The commandments of the Hebrew Bible were given to the people of Israel and accepted by them through the Mosaic covenant, and they begin with a commitment of loyalty to one God. The commandments are part of a relationship, a give-and-take communication with God, initiated by God and continued with ongoing human participation. This Law of Moses is a gift of grace, letting people know how they should live if they want to be in this relationship with God. Living by the law is a choice, and the people of Israel committed to do it.
God spoke all these words: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1-3)
If you lived in the ancient world, you would have known that there were a lot of gods. You would have believed in them, because you experienced them all the time. Life was not predictable. Sometimes the weather was good, and sometimes there were storms with thunder and lightening. You could hear the god of thunder up in the sky, and the noise he made was frightening. If you sailed on the sea, you knew that most of time the water was calm and safe, but sometimes the god of the sea made huge waves that could sink your ship. If the gods were in a good mood, you could have a decent life. But if they got angry, they could kill you or take away everyone you loved. The gods could and did do a lot of damage, and it was important to keep them happy.
In those days, people were afraid of the gods, and they did all they could to please them. They brought presents to the gods whenever they could, produce from the farms and their farm animals for sacrifices. Sometimes the presents worked, and sometimes the gods were nasty enough to do damage anyway. People were pretty helpless, and they didn’t have the education to know how the world really worked.
What was the difference between the God of the people of Israel and the gods of the other ancient peoples? Everyone thought that their favorite god was the best, the most powerful, so it isn’t a surprise that the people of Israel thought that too. But there was one big difference between the God of Israel and Zeus or Apollo or any of the other gods. The other gods took what they wanted and destroyed whenever they felt like it. The God of Israel was different. The God of Israel actually cared about the people who belonged to him. No other God made any kind of promises to the people, but the God of Israel did. The other gods were too important and too busy having fun to ever make a deal with mere humans. The God of Israel actual made arrangements, covenants, in which God committed to doing things for the people if they kept their side of the bargain.
For example, God made a deal with Noah. God warned Noah that all the people of the world were going to be destroyed for all the wickedness they were doing, and God saved Noah and those who were with him. After the flood was over, God promised to Noah that there would never again be a time when he would destroy all people, no matter how badly we behaved. God made a promise to Noah, and God kept that promise for all time. Much later, God made a promise to Abraham, that he would have many children. Later still, God made a promise to David that his throne would endure forever. None of the other ancient gods made such promises, and those who seemed to make promises didn’t keep them.
The ten commandments which we’re beginning to study this week are part of the covenant agreement that God made with Moses. The people of Israel were in slavery in the land of Egypt, and God chose Moses to be the negotiator with the Pharaoh and rescue them. God chose Moses to do this job, but Moses wasn’t exactly happy about having God’s attention. You can check this out later in the third chapter of Exodus. God says,
So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:10-11)
Moses had a lot of other questions for God, like “What’s your name?” and “What if they don’t believe me?” Moses even tried to convince God that he wasn’t a good enough speaker to do the job, but God chose him anyway. Moses finally did as he was told, and he rescued the people from Egypt with God’s help and brought them through the desert to God’s mountain.
Try to imagine what this must have been like for the Israelites. They’d left behind all that they knew in Egypt, and they’d been pretty uncomfortable traveling around in the wilderness. And then they arrive at the mountain.
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently.
As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. When the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish. Even the priests who approach the Lord must consecrate themselves” (Exodus 19:16-24)
I have a question for you. How do you think the people of Israel were feeling about this time? Do you think they were all excited and happy about meeting God face to face for the first time? How would you have been feeling, with the fire on the mountain and the earth shaking?
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (Exodus 20:18-21)
The people could see the power and glory of God on the mountain, but that power and glory were so great that they were terrified. The people were willing to listen to what God had to say to them, but they certainly didn’t want to do it in person. Since Moses had talked with God already, they were happy to have him do it again. So Moses went up to God and brought back to the people the words that God gave to him. These words began with the ten commandments and then went on to include lots of specific rules and customs that are all together known as the Mosaic law.
Today’s passage is the first of the commandments. God said to Moses,
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1-3)
This is the first commandment. It’s simple and clear. God says that he was and is and will be the God of this people. God has done wonders for them—brought them out of Egypt, saved their lives, and given them a future. God claims this people to belong to him, and in return this one God will belong to them.
There’s one possible problem here. If these people want to belong to God, they’ll have to belong to God whole-heartedly. There’s no room for other gods. If they choose to belong to God, they have to give up trying to keep the other “gods” of the world happy. There’ll be no more festivals or presents for the gods of the storm or of the sea or of love. This one God is more powerful than any of those other gods could have been, and the people will need to turn to this God in all the difficulties of their lives. They’ll need to trust this one God to look out for their interests, and this God will lead them and protect them. They’ll have to leave any other gods they have been counting on behind.
For us, this might actually sound easy. But ancient peoples really did count on their various gods for protection. Do you remember in Acts how the people of Ephesus got so upset with Paul? Because of Paul’s preaching, people weren’t going to the temple of Artemis. The silversmiths were losing customers, and one said,
“there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.” When [the people] heard this, they were enraged and shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19:27-28)
Why did they care so much? Because long ago, when their city was surrounded by an invading army and about to be destroyed, Artemis rescued them. At the moment when they were all about to die, they appealed to Artemis, and the invading king decided to let them live and let their city stand. To believe in Jesus and the God of Israel, these people had to leave behind the goddess who had saved their city. It was an important choice, not one to be made lightly.
