The Commandments of God for the people of God

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Sermon for Trinity 6

Exodus 20:1-17  +  Romans 6:3-11  +  Matthew 5:50-26

After God had performed His ten plagues against the Egyptians, after He had spared the Israelites from the destruction of the firstborn by providing the blood of the Passover Lamb to keep them safe, after the Lord God had led the nation of Israel safely through the parted waters of the Red Sea, He addressed the children of Israel from the fire and smoke of Mount Sinai and said to them: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Then He spoke the words of the Ten Commandments.

The Ten Commandments were the terms of entry into God’s kingdom. There they stood, posted over the gates. This is the deal, God said. You must agree to observe all these commandments with all your heart and to walk in them all your days. Then you can come in. Then I will be your God and you will be My holy people. And you will be a kingdom of priests before Me. And all the people said, “Amen! All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient.”  To seal this covenant between God and Israel, God told Moses to take the blood of an animal and to sprinkle it on the people. So he did. And he said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words.”

Ah, but it wasn’t as easy as the people imagined it would be. It’s easy to say you’ll go right ahead and keep the Ten Commandments. But to actually do it? To put them into practice every day? To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, as the first table of the Law especially requires? To love your neighbor as yourself, as the second table of the Law especially requires? No, that’s not so easy. In fact, it’s impossible.

Still, the scribes and Pharisees tried. They tried to be righteous enough to enter the kingdom of heaven. But in order to make it feasible for themselves, they had to dumb down the Ten Commandments. Ah, they said. It says you shall not murder. We’ll interpret that to mean that as long as we don’t kill another human being with our own hands, we’re keeping the Fifth Commandment. Likewise, it says you shall not commit adultery. We’ll interpret that to mean that, as long as a husband doesn’t have another woman on the side while he’s married, we’re keeping the Sixth Commandment. As long as we don’t walk too far on Saturday’s, we’re keeping the Third Commandment. As long as we give big offerings to the Temple, we’re keeping the Seventh Commandment, and so on.

But then Jesus comes along and warns His disciples: 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. Righteousness is absolutely required by God in order for a person to enter His kingdom. And it has to be a better righteousness than what the scribes and Pharisees were providing. You don’t only break God’s Fifth Commandment by killing someone. You break it by getting angry with your brother or by hating your brother. You break it by saying really hateful words to your brother, and also by carelessly unkind words that harm your brother’s reputation. Likewise, in the section that follows our Gospel and in other parts of Scripture, Jesus explains that you don’t only break the Sixth Commandment by being unfaithful to your spouse, but by all sexual encounters outside of marriage, by unscriptural divorce, by all crude sexual jokes and filthy language, and by all lustful thoughts. In fact, keeping the commandments is more than just avoiding all the bad things you’re not supposed to do. It’s also doing all the good things, helping your neighbor in his bodily needs, defending him, honoring marriage, honoring God and loving your neighbor from the heart. If you understand that, then you understand that you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven by keeping the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments show you your sin and convict all people as lawbreakers.

There is a righteousness, a keeping of the Ten Commandments, by which a person enters the kingdom of heaven. But it isn’t a righteousness that comes from within us or that is performed by us. It is the righteousness performed by Christ Jesus Himself. He was the promised seed of Abraham and the true Heir of the first Testament that was sealed by Moses with the blood of animals. His righteousness is the key that satisfies the requirements of the Law and unlocks the gates of the kingdom of heaven. His blood, shed on the cross, is the price that has been paid, once for all, for the sinner’s disobedience to God’s commandments.

And so we speak of the righteousness of faith as that righteousness by which sinners enter the kingdom of God. Instead of doing righteous things to satisfy the commandments, God calls on all people to recognize and to repent of their sins committed against the Ten Commandments and to believe in Christ, who promises free admittance into God’s kingdom to all who believe. This faith God counts for righteousness in His sight, because it clings to Jesus. That’s the only way into God’s kingdom, and it’s a sure and certain way: giving up on your own obedience to the Ten Commandments as the key that will get you in the door, and clinging instead to Christ’s obedience for you, using that as the key to open the gates.

This is the New Testament in the blood of Christ, the promise of the forgiveness of sins by faith. It’s sealed with blood, just like the first Testament was—blood that was shed on the cross and now given to believers to drink in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, together with the body of Christ, sacrificed for our sins.

For those who have been brought into this New Testament, for those who have been united with the death of Christ through Holy Baptism and have thus entered the kingdom of God, for those who have been made partakers of the blood of Christ in the Sacraments, we are no longer under the law like slaves under a slave driver. But the Ten Commandments do still hang above the door on the inside of God’s kingdom and still serve an important purpose in a New Testament light. Three purposes, actually.

First, the Ten Commandments act like a curb for our sinful flesh. Our New Man wants to keep the commandments, but our flesh whispers, “Don’t worry about it! Nothing will happen if you sin. There is no punishment to fear.” But then the commandments come in with their threat, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children who hate me to the third and fourth generation.” The Law warns us and threatens us not to fall into temptation, impenitence, mortal sin and unbelief. And so our flesh thinks twice about going out and getting drunk, or committing adultery, or stealing, or skipping church, because there is the threat of punishment. And our New Man rejoices in that, because the godly part of us doesn’t want to commit those sins in the first place. We’re glad to have our flesh restrained by the curb of the Law.

Second, the Ten Commandments continue to act like a mirror, showing us our sins as Christians, so that we continue to live each day in repentance, so that we never become proud or begin to rely on ourselves, but always keep fleeing to Christ in faith and never for a moment imagine that we can stand on our own before God’s holy Law without the covering of Jesus’ blood.

Thirdly, the Ten Commandments serve as a guide for Christians, to teach us what the good and gracious will of God is, how He would have us give thanks to Him, how we are to love Him and love our neighbor, how we are to behave as children of God and as saints in His house. No longer does God say to us, I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Now He says to His baptized children. “I am the LORD your God, who gave My Son into death for your sins and brought you out of the kingdom of darkness, out of the slavery to sin. Now keep My commandments.”

So, does murder have a place among saints? Of course not! What about anger? Getting ticked off at other people? Getting back at those who have hurt you? Not at all. What about putting other people down, whether it’s in person or online or behind their backs? What about yelling at people? What about the silent treatment intended to shame them into misery? Of course not! What if you have sinned against someone? Jesus says, before you do anything else, even before you bring your offering to God’s altar, go and apologize to the one you’ve wronged and seek his forgiveness, and be ready and willing to forgive the one who has sinned against you.

The Ten Commandments still demand your obedience as Christians; they remain the Ten Commandments, not the Ten Suggestions. No longer in an Old Testament light, but in a New Testament light. So learn them! Study them! And daily think about how you will put them into practice. And when you find that you cannot do what they require, then pray earnestly to God for Him to change you, for Him to create a clean heart within you. Do you think God has no power to change you? Remember the power of the resurrection. Remember that He has already raised you from the dead and brought you to life with Christ Jesus. He has already freed you from slavery to sin and created a new person within you and has given you new birth and adoption into His family through Holy Baptism and faith. His Word and the Sacrament of the Altar are an endless source, not only of the forgiveness of sins, but of power to be renewed by the Holy Spirit of God so that, as Paul writes to the Thessalonians, He may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all His saints. Amen.

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