The Bible is made up of different kinds of literature. It’s a lot like a library. You have history books, poetry, collections of letters, long lists of people called “rosters,” and even novels. There’re also lengthy lists of laws. When we go to the Bible to read these various kinds of literature, we have to keep in mind what we’re reading. Not everything in the Bible is written with the same purpose in mind, but ultimately the whole Bible does witness to one very important, fundamental thing—the love of God. the Bible is a library that contains everything we need to know about God’s love for us, just expressed in many and various ways. And so, as we go into the sermon today, I challenge you to think differently than you may have up to this point about the Bible. Consider the Bible not so much as a book that fell out of heaven already finished for you to read, but rather a collection of writings that have witnessed over the ages to the enduring truth that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. How does reading every word of the Bible with that knowledge at the outset influence and shape how you read the whole Bible?
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
What I’m holding here is an “Operator’s Manual.” It’s the operator’s manual for the new phone in the office, in fact. And thank God for it because the new phone in the office has more functions than my old car! This trusty little book has all the directions you need to get the phone up and running. Some people don’t think they need to read the operator’s manual. They’d rather just jump in and start plugging this wire into that hole and pressing this button, but I’ve come to realize over the years, it’s best if you just follow the directions. The folks who write the operator’s manual know that, too, because if you look, right here on the front cover of the manual, it says, and I quote, “Before initial use, see ‘Getting Started’ on page 9.” They know people jump right in, but they’re also saying, “Make sure you read the manual before you get too far ahead of yourself.”
Today operator’s manuals like these are actually becoming more and more a thing of the past. I can remember whenever you’d buy something, like a phone or a stereo or computer, it would come with an extensive booklet like this to help you through setting up and other troubleshooting you might have down the road. Now that’s not so much the case. I bought a new remote the other day, and that didn’t come with a booklet, but with a small card that had the “Getting Started” instructions printed on it, and at the end of those directions, there were instructions to go online and download the whole operator’s manual from the cloud. Of course, I got the remote working, so I didn’t need the whole operator’s manual. I didn’t bother downloading the rest of the manual from the cloud, but the fact of the matter remains that a lot of the stuff we buy today doesn’t come with much of a printed operator’s manual, if at all. Instead, we’re told to download it from the cloud and use the electronic, or e-version of the manual instead. With all our smart devices that probably makes sense for a lot of people, and I’m sure it makes excellent sense for companies who’re looking to cut costs wherever they can. Save money on printing the hardcopy operator’s manual when folks can download the e-version from the cloud.
In today’s first lesson, we have Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai. This is the same Mt. Horeb—a different name for the same mountain—where Moses first encountered God in the fiery bush, where God declared to Moses, in this epiphany, or revelation, that he was the God of Moses’ father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. God commanded Moses to remove his sandals here because it was holy ground.
Now Moses finds himself back on this holy ground, but under different circumstances. As God had instructed him, he went back to Egypt, demanded the deliverance of the Hebrew people from slavery, and pronounced the judgement of God over Pharaoh’s hardened heart in a series of plagues against the Egyptians, culminating in the death of the firstborn son of all living things, livestock and human alike. Only those who had the blood of a slaughtered lamb painted on their doorways were passed over by the Angel of Death.
And so, the Hebrews were delivered from captivity in Egypt and after walking across dry ground on the floor of the parted Red Sea, after being pursued by the Egyptian army whom God drowned after the Hebrews crossed to safety, the Hebrews now find themselves in the Wilderness of Sinai, at the foot of Mt. Horeb. The Bible tells us it’s about three months after they’ve crossed the Red Sea. They set up camp at Mt. Horeb. As Moses went up to meet God, God called down to him from the mountain. God gave instructions to the Hebrews about how to prepare for Moses to ascend the mountain and meet with God on behalf of all the people. They agreed. So, after three days of preparation, Moses finally went up the mountain again—the same mountain where he had first encountered God in the burning bush some years earlier. The mountain was all smoke because God had come down on it as fire. Smoke poured from it like smoke from a furnace. The whole mountain shuddered in huge spasms. God came down from heaven to the peak of Mount Sinai, and called Moses up to the peak to meet him there. Heaven meets earth. God meets man. Holy ground…
And while Moses on the mountain, God handed down to him commandments. You shall have no other Gods but me. You shall not make for yourself any idol. You shall not misuse the name of God. You shall remember and keep the Sabbath day holy. You shall honor your parents. You shall not commit murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not lie. You shall not covet anything of your neighbors.
