When I was a wee lad, I played with dolls. Raggedy Ann and Andy. Probably even Barbie and Ken, that kind of thing. I never had a GI Joe, thanks be to my mother, but I may have had the next best thing. Behold Johnny West, his good wife Jane, and his faithful horse Thunderbolt.
Oh, and last but not least, Geronimo, who we weren’t sure was friend or foe, but who had much cooler accessories than Johnny West, as you can see.
You probably had these “action figures” or some variation of them in your youth, heroes through which you could exercise your imagination and act out your childhood fantasies. But of course, to a child, they are more than just heroes. They are the embodiment of the thing they look like. My Geronimo action figure was just about as stereotypical as it could be, and part of a collection of images that shaped who I thought Native Americans were, and what they did. These images were not always very accurate, as my mother later told me. Apparently, when I was a small boy on vacation with my family in the Western United States, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant that was near the site of a large forest fire. And at this restaurant were some of the fire fighters battling the blaze, including one Native American man eating his lunch at a table near us. Apparently, I had missed a few lessons about politeness, because in a voice loud enough for this fellow to hear me, I asked my parents, “When is he going to go woo-woo?” Native Americans everywhere are grateful I have grown up a little.
I suspect action figures are common in every culture in one form or another, probably even in Jesus’ time. Perhaps Jesus even had his own David and Goliath action figures, like these,
or maybe a Moses and Pharaoh set with which he reenacted the Exodus. But even if they weren’t part of his toy collection, it safe to say that Jesus and his generation grew up hearing stories of the good old days, of the heroes of their faith. I have a hunch however, that the stories weren’t as sanitized as the ones we tell children today, and so my guess is that Jesus, and the same Pharisees who came to him to ask him about the Law, grew up with mental images more like this one of King David,
which would have made for a nice background to the PowerPoint if it wouldn’t have traumatized our children this morning. And the stories they heard wouldn’t have stopped with Goliath, but would have included all his mighty and violent exploits, the ones that had made him legend. And of course, there were all those Psalms too that helped keep his memory and legend alive, Psalms like number 110, that goes like this:
“The Lord says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”
The Lord sends out from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your foes.
Your people will offer themselves willingly on the day you lead your forces on the holy mountains. From the womb of the morning, like dew, your youth will come to you.
The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”
The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter heads over the wide earth.
He will drink from the stream by the path; therefore he will lift up his head.”
It is this very psalm that Jesus uses to stump his opponents, and to tell them to put away their toys and grow up. It’s a psalm that was apparently quite popular in Jesus’ time, a psalm which described the perfect king, probably David himself, but probably also the king everyone hoped for, the Messiah, the one who would liberate Israel from it captivity and bring back the glory years. You see, King David had, through the years, taken on mythic proportions. He wasn’t perfect, everyone knew that, but he was perfect enough to be the model, and of course there was that promise that went along with him, that there would always be a son of David on Israel’s throne, and just because that hadn’t been true for quite some time, hundreds of years actually, didn’t mean the promise wasn’t still valid. It was just a promise deferred. And so we hear coming from the lips of the citizens of Jerusalem, “Hosanna to the son of David” as Jesus enters into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. And Matthew recognizes how important that link is, as he traces Jesus’ genealogy back through King David. He was an important inspiration in tough times, a hero to look up to.
But here’s the problem with all that hero worship. For as big as the myth of David had made the Messiah, it had really just reduced the Messiah to a caricature of what God had in mind for the savior of the world. Yes, in a sense, King David, or at least his myth, had become an idol of the real thing. Israel’s eleventh century golden boy had become its first century golden calf. A few Sundays ago, I shared about how an idol is not so much another god, but rather a hand made object that was thought to contain enough of a deity that it could be worshiped as if it were the deity, and that the problem with that where the God of Israel was concerned is that no simple object could ever capture the essence of, much less speak any truth about, the creator of the universe. Well, even though there probably weren’t little action figures of King David for sale in the marketplace, his myth served the same purpose: to take the power of the real messiah and make it portable and manageable, and all too much like everyone’s fantasy. Yes, this idol of the messiah kicked some butt in the world, like we heard in Psalm 110, but is that what God really had in mind for a Messiah? Or was it just wishful thinking? You see, the messiah they had in mind seems an awful lot like the Caesar they already had in Rome, except that one was on their side and the other wasn’t. Does a simple substitution sound like what God would do to bring abundant life to the whole world?
