A Mountaintop Experience: Thoughts why the Ten Commandments are a big deal (and it’s not why you think).

Exodus 20:1-17

20Then 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; 3you 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. 5You 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, 6but 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. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But 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. 11For 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.

In an old segment of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, he asked people on the street to name one of the Ten Commandments.

The most common response was:

“God helps those who help themselves.”

A phrase which is not in the Bible anywhere, let alone in the Ten Commandments.

We don’t want that to be us, right?

But is that us?

We are happy to fight about whether facsimiles of the two tablets should be posted on public property, but can we list them?

If we read them on those public displays, would we know if they were accurate?

In the right order?

Even if we do, do we know what each of the Ten Commandments mean?

Do we know how to follow any of them?

If you have not figured it out, today we start the fall sermon series on the Ten Commandments.

Reading them is a good start.

That was our scripture reading.

Now let me offer a few interesting facts about these immortal words.

The Ten Commandments are the only words of instruction in the Old Testament given twice!

Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.

They are the only instructions given directly by God to Israel.

Everything else comes through Moses and the prophets.

They are the first statement of laws given by God and everything that follows is based on these Commandments.

The rest of the “law” is interpretation of the Ten Commandments.

Which means they are subject to interpretation, and have been, based on the circumstances.

What do they have to do with Christianity?

Jesus references the Commandments more often than any other Old Testament text.

When he says he came to fulfill the law, Jesus was talking about the Commandments.

When Jesus describes the “Greatest Commandment” loving God, he is summarizing the first 5.

When Jesus talks about the second greatest as love of neighbor, he is talking about the second 5.

So, that all being the case, as Christians, we need to pay attention to them.

They apply to us.

The Ten Commandments have always been a big deal.

They start out as a pronouncement of God from the mountaintop.

A terrifying theophany.

To the Jews this meant that these “ten words”, called the “Decalogue”, were eternal.

They described the nature of God’s vision for creation.

Not just rules, but the foundation for everything.

They hold it all together.

They are a way of life.

Jews were told to wear little boxes on their arms or heads that contain the Ten Commandments to remind them of the law and encourage them to follow it.

The early Christian church used the Ten Commandments part of its liturgical outline.

The Catholic church teaches in its catechism that the Commandments are words of both conscience and accusation.

Luther and Calvin understood the Ten Commandments to be a kind of natural, universal law, to be used as instruction on faithful living in the world.

Many of the Confessions in our own Book of Confessions use the Commandments as a guide.

The Anglican Church requires the Commandments be hung on the eastern wall of the sanctuary so that people see them every time they enter.

And finally, for many years, in the Presbyterian Church, the Ten Commandments were recited either right before or right after the prayer of confession during worship.

The “Law” was considered as important as the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles Creed.

It’s still in our Book of Common Worship as part of the Order of Worship.

But I have been going to church as long as I can remember, and I have never seen that done!

I wonder why?

Maybe we need to give the Commandments back some prominence here at JMPC.

Maybe this series will get us started.

So, what exactly are these commandments?

A few years ago, I read a sermon preached by Dr. Craig Barnes, then pastor of Shadyside Presbyterian Church.

In the sermon, Dr. Barnes told the story of his adopted brother Roger.

Dr. Barnes’ father was a pastor in an inner-city church.

Roger was a boy whose family attended that church.

Roger’s parents were both drug addicts and tragically died of overdoses on the same evening.

Roger called Rev. Barnes.

Rev. Barnes took Roger home with him and decided to adopt Roger.

That was it.

As Dr. Barnes put it, his father simply said that Roger was now part of the Barnes family, and was to be treated as such.

But that act of charity was not the end of the process.

Roger, having been raised in the home of addicts, was an unruly child.

Roger had to learn to live as a member of the Barnes family.

Most of those lessons came from Dr. Barnes’ mother, and generally were taught at the dinner table.

Roger would grab at food.

