The Ten Commandments Window
This sermon is part of a Lenten midweek series on our sanctuary stained-glass windows.
Text: Exod. 19:16-25, 20:1-21; Rom. 7:8-12, 19—8:3a; Gal. 3:23-27
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’ve never raised children, but I have trained dogs—pretty great dogs too, if I can say so. But I’m told that one of the keys to raising children is similar to training animals. That key is setting boundaries. Boundaries are important because they tell us where something goes from being safe to being dangerous. There are fences that that keep us from getting too close to ledges or high voltage. There’s a threshold—a boundary—for when medicine stops being healing and instead becomes a poisonous overdose. So too are there boundaries for when behavior stops being good and becomes harmful to ourselves or others. For instance, we’re all built with a desire for community: to be liked by others, to have people we can count on. That’s a good desire. God said that it was not good for Adam to be alone, so He created Eve. But when that desire to be liked, to belong, overwhelms everything else so that someone is willing to lie or slander, or sacrifice something that’s actually more important, then it goes from being a helpful, good behavior to a dangerous and harmful one. There’s a boundary there. The philosophers have called this the line between virtue and vice—when something stops being good, right, and salutary, and instead goes overboard with harmful consequences. So thriftiness becomes miserliness. Cautious becomes paralyzed by fear. Concern becomes nosiness. The line can sometimes be difficult to define, but that’s why we have philosophers and ethicists.
But we, the children of God, have boundaries set for us not by the thoughts of man, but by the Word of God. Our boundaries are set by God’s Law. His Law tells us where things are safe and where our behaviors become dangerous, where they help life thrive and where they undermine God’s gifts. God’s Law is our boundary.
This is what happened when the Lord gave the Law from Mt. Sinai. That’s the window for our consideration this evening. In it we see Moses holding the two stone tablets of the Law as he stands at a higher altitude than the rest of the Israelites. He has ascended the mountain to receive the Commandments from the Lord while the mountain was wrapped in fire and smoke. We can still see the clouds above Moses’ head as they’re clearing. He’s coming down the mountain to make the Law known to the Lord’s people. Above the clouds we see the image of the burning bush—the way in which the Lord first called Moses. Here the fire that burns the bush without consuming it serves as a reminder also of the fire that covered the mountain as Moses received the Law there. The boundaries for the Lord’s people—what was right, wrong, good, bad, clean, unclean, righteous, sinful—it was all about to be defined.
There was, of course, the literal boundary around the mountain. The Lord warned them, “Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.” If anyone was to touch the mountain, they were to be shot with arrows or stoned. It was off limits during this time when the Lord was descending to it. The mountain was cordoned off as being only for God’s holy use at that time. He was descending in glorious holiness, the likes of which would be too much for mortals to take. In the window, we can see the reaction of God’s people to this holiness, this recognition that God was truly present there. One man, on the left in the foreground, kneels and keeps his eyes cast down, away from the bright glory of the Lord. The man in front on the right is kneeling in prayer. All the figures are in a circle perimeter, separated from the elevation that Moses is standing on. The Lord is present and He has set apart the mountain for His use, so they will not cross the boundary His Word has set.
The Law itself would also set limits for Israel. They were to be noticeably different than the nations around them. They would be distinctive in the types of food they were and weren’t allowed to eat. Their fabrics would be different. Even someone passing by, sojourning in their land, would notice that these people were unlike any other people on earth. And God wanted it that way. He wanted them to be distinct, for it was from them that the Savior was to be born. The Law given on Sinai was not only a code of ethical behavior. It was also given to set Israel apart as a unique nation, different from everyone around them, the boundaries of their identity set up by God. So for example, they wouldn’t work on the Sabbath day, and would instead consecrate the day every week to rest in the Lord’s Word and promises. No other nation on earth had anything like that. Israel had the limits of their collective identity set.
And yes, the Law also draws boundaries for when behaviors become harmful. The 6th Commandment, the one about adultery, sets limits for healthy, beneficial sexuality. It’s a gift from God. He uses it to unite husband and wife. He brings new life into existence through it. It’s good, within the boundaries God has set for it. The same goes with the 7th Commandment about stealing—material goods are necessary in this life and given by God to individuals, but by no means are they to be taken wrongly. The 9th and 10th Commandments deal with coveting. We all want things; that’s unavoidable. We want things because we need them to live. But when that want grows out of proportion and we want what God has given others, or we want what God has made clear He’s not giving to us, then that want becomes coveting and is dangerous. These Commandments are good. We need the Law, the same way that doctors and nurses need to know prescriptions and dosages; the same way that we need to know the boundaries of power and sewer lines underground before we dig. That’s why when we break these Commandments it’s called a trespass—going over a line, crossing a boundary that we are not given to cross. This is the Law’s function. It shows us where the boundaries are, where the lines the Lord has set for us lie.
But it’s there that the Law need its own boundary. The Law can do nothing more than show us what is good and helpful or what is bad and harmful. It can only train us in those things, like a child learning right from wrong, how to treat people. But the Law can do no more than that. This is what St. Paul is talking about in our reading from Galatians. “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came.” It’s what he means in our Romans reading: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” The Law gives us boundaries. It marks the limits of Mt. Sinai. It defines us as God’s people. It says, “This is sin; that is not sin.” But the Law itself has limits to what it can do. It cannot promise to save us. It cannot give eternal life. It only has the power to say right or wrong.
But that’s where most go astray. Most try to be saved by the Law. Ancient Israel tried it in various forms. They tried going through the motions, fulfilling the letter of the law even while their hearts weren’t in it. They tried altering it, forgetting it, adding to it, ignoring the parts they didn’t like. They tried substituting it with their own rules. But none of those things could save. There was always the nagging feeling that they weren’t doing it perfectly enough. And they were right. They—and we—weren’t. Paul cried out, “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me.”
So he shouts, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” We also know it’s not enough. It’s a sore spot with us, that we’re not good enough to save ourselves, so we act offended when the fact is pointed out. But who will save us? Not ourselves. Not the Law. But “thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord!”
Christ will save us from this body of death, from this failure we have under the Law. Paul goes on, “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” Christ fulfills the Law in our place. That is to say, He walks every boundary, perfectly. He keeps from any trespass, and then He gives the credit to us. Then He fills those boundaries to bursting, like new wine in an old wineskin, so that now we don’t have limited, bounded holiness. Now we have infinite, unlimited, boundless righteousness in Him. God can’t be any more pleased with us than He already is in Jesus. We’ve not come to the boundary of Mt. Sinai with its threats of death. We’ve walked right into the temple precincts of Mt. Zion, the place of forgiving sacrifice.
The Law is still good and useful. It still shows us how to put our trust in God and it shows us the best ways to show fervent love for one another. That’s its role. But it cannot take on another role. It cannot take on the role of Savior. That role is already claimed by Someone. So we thank God for His Law. But even more, we thank Him for the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life that comes apart from the Law and only through Jesus Christ. In the name of Jesus, our only Savior. Amen.