And so, with this riddle, Jesus takes their idol and smashes it to the ground. If the Messiah is the Lord over David, how can the messiah also be the son of David? How can the messiah be both spiritual ancestor and blood descendant? No, there is no good answer to that question, at least as long as you see the messiah in the terms to which they had reduced him. No, Jesus is saying, the Messiah does not conform to the image you have made of him, no matter how ferocious and victorious. It is as if Jesus is saying to them: I am the Messiah, but I am not your Messiah. I am the Lord's Messiah, and I will do things the way the Lord, not David, wants them done. I haven't come because you wished me into existence, but because God sent me. I haven’t come to answer your questions. I have come to make you question yourselves and the way you live your life in relationship to God and to your neighbors. Remember that this question Jesus asks about the Messiah comes on the heels of the answer he has just given about which of the laws is the “greatest,” the most important.
If love of God and love of neighbor is God’s intention for how we are to live, shouldn’t the freedom to do that be what the Messiah brings? There was freedom of religion and equality under the law under the Emperor, but of course it was reserved for those with Roman citizenship. If the messiah in David’s image comes victorious, there would once again be freedom to love God and love neighbor, except it would be reserved for those with Israelite ancestry. Yes, the definition of Messiah had become so narrow as to make God’s vision of shalom impossible.
I want to make a brief detour back to those Ten Commandments to recall just what the idea of neighbor is about, since it is the neighbor we are to love. In the Ten Commandments, and in many other places in the Old Testament, the definition of a neighbor is not the person you live next to, or who lives in the same town as you, but basically another human being. To cite just one example, in the Fourth Commandment, it is not just the native-born Israelites who are to observe the Sabbath, but “you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.” The Sabbath is for all people, and all creation. The Sabbath is an expression of God’s love for everyone, and all creation, not just those we choose to associate with or consider our equal, or who our families or societies have defined as acceptable and worthy. The Sabbath comes before Jew or Gentile, it goes all the way back to creation, it is for the whole world, as is God’s blessing. If your Messiah can’t bring that blessing to the whole world, your messiah is no messiah at all. You will need to rethink that, you Pharisees. And it says that “no one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more question.” He asked them the impossible. He might as well have asked them how to go the moon and back. Yes, to the moon and back.
Well, I want to show you a short video about going to the moon and back. Forget for a moment it is an appeal to increase the budget of NASA. Listen for what Jesus is asking of the Pharisees and of us.
Did you catch it? “We went to the moon and discovered the earth,” and it changed how we saw ourselves. This is what happens when the Messiah comes. We are changed. We are not just victorious, we are changed! What we value changes. What we work for changes. How we love changes. Who we consider our neighbor changes. We can’t look in the mirror and see who we used to be, but rather who the Messiah has made us. We can no longer look at another human being and call them an enemy. Can King David do that for you? Can any action figure image of the Messiah do that for you? Or is it only the one who invites us to die so that we can live?
In the ceremony during which you were baptized, you were probably reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words that “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” We have died to sin and come out on the other side with a new perspective. We had to die to live. We had to go to the dusty, lifeless, waterless moon to discover the rich, bountiful, beautiful earth. And that’s not a trip you can take with a Messiah that is too small, too manageable, too much like our fantasies.
But back to Jesus’ riddle. It’s OK. You don’t have to be able to answer Jesus question either. He won’t hold it against you. I don’t think there really is an answer to it, but there is a way to respond to it. And that is to live your life differently. His words are an invitation to every generation to live our lives shattering the idols we’ve made of what Messiah is supposed to be and do, and to love God and love neighbor not as King David would do, by conquering and celebrating, but as Christ did for us, by dying and rising. NASA didn’t just make one trip to the moon. And we too need to return to our Messiah again and again to keep the memory alive of how the world looks to God and how it must look to us. That’s what keeps us moving forward in faith, when life gets tough and we get discouraged. Each day we must die and rise again. Let me invite you to ponder this week the size and shape of your Messiah, the assumptions you hold about who the Messiah is for and what the Messiah will do. And let me invite you to do that by taking a look at your own life to see in what ways it gives testimony to the new life the Messiah’s given you. Amen.
