(Exodus 19:1-7; 20:1-17)
L3, Sun, March 4, 2018 – UBC Digby – J G White
I remember spinning, out of control.
Whenever I drive to Halifax, on the way back home, I usually remember my car spinning out of control in the winter of 1996. Just past exit 4, near St. Croix, there is a hill. Twenty years ago it was not a divided highway; and one day, it was snow covered, and the little car that my father was lending me started to lose its grip as I drove up the hill. I just let it spin… around and around a few times, coming to a stop on the shoulder – the other side, facing down the hill. A few other cars going my way, and coming the other way did not get in the way, thankfully, and I stayed out of the ditches and guardrails. I took a breath, took my foot off the break, and set out to finish my journey.
Life is sometimes like a snowy highway: it is a challenge to keep your life on track. To “keep ‘er between the ditches,” as some people say. Do y’ever say that to someone as they head out to drive away? “Keep ‘er between the ditches!”
The Ten Commandments are here in two places in scripture, and pictured in stained glass, to ‘keep us between the ditches.’ Famously, these Ten Words are just the beginning of many other rules, regulations, guidelines, policies, and procedures for the Jewish people of old.
Christians still find them at the foundation of how to live today. With this on my mind I found the Bible converged with music, over the past 10 days. I happened to listen to some music, music I know, but it struck me and stuck with me. Like an ‘earworm,’ I have been humming and playing it every day. And so I started to put words to the music: the Ten Commandments, of all things! And then I added the words of Jesus.
Jesus was asked by a religious law expert: [Matthew 22:36-40] “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ [Deut 6:5] This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ [Lev 19:18] On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
So these two ‘commandments’ Jesus quotes are not among the Ten, they are some of the other material. There are more than ten. And some are more significant for us today than others.
An exact, unchanging rulebook does not suit every roadway, every era, every journey of your life. The rules of the road to keep you out of the ditch have changed, right? How wide the road is, what the speed limits are, these things change, thru the years. Highway 101 is about to change, near us. So too with the guidelines for God’s people. Thousands of years bring thousands of changes in how Jews and Christians live with boundaries and freedom.
We look to Jesus, who gets beyond the Old Testament law, goes deeper. Remember those bits when he says, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you…”? That’s from His sermon on the mount, recorded in Matthew. (chapter 5)
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, [either] by heaven, for it is the throne of God… 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
Today, as disciples of the Master, Jesus, we seek again what it means to keep the sabbath, to honour parents, to cease wanting what others have. We do these things differently than believers 100 years ago. Oh my, at the Tea yesterday here, a woman was almost dancing to the music, and trying to teach the Pastor basic dance steps! Your Baptist grandmothers here would not have look favourably on this, years ago. Our sense of holy and appropriate behaviour has evolved, through the decades.
What is true does not change, but our moment in history does, and what our obedience looks like is sometimes new and fresh.
American lawyer, linguist and poet, James R. Lowell, published some verses in the Boston Courier in 1845, as a protest to the war with Mexico, at the time. His poem since has been sung as a hymn, (Once to Every Man and Nation) including these verses: New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward
Who would keep abreast of truth.
The Decalogue is not so much legalistic or moralistic. It is 1. defining the limits of God’s people, to keep them between the ditches, so to speak. Giving good boundaries. And it is 2. a response to God’s grace. We must not forget this. Obedience to the commands of old and the guidance of Jesus is not a way of earning our way into heaven, into God’s good books, into some sort of salvation. Following the Way is all because of the grace that we first receive.
Those Hebrews at Mount Sinai with Moses, they had already been set free and crossed the Red sea. Afterwords, the Law was given to them. So too with Christian salvation. What Jesus does when He dies unites us with God, and we do something because of this. We do our best, gratefully. Not to earn grace. We already were given grace in our souls.
So the path of obedience is a way we are guided. And we must keep on studying, with our hearts, the guidance of God for us.
Frederick Beuchner claimed Jesus did not say that religion was the truth or that his own teachings were the truth or that what people taught about him was the truth or that the Bible was the truth or the Church or any system of ethics or theological doctrine. (Listening to Your Life, 1992, p. 307)
What did Jesus say about truth? Apparently: I am the way, the truth, and the life.
Jesus saves us, and sets us on the road of new life. Then, then, we are helped to keep it between the ditches, and keep on in a good direction.