We are halfway through Jerusalem Term, and so it is appropriate for me to bring you a few words of exhortation — what your academic dean described to me as a few kicks and hugs. This I am happy to do, and after thinking it over, I decided to speak to you in a Mosaic pattern, a pattern of ten words. What I thought to do was speak the ten words to you, but to modify them according to your station and calling. You have a vocation, a calling as students, and the words given to God’s people generally certainly have application to you specifically. I want to take the general equity here and apply it to you in your current position.
The exhilaration of the first couple of weeks has worn off — that was like going off a high dive, and what a rush it was. But now you are in the water, and you need to become a distance swimmer. The disciplines, pains and pleasures that go with this are very different than the excitment of diving. And so . . . this word. And so . . . these ten words.
But first a preamble. There is a vast difference between the obligations that fall naturally out of grace and the obligations that will dry up your soul until it looks like a little piece of legalistic beef jerky. One kind of mind hears a word like ought, and immediately defaults to a spiritual fetal position, the more quickly to be condemned. Another kind of mind hears the word ought from the Lord, and hears grace, liberty, freedom, and maturity. The Lord your God brought you up out of the house of bondage, and all your obligations to Him are centered in that context. This is the perfect law of liberty. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. He is nurturing you to grow up into maturity. The internalization of His law is one of the great features of the new covenant, and men and women who are set free by internal self-control will not really have to worry about the imposition of external controls, or, as they are more commonly known, chains.
That said, here are the ten words of the covenant, tailored for NSA students.
The triune God is everything. In Him we live and move and have our being. In Him we have life and light. In Him, we are protected from all the impostures of deities-on-the-make. He is the Lord, and there is no other. No other gods. Now because of the progress of the gospel in our nations, we are not warning you away from Marduk, or Zeus, or Baal. But the fundamental choice is always there, and the first commandment is always first on the list, and will be first on the list until the end of the world. This means that the other gods, the competing gods, the clamoring gods, will sidle up to you from the side, and suggest that you render to them what belongs only to the Lord. The gods you might have to answer in this would be Entertainment, or Money, or Popularity. These gods do not require that you leave candles in front of statues or baskets of fruit in front of little tables with pictures on them, but they do require all kinds of strange obeisance. And also note that this command is not primarily about avoiding the wrong gods. It is about avoiding them because you are so taken with the living and true God that you cannot be bothered. Do not ever become so smart, educated, sophisticated, or talented that you feel that loving Jesus Christ is beneath you. Love God, love His Son, love His Spirit, love His worship, love His people, and hate sin. Do not ever think that you can ever be cool enough to be above this simple duty. No other gods.
Secondly, God has told us not to worship Him through the use of icons that we have carved or painted. This is not because icons are bad — the Lord has filled the earth with them. Jesus Christ was the eikon of God the Father, and as bearers of the imago Dei, we are all of us icons. There is a law in economics that says that bad money drives out good. It is the same kind of thing here. Bad icons drive out good icons. The problem is not icons, the problem is that we don’t use the icons we were given. If you refuse to see the Lord Jesus in your classmate, or roommate for long enough, God will reduce you to seeing the Lord Jesus in a tortilla. The two great commandments are “love God, love your neighbor.” C.S. Lewis says somewhere that next to the sacrament, your neighbor is the holiest object to present itself to your senses. You are discovering the joys and pains of living in community. Learn to see Christ in your classmate, the one with the annoying questions. Learning to see Christ in your roommate, the one with the annoying bathroom routines in the morning. Do not turn away from your neighbor, because the only thing that will happen when you turn away from God’s icons is that you will turn to others, man-made icons. Worship the Lord in Spirit and in truth, and as you come to the Lord’s Supper weekly here, learn to discern the body of Christ in one another. That will be one of the greatest lessons you could ever learn.
You bear the name of Christ. Of course your conversation ought not to be rude, crude and unattractive, but the third word is not primarily about cussing. It is about your name, and the names that are attached to you. You bear or carry the name of Christ in your baptism. You are a Christian. Do not let that bearing of the name be in vain. In addition to this, you bear other lesser names as well — walking in such a way as not to disgrace the name of Christ is going to be directly related to walking in such a way as to not be an embarrassment to the other names you bear. Your family name, for example, is not as important as your family in Christ, but being faithful to Christ (bearing His name rightly) means that you will learn the right kind of loyalty to those who share whatever other names you have. There would be your family name, and the name of your home church, the name of your denomination, the name of your home town, and even the name of your nation. It applies also to your church here in Moscow, and of course to NSA. You are very much in the public eye. This ought not to be a burden, but it is a reality. According to this commandment, it is something we carry or bear. Again, returning to the point of the preamble, this is not raw requirement. My grandmother used to tell her six boys, “Be good! Don’t be like other boys.” When this is heard with a heart of loyalty, it is a delight. Heard any other way, it just becomes another wagging finger under the nose.
