Meditations, Reflections, Bible Studies, and Sermons from Kowloon Union Church  

Another Sign of God’s Promise

A sermon preached at Kowloon Union Church on Sunday 4 March 2018Third Sunday in Lent, by Dr. Hope S. Antone. The scripture readings that day were Exodus 20:1–17, Psalm 19:7–11, John 2:13–22.

During this season of Lent, we at Kowloon Union Church are on a journey to God’s promise. Although the Worship Committee chose the theme, “Signs of God’s Promise,” we hope that you are with us on this journey. God’s promise is known in different words like salvation, deliverance, freedom from bondage, eternal life, shalom. We also know that the road to the promise is not always smooth, quick or easy. At some point of the journey, one can get confused, frustrated, or distracted. And so we are looking out for signs of God’s promise to help us stay on track.  

For this 3rd Sunday of Lent the sign of God’s promise to help us stay on track is the “Ten Commandments” or what the renowned Bible scholar, Walter Brueggemann, calls “The Big Ten.” According to Exodus 20:1-17, God spoke these commandments at Mt. Sinai after the Israelites left Egypt en route to the promise land.

Usually, the Ten Commandments are understood as rules for a good and godly life. I remember one preacher saying, “Majority of the Ten Commandments are easy to follow because they begin with ‘You shall not…”, which means you do not have to do anything.” Well, I think it is not that simple.

Seen in the context of the biblical Israel, there is a lot to learn from the Ten Commandments. That context is clearly laid out by the words of God’s identification through God’s act of salvation: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery...”

For the Israelites of biblical times, the Big Ten means that in order for them not to revert to their status of slavery as in Egypt, they have to live by the Ten Commandments as guiding principles. Walter Brueggemann calls them “strategies for staying emancipated.” By looking at the Ten Commandments as guiding principles or strategies, we will understand the context and the spirit in which they were given, rather than focusing on the letters or words in which they were spoken. 

Many Bible scholars agree that the Big Ten provides 2 basic principles or strategies: The first principle/strategy is honoring God above all else. The second principle/strategy is honoring one another. But in between them is another principle/strategy: keeping the Sabbath holy, which I propose means honoring the self

The first principle/strategy of honoring God above all else is explicated by the first 3 commandments. These commandments require NO other gods, NO graven images, and NO taking of the name of God in vain. Some of us may have used these commandments to judge other religions for their statues of gods, goddesses, or saints; and to refrain from cursing, swearing, or saying the OMG. But in view of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt, these commandments on honoring God are a strong reminder that the God of Israel who saved them from slavery is the one true God. This is the real God; not Pharaoh who claimed to be god. This true God does not require the making of sculptures, statues, or mausoleums to represent Godself; whereas the pharaoh required such expensive projects to secure his image and empire. Where pharaoh had claimed to be a god, enslaving the people and subjecting them to hard and harsh labor, the God of Israel hears their cries, shares their burden, and offers them deliverance.

Today, the images of idolatry are more complicated than the physical sculptures, statues and other symbols. Idolatry is present through ideas that promote the primacy of something in place of God. For example, nationalism can be a form of idolatry, as nations think first or only of their own kind at the expense of the other vulnerable groups. There is a surge of nationalism today, in a time of so much fear and insecurity. A sense of nationhood is not bad; but promoting it in a way that hurts or harms the vulnerable groups in society is bad. 

The second principle/strategy is honoring one another, explicated by the last 6 commandments. These commandments are reminders that all persons other than oneself are neighbors who deserve respect and humane treatment. Neighbors include parents, other people, aliens or foreigners. In the Israelites’ context of slavery in Egypt, they were the neighbors, the aliens or foreigners who were not respected or treated humanely. Instead, they were enslaved, used as commodities or means to an end. The pharaoh was the prime example of covetousness who always wanted more than what he already had.

Today, we see more images of the lack of respect for the other. The manifestations of the lack of respect for the other – i.e. murder, adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, coveting what the neighbor has – are still here, only in more organized manner. There is a lot of fear and hate towards the other. To address the fear and the hatred, some people resort to violence. The commandments to honor one another are a reminder that life is a gift from God. Hence, life is sacred and must be respected.   

The third principle/strategy of honoring the Sabbath is explicated by the 4th commandment. Just as God rested on the seventh day, after six days of creating the world and all that is in it, human beings who are created in God’s image are also expected to rest. In the context of the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt, the pharaoh did not observe the Sabbath. Instead, the pharaoh subjected the people to hard and harsh labor. 

In his book, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No the Culture of Now, Walter Brueggemann calls the Sabbath the divine rest on the seventh day of creation which demonstrates that the Lord God, YHWH, is not a workaholic, not anxious about the full functioning of creation whose well-being does not depend on endless work. This is the mindset of God, but not of pharaoh.

To say that “because God rested, human beings also deserve rest” is to say that the fourth commandment is about honoring the self as created in God’s image. Honoring the self is in recognition of God’s divine image. It is also the basis or standard for honoring the neighbor. And this is why this commandment of honoring the self serves as a bridge between the principle of honoring God above all else and the principle of honoring one another. According to Luke (10:27), Christ Jesus summed up the Ten Commandments as: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

As we journey through this Lenten season, may this understanding of the Ten Commandments be a sign for us of God’s promise. Let it be a reminder of our calling to honor and love God above all else, and our neighbor as ourselves. Just as Christ Jesus cleansed the temple from the idolatry of money that violated not only the purpose of religion but also the lives of the poor, we are called to cleanse our own body-selves, as the temple of God, from any idolatry that has replaced the primacy of God in our lives.

Let us remember that idolatry belongs to the pharaoh, not to God. Idolatry is anything that keeps us away from this calling to have healthy and meaningful relationships with God, with our neighbors and with ourselves. Instead, idolatry breeds greed and covetousness (insatiable desire for more than what we already have), anti-neighborliness (fear or hate of the other), rat-race busyness of work (instead of observing the Sabbath), which alienate us from God, our neighbors and ourselves.

May God go with us during this challenging journey. Amen.

# posted by Heddy Ha : Sunday, March 04, 2018

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