And from the category of “Did you Know?” comes this little historical curiosity: that the tradition of flipping a coin, as in “heads you win, tails you lose,” dates back to Julius Caesar, who often struggled with making the right decision. Since his own head was on one side of every Roman coin, it was “heads” that determined the winner in each flip. People thought “heads” meant that Caesar agreed with the decision. And believe it or not, the humble coin flip was even used in serious litigation involving property, marriage and even criminal guilt. Yikes.
That’s a pretty interesting fact in light of Jesus’ encounter with some disciples of the Pharisees, and some Herodians on that question of paying taxes. Caesar was born some one hundred years before Jesus, so it just may be that when Jesus asks those hypocrites for a coin, he has them thinking that he is going to flip it to give them an answer. After all, why not use an emperor’s method for an imperial question? And it would have been an easy dodge for Jesus to make, right? He could just attribute the answer to Caesar and wash his hands of the matter! But of course, he took the more courageous and ultimately helpful path and left us with his pithy saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s.”
Of course, it wasn’t the original Julius Caesar who was in power when Jesus is asked this question but rather the Emperor Tiberius, and likely it was his image and title that appeared on the denarius Jesus asked for that day. Unfortunately for the Jews, although the original intent of the coin flip was “heads you win, tails you lose,” for certain sectors of the populace, the reality was more like, “heads I win, tails you lose,” so total was the control of the Roman Empire. It was that reality that brought those Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus, each group jockeying for position in the drama that was the occupation of Israel. The Herodians represented those who had accommodated with the Empire, and were trying to make the best of a bad situation. They, of course, wanted Jesus to say that paying the tax was OK. The Pharisees were looking to make the case for opposing Rome and they hoped Jesus would strengthen that case by making it look like a religious virtue to avoid the idolatry of using a coin with another god’s head printed on it, because that is what the Emperor was considered to be, a god. Neither side was really going to change the overall situation very much, but that it where they had decided to stake their claims, and they would need all the support they could get.
And so the Pharisees and Herodians are there like the captains of two football teams at the fifty-yard line before the sudden death overtime period, seeing who will seize the advantage. You see, the possession of the ball in overtime is determined by the flip of a coin and the team that wins that toss has a much greater chance of winning the game, since they get the ball first. And there’s Jesus, like a referee in zebra stripes with a coin in his hand, turning it over and over in his fingers, looking at it, maybe even tossing it up and down in one hand. Maybe he really was thinking about actually flipping it, just to yank their chains, we’ll never know. Maybe he’s thinking that the options before his people were kind of a meaningless coin flip for the people in Jesus’ time, that they were stuck between that proverbial between a rock and hard place. Either you collaborated with the Empire and paid a price, or you opposed the empire and paid a price. But either way, they were over-focused on the Empire and under-focused on God, and that is why they had asked him such a stupid question.
And so Jesus does the verbal equivalent of the mother of all coin flips, the one that if you were filming it for a movie goes something like this: Jesus looks from side to side, readies the coin in his fingers, and gives it a mighty flip. And the coin rises up in the air, in slow motion of course, and everyone is looking at it as it disappears into the bright sun, and they are all breathlessly waiting for it to come back down and reveal the winner. Only it never does. It never comes back down. Nobody knows just what’s happened to it, but it begins to dawn on them that it has been snatched from the air by the very hand of God. And they realize that they’ve now been staring up at heaven longer than they have in a long time, and that heaven’s a good place to fix your gaze, and when they finally look down, Jesus, along with the coin, are long gone.
Did it happen that way? Of course not, but Jesus’ answer aims at the same effect: to turn their hearts away from thoughts of the power of the Empire toward faith in the one with more power than ten thousand empires. For far too long the two factions been stuck staring each other down with one eye while keeping the other eye on the Empire. That doesn’t leave a lot of eyes left to look to the one who really could have done something about what troubled them in the first place, or at those around them who really mattered in God’s eyes. If we ever wonder why Jesus was so popular, all we have to remember is this fruitless preoccupation with the Emperor instead of a fruitful commitment to the Omnipotent.
