Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
1Then God spoke all these words: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13 You shall not murder.
14 You shall not commit adultery.
15 You shall not steal.
16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exodus 20:1-17, NRSV)
One Sunday morning a minister decided that a visual demonstration would add some needed emphasis to his sermon. So he began his sermon by placing four live worms in four separate jars. The first worm was placed into a jar full of alcohol. The second into a container of cigarette smoke. The third into a jar of chocolate syrup. The fourth into a jar of good, clean soil. Then he went on to preach an impassioned sermon about living righteously and following God’s laws as laid out for us in the Bible.
At the end of the sermon he turned back to the jars and reported that the worm in the alcohol was now dead, as was the worm in the cigarette smoke and the worm in the chocolate syrup. But the fourth worm, the worm in the good, clean soil, was alive and well. So the minister asked the congregation, “Friends, what have we all learned from this simple demonstration?”
One little old lady in the back quickly raised her hand and blurted out, “What I’ve learned is that as long as you drink, smoke and eat chocolate you’ll never have worms!”
There are people who perceive that the Bible is mostly a book full of rules and commandments that tell us not to do what we would really rather be doing and tell us to do what we would really rather not be doing. Fact is, the Bible does contain a lot of laws given by God to his people, none more well-known than the ten we just read. But why? Have you ever asked that question? Why does God make laws?
Immediately before God gives the 10 Commandments, God says this to his people, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is God’s reminder to the people that he has already gone to great lengths to save them. The people are God’s treasure whom he dearly loves. And that is the reason he gives them the law. God’s law is always given out of love.
Think about it, it’s really no different from the reason human parents give rules to their children. A loving mother tells her son that he is not allowed to go into the street unless he is holding her hand. The little boy, of course, hates the rule. “I’m old enough to cross by myself! It’s boring on this side of the street! Why do you treat me like a baby?” He doesn’t yet understand what the rest of us do understand. A mother doesn’t make such rules to restrict her son from experiencing the best in life but rather to insure that her son will experience the best in life. And if the child trusts his mother, if he believes that she knows better and that she truly loves him and wants the best for him, he will obey her rule and stay on the sidewalk.
It’s no different with God. Our willingness to obey God’s law always has to do with trust. Do you trust that you’re your Creator knows better than you know? Do you trust that he truly does want the best for you in life because he loves you? You might say that behind every command that God gives us is the command to trust.
And here’s the problem. God knows that we don’t trust him. We never have. Ever since the beginning when God told the first people to enjoy every fruit tree in the garden except for the one fruit tree in the middle of the garden, we have not trusted God. In fact, I’m sure that even as God gives Moses and the Israelites the 10 commandments, the law which was meant to provide for them and to protect them, God knew they would break the commandments before they even got down off the mountain.
So here’s the question. If God knows that we aren’t going to trust him and follow the law he gives us, why give it to us in the first place? Well, John Calvin, the great Protestant Reformer, long ago wrote that one of the purposes of God’s law is to act as a mirror in our lives, a mirror which reflects the perfect righteousness of God back to us. In other words, the law shows us the life God lives and the life God made us to live with him, and so when we hold that mirror up to our lives we look into it and are given a clear picture of just how far short we fall.
When I was in college I imagined myself to be a pretty good basketball player. In fact, somehow I got it into my mind that if I had only worked a little harder on my jump shot that perhaps I could have competed at a higher level than the college intramural team I found myself on. About that time a friend of mine got tickets to see a Stanford game. The tickets were right on the floor, only a few feet away from the basket. That was the night all my illusions were shattered. The size, the speed, the skill, the strength of these players left no doubt in my mind. The C-league intramural team was exactly where I belonged. Sometimes it takes getting a close look at the standard before your realize how far short you fall of meeting it.
In Romans 3:20, Paul writes, “Through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” Later, in Romans 7:7, Paul confesses, “I would not have known what sin was except through the law.” Augustine put it this way, “Feeling our weakness under the law [we] learn to implore the help of grace.” We look into the mirror of God’s law and immediately all illusions of our righteousness are shattered. We see the life God made us for and we compare it to the life we are currently living and the disparity between the two is far greater than we ever imagined. In a word, the law forces us to see our sin and its seriousness. We see how little we really do trust God. As a result, we are then driven in desperation to Christ in hopes of finding mercy and grace.
