Have you ever been stuck?
I remember some of my more sticky situations.
Once, I was driving an older car that I didn’t know very well. I’d never really had any trouble with it, but it was hand-me-down. It was a “deluxe” Camry, and it came with a special key to unlock the spare, only I didn’t have the key. And one day, I found myself stranded on the Powhite Parkway, in rush hour, with a blown-out tire, and no way to change it. But one of my youth worked for his dad who was a mechanic, and he came with the right tool to unlock the spare, and change my tire. It would’ve been a long night, without the right key.
I remember a few times in seminary when transportation was scarce that I didn’t have a way to visit my fiancé eight hours away, but several times, I was loaned a car or given a ride. But my ‘favorite’ memory of car transportation was the time my wife visited the seminary and I was loaned a beat-up, standard pickup truck. The only problem was, I didn’t drive stick. One time, at a stop sign on a slight hill… That’s a completely different kind of stuck!
Another time, I was riding the waves at Nags Head with my dad. The surf was fierce that day, with either a storm rolling in (or just after a storm, I can’t remember). I wasn’t quite a teenager yet but I was a decent swimmer, and we liked to body surf. But that day, one wave picked me up, turned me over, and crushed me against the bottom. I ran out of air. It’s the first time I remember being in the ocean where I literally wondered if I’d die, drowning to death. And then strong hands reached in and lifted me out. My dad knew well enough not to ride it, and in the aftermath, he could pull me out.
I was working a maintenance job one summer, and while I knew I didn’t like heights or flying, I didn’t know how deeply that fear ran. I found out when I was told to climb out on a scaffolding to pressure wash some windows… and froze. I literally couldn’t get my brain to believe that I could stand up, move on the scaffolding, or operate the pressure washer. I was stuck.
One last example: I’m speeding home from work one summer, ready to return for my senior year. I was doing well over the speed limit, and I recognized those unfortunate lights in the rearview mirror that still make my stomach turn… even when I’m parked! This time, I got stuck between maintaining my speed and turning down a side street, and ended up nose to nose with a stop sign, horizontal to the street itself. Needless to say, the officer wrote me a sizable ticket that would half my summer spending. I went to court with my dad, who rode shotgun on many of my adolescent misadventures, and stood before the judge. He looked me up and down, in my dress shirt and tie, and my father at my side, knocked the several-hundred-dollar ticket down to the court fees, and told me to study hard at school. Not guilty by reason of … mercy.
If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us can come up with an example of one or two times that we found ourselves up to our knees in trouble or imprisoned by something we couldn’t get out of on our own. Maybe it was a problem of our own making, like an exorbitant ticket, or maybe it was something else natural or accidental like a wave or a blowout.
For the Israelites who received the Ten Commandments, their situation isn’t figurative “stuckness”; no, their sticky situation is slavery in Egypt to a cruel race of oppressors who have long ago forgotten their mutually-encouraging relationship, and settled into dominance. But how did we get here?
The quick, thirty-second recap:
God calls Abraham out of anonymity and tells him that he will become the father of a great nation who will be God’s people. Four generations later, Joseph is appointed chief operating officer of Egypt’s storehouses of food in the midst of a drought, saving not only all of the Egyptians but also God’s people, too. Generations pass, and the Egyptians no longer remember their symbiotic relationship, enslaving the Israelites to increase Egyptian prosperity. In their slavery, the Israelites call out to God, who chooses roughneck Moses, a child of both nationalities, one by adoption and one by birth, to liberate the people of God to worship. When the Pharaoh refuses to allow them to worship God, God sends twelve plagues, the last of which causes the celebration of Passover (now the Christian church’s Last Supper) to begin. When the Israelites flee, they find themselves liberated from slavery, but they don’t know how to live or what to do.
All of the currently living Israelites are slaves, children of slaves, and grandchildren of slaves. They have no recollection of how to live in community or what it means to form a society in which they are free.
So God gathers them at Mount Sinai, and tells them: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6). God gathers them around the mountain, and he calls Moses up to the mountain to receive the boundaries that God sets up to make the people of Israel special, to set them apart, and to set them up for freedom by establishing healthy boundaries.
Rather than being a series of “thou shall nots” intent on preventing the Israelites from really enjoying life, God’s commands were to help them figure out how to live now that they were really free! Now that they weren’t “stuck,” they needed someone to direct them toward how they could really live.
But, as people have questioned over and over again, are the Ten Commandments really relevant to us today?
People seem more likely to call them the “ten suggestions” or find some way to play off the way that they were delivered. “Were they written on stone? Now they must come in IOS or Android!”
We seem to either take them lightly or…we watch the Ten Commandments become the fighting ground for people of faith and those who think faith is a myth made up to keep us subservient.
We read the newspaper and watch the news and ask what sort of mortal imperative exists when people kill, steal, covet, and lie, and that’s just in the name of good business.
And we talk about the mercy of God and the fulfillment of Jesus as a means to save people from their sins. Fresh on the follow-up to Easter, we realize that we’re learning to love Jesus but we don’t really know what it means to be community. And if Jesus came to express a new covenant, to explain to us what God meant when he spoke in the field to Abraham and called him to be a people of God, then did Jesus himself abolish the Ten Commandments?
Let’s look for a moment. From Matthew 5:17-20: “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama…Trivialize even the smallest item in God’s Law and you will only have trivialized yourself. But take it seriously, show the way for others, and you will find honor in the kingdom. Unless you do far better than the Pharisees in the matters of right living, you won’t know the first thing about entering the kingdom.”
