Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - 10/08/2017

Today’s first reading that lists the Ten Commandments should probably be included in any list of best known Bible verses. The trouble is, we don’t tend to think of them as Bible verses. We’re probably more likely to think of the commandments as part of the catechism, but they are in the Bible and while you might not be able to recite this text verbatim and while you might not be able to list the commandments in order, my guess is that if asked, you could come up with all of them or at least most of them and if you missed any, when told you’d say, “Oh, that’s right…adultery; how could I forget that one.”

So you know this text, many of you would have memorized the commandments along with what Martin Luther said about them back in your confirmation days. Luther did place great emphasis on them. In the preface to the Large Catechism he said, “This much is certain: those who know the Ten Commandments perfectly know the entire Scriptures and in all affairs and circumstances are able to counsel, help, comfort, judge, and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters. They are qualified to be a judge over all doctrines, walks of life, spirits, legal matters, and everything else in the world.” He wrote extensively about the commandments in other places too, suggesting that one should daily spend time meditating on the commandments as well as on other parts of the catechism.

A sermon that addressed all the commandments would be pretty difficult unless you wanted to be here for long time, so I’m not going to try and do that. Instead, this morning I’m going to focus on the First Commandment: “You are to have no other gods before me” or “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” as many of us learned it. For Luther it was the most important one. In all of his writing on the commandments, the first one takes precedence over all the others. For him, obedience to the other commandments was contingent on and followed from proper understanding and observance of this one, so it seems appropriate that we spend some time on it today.

Like most of the commandments, at first glance there is simplicity to this one, but the more you dig into it, the more layers there are, the more questions there are, and so, whatever the time and place, interpretation is required. First though, think about its original biblical context. The people of Israel, wandering in the wilderness after escaping Pharaoh’s Egypt were gathered at Mt. Sinai which was shrouded in clouds and smoke and fire, thunder and lightning, the mountain shaking and trumpets blasting, an awesome and frightening revelation of God. For those who make Bible movies it’s a chance to pull out all the stops on special effects. From this God comes this uncompromising demand of “no other gods.”

Our first inclination might be to think that we’re OK on this one, that we come to church and worship the God we name as Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which for us, from a religious perspective is the right answer regarding who God is; we figure we’ve got the God with a capital g question right. The trouble is, as we interpret it these days, we miss the point if we just make this commandment about whose religion and whose god is the right one. There’s another whole conversation that could be had about that but it can quickly become finger pointing, even condemnation of one group against another as exclusive claims are made. With any of the commandments, that’s not a helpful approach. With the First Commandment, it shouldn’t be a critique of everyone else, but an honest look at the small g gods in our own life.

I don’t think Luther was the first to go more deeply into the question of other small g gods, but he does put it pretty well when, in the Preface to the Large Catechism he says, “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.” He then goes on to identify some of other gods of his time which aren’t all that different from the other gods of our time. He says, “There are some who think that they have God and everything they need when they have money and property…This is the most common idol on earth.” He adds that this is true both for those who have money and property and also true for those who don’t.

So money is one idol of which we should be aware. Another idol he identifies has to do with possessing great learning, wisdom, power, prestige and honor. “How presumptuous, secure and proud people are when they have such possessions, and how despondent they are when they lack them or when they are taken away,” Luther says and it’s just as true in 2017 as it was in 1517. He comes up with a few other false gods and in 2017 we could add to the list of things on which our heart relies and depends, things like technology, sports, physical fitness, even family and note that none of these things, including money and great learning and wisdom, are inherently bad, quite the contrary; in their proper place, they are all very good things. Luther then summarizes by saying, “Idolatry does not consist merely of erecting an image and praying to it, but it is primarily a matter of the heart, which fixes its gaze upon other things and seeks help and consolation from creatures, saints or devils.” Other gods is about fixing one’s gaze on other things.

It’s no use pretending that there are no other gods out there, no other offers of well being, joy and security. They’re out there and they’re seductive. Along with that comes another temptation, the temptation to want to compromise, to divide our loyalties, having our Sunday morning God but then having other gods for the rest of the week. The thrust of the commandment though, is that no such compromise is possible. The commitment demanded is total. Based on the original Hebrew, the words “before me” at the end of “no other gods before me” can be translated and interpreted in a variety of ways, but for those who worship the Lord, the God of Israel, all the possible translations of those words still eliminate any other god in front of, in place of or beside the Lord.

One of the strongest articulations of the first commandment occurs in Deuteronomy. Today’s reading is from Exodus but the importance of the commandments is reinforced by the fact that the Old Testament has two accounts of them being given, once in Exodus and again in Deuteronomy where the tradition says that Moses repeated all the laws to the people just prior to them entering the Promised Land. In Deuteronomy 13, verse 4 it says, “The Lord your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast.”

The first phrase in that verse, “The Lord your God you shall follow,” shapes the rest and has implications for us as Christians. You could say that this is the first place in scripture that speaks of discipleship. “Follow me,” is the same language that Jesus uses when he calls on his disciples and others to give themselves completely to him and his way.

For Luther, this was the key to the First Commandment and hence, the key to them all. For him, following Jesus started with faith in Jesus and for Luther, faith in Jesus meant trusting that Jesus had done all that was necessary to provide us with forgiveness and the restoration of our broken relationship with God so that we don’t have to do anything. With that freedom, the good works that we do as we follow the rest of the commandments, they’re done for the right reasons. For Luther the right reasons means with no thought that such good works are earning us salvation points on God’s great scoreboard. The scoreboard doesn’t work because Jesus has turned it off.

Last week I talked about the importance of memory, the importance of remembering the stories that tell us who we are and who God is and that is another point made as the commandments are given. Before you get to “You shall have no other gods before me,” you get, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Right away there’s this announcement that the commandments don’t come out of thin air; the exodus story that defines the people is to be remembered. The commandments are connected to the story.

That’s an important story for us to remember too, but even more important for us is the story of Jesus. If our obedience to the commandments is centered on faith in Jesus, we have to know his story; we have to know that it is “for us and for our salvation” that he came down from heaven. Knowing that and connected to Jesus and his story through baptism, we respond in faith.

We don’t celebrate baptism today, but one of the reasons there is always water in the font is so that you can dip your fingers in the water as you enter, or as you leave and remember that in baptism a God choice is made. We say that of all the options out there we have chosen to follow Jesus. Our faith is in him and in what he has done for us and because of that, we will have no other gods.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
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welcomes me, and whoever
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not me
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