Father, may your word be our rule, your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.
Elijah is in a question-asking phase. I both love it and, at times, feel exhausted by it. A couple weeks ago, he came out of his room after bedtime and called for Olga. “Mommy,” he said, “How does a young man keep his way pure?” Then he answered his own question, “By keeping it according to thy word. Psalm 119, verse 9.” Then he turned around and went back to his room and went to bed. It was a fairly random event, but we were happy he has been paying attention. However true what he said was, what exactly does it mean to keep your way according to God’s word? What does the LORD truly require of us? This fall, we are going back to the basics to study the Ten Words given by God through Moses, commonly known as the Ten Commandments. Whether you are not sure you know even one or you have had all ten memorized for most of your life, we are going to look at these Ten Words as the way God has given us to walk as his people. This morning we will be focusing on the First Word, but join me in reciting all of them, the words will be on the screen.
And God spoke all these words:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, you shall have no other gods before me.
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. You shall not worship them or bow down to them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations to those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 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 daugter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 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 seventh day and made it holy.
Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery
You shall not steal.
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
This three-legged stool of the Ten Commandments, Apostle’s Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer has long formed the core of what is first taught to children and converts as they learn what it means to belong to Christ and follow him – what we believe, how we pray, and how we live. Because of this, Christians have developed teaching tools, known as catechisms, to help explain and teach what these commandments mean. One of them is the Heidelberg Catechism. I would like us to read Question and Answers 94 and 95 from the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q94. What does the Lord require
in the first commandment?
A. That I, not wanting to endanger my own salvation,
avoid and shun
all idolatry, sorcery, superstitious rites,
and prayer to saints or other creatures.
That I rightly know the only true God,
trust him alone,
and look to God for every good thing
humbly and patiently,
and love, fear, and honor God
with all my heart.
that I give up anything
rather than go against God’s will in any way.
Q95. What is idolatry?
A. Idolatry is
having or inventing something in which one trusts
in place of or alongside of the only true God,
who has revealed himself in the Word.
In looking at the First Word of the Ten Words this morning, we will first look at when these words are given, then what the First Word says, before finally thinking together about what this might look like for us today.
First, when are the Ten Words given to Israel? Say these words after me: I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery: You shall have no other gods before me. So, when are the Ten Words given? After God has already rescued the people from the bondage of Egypt. Four hundred years they had been in slavery, then God sent Moses to lead the people out. Pharaoh refused and the LORD sent ten plagues. Each of these plagues attack the domain of one of the so-called gods of Egypt and showed God’s power and superiority over all the powers of Egypt. After the tenth plague, God broke the power of Pharaoh and Moses led the people out and then crossing the Red Sea on dry ground. The LORD then lead his people up to the mountain of God, Mount Sinai, and gave these words of the people.
God gave these commandments, these words, to his people after he had already redeemed and rescued them, after he had saved them. When these words were given makes a huge difference for how we understand them.
It matters when someone asks us to do something. Back in seminary, Olga and I had been dating only a couple months when she asked me to fly with her to the Netherlands to meet her extended family. This was a big deal. My best friend described it this way: “She’s inviting you across an ocean to spend a week with her family. If you do this, you better be ready to marry this girl.” I felt nervous, a lot of pressure. I didn’t know any Dutch and we were staying with her grandparents who did not know English. Spoiler alert: everything went well. However, this invite to visit the family in the Netherlands was a very different event than a couple years later when, after we were married, Olga suggested we make a trip to Holland to see the family. Then it was no big deal, but a great and relaxing time. The difference was that the first time felt like I was auditioning to be part of the family by going on the trip, but the second time I was already in the family. We did the same things, but it made a huge difference when we did it.
The same is true when we consider the Ten Words. God did not give these commandments to Israel when they were already in Egypt and say, “Keep these commandments and I will rescue you.” The Ten Commandments were not conditions for Israel to be rescued, but given to the people after God saved them from Egypt. On one level the force is the same, they are still commandments. God still calls for obedience to them and it is a sin to break them. That is the same, but the context is different.