The fourth word is about the Lord’s Day, which is a great blessing. It is a blessing on two counts. First, God has given us a day for resting, worshipping, fellowshipping, napping, and complete freedom from assignments. Do not think of the Lord’s Day as a time during which you “can’t do” certain things. This is a gift to you, not a ball and chain. Learn the rhythm of glad rest as the foundation, and glad work built on that foundation for six stories. Then next week you get to build another one. So in this word, He has also given us six days for labor. Work is not a result of the Fall. The sabbath is a command that presupposes work. Adam was given his assignments well before the serpent entered the picture, seeking to make his work harder and more complicated. But work is a creation ordinance, and the serpent did not bring work. He was the first to suggest cursed work, but work before his arrival was a blessing. It is one of the things that God pronounced good. The garden He gave man was good, but the fact that it needed tending was also good.
Some of you might have the motto that the sooner you get behind, the more time you have available for catching up. This is true in a perverse way, but it is not a truth that laziness equips you to take advantage of. Work is your friend. Work is a fine companion. Work under the blessing of God enables you to get up Monday morning muttering, oh boy, oh boy.
The next word is related. Honor your father and mother. There are several aspects here. Most of you are here because your parents are paying for tuition, or helping to pay for it. In doing this, they are paying for a product. They are paying this on the supposition that something substantial is going into your head, and what they have in mind is probably not the next level of expertise on your X-Box, or ability to recite from memory random bits of dialogue from chick flicks that make You’ve Got Mail look like Pride and Prejudice.
While we are here, another element of honoring your father and mother is this. Obey and love their standards, as much as you possibly can. Don’t give them grief or heartburn on anything involving what you thought was Christian liberty — anything involving cigarettes, whiskey, gambling, skanky movies, music that sounds like a heliocopter landing on the roof of a tin garage, skanky movies with subtitles that have the supposed power of a moral disinfectant, or blogs that reveal to the world that you are one needy soul.
Murder. Now the Lord Jesus teaches that personal animosity is the root of this sin, and while we don’t have a problem with this sin in a way that causes the police to run their yellow crime scene tape around your apartment, we cannot breezily go on to the next commandment. The problem of malice, cattiness, backbiting, snarkiness, pettiness, hatred, pride, insolence, or anything like it, is all to be avoided, and avoided for what it is, the root of murder.
The seventh word addresses sexual sin. Sexual sin is not worse than other sins, but it is certainly more complicated than other sins. God forgives all sin, including this kind of sin. But remember that you live in a conservative Christian community, and it is far easier to choose the route of hypocrisy rather than to risk the possibility of exposure that getting pastoral help would involve. Stay far away from the sexual gnosticism of pornography, and if you are having trouble with the freedom that being away from home has given you, seek out some real accountability. Don’t seek out the phony accountability of drowning swimmers clutching at each other.
The other part of this is that the attraction between the sexes is one of the most powerful forces that God gave to us. When we have various cultural mechanisms to try to keep things in a semblance of order, a good deal of weirdness and attempted “work-arounds” can result. Flirtation, fooling around, courting three people at once, guys wanting to show attention, girls wanting to get attention . . . what a world we live in! Just a word of pastoral exhortation. Don’t be an idiot. Don’t be hard up. Don’t start what you can’t finish.
With regard to the eighth command, it would be nice to say that this is a Christian college, and that we have consequently never had any problem whatever with stolen work. When you have a lot of work to turn in, and the pressure is high, it is easy to start making excuses to yourself, or to shove the noisy part of your conscience into a closet. And computers have made it easier to get into all kinds of sin, including the sin of plagiarism, which is intellectual theft.
Related to this, the Lord prohibits false witness. In Colossians we are told to avoid lying to one another, seeing that we have put off the flesh, with its practices. A good part of what we do here at NSA assumes the honor system. This does not mean that we have the honor and you have the system. We ask you regularly if you are current in your (considerable) reading. A dishonest reply might begin with the justification that it is all right to reply in the affirmative if it is your honest intention to be current by late that afternoon. But of course, late that afternoon, something important comes up, a volleyball game, say, and off you go. Be scrupulous in what you say. Your word is one of the precious possessions you have. Treasure it. Keep it safe.
And last, we come to the prohibition of covetousness. The Lord here says that we are not to desire or want anything that belongs to our neighbor. In this setting, here at college, how do envy and covetousness come out? What might you want that belongs to somebody else? The assumption behind this command is that anything our neighbor has is fair game, and we frequently want it solely because he wants it. We know he wants it because he has it. He desires it, and that makes it desirable for us. Don’t covet your classmate’s looks, or her brains, or the ease with which she memorizes Latin case endings. Rejoice for her. She is your sister. Don’t covet your friend’s family, or church, or car, or money, or girl friend, or wife. Don’t want, don’t grasp, don’t desire, don’t get a case of the gimmes. The sovereign God, the only wise God, apportioned this world’s resources the way He did, and the fact that He did not bequeath to you stunning good looks, the young man/woman of your dreams, and a katrillion dollars was apparently not an oversight. God is doing this to you on purpose, and the tenth word encourages us to see the kindness in it.
The alternative to covetousness and envy is contentment. Be content with what you have. The Lord will never leave you or forsake you. Be content with how God made you. Be content with your finances. Be content with your nose. Be content with your living arrangements. Be content with your car. Be content with your grades. Be content with your workload. Be content with your job. The one thing you may not be content with is your sin . . . particularly the sin of discontent, or covetousness.