Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Called to Obey


Last week I gave you an assignment.  Do you all remember what it was?  My point in asking isn’t to in any way embarrass you.  I just don’t want Immanuel Community Church to be one of the places in American life where you won’t find the Word of God.  If you didn’t bring a Bible with you Don offered you one as you came in.  You’re welcome to use those Bibles any week you want, but I like to occasionally highlight something that jumps out at me in my own copy, and that’s why I think it is more effective to have your own Bible with you.

When my children were small I occasionally had to tell them not to do something.  Their response was always, “Why?”  And my retort – which I now and forever repent of – was always, “I’m the Daddy, that’s why.”  Even a 2 year old wants to know why they’re being told to do something.  I was making an assumption.  My assumption was that just because this child was growing up in the Colegrove house, they would instantly appreciate my position as head of that house.  What I didn’t realize was that by saying it that way I was treating sons and daughters as if they were slaves. 

The House of Slavery explains nothing.  It doesn’t have to.  Obedience is never invited in the House of Slavery.  Compliance is insisted upon, and the punishment for disobedience is always severe.  That is where the children of Jacob had found themselves after over 200 years of having the regime in power tell them, “I’m the Daddy, that’s why.”

Not so in the House of Freedom.  In just 17 verses in Exodus 20 where God lays out the core of his Law, the law you must live by if you want to live in the house of Freedom.  The problem with how I was taught the Ten Commandments is that no one ever told me that, in Exodus 20, just as in Leviticus 19 and other places where God lays down the law, you will find the most remarkable and unexpected explanation. 

Before we can appreciate the explanation, let’s look at what it is God is telling us to do.

The Commandments break down, more or less evenly into three sections: Worship, Morality, and Ethics.  If this were a train, Worship would be the engine, Morality would be the passenger cars, and Ethics would be the Caboose.  They are all important.  Without the Engine, the train isn’t going anywhere.  Without Morality there will chaos in the passenger compartments, and without Ethics – the red tail lamps at the end of the train warning others on the track that another train is ahead -- society will break down into a series of lawless, hopeless train wrecks.

Let’s look at the four Commandments that have to do with worship. 

Commandment 1, in verse 3, is about Separation.   “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Another translation says, “You shall have no other gods beside me.”  I think that’s a little clearer.  Every square foot of the Middle East had its own regional god or goddess.  Sometimes there were many gods worshipped in an area.  So the idea that they were to worship in singularity and not ally themselves with the gods of the people where they were going is absolutely unique.   In Deuteronomy 6 God puts it this way, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”  God is one.  Worship God singularly.  There is no need to go looking for power anywhere else.   While this is a word for all Israel, it is a word for each believer.  The only way a people can worship god with all the heart, soul, and might is when each individual does it first.

Commandment 2, in verse 4 is about a word you probably don’t know if you didn’t grow up Roman Catholic.  But it is a good word: Genuflection.  The word means literally to “bow the knee”.  And isn’t that what true worship is?  But more than that, this commandment is about worship in community.

            “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

When a community comes together to worship it is only natural that they will want to have some focal point.  The early Christian church worshipped in the round, with a simple table in the center on which was nothing more than bread and wine.  They understood that they were invoking the presence of Christ, not just as guest at the table, but as the one who convenes the meal and the one who, in some mysterious way serves it to each and every believer.  But as time went on, and the church grew, the table was pushed against a wall and the people gathered facing the table.  The focal point became more and more ornate, as great murals and iconography on the walls behind and above the table more and more obscured the very simple thing that was being celebrated. 

If we are to worship in singularity, we must also worship in community, and that means worshipping a real presence rather than a carved idol.  If the key to the first commandment is that I must do this or we can’t; the key to the second commandment is that we must do this or I won’t.  The tone must be set by the whole community, or individual worshippers will begin to believe, wrongly, that there is some power in the altar or in the priest that isn’t present in the meal itself.

