Monday, October 24, 2005

why we need boundaries (exodus 20)

If there is a stereotype about religion, is that it is a system of rules, regulations, procedures. Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics”, someone has said. Our lives are governed by laws and boundaries. Human activity is restrained by gates, fences, credentials. We all live by some system of rules, regulations, procedures. Some are external: pay your taxes, recycle, educate your children, maintain your property. Some are internal: eat balanced meals, keep your distance from danger, smile politely at acquaintances in safe places. Some are external and internal. Slow down when you come to a speed bump. If you don’t, you are disobeying the visual message—that’s external, but you and your car may also suffer the consequences—that’s internal.

All of us live with rules, regulations and procedures. And the way we get along, in this world, is through conformity. We fit in. We keep most of the laws, more or less, right?. We drive the speed limit, right? We stop at red lights, right? We conform, because, if we don’t, there will be a punishment, a consequence.

Some of us grew up in a time when religion was mostly a matter of avoiding punishment and the consequences. Religion was heavy on conformity. I served briefly, right out of school, in a mill village about 45 minutes from here. One of the members of the church told me that he could recall a time when, if he missed Sunday School two times in a row, the foreman in his mill, who was not a member of his church, would call him into the office to ask if there was a problem!

Some of us grew up in a time when religion was mostly doing the right things, and when we did the right things, most of the time there were good consequences. And so we conformed. We conformed to avoid the bad stuff, and we conformed to get more of the good stuff.

There is a powerful urge within us to conform. And when we live in a culture of conformity, something about our human nature wants to know the specifics. What exactly am I supposed to do? What are the good things you want me to do? What are the bad things you want me to avoid? I remember being a teaching assistant in the undergraduate school at Duke, and later teaching religion at Greensboro College. I distinctly remember a certain kind of student, very engaged, very motivated by a central concern: what can I do to get a good grade, and to avoid a bad grade?

These questions have been ingrained within us, and I think we bring these questions to a study of the ten commandments. The problem is that the commandments are about something different altogether. They are not our usual code of rules, regulations and procedures. They are a way that leads to life. They are not about getting the good stuff and avoiding the bad stuff. They are more complex than that. They are not about conformity to laws. They are about formation of character. They are not old words that should be pushed aside in favor or the enlightened world in which we live. They are new and living words, as relevant as this morning’s newspaper or last night’s television news, and we ignore at our peril.

The commandments begin with a statement, not about what we are supposed to do, but about who in charge, about who God is. I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD, WHO BROUGHT YOU OUT OF THE LAND OF EGYPT, OUT OF THE HOUSE OF SLAVERY. Imagine that you are a parent, and you are trying to get a point across to your children, and at some point you say, “I am your mother, I am your father, I gave you life, look at everything I have done for you”.

God has rescued Israel from slavery, freed them from oppression. Remember me”, God says, “remember the burning bush and the Nile turned to blood and the cloud and fire and Pharoah’s army sinking in the sea and the manna every morning? Do you remember? Have you forgotten already? Of course, we sometimes do forget. We need to be reminded. And we need to know the context of the commandments, because the One who is about to speak to us has a right to say whatever he is going to say.

I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD…YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME. There are ten commandments, and this is the first---no other gods, not the gods of Pharoah’s Egypt, not the gods of Canaanite pleasure, not the gods of Babylonian pleasure. NO OTHER GODS.

This is the first commandment, and some of the rabbis argued that all of the other commandments are a commentary on this one. If you are a first grader, about to receive your Bible, or if you are a sixth grader in confirmation, or if you are in high school, you are going to grow up and along the way you are going to encounter the other gods. Someone along the way, a professor, a friend, a co-worker, will tell you, “you know, that’s just one explanation, there are others; that’s just one truth, there are others; that’s just one God, there are others”.

And there are other gods. There is a god of the marketplace. There is a god of sexuality. There is a god of warfare. There is a god of pleasure. There is a god of youth. We are commanded to have no other gods because there are other gods, other loyalties, other authorities. And we are tempted to build temples for these other gods, to make idols of them, to bow down to them.

Charles Barkley, the basketball player, insisted a few years ago that he was not a role model for anybody. Why did he say this? Have you ever been around a team of professional athletes in a public setting? There are people who will bow down to them. There are people who will make idols of them.

If we don’t believe in God”, someone has observed,”it is not that believe in nothing, we believe in everything”. I see that you are very religious people”, Paul said to those gathered in Athens, in Acts 17. And so, we hear the commandment clearly: YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS, DO NOT MAKE IDOLS, and then, DO NOT TAKE THE LORD’s NAME IN VAIN, do not misuse the name of God.

How do we take the Lord’s name in vain? In the Bible the name is the essence of the person. Tell me your name”, Jacob said to the One who wrestled with him. Tell me your name”, Moses says to the One who meets him on holy ground. God is very reluctant to give his name. Why? Because we are tempted to misuse that name, to assume that if we know God’s name, that we can use it in some way, to our benefit. We assume that God is on our side, at our disposal, in our pocket.

