Monday, 26 March 2018

What kind of a hero do we need? Palm Sunday



Palm Sunday 
      

I have to admit that I love superheroes. When I was a kid I collected comics. I watched superhero TV shows and movies. I played superhero video games. I had superhero toys. Every few months a new superhero movie comes out and the toy stores are always in sync with the latest movie.

When I was a kid I loved superman. I used to pretend I was Clark Kent. I had a pair of sunglasses with the lenses popped out that I would wear around town when my mom had to run errands. I had a little briefcase I carried around that had a towel I could tie into a cape, and a pair of underwear I could pull on over my pants for when I had to transform into superman.

Superman looks human. He looks so human he can be overlooked and ignored as Clark Kent. … But he is more than human. He can lift trains over his head. He can shoot lasers out of his eyes. He can freeze with his breath. He’s bulletproof. And, he can fly. He is a powerful force for the cause of good in a world filled with evil.

Every generation has stories about superhuman heroes. We long for someone we can believe in. We long for someone who has the power to stop the forces of evil all around us. Deep in the human soul we long for a savior and we know it will take a super-human power to do the job. We give superheroes symbols of being more than human. We want someone who can fly, read minds, shoot electricity from their fingertips, and see into the future. We want someone who can’t be stopped by a bullet or a tank.

But, we don’t just want them to have power. In the superhero universe there are also supervillains. They have power too. So, power isn’t enough. We want superheroes to also have superhuman integrity. We want someone indestructible- morally and physically. We want someone with power to stop evil and the goodness to protect the innocent. We want superman to fly in and vaporize the Tsunami before it hits the villages. We want him to walk into the headquarters of ISIS as bullet bounce off him and fly off with their leader. We live in a very broken world. We want a superhero because we know that the evils in the world are stronger than we are.

The people of first century Israel wanted a superhero. They wanted someone who would act through brute force to destroy the super villains of the day- Caesar and his cronies, the Roman soldiers. They wanted their superhero to take over and set up an ideal earthly kingdom. All the bullies would be kicked out of Israel. All corruption would be destroyed- peace and justice would fill the land. By the first century they had been expecting him for centuries. Their own prophets foretold that he would arrive, and the people were living in a constant and desperate state of expectation.

Their word for this superhero was "messiah". He is empowered by God's strength. He is unstoppable, and he is good. In our Gospel reading Jesus arrives in Jerusalem and is welcomed as this long-expected superhero. Jesus makes a bold statement that he is, in fact, this expected hero by purposefully fulfilling the prophecy that the expected hero would come riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9).

The people welcome him as their king, waving palm branches and placing them on the road along with their cloaks as a kind of red carpet, welcome to their king. The people are shouting, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”.

Jesus heads straight into the temple and symbolically brings judgement on it for its corruption- Driving out those who used the temple for their own financial gain. The hero has arrived to set things right. And the people are sure that things are about to change. … But, the leadership of Jerusalem has different plans for Jesus. They are not about to hail him as king and give up their positions, or disturb the delicate balance they have achieved between them and Rome.

The people were longing for a messiah, but their vision of the Messiah was too much like a superhero. Their vision was too human. When the Messiah arrived they had a to-do list waiting for him. But, Jesus does not come to do the will of human beings. He comes to do the will of God. Jesus does not come to check off the human checklist for how to set things right starting with “kill all the bad guys”. His vision is bigger than that.

The will of God is to deal with the greater enemies. Jesus is to deal with the powers that are in the background behind the world’s evil. He is to deal with the powers that give rise to the Caesars, the Hitlers, the tyrants, and bullies of the world. The will of the Father is not to deal just with the symptoms but to get at the root cause of the disease. Which meant taking on all the hate and violence of the people.

The mission of Jesus is spoken about by Paul in the letter to the Philippians. He speaks about Jesus 
“who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross” (Phil 2:6-8).
 It is a counter-intuitive mission by human standards. Humans don’t get it.

Quickly the shouts of praise turned to shouts of "crucify him". Instead of an earthly throne he is raised up on the cross. As he takes on this hate and violence he gets closer and closer to the root of the real enemy. Until he comes face to face with the ultimate cause of all the suffering in this world. Destroying Sin’s power, he is raised from the dead and pushes through death to come out the other side a new kind of human being.