The Ten Words were given in the context of grace. Israel was to keep the Ten Words out of gratitude for this deliverance from God. Our obedience to the Ten Words is not what gets us saved, but because we have been saved by God in Christ, through a greater Exodus from sin, death, and the devil, we are now called to live out these Ten Commandments as the way of living our gratitude to God.
So whatever else we hear this fall about the Ten Words, these commandments, we need to remember to hear them in the context of grace. Lord willing, each of us will be convicted by hearing these words this fall and be led to fall on our knees before Christ. However, Lord willing, each of us will then be called to stand, having received life from Christ, and be called, like Israel, to walk in these Ten Words in thanks to God.
The first thing we should notice about the Ten Words is that they were given after God had saved his people. These are words not just to the lost, but were given first to the redeemed in order to walk in them.
The second thing we should notice is what the command says. Say these words after me: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery: You shall have no other gods before me.
The first commandment is about worship. Maybe this is not how we would think to order a list of commandments on how to live. If we were coming up with guidelines for how to live well and wholly, we might jump first to the sixth commandment: don’t murder, don’t steal. We might think first of how we should treat one another. Or, if you have children, you might want to strike hard on the fifth commandment: Honor your father and your mother.
However, God begins these instructions on how to live well with worship. This is no accident. I think there are three reasons that the Ten Words begin here, with worship.
First, worship is what we were made for – to be human is to worship. The first thing we hear after we were barred from the garden is that Cain and Abel offer sacrifices to God – worship. Again and again, we see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob building altars and worshipping God. God’s directions on how to worship, the space for worship, and the ways of worship make up the bulk of the instructions God gives to Israel in the wilderness. We were made to worship. And at the end of all things, in the new heavens and the new earth, we will worship the LORD.
We were made to worship. God addresses worship first, in part, because his commandment, his claim upon his people, touches upon the very core of what it means to be human. To be human is to worship. Everyone worships something. Even the secular rejection of worshipping God does not lead to a lack of worship. As one wise Christian once put it, “Look at where a man spends his life and there you will find his god.” Even rejecting worship of God does not lead to no worship, but to each of us finding something else (or more likely many different competing things) to place as ultimate in our lives. We were made for the sacrifice of worship and if we do not devote our lives to the LORD, we will sacrifice them on a different altar – whether that has names like Allah, Buddha, or Brahman or pleasure, success, security, fame, or self-fulfillment.
This connects with the second reason, I believe, that the First Word speaks to worship. Our greatest temptation is idolatry. Idolatry is the word for worshipping idols. It originally referred to worshipping the statues of gods that were common in pagan worship. Christians believe and proclaim that there is only one God. Therefore, to worship, to bow down and pledge your life to something other than the LORD who brought his people out of Egypt is to worship a false god. But the catechism rightly extends this beyond simply bowing before statues. It says, “Idolatry is having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God, who has revealed himself in the Word.”
“in place of or alongside of the only true God.”
Outside of Israel, it was normal in the ancient world to believe and worship many different gods. These gods each had their own domain and their own demands. You went to the sea, you needed to sacrifice to the sea god. Going on a journey, the god of travelling. Planting crops, the god of rain and the harvest. Hoping to have children, the god of fertility. Each of these different gods pulled you in different directions. It led to a fractured and anxious life. Every part of life with its different demands pulling you apart at the seams. There was no wholeness, no security.
While we may not talk about lots of different gods, that description sounds strikingly familiar to modern life. We feel pulled in multiple directions, tearing at the seams as we try to deal with competing demands, competing claims upon our time, our life, our loyalty. We talk, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, about trying to balance our lives, but our world today wants us to serve multiple masters. We serve the market during the day, our families at night, our nation on holidays, and the LORD on Sundays.
In a world of competing demands, of competing loyalties, of life pulled apart at the seams, we hear the First Word: you shall have no other gods before me.
