The Ten Commandments - One God
There is no argument that John Wooden was one of the greatest coaches of all time. Coach Wooden coached in both High School and College from 1932-1975. During those 43 years, Wooden only had one losing season and that was his first season at Dayton High School. In his coaching career he amassed 882 wins and 204 losses and lead the UCLA Men’s basketball team to 10 National Championships, including 7 years in a row.
Many of his former players would tell the story of how Coach Wooden started every season. Before his players were allowed to touch a basketball or get out on the gym floor they had to learn how to put on their socks and shoes. At the beginning of every season he would sit 18-22 year old men down and explain, “Basketball is a game that's played on a hardwood floor, and to be good, you have to change your direction, change your pace. That's hard on your feet. Your feet are very important. And if you don't have every wrinkle out of your sock you get blisters, and those blisters are going to make you lose playing time, and if you're good enough, your loss of playing time might get the coach fired.”
Coach Wooden believed if you were going to be successful you had to start at the beginning. Which sounds like the best place to start, but often times we try to skip right past the first few steps to get to the more exciting parts of our journeys. Last week we talked about how the Ten Commandments are God’s invitation into a relationship with Him. These are ten guidelines of how that relationship is supposed to look. I love the fact that when God is inviting us into this relationship with Him, He also starts at the beginning. That’s why the whole list begins with, I am the Lord your God.
Israel had been in Egyptian captivity for 400 years; for 400 years they were immersed in Egyptian culture. The Children of Israel didn’t have a relationship with God to sustain their identity. They came to Egypt as handful of people running from a famine. As one generation lead to the next, the Israelites we completely indoctrinated into Egyptian culture. The only thing they knew about God was His name. So God began with the basics. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt. I am your Savior. Your Deliverer. It was because of what God had already done for them that He could say, Do not have other gods besides Me.
This idea of only having one God was a revolutionary thought for Israelites. Before the Children of Israel left Egypt they had already had the chance to witness God’s power through the plagues. Every plague was an attack on an Egyptian god. The Egyptians worshiped the Nile river so Jehovah turned it into blood. The Egyptians worshiped frogs, so God gave them so many frogs that they were in their beds, bathtubs, and ovens. The sun was worshipped, so Jehovah made it dark. For 400 years the Israelites were living in a culture that served and worshiped a multiplicity of gods.
And it wasn’t just the Egyptians; every nation had a god: the Philistines had Dagon, the Moabites’ had Chemosh, and the Ammonites’ had Molech. But they didn’t just worship a national god, they also had fertility gods, storm gods, sun gods, and sea gods that had to be kept happy. And while a person or nation may have a favorite god, they certainly wouldn’t think of narrowing their worship to just one. If the god or gods of another nation seemed to have power, then they collected those gods as well.
But when you have a lot of different gods, a lot of different options, then you have to start playing the game. You know how kids like to play one parent against the other. If mom won't let me have what I want, then maybe dad will. Maybe mom feels a bit guilty, maybe dad feels a bit distant, but both of them feel a bit vulnerable. It doesn’t take much for the kids to pick up on the vulnerability and try to take advantage of it. They begin to play one parent against the other in order to get what they want.
That’s not just a problem with parents. it’s also a problem with gods. The kids learn to love you for what you give them, not for who you are. With this first commandment, God is heading off that kind of dysfunction from the very start. In the Kingdom it’s a one parent family. God is our father and mother. If you need anything you come to me. If you want to know how to live, you come to me. I am all you need.
At the very beginning God uses exclusive language, because if we are going to belong to God we must have an exclusive relationship with Him. When I perform marriage ceremonies, I always use exclusive language in the ceremony. I ask you to promise to forsake all others and make sure that your groom or bride is not one among many, but that they will be your one and only. If you ever get rid of that exclusive language you will destroy the relationship with your spouse, and with God.
Jehovah uses exclusive language because He was setting a precedent. He could have begun simply by saying, take a day off, be nice to your parents, don't kill each other. But then the obvious question would be, why should we do certain things and avoid others? If there was no ultimate standard of authority outside our own feelings then there would be no reason to recognize the laws as anything but an arbitrary list that can be dismissed any time we feel like it.
Does that sound familiar? Do you know of a culture that embraces this idea that my feelings are the ultimate standard of authority? What I like, what I am comfortable with, what benefits me is right and everything else is wrong. When there is no standard of authority, then there can be no standard of what is truly right and what is wrong.
Thats why the first command is so foundational to the rest. With the first commandment, God makes it clear that His people are to have an exclusive relationship with Him. God does not say that you can worship all the gods you want, I just want to be your favorite. He says worship only Me, and make sure I am your only God. This first commandment declares two things, and gives us two reasons, we are called to have an exclusive relationship with Jehovah.
The First Commandment is a Declaration of God’s Power.
The reason that these nations had a plurality of god’s is because they believed that certain gods ruled certain geographic areas or natural phenomenons. They relied on these gods to show their power in battles, harvest, and every aspect of their lives. If you were defeated in battle it was because your god was not strong enough to save you. If you had a poor harvest it was because your god was not strong enough to bless you. The country side was flooded with people who were constantly chasing after different god’s so that they could receive the benefit from their power. Jehovah’s declaration to only have one God is a declaration of His power, that He is powerful enough to meet all of your needs.
God originally showed His power in the creation, then again at the flood, and during the plagues. As a matter fo fact God was always showing His power over the false gods the other nations chased after. One of my favorite stories in the Old Testament is found in 1 Samuel 5. The Children of Israel went out to battle the Philistines. But they had forgotten the exclusive nature of their relationship with God and had started petitioning other gods. They wanted to play both sides of the fence believing that by worshiping Jehovah and the gods of their neighbors they would be doubly blessed. So God allowed them to go down that path and try to find their own success.
