March 8, 2015 / Lent 3
Exodus 20:1-3 / Love Your God!
About 4000 years ago, a Babylonian king named Hammurabi developed a code of conduct. It consisted of a couple hundred laws that had different punishments depending on social status. This was just one set of laws in the ancient near east, so the ideas weren’t uncommon in the area. One of the most famous laws you would probably know would be the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” law. You can’t help but remember the Disney movie “Aladdin.” Early in the story, Jasmine is in the marketplace and is sort of caught stealing as she took an apple and gave it to a starving child. The owner of the stand grabs her hand, pulls out a sword, and says, “Do you know the penalty for stealing?” I’m sure you get the picture of what would have happened if Aladdin hadn’t stepped in. That was the basic idea with some of the laws in the ancient east. The laws were there to scare you into submission.
When we look at the 10 commandments, how they were given, and why they were given, we really see the complete opposite. The giving of the law was about 3 months after Moses had led the Israel nation out of Egypt. There, in the desert and at the foot of Mount Sinai, God gave the 10 commandments and many other laws to the Israelites. But, the most important law that we see is the first law, the verses that we are focusing on today. “You shall have no other gods.”
You would think the Israel nation wouldn’t be a bunch of idiots. They must have known God was the only God. Sure they had passed through different lands and had seen how the foreign nations worshipped blocks of wood. They had lived in Egypt, a land full of deities. In fact the Pharaoh would have been considered a god. But they had only witnessed the power and majesty of their God. The God of Abraham and Isaac. Well, we know how long that lasted. It was not much later that they made a golden calf. It’s like their spiritual attention span was that of a gnat. They were quickly seeing how difficult it really was to fulfill the ten commandments and this law in particular, because this law was more than just physical idols, things you could see or touch.
Martin Luther gives a quick summary of what a god is, “A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need.” Our “god” is what our heart is most firmly attached to, what we depend on most. We live in a time where everything revolves around getting what I want now. Has Netflix become our god? Is working through a whole tv season in a night the only way you can make it through a work day? Has instant sexual gratification with people that aren’t even our spouse become our god? Has technology become our priority? Obviously, God has given us the blessings of tv, sex, and technology if they are done in the God pleasing way. Sometimes, it seems like those things join together like the megazord of Power Rangers under the great umbrella of our society. So much of our lives is dictated by what society says. We listen to what society says rather than what the bible says. Really society becomes our God. I can’t read what is in your own heart and mind. But take the time to honestly reflect what takes priority in your heart.
We often are reminded of the picture when God is described as the bridegroom and the church is his bride. It is a beautiful picture. The vows and promises are made to be faithful to each other. God wants for himself our whole love and our whole heart. When he finds us to be faithful, he’s happy and rejoices. Sadly the picture is ruined when we sin. We are like a promiscuous spouse. We give our love and obedience, that really belongs to God alone, to other people or things or ideas. It devastates our God when we are unfaithful because he is faithful and loves us so much. And God is serious about how he deals with our unfaithfulness to him.
We shouldn’t be ignorant or live in false security, like the world who thinks it doesn’t make a difference how they live. God isn’t the sort of God to let these things slide. He is serious about these commandments. He even goes as far as saying, “He does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” Wow this hits home, literally. I don’t often think of how my sin affects me or its consequences in my life and in my spiritual life. But here its more than just me, but my sin against God can directly affect my family and the future generations. If I slack on church, if I become lazy spiritually, if I disregard the bible or even disregard the callings to repentance by the church, I can bring that same hostile environment, that same lazy habit, that same ultimate condemnation to my children and even children’s children. Whitney Houston was right, the children really are our future.