Jesus is more than expected. His destiny was not to be just a ruler like King David. He is Immanuel- God with us, our messiah, who came to defeat the ultimate enemies of Sin and Death. Jesus’ sacrifice for our sake in obedience to the Father’s will can have such an effect because in Jesus we see God. In Jesus’ words and actions, we see God’s words and actions. The cross is God’s work for us.

Our love of superheroes exposes our deeper desire for a messiah. … Jesus, however, is obedient to the will of his Father, not our desires. Unlike Superman who fixes all the things we think needs to be fixed, in the way we think they should be fixed- usually through brute force- Jesus comes to fix what God knows needs to be fixed, in the way God wants it to be fixed. Superman does the will of men, but Jesus comes to do the will of God. He came not to be an earthly king, but a heavenly king.

The expected messiah was of the line of King David and was to fulfill God’s promise of an unending heir to David’s throne (2 Sam 7:12-16). But, Jesus is not to take up the royal line and rule in the way David did. While he may be the Son of David, he is also the Son of God, and His kingdom will have no end. The destiny of this hero was not to bring unity and sovereignty to a nation, but to bring salvation to the world. He frees the world from the satanic chains of enslavement. He brings the good news to those who are underprivileged and marginalized that they are not forgotten by God. He releases people captive to sin and corrects the brokenness that is not part of God’s original creation. He calls people to reconsider the path they are walking. He calls them to turn away from the path that leads to slavery and destruction and to turn to walk the path that leads to God, which is directly through the cross to Jesus’ glorious resurrection. … This is a different kind of king. Jesus came not to fit into our understanding of the world, but to free our understanding to see the world as it truly is. He came to fulfill the promises God made to humanity.

We want a superhero to come and set our world straight. We have a messiah, but sometimes we forget that he doesn’t fix things according to our will. He fixes things according to God’s will. He does not use his power to fight violence with more violence. Instead, as Paul tells us in Philippians, 
"he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!" (Phil 2:7-8).

 Our hero has arrived, and he is working to set things right, but he is not obedient to our expectations or our will. He is obedient to God's expectations and God's will. God was willing to gently ride a donkey and ask for our acceptance, not command it. Jesus teaches us the depth of God’s love for us even by allowing us to kill him on a cross. He was so gentle that he even allowed us to reject him and crucify him. And even after all that, He will not give up on us. He used even our rejection of him, his own crucifixion, to show the unbelievable depth of his love for us. And that is a hero who is worth believing in.

Monday, 19 March 2018

A death so that you can truly live- John 12



The symbol of Christianity is a cross. The cross is so normal to us that we don’t usually grasp how strange it is. It was offensive and grotesque. It was a shameful and horrifying way to die. It was considered so awful that no Roman citizen was allowed to be executed that way. For Christians to claim that Jesus died on the cross was scandalous. The disconnect is particularly obvious when we buy jewelry made into a cross. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if we had little gold guillotines, nooses, and electric chairs hanging around our necks.

The cross is sometimes a difficult aspect to explain for missionaries in foreign cultures. Good people aren’t supposed to die that way. The universe doesn’t make sense if they do. In the 16th century, a Jesuit missionary named Matteo Ricci arrived in China. He was a brilliant renaissance man who quickly mastered Chinese language and culture. In the style of Paul in Acts, Ricci attempted to find the truth in Chinese culture and use those truths to teach Christianity. … A difficult aspect of Christianity for Ricci to teach was the cross. Many philosophical and moral teachings of Christianity had their compliment in Chinese values. Ricci taught that Christianity was a perfecting of those already existing truths. , Jesus’ crucifixion, h
owever, was not easy to communicate. It did not make sense in that ideology, especially in a culture where authority was highly respected. Jesus’ condemnation by the highest religious court of the day was an offence to Chinese values. For this reason he didn’t present the cross right away. One day, however, a servant of the Chinese court happened to come across a realistic statue of Jesus on the cross among Matteo Ricci’s belongings. The shocked servant confronted Ricci, screaming at him, believing that he was practicing black magic in some attempt to kill the Chinese ruler. It was a horrifying image, so he thought it must have some horrifying purpose. Jesus’ moral and philosophical teachings were acceptable, but the cross was an offense.

