March 3, 2024

Words that Shape Us

Exodus 20:1-17


Then God spoke all these words,

2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before[a] me.

4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

8 “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.

12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female slave, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.


Words have the power to shape us. Words aren’t just tools that we use, but words have a power of their own. They form our ways of thinking and shape the way we see the world. Even subtle phrases and words can say something about how we think, or where we were raised. Here’s an example.

Not long after Caitlin and I were married, living in New Jersey, I commented that I needed to get a toboggan before winter. She seemed surprised and asked why, and I said because it was going to be cold. Well, she said, she thought her parents had one in the garage that would lend us. That’s when I knew there was miscommunication going on. I said, “You mean a hat, right, like with a little ball on top, sometimes that has a Ford or John Deer patch on the front?” “No,” she said. “I mean sled for snow. That’s a toboggan. Why would you call a knit hat a toboggan?”

Well, for the record, we’re both right. The word “toboggan” originally meant a sled. It’s a Canadian French word, derived from a word of the Mi’kmaw people, who are indigenous to the Atlantic Canadian provinces. Now, for those of us in the South, French-speaking Canada is a long way away, and we don’t have that much snow, so the word toboggan also came to be used to refer to the hat that one wears while riding on the sled.

What that difference in communication helped me to see, early in marriage, is that the words I thought I was using are, in truth, shaping me. They’re not just tools. My words are gifts from my people and my culture, and they form me. The words I’ve been given form the ways I interpret the world. Words have the power to shape us. Now hold that thought.

In worship during Lent, we’ve been focusing on the Old Testament readings that take us through some of the most important words in scripture. These are major covenantal events. When we use the language of covenant in church, we mean that a covenant is a deep and solemn promise God makes to the world.

Two weeks ago, we looked at the covenant God made after the great flood. God made a deep and solemn promise to every living thing to never again flood the earth. In that event, we learned that God is irrevocably committed to redeeming the world from the inside out.

Last week, we took another step in the covenantal story. God made a deep and solemn promise to Abraham and Sarah that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars, and God promised to bless the world through them. Jesus is a descendant of Abraham, and we Christians believe that God fulfills the promise to Abraham through God’s Son, Jesus the Messiah.

Today, we continue this story by looking at another pivotal event, when God gave to Abraham and Sarah’s descendants – the people of Israel – ten words.  We know them better as ten commandments, but the Hebrew language in the book of Exodus calls them ten words.  “Then God spoke all these words…” God spoke words to give shape to the life of God’s people. God spoke these words to form them with identity, purpose, and calling. Words have the power to shape us.

Let’s take a bigger example than a knit hat – take the word “weekend.” You may remember, several years ago now, the episode on Downton Abbey when Dowager Lady Grantham is overhearing a conversation among younger people about their plans for the weekend. The Dowager Countess finally breaks into the conversation, with a look of derision, and says, “What on earth is a week-end?” Now, the clip got traction as poking fun at elites, but the truth is that a “weekend” was a relatively new thing a hundred years ago.

The idea of a weekend is a product of a five-day workweek that began in the early twentieth century. The five-day work-week created the two-day week-end. Over the last hundred years, the language and idea of a weekend has deeply shaped the way we see our lives and the rhythm we live in. A workweek and a weekend. Work hard. Play hard. Productive time and free time. Public time and private time. Business time and family time.

Now, by contrast, the Hebrew scriptures, coming right from these ten words, thinks about the rhythm of life very differently. Instead of a work-week and a weekend, there are six ordinary days and one Sabbath day. The six ordinary days are full of all the activity of life – everything that needs doing, work and play, public and private – and the Sabbath day is a day of rest. It’s not work-hard/play-hard, it’s rest and then be busy, be busy and then rest. The language of Sabbath creates a very different rhythm of life than the language of a weekend.

Words have the power to shape us. Words form our consciousness, the way we see and shape our lives. That’s why God gave these ten words that we call commandments. In the Presbyterian tradition, in Reformed theology, the ten commandments – these ten words – have three basic purposes.

The first purpose is to help us see how we fall short of God’s intention for human life. The ten words, at first glance, may look like an easy checklist (do not murder, do not steal…) but if you look more deeply, there is nothing easy about keeping these words. The very first word teaches us to trust in God alone: “you shall have no other gods before me.” A god anything in which we put our trust and loyalty, and life is full of many other possible gods.

