The First Commandment: No other gods
Over the next several weeks, I’m going to preach a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are not the only commandments – or even the most important commandments – in the Old Testament; there are, according to the Rabbis, 613 separate commandments in the Old Testament, and when Jesus was asked which was the most important, numbers 1 & 2 were not found among the Ten.
Still, the Ten Commandments sum up the moral code that accompanies the service of the God of the Bible. They are iconic; they stand for a wider understanding than just themselves. And, preacher of grace that I am, I have never really explored them in my preaching. So I thought it would be important to think out loud about these ten commands and invite you to think through them with me.
The first commandment given on Mt. Sinai is, “You shall have no other gods before me.” No other gods. No exceptions.
That seems obvious to us, but it was a startling demand in the 12th or 13th Century BC, when Moses brought it down the mountain to the waiting Israelites. After all, EVERY society around them had a polytheistic religion, where multiple gods were worshiped. Not only did every other religion worship multiple gods, but the various peoples of the area, as they interacted with each other, showed a marked tendency to incorporate ideas from one religion with another, and to identify the various gods from one pantheon with those of others. This is how, later on, Roman Jupiter came to be identified with Greek Zeus, and Babylonian Astarte with Phrygian Cybele, and so on.
As people traveled from one place to another, they saw nothing wrong with offering worship to the local gods – as if their own were too far away to notice, or in the belief that theirs didn’t care. And because the gods of polytheism were interchangeable, so were their morals. There was no sense that one shouldn’t do as the locals were doing, which meant that the Israelites, when they settled in Canaan, found constant temptation to patronize the cult prostitutes of the sacred groves, or later to burn their children alive as an offering to Molech when crises arose.
The whole of the Old Testament is the story of how the Israelites kept falling away in their desire to compromise with foreign gods and foreign ways, to be like everybody else around them, until finally the destruction of Jerusalem and 70 years’ exile in Babylon beat it out of them. Israel was to be different, and their devotion to the Lord had to be exclusive.
Much later, the Christians would be asked to burn a pinch of incense as an offering to the genius of the Roman Emperor. Just do that, construe it how you like – and you would be spared. But because the Christians would not do that – would not bend just that much – they were condemned as anti-social, “haters of men,” and their religion made illegal. The Romans only ever outlawed two religions out of the dozens that filled their empire: the Druidic religion, because it practiced human sacrifice; and Christianity, because it was deemed subversive.
C’mon, where’s the harm? A little pinch of incense, a moment’s prayer, and you’re off the hook! Why are you so unreasonable? Why can’t you go along to get along? Is everyone wrong but you? Just do it. You don’t have to mean it, you just gotta do it. We all did it, why can’t you?
And the answer was typically No. So they were fed to the lions, crucified, beheaded, jailed, blinded, tortured with hot irons: young and old, male and female, slaves and aristocrats. Off and on, for 250 years. And it still goes on, though we don’t like to think about it.
There is a Christian pastor under sentence of death in Iran right now, for leaving Islam and following Christ. Only the condemnation of the world raining down on the mullahs’ heads has kept Pastor Nasrullah alive. On Christmas Day in Nigeria, a bomb went off in a Catholic church in the capital and a couple hundred people were killed. A terror campaign against Christians is heating up there even now. In Iraq and Egypt, mobs attack Christian churches that have been there for centuries, and the authorities do nothing to protect them. Some years ago, at one of those World Council of Churches clambakes where everyone passes gaseous resolutions that all religions are equally valid and that the days of missionary effort are over, a Christian leader from Indonesia stood up and asked the delegates if this meant that he should go home and tell his people that they didn’t have to die for Jesus any more.
And while I don’t see that kind of persecution coming our way here in America, we face a diff kind of pressure. The same kind of pressure the Israelites faced in Canaan, and the early Christians faced in the Roman Empire: a pressure to fit in, to not be different, to not object to the values and practices of others; a pressure to give up our unique identity and blur the identity of Christian with non-Christian.
What do you say to a 5th grade girl whose teacher tells her she isn’t allowed to have her Bible with her at school to read on her own time? I can give a name to that girl: I was her pastor. What do you do when the President of a United Methodist university orders his chaplains not to use the name of Jesus in prayers at university functions because non-Christians might feel excluded when they do that? That happened in this Conference, in my District. How about when some bully group publishes the names of people – including you - who signed a petition or donated funds to a cause that stood up for traditional morality, and you wake up to find that group picketing your business? Or your home? That’s happened in California just a couple years ago, and it’ll happen here, eventually. