God Commands Those in Chaos
Forging Covenant in the Wilderness: Yahweh, Moses and the Stiff-Necked People
“God Commands Those in Chaos”
July 28, 2019
The 10 Commandments are a gracious gift from God for our own well-being.
Many years ago, during my first call out of seminary,
I was the one at the church who would receive persons who knocked on the door
because they were experiencing some sort of need.
Being fresh out of years of seminary and having worked only part-time in churches,
I had a bit of experience with this sort of counseling, but needed some help.
Though I had been on urban mission trips and spent nights in homeless shelters,
I needed some tools in order to engage in more fruitful conversations,
so I registered for a pastoral care seminar in Williamsburg, Virginia.
The conference was titled something like Pastoral Care in Times of Crisis.
I will never forget two things I learned in those sessions in Williamsburg.
First, they taught us that, in a crisis situation, a counselor has the permission to be a bit more
Most of the time, pastoral counselors will seek to help someone come to their own conclusions
about what they need to do or say, but when in a dire crisis,
sometimes a person needs the counselor to become more directive.
You could say that Yahweh, through the leader Moses, was directive to the Hebrew people
in the midst of the crisis of wilderness wandering.
The second thing I remember is the method they taught us to get people thinking
about how they might improve their own situation.
They taught us to ask: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the worst it has ever been in your life
and 10 being the best it has ever been, where are you today?
This is a question worth considering, probably for all of us.
When I experimented with this method, I remember distinctly being surprised by people’s answers.
One genuinely positive gentleman, who did not happen to know where his next meal would come from
or where he might lay his head down that night, answered “Oh, about a 7 or 8!”
Another person, a middle-aged woman, who was feeling very alone in life that day, uttered “maybe
1.5”. I will never forget the pained look on her face.
Even so, the seminar instructed us to ask persons next:
“What would it take to move one point, or even half a point, up on that scale?”
So if someone answered “3”, I would ask them: What would it take to get to 3.5 or a 4?
As people considered that question, I was shocked how often people’s entire countenance would
When they began considering seriously the proposition of one small thing they could do
to improve their situation, their minds would kick into gear, their faces would light up,
they would hold their heads and their shoulders at a different angle.
I was amazed at how such a simple question could turn someone’s day around.
When the Hebrew tribes were wandering in the wilderness, they were most certainly in crisis.
They had just escaped slavery in Egypt. They had left long term homes and everything familiar.
They were wandering in the wilderness without enough to eat and often low on water.
All their settled ways had been disrupted, and they were caring for their children and their elderly
in far less than ideal circumstances. They needed direction. They needed hope.
They were beginning to lose perspective and spin out of control.
They complained again and again to Moses.
They even formed a “Go back to Egypt Committee” and cried out that they would be better off
going back into the shackles of slavery than to die out there in the wilderness.
As the book of Exodus tells us: God heard their pleas. God heard their cries.
God saw their chaos and confusion, and God gave them instructions to follow…
so that it would go well with them, so that they would forge a covenant community,
even in the wilderness.
God spoke to Moses high on the mountain, giving him simple, yet profound community expectations
that, if the people would follow them well, it would go well with them even beyond the wilderness,
in the ages to come, in the land where they would finally settle,
and even in the dispersion to other lands generations later.
But, if the people would not follow these commandments, it would not go well for them,
either there in the wilderness or even until this very day.
These 10 Commandments, taught by Moses to the Hebrews in the wilderness over 3000 years ago,
are still being recited to this day as foundational for stable and healthy and even holy community life.
Hear the Word of God from Exodus 20:1-17
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above,
or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to
them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity
of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love
to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God,
for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work.
But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you,
your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your
For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them,
but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land
that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife,
or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God
When Jesus walked among his disciples upon the earth,
he embodied not only the first, having no other gods, but all the rest of the Ten Commandments.
By his words and deeds, he ushered in a kingdom in which the intention of these commandments
would be fulfilled. Jesus told us that he came not to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill them.
As you may remember, Jesus summarized all of the laws regarding human life.
First and foremost, in all of life, put God first.
Jesus taught that the first and greatest commandment is: “Love the Lord your God with all your
heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.”
And all the rest of our complicated, complex lives tend to fall in line as we do so.
The only way to love God with all of one’s heart is to put God first,
to have God be our first thought, our first goal, our first priority, our first commitment,
before anyone and everything else.
Consider your answer to the question I asked earlier.
If I were to ask, on a scale from 1 to 10, with one being the worst and 10 being the best it has ever
been, where are you today? How would you answer?
And if I were to ask you how you might move up just one point or even half a point on that scale,
I would surmise that moving up on that scale would have something to do with putting God first,
or with loving your neighbor…something to do, likely, with one of these 10 commandments.
Someone once asked: If you are feeling any brokenness in life, which commandment has been
What is the sin that needs to be confessed?