To use another illustration, it’s a bit like the man who imagines himself to be in such perfect health that he eats whatever he wants and chooses the lifestyle that requires the least possible effort. But then one day he goes in for his annual physical and the doctor sits him down to review the results of his blood work. First she shows him numbers that are typical for a healthy adult male of his age. Then comes the shocker. His numbers are way off. His cholesterol is through the roof. His blood sugar levels are not good. His blood pressure is dangerously high. There is no denying it; his health is not good. You see, the first set of numbers served as a mirror to show this man the truth about his physical health. And now, if he has the humility to accept the truth, he will be ready to trust the doctor and do what she says.
Let me make this personal. If you are willing to honestly hold God’s law up to your life, one of the results of doing so will be that you will quickly discover that your life is full of sin. It’s not that you have a few areas of your life where you could do a bit better. No. God’s law, when honestly held up to a human life, will reveal a life and heart that is deeply corrupted by sinful, selfish attitudes and choices. By God’s standards, even the best person you know harbors within himself or herself an enormous capacity for egotism and self-absorption, and a propensity to trust in themselves rather than in God. This is true of me. It is true of you. It is true of everybody you know.
I understand that we certainly don’t want to come to church and be told that we’re sinners. We know we’re not perfect, so why do we have to dwell on the negative. God is a God of love, and love is about acceptance, and affirmation, and tolerance, and inclusion, and peace, and encouragement. Right?
Of course it is. But love is also about truth. Is it loving to agree with your alcoholic friend that he does not have a drinking problem when his problem is clearly destroying his marriage, his health and his career? It’s tolerant because who am I to judge. It’s self-serving because it’s easier to just look the other way. But it’s not loving, it’s not loving in the least! And I don’t know about you but if my life and my heart are so infected by the sin of my insistence on trusting in myself rather than in God, and if that sin has corrupted every relationship in my life including my relationship with God, and if that sin has resulted in my spiritual death and will ultimately result in my eternal physical death, then the most loving thing God could ever do is show me this truth about my sin. And the wisest thing I could ever do in response is to allow God to change my mind in this respect and throw myself at his mercy.
The 10 Commandments represent the heart of God’s law to his people. God gave them to us for many reasons, one of which, maybe the first of which, is to serve as a mirror to show us how deeply sin has corrupted our lives and, as a result, how deeply we stand in need of God’s mercy and grace. And for those of us who have only given a passing glance into that mirror, it is quite possible we’ve come away imagining that the life we live is not far off from the life described in these commandments. For that reason I want us all to stop and take a longer look this morning. I want to ask you to stop and stare deeply into the mirror of the law that God gave to Moses so that whatever illusions you may still harbor about your own righteousness might finally be put to rest.
Commandment #1 – You shall have no other gods before me. Do you always affirm, publicly and privately, that there are on other gods? Do you live in such a way that in every moment of every day you worship and love God with all of your heart, all of your mind, all of your soul, and all of your strength? Does God perpetually have this exclusive and unique place in your life as the object of your total devotion?
Commandment #2 – You shall neither make nor worship idols. When you think you are worshipping God is it always really God you are worshipping? When you sit in church on a Sunday morning, is it always God you are esteeming? Or perhaps, is it really the music you have come to worship? Or the sermon? Or the preacher? Can you worship God equally in another church or is it this church, these traditions, this familiarity which is really what you hold most dear?
Commandment #3 – You shall not make wrongful use of the Lord’s name. Does the way you use, or fail to use God’s name always show God honor? Do you ever swear falsely by God’s name, use God’s name in a trivial way, say God’s name to make other think better of you? Do you ever pray or sing God’s name without thinking about what you are praying or singing?
Commandment #4 – You shall honor the Sabbath day. Is it your practice to do what God has been telling people to do since the beginning of time by taking one day out of every seven days to cease your work and simply enjoy God and God’s creation? Do you trust God when he tells you that honoring the Sabbath is critical to the health of your soul?
