Third Sunday in Lent

Trinity,MattoonExodus 20:1-17,Romans 7:13-25, Psalm 19:7-14


When I visited England for the first time in 2005, I was able to see firsthand something that I knew about but had never witnessed. If a church was built or renovated in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, there’s a good chance that it has three texts engraved or painted or stenciled onto the east wall: the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. These were the three basic items that the Prayer Book required the parish priest to instruct children in, and generations of Anglican candidates for confirmation were required to learn them by heart. So it was deemed appropriate that they be given a symbolically prominent place in the house of worship. Much, much earlier, in the third and fourth and fifth centuries, these three texts became known as the “symbols of faith,” and they were solemnly delivered—that is, declaimed orally—to baptismal candidates only in the final Lenten season preceding their baptism at the Easter Vigil. Of course, as Anglicans, the Decalogue—the Ten Commandments—is an important part of our ‘DNA.’ The practice is now quite rare, but for a long, long time, every celebration of the Eucharist began with the priest announcing each of the ten commandments, and the people responding each time, “Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law.” Actually, the church I attended just last Sunday did exactly that.

Incline our hearts to keep this law. This petition is revealing. It’s an acknowledgement that, left to our own devices, our hearts would not be inclined to “keep this law.” Mention the phrase “law and order” these days, and most people will think of a popular set of TV shows. In my teen and young adult years, it was a political slogan, and referred to a perceived need to “get tough on crime.” The notion of “law,” actually, finds its way into every corner of our lives. Sometimes we think of it favorably, when we see it as protecting our interests against those who would do us harm. Sometimes it seems just plain stupid, sending teenagers to jail for 25 years after a first-time drug offense while letting murderers and rapists get out after ten. At other times, the law really cramps our style and brings us down, for no good reason that is immediately apparent to us.

But whatever our attitude toward the law is, the fact that our hearts are often not inclined to keep it is a sign of our slavery—our involuntary servitude—not to the law, but to the impulses that incline our hearts away from keeping the law. St Paul puts it eloquently, writing to the Romans of an experience we can all identify with: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Comedian Flip Wilson made a career for himself in the late 1960s with one line: “The devil made me do it.” Actually, in some respects, St Paul might agree with him. Flip Wilson felt coerced. St Paul felt enslaved. This is a universal human condition. The devil made me do it. True enough. But what is “it”? How do we know that we have fallen short, or done wrong, or failed to do something we should have done? How do we know where the boundaries are?

It’s no accident that the Ten Commandments were given to Moses, and then delivered by Moses to the people of Israel, while they were still in the process of being set free from slavery. Before their middle-of-the-night departure from Egypt, and their procession between the piled-up waters of the Red Sea, the Israelites had been slaves. The whips of their Egyptian overseers set all the boundaries they needed. They knew what was in bounds and what was out of bounds, because straying out of bounds led to a lash across the back. Now they were en route to becoming a free people. In order to prepare them for the responsibilities of freedom, the Lord gave them the Law.

Now, we could be forgiven for thinking that this sounds more than a little bit ironic. Here they are, casting off “Pharaoh’s bitter yoke,” getting ready to taste freedom in the Promised Land that God was leading them to, and suddenly they’re saddled with law?! What’s that about? Actually, giving them the Law was the most merciful and compassionate action God could have taken toward his people at that point in their journey. They were well aware of what they had been set free from. They had been set free from the designs of a ruler who was both wicked and fearful—a terrible combination that leads only to tyranny. They had been set free from an awful physical burden of forced labor. They had been set free from a virtual sentence of genocide, since their newborn male children were being systematically slaughtered. They knew well what they had been set free from.

We also know what we are enslaved to, and from what we are set free in Christ. We are enslaved to desires that cannot be fulfilled. We are enslaved to diseases that cannot be cured. We are enslaved to dysfunction that we cannot find a way out of. We are enslaved to death that threatens to render everything we do in our lives meaningless. This is what we are enslaved to, and this is what God liberates us from through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

The Israelites knew what they had been set free from, and we know what we are being set free from. But they, and we, are less clear on what we are set free for. This is where the Law comes to our rescue. The Law tells us what God saves us for. The Law defines for us that which we could otherwise not distinguish. The Law enables us to see that which we would otherwise be blind to. “You shall have no other gods before me…You shall not make for yourself a graven image”—in other words: no idols. The first and second commandments, therefore, free us to love and serve the only true and living God. They discharge us from any obligation to other “gods” that might compete for our attention and affection—gods like wealth, health, success, and fame.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” The third commandment frees us to let God be in charge of who is cursed and who is blessed; it lets God be the judge and liberates us from that responsibility. We don’t have to invoke God’s name to curse the driver who cut us off in traffic on the way to church today; God will sort that out, along with everything else.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The fourth commandment, by telling us to rest regularly, frees us from defining ourselves by our work. It liberates us, rather, to find our identity not in what we do, but in who we are.

“Honor your father and your mother.” The fifth commandment frees us to acknowledge and strengthen family ties; to recognize the family as a microcosm of the church, and an expression of the communitarian life of the Blessed Trinity

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