A sermon on Exodus 20:1-3 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 6 December 2020.
We Australians pride ourselves on being free spirited. We like to do whatever we want, whenever we want to do it. We look down on laws and orders. We consider such things as merely suggestions. This wild lifestyle is supposed to come from our convict heritage.
But it is, of course, a myth. We are, in fact, an extremely law abiding people. Drive from here to Melbourne or Sydney and you will find people generally obeying the rules of the road, keeping to the left, observing the speed limit. If you visit some country towns like Young or Cowra you will even find people parking rear to curb, when there is not one good reason on earth to park rear to curb, except that in those towns that is the rule.
For all our supposed free spiritedness we observe the rule of law. This is what it means to be a nation.
God had promised Abraham,
I will bless you. I will make you into a great nation. And all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.
And the difference between a people and a nation, is that a nation is a people with their own land, living under the law, their own constitution. In Exodus chapter 20 we find that Abraham’s family are a people. The people of Israel. Despite their slavery in Egypt, God had made them many and God had made them strong. They were on their way from Egypt to their own land. And from God they received their law. The constitution that made them a nation like no other.
We read in chapter 20 verses 1 and 2:
And God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
He names himself, the Lord. He is not just a god. He is not just the God. But he has a name. The word LORD, printed in our Bibles in four capital letters, is the personal name of God. He is not just an impersonal force. Nor is he just a person, like I am a person and you are a person too. No, he is not like us. He has made us to be like him. And if we are persons that can think and feel and choose and act, it is because the Lord is the person, the ground of all personhood. And in giving his name to the people of Israel, he was giving himself to be known by them. He was, as he said, the Lord, your God. Not just a god. Not just the God. But their God. The God known by them. The God who chose them for himself. So that he would be theirs and they would be his.
We are often told to count our blessings. And I am blessed to live at a wonderful time, in a wonderful country, surrounded by wonderful people. I am so blessed that if I wasn’t me, I would envy me. But the greatest blessing of all that I enjoy is that God is mine and I am his.
I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
Here we see that the proof of the bond between the Lord and his people is his act of salvation. When they were slaves, when they were exploited by those more powerful than them, the Lord stepped in. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, was worshipped in his land as a god who caused the sun to shine and the river Nile to flow. But in each of the ten plagues, the Lord showed who was the true God of the Nile, the God of the sun, the God of all creatures, the God of the weather, the God of Egypt, and the God of Pharaoh, so that in the end the king all but drove the people of Israel out of his country.
The Lord had given the people of Israel his name. And in giving his name, he had pledged to act on their behalf. He had saved them. He took them from misery to happiness. He had found them naked and clothed them. He had found them distressed and afflicted and had given them rest. This is the Lord’s grace and it calls for his people’s gratitude. This is the Lord’s love and it calls for his people’s love in return. So that the Lord’s great salvation is the basis, cause and motive for his commandments and for his people’s obedience.
Jesus was once asked,
Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?
And he replied,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
Jesus’ answer teaches us two things. Firstly, love is not just a higher law than the commandments, but it is also the summary and fulfilment of the law that is expressed in the commandments. God loves us and saves us. And so we love him.
Secondly, we love God by obeying him. Love doesn’t nullify obedience. It creates the opportunity and motive for obedience. Obedience is love. All kinds of dreadful crimes are committed by twisted and perverted love. A man may do terrible things because he loves his religion or his country or his family or himself more than anything else. But the Lord our God summons us to channel our love for him into obedience. The commandments are not just suggestions that we can put aside and follow our hearts instead. Because our hearts are part of the problem. No, the commandments define and enshrine what true love is. And we show our love by our obedience to the Lord’s way of love.
You shall have no other gods before me.
This is the first commandment. This is the Lord’s marriage proposal to his people. He doesn’t want to be their boyfriend. He doesn’t want to be their casual lover. He wants to be for them what only he can be: the source and origin of their life, the meaning and purpose of their way of life.
