Text: Exodus 20:1-17
“Obedient”. It’s a key word for us today as we focus on the Old Testament lesson where God gives his people – where God gives us – the 10 Commandments.
“Obedience”. Not a word to bring joy to most people’s hearts! Parents struggle with it. How do you get your kids to obey, to follow the family’s rules? And how many of those rules should you have? And does each rule need to be enforced all the time, or do circumstances mean you sometimes pretend you don’t see the disobedience? And how on earth do you do this obedience thing when your kids hit those rebellious teenager years!
Obedience. It’s a minefield for many parents. And it causes more than a few problems for Lutherans. Because we like to emphasize grace. And rightly so. We like to shy away from the whole obedience thing lest we somehow move into that area of works righteousness. But here’s the deal; obedience is part of our Christian walk, our discipleship, our servanthood. God – and he has every right to because he is God – God lays out certain rules, commandments before us. Not for us to debate or assess the merits of or to determine which ones we’ll take on board and which ones we’ll dismiss. Rather, he gives them to us to obey.
So, how can we move beyond a “gritting one’s teeth” kind of obedience to a willing obedience – like Jesus showed? Humility is certainly important. Proud people aren’t into willing obedience. Humble ones are. But there’s another factor that’s critical for willing obedience that I’d like to concentrate on today. Let me summarise that factor with this statement, “How a person responds to a rule depends on how they relate to the rule-maker.” Can I say that again, “How a person responds to a rule depends on how they relate to the rule-maker.”
For example, let’s imagine that my “baby” – Ben – is 8, not 28. If I make a rule that Ben is supposed to obey, how Ben will respond to that rule will depend above all on how Ben and I are relating to each other. I know there are other factors too, like, is the rule fair? Does it apply to his brothers too? Things like that. But I’m convinced that Ben’s response to the rule will be determined above all by how he relates to me. I mean, if he’s secure in our relationship, if he knows for sure that I love him heaps and want only the best for him, that shapes the way he responds to my rule. He might be put out by it. He might even think it’s unfair. But if our relationship is strong and secure, if he knows I only want the best for him, then there’s every chance that he’ll go along with the rule. There’s every chance he’ll do his best to obey it.
“How a person responds to a rule depends on how they relate to the rule-maker.” It’s been true in our household. I suspect it’s true – or has been true in yours. And I’m convinced it’s true in God’s. God sets down quite a few rules in the Bible. How people respond to those rules depends – to a very large extent – on what their relationship with God is like, on how they see him.
Some people, for example, some see God as a highway patrolman. These patrolmen are necessary and serve an important function, but most of us aren’t too happy to see them behind us on the highway. We think they’re just waiting there – watching us like hawks – until we make the tiniest of mistakes . . . and then their lights will start flashing and their siren will start blaring and they’ll come alongside us and give us this “I’ve got you!” kind of look.
Some people really do see God like that. He’s the moral policeman who gives you all these rules, and he’s just waiting to catch you out, to punish you. And inevitably, the relationship these people have with God is one based on fear, not love. It’s distant, not intimate. Obedience is seen as something to do to escape punishment. If you can disobey without getting caught, that’s OK. But by and large it’s better to obey, to do the right thing because you just don’t know when God might come around spying, checking up on you.
Is that the way you see God? Is that the way you relate to him? As a highway patrolman? As I read the Bible, I get a different picture of God. The sort of picture I get from the Bible is of God being more like a Coast Guard Captain. He knows that you want to get your boat to safe waters. But he also knows that you’re really up against it. You’re unaware of the reefs that can rip the bottom out of your boat. You’re unaware as to which of the possible routes will actually get you to your destination. So what the coast guard captain does is to give you markers to highlight the channel. These markers are called rules or commandments, and they’re meant for your protection. As long as you follow them, you won’t get wrecked on the reefs. As long as you obey them, you know you’re headed in the right direction. Sometimes you don’t quite understand why he’s given you those rules. Sometimes you might even think that they’re unfair. But because you know he loves you, you chart your course his way. You strive to obey him.
Can we – just for a moment – can we look at a couple of the laws, a couple of the channel markers that our Captain gives us? He gives us the 3rd commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Why does he give that rule to us? To spoil a good weekend? No! He gives it to us because he loves us. He knows that if we’re going to successfully navigate our way through life, it’s essential that we spend time with him. He knows we need guidance and strength and support. He knows we need to be closely connected to him. And to experience the community and support of a church family. And all that happens in worship. And that’s why he wants us to come, so we can receive all those things.
Take another commandment – the 6th – about faithfulness between husband and wife. Why does God have a rule about that? Quite simply because he loves us. He wants marriage to be fulfilling and deeply satisfying. And he knows that’s not possible when we’re spreading our affections and heart around. So – in love – he says, “Adultery is out, and faithfulness is in.”
You know, I could go through every one of the 10 Commandments, in fact, every command in the whole Bible – how we are to treat our children, how we are to deal with our possessions, what our speech should be like, and more – I could go through the whole lot, and behind each one you would find one common factor . . . they’re motivated by love.. They’re given to us by a God who loves us. They keep us off the rocks and in the safety of the channel. None of them . . . none of them are meant to restrict our freedom and joy. And the more we respond with willing obedience, the more fulfilling and joyful our lives can become.
But there’s the catch, isn’t it! Because the fact is, we don’t always respond with obedience. We’re all guilty of disobeying God’s laws. Sometimes accidentally. Sometimes deliberately. And some of us know only too well what the cost is to go against God’s laws. It’s as if we’ve been washed up onto jagged rocks. And you know what? The Captain of the Coast Guard – he sees us floundering there. And he knows why we’re there – because we’ve disregarded the markers, we’re disobeyed his rules for us, we’ve arrogantly chartered our own course instead of following his course. Yet instead of wiping his hands of us and saying “It’s your fault! You blew it! Now you’ll have to pay for it!”, instead of deciding to scrap us, to send us to the bottom, he sets out to salvage us. He sends out another boat into the sea . . . a boat that was buffeted about, just like we are . . . a boat that was ridiculed and rejected . . . a boat that had many opportunities to head off course and forget about us – but didn’t . . . a boat which in the end took on the refuse, the garbage from every other boat – yours and mine – so much of it that in the end it sunk him. This boat went to the bottom – willingly – because of his love for all, because of his love for you and me.
St Paul says, “And he became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
One who is worthy of our obedience, wouldn’t you agree? One who gave his all to us so we can give our all to others!
Pastor Rob Peach