This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Confessions: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Days 32-33; Canons of Dort III/IV
If you’ve been involved in organizations like 4-H or Toastmasters, you may have some experience in giving speeches. And if you’ve been given guidelines and tips on making an effective speech, you’ve likely been told to make sure it includes an introduction. The introduction is supposed to capture the listeners’ attention and let them know about the subject on which you’re going to speak. You’re not supposed to go into great detail yet, but rather set the stage for what’s coming up. So theoretically, a person could arrive a minute late, miss your introduction, but still catch the body of the speech – the main points that you make.
When we listen to the Ten Commandments, it’s tempting to treat the opening line as a 4-H or Toastmasters speech introduction – something that attempts to grab our attention and prepare us for what’s to come… “And God spoke all these words: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exodus 20:1-2). It almost sounds like, “My name is the Lord, and I have something to tell you.” If you walk in a few seconds late, it’s nothing to worry about because the “important” stuff, the body of the speech, begins with the first commandment… “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3).
But what if God’s introduction to the Ten Commandments is not a 4-H or Toastmasters sort of introduction? What’s more, what if skipping over God’s introduction makes it more likely to read the commandments that follow wrongly? What if skipping over it could be deadly? Yes, deadly! (How’s that for an attention-grabbing introduction?)
Emphasizing the First Line
Jews recognize the importance of what we call the introduction to the Ten Commandments: They number the commandments differently than we do and recognize the words, “I am the Lord your God…” as the first one. Surely, it’s not really a command, but to ensure that the opening line never gets pushed out of the limelight, it’s considered the first commandment in Jewish tradition. “I am the Lord your God…” is impossible to ignore if it’s Commandment #1 instead of only an introduction.
Emphasizing this first line properly puts the focus of the Ten Commandments first on God; it makes the Ten Commandments personal. The words that come next do not simply appear out of thin air as good ideas to follow. These are words from God Himself, the God who reveals Himself to His people as a God who is personally knowable. He is not far off or aloof; on the contrary, He desires to be in relationship with His people. He loves His people, and so He wants what’s best for them – for us.
You see, God experiences and exists in holiness in a complete way; He does not know how to experience or exist in an unholy state. For God, holiness is not only the state in which He exists; it is an indescribably wonderful way to exist. So when God desires for His people to live a certain way, it’s not just so that they can be civilized and well-behaved, but it’s so that they can experience in part the wonderful holiness of God Himself – the holiness in which God exists and that He experiences, holy and whole. Out of love, God wants the best for us. He doesn’t just want what is good for us – that’s far too lowly of a goal! He desires for us to be holy as He is holy because that’s the absolute best way to exist!
Emphasizing this first line also helps us hear the fact of God’s deliverance and a promise God gives us before He calls us to the best sort of way to live. “I am the Lord your God…” That little word your reveals the most amazing fact about reality – that the Lord is our God! It’s as though God is saying, “Before anything else, know that I am here for you. I am your Lord God.” Coupled with this fact of deliverance is the promise that the Lord will always be our God who will never leave or abandon us. God is the ultimate promise-maker and promise-keeper. Before we choose to keep our promises to Him, He is and will be our faithful and loving God.
When it comes to God’s faithful and loving relationship with us, do you notice who takes the initiative? “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land slavery.” The Bible does not say, “I am the Lord your God, and now that you somehow or other made your way out of Egypt, I have some things to tell you…“ No, the Lord takes the initiative with the people of Israel. He frees them from slavery in Egypt.
From a fallen human perspective, God does things backwards. Our inclination would be to first present the Israelites with the 10 Commandments; after a few generations more or less successfully live them, then we’ll talk about freeing you from slavery. So often what we do for others is connected to what’s in it for ourselves; God taking the initiative without any merit or promise on the Israelites’ part is nearly a foreign concept to us.
“I am the Lord, and will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians,” God definitively states to the Israelites (Exodus 6:6a). What have the Israelites done to deserve this sort of attention from the God of the universe? Basically two things: (1)They are descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (over which they have no control), and (2) they have been “crying out because of their slave drivers” (Exodus 3:7) (which doesn’t sound like a particularly spiritual exercise). So, in the big picture, what have the Israelites done to deserve God’s mercy? Not a whole lot, actually zilch.