Does that really sound like Jesus didn’t care about the Commandments? Does it really sound like Jesus did away with them? No! He said he was there to “complete” or “fulfill” them; it says he encouraged his hearers to take them seriously so that they would be acting like the kingdom of God, God’s best vision for how we should live.
We already know from Exodus 3:7-8 that God wants GOOD for his people. It says that he acted to deliver them from the slavery, and that he wanted to bring them to a place with everything they would need. God freed them from but he also wanted to bring them to.
Too often, we experience (or at least talk about) freedom from something but we don’t recognize our need to fill those holes with something better. We experience the freeing satisfaction of Easter, where God sacrificed his own son on the cross for our sins, our sins. But we don’t know how to live into that, we don’t know how to live into the grace God has provided us, so we hope that feeling of powerful joy goes away. Because it’s easier to think we could just never actually be Easter people in a Good Friday world.
It’s like the situation of Brooks, the older man who has spent most of his life imprisoned in The Shawshank Redemption. He gets out and the free world looks too scary. He writes to Red (Morgan Freeman) and tells him: “Dear fellas, I can’t believe how fast things move on the outside. I saw an automobile once when I was a kid, but now they’re everywhere. The world went and got itself in a big hurry. The parole board got me into this halfway house called “The Brewer” and a job bagging groceries at the Foodway. It’s hard work and I try to keep up, but my hands hurt most of the time. I don’t think the store manager likes me very much. Sometimes after work, I go to the park and feed the birds. I have trouble sleepin’ at night. I have bad dreams like I’m falling. I wake up scared. Sometimes it takes me a while to remember where I am. Maybe I should get me a gun and rob the Foodway so they’d send me home. I could shoot the manager while I was at it, sort of like a bonus. I guess I’m too old for that sort of nonsense any more. I don’t like it here. I’m tired of being afraid all the time. I’ve decided not to stay. I doubt they’ll kick up any fuss. Not for an old crook like me.”
We’ve heard about prisoners struggling to re-enter society, but what about us?
Maybe we’re more like the early Israelites than we thought. We know we’ve been promised a different future, but we don’t know what it looks like for sure.
We don’t really get how we could be more loving.
We don’t understand how to make the ends meet and be more generous.
We see all of the rules, but we don’t get the grace.
So, maybe just maybe, if we really want to fully live into this whole “forgiven” thing, we need to figure out why God would make such a big deal about the Ten Commandments (they’re only called that once in the Old Testament!) that he would issue them twice.
Maybe we need to figure out that if we’re going to understand God’s covenant with us, God’s invitation to relationship, we need to understand that God’s commands for how we live are really there so that we could see how good life could be. That they’re not there to emphasize what we shouldn’t do but what we should.
That “the Ten Commandments reveal God to us,” a God who is full of love for his people, who wants to set us free and bring us to a place where we are happy and experiencing the good life (Henry McCabe).
In Deuteronomy 6:1-9, when the Commandments are recapped for the people, Moses emphasizes that these commands are given so that all of the generations of newly-freed slaves can live good lives, abundantly. No, there’s no promise of some cheap gospel where you “name it and claim it,” but a reliance on God’s love and grace.
As newly-freed slaves, Israel knew it needed leadership and direction.
As forgiven Christians, we should know we need to follow Jesus to make sure we’re headed in the right direction.
Consider Moses’ closing reminder, from Deuteronomy 6:5-9 (the Message version): “Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got! Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates.”
Do you know the ten words? (That’s what the Israelites called the Ten Commandments). Do you have them written on your hearts and do you consider the way they apply to your life?
Do you notice that while we often refer to them as pejorative or constrictive, that there are no punishments listed for breaking?
What kind of ‘rules’ are those really, if there are no consequences listed?
Is it possible that maybe they are intended to steer us clear of evil, and toward community. Are they possibly good directions that we have not paid enough attention to?
If we’re honest, we may recognize that we’re stuck. If we’re really honest, we may recognize that we’re still slaves.
Slaves to our jobs, our habits, our fears, our insecurities, our addictions.
Prisoners who find it’s easier to stay stuck than to embrace real, mind-blowing freedom.
What are we slaves to? How have those things shaped us?
The Israelites were afraid of what real freedom would look like. So afraid, that they periodically wished they’d be slaves in Egypt again than free people.
What are you afraid of?
What do you need to be free from?
What would it take for you to embrace God’s promise of a new life and a new kingdom?
What would it take for you to be truly free?
I pray that we can work together, over the next ten weeks, to explore these commands God gave Israel as their foundation to be his people. That we can consider how these holy truths are calling us to be a community of faith, of truth, and of love.
Then, maybe we’ll get the story of the Exodus, and we’ll get Easter, too.
Mandisa’s song “Not Guilty” says,
I stand accused
There’s a list a mile long
Of all my sins
Of everything that I’ve done wrong
I’m so ashamed
There’s nowhere left for me to hide
This is the day
I must answer for my life
My fate is in the Judge’s hands
But then He turns to me and says
I know you
I love you
I gave My life to save you
Love paid the price for mercy
My verdict not guilty.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll see that we can’t get out of our own way. Our fear, our doubt, our sin.
We’ll see that that God freed the Israelites from slavery to Egypt, and freed us from slavery to sin by the sacrifice of Jesus.
And when we see that, then we will be truly free.
I am indebted to the work of my fellow Asbury Seminary alum, Sean Gladding, for reminding me of the beauty and necessity of the Ten Commandments in his book, Ten, available now.