18th Week after Pentecost Year A
The people of Israel lived as slaves in Egypt for four hundred and thirty years before God set them free. Once free, they got away as quickly as they could. When they got to the Red Sea, God parted the waters and allowed them safe passage to the other side. This cleared the way for their long journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
To guide them, God gave them a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; and to feed them, God sent manna from heaven and water from the rock. After wandering for about three months in the wilderness, the Israelites came to the foot of Mount Sinai, which, if you’ve ever been to the Sinai Peninsula, is in the middle of nowhere.
And, when you think about it, this is where we often encounter God – wherever we happen to be, when we least expect it. As often as not, God comes to us in the middle of nowhere.
Moses left the people at the foot of Mount Sinai and climbed to the top to talk with God. A few hours later he came back all out of breath: “Good news,” he said, “God’s coming to meet us!” Some of the people asked Moses: “What does God look like? How will we recognize Him?”
And Moses answered, “Oh, you can’t see God. He’s covered by a thick cloud.” The people looked at each other and thought to themselves: If God’s covered by a thick cloud, how do you know if it’s really God? But they didn’t say anything. They just kept quiet, at least for now.
On the third day, Moses had all the people get up bright and early and line up at the foot of Mount Sinai to wait for God to appear. You should’ve seen them – men, women and children all lined up in rows, the little ones at the front, the taller ones at the back. Some of the parents put their children up on their shoulders so they could see. Sure enough, the whole mountain was covered by a thick cloud. Up above they could see great flashes of lightning and hear the clamor of what sounded like a thunderstorm.
Moses stood in front of the people, clearly excited, waiting for God to appear. All of a sudden, before anyone knew what was happening, Moses started speaking to God, and, evidently, God started speaking to Moses. Why, it was unbelievable – Moses’ standing there shouting at the mountain at the top of his lungs. The people looked at each other in amazement. They couldn’t quite believe what was happening, because what Moses took to be the voice of God was plainly to them … the sound of thunder!
And that’s a problem. I mean, what would you do if you were camped in the middle of nowhere and your fearless leader was standing in front of you and there was a thunderstorm going on, and he said that the thunder was God Almighty speaking to him?
Well, I’ll tell you. The people of Israel didn’t do anything. They didn’t have time to. Because before they could say, “Jiminy Cricket,” Moses took off running. He ran up the little trail leading to the top of the mountain and disappeared into the cloud. Meanwhile, the people just stood at attention. They were afraid to move. Nobody knew what to do.
It seemed like hours before Moses came down out of the clouds. Then, all of a sudden, he reappeared – just like that. He came down the hillside running as fast as he could, shouting at the top of his lungs, “Everybody, come at once. Come and listen to what God just told me.”
The people gathered around Moses to hear what he had to say. They listened as Moses blurted out what God had told him up on the mountain. “God has revealed to me the secret of life!” he panted, trying to catch his breath. “And it’s so simple! Ten Commandments. That’s it. That’s all there is to it,” he said. “Abide by these Ten Commandments, and you’ll have life!”
Gods come in different sizes. Today’s lesson from the Hebrew scriptures asks us to consider what kind of God we serve.
We are wrong if we see our time as one with a shortage of belief. There is no shortage today. There is considerable belief, today as always, in gods that are no gods, in gods that are too small. These small gods are potent, however; they reduce the stature of whomever worships them.
The Ten Commandments, those laws God gives to Israel through Moses, constitute a series of warnings against the most popular of the small gods. For example, the Sabbath commandment warns us against the small god of Work, whose worshippers– and they are numerous– resort to frenetic activity in order to feel they have a right to exist.
The commandment against murder warns us against making our enemy into a small god, for strangely enough, that is what happens when hate comes to run our life, and our opponent becomes our obsession.
The commandment against coveting warns us, on the other hand, against making our neighbor into a small god, for that is what happens when we regard our neighbor’s possession, our neighbor’s lifestyle, as somehow indispensable for our existence.
The Ten Commandments are not simply law in the conventional sense, concerned with what is right and wrong. These commandments are about loyalty, our loyalty to the one true God, rather than to small gods of our own devising.
None of the small gods can give us life. All they do is imprison us. What the commandments warn us against–hatred and covetousness and falsehood and all the rest–are the traps set for us by these small gods.
It is from these traps that the one true God ventures to set us free! He rescued his people from slavery in Egypt in the time of Moses. He raised up Jesus from the grip of death on the first Easter morning. And this same God strives to deliver you and me from the narrow prison house, the hell on earth that happens, when we stumble into the trap of some strange god. Yes, the only true God has come to set us free. Thanks be to God!