Whenever a natural disaster like Hurricane Harvey strikes, there are always those who claim that if they had only been warned they could have been better prepared and they would have been able to spare themselves pain and loss. With Hurricane Harvey, I’m not sure those complaints have any validity. Even those of us living thousands of miles from southeastern Texas heard the alerts and warnings about this storm. Those who heard the advisories to prepare for the worst (maybe even evacuate their homes), and yet ignored them, have no one but themselves to blame. In a similar way, there is a day of reckoning coming for all mankind; one that will make Hurricane Harvey seem like a light drizzle. Jesus described it in vivid detail in our Gospel lesson. Judgment Day will come swiftly, without warning and its effects will be universal and eternal. But that doesn’t mean that God leaves us unprepared. Today we close our study of the 10 commandments with what Luther labeled the Conclusion (even though it is actually an addendum to the 1st commandment). In these verses God reveals that he means what he says. He’s jealous, He will punish, and he’s merciful.
You might think that the Israelites didn’t need this warning. After all, Israel was encamped at the foot of Mt. Sinai; a mountain that had been shrouded in the smoke of God’s glory; a mountain that shook with thunder and flashed with lightning; a mountain, so holy that anyone who touched it was to be executed on the spot (Exodus 19:12-13). I suppose it was somewhat similar to standing on Galveston Island as Harvey approached: you didn’t need a government warning to tell you this was serious. And yet, what did the Israelites do while Moses was on that mountain with the LORD? Under Aaron’s leadership they fashioned a calf out of gold and worshiped it as the one who had rescued them from Egypt (Exodus 32). That is the awful power of unbelief. Unbelief is the foolish, unreasonable, outrageous denial of the clear and obvious truth that God does exist and we are accountable to him. The power of unbelief to deceive is why we also need this warning. Especially today, especially for us, because we live in a post-modern world where we’re told that words don’t mean anything, truth is a relative, subjective thing, and God and his will can be whatever you want them to be. In this Conclusion, God is telling the world that he means what he says, he is serious about his commandments, so that when he returns in judgment no one will be able to say “if only I had known better.”
The first thing God wants to make crystal clear is his claim on our hearts and souls and lives: I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God. You know Oprah Winfrey? Talk show host, author, cult leader? Oprah couldn’t stand the thought of a jealous God. She claims that it is what turned her off from orthodox Christianity. Here’s what she said: “I looked around and thought, “why would God be jealous? What does that even mean?” And I’m looking at the people in the church…and I started wondering how many of these people – including myself – would be led to do whatever this preacher said. That’s when I started exploring taking God out of the box, out of the pew. And eventually I got to where I was able to see God in other people and in all things – in graciousness and kindness and generosity and the spirit of things.”  Oprah rejected the one true God in favor of her own fabrication. In an effort to be charitable, maybe Oprah was never really taught the truths of Scripture. More likely, however, is that she is working with the wrong definition of jealousy. English speakers often confuse “jealousy” and “envy.” Envy is a sinful desire for something that doesn’t belong to you. Jealousy is a strong desire for something that is your possession. God is fiercely jealous of his position and possessions – which includes everything. And with God, jealousy is not just a feeling, it is an action. It is his activity in conquering everything and everyone who opposes his will and his zeal for all people to recognize and believe in him as the only true God, the only Judge of mankind, and the only Savior of sinners.
Parents get this. Parents are notoriously jealous of who and how their children are raised and disciplined and taught and fed. Rightfully so. God has given parents – and no one else – the responsibility and privilege to raise their children in line with his will. The love, the jealousy that parents feel toward their children is a good, God-pleasing desire. And parents are right to be angry with anyone who presumes to step in and take their place, subverting their authority and changing their rules.
So how should God feel when his creatures reject his authority and subvert his rule? Think of the love and care that went into creating a perfect universe – from the finely tuned physics that allow for a total eclipse of the sun to the delicate handiwork of stitching together a fetus in the womb. Think of the price God paid for us in handing his own Son over to death for us. That’s really what Oprah – and those like her – don’t understand. It’s not really that they don’t like God’s authority or Law, it’s that they don’t believe the Gospel. We are not our own, we were bought at a price. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) We belong to God and God’s jealousy, his deep desire for us to fear, love and trust in him above all things is actually an expression of his love. God loves us so much that he refuses to let anyone or anything else take his place in our hearts. He loves us so much that he denies anyone the right to change or nullify his commandments, which protect his gifts to us and our neighbor. God is serious. He means what he says. He is jealous of you. He created you. He saved you. He wants you to be with him forever in heaven. And he doesn’t want anything to separate you from his love.
