Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: The Ten Commandments

Third Sunday of Lent
7 March 2021
Morning Service

Revd Nicholas Mercer

As you all know, I was a chaplain at Sherborne School for over three years

We would worship, as a School, at least twice a week, in the magnificent Sherborne Abbey

And on two pillars in the centre aisle, the Ten Commandments were written on the wall

However, they were so faint that you could easily miss them

Faded, peeling and barely legible, you could be forgiven for thinking they had been forgotten about

The Abbey had plenty of money but this renovation was obviously not top of the list

But the lack of attention to this part of the Abbey gave the impression that the Ten Commandments were not really very important to anyone anymore

A religious relic that belonged to an ancient culture that once lived in the wilderness or perhaps just Victorian Sherborne

To further compound this impression, those of you who are following the Lent course may well have bought John Barton’s outstanding book on the History of the Bible

Some of you may have already reached chapter 3 which deals with “Hebrew Law in its ancient and Near Eastern Context”

This, predictably, contains a scholarly overview of the Law in the Old Testament

John Barton looks at different legal codes in the Old Testament and points out that they bear a remarkable similarity to other Near Eastern Codes of the time

With regard to the Ten Commandments, he notes the similarity between Hittite and Mesopotamian legal codes

He also points out that the Commandments have undergone a series of stages in their composition

Having been worked over to distil the prophetic teaching of Hosea, Amos and Isaiah

Over two and half thousand years old, you could still be forgiven for thinking that they had passed their sell by date

But we are in the season of Lent

A time when we remember, not only Christ in the wilderness, but the Israelites too

And it was whilst they were in the wilderness, for forty years, that the Ten Commandments were given to Moses

During Lent there is traditionally a focus on the Ten Commandments, as there is today

But the pertinent questions remains, what is their relevance in 2021?

When I was researching this question, I was intrigued to find a You Tube clip on this very issue

In 2010, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams took part in a Question and Answer session at Lincoln Cathedral

One of the participants asked the Archbishop from the floor

“Would a return of the Ten Commandments being preached in Church help Society?”

He answered, entertainingly at first, by saying “perhaps” before, he made the question sound so very simple

Rowan Williams first of all pointed out, as I did in my introduction, that the commandments have almost been forgotten

Indeed, quite a lot of Christians would find them very difficult to recite

If I passed round a pen and paper how many of us could fill in all the numbers from one to ten?

I doubt that very few of us would get full marks and I would probably be amongst them

They have been consigned, not only to a dusty and forgotten part of the Church, but to recesses of our minds at the same time

However, the Archbishop pointed out that the Ten Commandments are the foundational principles of a Society which lives by faith

The Commandments start by stating what is due to God

“I am the Lord your God and you shall have no other God before me

Furthermore, and just as importantly

“You shall have no other God but me”

These two Commandments demand that, above all, we live lives of devotion and reverence and asks that we are not distracted by idols

As we know from the Israelites in the wilderness, they made themselves graven images, including a golden calf

We need to ask ourselves, how are we similarly distracted in our lives today?

We are constantly distracted by wealth, celebrity and by the cares and tarries of this world

But as Rowan Williams stated

“Idolatry is [not] ultimately the worship of things but the worship of myself – the reduction of God to the scale of my wants and comforts

We may proclaim the Gospel, but with our wars, lack of social justice and grotesque inequality we take his name in vain, each and every day

Secondly the Archbishop pointed out that, as well as setting out the foundational principles of our life of faith

The remaining seven commandments state what is due to other people

What types of abuse and exploitation of other people are incompatible with a life of faith?

The Commandments are very simple

Murder, Adultery, Theft, Deceit, Jealousy

At the same time, we need to honour our father and mothers and keep the Sabbath holy

As the Archbishop points out, the Ten Commandments tell us what is due to God and what is due to our neighbour?

As he put it “What else is there?

What else is there that we have to offer into society?

The Ten Commandments is a very good place to start and most definitely would help society if we sought to live by them

And so on this Third Sunday in Lent – still in lockdown and separated from society

When, once again, we remember Christ in the Wilderness – similarly distanced from other people

We also remember, not only our isolation, but also that we are not alone at the same time

As Rowan Williams says

Each one of us can only become who we are in relation to others

In an essay entitled “life beyond lockdown”, he wrote

“Above all, the resurrection sets free the Holy Spirit who empowers us to forgive, to speak and understand the stranger, to build a community of mutual creative service and to enter into the fullest intimacy with the God”

With the Ten Commandments as the foundation of our lives, let us look forward to a renewed life at the end of this pandemic

Ready to take our part in whatever creative newness lies ahead for our society