By Nicholas Zork
Liturgical Lessons from the Decalogue: The Priority of Prologue
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exodus 20:2 NASB)
The Decalogue is a relational covenant between God and God’s people, rooted in what God has done to make that relationship possible. God has delivered us all from slavery — literally, metaphorically, or both. In Exodus 20, the Decalogue’s prohibitions and directives are all framed as responses to the all-important prologue acknowledging our deliverance by God. But in practice, this prologue is rarely emphasized. And as a result, the subsequent relational covenant of freedom becomes yet another burden, a doctrine of self-improvement that merely replaces one yoke with another.
The spiritual slavery of this moralism is nowhere more insidiously prevalent than in Christian worship. And unlike its more rigid cousin, legalism, moralism appeals to liberals, conservatives and everyone in between. Few Christians would, of course, explicitly say that the central focus of Jesus’ message is behavior improvement. But our worship practices — especially our preaching — are often more moralistic than we realize. I know mine are. Adventist sermons unfold in a variety of ways, but nearly all of them end with the same basic appeal: live better. The definition of living better is where theological camps divide. Conservatives favor calls for individual purity, faithful religious observance, and participation in church growth efforts. Progressives tend to emphasize societal ills, faithful observance of Jesus’ social ethical teachings, and participation in social justice initiatives. But the subtle common thread of moralism in both traditions reflects the shared assumption that what we truly need and what this world truly needs is for us to be better Christians.
We do, of course, need to be transformed. And a true transformation would no doubt benefit our neighbors, communities and planet in important ways. The issue is that spiritual slavery under the yoke of moralism simply does not transform. “You should,” “we should,” “I should,” are some of the most burdensome words in the English language. And they are not only powerless to accomplish their stated ends but often counter-productive. I’ve preached a lot of “should” sermons. But I’ve come to realize recently that the only messages that have ever been transformative in my life and the lives of others have reflected the priority of the divine prologue: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God’s deliverance of the spiritually, emotionally, materially, or otherwise oppressed and enslaved is ongoing. And that divine work — in which we are graciously invited to participate — is the true transformative hope of the world.
I invite you to consider how worship in your congregation each week can facilitate an encounter with the God who delivers. These three questions might be a helpful place to start:
- Is the sermon focused on the Gospel? Does the sermon emphasize the good news of what God has done for us that we cannot do for ourselves? Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:30 NASB). Will worshippers leave feeling burdened to live differently out of obligation or freed to live differently out of gratitude?
- Are we singing the Gospel together? Fortunately, moralism has inspired relatively few popular worship songs and hymns. The Gospel story is almost always reflected in congregational singing. While many contemporary worship songs and nineteenth-century Gospel hymns are overly individualistic, singing together almost always affords the opportunity to focus on the work of Jesus.
- Are our “benedictions” truly benedictions? Namely, are they words of blessing or just sermon summaries presented as prayers? In Christian worship, God is not only acknowledged in the prologue as the One who comes before but is given the last word as the One who sends forth. The benediction provides an opportunity to let the last words be God’s in the form of a Scriptural blessing. This blessing assures worshippers that the Gospel can be embodied in their lives and communities because of the self-giving work of a present and gracious God. The God who has already delivered us will continue to bless us.
As you prepare for worship this coming Sabbath, may you be encouraged by this blessing from the Book of Numbers:
“The Lord bless you, and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine on you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance on you,
And give you peace.”