A sermon on Exodus 20:1-4,7-9,12-20 & Philippians 3:4b-14 by Nathan Nettleton
There are very few preachers around whose gifts of self-promotion extend to getting news coverage of their sermons even before they preach them, but one has managed it this week. Perhaps you missed it, but the Revd Dr Francis McNabb of St Michael’s Church in the city featured in various news reports in the past week or so because of the advertising of the sermon he was to preach today. St Michael’s is a fairly cashed up church, and they erected huge billboards in prominent locations around town, simply with a title for his sermon and a welcome to come and hear it today. The title was “The Ten Commandments: the most negative document ever written.” This sensationalist slogan certainly attracted attention, and the news reports gave Dr McNabb the chance to tell us all that he was starting a new religion. One of the themes of his new religion is “positive, positive, positive”, and if you think that sounds a bit like yet another recycling of some of the positive thinking religions that were all the rage when Dr McNabb was a younger man, you may be on to something. But the point for today, of course, is that if we are all about “positive positive positive”, then the ten commandments become part of the problem, not part of the solution, because most of them are formulated as negatives; “you are not to do this, you are not to do that.”
Now although I am not generally a fan of Dr McNabb and his new religion, there are plenty of things on which I would agree with him, and for the most part, the need to think positively in terms of what we are to be, rather than negatively in terms of what we are not to be, would be one of them. Hear, hear, I say. Far too often, Christians have been known for what they are against (often relatively trivial matters — swearing, drinking, dancing), rather than for what they are standing for: love, justice, mercy, reconciliation, hospitality. We are not just saved from something, we are saved for something, and the positive vision of the life we are saved into deserves a lot more attention than the denunciation of the slaveries we are saved out of.
Now I admit that I haven’t heard or read Dr McNabb’s sermon from this morning, but I believe the title he used in the service, as opposed to on the billboards, was “Ten New Commandments: Positive. Plausible. Powerful” so I am guessing that what he was doing was recasting the ten commandments in positive terms. So instead of “you shall not murder” we would have “you shall give life”, and instead of “you shall not lie” we would have “you shall stand firmly in the truth” etc. etc. Now apart from the obvious risks involved in casting yourself as the one who can improve on what God has given through Moses, I think there is great value in that exercise. Thinking through the positive vision that lies behind the negative prohibitions of the commandments is a really helpful and worthwhile way of exploring the commandments in greater depth. You might notice too that our congregational covenant is framed almost entirely in positives rather than negatives, so you can see that Dr McNabb’s call for “positive positive positive” is not generally at odds with the ways we do things here or with the sort of emphases that I tend to preach. And yet, I think he is probably missing some fairly crucial points about the ten commandments.
Our adult catechumens have been studying then ten commandments over the last couple of months because our we have put them alongside the liturgy, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Creeds as one of the essential and foundational summaries of Christian faith and practice. And one of our catechumens said to me recently that she didn’t used to have a problem with the ten commandments, but after the way our study notes paired them with teaching of Jesus, especially from the Sermon on the Mount, now she felt like she had broken them all. Can you hear Dr McNabb saying “Negative, negative, negative”?
What I said in reply was that that was indeed part of the point. The ten commandments are not supposed to give you a measure that will help you feel good about yourself. They are supposed to help make you acutely aware that you are no better than anybody else and that you are utterly dependant on the generous mercy of God. This is in part what the Apostle Paul was on about in the selection we heard earlier from his letter to the Philippians. He described how the law of Moses can come to be used as a source of pride. “As to righteousness under the law,” he says, “I was blameless.” Various forms of fundamentalism are always at risk of this. We focus on the supposedly comprehensive list of requirements, and then begin measuring ourselves against other people as to how well we are doing on them. And often we then succumb to the temptation to scapegoat those who are apparently falling behind us, and accuse them, for their lack of conformity to the laws, of being the cause of society’s ills.