Money, status, physical appearance, nationality, race, long-life. The list of things to which we can give our hearts is endless, and every one of us falls short of the first commandment to have no other gods. The other nine commandments are no easier to keep than the first. Despite our best efforts, all of us fall short of God’s intention for human life.

The second purpose of the ten words is to provide a moral framework for human life, a basic moral code that helps us live together. These ten words are not only important for Jews or Christians, but they also have something for everyone. Life is simply better when we orient ourselves around what matters most, when we honor God with our language, when we live in a rhythm of activity and rest, when we honor parents, mentors, and older generations. Life is simply better, obviously, when we do not murder, when we do not steal, when we do not lie about others and tear them down, when we do not commit adultery and betray trust, when we are not jealous of what other people have. The ten words are a moral framework for us all to live side-by-side more peaceably in the world.

And the third and final purpose of the tens words is specifically for us as followers of Jesus Christ. As the forgiven people of God, filled with the Spirit, these ten words provide new shape and direction for our obedience to the Lord.  We are a forgiven people, so the weight of these words does not hang over us as judgment. We are a Spirit-filled people, so the task of being shaped by these words is not ours alone.  We have God’s help to let these words shape our lives, guide our living, and direct our decisions.

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Well, what about slipping into the office to catch up on some work early that morning? Is that so bad? What about ball games and travel teams? Isn’t that important? How do you keep the Sabbath day holy when life is busy with all good things or needed things? What is our calling when the work-week/week-end, work-hard/play-hard culture overwhelms the rhythm of activity and rest? The word of the commandment gives no formula, but it does give a direction. With God’s help, and a desire to be faithful, with the support of a community of people, and a lively imagination, this word has the power to shape our lives.

Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land.” Well, what if Mom or Dad is a difficult person? Or, what if they simply live far away and it’s hard to be in touch? What if they live nearby, but need more care and attention than you can possibly give? What if your parents are gone now, how does this word shape you then? All of us can honor people who have been like parents to us. All of us can help create a culture of honor and care for our elders.  There is no formula, but this is a word that is meant to shape us.

To bind us to those who have gone before. To open new horizons. To spur moral imagination. With God’s help, with a Spirit-filled desire to be shaped by God’s words, and in community and conversation with others, this word has the power to shape us.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Well, when scripture says neighbor, it can mean anyone. The positive call of this commandment is a call to love the truth and love others, to defend others whenever possible, to build up their reputation whenever we can, to speak well of them, to explain things in the kindest possible way. What about someone who is hard to defend? What about someone with whom we deeply disagree? What about social media – does that count? How do we build up others in a polarized society? How do we do this in a culture marked by calling out, and canceling, and criticizing? There is no formula, but this is a word meant to shape us. It opens new horizons. It gives a clear call. It spurs our imaginations in a particular direction. With God’s help, with a Sprit-led desire to be shaped by God’s words, and in community and conversation with others, this word has the power to shape us.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” We live in an economy that is built on desire. I see what you have, and I want that for me. Your phone, your car, your house, your lifestyle, your family. By itself the desire to make our lives better is not bad, but desire can also breed jealousy that poisons human relationships. This word about coveting calls us to be charitable toward others with our whole soul, to be happy for our neighbors, not jealous of them.

When your classmate gets a big promotion, celebrate with them. When your friend tells you at dinner that they bought Nvidia stock two years ago, be happy for them. When your neighbor’s kids all come home for Christmas, with spouses and grandchildren in tow, and you’re celebrating alone – be happy for them. When the person across the street is living alone with no health problems, be happy with them, no jealous of them. There’s not a formula for this. This word about not coveting is not meant to lead us into positive relationships of charity and love with all people. To open new horizons, and spur moral imagination with others. To give direction to our hearts and our desires. With God’s help, with a Spirit-filled desire to be shaped by the word, and in community and conversation with the people of God, the word has the power to shape us.

These are the words that our God has spoken. The God who made a promise to every living thing. The God who promised to bless all the nations of the earth through an ordinary couple named Abraham and Sarah. The God who so loved the world, he gave his only Son that we would have life and have it to the full. These are the words this God has spoken. We are called to take them further than a list of how we fall short. We are called to go beyond a basic moral framework that hangs on a wall. As the forgiven and Spirit-filled people of God, these words are meant to shape us.


Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.

First Presbyterian Church

Asheville, North Carolina



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