November 12, 2017
You Shall Not Have Other Gods Before Me
Moses is one of the most important people in the Bible. God had an intimate conversation with Moses, and God gave him some commandments. Have you ever heard of the Ten Commandments? One very important commandment is number nine: always tell the truth. Do not lie. In any culture or society, truth is so crucial, so valuable, so important. Naturally, this would also be accurate for the people of God as well. Always tell the truth; do not tell a lie. Sometime this week have a conversation with your mom and dad about Moses and the Ten Commandments because they are very important. If you are ever going to become what God wants you to be, you have to know something about Moses and the Ten Commandments.
Reading: Exodus 20:1-21
1 And God spoke all these words:
2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 “You shall have no other gods before me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you.
13 “You shall not murder.
14 “You shall not commit adultery.
15 “You shall not steal.
16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
21 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.
For those of you who have not been here for about five or six weeks, we’re in the middle of a series of meditations on the book of Exodus. Now, commandment number nine is one you’ll forever remember: “Thou shalt not lie; thou shalt always tell the truth.” You may not remember all the other nine commandments, but you’ll always remember that one.
The central commandment that carries today’s sermon is “You shall have no other gods before me.” The Israelites had just been in Egypt for four hundred years, and there are forty plus deities, or gods, in Egypt. Having forty deities to pick from must have been confusing, although in the Egyptian world the sun was always shining down on their backs, so they could not forget the Egyptian god Ra, the god of the sun. Then there is the god Amun, which you may not have ever heard of before, but he was the god of Moses’ hometown. Of course, there was Hathor—she was a fertility goddess, a goddess of children and life—and she was often represented in the form of a cow. She was very dear to the hearts of the mothers and grandmothers in Egypt because she was very maternal and nurturing. You probably recognized Hathor from your Bible studies because when Moses came down from the mountain, the Israelites were worshiping a golden calf. The Israelites were probably remembering their affection for Hathor. By worshiping the golden calf, they were probably saying, “Oh, how I wish we were back in Egypt in the good old days!” So there were these Egyptian gods the Israelites had become accustomed to, and God was taking them away from that old culture and starting something new for Israel.
As they were in the plains of the Sinai wilderness, there were a couple of families that lived nearby—the Ammonites and the Moabites—and they had their gods, Molech and Chemosh. These gods were a little bit strange because they somehow approved human sacrifice. It is a very strange practice demanded by a very strange god. Eventually when the Israelites crossed the river Jordan, there were more strange gods in Canaan. We call them the Baal gods. One thing to illustrate the beliefs around the Baal gods is the people of Canaan liked to have their fortunes told. They were into séances, necromancy, and black magic—dark, dark stuff.
Now, the point of the book of Exodus is that God was wiping the slate clean. He just wanted to take out those gods of Egypt, Sinai, and Canaan because He was going to start from scratch with the Israelites. He wanted to start over, so the first commandment was, “You shall not have any other gods but Me.” I hate to sound cheesy, another way of saying it is ‘there is a new sheriff in town.’ That is a very loose translation of the Bible, but that was essentially what God was announcing in the book of Exodus. There is a new God, and you shall have no other god but Me. It was a big step for Israel to forget those Egyptian gods and to leave alone the Canaanite gods in order to serve the one true God.
Now the cool thing about the Ten Commandments is that they don’t stand on their own; they are a part of a context, a story line. So, it’s really unfair to just isolate the Ten Commandments and say that this is what Judaism is all about. It’s so much more than that. Judaism is about the deliverance of the people of God through the Red Sea. God is a deliverer, a Savior. It’s about God as a provider. Here the Israelites are gathered in the desert, and in the evening they got to eat quail. God is not only a deliverer, not only a provider, but God is holy. God is everywhere. God is transcendent. God is all-knowing. That is symbolized by the great power and mystery of a thunderstorm on a mountain.
One of the things God has asked is that we take the time, at least once a week, to be prayerful. That where our custom of gathering on Sunday morning comes from. It goes all the way back to the wilderness when God said it’s so important to take a day off to praise. God also said to take a day off to spend some time with your family. I know that was a ritual in my house growing up. We always went to Grandma and Grandpa’s house on Sunday. God was telling the Israelites to respect the elderly and the young, that life is sacred. He also taught that marriage is sacred, holy, and lasting—until death do us part. God was also saying that the truth is the foundation of any society. If you have no truth, you have nothing left. For example, Solomon extracted the truth from two women who were arguing over a baby. Solomon wanted to get at the truth, and the women helped him discover the truth in that ancient Bible story. God also says that there is dignity in having simple possessions, and to have something simple to call your own has a great dignity.
At the end of his life, Moses looked out across the river Jordan at the new homeland that God had given him. How many of you have served in the military or have had someone in your family serve? Our homeland is precious to us, so thanks be to God for all the veterans who have served our country and helped us to have a homeland that is secure and free.
So, the Israelites spent forty years in the desert, trying to wipe the slate clean of the foreign gods and trying to realize how precious is the God they had been called to worship, adore, and be in a relationship with. God taught them all different kinds of laws about how they’re supposed to worship and how to organize the community. It was the first book of discipline, the Pentateuch: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers. All kinds of rules and regulations were in this book of laws that God gave us to organize this new family and this new faith.
It’s amazing how fast and how far humankind went in terms of space travel. At the turn of the century, around 1902, the Wright brothers learned some of the basic principles of flight. Before long, Lindbergh was flying across the Atlantic from New York to Paris. Not long after that John Glenn went up and beyond the atmosphere and circled three times around the earth and reentered in the 1960s. You can burn up into a ball of fire if you don’t reenter at the right angle or the right speed. Then, in 1969, I remember listening to the radio very carefully: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It is amazing to me how far we were able to go from the Wright brothers to landing on the moon in about sixty to seventy years! By way of comparison, I am amazed at how far and how fast Israel developed a sense of being a nation and an identity with their God and new rules. They had a new order and a new holiness and a new mission and a new calling. This was all in just a few short years, a couple of generations. It is amazing what can happen in just a few decades. So, this is the story of Exodus—how God was wiping the slate clean and pushing aside all these false gods of other nations and giving the Israelites a precious revelation, a precious heritage, a precious holiness that no one else had. You are My chosen people. That is what Exodus is all about, and that is what the Ten Commandments are all about. It is not just a set of laws, but rather part of the context God was setting for Israel.
My final thought is this—I wonder if our culture in the good old United States of America has a few false gods. There are some things we worship in our culture that God probably isn’t too happy about. One of the things I’ve mentioned is how strange it is how much we pay our star athletes, our rock singers, and our movie stars. Really? Is someone worth twelve million dollars a year because they throw a football or sing a nice song? It’s almost like they are gods or idols. Now, I could go further than this, but what I’m offering you is an opportunity to think about our culture. Maybe we have some false gods in our country, and it’s up to us—the people of faith—to be praying, reading our Bibles, and discerning very carefully, because who else will do it? We’re the only people equipped to discern and to tease through what our culture is telling us is right, to really get at what God is saying about the matter. If we can’t do it, who can? We’re the only ones equipped to do it. That’s why we gather, pray, and worship. It is important to be here because we have a mission from God, not altogether unlike the holy mission of the Israelites.