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    Exodus 19:2-6 

    ²They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, ³while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel. 

    Exodus 20:1-4

    ¹And God spoke all these words, saying, 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. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  

    What is the secret to the good life? How do we live a successful, meaningful life? That's a question that we all ask. In response to that question, a whole industry has popped up, offering the magic elixir through advice such as this: “Let go of the past.” “Focus on the positive.” “Be present in the moment.” “Embrace imperfection.” “Do what you love.”—All good advice. But it also leaves us wondering: Who is actually qualified to answer that question? Who is qualified to tell you how you should live your life? God has an answer to that question. On one hand, you could say he takes the whole Bible to spell out for us “the good life”; and on the other hand, he has given us his top 10 list, known as the Ten Commandments. Interestingly, in the Scriptures, the Ten Commandments are never called that. In Hebrew, they are literally called, “the ten words.” 

    We're in the midst of a series focused on the life of Moses. Thus far, God has led his people out of their bondage in Egypt, through the Red Sea, and brought them across the wilderness to Mount Sinai. In this sermon, we come to this dramatic new scene, where God gives the people of Israel his law. At first we may not like the sound of the word law, because it appears to be limiting, restricting—because we human beings want to be free in order to be happy and flourish. So the word law can cause us to make the wrong assumption about God—that he is some kind of overly scrupulous judge, ready to tick off every little offense. That is oftentimes the picture that both religious and religious people have of God, and it is why some religious people end up being so judgmental. 

    But to think of God in that way, misses the point of the law, because that is not the kind of God revealed to us in the Scriptures. It might be helpful to us, then, to understand the word law as used in Scripture. In Hebrew, the word law is the word torah, which literally means “teaching, instruction, guidance.” Therefore, when God gives us his law, he gives us his teaching, guidance, and instruction, and he gives us this because he's the one who made us. So he knows how life works best. The 10 Commandments, or 10 words, are a distillation of what leads to the good life. But the good life God has commanded we live, becomes more clear when we consider these questions: When does God give the law? Why does God give the law? How are we supposed to keep it? The question, When does God give the law? reveals the grace of the law. The question, Why does God give the law? reveals the heart of God’s 10 words. And last, the question, How are we supposed to keep it? reveals the weakness of the law. In sum, the law of God  shows us its gracious character, but also its weakness. Let's consider each of these questions in turn. 

    When Does Give the Law to his People?

    The first question—When does God give the law to his people?—as said, reveals the grace of the law. But if I were to ask the average person on the street, “What is God's law?” I suspect that most people would say something like this: “The law is God's standard for moral conduct, and if you live up to that standard, then God will accept you...bless you...make your life go well, and take you to heaven when you die.” In other words, most people, probably non-religious and religious alike, believe God has a moral standard to which he holds us responsible, and to the degree that we live in accordance with it, he will bless us and accept us. Consequently, we are apt to treat the law, as the primary way to secure God's love and acceptance. But this episode in the life of Moses shows us that that conception of God's law is entirely wrong; and because it is a wrong view, we need to forget everything we know, and consider, first, when God gives the law, in order to understand its true and gracious character. 

    What do I mean? Where are we in the story of the Exodus? We know that God has already freed his people from their bondage in Egypt. He's already brought them through the Red Sea and to the wilderness to Mount Sinai. It is here, at Mount Sinai, that he gives them the law. Now imagine if he did the exact opposite. Imagine if he gave the law to his people, while they were still living in slavery in Egypt. Imagine that he said to them, “If you obey my voice, and keep my commands, then I'll deliver you from your bondage in Egypt.” If God did that, that would suggest that obedience to the law is the precondition for God's love. In other words, if you measure up, God will save you. 

