You Shall Have No Other Gods

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“You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:3).

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Our summer sermon series is on the Ten Commandments. Before we start on the Commandments themselves, however, we should reflect on why they were given in the first place. We go back to the father of the Hebrews—Abram—and to the covenant that God had made with him and his descendants. The Lord promised Abram a son, and, through that son, many heirs who would inherit the land He showed him. But Abram’s offspring would first live as slaves in a foreign land for many years until the time was right to bring them to the Promised Land.

At the time of our text, the children of Israel had been in Egypt for 430 years. Though once treated favorably for Joseph’s sake, a new king had arisen who neither recognized Joseph, nor more importantly, Joseph’s God. Jealous of their fruitfulness and strength, Pharaoh set taskmasters over the Israelites and afflicted them with heavy burdens. But the more they were oppressed, the more fruitful and strong they became. The people groaned and cried out to God for deliverance.

The Lord heard their cry and He remembered His covenant. He sent them a deliverer—Moses a man born of the house of Levi, who had been raised and educated in Pharaoh’s house. Forty years had passed since Moses had fled into the wilderness as a fugitive, after his failed attempt to administer justice and save his people on his own terms. Moses was herding his father-in-law’s sheep on “the mountain of God.” The Lord appeared to him in a burning bush and called him to lead Israel to the Promised Land. It took nine plagues and then the death of the oldest male child in each Egyptian household before hard-hearted Pharaoh finally permitted the Israelites to leave. When he changed his mind and chased them, God miraculously provided safe passage for His people through the Red Sea.

Now Moses had led the people back to “the mountain of God.” And there on Mount Sinai, God had Moses gather the people in sacred assembly. There was thunder and lightning, the air filled with smoke, and the entire mountain trembled violently. Then a stillness fell upon the area. Out of the stillness God spoke. Israel could hear His voice and understand what He said. God spoke “all these words,” the Ten Commandments. In this way, God made a covenant with the nation of Israel: “I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7).

The real event of Sinai, therefore, was the establishment of this covenant. God promised He would care for His people, whom He had brought out of slavery in Egypt, so they could be His special people. The Ten Commandments became part of the laws that indicated how God expected His people to live.

I remember one of the confirmation classes I taught, where we addressed the Sixth Commandment. Given the age of our catechumens—young men and women entering adolescence—this always seems to be a challenge. They are informed enough to know a lot of basic facts of biology and human anatomy, but generally not so mature to properly apply the ethical principles.

I read the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” and explained how in this commandment God demands sexual purity and decency before and after marriage. Then I asked, “Why do you think it is wrong to commit adultery?” I was hoping to get a discussion on how God wants to protect marriages and families, how harmful premarital sex is emotionally and physically. Instead, one of the students said, “Why is it wrong? Because God said so.”

I have to confess that I was not thinking that way. I was psychoanalyzing the commandment—making it into a “good suggestion” rather than a command and ordinance. I was following the American pattern of persuasion and pleading and nagging, trying to sell them on the benefits of sexual morality: “Please do this. It’s for your own good.”

But really, the student was right. Every good parent realizes there is a time when you just have to answer: “Because I said so.” Of course, it’s better for your child in the long run if they listen. But when it comes right down to it, no explanation is really necessary; it is more important to do that to understand why. In essence, this student realized that better than me. God said it; that makes it final!

It was with that sort of understanding that Martin Luther begins each of his explanations to the Commandments with these words: “We should fear and love God so that we…” We fear God above all things when we revere Him alone as the highest being, honor Him with our lives, and avoid what displeases Him. We love God above all things when we cling to Him alone as our God and gladly devote our lives to His service. Simply put, God is God and we are not. If we fear and love God, we will obey Him, trusting His will for us is best.

Still, God Himself does not need our obedience. The good Lord isn’t sitting in heaven, wringing His hands hopefully, as He waits to see if you or I will show Him the proper respect. He isn’t like a movie critic during the worship service, checking to see if we are doing things properly. He’s God. He will be just fine whether we thank, praise, serve, and obey Him or not. Don’t worry about God. When we talk about doing good works, we must never believe that God benefits from them. All talk of God is about what He does for us, not what we do for God.