This wasn’t the first time God’s people got stuck. In the slender book of Habakkuk is found that famous Old Testament phrase, “The righteous shall live by faith.” Habakkuk comes from another period of our history when our spiritual ancestors were also caught between a rock and hard place. Like the Jews of Jesus’ time, the people of Judah were caught up in a struggle against Empire, only this time it was the Babylonian Empire. And even though they had been thoroughly warned that the destruction of their nation was inevitable, because it was dictated by God, they still thought they could prevent it by resorting to the same old tricks as always, like making alliances with whichever neighboring country could bail them out. And so they went back and forth between the Egyptians and the Babylonians, and for all intents and purposes, flipping that coin between those two powers, instead of looking up to the God who really had all the power.
And so Habakkuk questions God about what seems quite unfair to him, the coming destruction of his own nation at the hands of an even more wicked nation. He asks, “O Lord, how long shall I cry out for help, and you will not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” He too is flipping his coin, with one side of it continued suffering, and the other side a quick death at the hand of a God made angry by impertinent questions. It is going to be bad either way. But God catches that coin in midair, and raises Habakkuk’s eyes heavenward with the divine answer: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” And that answer, that invitation to trust in God and focus on what really matters seems to cause a profound change in Habakkuk. He goes from the despair of his initial question to rejoicing in the book’s final words, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” Quite a turnaround, I’d say, brought about by turning his eyes heavenward.
There are so many conflicted situations in the world, and in our families and workplaces that feel stuck, that seem like contests we are willing to settle with one of these pointless flips of a coin, only if we really did, the outcomes really don’t get us any farther ahead. One nation wins a battle, the other loses and digs in for an even longer war. How is that any better? One spouse wins an argument and the other becomes even more bitter and withdrawn? How is that any better? One side in a labor dispute wins a court case and the other side walks off the job or locks out the workers. How is that any better? In the famous words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?” No, Rodney, we can’t, if we keep focusing on the wrong thing. It almost goes without saying that the Pharisees and the Herodians had a lot more in common with each other than either did with the Romans, and yet there they were coming to Jesus to get him involved in their pointless dispute, not because he was the Son of God, but because they wanted one more influential person on their side. And in his wonderful way, he reminds them that both sides already have everything they need to change the way they did business with the Empire. They had everything they needed, even before Jesus, to bring down the Empire. They were just too stuck in old ways to practice what God had always preached to them: that doing justice, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with your God can bring any empire to its knees. Ask Gandhi. Ask King. Ask Mandela or Tutu.
At the same time, we would miss the point if we thought that Jesus’ approach was just another strategy for overcoming an empire. Every empire is replaced by the next. And we would also miss the point if we thought it was just a way of coping, of getting by. But it is neither. No, Jesus directs our eyes heavenward because that is the only way to transform those conflicted, or hopeless, or despairing situations into something that reflects what God has in mind for us, something of what we’ve been promised, and for what we hold out hope. Turning our eyes heavenward is where we find dignity and courage, creativity and imagination, community and call, those vital elements of what it means to be fully human that not only help us survive our broken relationships or our economically devastated communities or our bouts with depression or addiction, but to bless others even in the midst of dealing with our own stuff. God knows we are more than the challenges we face.
There’s a story from apartheid South Africa about the time when Bishop Desmond Tutu was walking by a construction site on a temporary sidewalk the width of one person, and a white man appeared at the other end, recognized Tutu, and said, “I don't give way to gorillas.” At which point, Tutu stepped aside, made a deep sweeping gesture, and said, “Ah yes, but I do.” But don’t think for a minute that Tutu did that only as a means of bringing down the regime, or only getting through with his own dignity intact. No, Tutu’s faith compelled him to do what he did because he loved that man standing in front of him as much as he loved himself, and that’s a place you can’t get to if you are only focusing on the conflict between you. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.
Maybe there’s a situation in your life in which you’ve been focusing on the wrong thing, even though the right thing is oh so near? Has it been a problematic relationship with a family member or co-worker, instead of your relationship with God? Has it been with your own efforts at thriving, when it could be with others surviving? Has it been a focus on a cure, a magic bullet, or a quick fix, at the expense of a profound healing and coming to terms with what is, and what is surely coming? We all get stuck sometimes. And when we’re stuck, we feel that the odds are against us, that there’s no way we have even a chance at “heads” when we flip our coins in these hopeless situations. But there is a way out, even if that way is one we couldn’t possibly have imagined. It’s there if we can keep our gaze fixed where it must be, rather than where our pain or our adrenaline or our friends and allies are telling us it should be. So let us flip our coins. But let us do so not hoping they will land on the right side, but begging God to catch them in midair, that we may search for them in the direction of heaven, and in so doing, get our eyes stuck on what’s really important. Amen.