    But God's salvation is not contingent upon your obedience because, as we see here, God rescues his people before he ever gives them the law. That shows us clearly that the law is not a precondition of his love; rather, it is a gracious gift, the very expression of his love. Exodus 19:4-5, draws this out, where God, in the preamble to the 10 words, reminds his people of the context in which he's telling them how to live the good life: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine.” Then again, in Exodus 19:2, he says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” So God doesn't say to them, “Live this way, and then I will love you”; he says, “I love you, now live this way.” In other words, the order of God’s love is not: law-then grace; the order is: grace-then law. And that, you see, is the logic of Exodus, the entire bible, and the gospel. And that is also what makes Christianity, when compared to every other religion and philosophical view of life, utterly distinct and absolutely unique; and, to put a stamp on it, what makes Christianity Christianity.   

    Martin Luther, the reformer, has said something rather interesting about God’s love. After he posted his 95 Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, which sparked the Protestant Reformation, he was asked to defend his ideas in Heidelberg —in what became known as the Heidelberg Disputation. Luther said this: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” From Luther’s statement, we can see something stunning—remarkably different—about God's love versus human love. We humans see something that is beautiful or attractive, and that elicits our love. Human love is therefore conditional, based on the loveliness of its object. God's love, however, works completely in the opposite way. He doesn't love us because we are lovely, or because of who we are or what we have done. He loves us, as Luther says, in order to make us lovely. His love, therefore, is unconditional. But God's love is even better than unconditional love. His love is contra-conditional, which means he loves you despite who you are, what you've done, or what you might become. 

    Miroslav Volf, a theologian at Yale, perhaps best captures God’s contra-conditional love for us in the story he tells of once going to see a play with his young son. In the play, a number of metamorphoses—transformations—take place. After the performance, when he and his son are in the car riding home, his son turned to him and said, “Dad, would you still love me if I turned into a donkey?”—one of those great questions a child asks while riding along in the car with dad. And Miroslav Volf, the theologian, began answering his son’s question, and like a philosopher, said, “Let me let me think about this for a moment. If you transformed into a donkey, to what extent would you still be you?” And while he's meditating on this question, his son burst into tears, which caused him to pull off to the side of the road and stop the vehicle, in order to console his son, who was weeping uncontrollably. Volf says he realized then that his son had the right intuition. Of course, a father should love his son, no matter who he is, no matter what he does, no matter what he might become. 

    That is contra-conditional love—the kind of love that God has for us. He doesn't love us because of some innate beauty in us; rather, he loves us in order to transform us into something ever more beautiful. And because God’s love for us is contra-conditional love, that love fundamentally changes the motivation for keeping the law of God. We are able to obey his law because we know his love for us. We understand that he doesn't tell us: “Live this way, and then I will love you”; rather: “I love you, now live this way”—not to earn his acceptance, but as demonstration of the fact that you already have. Keeping his law, then, is a sign of gratitude for God’s contra-conditional love for us. So to come back to our question, When does God give the law to his people? We see it is not before, but after he rescues his people—the very expression of his love. 

    Why Does God Give Us The Law?

    But then that leads us to ask the question: What is at the very heart of these 10 words or commandments? What are they meant to express? Let's look at the first commandment, because all the other commandments stem from this one, and I would suggest that you never break the other nine unless you break the first. So what does God say in the first commandment? He says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” 

    If you stop and think about it, that command is a bit strange when you consider that the people of ancient Israel were strict monotheists. They believed in one God in a world awash with polytheism. And so you would think that when God gives his law, he would say to them, “There are no other gods, so don't bother worshipping them. Just focus on me.” Instead he says, “You shall have no other gods.” Now why would he say that? Why tell them (and you) not to have any other gods, if there are no other gods?  He says this because, even though there is only one God, there is such a thing as false gods that you create and fabricate, which, though fake, nevertheless exert a power over you. 

    Another word for a false god would be an idol, and that in fact is God’s second command: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image.” Now think about this. The people of Israel just spent hundreds of years in polytheistic Egypt, where the only images that they would have seen would have been the images of other gods. So this second command—“no idols”—is really just an extension of the first—“no other gods.” So God essentially repeats himself with the second command. 

    Why would he do that? Why does he repeat himself when he's only got 10 words to show us how to live the good life? Why waste a commandement? Clearly, God thinks that this first commandment is the most important commandment. As our Creator, he knows and wants what is best for us, and so he knows that loving him first, is the only way for us to be truly happy and to live the good life. And because he knows that we humans are prone to chase after other gods, he refuses to let us do that; knowing that a false god or idol is only going to leave us feeling more disappointed, more defeated, more dissatisfied. 