We may think, these days, that we’re so much smarter than those ancient people who believed in many gods. We can look at the weather on the TV news, and we can see the satellite image that shows where the line of thunder storms is coming from and going to. We know that storms at sea are caused by weather conditions and not by an angry sea-god. We know that making presents to so-called “gods” isn’t going to make a difference. We know better than to worship things or people that aren’t really God. Or do we?
One of the worst times the world has known in living memory was the time of the Nazis in Germany, when the government itself and its leader became a god. We even have in our confessions the Declaration of Barmen which was written in the 1930s when Hitler was bringing the country back to hope and prosperity. It says,
In view of the errors of the “German Christians” of the present Reich Church government which are devastating the church …, we confess the following evangelical truths:
We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords—areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.
We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.
In Germany under the Nazis, the government took over the role of God, taking control of not only the civil lives but also the spiritual lives of the people. The government spoke for God, and many people were taken in by it, believing because they were told, that the Jews and others were to blame for their suffering. It’s hard for us to see now how people could have accepted Hitler as a leader with the authority of Christ, but he was a convincing speaker who promised to satisfy their deepest needs. We can say now that we wouldn’t have been taken in, but I’m not so sure that we wouldn’t have been impressed if we had been there at the time. And we all know how much evil was done by that particular false god.
But what other gods are there, really, these days? When my husband and I go home from church, we drive by the North Shore Mall. As we go by, my husband checks to see how many cars are parked at the new Nordstrom’s, to see how many are worshipping at that temple on a Sunday morning. Many people spend much more time at the mall than they do at church, and often spend no time at church at all. What does this say about which gods they’re worshipping?
We live in a consumer culture, and for some people that means that their lives are defined by their “stuff.” They wear the brand names of the gods they worship on their clothing. If it’s not the logos of their favorite drinks or sports equipment, it’s the designer labels that show how important they are. There are some folks, usually men, for whom their car or motorcycle is the most important thing in their lives. They spend every available hour making it perfect, and they glow with pride when they show it off for everyone else to see and envy. On the other hand, for women sometimes home is the most important, always spotless and carefully decorated to show what a perfect environment they can create. Possessions can easily grow into gods, when they become the source of a person’s identity and worth. They take over all available time and credit card balance, and they become the focus of attention and activity. The real God of our lives can get squeezed out when these little gods take over.
But what about our passion for celebrities? How many kinds of idols are there in American life besides the winners of the talent contest? We have sports figures, movie stars, television personalities, musicians, singers, dancers, political leaders, leaders of good causes, and even ordinary people who become famous on “reality” shows. How would you feel if one of those celebrities you admire (I almost said idolize) invited you to one of their parties? I bet you’d have trouble breathing, let alone having a sensible conversation. We each have our own taste in celebrities, but I’m sure you know why you put one or another on a pedestal. And we all face the danger that the glamour and glory we give to those we admire will eclipse our reverence for the God who made them along with all the rest of us.
How would you feel if the celebrity you most admire picked you out of the crowd? Would you bask in their friendship? Would you take their advice? Would you model your life after the way they live? Would you do whatever they asked of you, even if it’s against your conscience? Would you give up your friends, your family, or your faith if they asked you to? Would you be snagged into putting that person ahead of God in your life? If you would do these things, even if you never got the chance, then you already have another god in your life, and not the one God of Israel. Even when the creature is wonderful—beautiful, talented, and blessed in every way—the creature is not the equal of the Creator. We can move from admiration to worship easily and without really noticing it.
For us as Christians, there is truly only one God, but we need to keep on our guard. We may have wishes and needs that we are longing to have addressed. We may think, “If only I had …” that special thing or person, or “If only I were …” rich or pretty or thinner or younger or older or whatever, then I’d be happy, contented, complete. That thing we think we need or that thing we think we need to be can become our god. The reality is, of course, that when we do get that thing which we think will make us perfect, then we find that there’s something else we need as well. The cycle of needing never stops, unless it stops in the one true God. This one God is all that we will ever need and all that we have ever needed. When this one is our God, we need no other. God knows this, and he commands us to stop looking elsewhere.
When God made the covenant with the people of Israel, God made a commitment to the people and explained what was required in return. Moses said to the people,
Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the LORD your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you. (Deuteronomy 6:1-3)
The single greatest commandment is this:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
The commandments are not just a good idea; they’re the law. They’re to be kept and passed on through all the generations of the people. Moses said,
Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)
They’re not suggestions, although following them will be for the good of those who do follow. They’re the commitment of the people to obedience to the words of God.
When the commandments were given to them, the people agreed to them all.
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:3-8)
When the people heard and agreed, they were sealed with the blood of the covenant. Half the blood was placed on the altar of God, and half was sprinkled on the people. This was the way any contract in those days was signed. This was an agreement and a commitment on both sides, the people committed to God and God committed to the people.
When we share in our communion, we’re also participating in a very similar commitment. As we share our bread and juice, we’re participating in the new covenant established through our Lord Jesus Christ. We come before God the same way those ancient Israelites came before God on the mountain, and we join, through the Holy Spirit, in God’s holy covenant. Praise be to God. Amen.
©2015 Jean F. Risley – All Rights Reserved