A machete is a pretty useful tool. I used to use mine all the time at the farm in Costa Rica to keep the weeds under control. But it is also a pretty dangerous weapon. Many of the killings in the Rwandan Genocide were performed with machetes and they were also the distinctive weapon of the Tonton Macoute who terrorized Haiti in the 60s and 70s with them. What makes them so effective in either agriculture or violence is, of course, their sharp edge.
The Ten Commandments also have a sharp edge to them and that makes them dangerous as either a tool or a weapon. On one hand, they are dangerous because they offer us a pretty radical vision for how to live the way God wants us to, and that usually gets people into trouble when they really do what God wants them to do. But the Ten Commandments are also dangerous because they come in such a neat and tidy package of dos and don’ts. They make it seem like life and faith are neat and tidy if we would only follow the rules. I mean, there are only ten, right? We can wrap our minds around ten. If everyone followed those ten simple rules, everything would run smoothly, right?
A few years back, around the turn of the Millennium actually, there was a group that showed just how dangerous the Ten Commandments can be, in the worst sense of dangerous. Maybe you remember the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God that grew up in Uganda. It’s a really tragic story of people who got caught up in some really bad theology pedaled by some really manipulative people. The goals of this Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God were to obey the Ten Commandments and preach the word of Jesus Christ. They taught that to avoid damnation in the apocalypse, one had to strictly follow the Commandments. The emphasis on the Commandments was so strong that the group discouraged talking, for fear of breaking the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” and so on some days communication was only conducted in sign language. Maybe if they had spoken a little more openly and honestly, the almost 800 people who lost who their lives to a combination of murder and suicide by poisoning and arson might still be around. Somehow this doesn’t seem like the idea behind God giving Moses those Ten Commandments.
Martin Luther, on the other hand, knew just how dangerous the Ten Commandments were for the right reasons. That great German reformer, who took on the Roman Catholic Church of his time and helped to start the Protestant Reformation, loved the Ten Commandments. He thought they were the greatest thing since justification and sliced tortillas. So primary were the Ten Commandments that in his Large Catechism, his primary instrument for instruction on the faith, he placed the questions concerning these Old Testament laws before such profoundly New Testament concepts such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. And Martin Luther did this because of his profound insight about how dangerous are Ten Commandments, in that positive sense, that far from limiting our freedom, they are a means of expressing our freedom in Christ. And when we know how free we truly are, we become truly dangerous.
That’s probably not how you have heard the Ten Commandments explained before. Usually, we read the Ten as if they are a checklist for religious behavior with the implicit threat that if you break them, “God’s gonna get you!” This makes the Commandments only slightly more appealing than the tax code or a speed limit sign. Coupled with the Church’s traditional emphasis of grace over law, there’s not much to like about the Ten Commandments at all, unless they can serve some purpose for you. Many places in the United States are still campaigning for the use of the Ten Commandments in schools even though it amounts to little more than an attempt at social control of children, putting God’s scary laws up on the wall next to the Declaration of Independence in an effort to keep them in line. They might as well put up one of those paintings of a scary looking guy who has eyes that seem to look at you no matter where you are in the room and save the legal fees incurred by the inevitable challenge by civil liberties groups.
Yes, the Ten Commandments are dangerous either way, but whether we will use them as a tool or a weapon is up to us. But how do we tell the difference? How do we know how we are wielding that machete? Let me suggest that the distinction is subtle, but worth wrapping our minds around, since there is enough death and destruction already in this world, and we need more kingdom builders. So this is what I want you to know about the Ten Commandments, that they are better obeyed than kept. Better obeyed than kept. What’s the difference? Well, let me go back to that example of traffic laws. To keep the commandments is like driving around and always looking over your shoulder wondering when the police are going to pull you over for speeding since it is they who are keeping you from getting where you want to go faster because of their stupid speed limit signs. To keep means to observe, to make sure you don’t transgress the letter of the law because there is a penalty or a judgment attached to being caught. It’s like the apology of the child caught breaking the rules. Little Johnny isn’t sorry he hurt another person; he is sorry he was caught breaking the rules and sorry he is getting punished. Not much of a deterrent against future crimes really.