We have become so used to the cross that we hardly see the horror of it anymore. The cross, when we really see it, is brutal. … It is unavoidable, though. At the heart of Christianity is self-sacrificial love. It is a love that expresses itself by willing to go to through the very worst for the beloved. Jesus explains that his sacrifice will bring incredible benefit. 
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
 The sacrificial system, that was a part of almost every society, that offered animals and sometimes human beings to a divinity ended with Jesus offering himself up. His sacrifice convinced people of God’s love for humanity. Previously, sacrifice was always something humanity did to please the gods. Now, in Jesus, God offers sacrifice to bless humanity. Jesus holds nothing back to show us his love for us. That is the central claim of Christianity.

This is also a truth for the followers of Jesus. We have sometimes considered being a Christian as being something other than being a disciple. They are really supposed to be one and the same. The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, 
“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship) (Sorry about the non-inclusive language. I'm sure he wants women to be as discomforted as men by the call of Christ).
 Bonhoeffer spoke about churches that offer “cheap grace”. It is an easy Christianity where we are never challenged. He says, 
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without … discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship).
 Bonhoeffer recognized that you can’t chose to be a Christian without being a disciple. And being a disciple requires picking up your cross and following Christ.

When Jesus said, 
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24)
 he was surely referring to his own death. However, he also called his followers into a way of life that was marked by self-sacrificial love. Jesus said, 
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:25-26).
 If we want to be with Jesus then the way to walk with him is by means of self-sacrificial love. There is courage required here because it is a frightening thing to be challenged with.

For many in the early church this meant literal death at the hands of those persecuting Christians. This is true for many modern Christians as well. I have heard it said that there were more Christian martyrs in the 20th century than in all the previous centuries combined. Christians dying for refusing to deny Jesus is not just an ancient historical reality- it is a present reality. Tertullian (160-220ad), perhaps reflecting on Jesus’ words in our gospel reading, once said, 
“the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”.
 This certainly seemed to be that case for the Roman Empire as it went from persecuting Christianity to embracing it. The few grains of wheat that died seemed to produce a crop.

Hopefully this will not be asked of us. We can pray for that. However, the same self-sacrificial love is required of us, and it will require a kind of death. This call of Jesus confronts our desire for a comfortable life. Growth almost always requires discomfort and change.

The “cheap grace” Bonhoeffer talks about is a Christianity that doesn’t expect anything of us. Cheap grace tells me I can live however I want and still call myself a Christian. Cheap grace tells me I am guaranteed an afterlife in paradise as a human right. Cheap grace gives me comfort and forgiveness, but never expects anything from me. … But, cheap grace doesn’t lead us into the change we need. It is a consumerist fast-food Jesus who gives me what I want and never offends me, and never puts me in a place where I might suffer.

Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow him. He says, 
“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. ...” (Jn 12:25-26).
 Jesus doesn’t literally mean “hate your life”. He is exaggerating to make a point. He is saying that our priorities should be such that our commitment to the self-sacrificial love of Jesus makes our desire to maintain our status quo lives look like hate in comparison.

What does it look like to die to our false selves in a culture where we are being socialized to have our every desire appeased? To deny a desire is almost seen as cruel, or as an injustice. I think it is really interesting that most cultures have practiced fasting from food, even western culture until recently. Now, when we have so much, we consider fasting from food for a day or three to be extreme or even dangerous. Self-denial is a kind of death. We don’t deny ourselves for no reason, though. Jesus is pretty clear that the death we are called to is one that will glorify God. Denial of food to worship some ideal of beauty is not what fasting is about. Fasting is about entering into deeper prayer to glorify God.

There are a number of ways we can die to our false self. And this is asked of all disciples. It’s not a matter of if Jesus is calling you to die- he is. The question is what kind of death is he calling you to in order to glorify God? … We might die to our false self as we refuse to take our anger out on others. We might refuse to allow our desire to have our own way control our relationships. We might refuse to allow fear to control our behavior. We might be being called to die to a set of intellectual ideas so that we can embrace a new way of seeing the world. We might be called to die to ourselves as parents or grandparents, or partners, as we put our desires aside to serve God in others. We might have to die to a status quo in the church, or in our society. The civil rights movement led by people like Martin Luther King Jr. in the southern United States was a kind of death to a status quo. We are called to die to our false self, so that we can embrace our true self in following Christ to glorify God.

