The Ten - One God
One of the greatest coaches of all time was John Wooden. Nicknamed, The Wizard of Westwood, Wooden’s coaching career in both High School and College spanned from 1932-1975. During those 43 years, Wooden only had one losing season and that was his first 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.
One of the most intriguing stories about Coach Wooden was how he 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 how to put on their socks and shoes.
His explanation for this practice was simple. “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’s success came from the simple fact that he always started at the beginning. 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, and generation after generation were immersed in Egyptian culture. The Children of Israel didn’t have a relationship with God to sustain its identity. They came to Egypt a handful of people running from a famine. During their stay they were completely indoctrinated into Egyptian culture.
The only thing they knew about God was His name. No stories. No songs. No scriptures. Nothing to shape and mold their faith. 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. Christians, Jews, and Muslims are the only groups that think in terms of a singular God. Every other group believes in a plurality of god’s. This idea of only having one God was a revolutionary thought for Israelites.
You might remember when we went through The Story last year we talked about the 10 plagues and how Jehovah was declaring His power over the Egyptian gods. 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. The Israelites had been completely surrounded by a multiplicity of gods for as long as any of them could remember.
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 you could add that god to your collection.
Disneyland parent is a term we use in families that have known the pain of a divorce. Sooner or later in those families the children will try to play one parent against the other. If mom won't let me have what I want, then maybe dad will. It is because of feelings of guilt about the breakup of their home or anger at the spouse the parents find themselves a bit vulnerable. So the kids learn very quickly how to play one parent against the other in order to get what they want.
That’s not just a problem with divided parents. it’s also a problem with divided 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 Trista and I got married we used some pretty exclusive language in our ceremony. I promised to forsake all others and make sure that Trista was not one among many, but that she would be my one and only. Overtime we get rid of that exclusive language we destroy a relationship with your spouse, and with God.
Jehovah uses this 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. 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 is saying, 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 you god was not strong enough to save you. If you had a poor harvest it was because you god was not strong enough to bless you. This idea had the people 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 showed His power in the creation, and at the flood, and in they lives of the Israelites. But there are other times that God showed His power. In 1 Samuel 5 we read about a battle between the Children of Israel and the Philistines. The Children of Israel had forgotten their covenant with Jehovah and had started worshiping 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. The result was that Jehovah removed His power.
During the battle the Israelites hedged their bets and brought the Ark of the Covenant into the camp. But without His power the ark of the covenant had lost it’s meaning and the Children of Israel lost the battle. As a spoil of war the Philistines took their new trophy to Ashdod and placed it in the shrine of Dagon. The next morning the people 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 quickly put their idol back on the pedestal thinking that all was right in their world. But the next morning they awoke and noticed that not only was their god bowed 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.
In 1 Kings 18 we see that once again Jehovah shows his power over the impotent gods of Baal and Asherah. Once again the Children of Israel are playing both sides by worshiping Jehovah and the fertility gods of their neighbors. They believed they could manipulate the power and grow better crops and get a better harvest. What they forgot is that all of the power lies in the Creator and the One who invites us into a relationship.
Elijah, one prophet, against 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah. One true Jehovah against 2 powerless inventions of mankind. The prophets built an alter to their god and placed an ox on the alter. From the early morning until late in the afternoon they danced and called out to their god. They cut themselves as an offering of blood but their weak and ineffective god remained silent.
Then Elijah repaired the alter to Jehovah and dug a trench around the altar. He placed firewood on the altar, cut up the ox, poured water over the alter until the altar was drenched and the trench was filled with water. Elijah prayed, O God, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, make it known right now that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I'm doing what I'm doing under your orders. Answer me, God; O answer me and reveal to this people that you are God, the true God, and that you are giving these people another chance at repentance. Immediately the fire of God fell and burned up the offering, the wood, the stones, the dirt, and even the water in the trench.
Creation was the first show of God’s power on this earth and throughout The Story of what God is doing we can look back again and again and 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. 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.
God is pretty clear about who He is and has gone to great lengths to describe His personality for us, so that we will be drawn to Him. 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’s commands are a confirmation of His love in our lives.
Recently, comedian and atheist Stephen Fry was on an Irish Television Show where he was asked what would he say if it turned out he’s wrong, and God met him at the Pearly Gates of Heaven. His response is more common than you might think. Fry responds, “I think I’d say, ‘Bone cancer in children?’ What’s that about? How dare you. How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?’ That’s what I would say.”
When I read the transcript of this interview, my first question is what god is Mr. Fry talking about? That’s not the way that God describes Himself or shows Himself to be. Mr. Fry has bought into the lie that there is something he has to do, something he has to change, something he has to figure out so that he can get in with God. He has bought into the lie that he has to somehow earn God’s favor and mercy and grace. God says in this first commandment, that we are already in with God. His love and compassion have already done everything necessary for us to take a hold the relationship that God offers us.
When I hear folks like Mr. Fry talk about God I don’t hear them talk about my God, I hear them talk about a Franken-God, something that they have created out of bits and pieces of things they’ve heard. They look at different religions and choose a bit of this and a bit of that. They don’t have a relationship with God because they have no understanding of who He is or His personality.
Time and time again in the gospels we see that Jesus went round and round with folks who misunderstood God and His personality. These folks got so consumed with keeping the laws and the rules that they forgot why the rules are there in the first place. 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 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.
Some folks are comfortable believing that God is whatever they say He is. That’s a misunderstanding of His love, compassion, and grace. We forget that 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 made you and purchased 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 children with bone cancer, or misery that is actually our fault.
Philip Ryken wrote: Notice that in this commandment God speaks to us in the singular: ‘You [individually] shall have no other gods before me [personally].’ We do not worship a God, but the God, who wants to have an exclusive love relationship with each one of His people.”
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.
God does not say that if we want to be in a relationship with Him we have to keep the rules. God says that we are invited into a relationship with Him before we even know what the rules of the relationship are. That’s love, that what love does, and that’s why the overwhelming personality of God in love.