    You see, an idol or a false god, doesn't have to be a metal image. It can be a mental image. It can be anything that you look to, to give you significance, confidence, and security in life. Martin Luther defines “your God” as this: “Anything on which your heart relies and depends...that is really your God.” For God to allow us to love anything other than him would be to allow us to try to find some satisfaction in that which is less than best. He doesn't want us to settle for second best—only his best: everlasting happiness. So God gives us the law, not as some abstract moral code of ethical principles or arbitrary demands, or a list of do's and don'ts to follow—but only as an expression of his love for us. 

    With that in mind, what is it “that your heart trusts in” other than the God of the bible? Is it money? Sex?  Power? Recognition? Status? Influence? Approval of others? Critical acclaim? What is your God?

    How Are We Supposed to Keep the Law?

    If God’s law is an expression of his love for us, how do we actually keep this law? For keeping the law is where we encounter the problem with the law. In Romans 7:12, the apostle Paul famously says: “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” So we are taught that the law is a good and beautiful thing because it provides us with God's intentions for how human life is to be lived. But there's also a problem baked into the law, and that problem is that the law is weak. 

    So on the one hand, the law is good because it spells out for us how to find the good life, but on the other, we see that it is weak because it doesn't actually give us the power to keep it. Sinclair Ferguson, the Scottish theologian, commenting on the weakness of the law, once said that the law is like a set of railroad tracks; it lays down the tracks for us to run on, it shows us the direction that we should live our lives and yet, it doesn't give us an engine. It provides us with the tracks to run on, but it doesn't provide us with an engine to propel us down those tracks.  

    To use a more contemporary example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said something interesting when he was at Western Michigan University in 1963, discussing the role of legislation within the Civil Rights Movement. He was asked to comment on the common objection that “you cannot legislate morality.” In response to that question this is what he said: “We must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important.” So here Dr. King points to the goodness of the law. Good law, he says, is necessary for a good society. While it is true you can't legislate morality, you can regulate behavior —and that, as Dr. King says, is an important thing, despite the fact it cannot change or renew the human heart. 

    So how do we experience the kind of heart transformation that is necessary, in order to live the life God outlines for us in his 10 words or commandments? I would suggest that the only way in which we can find the power to live this kind of life is to experience an exodus of our own. Now some of us, thinking of the original exodus, would be inclined to say something along this order: “If I had been there, if I had been one of the people that had been dramatically rescued from bondage in Egypt, then I would be able to see who God really is. I would be able to taste his love myself. I would be able to trust him, and therefore do what he says.” And I would agree. We need to experience an exodus of our own. 

    But do you know what Jesus says to us? He says you can experience an exodus of your own, and in fact, the ultimate exodus. Looking back to the original exodus, we see that God frees the people of Israel from their bondage in Egypt, and leads them to the new land that he has promised; and he used the Passover lamb, as a substitute for the firstborn of the people of Israel, which died for the people. And what becomes clear in Matthew 1-5, is that Jesus recapitulates the whole story of Israel. Just as the people of Israel came out of Egypt, were baptized in the Red Sea, wandered through the wilderness, and then came to Mount Sinai where they received God's law; so we read in these Scriptures that Jesus comes out of Egypt, is baptized in the Jordan [River], spends 40 days in the wilderness, then goes up to the top of a mountain, and from there delivers a new law and teaching, which we call the Sermon on the Mount. Through this teaching, Jesus shows us the way to the good life that he himself has made for us. He teaches us that God is our supreme good, and that there is no lasting happiness that we can find apart from him. So he calls us to follow God’s word, his law, because that is the only way to find a meaningful life. 

