Exodus 20:17 - The Terrifying Potential of Getting What We Want
September 21, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 20:17–20:17
[Exodus 20:17 - The Terrifying Potential of Getting What We Want]
In the Tenth Commandment, God shatters any illusion that his commands are only addressed to our behavior. The thoughts and intentions of our hearts are also laid bare to his piercing gaze because he sees what our hearts truly want. But what happens if he gives it to us?
[Pray - Loving Father, you have made us not to exist on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from your mouth. Give us a hunger for you Word, and in that food satisfy our daily need. Lord, open now our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit that as the scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what your Spirit will say to us this day. Amen.]
[Read Exodus 20:1-17 for context]
What does God want for me? That's not a new question. In every culture in every time, people have asked it, looking for an answer. Because the answer is tied to the meaning of life. Humans look to the gods of their fathers, to the old gods of their people and wonder, "What does God want for us?" because we're looking for what's important. We want our lives to have meaning.
But, interestingly enough, when we ask "What does God want for us," the answer humans usually come to is the same. Whether you are a Mesopotamian farmer or Manhattan trader, what the gods want for us always seems to line up with what we want for ourselves. The gods want what we want; they want the things we believe give life meaning. Baal wanted fertile harvests. Wall Street wants you to be secure and comfortable. More than anything else, these gods want us to be happy - because we believe happiness is what gives life meaning.
And so the pursuit of happiness drives us in our marriages and vocations and friendships. The pursuit of happiness shapes our thinking about where our money goes - even how we pray. But if God doesn't give us happiness in these things, it's easy to doubt him. Because if God isn't making us happy, then what good is he? Or if God isn't making us happy, then maybe it just means he's abandoned us.
But in this Story of Redemption we see this God is good. We hear he never abandons his people. It's just that the God of the Bible wants more for his people. He loves us enough to not be a slave to our happiness.
But, if my happiness is not his chief concern, then here's our first question - What does the God of the Bible want for us? To answer, think about what he gave to us in the beginning. Think about what we had before the Fall, before humanity ever had to ask what God wants for us.
In Eden he gave us a home.
In Eden he gave us relationships.
In Eden he gave us himself.
In the beginning, God gave us everything we needed; we had a home where all our needs were met - abundant food; purposeful work; we had safe and shameless relationships. But he gave us more than those good things. He gave us himself - because without him those other, good things don't have meaning. If our first parents in the Garden had everything except the God who made them, then they didn't truly have anything. But in Eden they had him, enjoying an intimate relationship with the God who made them and loved them. And everything else could be enjoyed in its proper place in relationship to him.
But think now about what humanity lost in our rebellion. Through Adam's disobedience (Paul says in Romans 5), all humanity lost fellowship with God. Our first parents wanted happiness instead of obedience to their God. And that rebellion shattered our relationship with God and brought condemnation to us. And when we lost God, everything else was lost as well because life can't make any sense without him. So, our relationships with one another were broken. And our home itself was lost. We became lonely exiles, longing for our true home but unable to return.
Wasn’t that Israel's experience in Egypt? No home; broken relationships with one another and the rest of humanity; separated from life with this God.
Have you ever felt that way? When you're lonely? When you're in a fight with someone you love? When you remember the ways you've rebelled against the God who made us? Can you feel what we've all lost because our hearts want happiness more than God?
But in the Exodus, this God is beginning to restore to Israel what they'd lost. This God had made promises; he wanted them to have again what was lost long ago. Israel heard it in God's words to their father, Abraham - "And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God." (Genesis 17:7-8)
When Israel walks away from this mountain, they are walking toward the Promised Land. It is going to be their new home. And God is pulling them together as his people - even their relationships with one another are being restored. They’ll have a home and they’ll have restored relationships once again. But those good things would have to find their proper place because above all we hear God restoring them to himself - "I will be their God," he promised to Abraham. Now, at Sinai, that promise is coming into reality. In this work of redemption he's accomplishing, God is giving his people what he wants them to have. And first, that means he's giving them himself, welcoming them into a relationship with him where condemnation and guilt are replaced by peace.
That redemption is a picture of what God has done fully now through the Lord Jesus Christ. As the fulfillment of all the promises of God, Jesus is the one restoring to us what we lost long ago. If you're asking the question, "What does God want for me," then you can look to Jesus and hear the answer. Because he tells us what he wants for us.