There is a cost to being a disciple. But, we should never forget that there is also a cost to not being a disciple. Jesus says the cost of not being a disciple is losing our life. It is missing out on the life God has created us to have. There is a death needed for our false self, so that the true self can live. Jesus wants our joy to be full (Jn 15:11). Jesus wants nothing less than a full life for us. But, that life cannot be a reality until the false self dies.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Look with Trust- the bronze serpent Num 21


Some of us have a tendency to take the blessings of our lives for granted. We focus on the negative, or what we lack, rather than be thankful for what we have. I don’t know if you notice this in yourself at all, but I know I see it in myself. Some of us really have to struggle against that negative habit.

This has become a significant field of research. There have been a number of studies done on gratitude and they have found that people who are thankful are generally happier, less depressed, are more satisfied with life, have a greater sense of purpose in life, and tend to be more generous. That also implies the opposite. A lack of gratitude leads to being less happy, more depressed, less satisfied with life, having less sense of purpose in life, and less generosity. The field of positive psychology has been trying to find practices to help people become more grateful in order to help people have better lives.

It sounds like the Hebrew people in the book of Numbers could have used the insights of positive psychology. The people are in a constant pattern of ingratitude as they wandered in the wilderness. In the book of Numbers chapter 21, they are in the middle of complaining. Despite the miraculous way God has rescued them from slavery in Egypt, they complain that they were better off as slaves. They complain that they will starve, and God provides them with manna for food (Ex 16). They complain that they are thirsty, and Moses strikes a rock and God provides water (Ex 17). They complain that they are tired of anna and want meat to eat, and God gives them quail (Num 11). … And yet, they continue to grumble. After all this miraculous provision- after saving them from slavery- after seeing the miracles- after eating the miraculous food and drinking the miraculous water in a desolate landscape- they still complain. They complain against Moses and they complain against God. Their hearts are ungrateful. They are constantly looking for what is wrong, and overlooking their blessings.

Can you see yourself doing that? We don’t want to see ourselves that way, but I think some of us have a tendency to complain and forget about the blessings in our lives. I may have told some of you about the time I went to Cuba on a mission trip. I didn’t have much Spanish, but I had a little, so I tried to make conversation. “Tengo mucho calor”, I said. Which means “I’m very hot”. It was warm, but I wasn’t really that uncomfortable. I was more just making conversation with the limited Spanish I had. When I woke up in the morning I found that the Cubans went out and bought a whole bunch fans. These are not rich people, and those fans weren’t cheap. … Upon reflection, I realized how much we tend to complain, even if just for conversation. We talk about the bad weather, or the long line at Costco. But, we have temperature-controlled vehicles and houses, so the weather doesn’t affect us that badly. In our grocery stores we have more food, and more varieties of food, than most of the world does. And how amazing that we have vehicles to help us cross great distances in very minimal time, all while keeping us out of the weather. That sure seems to beat walking or riding a horse in the rain. Still, many of us have a tendency to focus on what is wrong. Ingratitude can take root in our hearts.

There is this very strange story in the book of Numbers. The people complain and express their lack of trust in God and God causes a release of snakes. Some of the people are bitten by the snakes and they die. The snakes seem to be a symbol of the fallen and dangerous world. In the world we are in danger from the elements, from disease, from war, from famine, and numerous other dangers. The serpents invade, and bite, and people begin to die.

God is the rescuer. God is the one who rescued the people from slavery. God is the one who provided food when they were hungry, and water when they were thirsty. God has rescued them from the dangerous world many times already. God is the source of all love, life, joy, peace, and beauty. To grumble and rebel against God is to put yourself back into the snake pit. To push away from God is to push yourself into the presence of all that God wants to save you from. To push away from God is to cut yourself off from the source love, life, joy, peace, and beauty. That is a road to destruction.

In a strange kind of living parable the Hebrew people feel the pain of turning away from God- in the form of snake bites. They realize the error of their ways and they come to Moses and say, 
“We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.” They repent. They turn towards God. They realize the stupidity of what they've done. Turning away from the God of life means death. 