    Jesus knows the way to a meaningful life because he’s the ultimate Passover Lamb, who dies as our substitute on a cross. Jesus is a better Moses because he blows a hole through death in order to free us, not just from an Egyptian oppressor, but from our ultimate enemies—sin, evil, and death itself. From the cross, he says, “Look at me. Look at what I've done for you. Look at how much I love you. Don't you see that? Now you can trust me.” When he is asked, then, to sum up the entirety of the Old Testament law, what does he say?—“You shall love  the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul with all of your mind”(Matthew 22:36-37). And he says that because there is no other way to the good life, except by loving him first. 

    All that could sound a little bit abstract in terms of what loving God first might actually look like in practice. So let me close by telling you the story of Aurelius Augustine, maybe the greatest theologian that has ever lived in the history of the Christian church. One could also say, without even much exaggeration, that all that has been written in theology for the last 1,500 years is nothing more than a footnote to the work of Augustine. He said it all first, and there's probably no one that has been quoted more down through the centuries than he. He essentially invented the genre of a spiritual autobiography. His memoir, Confessions, continues to be one of the best that you could ever read. But though he was an incredibly gifted young man, brilliant and precocious, his life is a story of restlessness. In the opening paragraph of his Confessions, Augustine famously says, “O Lord, you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in you.” Perhaps better than anyone else, he understood what it means to love God because of his spiritual journey.  

    Augustine was born 354 AD in North Africa, in the country we now consider Algeria. His father was a pagan, although, on his deathbed, he converted to Christianity. His mother, Monica, was a deeply devout Christian who prayed for Augustine every day of his life. Yet despite the ardent wishes of his mother, Augustine abandoned the Christianity that she introduced to him as a young boy and lived a rather wild, hedonistic lifestyle. He had several mistresses and fathered an illegitimate child. In his memoir he recalls his youth as one spent running around with a group of boys, and getting into mischief and trouble, which one day led them to steal a whole load of pears from a neighbor's vineyard. Later, reflecting on that theft, he asked himself, “Why did we do that?” They weren't hungry. He didn't even like pears. The pears didn't look all that good. And they didn't even eat them, but simply threw them away. So why did he do it? And as he further reflected on it, he realized that there really was no other reason than the thrill of it all—“It was foul, and I loved it.”   

    As to questions of philosophy or theology, he dabbled with different ideas and traditions, like Manichaeism and Neoplatonism. But when he was a student at Carthage, he read Cicero for the first time, which stirred within him this desire to seek the good life through the study of philosophy. Being one who loved the power of words and their ability to convince and to persuade, he became an excellent speaker and a teacher of rhetoric in Milan at the age of 30. In Milan, he sometimes would go to listen to Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, preach, not because he was interested in the content of what he had to say, but simply because he wanted to pay attention to his style of speaking. But as he's listening to the preaching of Ambrose, his understanding of Christianity begins to change; and then he has an experience that forever changes his life. He recalls being in the courtyard of a garden, where he hears a child somewhere in the distance, outside this courtyard, singing, chanting a line over and over again. He can't tell if this is a boy or a girl, and he's not sure if the line the child is chanting is of some children's game or not, but all of a sudden, he feels like those words are being directed straight to him from God. He takes this as a command to find the Scriptures and to take them up to read. He determines that he will read whatever his eyes first fall upon, and what he opens to is Romans 13:13-14—“Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” And he says it's like an arrow to the heart.  With that very reading, he felt God had pierced his heart with his love, and this piercing of God’s love, begins to change everything for Augustine. 

    He had spent the first 30 years of his life chasing after all kinds of false gods that he thought would make him happy: sexual prowess, romantic love, career success, critical acclaim, but in the end, late in life, he discovers how weak and how empty these false gods can be. He comes to truly see and understand that God made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in him. And that is what he did. 

    Jesus tells us to look at him on the cross: Look at what I have done. Look at how I was willing to die for you. Now you can know how much I love you. You can trust me and follow my word. And here is Jesus’ word: Love me first. And when we do, that’s the way to the good life. 

    Let's pray together. 

    Father God, we thank you for your grace to us. You do not tell us to live this way, so that you will love us; rather you tell us: “I love you, now live this way, because I am your supreme good, and there is no lasting happiness apart from me.” Help us, Father, in the midst of our restlessness, to find our rest in you, by loving you first. We ask this in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.