The fractured life finds its wholeness and peace when we worship the LORD and him alone. A life pulled apart at the seams is knit together when our trust is in the God who saves, who is lord of sea and sky, who holds life and death, who holds past, present, and future all in the palm of his hand.
The first reason the Ten Words begins with worship is that this is what we were made for. The second reason is that our greatest temptation is idolatry – false worship. The last reason it is placed first is that worship is the most fundamental part of life with God. Worship lies at the center of life with God, true life. The reformer Martin Luther once said that if we have faith in Christ and keep the first commandment, everything after that will be easy. I think Luther underestimates how hard the rest of the commandments are, but he has a point. Worshipping the LORD is the key to living whole instead of fractured, the key to living doing what we were made to do, but most significantly the Ten Words begin with worship because life, creation, and everything is not fundamentally about us, but about God. It begins with worship because the Christian life, the life we were made for, beings ever and always with God at the center.
When God is at the center, when worshipping him, knowing him, and honoring him becomes the joy and purpose of our lives, then everything else does begin to fall into place. It is not always easy, like Luther thinks, but life begins to make sense with God at the center. The rest of the Ten Words do truly flow from this first and fundamental one.
So far, we have looked at when these words were given: the Ten Words were given to Israel after God saved them from Egypt. These are words to a redeemed people so that they might live well as God’s people. We also looked at what the commandment says: We are to worship the LORD and him alone. This is the first commandment because we were made to worship the LORD, because we are constantly tempted to worship or trust something instead of or alongside of God, and because the heart of life with God is worship.
But what does this look like on the ground? What might following the First Word look like in our lives? Let me suggest a few possibilities:
Worshipping God alone means recognizing that everything we have and everything that comes to us comes ultimately from one hand – God’s. When we believe that some of the good things we have come ultimately from the government or from our hard work or from science or technology, we are numbed in our ability to be thankful. Practicing gratitude to God, thanking him daily for everything we have and receive, is a way of proclaiming our trust in and loyalty to him.
2. Smashing Idols in your life
Keeping the First Word will require some soul searching. Where are you truly placing your trust? What is truly most important in your life? If the LORD is truly the center, if his name and his worship is truly the center of my life, what kind of decisions would I make with my time, my money, my heart? What needs to change its role in my life? What might need to be eliminated from my life?
This is a painful, but ultimately freeing process. Take your life and present it before the LORD, let him prune what needs to be pruned and cause to grow when needs growth. We rarely do this, myself included, because we happen to like the idols in our lives and do not truly want God to come in with a hammer and start smashing things. But I speak from experience that when we do, it might be painful in the short term, but always so much better in the long term.
3. Lord’s Day Worship
This is probably preaching to the choir, but regularly gathering with the people of God for worship is crucial for our discipleship. If we want to worship the LORD and him alone, it is not something we should do only alone. I know that the church is imperfect, full of warts and wounds. I know it is led by sinful pastors, myself among them. But it is the body of Christ and the God-given means by which God chooses to shape us in our life of worship to Him.
4. Daily Worship
Not only make worship consistent, regular rhythm of your week, but make it a part of your day. Even ten to fifteen minutes spend in the word and prayer can help us to orient our days in worship to God. I am a late convert to the idea, but a firm believer in the significance of family devotions around the dinner table. I never grew up with them, but as a husband and father who desires for my family to walk with the LORD, I have found this immensely beneficial for our whole family. If you don’t have a daily practice of worship or family devotions and don’t really know where to start, please talk to me or one of the elders after the service, we would love to come alongside you as we seek to follow Christ together.
In the First Word, the first of the Ten Commandments, God proclaims himself the Savior, the one who brought us out of the land of slavery. He then calls us to complete loyalty and devotion to him. This is the first and most fundamental part of obedience to God, of a life lived well. Anything else we give our loyalty to will only destroy us, only obedience to God brings life and freedom. May we walk together in worship of the LORD. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.