And yet, to this nondescript people, God promises, “I will free you from being slaves to [the Egyptians], and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgement. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with an uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord” (Exodus 6:6b-8).
And what is the Israelites’ response to this divine promise of deliverance? Do they rejoice? Do they begin packing? Do they worship God? No. When Moses announces these words of the Lord to the people, they “[do] not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labour” (Exodus 6:9)!
Had it been up to you or me, we might have started looking for loopholes to get out of this promise we just made to a seemingly unworthy people. Thank God it was not and is not up to us! Thank God that He desires to be in relationship with us, that He makes and keeps His promises, and that He takes the initiative in saving His people.
Sometimes it can be easy to look down our noses at the Israelites, wondering why on earth they never seem to “get it.” Yet when we’re honest with ourselves, we have to confess that we are not all that different than they are. God promises us redemption; He desires our friendship through Jesus. But so often, we choose to stay in the muck of our sins. Or, we choose to do our own thing instead of seek to glorify God and join others in worshipping Him. Yet God pursues us and works in us with His Holy Spirit. Wanting the best for us, He transforms the sin-filled, death-like places in our lives with pure holiness and true life.
Recognizing God’s Grace
This is the truth the apostle Paul is getting at in Ephesians 2: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live…” (Ephesians 2:1). Paul does not say, “You were inconvenienced by your sin, or You were injured by your sin, or You were broken by your sin;” he says, “You were dead in your transgressions and sins.” If getting saved, if getting God’s attention and God’s grace were up to us, we’d be in a lot of trouble.
CRC pastor and author Jim Osterhouse wrote a book called FAITH Unfolded where he makes this point very clearly:
Imagine that we are visiting a tall skyscraper in the centre of a large city. As we enter the atrium of the building, I ask you to remain on the first floor while I walk up to the mezzanine level. Then as you watch from below, I get up on the railing, jump off, and hit the floor, breaking a leg and a couple of ribs. Though injured and hurting badly, I am still able to help myself. So I drag myself to a telephone and dial 911 for help. That is how some people understand humankind’s fall into sin. We have fallen into sin, they say, but we can still help ourselves towards salvation since we are only partially immobilized by our fall.
Now, let’s say I am miraculously healed from my injuries. I stand up and say to you, “I will now demonstrate the [Christian] understanding of the extent of our fall into sin.” I ask you to go outside and stand on the sidewalk while I take the elevator to the top of the tower and make my way to the edge of the building. Again you watch in horror as I jump from 110 floors up. When I hit the pavement, I am killed. There is nothing I can do to help myself. I am completely wiped out. Only God can help me, for I am dead.” (page 10)
That’s the Christian understanding of sin and separation from God.
In Reformed circles, we refer to this as “total depravity.” This important piece of our theology teaches us that “without the grace of the … Holy Spirit, [we] are neither willing nor able to turn to God, to reform [our] distorted nature, or even to dispose [our]selves to such reform” (Canons III/IV.3). We need God; we need His gift of faith (cf. Canons III/IV.14). He is not obligated to act graciously towards us; He does not owe it to us – “For what could God owe to one who has nothing to give that can be paid back?” (Canons III.IV.15). Yet God graciously and freely gives us the gift of faith; He takes the initiative and invites us into His loving presence. He transforms our death into life. This is the Gospel (cf. Canons III/IV.6)!
Paul says it this way: “…It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-10). This is the Gospel!
Imagine if we had to work to save ourselves, to get God’s attention and then prove ourselves to Him before He’d become interested in us. We’d work ourselves to death! (Remember how I said in the introduction that neglecting the introduction to the Ten Commandments could be deadly?) We would try and try and try, but on our own, we’d never make it; we’d die before we’d create our own holiness apart from God’s grace.
But God loves us way too much to ever let that happen! Paul refers to the “great love” of God “for us” (Ephesians 2:4). It’s a love that is rich, abundant, and generous; the Greek word for great can also be translated as extreme. God goes to the greatest possible degree, extent, and intensity in His saving love for us, not wanting us to die trying to earn our way into His presence. Nothing is too extreme for God when it comes to freeing and delivering His people – not even the death of His Son on the cross, who pays the price for our sin-filled un-holiness so we do not have to.