Moses hears their cry and has compassion. He prays to God on behalf of the people. And God give Moses some strange instructions. God told Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” They needed a focus point for their faith. They needed a sacrament- a visible symbol of God’s grace. They needed to put their trust into action in a very practical way. They needed to believe that what God said was true- look and trust ... and live.

Trust in God is different than believing things about God. The people knew God existed, they just didn't believe that God would take care of them. Belief is different than trust. God instructs Moses to make a bronze serpent. God gave the Hebrew people a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual grace that God will save them. Whoever looks at the bronze serpent, trusting in God's words, will live. Their trust needed a focal point- they needed an action to activate their faith.

I heard a story about a high school student. She was taking a Physics class and she was supposed to present to her class on the physics of a pendulum. She explained to the class how a pendulum worked. It has a weight that is fixed to a point by a wire. She described the physics and how, because of gravity and other forces acting on the pendulum that it can never reach the same point it is swung from. She drew diagrams. She showed the class the formula on the black board, and to really make her point she set up a giant pendulum in the classroom. It had a barbell weight secured with a rope to the ceiling in the center of the classroom. She asked if everyone understood and believed what she said and the class agreed. She then asked the teacher if she could use him as a part of her presentation. The student asked her teacher to stand on a chair at one end of the classroom. She then set up the pendulum with the 20 pound barbell. She attached the wire and made sure everything was secure. The student raised the barbell to the teacher's nose and adjusted the chair so the rope was tight. She reminded the classroom, "now remember, because of gravity and the other forces acting on the pendulum the weight will not be able to get this high again. Based on the physics I just showed you, which you all said you believe, when this weight swings back it will not be able to reach the teacher’s nose". She let the weight drop and the teacher watched as it slowly swung through the pathway between the desks. The class collectively held their breath. The teacher watched as the weight slowed and then stopped at the other side of the classroom and then started back down towards the teacher. The weight got closer and closer and … suddenly the teacher jumped off the chair, afraid he was going to get his teeth knocked out. The teacher may have understood the physics in theory, but not in his heart. He didn't believe it enough to trust it.

I like that story. It is a reminder to me that faith is something that has to be more than a theory. It has to get into my heart. I have to be willing to act in a way that reflects my belief. If I jump off the chair like the teacher did, then part of me really doesn't believe it. Of course, we need to be sure that what we believe in is worth believing. As the preacher Stuart Briscoe once said, "faith is only as valid as its object. You can have tremendous faith in very thin ice and drown. ... You could have very little faith in very thick ice and be perfectly secure". God had shown Himself over and over again to be worthy of the Hebrew people’s trust, yet they were unwilling to trust God. God never said it would be an easy walk through the wilderness, but God made promises to protect and keep them. However, they turned against God over and over again.

To help them learn to trust in a very real way God gives Moses some strange instructions. "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." "So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole." They looked at a symbol of their own suffering and death. The snakes were biting their friends and family. Instead of getting rid of the snakes they were taught to trust God in the midst of their suffering. When they were bit, they looked at the bronze snake and they lived. When they looked at that strange symbol of their suffering they lived.

These serpents are interesting. Some have looked into the Hebrew and have concluded that these were no ordinary serpents. The serpents that were biting the people were called in the Hebrew "Saraph" serpents. This word "Saraph" can mean a few things. The plain meaning is "fiery". The Serpent is a "fiery" serpent. This might mean that the bite burned like fire. …. "Saraph" might be even more mysterious though. "Saraph" might point to a kind of winged serpent that we find in the art of ancient Egypt (pointed out to me by one of my O.T. professors, Glen Taylor). Perhaps it is a stretch, but imagine an upright serpent with wings outstretched on either side. Doesn't it look like a cross? Is this is what the Hebrew people were looking at with eyes of faith. … They looked at this symbol trusting that God would save them from the poison of the world. The Hebrews looked at this sacrament- this means of the grace of God- and lived. 

This image was important to the Hebrew people. They carried it with them when they established themselves in the Promised Land. We read that around 800 hundred years later the reforming King Hezekiah smashed the bronze serpent (which may have been kept in the Temple) because people were worshipping it by burning incense to it. What was meant to be a sacrament for healing became a source of idolatry and so it had to be removed. But, imagine that this symbol remained in the hearts and minds of the Hebrew people as an object of faith for around 800 years.