And so we say the name of God only with humility and reverence. The name of God is above every name, Paul writes to the Philippians. The name is so holy that a Jew will neither speak it nor write it. We avoid taking the name of the Lord in vain by always asking, “is what I am doing in the name/spirit of God? The answer: only God knows, only God is the judge of that. We have killed in the name of God, pushed people out of the church in the name of God, done all sorts of things, holy and profane, in the name of God. NO OTHER GODS, NO IDOLS, KEEP GOD’S NAME HOLY…

A next command: REMEMBER THE SABBATH DAY, AND KEEP IT HOLY. Sabbath means “to stop”. There is nothing religious about the word “Sabbath”, “Shabbat”. It simply means “to stop”. Stop what you are doing. Why? Because, on the seventh day, God stopped and rested, literally God “caught his breath”. The word “holy” means “different” or “set apart”. Have one day in the week that is different than the other six. That is the command.

These four commandments are called the first tablet of the law, and they have to do with our relationship with God. The second tablet contains the last six commandments—HONOR YOUR FATHER AND MOTHER, DO NOT MURDER OR KILL, DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY, DO NOT BEAR FALSE WITNESS, DO NOT STEAL, DO NOT COVET WHAT BELONGS TO YOUR NEIGHBOR.

These six commandments order our lives with each other, and they are connected to the first four. God is source, the foundation of our moral lives. We cannot separate religion and morality, believing and living, the first tablet—life with God, from the second tablet, life with each other. The last six commandments make life, everyday life, abundant life, possible. And here is the paradox--- they make life possible because they are restrictive…only one husband or wife, only what belongs to you, truth and not lies. They are restrictive because some things are in bounds and some things are out of bounds.

Boundaries are important. Why do we have boundaries? God must have felt that Israel needed boundaries if they were going to survive. Parents know instinctively about this. When our children were small we had clear boundaries. Don’t play in the street, don’t even go near the street. Why? The street is no place for a child, it’s dangerous, it’s out of bounds. And so we made boundaries. Our children grew up. We had curfews. Be in at a certain time. Why? Because not much constructive happens in the life of a teenager after a certain hour of the night—that is a father’s perspective!

God is saying, “these are your boundaries”. Do we go beyond them? Our human nature is to want to go beyond them. But someone has noted that “we do not so much break the commandments as we break ourselves upon them”. God makes these boundaries and says “live within them”.

But why does the God who created the universe restrict us in this way? Why do we need these boundaries? Why can’t we have it all? The boundaries have to do with our shortcomings, and not with God’s narrowness. I will sometimes go into a restaurant, and there is a huge buffet. It’s loaded with everything you can imagine. I sit down and someone brings a menu. My mind begins to move to a decision. There is something in my upbringing that says “you need to get the most for your money, it’s a buffet, it’s all you can eat, go for it!”

But then another voice speaks and says, “it’s too much, you won’t be able to restrain yourself”. You and I live in a culture that is a perpetual, 24/7 “all you can eat buffet”. There is more work than we can do, more money than we can spend, more gods than we can worship, more property than we can live on. And we are tempted. We have always been tempted.

The Jewish people were given these laws, and, of course, they broke them. We all break them. And so the rabbis had an interesting response. They came up with 613 laws. And a devout person would need to keep these 613 laws, and by doing so would not even get near the ten laws. This has been called “building a fence around the law”. Christians sometimes ridicule this practice, but we have our own way of building a fence around the law. I remember the phrase, growing up, “don’t drink or smoke or dance or chew or go out with girls who do”.

Ultimately, building a fence around the law, making more laws, didn’t help. Then Jesus comes along. Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, that it is not about conformity to law, but formation of character. It’s not just “you shall not kill”, but don’t be angry, for anger is the seed of murder. It’s not just “you shall not commit adultery”, but do not think about someone who is not your husband or wife in a sexual way, for that is the seed of adultery”.

Jesus knew that we could do the right things---conformity---for the wrong reasons. And yet Jesus is clear. He came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. We cannot live without the law, without boundaries. All of us are like children who need to learn, throughout our lives, about what is good and evil, about what is safe and what is dangerous.

When the people received the law, there was thunder and lightning, and they trembled. These laws are like thunder and lightning for us. We do not so much break them as we break ourselves upon them. You and I stand under the judgment of this law, these commandments. They did not go away when Jesus arrived on the scene. My prayer for us is that we will hear these words and know that they are God’s way of leading us to the life that He wants for us.

You shall have no other gods.

You shall not make idols.

You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.

Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

Honor your father and mother.

Do not kill.

Do not commit adultery.

Do not steal.

Do not bear false witness.

Do not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.

It is not that we need more information---the laws are pretty clear, the boundaries are pretty visible. We do not need more information. We need formation in the character of Jesus, whose life was a fulfillment of the law. We are saved by grace through faith in his perfect obedience. Let us give thanks to God, who brought us out of slavery, who is the way, the truth and the life, for the gift of boundaries. Blessed are those who delight in the law of the Lord.


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