Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46
Every so often in life there are watershed moments. You come to a time of crisis, a crux, after which nothing will be the same ever again no matter what happens. When a young man named Giovanni returned home from the Crusades in the early 13th century and decided to abandon his family’s wealth and pursue instead a life of poverty, it was a watershed moment. He chose to depend only on God, and his family disowned him. We know him as St. Francis and his feast day was yesterday — we’re blessing animals after the 11:00 service in celebration of his witness.
When the Israelites arrived at Mt. Sinai, it was another such watershed moment. The air that day was electric. Generations ago God had chosen their ancestor Abraham, had blessed both him and his descendants bountifully, had saved them from slavery to the Egyptians, had brought them through the desert and supplied their needs for food and water the whole two-and-a-half months since their exodus. And now they arrived at the goal of the journey, Mount Sinai, where they would meet God. And their life would never be the same.
That’s the moment in which the Ten Commandments were given, which we just read a few minutes ago, also called “the Decalogue.” These commandments are framed by the larger story of Israel’s successes and failures, and God’s steadily bringing them back to the point, back into relationship. The more immediate context frames the Decalogue with language of theophany. Theophany means a physical manifestation of God, and in the ancient world it almost always involved atmospheric disturbances: in our text theophany is signified by thunder and lightning, thick cloud, and the sounding of rams horns.
Now if you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that this list has an interesting structure. Thunder and lightning are, of course, in the sky; then there’s the cloud enveloping the mountain, between earth and sky; and finally there’s the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, which refers to the ritualized celebration of God’s presence as savior. [Show Shofar] In other words, the presence of God symbolized by cosmic phenomena is mirrored ritually by the blowing of the shofar, a symbol that remains in Jewish practice to this day. The people react to God’s presence with dread. That is the expected and appropriate response to the manifestation of a god in the ancient world. The only correct response to a theophany is to realize how small and fragile we human beings are when confronted with the Divine Majesty. We have to remind ourselves about that attitude, because we don’t really expect theophanies to happen in our world; every ancient reader would have understood it immediately.
But our story does not end with that fear, where more or less all other ancient stories about manifestations of gods would have ended. For Israel, the power of God was less important than the goodness of God. And so we’re not simply told that God showed up and that everyone was terrified; we’re told that God showed up and everyone was terrified, and then God taught Israel the Torah.
Now the goodness of God had been manifested in the world since the beginning. It’s a major theme of the creation story, of the Abraham stories and the ancestral narratives. And of course it’s the main point of the exodus story: God is moved to action by Israel’s cries. Indeed, as Psalm 19 that we just read together asserts, the glory of God is told daily without words by the sky and the planets and the sun. But what was present in implicit form is now made explicit in the Torah. This Torah is not simply a set of rules for Israel to obey; it establishes the principle that because God is good, because God has a particular moral character, therefore God’s people must also have that character.
Sometimes people think of “the law” as an onerous, a sort of curse that God initially put on Israel and which then had to be removed by the redeeming action of Christ. They think this based on a superficial reading of certain New Testament passages especially in Galatians and Romans. But that’s actually a drastic misreading both of those New Testament passages and of the Torah itself. The Law is always seen as the beautiful gift that God gives His people out of love for them and precisely because He wants to be in relationship with them.
The Decalogue is even now, in our Prayer Book, an integral part of our worship: you can see it in the penitential order on p. 317 (350 for Rite 2). Would you look at that with me, please? Rather than treating it as something rendered obsolete by Christ, we pray that God would “incline our hearts to keep this law.” Who God is, the one who redeems us from slavery, has implications for how we live our lives both in relation to Heaven and in relation to our fellow human beings. The Torah functions as a mediating principle, allowing human beings to participate in the Divine goodness, which is blessing indeed.
Actually, you can see this same structure in the reading from Philippians. God had seen the humility of Jesus who emptied himself, and therefore exalted Him to Godhood (Philippians 2). What the giving of the Torah was for ancient Israel, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus was for St. Paul, and indeed for all of us Christians. It was a watershed moment after which everything was different. In the Torah, God came down and pulled Israel into the divine life-giving goodness. In Jesus, God exalted humanity to divine status and invited us to “press on … towards the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
The Eastern Orthodox talk about this idea with a word that may sound almost blasphemous if we don’t understand it correctly: they call it theosis, a process by which God makes human beings divine. In the Western tradition we’re more likely to talk in terms of God making saints rather than making deities, but the idea is the same: by learning to behave as God does, we’re brought into the divine life and transformed into His likeness. The Ten Commandments teach that the way to begin is to learn to do good. Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians shows us that imitating God involves imitating Christ, whose Deity is manifest primarily in his laying down his life for the sake of others. Saint Francis did just that, and his example shows us that following Christ is something ordinary people like us can begin to do do, right now.
And that’s the real point of remembering the Law: to remind us that the God of the universe deigned to come among us, despite our unworthiness, and he calls us to sainthood. Not many of us are saints yet, of course, but we can make a beginning, and we have the promise that the relationship formed by obedience will bear good fruit. God seeks you out and wants to transform you into one of His shining saints. Nothing will ever be the same again.