Jesus points to this Bronze serpent in the gospel of John chapter 3, "14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” Jesus is saying that he is like the bronze serpent. Jesus will be lifted up on the cross. People will look at the suffering of the cross and it will become a means of their own healing from the venom of the world. We are invited to look at him and believe. We are invited to look at the cross- an instrument of torture and destruction- and, mysteriously, receive life. Just as the Hebrew people looked at the symbol of their suffering- the Serpent- so we look at death and suffering symbolized by the cross and through it we receive life through Jesus.

We don't know exactly how it works, but we are told God's motivation for doing it John 3:16-17, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." The cross, was God's self-sacrifice. It was the best way to show that God would hold nothing back- Jesus would hold nothing back- in order to show us how much he loves us.

Like the Hebrew people we are invited to respond. It is not enough to have a theory in your head about this. The bronze serpent was raised and they were invited to look upon it and believe God would save them from the venom. Jesus was raised on a cross and we are invited to look to him and believe that this is the ultimate act of love for us- this is God saving us. We are invited to see God entering into our suffering out of love for us. We are invited to put our faith into action. Like the Hebrews we are not promised that the serpents will be taken away. We are told that when we get stung by the world that we look to Christ for healing and protection.

One way that you can look to Christ for healing in the midst of the serpents is to come forward to receive the bread and wine- to receive the life of Jesus to rejuvenate your life. When we respond in faith, we stay standing on the chair as the pendulum swings back at us. We take the risk of faith. We chose to believe that it is not just theory- it is describing reality. It is not just a theory. It is in our hearts. When we come forward and open our hands to receive the bread and wine we show that we believe it. God has offered it, to give us life while we make our way through a dangerous world. All we have to do is look, believe, receive, and live. AMEN

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Morality-Ten Commandments Ex 20




The Ten Commandments have been held up as an icon of morality for at least 3000 years. In the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus was asked by a rich young man, 
“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
 Jesus replied by saying, 
“If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matt 19:16-17).
Jesus went on to list commandments from the famous ten. Now, we have to read this in the context of the rest of Scripture, and so account for the cross and the grace God offers us. But, this Scripture is enough to show that the Ten Commandments were highly regarded by Jesus. And so, they should be highly regarded by us as well.


When we talk about the Ten Commandments it is perhaps important to talk about morality in general. We live in a society that is paradoxically very willing to place judgement on others (see reality TV and social media), but we also aren’t very clear about what morality is besides an opinion about how things should be.

The Commandments open with the statement, 
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex 20:2).
 The Commandments start with a declaration that these are the words of God, rather than Moses. Why might this matter for us?

Moral thinking has sometimes been separated into subjective morality and objective morality.[1] Subjective morality means that the source of the moral values are in the subject who is acting. That usually means a person or a society. When it comes to a command like “you shall not murder” a subjective view of morality would say that as a society we have developed over time and come to understand that murder is counterproductive to the building of the kind of society that survives. Morality is a survival adaptation for a society. Ultimately, morality comes from the subconsciously agreed upon commands of the society. 
As society changes, then the moral commands will change as well. If a society comes to change their mind about the command against murder, then murder is no longer wrong. It is completely up to the society. 
We might even consider subjective morality as individual based. So we put locks on our doors because we have different moral values from those who might want to break into our house. 

One of the challenges with this view of morality is that one society doesn’t have much ground to stand on if it wants to judge the actions of another society. If we encounter a society like the ancient Greeks who had a terrible practice like pederasty (The practice of older men mentoring younger boys that included a sexual component), we don’t have much ground to stand on if we want to judge the practices of that society. If that society decided on a different morality than ours, then on what basis can we say that our society’s morality is better? Theirs developed by the same method ours did, but they arrived at a different set of moral values.

Similarly, we can’t even judge our own society’s past behavior using subjective morality. If we want to say that the practice of slavery was wrong for North Americans and Europeans in the 18th century, then on what basis are we able to do that? On a subjective view of morality, we would just have to say that they had a different morality than we have in modern North America and Europe. That society developed their morality through their society the same as we have. It was subconsciously and collectively agreed upon. They decided that slavery was permissible, and we have declared it detestable in our modern society. In subjective morality it is nearly impossible to declare the practices of another society, or a past society, to be wrong. They could just as easily turn around and say that we are the ones who are wrong. And from the place their are standing, that's the way it would seem. 