Jesus says, "I came that they may have life and have it abundantly." (John 10:10)
In the abundant life Jesus came to give, we hear the good news that what we lost through rebellion - home, relationships, God himself - what we lost God is restoring through Jesus, beginning with our relationship with him. Paul writes, "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 5:1) When we turn away from trying to find happiness apart from God (or using God as a means to get happiness) and instead trust Christ, then we have again the most important thing we lost. Through faith in Jesus we have peace with God. And from him we have the promise that in Christ God is restoring all things to the way they're supposed to be.
Because in Christ we have forgiveness. In Christ we have a home. There is no condemnation for those who trust in Christ because he took it all on himself on the cross. In Christ we have a restored relationship with God and hope for our relationships with one another. Through faith in Christ we have the most important thing that we lost – we have God and he has us as his own. And in Christ we have the promise that a day is coming when all is restored to the way it's supposed to be.
If we ask the question, "What does God want for me," then God says, "Christ." Resting in Jesus, God gives us abundant, meaningful life. He gives us himself with the promise of restoration that goes beyond our ideas of happiness. That's what God wants for us.
But what do we want?
That's the second question we need to answer - What do we want for ourselves? Because if we feel our loss, if we're even vaguely aware that things aren't the way they're supposed to be in our lives and relationships, then we naturally look for solutions. And if we believe happiness (rather than Christ) is what gives meaning to our lives, then we've got to get it any way we can.
For two-year-olds, there's nothing quite so beautiful or desirable as the toy currently held by the kid next to them. You can watch the thought develop as they eye their neighbor’s toy - "That car would absolutely change my life if it were mine. And it should be mine. If it isn't I'll never be happy again." You know what comes next - the grab. The car gets stolen. We, as responsible adults, will often correct the stealing, returning the car to its original owner. But what we don't often address is the heart that wants to steal. Because theft doesn't come from nowhere. It comes from a heart that sees something and wants it desperately. It comes from a coveting heart - a heart that ties hopes and dreams and happiness to what it sees.
Coveting is different than wanting, although the line between them is difficult to draw. Coveting is deeper because it has to do with life's meaning. I want a Five-Guys burger because I'm hungry, but I could be content with Cook-Out. I covet my neighbor's house because I believe it will make me happy, make my life what it's supposed to be. Coveting looks at things other than God and trusts them to do what only God can do. Coveting takes people and things - even ideas - and gives such weight to them that life is defined by them.
In the passage we read in Luke 12 (vv.13-21), Jesus hears a man who seems to believe that his life will be right if he gets a part of the family inheritance. Now, you know that nothing creates strife in a family like death and dividing property. But Jesus understands what is going on beneath the demand. Jesus gives an earnest warning - "Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." We human beings so easily look to people and things to regain what we lost in the beginning.
Think about it. Why would someone covet his neighbor’s wife? Isn't it because he sees in her a picture of the "perfect" mate? Isn't it because he thinks, "Life would be perfect if she was mine. If I had her, then I'd really be happy. My home would be happy. My soul would be satisfied." He wants her because he idolizes her – quite literally she has become a functional god whom he trusts to make life right. Of course, she can’t. Assuming he did leave his wife for another woman, soon the new honeymoon period would end and he would see that his mistress/wife is as flawed as his first wife. Then he'd be unhappy with a train-wreck of pain following behind him all because he's made her the hope of his happiness. But she let him down since no human being can carry the burden, the expectation of making another human happy.
And yet we put that expectation on people and things all the time, looking to them to give life meaning, to make us happy. Maybe it’s a higher social status that will make us happy. Maybe it's a little nip and tuck or new nose. Maybe if my body matched the ones in the magazines, I'll be happy. Maybe I'll be happy if my spouse's body matched the ones in the magazines. Maybe if my house was more comfortably furnished; maybe if I was as productive as my peers; maybe if I was respected like my sister; maybe if I was as strong as him - then life would be right and I'd be happy. If only I could be as rich, beautiful, successful, or adored as my neighbor, then I'll be happy - then life will have meaning and I'll be okay.
What is it that makes you happy? What could you get that would make you content? What - even now - is robbing you of happiness because you don't have it (or him or her)? Whatever is in your mind may be your functional god, the person or thing that gives meaning to life.
What do we want? We want happiness and we want meaningful lives. But we want them on our own terms, according to our own design. We want a kingdom unto ourselves surrounded by treasures that make us happy.
The dangerous thing is this - if we get our hands on what we covet, then it all seems to work - there is a sense of happiness that comes. But it's like partial patches or temporary fixes. Because even if we get what our hearts desperately want, we still want so much less than God wants for us. Like C.S. Lewis says, we are far too easily pleased.
