A precious jewel of guidelines as to how we should live

Peter Seal, 7 March 2021

Exodus 20: 1–17; 1 Corinthians 1: 18–25; John 2: 13–22

Let’s dive in deep. Our first two readings seem to present us with an immediate question. It goes like this: are today’s readings from Exodus and 1 Corinthians in direct conflict with each other? Do they give wholly irreconcilable pictures of God, and therefore our response to God?

The God of the Ten Commandments is, surely, a God who loves order and rules and rational systems. To please this God, we have just to follow the rules. The God of 1 Corinthians, on the other hand, seems to be anarchic and incomprehensible. The only way of pleasing him is to abandon our own rational concepts of hierarchy and of order. ‘Christ crucified’ is the defining picture of God.

So let’s explore together. Reading the Ten Commandments again, and with fresh eyes, let’s try and put ourselves among those Israelites all those years ago. We quickly come to realise that God is asking something extraordinary of his people. He’s asking them to throw away all their comforts and securities, and to rely on him alone. God is asking them to forget all the normal rules of power and dominance. He wants them to build a society that reflects God’s own strange preferences for the poor and the powerless.

The Israelites are, rightly, terrified. From the top of the mountain wreathed in smoke and fire – too holy for even the priests to approach, without the utmost caution – comes a picture of how the people of God should live. Above all, they are to believe that only this God is real and holy. No other back-ups are allowed. You can’t believe in God and carry on offering your life to other kinds of gods.

As the hot ash fell on them and the thunders deafened them, all this was forcibly impressed on those Israelite people. Like them, we need reminding, because we’re rather good at forgetting.

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy: a good reminder that times of rest are vital. But, more significantly for those who are believers, the Sabbath day is the gift which proclaims, ‘The world is not there for your use’.

As our church community deepens our commitment to caring for the planet; here we have a foundational text. Our most special children and young people, some of whom are pictured in the March magazine, would be urging us to shout with them, ‘The world is not just there for your use’. And from this follows the hugely important green agenda.

The rules of the Ten Commandments share a theme; they are designed to prevent people from using their natural advantages for their own ends. The strong cannot take what they want, the clever cannot lie their way out of things, the sexy cannot go off with whoever they fancy.

The rules are designed to prevent people from using their natural advantages for their own ends.

All forms of covetousness are at best unsettling, making us dissatisfied. At worst, they threaten to eat away at our insides, at the core of our being, at our souls … and, ultimately, consume us.

We can see how radical and how relevant the Ten Commandments are. They’re there for our guidance. They help promote an ordered society and the possibility of fair shares.

In these days when we begin to emerge, spring-like, into a new world, the Ten Commandments are a gift. Far from imposing limitations that reduce who we are and what we can do, they give us a firm base. They give us a testing-ground, from which we can discern what may be right or wrong as we make decisions for the future.

It’s being impressed on us, again and again, that it’s poor and vulnerable people the world over who are suffering the most from this pandemic, and for whom recovery will be slowest, if at all. Again and again we hear, either directly or by strong implication, that the people of planet earth belong together, depend on each other, and really will either rise or fall together.

Rooted way back in the book of Exodus chapter 20, today’s reading, we are given this precious jewel of guidelines as to how we should live.

We can say with confidence: we believe that Christianity isn’t a nice optional extra, which we go along with when everything else in our lives seems just fine. No. Christianity challenges everything; our whole way of living and loving.

We all need an outer and positive reference point which grounds our minds and our hearts. That’s why I always want to challenge those who say they have no need of God, by saying something like, ‘We all need something beyond ourselves, against which we can measure how we’re doing’. To claim to be self-sufficient and self-determining is ultimately a trap and a delusion.

And yet the Ten Commandments are just the beginning. Please don’t get hung up on whether you always keep all of them, or not. Actually, none of us can keep them all, all the time. That’s precisely why we need them: to remind us; to pull us up short; to redirect us. They lead us to confess our sins and then, having sensed the release of forgiveness, to begin again.

The Ten Commandments aim to create a society that can recognise the strange, irrational work of God and then be ready to preach ‘Christ crucified’, as Paul did. This Lent, today’s readings present us with a radical and yet traditional insight: our faith is profoundly comforting, deeply challenging and wondrously surprising.

In conclusion, dear friends in Christ, with St Paul we can say: ‘God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’. Praise be to God. Amen.