Today our Exodus lesson offers us the Ten Commandments. They break down into basically two chunks. There are the ones that have to do with how this people are supposed to worship and honor God:
- No other gods (monotheism)
- No idols (use of images or statues in worship)
- Restrictions on use of God’s name, to show respect
- Sabbath-keeping – a day of rest to honor God
Then there are some commandments that have to do with civic order and ethics within community.
- Honor your parents
- Don’t commit murder
- Don’t commit adultery
- Don’t steal
- Don’t bear false witness
- Don’t wish for what isn’t yours
The Ten Commandments are a core text, but there is a whole lot more in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy that lays out how God’s people Israel are called to live – including things like the kosher food rules; leaving the corners of the field un-harvested for the poor; and the jubilee year when people who have lost land and freedom due to poverty are restored.
The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman writes, “All the commandments given at Sinai, in their rich variation, are taken as a single corpus of obligation for Israel in [agreeing] to be the people of God.”
The Torah – which means Law or Instruction – lays out Israel’s way of life under the covenant – a way of living distinct from neighboring peoples; a way of purity and of justice. (A side note: The word “Torah” also refers to the first five books of the Bible – Genesis through Deuteronomy, which include a lot of narrative material as well as the content of the Law. )
What is the Christian relationship with Torah law? It’s complicated. As Christians we are not bound by the letter of the Law – the New Testament is clear about that. But we are called by God in Christ to love of God and love of neighbor, and to practicing mercy and justice, as a people set apart for the sake of others.
Jesus himself says that he came to “fulfill” the Law. (Matt. 5:17) Brueggeman writes, “We may understand that [Jesus’] work was received as an expression of the Torah’s life-giving power… Christians in the end are, like Jews, about the business of glad obedience to God’s disclosed purposes.” (220)
“God’s disclosed purposes” – I love that phrase. Disclosed here means revealed – what’s been shown to us, knowing that much remains mysterious. In teaching confirmation classes, I like to ask: What do we know about God’s intentions for the world? What does Scripture tell us about what God wants for us and from us?
Today’s Gospel brings us one core statement, in these famous words from John’s Jesus – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17)
(Or in an alternate translation: God didn’t send the Son into the system to condemn the system, but that the system might be saved through him.)
God’s ULTIMATE disclosed purpose for the world isn’t condemnation or destruction. It’s deliverance, salvation – healing, helping, restoring, redeeming. And – to circle back to being a blessing – God’s purpose for God’s people is to both receive God’s saving help, and extend it to others.
It’s in that light that I want to look back at the three Covenant-receivers we’ve met recently: Moses, Abraham, and Noah.
Let’s start with Moses – who led the people Israel out of bondage in Egypt, to a new home in the Promised Land. But they spent forty years in the wilderness in between! And the people were pretty crabby about it. (In fact, it was BECAUSE of their complaining that God made them spend a full forty years in the wilderness!)
Along the way, there were many points at which either God or Moses were ready to pull the van over and just get out and start walking. Or… worse. One of those moments comes as Moses is on Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments and other instructions from God. Meanwhile the people ask Moses’ brother Aaron to give them a new god to worship – and Aaron makes a statue of a golden calf. God is not pleased, and tells Moses: I’m going to destroy this people! Don’t worry, Moses, I’ll make another nation for you…
But Moses argues with God. Moses reminds God that this people is God’s people, whom God brought out of Egypt; and that it would not reflect well on God if the people are destroyed in the wilderness. Moses also reminds God of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to make their descendants into a great nation. And God… relents. The people Israel get another chance. (And another, and another, after that.) (Exodus 32)
That story echoes an earlier story which you probably don’t know, because it’s not in the lectionary. It’s a story about Abraham. It’s through Abraham that God first calls a particular people into covenant relationship. (We’re moving backwards through time here – it’s Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph who brings God’s people into Egypt. We have videos about that if you need a refresher!)
When God first calls Abraham, Abraham’s nephew Lot is living with him. But soon afterwards Abraham and Lot separate; they both have too many flocks and herds to keep traveling together. So Lot heads out and settles in a town called Sodom.
A few chapters later, three angels visit Abraham and Sarah to tell them that soon they’ll have their long-awaited son. And as they’re leaving, the angels tell Abraham, We’re going to visit Sodom, and its neighboring town Gomorrah, for we have heard that they are terribly sinful. And if that turns out to be true, God will destroy those cities.
I want to pause and name here that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has long been used as a “text of terror” against LGBTQ+ people. I decry that reading and that usage, and as a church leader I repent of the harm that churches have caused by preaching condemnation. My repentance of that harm is not something I can accomplish in one sermon, but something I’m striving to make part of my life’s work.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is difficult for lots of reasons. Let me say one thing clearly: It is not a story of God’s punishment for homosexuality. That is NOT what is happening here. If it would help you to read it and unpack it together, let me know.
What I want to talk about is what Abraham does after the angels disclose the plan to destroy the cities. Because Abraham – like Moses – tries to talk God out of destruction. Let’s hear their dialogue – straight out of the Bible.
ABRAHAM: Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous people within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?
GOD: If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.
ABRAHAM: Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?
GOD: I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.
ABRAHAM: Suppose forty are found there.
GOD: For the sake of forty I will not do it.
ABRAHAM: Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.
GOD: I will not do it, if I find thirty there
ABRAHAM: Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.
GOD: For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.
ABRAHAM: Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.
GOD: For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.
Alas, God does not find even ten righteous people in the city. But I love Abraham’s boldness here in bargaining God down towards mercy. It’s a different approach than Moses’ appeal to past covenants and acts of mercy and saving grace. But both Moses and Abraham confront God with one core idea: You’re supposed to be merciful and just. If you do this, are people going to believe that you are what you claim to be?
And now… let’s look back at Noah, ten generations before Abraham. Genesis 6, verses 12 – 14, 22: “And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, ‘I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood….’ Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.”
When we read these texts in order, it’s easy NOT to notice that Noah doesn’t argue with God. But when we look back… it should catch our attention. It has caught the attention of Jewish Scripture scholars for many, many generations. There’s a lot in the Talmud and Rabbinic literature reflecting on Noah.
Some texts argue that Noah tried to convince the people of his generation to repent. In one story, Noah takes a whole fifty years to build the ark, an impressive work slowdown, in the hopes that people will have time to repent and change their hearts and lives. But: No luck. People mock Noah, and refuse to listen to his warnings. So, the flood comes, as promised – as threatened.
Another story, from a text called the Zohar Hadash, concerns what happened when Noah finally left the Ark, after the flood had destroyed all life on earth, and the waters had finally receded. Noah sees the destruction and begins to weep. He cries out, “Lord of the world, You are merciful; why have You not pitied Your children?”
And God answers, “Foolish shepherd! Now you implore My mercy. Had you done so when I announced to you the Flood, it would not have come to pass. You knew that you would be rescued, and therefore did not care for others; now you pray.”
Okay, Miranda: how is any of this good news? Frankly it’s kind of messed up for God to need humans to talk God out of destroying people – and even more so for God to tell Noah, “Too late – shoulda spoken up sooner!”
I have said before that I’m agnostic about whether God uses natural disasters to punish or discipline God’s people. God made the Earth alive and free, just as God made humans alive and free. And the Earth, alive and free, sometimes does things that are inconvenient or catastrophic for humans. There were certainly big floods in ancient times, as there are now. And the Bible says that Sodom and Gomorrah were built in an area with many tar pits – indications of crude oil beneath the surface. Combined with seismic activity, that could get exciting. I tend to read these stories as people who were growing in relationship with God, trying to make theological sense of current and past events.
We can’t know, for now, whether conversations like the ones between God and Abraham or Moses ever really happened. But we DO know that they’re here in our holy text. We know that they tell us something – I think, something pretty important – about our faith-ancestors’ understanding of the relationship between humanity and the Divine.
Jew and Christian alike receive from Scripture a lot of guidance and instruction – a lot of Torah – about what it looks like to live in God’s ways as God’s people. But right alongside it we also receive the message that what God wants from us is not a meek or passive obedience. This is a relationship with push and pull, a relationship of dynamism and possibility.
It’s literally RIGHT after Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God that Moses turns around and says to God, more or less: “Hey, what happened to ‘Thou shalt not killl?’”And God doesn’t strike Moses dead. God listens.
That’s the insight Abraham and Moses found in their long and profound walks with God, that they passed on to their people and that eventually comes to us encoded in these texts: God likes it when we argue with God. God is the kind of Parent who loves it when her kids can change her mind. God is the kind of Parent who loves it when we collaborate with him on a project.
And the project is the continued outworking of God’s disclosed purposes for the world, resisting letting anyone be a lost cause or collateral damage, and always pushing wider the circle of mercy and belonging.
May it be so.