During the battle the Israelites hedged their bets and brought the Ark of the Covenant with them as a good luck charm, think of it as a bigger version of a rabbits foot. But without God’s power the ark of the covenant turned out to be as lucky as a rabbits foot and they lost the battle. As a spoil of war the Philistines took their new trophy to Ashdod and placed it in the shrine of Dagon. But just because God refused to show His power in battle, didn’t mean that God was powerless. The next morning the Philistines went into the temple and found that their god had fallen off it’s pedestal and was bowing before the Ark of the Covenant.
They thought if they could just set up their idol back on the pedestal then no one would know. But the next morning when they went in for their morning worship they discovered that not only was Dagon once again bowing before the Ark of the Covenant again, but this time his arms and head were broken off. Jehovah was demonstrating that not only was His power greater that the false god Dagon, but by taking his arms he was powerless to fight back. By taking his head, Jehovah was showing that His wisdom was greater than the god of the Philistines.
The history of time, starting with the Creation all the way to this very moment, is filled with God showing His power. If you were to take a few moments to think back, to look for Him at work in your life, you can see His power on display. The reason that we are able to have a relationship with Jehovah in the first place, is because He is the one who has the power to institute this relationship. Jehovah is the one with the power over this life, He is the one who has the power over death and sin. He is the one that has the power to fix what we have broken and to love us when there was nothing lovable to be found in our lives.
We also see that The First Commandment is a Declaration of God’s Personality.
We live in a culture where the greatest sin is being exclusive. Our society says that we must be accepting of everyone’s opinion, choices, lifestyles, religions, and decisions. It is a cultural sin to reject anyone’s choices or decision. We approach life in very much the same way we approach the buffet. We pick and choose what beings me pleasure, what brings me joy. So I get a little steak maybe some crab legs, but no Brussels Sprouts or broccoli for me please. I mean I have to save room for ice cream. The more we can blur the lines, the happier we believe we will be.
Yet, God is pretty clear about who He is and has gone to great lengths to describe His personality for us. God is love, and He wants to draw tired, broken, and sinful people to Himself. The very fact that God has given us these commandments is not a condition for our relationship, they are simply a confirmation of this relationship. God’s commands are not a condition for His love in our lives. God has already poured out His love over creation. Jesus has already taken our place on the cross, He has already paid the penalty for our sinfulness. God’s commands are a confirmation of His love in our lives.
Yet if you were to ask people to describe God, even folks who go to a building once or twice a month, you would be hard pressed to find someone who describes God the way he describes Himself. People would describe God as distant, uninvolved, uncaring, and powerless. I know we come together and we sing How Great Thou Art, but do you really live that way?
I am not ignoring the fact that we live in a broken world. We have all had to deal with pain, sickness, and injustice. We have dealt with death of relationships and the death of people we love. But what we often fail to recognize is that it’s our fault. There was no sickness or death or pain in the garden, Adam and Eve made the choice to break what God had provided for them, and we continue to make that same choice every day.
Yet we continue to buy into the lie that there is something we have to do, something we have to figure out so that we can manipulate a relationship with God. We buy into the lie that we have to somehow earn God’s favor and mercy and grace. If we can just check all the boxes, keep all the traditions, follow the pattern then God will have to love us. If we can just somehow figure out how to be perfect, or at least fake being perfect, then God won’t have a choice but to let us into a relationship with Him.
Maybe that’s why God says in this first commandment, that His love and compassion have already done everything necessary for us to take a hold the relationship that God freely offers us. So many good people don’t have a relationship with God because they have no understanding of who He is or His personality. Jeremiah knew God, that’s why in the midst of all of this brokenness he could say: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23) Jeremiah understood God’s personality.
Jesus spends an awful lot of time in the gospels trying to fix our misconceptions of God. Jesus tried to get people to see that God is a loving and compassionate Father. But the people struggled to see God because they were so consumed with keeping the laws and the rules, laws and rules that God never established. The people were so scared that they were going to break a law, that they put laws around the laws. Eventually these extra laws were surrounded by more laws, and by the time that Jesus arrives, the religious world looks nothing like what God wanted for His children. Instead of God being a loving and compassionate God, they have made Him out to be an evil taskmaster who was just waiting to throw them into the pits of hell. They were so committed to following their own made up rules that they forgot all about God.
God’s love is on display in John 5 when Jesus heals the lame man while the religious folks got bent out of shape because it happened on the Sabbath. Jesus shows God’s personality when He ate a meal with tax collectors, with Matthew and Zacchaeus while the religious folks based their standing with God on who they excluded. Jesus gave these folks standing because that’s what love does, and His personality is love. God doesn't wait for us to get right and then invite us into a relationship with Him, God invites us into this relationship and then gives us the opportunity to get right.
And God is still inviting us to His table. Which makes some people uncomfortable, because they want God to be who they say He is, they want God to hate the people they hate, exclude the people they want to exclude. And they have completely misunderstood His love, compassion, and grace.
This morning God is inviting them and us to the table. God rescued them and us, before He ever made a requirement of us. God’s personality is to redeem us and shower us with grace. God created you, purchased you, and loves you. He bought you out of slavery to sin because that’s His personality. And often we forget who God is because we get so fixated on the here and now, that we forget that His greatest desire is to take us home to live in His house where there will be no more pain or sickness, or loss, or misery that is actually our fault.
God doesn’t want to be the chief thing; He wants to be everything. In this relationship God offers us, He says it’s all or nothing. I heard someone say once that, “If God is not Lord of all, He’s not Lord at all.” That’s exclusive language for an exclusive relationship with an exclusive God.
This morning we are invited to the table not because we have figured out how to keep the rules. God invited you to His table because He offers you a relationship with Him. That’s love, that what love does, and that’s why the overwhelming personality of God in love.