|The Sixth Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| July 3, 2016| Exodus 20:1-17|
And God spoke all these words, saying: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me. 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 nor 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 fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments. 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. “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it. Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which 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 neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”
It is good to turn our attention to the ten words of God spoken to Moses on Mt. Sinai for the ancient nation of Israel as we prepare to celebrate the birthday of the United States of America. Tomorrow we celebrate 240 years of independence. God bless America! How often we Americans pray this simple prayer? But do we Americans understand how and why God will bless the land we love?
Some Americans think that God will bless America because she is America. They talk about American exceptionalism. America is the last great hope of mankind, a shining city on a hill. Some have seen America as the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth. In her famous hymn, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, the Unitarian Julia Ward Howe gave voice to the popular belief that America’s cause is God’s cause. She saw the Union invasion of the South as the glory of the coming of the Lord.
But God is not an American. America has no special covenant with God. America is not God’s chosen nation. The church is. Speaking to all Christians everywhere, St. Peter writes,
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
America is not God’s holy nation. The nation of Israel that is located on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea is not God’s holy nation. The holy Christian Church is God’s holy nation.
Nevertheless, the words that God spoke to ancient Israel, the words that we call the Ten Commandments, are words that will bless every nation that follows them. God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses for Israel. We read:
And God spoke all these words, saying: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”
God didn’t bring the United States of America out of the land of Egypt where they were slaves. He delivered the ancient nation of Israel, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, from slavery in Egypt that they had endured for four hundred years. The Ten Commandments were given specifically to that nation. No nation can legislate anything better than what God personally wrote on tablets of stone for Moses to give to Israel.
The Ten Commandments are divided into two tables. The first table is the first three commandments. They teach you to love God above all things. The second table is the next seven commandments. They teach you to love your neighbor as yourself. The Ten Commandments were given to ancient Israel and applied specifically to that nation, but they also reflect God’s permanent moral law that applies to all nations. God has written this law into nature and the conscience. We call it the natural law. The Ten Commandments are the best summary of God’s natural law ever written. God promised Israel he would bless them if they obeyed his law. God will bless any nation that does.
We need to learn to distinguish between God’s law and his gospel. The law promises blessing to those who obey it. The gospel promises blessing to those who believe it. God blesses the church for the sake of the gospel. She is born from above. She is washed in the blood of the Lamb. She is forgiven of all her sins. She is filled with the Spirit. She is clothed in the blood-bought robe of Christ’s righteousness. She doesn’t do anything to be blessed. She receives the blessing through faith and through faith alone. The gospel rules the kingdom of God, the people of God, the Israel of God, that is, the Holy Christian Church. Christ rules over the kingdom of God. He rules over us by rescuing us from our sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.
But the gospel does not rule the nations of this world. God rules the nations by his law. God doesn’t bless America because she is America. The blessings God promises in his law he promises to those who obey it. If America wants God’s blessing, she must obey God’s law. If America wants to lose God’s blessing, all she needs to do is to defy God’s law.
In applying the Ten Commandments to the United States, the first thing we notice is that since the Constitution of the United States guarantees the freedom of religion, it guarantees the rights of people to disobey the first three commandments. If someone wants to worship a false god, the Constitution guarantees his right to do so. Christians in America must reckon with this. Even if many of the founders of our country were Christians, they adopted a Constitution that guarantees the religious rights of idolaters and blasphemers. We don’t object to this because it also protects our right to preach and confess the truth of God’s holy Word and to practice our religion.
While America has never legislated from the first table of the Ten Commandments, it has based its laws on the second table of the Ten Commandments. Let’s take a look at the second table:
Honor your father and your mother.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house or anything that is your neighbor’s.
Consider the wisdom of these commandments. The Fourth Commandment, requiring that we honor father and mother, protects the sanctity of the home, grounding all human authority in the authority of fathers and mothers where it belongs, not in the authority of some distant despot or group of experts who can dictate to fathers and mothers how to raise and educate their own children. When the civil authorities undermine parental authority they undermine their own legitimacy.
The Fifth Commandment, forbidding murder, protects human life – all human life – from harm. Therefore, it is the duty of the government to protect human life, especially the lives of those least able to protect themselves. To grant women the so called right to have their unborn babies killed is a rejection of the Fifth Commandment.
The Sixth Commandment protects marriage which is the lifelong union of one man and one woman. When the state adopts “no fault divorce” and refuses to penalize adultery and reward marital fidelity and when the state claims that the union of two members of the same sex is marriage, the state rejects the Sixth Commandment.
The Seventh Commandment protects private property. God gives the government the authority to levy taxes to pay for government services. He does not give the government the authority to play God by socialistic schemes to redistribute wealth. That’s stealing. The whole world belongs to him who made it. To steal from your neighbor is to steal from God.
The Eighth Commandment protects our reputation. We Americans pride ourselves in our right to free speech and a free press. But no one has the right to bear false witness against his neighbor. People think it is perfectly acceptable when politicians trash the reputations of their political opponents.
Defiance of God’s law is not acceptable. God blesses those who obey his law. When a nation – its leaders and its people – turns away from God’s law it turns away from God’s blessing. Some years ago the pastor of a presidential candidate was found to have said in a sermon, “God damn America.” The outcry was so great that the candidate had to dissociate himself from that preacher. After all, what a thought! God wouldn’t damn America! I mean, we’re America!
Yes. We’re America. And America needs to repent. Listen to what Jesus said, recorded in Luke 13,
And Jesus answered and said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.”
God blesses and God punishes. No nation is above the law. The law indicts us all. It accuses. It condemns. It punishes. Nobody can claim its blessings unless he meets its demands. Jesus said:
For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
America needs to repent. So do we. The Ten Commandments require more than outward obedience. They require a pure heart. They require that we love our neighbors as ourselves. We haven’t loved as God demands. We are guilty. We deserve God’s punishment. We need a righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. We need that perfect righteousness that passes God’s test. We need Christ.
America needs Christ, not as a lawgiver who will establish a legally imposed peace upon the nations, but as the law-obeyer whose holy obedience satisfies all of God’s demands on us. No kingdom of this world will stand in the Day of Judgment. Christ’s kingdom is forever. Those who are condemned by the Ten Commandments, who confess their sin to God, and trust in the obedience and suffering of Jesus for them, belong to this eternal kingdom. When all nations – even the America we love – lie in dust and ashes, the kingdom of Christ will remain. It will always be that shining city established on the hill of Calvary. Sinners of every family, language, people, and nation belong. In that kingdom they have the righteousness of the LORD our righteousness. They have forgiveness of sins, peace with God, protection from the evil one, and the sure and certain hope of everlasting life. When Christ has shattered all the kingdoms of the world like pottery, his kingdom will remain. Blessed is everyone who takes refuge in him!