Commandment 3, beginning at verse 7 is about Proclamation
            “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.
            This is worship in witness.  Now, the command here is formed in the negative, but the idea is that when you step out the door of the church and away from community, you will continue to worship God actively in every arena of your life.   I think most of us have probably been taught that “taking the name of the Lord in vain” is the same thing as swearing.  To “take the name of the Lord” is to own his name.  It is to so fully associate yourself with the name of Jehovah God so that even your most casual acquaintance knows this is the name by which you live.  To take the name of the Lord in vain is to do so verbally, but not actively.   This is to speak the words but deny the power.  The greatest proclamation God has in the world comes from lives utterly changed because they took the name of the Holy One of God, because they took the name of Christ.  

So we are to worship God in Separation, in Genuflection, and in Proclamation.  There is also a specific Application God gives us to help us with all the rest.   It is at verse 8:
            Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”

This isn’t God trying to stop you from doing something.  This is God making you an offer.  If your boss at work was to tell you on a given Wednesday, right in the middle of the work week, to take the day off with pay, you’d do it, right?  And my guess is you’d be singing the praises of that boss all day.  Everywhere you went that day you’d probably mention it, “My boss gave me the day off – for no reason!” 

Now what would you think of your boss if he gave you a day off every week, just because he thought it was good for you?  I don’t mean that your boss would be asking you to move those hours somewhere else in your week so you were working 10 hours a day in 4 days rather than 8 hours a day in 5 days.  I mean that the boss just concludes that you will be a better, more grateful worker if he surprises you every week with a day off.  My guess is that your productivity on the other four days of the week would shoot up, and you’d probably get so much more done!  Also, your loyalty to that boss would be such that you’d probably never want to leave that job.

Well, long before there was any thought in the world of a Weekend, God came to the same conclusion.  He worked six days and then rested.  It would be healthy for his people to do the same.  Notice that it is the Christian Church that decided the Sabbath was not to be just a day of rest but rather a day of worship and service.  That’s not in the commandment.  In fact, most observant Jews today worship on Friday really before the Sabbath begins, just as evening approaches.  They set the Sabbath itself aside for rest, for the home study of Torah.     

Isn’t it strange that the application God gives us for worship is to give us the day off?  I don’t know about you, but knowing that makes me want to take the day off with him, with my whole heart.

Worship in Separation, Genuflection, Proclamation, and Application.  Do these simple things, God says, and you will build a strong relationship with me.

The next three commands, have to move much more quickly here, have to do with Morality.  Look at the way God frames this.  He begins with Family Morality. 

Family Morality
Commandment 5 says,
            Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.”
            Now there is no discussion here of what you should do if Mom and Dad were abusive, didn’t take care of you, or simply abandoned you.  Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City says that wisdom is knowing what to do in the 80% of life where the rules don’t apply.  But here God is telling us where family morality begins.  If the previous generation didn’t honor their father and mother, you should begin by living in such a way that the next generation will.  The great families I have known all practiced the simple habit of honor. 
            My son recently told us that he and his wife Alice have a long-range plan in mind: Since Alice’s parents are about 10 years older than Jama and me, Tim and Alice are planning on moving to Washington, DC at the point at which her parents will need the help of extended family around them, and then move back to wherever Jama and I are when our time comes.  Beth hasn’t yet established a family matrix of her own, and yet I’m quite sure her plans will also include honoring father and mother when the time comes. 
            As I quoted two weeks ago, “Love’s strength standeth in love’s sacrifice.”  And to build a strong family is to be other minded. 

Community Morality
After Family Morality comes Community Morality. 
            “You shall not murder.”
            Leviticus says “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  And in Mark 12:31 Jesus says there is no greater commandment than to Love God and Love your neighbor.
            There are lots of ways to murder a person, not all of them physical. 

Marital Morality
And finally, Marital Morality
            “You shall not commit adultery.
            As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled.”

Family Morality, Community Morality, Marital Morality.  If you practice these simple things, God says, you will build strong families.

The final three commands are about Ethics.  Here, God starts with the practical. 

