shown watching with interest some poor soul about to be hit by a piano on his computer monitor. As he does, he anxiously readies himself to hit the word “smite”.

I like this cartoon from Larson because it seems to me that in a tongue and check way, the cartoon captures the essence of how many of us feel about God a lot of the time. Our sense is that God is always watching us, eager to let us have it just as soon as we step out of line, fail to do what we are supposed to do or commit a sin.

For many of us, God is not interested in us having any fun or enjoying life – God simply wants us to follow the rules. As ministers, we sometimes get implicated in this way of thinking too. I cannot begin to tell you the number of times that I have entered a restaurant or someone’s home for a gathering only to hear someone say, “oh no, the preacher is here – everybody straighten up.” Now, I know that much of this is in good fun, but, I also know that there is some sense of truth that underlies such statements as well.

I share all of this because this idea that God is always ready to bring us back into line or that God is the cosmic killjoy influences the way that we think about God’s commands and laws. Rather than seeing their value and benefit for our lives we only look at God’s commands as something to further confine and constrict us. Like the old Baptist declarations against dancing and card playing, God’s laws are just there to suck all of the joy all of life. But, is this really the way God wants us to think or to feel about the commandments? And, is this really the perspective that we should take on not only the ten commandments but also on all of God’s laws be they in the Old Testament or the New?

From the very outset this morning, let me answer these questions with a resounding “no”. Without a doubt, God’s desire certainly is not for us to look at the commandments as God’s way of taking the fun out of life. Rather, God’s commands are actually meant to provide a way for us to live life to the fullest. This morning, in light of what we find here in the Exodus story let me mention a few reasons why this is the case.

First, God’s commandments always have our best interests in mind. Believe it or not, God’s intentions truly are exactly the opposite from what we often think. God’s laws are not there to restrict our lives or take away our joy. Much to the contrary, God’s laws always have at the root an approach to life that leads to joy and to experiencing the world that God has made fully and completely. The primary difference is that God’s suggestion to us over and over again is that boundaries rather than unmitigated freedom are always the best way for life to be lived.

Think about it for a minute. Let’s say that your son or daughter, grandchild or the little boy down the street is in your kitchen and they are eyeing intently the cookies that you have just pulled out of the oven and that are now cooling on the counter. Now, you are not going to say to them “go ahead and help yourself. As a matter of fact, don’t just have one, have about a dozen or so. Just eat all you want!” Sure that may tempting but none of us think that is a good idea. As wonderful as a dozen cookies might be in the moment, it is only going to lead to a tummy ache.

Instead, we are going to say “sure, help yourself to one or two. Enjoy the cookies but don’t eat too many.” God’s laws often really are that simple. God truly was simply setting some boundaries for people that would allow them to enjoy the best of life. In fact, even when it comes to those biblical laws that now seem antiquated like not eating pork or burning down a house that has mildew, originally, even these laws were meant as practical guidelines for life in that time period. God really does want the commandments to benefit our lives and if we can always approach keeping and honoring the commandments with this belief in mind, it truly does make all of the difference in the world.

Second, God’s laws always have the best intentions for others in mind, too. God’s commandments are not simply best practices for us, they are also best practicse when it comes to our interaction with the world. Now, let me be very clear for a moment. I am not suggesting here that our role is to go around quoting that ten commandments or God’s other laws all of the time just so that we can tell people how they should live or what they should do. What I am really getting at here is the idea that as we truly embrace God’s laws and live them out, we not only enrich our lives but we enrich the world and make our world a better place. Thus, God’s laws not only become what is best for us but what is also best for our world.

It really is best for the world for believers to practice peace rather than murder and violence. It really is better for the world for people of faith to love God with all of our being and our neighbor as ourselves. It really is better for the world if we tell the truth at all costs. Without a doubt, being a witness and inviting our world into the kingdom is going to be more likely to happen as we live out these commandments rather than simply reciting them.

A friend of mine in Atlanta once told me a powerful story about his father. Years ago, his dad had been a very successful and powerful figure in the banking industry. One day, however, he learned that the bank he was working for was engaged in some unethical practices. When he called their hand, he basically was given a choice. He could either go along with what the path the company had decided to travel or he could be terminated. After wrestling mightily with his decision, my friend’s father ultimately decided that he simply could not be obedient to God and abide by these business practices. As a result, he was not only fired but he was cast in a negative light throughout the industry by his former employers. As far as I know he was never able to get a job in his field again and the family suffered mightily. Once an upper class family, they lost almost everything as a result of his decision – that is except one thing.

This decision, totally changed my friend. His respect for his dad and his commitment to God were forever solidified by that one fateful decision. He became the man he is today – a strong, committed Christian layperson, not because of what his father said we should do but because of what his father did do.

In the same way, our obedience to God’s commands not only changes the world, it changes individuals. As they see us live out the faith, our example becomes our greatest witnesses in inviting the world into the wonder of a relationship with God.

Finally, God’s commandments are always offered within the best framework. God didn’t call the Israelites to simply obey these commandments that we are focusing on today as individuals. God called the Israelites to obey these laws as a community – this was the framework that God offered. In other words, God appreciated the fact that what he was calling the Israelites to do was not only unique it would also be difficult. As a result, they would need both the presence of God but also the presence and help of each other if they were to be faithful to these laws throughout their lives. In the same way, God calls us to live out these commandments not simply as individuals but as a collective community, supporting one another as we all seek to be who God wants us to be.

It’s a lot like someone I overheard the other day who was lamenting their recent failure to exercise. “I used to do a lot of walking,” they said, “but that was when I had a friend that I went walking with three times a week. Now that my friend is no longer available, I struggle to stay motivated and disciplined.”

Why is being a part of a church so important? And, why is church membership such a good thing? Because in joining a group of believers, we are saying that we cannot live out God’s laws without the help of others. And, we are also saying that others need our help too as they seek to live by God’s commands as well. God has provided us the framework that we all so desperately need as we seek to live obediently.

God laws and commandments – they truly are what is best for us, they truly are what is best for our world and God truly has given us the best framework within which to live them out ourselves and to help other do the same. Today, may we recommit ourselves to living obediently. Amen.