Commandment #5 – You shall honor your mother and father. The word honor here literally means “heavy”. We are not to take our parents lightly, but seriously, treating them with value, and dignity, and respect. God has set our parents up as his primary agents and representatives to us and regardless of how well they have fulfilled that role, we are to honor them always. Have you?
Commandment #6 – You shall not murder. At last, a commandment we’ve all kept! Right? Not so fast. Remember that Jesus once taught that if you stay angry with another person, or insult another person, or harbor ill will towards any other person in your heart then you are no better than the murderer because you have destroyed a relationship God intended to thrive.
Commandment #7 – You shall not commit adultery. Again, we remember that Jesus once challenged those who thought they’d kept this commandment because they had never cheated on their spouses. According to Jesus, if you look at another person with lust in your heart, with the sustained desire to sexually possess another person for your own gratification, then you have already committed adultery in your heart.
Commandment #8 – You shall not steal. Who here is a thief? Well, have you ever taken credit for something you didn’t really do? Have you ever taken somebody’s idea and misrepresented it as your own? Have you ever stopped working when you were still being paid to work? Have you ever fudged on your taxes, or underpaid for work done for you, or kept a lost item you should have turned in? You know, you don’t have to break into somebody’s house to be a thief.
Commandment #9 – You shall not bear false witness against any other person. Have you ever failed to get the facts right and, in doing so, brought some harm to your neighbor’s reputation? Whenever you talk about people who aren’t present, is your talk always completely true, and completely kind, and completely necessary? Do you always love people enough to tell them the truth they need to hear even when they don’t want to hear it? Do you always use humor in ways that builds people up?
Commandment #10 – You shall not covet what anybody else possesses. Do you ever look at what others have – their possessions, their abilities, their relationships, their bodies – and find yourself bitter, or jealous, or even scheming because you do not also possess what they possess? Do you ever secretly hate to see the success of somebody else or secretly find yourself happy about the failure of another?
Back in Jesus’ day there were some religious people who only took a passing glance into the mirror of God’s law. They only looked quickly enough to make sure that their outsides appeared presentable. One reason some of these people hated Jesus is because he forced them to take a longer look, to hold the mirror up close enough to see all the way into their hearts, into their intentions and motivations, into the places that God sees beneath the surface. Jesus’ most famous teaching, in fact, the Sermon on the Mount (which you can read in Matthew 5-7), is basically a sermon where Jesus was challenging people to do exactly this and if you’ve ever studied what Jesus says in that sermon you know that it’s brutal. The honest person hears Jesus’ message and walks away understanding that he or she has fallen immensely short when it comes to living the life God requires from us all. The honest person hears Jesus teaching and lets the law do what it was meant to do, which is to convict them of their sin and drive them to their knees. When that happens, when the law forces us to confess that we are sinners, you might say that we then have discovered the beginning of good news.
You see, it’s very telling how Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount. You might remember his first line. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he said, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” A contemporary version translates it this way, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” I have come to believe that Jesus put these words first in his sermon because he knew that any person who honestly and humbly held up the rest of what he had to say as a mirror to their lives would be left in the end very poor in spirit. All the illusion would be gone. And let me tell you, after I look carefully at God’s law there is no more pretending that I am a good and righteous person, a person God finds deserving and worthy.
At the end of the day I so often don’t trust God. I get angry when I don’t get my way. I regularly turn a blind eye to injustice. I don’t work for the good will of people who are my enemies. I lust. I use people. I manipulate. I get defensive. I stick with my friends. I twist the truth. I’m always concerned with what others think about me. I take my family for granted. I hold on to more than I need. I worry all the time. I pass judgment on people I don’t even know. I ignore God far more than I’d like to admit.
If you have also come to this place, or are even approaching this place of honesty about your life, I want you to hear this morning that Jesus calls you blessed because you have come to the beginning of very, very good news. The person who recognizes the tragic depth of their sin and knows there is nothing in their life that can ever earn them favor before God, is the person Jesus says is poor in spirit and is, as a result, blessed. They are blessed – listen to me – because the Kingdom of God belongs to them.