Objective morality, on the other hand, has its source in the universe as it has been created. It is as real as gravity. It is built into the very essence of reality. Ultimately, morality has its source in the Creator. Morality is an expression of the character of God. In an objective understanding of morality, morals are revealed or discovered (rather than created). They are revealed by God and God’s agents, and they are discovered by means of rationality based on what is logical and in continuity with the character of God. This means that God reveals a set of moral values, and hopefully over time God’s people unpack their meaning and come to live their lives more in line with these realities. (It is important to note that this always has to be done with humility and careful interpretation. It would be easy to impose a cultural assumption that is not actually the objective moral law, which was a common mistake as colonialism encountered many cultures.)

What objective morality means is that “you shall not murder” is true in the same way as gravity is true. It is a true part of reality whether anyone believes it of not. If all the societies on earth believed that murder was right, it would still be wrong, just as if all societies would be wrong if they believed the sun went around the earth, or declared that 2+2 was 5. If the objective moral value was understood correctly it would apply to all societies equally because it is a part of creation. The society that understood it correctly could  rightfully judge another society that was not conforming to it. Every society is ultimately judged by this objective standard.

So, if we encountered a culture like the ancient Greeks, who practiced pederasty, we could declare that practice as wrong and be on solid ground to make that judgment because the moral value stating it is wrong doesn’t come from us. Ultimately, it comes from the character of God. … We can declare slavery to be wrong, and to have always been wrong for all societies, if we have correctly understood objective moral truth as saying slavery is wrong.

Using objective morality, we can correctly judge as wrong the Nazi vision to reshape humanity by removing all those they decided were inferior from the gene pool by mass killing. We can judge them even though they were a different society. The Nazis believed they were creating a stronger humanity and so they believed their actions were moral. From an objective view of morality, the Nazi vision isn’t just a different morality from our society’s. It is wrong because human beings have all been created in God’s image and have inherent dignity- and we believe that is an objective truth that is a part of creation.

In fact, this is what we do all the time when we talk about human rights. The United Nations describes human rights this way: 
“Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status. We are all equally entitled to our human rights without discrimination”.[2]
It sounds like they are describing an objective moral law.

Where do these rights come from? Human rights only work if we agree that they are part of the reality of humanity. We feel justified in imposing these human rights on a society that doesn’t comply with them. We allow for some cultural variety, but there are some moral values we think every society should abide by. We judge a society as being wrong if it violates these human rights. When we look as Pol Pot’s Cambodia, or Mao's China, or Stalin’s Soviet Union, we can judge the many deaths as being a violation of human rights. Likewise, we can judge a society that degrades women, or that practices slavery, as being wrong, rather than being just culturally different. … This is a difficult thing to justify under a subjective view of morality, but it makes all kinds of sense in an objective view of morality.

For objective moral values to be real it makes the most sense if there is a Creator who has declared how things ought to be and who has built these “oughts” into the fabric of reality.  

In a materialist worldview where morality arises in a society as part of the desire to pass on genes to the next generation it is hard to understand how moral values could be objectively real in the way human rights are described.

I spent a lot of time talking generally about morality. In the few minutes we have left I would like to just say something about how the Ten commandments generally fit into our lives as Christians. … Overall, I believe the Ten Commandments are an expression of the Moral Law that was written into creation. These principles are ultimately traced back to the character of God. They are, as Jesus said, ultimately about loving God and loving our neighbour (Matt 22:36-40). (Since these principles are built into creation, we shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that there is so much overlap in the realm of morality with the various cultures of the world.) These laws are given to draw people towards God. To follow the principles of these commandments is to live a life that more closely reflects the character of God. We are created to be God’s image bearers. The more we reflect God’s character, the more we are who we were created to be. However, because of sin we need these laws spelled out for us. The Commandments act like a mirror so we can see ourselves more clearly. We see how we often don’t reflect God’s image very well. This leads to us realizing we need more help than we thought. Having seen ourselves clearly, in humility, we are made more ready to receive God’s grace. “God’s grace” is really just another way of saying “Jesus”. Jesus then helps us as we seek to lead a God-shaped life, by both saving us from sin and empowering us to follow God’s leading in the world.