However, to obey the commandments is like making driving the speed limit a way of life so that you do not endanger the lives of the children who are riding their bikes, or getting off the school bus, or jaywalking across whatever street you happen to be on. To obey the commandments is to have respect for the One who placed them in our lives and to understand that they are not there to limit us, but to free us. To obey means to live the purpose of the Commandment in the first place which is to make human life more human. This was Luther’s great insight about the Commandments: that they are a statement of freedom, not a list of potential violations. They give us freedom to love. I suspect Luther loved Psalm 19: “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving my soul. The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold, sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.”
There is so much to say about the Ten Commandments and why they are desired more than fine gold, and sweeter than honey, but we can’t do it all this morning. So what I want to do is kind of offer a brief overview of what Moses brought down from that mountain, and how that meets us here today. You know the story I’m sure, and not just because of Charlton Heston. The Israelites have been led out of Egypt by the outstretched arm of the Lord, and they have sung their songs of victory, and they have complained about being hungry and thirsty, and God has provided for their basic needs with manna and quail and at last they have come to Mt. Sinai where God gives them these commandments we have come to cherish. It is a transformational moment; the Israelites will never be the same. The freedom they experienced leaving Egypt is now given a form for their future together.
And so Moses comes down the mountain with two tablets. Legend has it that the tablet in Moses’ right hand contained the first four commandments and the tablet in his left hand held the final six. This is significant not just that they are on different tablets, but because the Hebrew language is written from right to left, and that means that the first four commandments are really the first four. They are first because they detail the relationship between God and humans, while the final six detail relationships among humans. The two tablets are very different but they are related in the most profound way. When we “get” the first four, we can “get” the last six. When we know who God is and what our relationship with God is, we can then begin to know who our fellow human beings are and how we are to behave toward them.
Knowing who God is is indeed a difficult task, but our first four commandments give us something of what we need to know and maybe this is why they are sweeter than honey. God gives us a personal introduction: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the house of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” Simple enough right? But notice that it recalls all the wonderful events of recent days and the horrors of the previous 400 years and it helps Israel, and us, to realize that there is no other God who can compare, and certainly no other god worth having in the place of so mighty and gracious a God as Yahweh. It is a claim of exclusivity: I am your God, you are my people.
Then God says more: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” This God is jealous for you. This God wants you, and loves you and will allow no other god to claim you as its own. This is a God who loves you so much that steadfast love is more powerful than punishment. Friends: Please do not be caught up in the “unfairness” of three of four generations of children being punished for the sins of the fathers. Instead, be caught up in the grace of steadfast love flowing to a thousand generations. Those who would reject the Lord, reject the Lord for the generations in their household, and generations will suffer from not being a part of the community and from not having the law. When grandpa says no to God, the result is a whole family, three or four generations, which does not know God. But when grandpa says yes to God, God’s love flows to a thousand generations. This is what divine jealousy is all about.
I could go on about these first four commandments but it will be enough to say that they speak volumes about God’s loyalty to us and the loyalty God demands from us. They tell us of the intimacy available to us from a jealous God, an intimacy that endures, and an intimacy we are called to share. There may be no better place to recall all these things than at the Communion table, when we celebrate how Christ lived his life obediently, but with the greatest freedom and dangerously, in that positive sense. It is here that we see that same divine intimacy and jealousy. Jesus’ last supper with his disciples was not just a farewell dinner for a friend leaving on a long journey. That supper was a celebration of the same grace God showed on the night those Hebrew slaves became free so many years earlier. That supper was an echo of the Ten Commandments that gave yet another new form to their freedom for their future together. In Christ’s words, “each time you break this bread and drink this cup, remember me,” you can hear the same sharp edge that presents us with the choice to use them as either a tool or a weapon, to obey them or to keep them.
We are not required to keep this commandment to remember Christ as a condition of our relationship with God. Rather, we choose to obey it because of our relationship with God. If we keep that commandment, all we do is eat and drink. All we do is go through the motions. All we do is congratulate ourselves that we kept Christ’s commandment again this month. But when we obey it, when we get to its heart, it opens up so much for us: it provokes us to act on behalf of the hungry, to remember our unity with Christians far and near, to rejoice that we have a freedom to love and serve others as Christ loved and served us. As we come to the table once again on this World Communion Sunday, let us do so with gratitude for the choice God gives us to obey the commandments, and to live dangerously free. Amen.