It’s not personal – it’s God’s work
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on October 6, 2019
•Deuteronomy 5:1-21; 6:4-9•
Spend anytime around religious folk and you are bound to hear the phrase: a personal relationship with God. Some would say this phrase captures the essence of what it means to be Christian — the goal we should all seek to attain. Others however would disagree pointing out that this phrase is nowhere in the Bible. Nowhere does Jesus say the goal is to have a personal relationship with God. And they’re right. It is not there. But here’s the thing — the word “trinity — well that isn’t in the Bible either and we appear to have no issue with that concept. So maybe we ought to give this a little more thought.
Because it seems to me the question is not whether the phrase is present in the Bible, but instead is the concept — the idea — the image present? And I tell you when I hear the words “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,”[i] as we did this morning, it sounds a lot like relationship to me.
Now saying that I have to admit I do struggle with the word “personal” when it comes to matters of faith. Personal feels too individualistic. We have personal computers, personal space, personal trainers and when our faith becomes personal and focused on us as individuals I worry that it will move to personal morality, personal prayer, personal study, and in only a few quick steps before we are at personal salvation.
But if we can find a way to hold the idea of a personal relationship with God from meaning a privatized faith, then I think I would be in. That is if we took this idea of relationship to be what relationship really is — both personal and communal. After all how does one love God if not by loving those around us? How does one share in communion without one another?
Doesn’t it stand to reason that genuine relationship with God must flow into and around all our relationships — caring for those less fortunate, loving our enemies, sharing the fruit of our labor with our community? How can it not? If we are truly living in relationship with God, then won’t we come to see those around us as God does and care for the things God cares about?
And that seems like a pretty good segue into our reading. I trust this is not the first time you have heard the Ten Commandments. They are perhaps one of the best known pieces of scripture, but more than likely when you have studied them you have used the other rendition for our reading today is the second telling. The first rendition is found in Exodus, chapter 20. It comes right after the people leave Egypt — in fact it comes a little bit after the reading from last week. In that telling, Moses is called up to the top of Mt. Sinai where he receives the Ten Commandments and other laws, while the people at the base of the mountain party like rock stars — dancing around a golden cow they built for themselves.
If you know the story you know that it was just a foretaste of things to come. The generation of Israelites who witnessed God’s power through the plagues, the ones whose feet stayed dry as they crossed the Red Sea — they struggle mightily to believe God will indeed bring them into the Promised Land. It was 40 years of struggle. Dan Erlander calls this time “Wilderness School.” And now we are at the commencement address, the end of the journey, the edge of the Promised Land, when Moses speaks the words we hear today:
The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today.[ii]
Now, on the face of it, what Moses says is wrong. There may have been a few remanents of that first generation, but the vast majority of the people to whom Moses is preaching to were not at the dance party at the base of Mt. Sinai. These are their children, and likely some of their children’s children — after all 40 years have past. But like a good preacher Moses’ concern here is not history — rather Moses wants transformation. Moses is seeking to persuade this new generation to recommit to the covenant God made with their parents before they enter the promised land.
And as we are always standing at the cusp of the promised land, Moses words are spoken to us as well. For each generation — the second — to whatever one we currently reside — “all of us here alive today,”[iii] are called upon even now to enter into and recommit to that relationship with the God of Israel.
And Moses reminds us the Law is given within the context of relationship. Given as gift. In Erlander’s depiction, Moses is holding a box with a bow on it. You only give gifts to those you are in relationship with.
The commandments, if you wish to call them that, begin in this way: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”[iv] Notice these things we call Commandments don’t actually start with command — they begin with a word of relationship. A relationship already established — a relationship of intimacy — a relationship of faithfulness — a relationship of promise.
Out of that relationship the commandments are given as gift. They come so the people could learn how to live into relationship with God. The people only knew what it was to live under the oppressive rule of Pharaoh. And so God gifts them the commandments so they might learn instead to become God’s people once again.
But to become God’s people, God must expand the commandments beyond our relationship with God alone to include how we relate to one another. Which echoes that notion that when we take the idea of relationship with God seriously, it can’t help but lead us to love others. And so maybe the goal really is a personal relationship with God.
After all, relationships are at the core of who we are as humans. Go back several weeks in worship when “God said, ‘It is not good that the (hu)man should be alone; I will make… a helper as a partner.’”[v] And God doesn’t stop until the first human is in a proper relationship. It is a truth that we are made for relationship, and outside of relationship we cannot be truly ourselves. From the beginning our very identity as humans is found in relationship.
And if relationship is central to understanding who we are and what life is about then perhaps having a “personal relationship with God” might not be such a bad thing. If it can move beyond being a catch phrase or an excuse to privatize our faith, I think the concept could potentially deepen our life of faith. If we can understand that the phrase “a personal relationship with God,” only comes through God’s relationship with us.
For then wouldn’t our focus be on a loving relationship with God and others, and not a focus on abstract rules or doctrine? Wouldn’t it mean an experienced faith now, and not just one that looks to a book from the past? Wouldn’t it mean we look to Scripture not as a set of rules, but as a witness to what our forbearers in the faith experienced of God in order to get a hold of what they had gotten a hold of?
A focus on relationship would recognize that believing in God is not simply to affirm a fact, but to fully engage in a trusting relationship. Faith means trust. And therefore it would see sin not primarily as a legal transgression, but more deeply as a relational breach — cutting us off from God, others and even ourselves. A relational faith would remember that “knowing” in a biblical context is not about intellectual surety, but rather a relational way to live. That is to know truth does not mean we possess independent absolute knowledge, but rather is a statement of trust and surety that we are known by God.
A God, whom Moses tells us we should love — and love in a way that it is imprinted upon our very life. For not only does Moses remind the people of the gift of the Ten Commandments at this point, but he also says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.”[vi]
And so I come back to this idea about a personal relationship with God and it turns out it’s not personal at all. It is about God’s work. For in the end, the relationship is all about the words being placed in our heart and affirming our oneness — our relationship — with God who already has relationship with you. Amen.
[i] Deuteronomy 6:5 (nrsv)
[ii] Deuteronomy 5:2-3 (nrsv)
[iii] Deuteronomy 5:3 (nrsv)
[iv] Deuteronomy 5:6 (nrsv)
[v] Genesis 2:18 (nrsv)
[vi] Deuteronomy 6:5-6 (nrsv)