Now one of the points at which I suspect Dr McNabb may be missing something is that positive statements are no less prone to this than negative ones, and actually may be more so. You see, positive exhortations are certainly better at making us feel good about ourselves, but often at the expense of rigourous truthfulness. They have more wriggle room. If the instruction says, “Be a truthful person,” I can readily persuade myself that I am measuring up. I am basically a truthful person. Sure, if pushed, I might recall that I told a little white lie to explain why I was late to an appointment last week, and that I left a couple of telling details out of a reference that I wrote for someone, but I am a truthful person. But if the instruction is framed in the negative — “do not tell lies; do not make misleading statements, ever” — there is a lot less wriggle room and while I probably won’t feel nearly as good about myself, I will probably have a much more accurate picture of my own duplicity.
Similarly, sometimes the negatives need to be laid out along side the positives or we miss the point. The one solidly negative paragraph in our congregational covenant, is the one that commits us to non-conformity with the ways of the world. It goes on to take about refusing certain things and resisting certain things. It clearly takes a stand against things; a negative stand. But if you were to take that section out, the whole thing would be at risk of appearing rather wishy washy. It could be read as endorsing a commitment to sharing all the normal aspirations of the world around us but being loving and nice and hospitable at the same time. The negative statement is necessary to make it clear that the positives are a positive alternative, not merely an add-on or an overlay; a laying of icing on the top of an otherwise conforming-to-the-norms cake.
Both the commandments and our covenant, then, contain negatives that are more likely to make us feel inadequate than adequate. But that is actually the point. They are supposed to lead us, with Paul, to the point where we give up trying to prove ourselves worthy or better than anyone else, and I regard all such attempts as a load of crap (and that is the word Paul uses), in order that we may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of our own that comes from complying with the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. Framing the commandments in a way that will make us feel more positive about ourselves is seriously at risk of leading us into self-delusion. It is when we know that we enslaved to sin and that we can never break ourselves free, that we will be ready to look for a rescuer. Then we can say with Paul, “I don’t care any more about my performance indicators; I just want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. That is all that really matters.”
And once we know ourselves lost, rescued and forgiven, then, strangely, the commandments really come into their own. Once we know that there is nothing we can do that will make us any more acceptable to God than anybody else, and that it is only what Jesus does that secures us the right to stand with heads held high in the presence of God, then the commandments and the covenant play a different role. Instead of being checklists of our individual value, they become a gift that we can offer to God in gratitude for the extravagant love and mercy we have received. Instead of treating them as the currency with which we might purchase God’s love, we can begin to treat them as ways of saying thank you for the love that has already been given freely and irrevocably. If my wife gives my a free and generous gift that I love and which can’t be taken back, then I am inspired to behave in ways which she will appreciate and enjoy. I don’t have to, and the gift does not in any way depend on my doing so, but because of the gift, I want to. And even when it means doing some things that I might not otherwise have wanted to do, I find it rewarding to do them, because it is a living relationship and pleasing each other becomes its own reward.
So for those who know themselves beloved in the mercy of Jesus the Christ, the commandments and our congregational covenant are a lot like that. Living by them is a gift that we offer to God in exuberant gratitude for the flood of gifts we are receiving from God. And that’s another point that is often misunderstood about the ten commandments. They are not some universal moral code that should be written up on the walls of our court houses and parliaments. They are rather much like our congregational covenant, in that they are a very particular set of commitments for a particular group of people — the group of people who know themselves rescued by God and who want to offer themselves to God in grateful response.
Have you noticed that the open line of the ten commandments is “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” It is not, “I am the Lord who created everything, so this is for everyone.” It is “I am the Lord who has rescued you.” It is for us who have been found in slavery, oppressed by sin and darkness and futile attempts to get ourselves back on track. It is for us who have been rescued by the one who has offered himself in love and taken the full force of the world’s violent negatives in his own body to protect us from them, and who has led us to safety in the promised land of resurrection life and love. It is for us, so that we might be able to express our love and gratitude. There is nothing more frustrating than wanting to find a way of expressing your thanks to someone when you know absolutely nothing about what they like or what pleases them. God has not left us in that predicament.
Living by the commandments or the covenants will not save you or make God happy with you. God has already saved you and already loves you beyond measure. But what impoverished people we would be if we never took the opportunities to express our thanks, to behave in ways which are intended to please our beloved. Your salvation is a given, but your enjoyment of the mutual giving and receiving of the living relationship would be tragically diminished if you had no idea how to express your love in return. And for that, these guidelines — commandments and covenant — are a precious and astonishingly positive gift. And may our lives be the billboard that publicises that good news!