I thank God that the Ten Commandments begin not with a law, but with grace: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” If we read the Ten Commandments without hearing this note of grace, the commandments are reduced to mere rules imposed by a deity who wants to spoil our fun.
Remember, God has just freed His people from Egypt: It’s a fantastic demonstration of a God who serves, sustains and gives. What sense does it make to suddenly hear the Ten Commandments as though they are coming from a selfish, demanding, do-it-my-way-or-else kind of God? “The Lord [doesn’t] want to bind His people in leg shackles and chains after gloriously redeeming them from the death angel and releasing them from slavery. Would He bear them on eagles’ wings (cf. Exodus 19:4) to a prison? What sort of deliverance would that be? God [knows] that all of these commands He set[s] before them, every one of them, [will] bring about blessing, life, peace, and a secure future. His commandments were (and are) a gift of love in an uncertain and [often] dangerous world.”*
When we read the Ten Commandments in the context of God’s grace, we hear God speaking His love to us through these laws; we hear God wanting the best for us, calling us to be blessedly holy as He is holy. May that be how we hear the commandments from now on, in the light of God’s deep love for us. And then, in grateful response, may we desire the best – holiness – in our lives!
As you continue past the verses introducing the 10 Commandments, you begin to see in greater detail what it looks like to offer our best to God, what it means to be holy. It means worshipping Him exclusively. It means resting in Him. It means honouring your parents and others in authority. It means respecting other persons. Jesus summarizes what it means to give our best to God when He says to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mt 22:37, 39) As God wants what’s best for us, may we want to gratefully give our best to God. Then together we will “delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to” (Q&A 90) for now and eternity.
Order of worship
GOD CALLS US TO WORSHIP
Welcome and call to worship: Selections from Psalm 81 (TNIV)
Sing for joy to God our strength;
shout aloud to the God of Jacob!
Begin the music, strike the timbrel,
play the melodious harp and lyre…
When God went out against Egypt,
He established it as a statute for Joseph…
“In your distress you called and I rescued you…
I am the Lord your God,
who brought you up out of Egypt.
Open wide your mouth and I will fill it.”
Gathering song: “I Will Sing Unto the Lord” PsH 152 (both verses)
“May the grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ,
the love of God the Father,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be and abide with us all. Amen.”
Music of deliverance: “This Holy Covenant Was Made” Sing! A New Creation 173
and/or “We Praise You, O God” PsH 237
GOD RECONCILES US TO HIMSELF & EACH OTHER
Prayer of confession
Assurance of God’s grace: John 3:16-21
Hymn of deliverance: “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”
or “As Moses Raised the Serpent Up” PsH 219
God’s will for our lives: Responsive Reading of the Law as a Rule of Gratitude PsH p. 1017
GOD SPEAKS TO US THROUGH HIS WORD
Song of preparation: “When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land” PsH 476
Scripture readings: Exodus 6:1-9, 20:1-2; Ephesians 2:1-10
Message: “Feeling the Love in God’s Law”
Sung response: “O God, My Faithful God” PsH 574
(this hymn serves as the prayer of application; it can also be sung to the tune of PsH 454)
GOD BLESSES US TO SERVE HIM & OTHERS
Confession of faith/dedication to holy living:
Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Days 32-33 Q&A 86, 88-90
(these Lord’s Days are the introduction to the 10 Commandments in the catechism)
May we grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
To Him be glory both now and forever! Amen.
Sending hymn: “Grace That is Greater” Celebration Hymnal 462
or “Amazing Grace” PsH 462
Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus (Interpretation; Louisville KY: John Knox, 1991).
Ron Mehl, The Ten(der) Commandments: Reflections on the Father’s Love (Sisters OR: Multnomah, 1998). *The quote in the conclusion comes from this book, p. 33.
Jim Osterhouse, FAITH Unfolded: A Fresh Look at the Reformed Faith (Grand Rapids MI: Faith Alive, 2000).