Sermon: Thou shall have no other gods before me

1. Introduction

2. How it should not be applied

a. The US memorial service

b. How do we respond/view people of other faiths?

This command calls on us to distinguish between gods; it is not a call for us to distinguish between those who worship these gods.

Why not?

i. Common heritage / salvation by grace

ii. Israel in exile – Daniel, Ezekiel

iii. Jesus’ prayer – sent to be in the world but not of the world

The command to have no other gods is not a command to separate ourselves from those who worship other gods. In fact the bible goes out of its way to tell us that there is very little to distinguish us from others. We are not better, more righteous, done more good works, etc.

While we are commanded to love one another as Christ has loved us, the command to love our neighbour, the concept that a visit to the prisoner, a cup of cold water to the stranger (without distinguishing his religion) is a service done to Christ – tell us that we are not to love our fellow man any less.

Finally, a personal view: the efforts of man to obey his understand of God may be misguided and even wrong but we need to be sensitive to his intentions, honour his spiritual efforts. Perhaps the deeply religious muslim, or the contemplative Buddhist monk, may in some ways be closer to knowing God than the crass materialistic millionaire. Paul, when he was Saul, was a deeply committed jew. We do well, I think, to be humble in spiritual matters.

3. How it is usually applied

a. We should not be worshipping other gods

b. We should not participate in the religious ceremonies of other faiths

c. We should not practise practices that arise from other religious faiths

I think that generally none of us have broken this commandment.

In Exodus 32, which was read to us, we see that the Jews could not last 40 days before breaking the first commandment. Moses has been up in the mountain receiving the law from God. Growing restless, they approached Aaron to create for them a god. And so he fashioned a golden calf and they worshipped it as the gods who brought them out of Egypt. And Aaron proclaimed the next day as a Feast to the LORD – invoking the name of God. And they feasted, sang, danced and, if you read between the lines, perhaps, indulged in acts of debauchery.

Where did they learn to do this? Clearly, Egypt. The Egyptian worship was more attractive than the worship that the LORD desired. It was more tangible. It was more exciting. It was more free.

But it was not how the LORD wanted to be worshipped.

The problem with Christianity is that it is not very attractive. Its main offering – eternal life – is intangible. It is so far away that it is not high in a person’s priority list. So we have come up with the prosperity gospel – come to Jesus and the Lord will bless you. Pray and he will give you your heart’s desires.

Its main concern – sin – is alienating. Nobody wants to be told and reminded that he is sinful. And so we come up with a kinder, gentler god. God wants to be your friend. He loves you. He will be faithful to you no matter what.

Its main mission – to serve – is such a burden. Sure we should give money and once a year visit the old folks home. But we want our Christianity to be more enjoyable and meet our needs. And so we come up with the “church” society: a nice place to be with nice people, once a week enjoy a good musical performance, listen to some words of wisdom so that we will feel good.

I think that we are pretty sure that the first of the 10 commandments – Thou shall have no other gods before me – we have not transgressed. It took the Jews only 40 days to break the commandment. We should think carefully whether we worship the living God, who saved us from the bondage of sin, or whether we worship the golden calf.

Many commentators believe that the golden calf was not meant to be another god. It was meant to represent the LORD who brought them out of Egypt. When we worship and serve God, do we worship and serve him in the way he has commanded to do so, or do we worship him the way we want?

4. How it should be applied

Jesus, in his usual style, expanded the implication of this commandment when he spoke these words:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6: 24)

Mammon, according to the notes in my study bible, is a jewish word for money or riches. Money or riches in the usual sense is not a god and the pursuit of money or riches is not a religion. But Jesus expands our understanding of the First Commandment by helping us to see that anything that usurps God’s rightful place in our hearts is a god and we cannot pretend that we can serve both mammon and God.

Many things can be pursued to the extent that they become gods – money, power, success, sex, beauty, popularity, love… Perhaps one way we can come to a realization that something has become a god in our lives is the way that god distorts our lives. When we see our lives breaking down – our marriages are falling apart, our children are going astray, our lifestyle is unsupportable – maybe not all these things at once, but you can see a trend. What would cause a person to sacrifice his marriage and his family? What would cause a person to neglect his health? What would cause a person to let a stranger raise his children? When we see our lives breaking down, we suspect that there is a god lurking in the shadows. These gods are thirsty gods. They are never satisfied. And even when the foundations of our life are falling, they will not let us go.

I think that we commonly misunderstand the idea of “either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other”. Jesus was not talking of how we should serve God. He was describing how incompatible serving the two are.

But we think “either or”. To worship only God is to reject wealth. Or power. Or beauty. Or sex. Or whatever.

We think that to love God more we should spend more time in church, spend more time in prayer, spend more time reading the bible. Less time doing other things – things of the world. Either or.

We think there is Christian music and non-Christian music. Christian books and non-Christian books. Christian activities and non-Christian activities. Either or.

That is a misunderstanding. God is God of the whole of life. And he wants to redeem the whole of life. And we worship him in the whole of life, not just a narrow part of it.

And when we put God in his rightful place in our lives we put him BEFORE all other things. He is the first cause in our lives. He is our primary motive. All other things in our lives come after him. Not in an “either or” sense. But in the sense that God dictates our relationship with all other things. OK, this is abstract and I should illustrate.

My wife – she is God’s gift to me. Someone he has placed in my life for me to cherish, nourish, love and honour. My children – God has placed them in my care to raise, to teach, to mould, to love. My wealth – I am a steward of the wealth that God has blessed me with. And so my response to my wife, my children, my wealth, my life is primarily my response to my God.

When I look at everything in my life “through God”, then God teaches me how I should relate to these things. And my life becomes more balanced.

When we put God in his rightful place in our lives, BEFORE all other things, it does not mean that he takes away all these things. It does not mean that we have to become poor. Or have no ambition. Or have no social life. Or be ashamed of sex. Or spend all our time praying and reading the bible. When we put all these gods before Him and say “God, I surrender these things that I cherish to you” what he does is to return them to us in proper perspective, placing them in their proper places in our lives.

5. Why would we put God first in our lives?

Many people teach that the 10 commandments form the framework for how life ought to be lived. A “blueprint for life” so to speak. And when we understand it more deeply, we will see that the foundation of this blueprint is this: that we have no other gods before the one true God.

This is why I believe that when we serve other gods – be they gods in the traditional sense, or gods in the wider sense like mammon – our lives will be distorted. Other gods will take what you have to offer and suck you dry.

Unfortunately modern life creates more gods and sells you the things you need to worship these gods. Whether it is an idea of beauty that is unsupportable. The idea of love that is unrealistic. The idea of success that only few can achieve. Our lives are constantly distorted because our values, our desires and goals are distorted.

Only the one true God, who has everything and therefore has no need of anything you can offer, only the one true God will return all that we offer him back to us, and bless us even further. So, only when we worship and serve the one true God, in the way that he has taught us to worship and serve him – only He will give us back our lives, healed and whole.