Sunday, July 06, 2008

Peace in Unpeaceful Places

[Excerpts from this morning's sermon]

God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai which is somewhere in the desert between Egypt and Canaan. The giving of God’s law happens between the place of slavery under foreign power in Egypt and the giving of land and control to the Israelites in Canaan. The place of Mt. Sinai and the giving of the law is not insignificant. God’s law is given outside of the context of any human control or authority. Laws and rules work in our society and with our children because we are somehow able to enforce them through our authority. God’s laws, however, are not given through any institution. Samuel Balentine writes this of the location of Mt. Sinai. “[T]he location of Sinai is finally indeterminate; it lies in the wilderness somewhere between Egypt and Canaan. This elusiveness functions in [the Hebrew] tradition as a symbol of both Yahweh’s freedom and Yahweh’s authority. Like Sinai, Yahweh’s authority is not confined by, indeed may stand in opposition to, the sovereignty claimed by any earthly kingdom.” The authority of God’s law in the Old Testament ultimately lies in the presence of God alone.
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It is God’s presence then that becomes important for understanding the Ten Commandments and how they might lead towards peace. If peace is to be found in God’s presence then it can only be experienced in a place like Sinai, in a place outside boundaries of human power and authority. This is why right after the Ten Commandments and other laws were given we read that God called Moses up to the mountain again were he was given instructions on how to build the Tabernacle. God says, “Make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them.” And in the heart of the Tabernacle was the Holy of Holies where there was an empty space reserved for God. God said, “There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of Testimony, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites. The Tabernacle functioned as a sort of portable Mt. Sinai. The people of God were always to carry with them a space reserved for God alone; a space that was not influenced or controlled by any individual or group.
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What then does the law have to do with peace? We often assume that following these commands will lead to peace within ourselves and peace with our neighbours. There is an extent to which that is true. But if we look at the structure of this passage something more significant emerges. We find that the people witnessing this event on either end of the Ten Commandments are trembling with fear. As God meets Moses on the mountain the people witness smoke, fire, thunder, lighting and earthquakes. The people are not yet prepared to enter the presence of God and so they roped off at the foot of the mountain. Then after Moses brings the Ten Commandments to the people it says that “when the people saw the thunder and lightening and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled in fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’” When God’s commands come to us they shake our foundations. They search out our thoughts and actions sitting in judgment on them. They force us into confrontation with our neighbour as we attempt to throw down the idols within and around us. If they are allowed into us these commands leave us trembling, vulnerable and at the mercy of God. They leave us in the wilderness in the space of Mt. Sinai where no one can claim power and status. According to the text it is then, and only then, as we enter into the commands from either side, the commands to love God and to love our neighbour that we encounter something in the centre.
For those of you who were counting I have left out one commandment. It is at the centre of the commandments. It is at the place where the love of God and love of neighbour meet.

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour 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, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

This the heart of the commandments and the place of peace. This is where God is honoured and neighbour is loved. After the commands have searched us out and we have trembled before them as they overturned our idols and desires then we are able to receive peace from God and peace with all those who gather in this place. This is Sabbath. The place of peace is a place of the worship. We gather each Sunday so that in some real way we can enact and honour Sabbath and this way live at the heart of the commands. This was God’s call on Moses. God called Moses to lead a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; a kingdom not of kings and generals but of saints, a nation not ruled by war and economics but by right relationships with God.
As we leave from here we are called to overthrow the idols of our culture and undermine the national foundations of wealth and power. We leave knowing that as the Tabernacle was a portable place to live with God’s presence now our bodies are the temple of God’s Spirit. Our bodies carry the place where God met with Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Spirit searches us and shakes us until we let go of control and fear and misdirected desires. The Spirit moves in us so that others also might tremble as their idols are exposed. The Spirit empowers us so those who suffer under the powers and idols of the world may find rest. The Spirit carries us so that we might travel to heart of God. This is the place of Sabbath. This is the place of peace where are passions find fulfillment and our fears are healed. May we not be afraid at God’s commands for though they are often not peaceful they are indeed the way to peace.

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