And yet, every time we let something else become the authority in our lives – be it our own reason or emotions or the godless culture around us; every time we follow another set of rules – be it the law of tolerance or political correctness; every time we disobey or contradict a commandment of God – we are rejecting God’s legal claim on us and rebelling against his good and perfect will. Sadly, much of the visible Christian church has taken that path, has compromised God’s Word, distorted God’s will, and has turned God into an unserious, wish granting genie. And we all know people who have bought into that false view of God. They are those who say, “I’ll take God’s Word seriously later, when I have life figured out”; “the God I believe in would never send anyone to hell”; “I think I have God’s favor because I try really hard to be a good person”; or “I think God understands when I impenitently and intentionally disobey his will.”
God himself tells a much different story: I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. Contrary to what Oprah and those like her want to believe, God is serious about his commandments – and he will punish those who break them. We may object: “but it’s not fair that God would punish children for their parents’ sins!” And that would be true (Ezekiel 18:20 – The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son.) if that’s what God said. God didn’t say that. He said he will punish the third and fourth generation of those who hate me. The point is that successive generations tend to follow in the sins they have learned from their parents – especially the sin of unbelief. Parents, grandparents – God is talking to us. God is certifying here that the apple usually doesn’t fall far from the tree. Maybe you are willing to risk God’s judgment over your own sins – but what about the souls of your children? God is serious. He will punish sin. Time and again in history, God followed through on his threats. God drowned the world in a flood to rid it of the filth of sin in the time of Noah. (Genesis 6-8) God’s fury burned the people of Sodom and Gomorrah alive for their sexual immorality and unbelief. (Genesis 19) He sent his chosen people, Israel, into exile as punishment for their idolatry and rebellion. (2 Kings 25) In Revelation 21 Jesus makes it clear that God still means what he says about sin and punishment: the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death. (Revelation 21:8) There are those who think that proclaiming and practicing God’s unforgiving Law is harsh and unloving and might scare people away from church. They are dead wrong. Better to be disciplined here and now – to be shown your sin and brought to repentance – than to spend eternity burning in hell. God means it when he threatens punishment for sin. He’s not playing around. The LORD your God is a jealous God who will punish sin.
God’s Law is terrifying. It makes us tremble at the thought of breaking even the smallest of the commandments. Is that what God wants? Does he want us to fear his anger? Yes. Fear of punishment is the curb God uses to keep us from hurting ourselves and others. But there is another side to God’s jealousy – the side which shows us that God is so jealous of us that he was unwilling to let us suffer the punishment we deserve. And remember, God’s jealousy is never just an attitude or hopeful dream; it’s an action: showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (There are two Hebrew words translated “love” in this verse. The first is better translated “mercy” or “undeserved love.” Showing “mercy” to a thousand generations…) For all the guilt we feel for not taking God’s commandments seriously, the times we have rejected God’s authority in our lives, the times we not only sinned but led others to follow our example – here’s the good news: God’s mercy is greater. God’s mercy doesn’t just take away some of our guilt, rebellion and sin – it covers us completely, like Hurricane Harvey covered Houston. Consider God’s own description: to a thousand generations. If a generation is 20 or 30 years, the world has not yet reached a thousand generations and perhaps never will – that’s how great God’s mercy is. Paul distilled this relationship between God’s wrath and his mercy in his letter to the Romans: the law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21)
Sinful human reason rejects this. Human reason refuses to allow justice and mercy to exist simultaneously. Human reason argues that either our sin isn’t really that bad or that God’s mercy is conditioned on something we must do. But the Conclusion makes it clear that God is both just and merciful at the same time. How is that possible? How does that make any sense? There’s only one way this makes sense: viewing it through Christ and his cross. On Calvary God demonstrated that his wrath and his threats are real. On the cross Jesus experienced ever last ounce of God’s righteous anger and the full horror of hell. God’s punishment is real. Where is his mercy? You and I weren’t there; we weren’t the ones stripped and whipped and nailed to a tree and forced to burn in the lake of fire like we deserved. God punished his Son in our place. That’s mercy, that’s undeserved love. God’s wrath is certainly great, but because Jesus drained every last drop of it, God’s mercy is even greater. King Solomon put it this way because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. (Lamentations 3:22-23) If you ever doubt that God means what he says, look to the cross. There you see real jealousy, real punishment, and real mercy.
Today we leave our study of the 10 commandments, but don’t let them ever leave your heart and mind. For in them you see the pulsing heart of God. You see his holiness, his perfect will, his desire to protect the good gifts he has given you. You also see how terribly short we have fallen. But when God’s commandments have led us to the goal of repentance, then we are ready for the Gospel to point us to our Savior. God means what he says. He is jealous. He will punish. And he’s merciful. So take God at his Word and trust that for Jesus’ sake you will hear these glorious words when he returns: come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. (Matthew 25:34) Amen.