We have been following the Israelites along their journey, from their liberation from slavery and oppression in Egypt, through the waters and into the wilderness. They have struggled with lack of food and shortage of water. All the time, they are re-connecting with the faith of their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and learning what it means to be the people that God has chosen.
In today’s story, the Israelites have reached Mount Sinai. The scholars aren’t entirely sure where Mount Sinai was, or Mount Horeb as it was also known, but the probable location is Mount Catherine, at the southern end of the Sinai Peninsula.
It’s at this point that God decides that it’s time to up the game on their spiritual development. So he has Moses tell them to get ready. They have to keep clear of the mountain itself. Then God launched the full drama that nature could summon: thunder, lightning, thick cloud on top of the mountain. And Moses has people sounding the shofar, the ancient musical horn made from a ram’s horn. And all the people are waiting, full of anticipation.
Then God spoke.
There are very few stories of God speaking directly to thousands of people. It doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it is because God has something significant to say. So we should listen.
God spoke. And God said, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of slavery.”
This is who God is, the God of mercy, the God of liberation, the God who listened to their anguished cries, the God who saved them. This is who God is, the God who wants to have a relationship with them, who wants them to be His people.
But they still don’t know what it means to be the people of God. They need to learn how to be a people, and how to be the people whom God has chosen. God isn’t talking about having a relationship with lots of individuals, but with them together, as a whole people. And so God starts to tell them HOW to be God’s people. He wants them to be thinking about what they can do to develop trust within the community – do it. He wants them to be thinking of the things that damage the life of the community – don’t do them.
I am the Lord your God, … and you shall have no other gods before me.
In Egypt, they were familiar with a religion in which there were lots of gods, each with their own designated responsibilities or areas of interest.
For us now, there are lots of things that we place between ourselves and God, the one true God. People worship the National Lottery, the religion of getting and having, the cult of celebrity, their families, their perfect homes, all kinds of things are given more importance in peoples’ lives than God. Of course, a lot of people have dismissed God from their lives altogether.
God made us. God loves us. God wants us to live in relation to God. Everything else is secondary.
God says: I am the Lord your God.
God continues: Don’t make idols for yourself. Nothing made by humans can be anything like as awesome and wonderful as God. When people make idols, they are worshipping aspects of themselves.
Don’t dis-respect God’s name. Realise who you’re dealing with here.
Then God starts to talk about the things that will help people live as a community. It’s about have a set of expectations that everyone respects, a good way of living that people understand and, for the most part, live by.
Live within the rhythms of God’s time. Make space for God in your life, and that means worship and prayer and being thankful. And God was saying to the people: do this together, have a day where no one expects you to work, but you rest and enjoy each other’s company.
God says: Honour your father and your mother. That’s how society will flourish. And yes, as a general instruction to the community, it’s really important. It’s not an instruction to young children, but to the adult children of elderly people. Some societies are really good at this, and treat their elders with respect.
However, with people living longer and longer with considerable needs, families don’t always have the skills to care for their elders. And what happens when the parents didn’t bring up the children with love and care. I did the funeral once of a guy who was so self-centred, he expected his family to run round after him and would threaten to disown them if they didn’t do what he wanted. At the funeral, you could feel the tension and bitterness and hurt bubbling under the surface. The way we treat our children affects who they become and how the behave for the rest of their lives.
So we need to respect all people.
God continues: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. And all of these come down to how we live as a community. You only have to see an episode or two of Jeremy Kyle to see how these things undermine relationships.
God says: Don’t dishonour your neighbour by telling lies about them or making assumptions about the motivations and what they’re up to. Don’t revel in gossip. And don’t spread rumours, or pass on stories on facebook or twitter that you don’t know for sure are true. Because all of this undermines trust.
And then God says: Don’t envy someone because of their abilities and achievements, their possessions or the popularity. Because that envy leads you to hate or to steal or to undermine someone by telling stories about them, or even to murder. It can have a really evil outcome. Learn to look at your own motivations, and hand the negative ones over to God in prayer.
We call them the Ten Commandments. In the way the story is told, God gives these instructions to the Israelites to teach them how to be God’s people. They came to be written on stone tablets, visible, tangible, a witness to the relationship between God and the people. Jesus summarises them for us: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength; and love your neighbour as yourself. Live that, and you will live well.