Mother Barnes would say: “No Roger we don’t do that here! We ask and wait our turn.”

Roger would run from the table after eating.

Mother Barnes would say: “No Roger we don’t do that here! We clear the table and do the dishes.”

Roger would throw tantrums sometimes when the rules lessons were not to his liking.

Mother Barnes would say: “No Roger we don’t do that here! We don’t yell or raise our voices.”

Roger would use colorful language.

Mother Barnes would say: “No Roger we don’t do that here! We never use those kinds of words.”

It took time, but ultimately Roger managed to learn what it meant to be part of the Barnes family.

I have always liked that story.


Because it is a good example of the way God deals with us!

We are adopted into God’s family, but we have to learn what that means.

We have to learn how to act like we are part of God’s family.

Which brings us to the 10 Commandments.

God’s version of Mother Barnes lessons.

“No folks, we don’t do that in this family. We do this instead!”

We don’t have a bunch of gods, we have one.

We don’t worship things, we worship God.

We don’t disrespect God, we revere him.

We don’t push God out of our lives with busyness, we take time to rest and reflect of what God has done for us.

We don’t disrespect our parents, we honor them.

We don’t hurt other people, we help them.

We don’t destroy other families, we respect family boundaries.

We don’t take stuff that is not ours, we respect the property of others.

We don’t lie, we tell the truth.

We don’t compare ourselves to others, we are content with what we have.

Mother Barnes’ lessons might not be the Ten Commandments, but they are a good illustration of the relationship between Israel and God.

Don’t think so?

Let’s looks the Biblical story.

Israel is enslaved by Egypt.

They are the children of Abraham.

Abraham had been promised that his descendants would be a great nation and a blessing to all the world.

But Israel is stuck in Egypt.

God calls Moses to bring Israel out of Egypt.

Moses is to take Israel to the promised land where it can fulfil God’s promise to Abraham.

Moses does just that, and along the way, Israel acts like an unruly child.

Like Roger.

Then, Moses and Israel arrive at the “Mountain of God”.

Moses climbs the mountain and is told by God to gather Israel at the foot of the mountain.

Moses does, and God speaks.

Please note there are no tablets.

They come later.

God tells Israel directly that God has chosen Israel to be God’s people.

They are now adopted as God’s family.

In return for this divine act of charity, Israel must enter into a covenant with God.

Part of that covenant is that Israel must stop acting like unruly children.

Israel must become holy – separated from the rest of the world – as an example to the rest of the world.

To be holy, Israel must follow God’s rules.

The Ten Commandments.

The people are terrified that God is speaking to them like this.

They tell Moses that they want no more of this.

So, they tell Moses to be an intermediary, which is what he does from that point on.

He goes up the mountain and stays there for many days getting instructions from God about many things.

It is during this time that God creates the tablets, what are sort of a memorialization of the covenant God now has with Israel.

Meanwhile, Israel is making the golden calf.

Truly a stiff necked and unruly people.

Like Roger.

Like us?

You know the rest of the story.

You’ve seen the movie with Charlton Heston.

Moses comes down, sees the calf, and smashes the tablets.

Moses is basically saying, “We don’t do that in this family!”

We might say this: “The ink was not dry on the covenant before Israel broke it.”

And why would we not expect that?

Israel was still learning what the rules meant and did not understand how to follow them.

Which brings us back to our opening question:

What do we know about the 10 Commandments?

What do they require of us and why?

What is God trying to teach us?

And then we need to incorporate them into our lives.

Because they are still a big deal!

But more than that, they are good news.

If Jesus is the fulfillment of the Ten Commandments, and Jesus brings good news, we need to understand that the commandments are good news, too.

If Jesus fulfills them, we need to make them our way of life, too.

Foundational guiding principles to our lives.

The Jesus way.

That’s what this series is about.

Now it’s our turn to have a mountaintop experience with God.

Learning to live the divine vision proclaimed in a mountaintop experience so many years ago.

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