A couple years ago, I was in Tombstone Arizona. It’s a tiny little town in Southeast Arizona. It’s famous for something that happened back in 1881– and is something of a tourist attraction because of it. Can anybody tell me what happened that made Tombstone famous? That’s right. The shootout at the OK Corral. Wyatt Earp. Doc Holiday. The shoot out lasted all of 30 seconds.
As I said, it’s a tourist attraction. And as Nancy and I were driving into Tombstone, we passed a church. I just had to get a picture of this church. So I turned the car around and – well – take a look.
An honest to goodness cowboy church. Actually, I’ve since discovered that there are quite a number of churches in the Southwest with the name “cowboy” in them. There’s one in Apache Junction, AZ called “Heavenly Roundup Cowboy Church.” I kinda like the name!
Well – sometime back – I came across something called, “A Cowboy Ten Commandments.” Now, these Cowboy Ten Commandments are not connected to these Cowboy churches I’ve just talked about. At least not as far as I know. But I thought you might enjoy hearing how a cowboy might interpret what we know as the Ten Commandments. It goes like this: First commandment: 1. Just one God. 2. Put nothin’ before God. 3. Git yerself to Sunday meeting. 4. Honor yer Ma and Pa. 5. No killin’. 6. No foolin’ aroun’ with another fellow’s gal. 7. Don’t take nothin’ what ain’t yers. 8. No tellin’ tales or gossipin’. Watch yer mouth. 9 and 10. Don’t be hankerin’ for yer buddy’s stuff.
So in addition to the Cowboy Ten Commandments, the Ten Commandments can also be found in two different books of the Old Testament. Our reading today from the Book of Exodus is one of those places. The other is in the book of Deuteronomy.
When we think about the Ten Commandments, we almost always think about them as laws or rules that need to be obeyed. The problem is – I don’t know anybody who’s ever been able to come close to doing that.
Can the Ten Commandments inform us of what proper conduct for the Christian ought to be? Certain behaviors shall we say? Do this. Don’t do that. Well – that depends. Is that their purpose? You see – there is a great danger in preaching a sermon that says, “This is how Christians should or ought to behave.” There is great danger in that kind of preaching. There is no good news in a sermon like that. You’re asking me to do something that I cannot possibly do. AND, that kind of preaching paints a picture of God as someone who comes across as an angry judge – just waiting – just waiting for us to step out of line. But that’s not the image the Scriptures give us of who God is.
On the other hand, when sermons talk about the love of God only, and how that love of God showed itself in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – if that’s all we hear – then we are left with a question – “Okay, I’m loved by God, I know I’m forgiven, I know I will go to heaven someday, but what do I do in the meantime? How then shall I live?”
We who are preachers – strive to maintain some kind of balance between the two. And that’s a good thing. Most preachers I know – and for good reason – we usually focus our sermons on the proclamation of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.
But sometimes, we also need to hear what the scriptures have to say about doing the right thing. Since you and I are ambassadors of Jesus Christ – what we believe – what we think – what we say – and what we do – these things do matter.
So how do we strike some kind of balance with God’s Word when God’s Word comes to us as both Law and Gospel? There is a difference between Law and Gospel. And if you’ve ever attended one of my new member classes, you know what that difference is. But let’s do a quick review anyway.
The Law – as represented by our reading from Exodus today – the Ten Commandments – the Law lets us know when, where, and how we’ve messed up. When, where and how we’ve sinned. You see, the Ten Commandments aren’t given to us so much as rules to be obeyed. Because you’re never going to be able to do that. But when we sin – when we mess up – we know we’ve done wrong because the Law – the Ten Commandments – tells us so. And when the Law convicts me of something that I’ve said or done wrong – I’ve lied or cheated or stolen – that’s how I know I’ve done wrong. So the Law can never make me a good person. The Law can only tell me when, where, and how I’ve messed up. It points the finger and accuse. What the Law is really good at doing is telling me what a poor miserable sinner I am.
But there is a second thing that the Law does – and that is to drive me to my knees in repentance. That’s when I know that I need to come to my Savior Jesus Christ for forgiveness. Because when I’ve sinned – when I’ve messed up – when the Law points its finger at me – that’s when I need to remember that there is also Good News. The Gospel – the Good News – tells me that I am forgiven.
So God’s Word comes to us as both Law and Gospel. The Law condemns and the Gospel – the Good News – saves.
When I first met Nancy nearly 37 years ago – we met at a worship and music conference in Columbus, Ohio. She was a pastor – I was an occasional church musician. But at that conference was an elderly theologian. Well. He was younger then than I am now – but he looked old to me. Hey! I was 26. His name was George Forrell, and he had this lovely German accent. And I’ll never forget this – he said, “If you do not understand the difference between Law and Gospel – you should strangle your pastor!”
You understand the difference between Law and Gospel? Yes? Okay, good. Whew!
So – since we are forgiven sinners – how then shall we live? What are we to do? How do we who have heard the Good News of God’s love and forgiveness – who have heard the message that Jesus Christ died for sinners – is raised from the dead – and because he lives we shall live also – what then are we to do? How then shall we live? I’m talking about something more than just having good manners. I’m talking about making a difference – about being light in somebody else’s darkness – I’m talking about living our lives for the sake of the neighbor – and in the name of Jesus Christ.
One of the ways – or at least it seems to me to be so – one of the ways to overcome the spirit of rudeness and the lack of civility – heck – to resist temptations that led us away from God and the person God wants us to be, is to understand the Ten Commandments as a gift from God – as a gift of God’s love and grace.
In order to live in harmony with the people around you – in order to live in harmony with the communities we find ourselves in – school – work – church – the street where you live – the places where communities exist – we need to know how to live in harmony. God gave us the Ten Commandments not to take all the fun out of life – not to give us reason to live in fear – fear of breaking any one of the Ten Commandments – but what living in harmony with other people looks like. So, you’re not going to be taking other people’s stuff, and they’re not going to be taking yours. You’re not going to be tellin’ tales or gossipin’. The Ten Commandments show us what the ideal community looks like.
So, more than laws and rules to be followed, the Ten Commandments are our opportunity to show love and care and concern to our neighbor – and what that is going to look like. Kind of reminds me of something that Jesus said. Something we say around here all the time. And most of you knew this was coming.
Jesus summarized the Ten Commandments when he told us, “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Thanks to Jesus, the Ten Commandments are boiled down to two. And two is easier to remember than ten!
In essence, the Ten Commandments are all about loving God and loving our neighbor. And let that love be genuine. Let it be real. Just remember that the Ten Commandments were given to us by God as a gift. They were given to show us how to live in community. So let me close with the words of Henri Nouwen. Listen!
“All people are searching for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear, and where community can be found.” The Ten Commandments show us what that looks like.
And isn’t that what you’re looking for? Isn’t that what you really want? And don’t you think that that is exactly what others are looking for too? Life without fear. A place where true community is found.
That’s what the commandments point us to. That’s what they’re all about. Amen