Sweetwater Presbyterian

Small in size, Big in Faith and Love

January 2016

The Commandments for Us

The Commandments for Us

God’s people in the Old Testament often reflect our own experience with God. Some days we do really well with God - we try to do the right thing, we pray, we read our Bibles; we feel connected. But then there are those days when we are much more likely to not really think about God at all. We do things we know we shouldn’t and we don’t do things we should. We neglect our prayer and our Bible…. And all through the Old Testament we find God’s people doing the same thing - only their experience is usually a little more extreme than ours!

Reading about God’s people in the Old Testament we see times when they do exactly as God directs them - they worship, they live as they should and what they find is that during these times they are living lives of peace. But it seems that the better things go for them, the quicker they fall away from God. What the Old Testament says is “Everyone began to do what was right in their own eyes.” In other words, instead of living the way that God had directed them, they began to do whatever
they wanted and it seems that every time they fell away from God, some great tragedy happened to them usually in the form of a neighboring government invading their country and enslaving them. Then God’s people would straighten up and life would get good again and the cycle would repeat itself.
Finally God gets tired of this doing what was right, falling away, doing what was right, falling away, cycle and he allows Babylon to invade and capture God’s people and take them all to Babylon and in the process Babylon reduces Jerusalem to rubble - including the beloved Temple. In Babylon God’s people fell into a great depression - many of the Psalms were written then and to read them is just heart breaking. You can feel their agony over being separated from their land. Up until this time God’s people had not put together what we would call the Old Testament - they had some random scrolls with parts of what we would recognize as the Old Testament but there was nothing collected and organized. Most of the stories were memorized by the people and the scribes began to worry that they would all die off in Babylon and these stories would be lost. So during this Babylonian captivity, most of the Old Testament is put together. There are a few documents that would be added later - some of the prophets and the books of Ezra and Nehemiah - but for the most part the story of God’s people came together during this captivity.

Eventually God’s people are allowed to return to Jerusalem and they are devastated because everything is gone. Their beloved city is just gone - and even worse - the cherished Temple of God has been decimated. The description we get is that ‘there is not one stone left upon another’. And so God’s people fell again into a great depression - we can understand that and we can’t really criticize them for that. They waited 70 years in Babylon to get back home and when they did - home was gone.
One day Ezra the priest gathered God’s people together and he had a copy of what the scribes had put together in Babylon - God’s words - the book of the Law.

Now we need to stop here for a minute and remember that for these Hebrews, the ‘Law’ refers to the first 5 books of the Old Testament. It is not a reference to the 10 Commandments but to the whole writings found in those first 5 books - so when you hear that term - whether it be in the Old Testament or the New Testament - know that what they are talking when the term ‘The Law, is used is about the entire writing of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

So Ezra gathers God’s people and begins to read to them ‘the Law’ - the first 5 books of the Old Testament and the people are in awe. They are captivated by these words from God. But then they realize how they have not lived up to God’s instructions in the law, they begin to weep. They are overcome with emotion as they hear how God has cared for them in the stories recorded in these words and they think about how far they are removed from living as God has called them to live.

But the priest says to them - “Don’t grieve. Don’t be sad. This is a special day because you were able to hear God’s word. You are special to God and God loves you. Go home and celebrat
e because God loves you enough to give you his instruction. Have a feast… Have a party….. Enjoy the knowledge of how much God loves you because he has given you these rules to live by.”

How often do you celebrate because you have rules to follow? Most of us don’t like rules. I especially don’t like rules I don’t understand. I - like most people - would like to pick and choose which rules I would like to follow and which ones I wouldn’t. But we know that would never work out if we all just lived by the rules we wanted to and disregarded the laws we didn’t like; there would be anarchy.

Let’s go back into the history of God’s people to the time, probably 600 or 700 years before this return from Babylon and God’s people have been freed from Egypt and are wondering in the desert and end up at Mt. Sinai. At Mt Sinai Moses goes up the mountain and spends 40 days with God writing down laws. Not only those 10 rules we call the 10 commandments - but 613 rules that we have recorded in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. 613 rules to live by. Can we even imagine that many rules that govern every aspect of our lives? Our thoughts immediately begin to worry about oppression and restricting what we can do and limiting our lives and our hackles go up…..

But God, who is always good, meant these rules not for oppression; not so he could keep his thumb securely placed on his people to restrict what they could do; to just be a dictator - but God meant for all these rules to help his people live a productive and peaceful life.
This is how we are to think about these laws - Imagine if everyone followed all the laws of our communities all the time. What would that be like? No one would steal; no one would speed and cause accidents; no one would murder anyone; everyone would be trustworthy; What would life be like then? Sounds wonderful doesn’t it…..

If you start looking at these 613 rules God gave his people, we begin to see that their purpose was to create an orderly society. If everyone follows these laws, then God’s people can live together peacefully. Many of the laws were health laws - things that we know today that were not known in that time. Simple things like washing your hands after you use the rest room. We take that for granted as something that we do - right? In the time of Moses, no one ever heard of such a thing. But God knows that we are much healthier if we wash our hands and so the Hebrews became hand washers - the only group of people during that time that did something like that and as a result they were a more robust people. They weren’t to eat pork - because during that time period there was no method to cook pork correctly so that it didn’t make you sick. The Hebrews didn’t know why God didn’t want them to eat pork - but it was for their own good.

The result of these laws turned out to have two results - the Hebrews were thriving and it made the Hebrews different. No other culture lived as they did - washing hands and watching what they ate and treating each other fairly, so they stood out. They became an example of what life could be if one followed the laws of God. Life was good - simply because they followed the rules. We don't worry so much about those levitical laws today because science has taught healthy ways to live.

But we still have those 10 commandments and they still have the same purpose today they had back in the days of Moses and during the reading of the Old Testament by Ezra - their purpose is not to restrict us; their purpose is not so that God sitting up in heaven on his throne can use it to indict us - “Look at him - he broke rules 3, 5, and 8 today. I’m writing that down and holding it against him.” God does not do that.
The 10 commandments are for us today exactly the same as they were for God’s people thousands of years ago - they are a way to live in a peaceful, orderly society. Again, think about life if everyone lived by these principles - not in a legalistic sense - but simply as a way of life. What a different world it would be. As much as anything else, these commandments produce an attitude of love and respect for ourselves, for each other and for God.

Now we get to the hard part - which is the part where God says to us that he really does expect us to live by these rules, all of them; not just the ones we like or the ones that fit into our lives - again not so that he can hold it against us when we fail - but so that we will be different.
Our job is not to expect others to live by these rules but to live by them ourselves so that people see that our life is different than the rest of our culture. Our job is not to point fingers because others are not following these rules, but to strive every day to try and keep these rules close to our heart so that we can show people there is a better way to live.

Is it hard? Goodness yes. Is it possible to follow these rules exactly as God intended? Not really; not all the time - but that doesn’t mean that we don’t do our best to try and intentionally live as God calls us to.
The people of God wandering in the desert; the people of God weeping as Ezra read to them - realized that these rules were a gift from God. A gift that would give us a better life; a gift so that we could be an example to others about how things could be if we just put the things of God first. Amen.