Someone said that we cannot possibly break the Ten Commandments,
but we can certainly break ourselves upon them.
The security, the well-being, the common good we share as a covenant community
with God and with neighbor depends wholly upon commonly held expectations for human behavior.
Not murdering, not stealing, not committing adultery, not bearing false witness….
No matter where the location, no matter what type of community,
whenever someone breaks any of these commandments, community life is affected,
the well-being of society is threatened, and consequences will follow.
The commandments are a gift, a gift of divine wisdom regarding how human beings
must live before God and one another. If taken seriously and obeyed more closely,
our harried, fearful, violent world would be transformed in short order.
If we just started with the first commandment, many of the problems of life would dissipate.
“I am the Lord your God,” Yahweh declared. “I brought you out of slavery…”
I have chosen you, you did not choose me.
I AM your God – no matter if anything else in your life competes for your loyalty,
I AM what I am, I am what I will be, I AM.”
We may not talk about how we are tempted by and serve other “gods”,
but we do talk a lot about our “priorities” and our “commitments.”
To what or whom are you most deeply committed with your time and your resources?
Make a quick review of your calendar and your checking account and you will see your priorities.
Who or what takes first priority in your life?
Who or what do you consider first when making a decision?
Has this commitment or this person become your god?
Martin Luther surmised that:
“Whatever thy heart clings to and relies upon, that is properly thy god.”
Jack Redhead, long-time minister in Greensboro, NC,
said that the best answer he ever found was this: “your god is what you live for.”
Your god is what gives you the motivation to get up in the morning
and what spurs you on to do what you do during the day.
(John A. Redhead, Uncommon Common Sense, 1997, p. 17)
In recent years, it seems that some people think of them as a set of out-dated rules
which fence them in and limit their freedom.
Others have simply come to regard them not as “commandments”,
but more as “suggestions” that are “nice…if you’re into that kind of thing”.
Many others have simply forgotten the Ten Commandments altogether!
But the truth of it is, this list of what we are to do and not to do in our relationship with God
and other persons remains one of the greatest, most succinct gifts of wisdom
humankind has ever received.
The commandments begin, “I am the Lord your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
you shall have no other gods before me.”
What is it that you live for? What makes you get up in the morning?
What gives you the motivation to do what you do?
Some folks live for themselves; they cling to and rely upon themselves alone.
What a frustrated, lonely, anxious life it will finally be when one always put oneself
before others, when one makes every decision based upon what good it will do for me,
or how it will fulfill my desires!
Some folks live for family, and that is good and well and wholesome, but your family is not God.
What happens when your family is gone?
Or what happens when the priorities or expectations or demands of your family
do not meet the needs of your soul or lead you down a path that may be good, but is not best?
Some live for material things. They seek to satisfy themselves with consumption,
That hunger is never quenched, the thirst remains amidst a pile of objects.
Some live for their career or their business, and that is understandable,
for the Lord gives us work to do and the ability to do it;
and there is honor in working hard and being beneficial to society.
But what happens when the business fails or the company lays you off?
What happens when you climb to the top of the ladder
only to find that it was leaning against the wrong wall?
What happens when you spend so much of your time and effort on your work
that you forget who you are, you forget whose you are, and what you value most in life?
Yes, take good care of yourself, love and serve your family, work hard in your career,
give your time and energy in service to others,
but do so out of your devotion to God, not instead of your devotion to God.
The only one worth your complete and total devotion is the good and gracious God
who made himself known in Jesus Christ,
who delivered us from slavery to sin, from the bondage of sin and fear of death.
Many have said that if we get the first commandment right, the rest tend to fall into place.
If we have no other gods before our one true God,
we tend not to break ourselves upon the other commandments.
It is perhaps ironic that we come to the 10 Commandments this week,
the week in which many of us witnessed historic testimony during a congressional hearing.
As I witnessed excerpts from the testimony, I kept remembering the non-partisan words of Jesus
“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
It is challenging that we speak of the 10 Commandments this week,
this day on which we gather to discuss how a community might respond
when certain individuals among us have no roof over their heads at night.
How do we follow the intention of Jesus’ summary of the law:
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
It is fruitful that we discuss the 10 Commandments this weekend,
speaking of worshiping God, keeping Sabbath, and honoring parents,
on a weekend in which our young parents have been discussing
how to nurture faith and love in the children among us.
Perhaps the most helpful reminder of all is the Golden Rule that Jesus taught:
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Note that this is NOT the Silver Rule, which says:
“Do not do unto others what you do not want them to do unto you.”
Another way of saying the Silver Rule is “do no harm”, and many people live by that word.
But the Golden Rule and the force of the first commandment is not simply to avoid bad behavior,
but to “do” that which is pleasing to God, which of course includes loving God
with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church