All other supposed and imagined gods are just pretenders. They make demands but they cannot provide. They promise, but they cannot deliver. They claim to bring life, but they are parasites on life. They cannot give love but can only take it. They feed on the adoration of their worshippers and bring misery and death, and when the last of their worshippers die, they die too. Where is Baal? Where is Zeus? Where is Thor? In each of their lands they were the storm god. They wielded the power of lightning. But none of them can hit me when I defy them, even when I stand still. They are parasites. And they died when the last of their worshippers passed away. Only the true and living God can give. Only the true and living God can provide. Only the true and living God would live on, even if the last church was ever closed for business. Only the God, who in his Son Jesus Christ gave his everything for us on his cross, has the power to be our everything.
This is the God who offers us his proposal. This is the God who makes his vow in marriage. This is the God who promises to be ours and ours alone. And the only appropriate response is to obey his command. To be his and his alone.
You shall have no other gods before me.
“You,” he says. Not, “You all,” generally and vaguely. But, “You, yes you” specifically and directly and personally. And you. Yes, each one of you, separately and individually, are summoned to this exclusive relationship of love and trust.
“You shall,” he says. The Lord calls you to a relationship that will govern your behaviour in the future. Couples come to me for marriage, expecting to say “I do.” But the question I ask them is will you have her? Will you have him? Will you honour her? Will you keep her? And the answer is not, “I do,” but, “I will.” I don’t care if they do love each other. I assume that they do. To be willing to go through the stress and expense of a modern marriage demands a fierce and ambitious love. I’m sure that they do love each other. But what I care more is that they promise that they will love each other for better for worse, in sickness and in health. Marriage is a relationship that will govern their behaviour in the future. And our relationship with the true and living God, our God, is the same.
“No” is a word that creates a boundary, that draws a line in the sand. On one side is acceptable behaviour. Do. On the other side is unacceptable behaviour. Do not. We don’t like boundaries. We feel like they create restrictions. Like they build fences on the other side of which the grass is always greener. We’d climb the fence, even if the grass wasn’t greener, but just because the fence was there.
But the Lord’s boundaries don’t restrict freedom. They create freedom. Like the boundary between the land and the sea. We call it the shore. On one side of the shore is land and life. On the land we can almost live wherever we like. But on the other side of the shore is death by drowning. Yes, you can play in the surf and think you are having a lot of fun. But it is only fun if at the end of the day you can walk out of the surf and return to the land. God has made us human beings, not fish. And God has made us for himself, and anything other than God is not life, but death.
And so that is why he says,
You shall have no other gods before me.
To have a god before the Lord is to withhold a part of our love from the Lord to reserve it for another. We could have a god above the Lord, like those who go through the motions of religion for the sake of prestige and respectability. This shows that there is something more important than the God we claim to worship, something above him. We could have a god beside the Lord, like those who acknowledge both God and luck. Like God runs the ordinary parts of life, but good luck or bad luck runs the extraordinary parts of life. “Good luck in your exam,” we say. “Oh dear, you failed. Bad luck.” As if there was something beside God controlling our destiny. We can even have a god under the Lord, a subordinate to him, as if Saint Anthony will help you find your car keys when God has hidden them or your guardian angel will protect you when God won’t. No, the angels only do their master’s will and the saints in glory kneel before the one who seeks and saves the lost.
The Lord will tolerate no rival for his affection. It is not just that we rob God of his true glory when we give our love for him to something else. But it is also that every part of our life that is not turned to his light wilts in the darkness. As Jesus said, the greatest commandment is
to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
We love him with all, not with part. We love him with our best, not our second best. It does not mean that we do not love our family or our country. But it does mean that we love our spouse best when we love the Lord first. We honour our neighbour best when we honour the God who made us both. We lead our children best when we follow the Lord. And we serve our country best when we serve the Lord with all we have. Because when we love the Lord with all we have it doesn’t leave us empty with no love for other things. Instead, it leaves us full, as God’s love overflows into our whole life.
God has made us for himself. In Christ he pledges himself to us to be ours and ours alone. His commandment calls us to renounce all other gods and to be his and his alone. To love him first with our best, not our second best.