I wonder if you can remember a time when you were embarrassed by your dad. Perhaps you still are! But I'm particularly thinking about those times when you had some friends round – and you were watching TV and your dad would come in cracking "dad jokes" and doing "dad dancing" – rolling out his best "funky chicken" whilst declaring that the music had "a good beat". And it was excruciating!
By the way – I am well aware that this is who I am becoming to my children. One of the phrases we hear most often in our family these days is: "Oh, dad – that is just so embarrassing."
Dads can be soooo embarrassing! I guess that as we open up parts of the Old Testament like Exodus 21 to 23 – many of us might feel like that by what our Heavenly Father seems to be commanding here. It's like your dad not knowing how a text message works or him still thinking that Cliff Richard is trendy. What's here in God's word just seems so out of touch.
I mean what earthly good could it be for us to be told what to do if your bull gets lose and runs rampage or why on earth should we not: "…boil a young goat in its mother's milk." – As if I ever would! Worse still – some of these laws seem to be describing things which we dismissed as immoral long ago. As we heard that Bible reading – surely we must have wondered why God is legislating for slavery when he should be abolishing it? It all seems rather embarrassing to discover this sort of thing in the Bible, doesn't it? And when we do – we are tempted to react in the same way we did when our earthly Fathers embarrassed us when we were younger: Muttering under our breath when speaking to him or about him in public; Distancing ourselves from him and even disowning him.
But the New Testament tells us that "All Scripture is God breathed…" All of it! "… and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man (or woman) of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."
So let's not be too hasty. God wants to speak to us this morning, he wants to equip us "for every good work"… Even from this bit of the Bible!
And I believe that as we look a bit closer at these laws we will see that they reveal to us a God who isn't embarrassing at all, but one who we can be intensely proud of.
So let me pray, before we dive in:
Oh Father God – We always need your help to understand your word right – but especially so this morning. So we pray that you would give us that help right now. May you speak… so that we might understand and be better equipped to live to serve you. In Jesus' name we pray… Amen.
Well last time we were in the book of Exodus a few weeks ago – God had gathered his rescued people at Mount Sinai, and had issued to them his Ten Commandments. They are the headlines of God's law and in chapters 21-23 we get the small print if you like – As we see how those principles are worked out in detail, in real or potential day to day situations that God's people might find themselves in.
So for example, the Sixth Commandment says, "You shall not murder" – And Exodus 21 verses 12 to 15 begin to apply that principle to situations of accidental death and intentional murder.
The Eighth Commandment says, "You shall not steal" – And so in Exodus 22 verses 1 to 4 we get the detail of how to apply that principle when a thief breaks in.
And it looks as though that strange instruction in chapter 23 verse 19 about not cooking a young goat in its mother's milk was actually a religious practice of the local Canaanite people in worship of their false god – and so it's clearly the application of the First Commandment to "have no God but God."
Do you see? In the detail, the principles of the Ten Commandments are being applied in a way that made sense to the people of God in their context, in that day.
And to find a way through all this small print I want to suggest we do it by looking at three characteristics of God that are reflected in these commandments.
1. God's People Should Reflect God's Character in Truth
Look at the beginning of chapter 23,
"You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit."
You see a whole variety of ways are being described to us here to keep the Ninth Commandment – not to spread "false witness." I guess we might bring it up to date by saying: "Don't pass on malicious gossip"; and "Don't play to the crowd! Have the courage to tell the truth... even… when it will be unpopular in the court of public opinion. Tell the truth even if it might personally be costly to you."
And don't show favouritism – that's the bit about not being partial to the poor. Of course God isn't saying "Don't care for the poor!" Nobody cares more for the poor than him! But here as always the Bible strikes the perfect balance. The poor are not always right, nor are the rich always in the wrong. So we should not skew the facts to favour one group over another. Favouritism always leads to injustice and ultimately to resentment and revenge.
You see God is a God of truth. In him there is nothing false. He never lies. And therefore we as God's people should show an unreserved commitment to truth. Now of course there is nothing outdated or irrelevant about that, is there? Nothing to be embarrassed about that God hates lying.
Unless of course it's our own inability to live up to his standards. Which is why we talk about being "economical with the truth" or "white lies" or "little fibs", don't we? We would love to redefine lying – to somehow sanitise or justify it. Because we don't like having to admit to being a liar. But lying matters to God. Because without truth, there can be no trust.
It's because of lying – That husbands find they can no longer trust their wives or wives their husbands. It's because of lying – that we no longer trust our politicians. It's because of lying – that we no longer close a deal with a handshake but with an army of lawyers and a mountain of paperwork. In fact, it's because of lying – That I need to stick my nose in my children's mouths at bedtime. Because I can't even trust them to brush their teeth without legislation!
You see the fact of lying taints every part of our lives. So it is a brilliant thing to know that God loves truth so much that he calls on us to reflect his character and be people who do not lie. So I wonder how committed to honesty are we? Will we tell the truth no matter what? Even if it means us having to take the blame when things go wrong, or even when we're tempted to take the credit for someone else's piece of work, or even when we risk frustrating our children by not letting them get a social media account when they're still under age?
God wants his people to reflect his character and like him be committed to the truth.
Then secondly let's look at the way in which...
2. God's People Should Reflect God's Character in Justice
Have a look with me at chapter 21 verse 20 – where the Lord says:
"When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be avenged. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be avenged, for the slave is his money.
When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman's husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe."
Well where on earth do we go with that?!
We've got slavery apparently accepted – The slave being described as someone's "money" or property. And then we've got what seems like a pretty primitive and savage system of justice – "an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth."