For more reading regarding morality see:

Chapter 9 of The Reason for God by Timothy Keller


[1] This is a distinction I first heard from theologian and philosopher William Lane Craig.
[2] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Pages/WhatareHumanRights.aspx









I thought I might say a few words about the commandments. The first thing to maybe mention is that there are at least three different ways to number the commandments. 

Exodus 20 
20 Then God spoke all these words:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before[a] me.

This is a declaration of monotheism. Only God is to be worshiped. Dennis Prager mentions that monotheism is necessary to create a moral society because multiple deities might also produce multiple moralities. We should also be willing to see things like flags, power, money, ideology, etc. as potential deities. The mention of slavery may also indicate that these commands are about living as free people. 

4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.

God is not to be "put in a box". (See apophatic theology.) God is always bigger than our words about Him.

7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

We usually think about this as don't say, "Oh my God". Actually this is probably more about misusing God's name to grant your project authority- such as driving a plane into a building. This is referring to doing evil in God's name. This jeopardizes the whole enterprise of creating a moral society based on divinely sourced moral law.   

8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

People are made to be free. We are to take a day to remember that the world doesn't revolve around us. I don't think this has to necessarily be Sunday. That's not practical for everyone. But, we should take one day to remember that we are not slaves to our jobs, and the world will not fall apart if we are not working. However, we shouldn't underestimate the power of a shared sabbath day. Sunday used to be a day where families gathered and built relationships. Now schedules are so complicated it can be hard to get people in the same room at the same time and on the same day. This might actually be the first national law in favor of the fair treatment of animals. 
   
12 Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Not everyone gets along with their parents, but there should be a healthy respect for parents. I think we can also infer from this that there should be some kind of respect for the authorities in our lives. Our attitude towards authorities and elders in our lives will have an effect on how we view God as well. No society can survive love with children turned against parents. Societies are based on families, and statistics tell us that the healthiest place for children to grow up is in a family with a mature mother and father. Respect for parents should also open the doors for healthy relationships with grandparents and extended family as well. Honouring our parents will also set a precedent that our children will honour us. 

13 You shall not murder.[c]

This is sometimes translated as "kill". In Hebrew there are two words- harag (kill) and ratsach (murder). The Hebrew in this command refers to murder, which is "wrongful killing". It might seem redundant to say "it is wrong to wrongfully kill". To understand what makes the killing wrong we have to look to the rest of the Bible that goes into more detail regarding when killing might be permissible. Jesus sets the bar even higher-
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.”  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire." Matt 5:21-22
As disciples of Jesus we should look to the root of murder, which is anger. How many murders would happen if we had anger under control? 

14 You shall not commit adultery.

This command takes the power of the sex drive seriously. It recognizes its power to tear apart families, which are the building blocks of our society. Adultery involves deception. It damages marriages, and threatens the stability of the home of children. 
Jesus again intensifies this command, 
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matt 5:27-28
Again, Jesus is pointing to the root of the problem, which is lust, not the act of adultery itself. If people controlled their lust, how often would people commit an act of adultery? While this command is specific to a married person having sex outside the marriage, I think this can also lead us to consider sexual misconduct generally. 

15 You shall not steal.

This overlaps with other commands. Denis Prager points out that murder can be understood as taking a life that doesn't belong to you. Adultery is taking a sexual relationship that isn't yours. Coveting is the desire to steal. We are to respect the boundaries of peoples property. This too is an important foundation for society.   

16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
This primarily seems to refer to a courtroom, but I think it implies truth telling in life in general.  
Jesus again intensifies this command.  
33 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one. Matt 5:33-37
Oaths are needed in a world where lying is assumed to be somewhat normal. If we need an oath to know when people are really telling the truth we are really assuming that people are not telling the truth. 
For a society to be healthy we have to value truth. Truth is a big question mark in our society.   

17 You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
Coveting isn't liking your neighbour's car. It is wanting it so bad you are thinking of ways to can steal it. The Hebrew lachmod implies an intensity that is more than just appreciating something that belongs to your neighbour. Coveting is a heart issue. Coveting something that is your neighbour's is the root cause of much sin. Lusting after your neighbour's spouse is coveting. Coveting is the root cause of stealing. In Buddhism desire is viewed as the root cause of suffering.   
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