Lent 3 Sermon: Our Failures, God’s Promise

Exodus 20:1-17/John 2:13-22

“Our Failures, God’s Promise:  The Gift of the Commandments”


Every family has rules.  Ours was no exception.

I think there is probably even some overlap from family to family.  For example, we had a rule that we could not say “Shut up!” to each other.

Instead, we had to say “Be quiet!”  We also had a rule that we always had to say “grace” before we ate, and afterwards, we could not leave the table without asking, “May I be excused please?”

We had rules about bedtimes at particular ages, and rules about fighting, although I don’t remember what they are, except perhaps, “No biting!”

There were some things we did not have rules about – but maybe we should have – like ‘’see who can eat the most pancakes” contests,  or no taking apart your olive and examining the pimiento.  Or no peeling your banana in four sections and smashing it on the kitchen table while shouting, “X marks the spot!”

Every family has rules.  Grace pre-school has rules too.

There are rules about standing in line, and rules about being quiet when someone else is talking, and rules about praying:  fold your hands and bow your heads and close your eyes

I saw a teacher reprimand a student this week, because she grabbed another student and it hurt. The teacher said, “she has to learn that she can’t do that.”

Every family has rules.  But before there are rules, there is a relationship.

So today, Moses goes up to the mountain and receives the ten commandments from God

The people of Israel are left standing at the bottom of the mountain, waiting.

And the words the Moses receives, the rules for their life together, are a gift to them.

It might seem funny to say that rules are a gift.  Maybe we have never heard of the ten commandments as a gift.

But the rules in your family, the rules in the school:  if your family is a good one – they are for your good, aren’t they?

They are so you don’t hurt each other, so you know how to live, so that we learn the things that are most important.

And before there were rules, there was a relationship.  Before there were rules – there was a promise, given in love.

First God made a promise to Noah – and with the whole world.  It’s a good promise, but it’s a sort of rock-bottom, the least-God-can-do sort of promise.

At least God is not going to destroy the whole world in a flood again.  At least.              Then God made a covenant with one man, Abraham, and his family – a promise to bless him and bless his family – a promise to bless him and make him a blessing to all of the families of the earth.

And this promise results in a third promise, a third covenant – with Abraham’s descendants, the people of Israel.

‘I will be your God, and you will be my people,’ he tells them.

And then he rescues them from slavery in Egypt and he leads them through the red sea.  And here they are.

Standing at the foot of the mountain, while Moses goes up to receive the words from God.  The commandments.

And these words are part of the promise, they are part of the covenant.  In fact, when Moses gets ready to go up to meet God, God says to the people, through Moses, “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant (my promise), then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.”  And the people of Israel, standing there, and the foot of the mountain, say, “We will do everything that the Lord has said.”

I will be your God.  You will be my people.  That’s the promise.

And that’s the first of all of the commandments that Moses receives.  “I am the Lord your God.  You shall have no other Gods before me.”  It is the first commandment for more than one reason.

It is first because, well, it makes everything else fall into place, doesn’t it?

It is first because it tells us who to listen to, who not to listen to.

It is the first because it tells us there are a lot of competing voices, a lot of competing ‘gods’, telling us which way to go….. like the famous scene in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy meets the Scarecrow at a crossroads – and wonders which way to go.

Suddenly the scarecrow speaks, and he says, “some people say you should go this way, and some people think you should go that way”  — “and still others think you should go BOTH WAYS!”

There are many competing voices, and many competing gods, all of them making promises to us –

Promises that they will make our lives better – promises that they can keep us safe, promises that they can give us security, that they can give our lives meaning, that they can make us wealthy or powerful…..

But God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” My treasured possession.  That’s it.   There is no where else where you can find security…. Where you can find peace… where you can find purpose… where you can find true life….

I have to tell you though – if you don’t already know it—what happened while Moses was on the mountain receiving the words from God.  

The people waited at the foot of the mountain.

And it seemed like they were waiting for a long time.  And they began to get worried, and they began to be afraid.

What if Moses had died up there?

They saw the mountain from afar, and they saw Moses go into a cloud, and they began to feel like they needed something – something else to put their hopes on.

They got together with Moses’ brother Aaron, and they made a god – a golden calf — out of all of the gold rings that they wore – and they could see it and they could touch it – and they could follow it – but they would have to carry this god, because it wouldn’t move on its own.

And then, when the calf was molded – Aaron said, “These are your gods, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”

They had already forgotten that it was God who rescued them.

They had already forgotten that it was God who brought them out of the land of Egypt.  They had already forgotten the promise:  “I am the Lord your God.”

And you can call it willful rebellion, or you can call it fear, or you can call it amnesia.

They were like an Alzheimers patient who had forgotten their name, forgotten who they were, forgotten who they belonged to.

Never mind the rules.  And they turned to other gods.

And the stone tablets were broken.

You shall have no other gods.   The first rule.  The most important one.  Breaking that one, we forget all of the others.

There’s a moment in Exodus 19, when the people are standing at the foot of the mountain, and God reminds them of what had happened when they escaped from Egypt.

And then God says this, “I have borne you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself.

God didn’t bring just bring them to the mountain.  He didn’t just bring them through the red sea.

He brought them to HIMSELF.

Before there were rules, there was a relationship, a promise, a word kept by God.

Not by us.  Every promise we broke.

But God kept.

And then – God brings us to himself

In the body of Jesus.

“This is my body, given for you.”

This is my blood, shed for you.”

In case we forget the promise.


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