This is true even in the Ten Commandments. While they are not merely suggestions, they are not, strictly speaking, “commandments,” either. The Ten Commandments are literally “The Decalogue,” “The Ten Words.” We could call them the ten statements or the ten principles or, better yet, the ten descriptions of God’s children. They aren’t even imperative statements, grammatically speaking. They are descriptions of the people over whom God reigns. God says to His people, “You will not kill. You will not commit adultery. You will not have any other gods.” He’s describing you and me.

Klemet Preus offers this illustration in his book, The Fire and the Staff: “Remember when you were a kid and your dad was called into the principal’s office to discuss your behavior? That happened to me. I was accused of showing disrespect to a teacher. It was a false accusation. She had me confused with another guy. My father said, ‘My son is not disrespectful. He will not show disrespect.’ Grammatically, that’s the same as ‘You will not kill.’  Dad did not give me an order. He described me.” Preus goes on, “I suppose someone might think that this understanding of the Ten Commandments gets us off the hook. The opposite is true. What if I had, in fact, been disrespectful? Imagine if my dad’s description of me were not true. I would have made him a liar. His statement would have elicited more anguished repentance than all the imperatives in the world. Imperatives don’t work. Descriptions do. The Ten Commandments describe us.”

The Ten Commandments are given so we can know how God blesses us and how He uses us to bless others. God does not need the commandments. We do. For by them, God shows us how He has blessed us in the past, continues to bless us now, and will bless us in the future.

The Bible makes a distinction between the “words” given us in Exodus 20 (the Ten Commandments) and the “laws” (the rules and regulations pertaining to the conduct of Israel as a nation) that follow. God first spoke the “words,” the Ten Commandments, directly to all the people. The “laws” that follow He gave first of all to Moses privately on Mount Sinai. The “words” were later written by God on two tablets of stone and given to Moses. The “laws” were written by Moses upon scrolls after he came down from Mount Sinai. I mention these things to emphasize the unique and prominent position that the “words” occupy in the giving of the “Ten Commandments.” They are given first; they are basic; they are spoken to all of the people. And God introduces them by saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

“I am the Lord your God.” This is the “I AM” God speaking, Yahweh, the Lord who appeared to Moses once before at this same place and revealed Himself as the God who had spoken to the patriarchs—to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He is a personal being, a God who moves with unlimited freedom, timeless, constant, unchangeable, and above all a covenant-Lord who promised to redeem His people and had kept that promise. Recognizing their complete dependence upon the mercy and grace of God, and trusting in His continued promise of help, Israel was now to respond obediently by following the commands they were about to receive.

It is important for us to understand the Ten Commandments in light of this introductory statement by the Lord. He did not give the “words” so that Israel should obey His commands and thereby earn a favorable relationship with Him. God established from the get-go what this relationship was. He was their Savior-God. He had proved that to them in many ways. In love He had adopted them as His chosen covenant people. He now showed them by these Commandments how they could respond to His grace by living according to His holy will. From this same moral code, they could determine in what ways they still fell short of that perfect standard, how much they still transgressed His law, and how much they still needed the forgiving love that only a gracious Lord could freely grant them.

God still speaks His word of promise and hope today. He says to you and me: “I am the Lord your God. I am the Lord your God, who loved you so much that I sent My one and only Son. I am the Lord your God, who loves you so much that I went to the cross to pay for your sins. I am the Lord your God, who loves you so much that I make you Mine in Baptism, fill you with spiritual gifts, come to you in Word and Sacrament, and keep you in the faith unto life everlasting.”

What is your response? Do you hear and obey the First Commandment? Do you “Have no other gods before [Him]”? Do you fear, love, and trust God above all things? Above all others—even yourself? Do you do so perfectly? All the time?

The god in whom you fear and trust says as much about you as it says about him or her or it. We all, by our sinful nature, tend to fashion our gods in our own images, for our own purposes, to fulfill our own desires. For example, the different deities of Hinduism are called upon to fulfill different purposes. If you wish to be artistic, you worship the goddess Saraswati. If you wish to succeed in business, you become a devotee of the god Ganesh. Criminals, typically, worship the black goddess of death, Kali. And warriors worship the fierce god of combat, Skanda. We worship gods like ourselves, or we become like the gods we worship.

