Moses should have asked for more.
As he stood high atop Mount Sinai, dutifully noting Yah-Weh’s directives for faith and life, Moses should have asked the Lord for some more details about No. 7: “You shall not commit adultery.” Five words, period. End of sentence.
And down the list the Lord moves on.
A few more holy words surely would have been really helpful – particularly so for folks like you and me, living in a time and place when and where sexually explicit materials bump and grind seemingly nonstop. And the sources of incitement and titillation seem exponential in their spread, such that lurid expression now screams out every which way you turn.
In response the Lord’s Seventh Word intends to inspire our authentic living of demure lives – decency stretching far beyond sexual intimacy and expression. But oh, how very perversely tight the definition of decency gets stretched these days! And how wholly tempting to bypass No. 7 as a commandment we’re convinced we’ve kept.
Yet, just as the previous commandment prohibiting murder calls out homicide that’s not just physical but also emotional or spiritual, the Seventh Commandment’s direction is far afield, too. In bed with prohibition of actual infidelity is warning about all things that incite indecency, or inspire lewd suggestion, or further blue already-stale and -musty air with more locker-room talk: Thought, word, and deed that dehumanizes, consumes, and casts aside the other without so much as a second thought.
At its best, human sexuality reveals the beauty and wonder of another’s creation in the divine image. At its worst, unbridled, malicious lust suffocates that spiritual reality. Which, in turn, becomes free rein to debase and abuse the other person.
Without question people for generations have ached with passionate fantasies, and keeping those natural, human desires in check explains the biblical-day phenomenon of “bleeding Pharisees.” They were highly devout religious leaders who so seriously took the charge not to lust after women that they stumbled around with their eyes purposely shut. Thus, lacking vision, they routinely bumped into walls, doors, and other immovable objects, along the way bloodying their foreheads to create red badges of abstinence.
In our time such extreme self-denial fares no better. Nonetheless you’d most definitely need such severe blinders to spare your sight of scantily clad men and women in suggestive poses. For the preacher, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. But bullet-ridden perch and walleye with powder burns really aren’t very taste-tempting or nourishing. So let’s instead feed on the same spiritual food that the apostle Paul serves up to the Ephesians.
The prominent blessing of this passage shines in the occasion to connect our sexual identity with our baptismal identity.
Throughout this clip of his letter, Paul uses language and imagery all pointing to baptism. “You were once darkness, but now you are light,” Paul writes. If you read carefully or listen closely, Paul paints a starkly harsh image. He doesn’t say the saints in Ephesus once walked in darkness – or that they’re covered in darkness. Paul instead says they once were the incarnation of darkness, with nary even the first clue about anything, much less any realization of their need for light and its gracious sources in Jesus.
But now, in Christ, they not only have light by which to see, but they also have become that light! That’s baptism in a nutshell! When you are baptized, you are changed, turned in a new direction – away from your dark self and toward your divine light. You’ve got a light by which to see everything more distinctly, including, as Paul makes clear here, one’s sexuality.
Yes, Moses should have asked for more, but Paul fills in some of the blanks. Listen with all of yourself for the Word of the Lord.
Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children.
Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people. Obscene stories, foolish talk, and coarse jokes – these are not for you. Instead, let there be thankfulness to God.
You can be sure that no immoral, impure, or greedy person will inherit the Kingdom of Christ and of God. For a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world. Don’t be fooled by those who try to excuse these sins, for the anger of God will fall on all who disobey him. Don’t participate in the things these people do. For once you were darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! For this light within you produces only what is good and right and true.
Carefully determine what pleases the Lord. Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. This is why it is said, “Awake, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts.
And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another for Christ’s sake. (Ephesians 5:1-21 NLT)
During the height of the 1960’s sexual revolution, an English satirist wryly noted that these days people seem to have sex on the brain, which, he said, is a funny place to have it.
Or maybe not!
To riff on the poet of Psalm 139, we all are fearfully and wonderfully made – powerfully and firmly knit together in the wombs of our mothers, by God and in the image of God – to be, among other things, sexual beings. That’s part of the conspiracy between God and nature. In the spot-on assessment of another, sexuality lies right next to our ever-present instinct for breathing.
When push comes to shove, nature is downright cruel, particularly to the young. Biology fills youthful bodies to overflow with enraging hormones long before the maturing spirit within has acquired the emotional and intellectual maturity to properly understand and creatively channel such energy. So, please be slow to judgment. And temper your calls for abstinence-only. It works about as well today as it did for those bloody-faced, pug-nosed Pharisees.
In her defense nature has her reasons for doing things as she does.
Nature works to ensure that no one must spend his or her days alone. In declaring such daily loneliness “not good,” the Lord creates soulmates and life partners appropriate for all. And our sexual selves play roles in sparking beneficial attraction and mutual affection.
Nature’s other concern, of course, is getting folks into the gene pool. Those mental and bodily changes that adolescent biology spark – and the myriad ways that nature heats up the passion of our emotions – are working in tandem: Nature wants us to be fruitful and to multiply, in obedience to the command of the Creators in Creation, replicating and perpetuating ourselves and our species.
When it comes to the stuff of the birds and the bees, nature is uncompromising: At every level of our being – physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual, sexual pressure forever pushes us toward one another in committed companionship and intimacy, and further into the gene pool, even when you and I are barely able to tread water.
So, when you next see a young man or woman strutting his or her sexuality, even as you blush, and cast aspersions, and wonder what’s wrong with kids today – please be sympathetic and understanding. You were once there, and nature is just doing what nature does. Such are her ways; such are her proclivities, and God is a co-conspirator with it all.
That said, never be naïve about the sheer, raw power of our sexuality.
Inappropriate handling of its brute, unrelenting force lies at the root of many of our deepest psychological and moral struggles, as well as many of our most chronic social and cultural challenges. Such pressure takes myriad forms but, blessedly, always intends to open our lives to something bigger than ourselves and to remind faithfully that respectful intimacy with others, the cosmos, and God is our real goal. Our sexuality is so grandiose that it would have us want to make life-giving and -affirming love to the whole world.
And isn’t that our No. 1 commandment?
“Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” the religious leaders ask Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
Jesus replies, “‘You must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as you yourself would want to be loved.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
Adultery is a sin, because adultery is intimacy with another cut off from such commandment love, devoid of authentic emotion, feeling no need for commitment.
The notion of love, emotion, and commitment providing the substance of intimacy speaks from a bygone era, right? And thus we’ve grown quite comfortable shunning, avoiding, and excusing such nonsense as too messy, too complicated, too demanding; a real buzz-kill; obstacles to study and work, fun and freedom, personal expression and self-fulfillment.
Sadly, we’re still a long way from integrating sexuality and spirituality in fully healthy ways and fruitful means. Our souls and spirits are yet works in progress, and each of us works out his or her own salvation with fear and trembling. But, easy and tempting though it might be, before you start passing out the scarlet letters, remember that in the end it’s baptism that should make the difference when it comes to how you view yourself, your body, and one another.
Indeed, Moses didn’t ask for more, but God does say more: In the loving intimacy of his coming to us in Christ Jesus – claiming us, and naming us, and loving us. And in that same Spirit, you’ll never go wrong – at least as far as the Seventh Commandment is concerned – when your candid appraisal or pick-up line speaks passionately and intimately of such grace.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, September 17, 2023. It is the eighth in his current series on The Ten Commandments. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Walter Brueggemann, Scott Hoezee, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Ronald Rolheiser inform the message.