Today is the second in our series on the Ten Commandments. We’ve felt led to this series by a concern over the deterioration of basic values and mores in our society, a concern brought to the boiling point by the introduction of a new television series on network TV that has a basic storyline of spouse swapping. Following last week’s sermon someone gave me a Peanuts cartoon—apparently they’re re-running the cartoon in celebration of 50 years of Peanuts. In this one, Linus is reading the paper and is stunned to discover what sad shape the world is in. Turning to his sister, Lucy, he says, "I never realized that such things went on today!" When she asks if he is reading the front page, he replies, "No, the movie ads." I don’t know the date when this particular cartoon ran, but an updated version might just as relevantly say Linus is reading the TV listings. Our series seeks to explore what the commandments teach us about God’s values and mores for His people, over against the values and mores by which our society seems to be living. It strikes me as appropriate on this weekend when we celebrate our country’s independence that we do a little self-examination as to our personal values and the values of our country. To borrow a phrase, freedom is not free. There is a cost for the freedoms we enjoy…and there are standards within our freedom also. Freedom is not free of standards by which we should live. Liberty is not license to do whatever we please. Just as God gave the Ten Commandments to a people beginning their journey as a nation, so too do the Ten Commandments still speak to us and to our nation today. And remember, throughout this series, a critical perspective on the Ten Commandments is to see them, not in the negative of the great "thou shalt nots," but rather in the two positives of God’s protection and provision for us. Today, the first of the 10 Commandments from Exodus 20:2, 3 (read).
At first glance, this commandment, "no other gods," might seem like a no brainer. "Yeah, yeah, we get it. There is no other god but God!" But, it’s a bit more complicated than that. You knew that was coming, didn’t you?!
To begin with, "no other gods" is a pretty big deal to these Jews of the Exodus. The concept of only one God, "mono-theism," is totally new. The culture around them is filled with the worship of numerous gods. There are gods for a good planting season, gods for a good harvest season and gods for all the growing seasons in between. There are fertility gods for the blessing of children. There are gods for wars against neighbors and gods for peace. You name the situation and there was a god for it. The idea of only one God was a radical one for this generation. So, God wants to set the record straight right from the get-go. The first commandment: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." Throughout their history, the Jews will understand God by these terms: First, His name, Yahweh (capital Lord in English translations), which was revealed to Moses during the burning bush experience of Exodus, chapter three (and about which we’ll discuss some in two weeks); then, secondly, as the God who brought them out of Egypt. The Exodus—and the God who brought them out of Egypt in the Exodus—will be central to these people and their understanding of who they are…and of whose they are.
And, as you might imagine, it will be difficult for these people to resist the culture of multiple gods around them. Joshua, at the conclusion of the Old Testament book bearing his name, sends the people out to their new lands with a reminder of their journey out of Egypt, under the guiding hand of Yahweh, and then encourages them, because of the Lord’s faithfulness, to "fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord," (Joshua 24:14, 15). The culture’s influence of multiple gods was a terrible temptation upon this newly formed nation in a new land. The story of the book of Judges, coming right after Joshua’s sending speech, is all about the repeated pattern of Israel’s rising then falling devotion to their one God versus multiple gods, then that devotion rising again, then falling again, only to rise again, then fall again throughout the entire book of Judges. Indeed, throughout their history.
The concept of one God, monotheism, is a totally new idea to these people and their culture. The existence today of three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Islam and Christianity—is a partial testament to these people, and their descendants, obeying this commandment.
Consequently, for us in the 21st century A.D., some 34 centuries since the giving of this commandment, the idea of one God seems old hat, just something we take for granted. However, the temptation from the culture to worship other gods is as strong today, if not more so, as the temptations faced by those Jews who first received this command. When one thinks about it, we are not so far removed from their experience of rising then falling devotion to God. Anything that we place ahead of God in our devotion, our pursuit of meaning, our passion for life, becomes a violation of this commandment. As the quote from Tim Keller on the bulletin cover says, "Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God." What God wants to protect us from in this commandment is the disappointment, the heartache, the pain we inevitably will experience when we build our lives on anything other than God. What God wants to provide for us is a relationship with Him, a relationship with the Creator of the universe, a relationship built upon His unconditional love for us and His absolute faithfulness to His promises given us. All the other commandments will be built upon this commandment. What, or who, is really god in your life? If the answer is anything other than Almighty God, Yahweh of the Exodus, the God of David and Isaiah, the God who came to live among His people and die for their sins, the God of Peter and Paul, if we make our god anything other than this God we will experience heartaches in life that God wants to protect us from. In his best selling book, The Reason for God, Tim Keller expands upon those things God wants to protect us from:
-If you center your life and identity on your spouse or partner, you will be emotionally dependent, jealous, and controlling. The other person’s problems will be overwhelming to you.
-If you center your life and identity on your family and children, you will try to live your life through your children until they resent you or have no self of their own. At worst, you may abuse them when they displease you.
-If you center your life and identity on your work and career, you will be a driven workaholic and a boring, shallow person. At worst you will lose family and friends and, if your career goes poorly, develop deep depression.
-If you center your life and identity on money and possessions, you’ll be eaten up by worry or jealousy about money. You’ll be willing to do unethical things to maintain your lifestyle, which will eventually blow up your life.
-If you center your life and identity on pleasure, gratification, and comfort, you will find yourself getting addicted to something. You will become chained to the "escape strategies" by which you avoid the hardness of life.
-If you center your life and identity on relationships and approval, you will be constantly overly hurt by criticism and thus always losing friends. You will fear confronting others and therefore will be a useless friend.
-If you center you life and identity on a "noble cause," you will divide the world into "good" and "bad" and demonize your opponents. Ironically, you will be controlled by your enemies. Without them, you have no purpose.
-If you center your life and identity on religion and morality, you will, if you are living up to your moral standards, be proud, self-righteous, and cruel. If you don’t live up to your moral standards, your guilt will be utterly devastating.
That is what God wants to protect us from in His requirement that He alone be our God. And He wants to provide for us the appropriate perspective on relationships with spouse, children, friends and family, the appropriate approach to work and career, pleasure and comfort, noble causes, even religion and morality.
I was once asked a "religious" question by a family member "because," she said, "you’re the only religious person I know." My first response, before answering her question, was to say, "Everyone’s religious. It’s just a matter of what you’re religious about."
So, you see, it’s not such a no-brainer. There are countless numbers of "gods" in the world which we can place before God, giving them our ultimate love and devotion. A husband or wife. Our children. Our careers. Our money. Even baseball. I made that mistake once in my life. I won’t do it again. The Denver Broncos! There are some who make the Broncos their god. But all of those things are fickle gods. The Super Bowl years were a great time with our Broncos god, but then Elway retired, Terrell Davis got hurt, Brian Griese didn’t work out. A relationship falls apart. Our careers don’t go in the direction we hoped for. When we give something other than God first priority in our lives we experience all the fragility and fickleness inherent in such imperfect gods and miss out on all that the one, true God wants us to experience in a relationship with Him.
What is it your "religious" about? What, or Who, has the priority of your devotion and worship? Our God is the God who brought Israel out of Egypt and gave to them—and to us—standards for us to live by. The starting place for obedience is to make only Him the center of our life. We are to have no other gods but Him.