Ethics of the Hand
            “You shall not steal,” he says.  Because of the context of what follows, the words, “from your neighbor” are implied here and understood.  “You shall not steal from your neighbor.”
            In Leviticus when God presents this same command he adds: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.
            In the smallest form, this is the reason why for years most churches have had food drives.  We collect canned goods – the gleanings of our harvest – and gather them together and offer them to the poor. 
            I want to tell you about someone who has applied this same principle to their business.  The people who own Northwood Garage, down on Rt. 4 where I live, have quietly let the pastors in town know that if we are aware of someone who needs a set of tires that will pass inspection, they will offer them free and mount them without question on the car of someone we send to them.  I don’t know whether these people are Christians or not.  But there is no question they have applied this ethic to their business.  So I can tell you that if you are looking for an honest, efficient, and knowledgeable mechanic, go to Northwood Garage.  This is someone you can trust because this is someone who has applied God’s Ethics to his business.
            This is Ethics of the HAND – doing with your hand what is Godly in society.

Ethics of the Mouth
The Ninth Command, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” is Ethics of the MOUTH.  In Leviticus the author adds that we should not lie to one another.  Let what you say to and about the people around you be true and gracious.  This will prevent gossip and slander of all kinds and will go a long way to giving you a fair and balanced understanding of the people and the world around you.

Ethics of the Heart
Finally, Ethics of the HEART
            “You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's.”
            This is the hardest one to get right because it is the only one that no one else sees.  James understands this when he writes, “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.  (James 4:1-3 ESV)
            God knows that wanting something you cannot have or haven’t earned will eat at your heart like a cancer until either it comes out in violence or kills you from the inside.

There it is, the core of God’s Law.  WORSHIP, MORALITY, ETHICS.  But even having a firm grasp on Worship, Morality, and Ethics can still leave you in the House of Slavery because, as I said at the outset, the difference between the House of Slavery and the House of Freedom is in the explanation.  We are Called to Freedom, and so we have to understand why we do these things. 

Here is God’s explanation of why.  You will find it throughout the reading from Leviticus 19 that was our Old Testament reading this morning, and you’ll also find it prominently here as the preface to Exodus 20.  God says,  “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the House of Slavery.”

This is not God saying, “I’m the Daddy, that’s why.”  It may sound that way at first.  “I am the Lord.”  “I’m the Daddy.”  Right?  But then he reminds us of something he wants us to reflect on.  It was he who “brought you out.”  Why does God want us to observe his commands?  Because he brought us out. 

The best moments I’ve ever had with God were always moments in which he either rescued me (usually from myself), or delivered me from some sin, or got me out of some kind of jam I was in.  When you were a small child do you remember either of your parents ever going to bat for you?  I do.  When I was in the third grade I was treated unjustly and embarrassed by one of the sixth grade teachers in front of a lunchroom full of my peers.   My father was the principal of another of the grammar schools in town, so when my mother wrote a letter to the principal of my school insisting I receive an apology, I’m sure she and Dad wondered if there would be political repercussions that could affect his career.  It made me feel so good that my parents had stood up for me that way.

God had written ten letters to Pharaoh on behalf of the people of Israel.  Water turned to blood, infestations of frogs, then of gnats, then flies, their livestock got sick and died, their people had boils on their bodies, there was thunder and hail, locusts, darkness, and then finally, the death of every first-born son in Egypt.  In all of these things God was saying to Pharaoh, “I’m the Daddy of Israel.”  “I am the Lord of these people.”  Ten plagues.  Ten letters to Pharaoh to redress wrongs.  Ten commands to Israel to set the bar for what is right.

What has God brought YOU out of?  Who was the master over you before you met the Lord?  Has God freed you from some enslavement?  If you are a Christian today you know that he has.  If you doubt his love or his ability to do what he says, I implore you to give him a try.  He wants to be your father.  He wants to lead you out of the House of Bondage and into his own house – the House of Freedom.   And if you already live in the House of Freedom but are still living like you were a slave, God has laid out for you ten ways you can claim what is rightfully yours as a child of the House of Freedom.    You are Called to Obey because you are now free to obey as a child of Freedom Himself.

Let’s Pray.

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