Even though these laws seem difficult to us in our day – we need to know that they were an astonishing advance on human rights law for the ancient world.
Slavery has always been a fact of life in our fallen, sin-stained world. In the ancient world conventional wisdom was that a slave was a possession of their master or mistress. Something you owned. So you could be no more charged with beating your slave than you could be charged with beating your kitchen table. They were just both possessions. But that is not the way that God sees it! Because God understands that a slave is a person, made in his image – precious to him and who should therefore be protected. So according to verse 26 if a slave is injured – they are to be set free.
And according to verse 20 – if a master beats his slave and he kills him – he is liable to a capital offence. Folks, this would have been radical, counter-cultural stuff. Suddenly slaves have rights! Suddenly there were laws that protected a slave! Suddenly slaves were being treated not simply as property, but as people!
Folks, when God's principles of justice get applied to the cultural conventions of the day – things get turned upside down. In this ancient culture where justice was a matter of vengeance, and where mighty was right – it was revolutionary to be told not only that slaves had rights – but also that the punishment must fit the crime. Which is the "eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth" bit isn't it? There should be no turning a blind eye to injustice – neither should there be bitter extracting of vengeance so that personal vendettas and family feuds spiral out of control. Justice must be proportionate.
Do you see? God is fair. His law doesn't promote slavery. It simply recognises it's a reality in our fallen world and regulates it. It's kind of like when one of my children get into a bit of a scrap – what do I do? I don't put a plaque up on our kitchen wall declaring, "Thou shalt not fight" – thinking that will do trick. No kids will be kids and get into scraps. And when one of my kids throws something at another kid or gives them a push or a slap – I tell them to go and sort it out. To seek to make peace – by apologising and offering recompense to the other child which in our household usually involves them giving away some of their sweets from their sweetie jar.
It's similar with these laws regarding slavery here. Slavery in ancient times was very different to the slave trade of 17th and 18th centuries, but it was still abhorrent to God. Yet it was happening and it was going to happen. So God gave laws which curtailed it. And provided some protection for slaves and others who were vulnerable to the sinful desires and actions of fallen men and women.
You see God is a realist. And so should we be.
I mean we read these laws and it is so easy for us to feel superior, isn't it? I mean we've done away with slavery, haven't we? So we're on the moral high ground. But we have done no such thing. It is estimated that there are 40 million people trapped in various forms of slavery throughout the world today – generating 150 billion dollars in illicit profit for traffickers every year. In 2017 there were 98 cases of people trafficking in the North East alone. 40 of which were children. I wonder what the ancient Israelites would have made of a society that pays its city businessmen millions in bonuses while one in four children lives in poverty? Of a society that kills millions of unborn children as a matter of routine? Of a society that leaves its elderly to die neglected and alone? Of a society where 49% of people say that their TV is their main source of company?
It's easy to imagine that we're on the moral high ground, isn't it?
But God is full of justice. So his law insists upon it. This side of heaven, before Jesus comes back to put an end to all injustice once and for all – He will not let the rich and powerful get away with trampling on the rights of the vulnerable in our society.
So he doesn't invite us to question his character – but to join him in pursuing justice for all. That's one of the main reasons we run our Christians Against Poverty Debt Centre to free those enslaved by crippling debt. It's why a handful of congregation members here help out at the food bank week by week. It's why two couples in our congregation adopted children in care last year. It's why Christians have always been at the forefront of campaigning for social change.
William Wilberforce – One of the key players in the abolition of that slave trade in recent centuries – got what these verses were all about, and used them as inspiration to sacrificially pursue social change for nearly a million slaves.
To take action like that – we not only need to have God's heart for justice, but also (and finally) need his heart for mercy.
3. God's People Should Reflect God's Character in Mercy
Look with me at the second half of chapter 22 – Do you see God's heart of compassion for the vulnerable? It is everywhere in these chapters.
Verse 25: "If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him." – Don't go charging people interest, lend freely.
Verse 22: "You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry..." – Don't profit from the weak and defenceless just because you can.
Verse 21: "You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt." – Don't take advantage of the foreigner or refugee or oppress them – instead take care of them.
And the reason God's people should do this is because they too were sojourners in Egypt. Which doesn't simply mean "Well you should know what it feels like." No, it's more than that. God is saying, "You were foreigners in Egypt and I rescued you. That's the sort of God that I am. A God who rescues. A God who shows mercy. So reflect my character, by also being a person who shows mercy to others."
And this mercy is not only to be extended to the vulnerable – amazingly according to chapter 23 and verse 4 it is to be extended even to your enemy: "If you meet your enemy's ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying down under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it; you shall rescue it with him."
It's a very small step from this expression of God's mercy to the one who said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
And in both cases the reason is the same – It's so that God's people might be children of their Father in heaven – and reflect his character, which is fundamentally merciful.
Folks, there's loads more that could be said here and I need to pull stumps and finish. But you see, as we begin to look behind the surface of these laws – to try to search out God's character I wonder if we find anything to be embarrassed about? Is there anything embarrassing about God's commitment to Truth? His commitment to Justice? His commitment to Mercy? Once we see them for what they are part of the unfolding revelation of God. Yes written to a particular, people at a particular time – so we can't just lift them wholesale and apply them to ourselves today. But once we see them in their historical context we can see the character of God that they reflect. And learn from them.
So as we finish – here's what I'd like us to do. I'd like us all to take a minute to think and pray that through.
- How God is calling us to reflect his mercy, his justice and his truth this week?
- And to who? Think people, please, opportunities?
Let's just take a moment of quiet in which to do that now, before we sing again.