At the time of Moses, the Israelites were tempted to worship the Baal gods of Canaan—fertility gods and goddesses. Like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob… and even Moses, the Israelites had been nomadic shepherds before they entered the Promised Land. They had to learn to farm. From whom? From the Canaanites, of course, who were already farming the land. And how did the Canaanites farm? Well first, in spring, before the planting, they went to the nearest Asherah pole and consorted with the temple prostitutes. That would supposedly excite the Baal gods and goddesses to activate the fertility of the soil. If you wanted a good crop, you had to please Baal and Ashteroth.

In declaring to the people, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods,” the one true God was not only revealing what kind of God He is, but challenging Israel to realize their identity as His chosen people. What kind of people would the Israelites become in this land? Would they become like the Canaanite farmers, or would they be the light to the Gentiles that God intended them to be? You see, the kind of god you worship determines the kind of people you will be. People who worship a licentious god become licentious. People taught a stern, forbidding god—whether Islamic or Christian—become stern and forbidding. People who worship the true God can become like Him—loving, kind, and compassionate. Jesus said, “Your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).

God says, “You shall gave no other gods” because He wants us to become like Him. Do we worship with such intensity and purpose that we become like Him? That’s what is supposed to happen to us as God’s people. In Romans 12:1-2, St. Paul urges Christians: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

God calls us to worship, to prayer, to the study of Scripture so that His Spirit can fill us: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). Worship is to make us different from the world around us.

Worship is hard work. It is warfare against our greatest enemies: the world, the devil, and our own sinful flesh. It is a battle of God’s Spirit within us to conquer our old ways and thoughts and to fill us with His ways and thoughts. So that we won’t conform to the world. So that we’ll conform to God and show what His will is, what is “good and acceptable and perfect” for all people.

But then comes the real question for us worshipers. Do we really want to become like God? Is that why we come to His house? Or are we here basically to use Him for our purposes? Do we pray that we will be changed? Or do we pray that God will change our circumstances? Do we pray that God will change everyone and everything around us, including Himself, His will, and His Word, but somehow leave us alone and give us what we want?

Who is the god we really worship? The god we fear, love, and trust above all things? Often it is ourselves. It is our will that we want done. It is our kingdom we want to advance. It is our name that we want to promote. With that objective, attending worship often is empty and pointless. We don’t really want anything to happen. We don’t really want to change. We don’t really want to fear, love, and trust in God above all things—especially not above ourselves.

Some surveys boast that 95 percent of our society believes in God. But does this truly mean that they “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Not likely. Rather, I think it means that 95 percent of the people believe that God exists. It does not mean that they trust in Him. It does not mean they have no other gods.

Most of our society may not openly be atheists, but certainly are practical atheists. Obedience to God is not their primary goal. The god they seek is more of a Santa or genie than a Savior and Judge. They don’t want to serve Him; they want Him to serve them. They don’t want to be transformed, but are happy being conformed to the world. They certainly don’t want to live and act with the awareness that one day they must give an account to their Maker.

And neither do you—at least not your old Adam, that sinful nature in which you were conceived and born. And yet, God, in His mercy and grace, still calls you His own. You are His people, not because you are better than the world around you, but because He chose you and called you.

Why? Not because of you, but because of Him. God is love. God is mercy. God is grace. Thank God that He is! He didn’t leave His people, the Israelites, when they chased after other gods in Canaan. He doesn’t leave you when you chase after contemporary gods like wealth or success—not even when you forget about Him all summer because you have more pressing things to do. He remembers and serves and protects you each day. He rejoices to forgive and restore and renew always, even enduring the pain and shame of the cross. In Christ, God fulfills His promise: “I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.”

For Jesus’ sake, the one true God continues to deliver and save you through His means of grace. By the power of His Holy Spirit, He brings you out of the slavery of sin and into His heavenly Promised Land, leading you to repent of your sin and trust in His promise: “You are forgiven of all of your sins.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

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