These commandments were handed down while the mountain of God was blazing up to the very heavens, shrouded in dark clouds. The fire, the cloud—these are signs of God’s majesty, awe, his might, his power. Then the Lord spoke to out of the fire and cloud. Moses heard God speaking but saw no form. There was only a voice—simply the Word. God declared his covenant, his promise, which he charged the whole Hebrew people observe, that is, the Ten Commandments. And God himself chiseled them by his Word on two stone tablets. “You must follow exactly the path that the Lord God has commanded you,” Moses tells the people, “so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.” Adding further, speaking as prophet of the Lord, “observe them diligently, so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.”
In short, these commandments are the operator’s manual for God’s people. Directions for the way to behave, the way to live, the way to be, the way to have relationships with God and with one another. And all this happened while Moses on the mountaintop. God spoke in a tremendous voice from the fire, from a dark mist and cloud and handed this operator’s manual down to Moses. I guess, in a sense, you could say that Moses was the first to ever download an operator’s manual from the cloud.
To be sure, these commandments are commandments. Too many people think of them as the Ten Suggestions, but they are most definitely commandments—rules to be observed strictly, directions to be followed, guidance to be adhered to. But there is more to the commandments than mere dread. The psalmist today recognizes that. “By them,” he sings, “is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” These commandments come with a promise, already in the first commandment—“I am the Lord your God.” God makes a covenant with the Hebrew people in the wilderness of Sinai, through Moses on Mt. Horeb. God is our God…and these commandments are given us because God loves us and wants a relationship with us that is good. They are meant to shape our lives for the good—and who can argue that in keeping these commandments that it wouldn’t “go well” with us, as God says. In keeping the commandments there is great reward…When we follow the directions, when we follow the operator’s manual, life is good and things go well with us…
And yet, we know that, even after the goodness of these commandments is given the Hebrews, as Moses goes up the mountain again to be with God, the Hebrews turn on God and break the first commandment. They make an idol, a golden calf, and they worship it. They break the first and most important commandment—the commandment with the very promise explicitly stated at the outset. We are no different than the Hebrews at Horeb because they are us and we them. They are our ancestors in faith, and we too turn our backs on the commandments of God. Whether we outright break the commandments or we fail to keep them, we break the commandments. God’s law is perfect, and yet we are not. “If you were to count sins, Lord, who could stand?” asks the psalmist…Surely not me, or you, or anyone.
At those times, our only recourse is the love of God that first gave us these commandments for our good living—the love of God made real for us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Christ, who for us and for our salvation, for our healing, who didn’t regard his equality with God as something to be exploited, who emptied himself—he came down from the clouds of heaven and became one of us, God with us, our Emanuel—our e-Manuel.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets,” Jesus says. “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” But as he comes to fulfill this law, he doesn’t come to fulfill it for his own sake, but for our sake. He keeps the law of God to the bitter end, regarding even his own life as something to be offered up in service to God for the sake of others—for our sake. By his obedience, Christ fulfills for us the law so that it does go well with us, that the promise of God is ours forever.
And yet—we’re not off the hook from the law’s demands. These commandments aren’t just about our relationship with God. They’re also about the relationships we have with each other and the world.
We who bear on our foreheads the mark of our redemption, the sign of God’s promise to us in Jesus—we who bear on our foreheads the sign of the cross, we have the holy obligation like him to keep the law not for our own sake or the sake of our own relationship with God, but for the sake of others. For in keeping the law of God, not only do we benefit, but the whole world knows the benefits of God’s blessings. We who are Christ’s hands and feet in the world, we who are his voice and heart—we are charged with the holy mission to follow God’s directions, to adhere to the law, to strictly keep the commandments that it might go well with us, with all those we meet, and with nature.
As we strive to keep God’s holy commandments, not for our sake but for the sake of other people and the whole creation, we have a good guide to whom we can look, a good model for the Godly life. We have our e-Manuel, Jesus. As we go forward, we remember our calling—to be Jesus’ disciples. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. And that’s our promise as well—right alongside him, our Emanuel, God with us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.