Exodus 20:1-25

Philippians 3:4b-14

One of my favorite questions, especially working with youth, is: “What would you do?” “How would you set this up?” This question helps us make sense of life. It’s a way of asking why the world works the way it does. We step back and try to see things from God’s perspective, to see how and why life works the way it does.

We see from God’s perspective here in Exodus. It’s like God is starting the video game Civilization (which I have to admit is one of my personal favorites), and the first question to be answered is what kind of civilization the player wants to lead. Who will this new people be? Imagine leading the people out of Egypt, and now you need to make them a new life in a new place. You’re free to make that life however you want, because you’re God, and you can set the new rules.

This is especially appealing for some youth, but it’s something that could appeal to any of us who thinks deep down that we could run the world better than it’s currently being run. All we have to do is think of some rules people could live by, practical guidelines for life. They need to be somewhat more specific than “love your neighbor,” but still broad enough that you can apply them in a variety of situations.

God did this, in this scene here from Mount Sinai, and He came up with some pretty good rules for the basis of a civilization. To have no gods other than God was unique at the time: other peoples had many gods, but this God is alone. You can’t make idols with your hands, because God is greater than anything we can create (we’ll come back to this idea). You can’t make wrong use of God’s name, because God can’t be controlled by magic: God is free. Honor your parents, because you have to care for those who aren’t able to care for themselves, especially those who cared for you. Murder is prohibited, because people can’t live in fear of each other. That would disrupt society. Adultery? No stealing wives from each other, because again, that would disrupt society. Stealing stuff in general is prohibited, because – are you seeing a theme here? – you have to keep society stable. Coveting, well, you can say that’s the root of theft, adultery, and murder. It’s a profound commandment.

So imagine yourself in God’s place today. What rules would it take to stabilize society? “The Ten Commandments” would be a good start, of course, but remember that these commandments fit an ancient society very well. Tody, few people seek to control God by using the divine name correctly (granted, maybe some do). Idolatry, it seems, has gone undercover. We now recognize that people who bow in front of images are often more in touch with spiritual things than those who don’t. However, many people certainly worship what they’ve made. Coveting? Where should I even start? Is it a sin, is it the root of all sins? The question to ask is, what are God’s people called to be and do today?

At Sinai, God’s people were called to be a free people. Free from Egypt’s complex system of gods, sacred places, and images. Free from Canaan’s same system, with its strictly proper worship, theology, and magic names. Free from fear of each other, free from defending themselves, their property, their homes. They were called to be people who see everyone as part of the family of God: their parents, their neighbors, their slaves, themselves.

Is this what the people heard? Well, no. They heard thunder. They heard a trumpet blast. They saw lightning and smoke, a wrathful god like the other people around them had. Of course, God can be like this. Wrath echoes deeply in human experience of God. It’s the wrath of a mother bear, who will destroy anything she needs to on behalf of her cubs. God’s righteousness turns to anger when Her people are mistreated and unvalued. But there’s no wrath here, this is glory and power on the side of the people’s freedom. But here, the people stand back and call on Moses to go between them and God, to give them human words rather than God’s.

It seems like God, to human ears, always sounds like wrath, anger, and disapproval. We hear only God saying “thou shalt not.” “You’re no good.” We judge ourselves and others, finding standards that no one can live up to. Yes, God is great and far beyond us, but that greatness for some reason always sounds like our failing. We find ourselves judged.

We even call it a virtue when we point to our own lousiness, but it’s often just pride dressed up as humility. Humility is fine if we’re really just seeing God’s greatness and being emptied of ourselves. More often, we’re actually puffing ourselves up by “denigrating” ourselves: “See what God did with such a lousy person as I am, and He only needed a little of my help to do it!”

It’s almost better to do the reverse, to name and disown our good qualities. That’s what Paul does here in the passage from Philippians. He says, “I’m a good Jew, a great Pharisee, a zealous person of God,” but then he disowns it all. He says his positives are negatives if they stand in the way of Christ’s work. What Paul gets in Christ is greater than anything he can give to God, and of course that’s true of us too. So, one way to celebrate God’s goodness is to disown ourselves, to take away any other reason we might have for pride.

The power of God is beyond anything we might say or do. God is far greater than any accomplishment we can achieve. It’s like the command that comes to the people through Moses at the end of this passage, where God says, “You can’t even build me an altar.” If you do build an altar, build it out of earth and unworked stone. That is, you have to “find” the altar, you can’t build it. God is nothing our hands can make. We can’t “do” God right or wrong.

Our freedom here at this communion table comes to us because we didn’t build this table. We’re welcome here because we did nothing for it. We did nothing right to deserve this table, and there’s nothing we can do wrong to be excluded from it. This table is simply grace poured out, where we see God dressed in human life. God is in human lives we don’t even recognize, on altars and communion tables around the world. We can’t build an altar, we an ony find Christ with us at this table of sharing. Christ is with us here, with God’s people wherever we find the Spirit at work beyond anything we dreamed of making real.