Is it not good news when the addict finally realizes that he has a problem and seeks help? Is it not good news when the patient gets to see his blood work numbers and is forced to admit that he’s sick and is finally then willing to make some changes in his lifestyle? Is it not good news when you and I finally look closely enough at God’s law to realize unmistakably that we are deeply flawed and selfish sinners in desperate need of God’s mercy and grace? It is good news because then we just might turn to God and if we do we will find, to our utter astonishment, that in Christ sufficient mercy and grace is already ours.
You see, there’s an important detail from the story of the Israelites at Mount Sinai I don’t want to overlook. Once again, remember how the 10 Commandments begin, not with a command but with a reminder. Before God gives his people the law he tells them to remember: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Did you catch it? Before God commands his people God saves his people. Were they deserving of being saved? No. The Israelites harbored within themselves an enormous capacity for egotism and self-absorption. They had an addictive regard for their own interests. They didn’t trust God. They complained constantly. They wanted to go back to Egypt! Nonetheless, God saves them. And he only gives them the law after he has saved them.
Do you see what that means? Listen to me carefully. God always saves us before he commands us. Jesus didn’t die for the righteous but for sinners, sinners who hated him, betrayed him, deserted him, rejected him. God demonstrates to us that he is our loving Father before he asks us to serve him as our sovereign King. Never does God require that we obey in order to be accepted. If that was the case we would only try to obey out of fear. No! We obey only after we realize we have already been accepted! Then our obedience flows not out of fear but gratitude and love! Better yet, as we give ourselves in faith to Christ he draws us to himself and gives us the power we need to obey.
Let me be blunt. I never want this to be one of those churches where we don’t talk honestly about sin. I never want this to be one of those churches where we skirt around the truth that every single one of us is a sinner. I’ve mentioned here before that some churches have changed the lyrics to Amazing Grace. John Newton originally wrote, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” It’s that word wretch which has offended modern sensibilities. In many hymnbooks it now reads, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, to save just one like me.” And I ask, one like me? What am I? I’ve got to confess to you, I’m a wretch. Disagree with me if you like, but you’re wrong. You don’t know me like I know me. And any good in me you may see is only because of the grace of God. And whether you recognize it or not, it’s exactly the same with you.
So, one like me? I’m a wretch so I might as well say it. In fact, some really good things can happen if I do say it. Better things if I actually believe it.
Jesus once told a parable about two men. He was talking with some religious people at the time who, like some of us, had never really taken the time to look deeply into the mirror of God’s law where they would see the wretchedness of their sin and the depth of their need for grace. So Jesus told them this story. I’ll end with it today.
Two men went to worship one day to pray. One man was a Pharisee, a religious leader, and the other man was a tax collector, a cheat, a traitor and an outcast. The Pharisee went and stood right up front and posed before God, praying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I even fast twice a week and regularly give away a generous portion of my income.”
At the same time the tax collector slumped in the shadows near the rear, his face in his hands. When he prayed he couldn’t even look to up to heaven. The best he could do was beat on his chest as he cried out, “God, show me mercy. Forgive me because I am a sinner.”
After Jesus finished the story he turned to the crowds and said this, “I tell you the truth, it was the tax collector, and not the other, who went home right with God that day. For everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I assume that like those two men you also came here to worship today to pray. Well, you should know that the content of your prayers, and the rightness of your relationship with God today, have everything to do with how deeply you have forced yourself to look into the mirror of God’s law. I pray you look deeply. What you find will not be easy to see. But believe me when I tell you, it is the beginning of good news.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Re-read the passage from Exodus 20:1-17. These are commandments you’ve heard many times before. Which one stands out to you this time through?
Jeff raised the question, “Why did God give us commandments and laws in the first place?” How would you answer that question?
John Calvin stated that one of the main purposes of the law was to function as a mirror which illumines human sinfulness. Is this the way you see it? How as God’s law illumined sin in your life?
“I am a sinner, period.” Can you say these words about yourself? Why or why not?
Do we talk too much or too little about sin in this church? Do we talk more about sin than God’s Word talks about sin?
As you think more deeply about what each of the 10 Commandments is asking of us, is there one of them which particularly convicts you today?
The title of Jeff’s sermon was, “Good News: You are a Sinner!” Is this really good news?
Jesus told us that we are blessed if we are poor in spirit, blessed if we come to the place in life that we realize we are at the end of our rope. Have you come to this place?