That's because none of us understand how deep our sin and brokenness goes. God says we don't need partial patches or temporary fixes. Our whole world, our whole person has to be remade, restored. And restoration is what Jesus came to do. But if we are content with less than Christ, when our happiness rises or falls on someone or something other than Christ, then what will we have but discontent with even the good things God has already given. Without Christ, happiness will inevitably fall to despair and anger.
It's nothing new. That's why God gave this command. In the Tenth Commandment, the God of the Bible comments on what humans believe gives life meaning - the right house, the right spouse, the right standard of living, the right possessions, or anything else we see and want. He means to show his people then and now that we can't make life right by running after these things. Because coveting is looking to things other than Christ to give life meaning. And to persist in the pursuit of mere happiness, to persist in trying to find meaning apart from life in Christ, to persist in making someone or something other than Christ the source of our happiness - to persist leaves us open to the terrifying potential that God may actually give us what we want. If we want a life independent from Christ, if we want to try to find happiness without him, then he just may allow us such a life both now and for all eternity.
That is how the Bible sometimes talks about the judgment of God. It is part of his justice to give us exactly what we want. If we are discontent with his fullness, then he may let us have our little happiness without him. But when it fades and falls to dust, when our expectations aren't met by a fellow creature - fellow sinner - then what will we have but loss? What will we have but emptiness and loneliness and weeping and gnashing of teeth?
So, one last question - What do you want now?
The Gospel of Jesus says there is hope for people like us whose hearts are so easily pleased. We have hope because God does not always give us what we want. Instead, he gives us mercy.
"He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him"
And in his steadfast love he still gives Christ to his people. This is the Gospel, the good news for people like me – for people with covetous hearts like a thieving two year-old’s. Because even when we were running after happiness in people and things other than God, God still sent Christ to die in our place on the cross. And in our own lives he sends his Spirit to create new hearts in us - hearts that want Christ, hearts that are satisfied more and more in him.
That is the mercy and grace of God at work in us. He convinces us that there is more than happiness – there is joy to be found in Christ. Because through him we hear of forgiveness for sinners like us, of restoration to God not based on our obedience but on Christ’s. We hear of new, abundant, eternal life to be lived with God because Jesus has been raised from the dead. Trusting in Christ, we have a home, a place in the family of God together with our brothers and sisters in the Church. Trusting in Christ, we receive extravagant grace and can give extravagant grace to one another so that our relationships with one another – though sometimes unhappy – can remain full of love and peace.
What do you want? What can satisfy but Christ? And if you want him, then God gives him to you freely. Embrace him and rest.
Rest. There is contentment in that word, in that promise. It’s the contentment that can only come when we hear Christ say, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) Because if we have Christ - even though we're often drawn to old wants, even though we are still so preoccupied with our own happiness that the monster of discontent and covetousness often rears its head - Christ is more faithful still. And when he leads us back to himself, we recover the secret to joy and contentment once again.
Because with Christ we may enjoy the good gifts God has given to us, while keeping them in their proper place. We enjoy what we have – homes, families, food, jobs - while confessing that they are not the source of our truest happiness. They are rich blessings in this life, but we do not derive the meaning of life from them.
And Christ strengthens us to endure with contentment when God takes those good things from us. Why he does that sometimes, I confess, I do not know. I do not know why some of you are suffering loss the way you are. But the Lord gives and the Lord takes away and we are to speak well of his name (Job 1:21) at all times because his steadfast love never fails. We know that he can restore what he takes. Only we must trust him to know when and how.
And our Lord says the restoration of all things is at hand. “Surely, I am coming soon,” says Jesus (Revelation 22:20) And with him comes our true home and our restored relationships. But do you think we will take more joy in those things or in the face of Christ? He is not the means to get what God wants for us. Jesus is what God wants for us.
[Pray – Father, as one of your saints prayed long ago, "May (we) never seek in the creature what can be found only in the Creator." And although we confess that we have done that very thing, we would turn from our earthly wants back to Christ, our hope. In him alone is satisfaction for our bodies and souls, and in him alone is all joy and life and peace. Through Jesus’ blood you have ransomed us from empty lives and restored to us purpose and dignity and life itself in him. Father, help us to seek first your kingdom and rest only in the righteousness of Christ, trusting you to add to us whatever you know we need. And whatever you give, help us enjoy it without defining our lives by it. And whatever you take away, help us to endure the loss while counting ourselves as rich because we have Christ. May he be our greatest treasure. May his promises be comfort for our souls. And until you restore all things, Father, keep us content in him. For the praise of Christ and in his name we pray. Amen.]
[Benediction – from Number 6]
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.