The constant reminder can be a burden to us when we continually see how we fail, time and time again. I can’t make it five minutes without my mind going elsewhere and slipping up with this commandment. I’ll be honest, it is difficult to even get to the second through tenth commandments, because I can’t even complete the first commandment. We can become discouraged with this commandment, burdened with the law, just as much as someone would have been with Hammurabi’s code, in utter fear that you might lose an eye for accidentally poking someone’s eye. You can easily see how much this commandment requires, namely our whole heart has to be placed in God alone and in no one or nothing else. We can’t do that! Our motivation becomes survival of this law.
God motivates us with his law, yes. But the ten commandments were not given as some dry and impersonal code. It was embedded into salvation history. Look again at the first words we read today. “Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery.” He reminds Israel that he has saved them. He was with them throughout the good times and the bad because he loved them. Notice how these first words aren’t a commandment, but they are a motivational statement. In fact, God doesn’t even call the ten commandments “commandments,” but he calls them “words” or “sayings.” Yes they are statements of law, but they aren’t full threats and punishments because of one big reason: These are directions for those who are already God’s people. These aren’t directions for how to become God’s people or earn credit with God. These laws are a guide for people already redeemed by grace.
Remember, God is like that bridegroom. He loves us so much. He knew we couldn’t fully complete the law. Listen again to our epistle lesson from Romans, “What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin’s domain, and as a sin offering, in order that the law’s requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Right there we see the motivation that the God of the universe gives to us. He did it for us! These ten commandments teach us not only what we have been redeemed from, but what we have been redeemed for.
It is easier to live for something than to live burdened by something, isn’t it? Think of a donkey pulling a cart. It’s probably more motivated to go forward with a carrot in front of it than being whipped by the driver. Or think of an athlete looking forward to the race, or a musician for the concert. Our God is such a smart God. God understood this concept psychologically as he gave the Israelites the gospel incentive first. He reminded them of what He did for them. They had a new motivation.
Love for God and obedience to his commands cannot be separated. As Jesus said, love the Lord your God. He also said Love your neighbor. Really, all other commandments are like sub-points of the first commandment. If you love God, you will put him first in your lives. If you love God, you’ll show love to your neighbor. When we love them, we live to serve our neighbor and make sure that they hear God’s word!
We can’t always take the Word of God individually to the community. We are so blessed to have a beautiful church, a beautiful school, and beautifully expanding childcare that takes God’s word to our members and to the community. We can serve God and our neighbors by supporting our church, our school, and our childcare. Not only with our gifts of money, or our gifts of time dedicated to helping, but also with verbal support. Just saying to our neighbors, “Hey, we have some awesome things going on at our church, childcare, and school. You should come by!” is a great way of supporting. I know some of you have belonged to this church longer than I have been alive, twice over! Some of you attended this school, or even the original school! What a wonderful blessing we have that God has given to us. It’s like God saying to the Israelites, I took you out of Egypt, now live for me! Here, God is saying to us, look at what I have blessed you with. Now live for me! It’s easier to live for something, remember? We don’t sit here in downtown Appleton to simply survive as a historical landmark, even though that’s pretty cool that we are a historical landmark. But we are here to thrive and to live for God.
We do this especially in the face of the world that questions why we go to church. “Oh so you want to be a part of club right? Wait, so you willingly spend money to send your kids to a school? Why? You could use that money to get a sweet movie theater in your basement. Or you could actually sleep in on Sunday, have time for brunch, and make it back in time to watch the Packer game.” You can feel the devil working in your mind when those things seem to make sense. Yeah, that’s rational thinking there! But we see, that’s the opposite of what God wants for us! God doesn’t give us this law to burden us because he likes to see us suffer, but he loves us so much that he wants us to stay connected to him! These words are serious! We need to hold on to these words, even in the face of worldly rational thinking that contradicts the bible.
Why? Because God comes to us in love and he promises to bless when we obey him. God pleasing keeping of the law comes from the proper motivation, love for God because he first loved us. The only way we can respond is in fear, love, and trust. Thanks be to God that we have been redeemed from the old way of living and have been redeemed for a new way. Love your God. Live for Him. Amen.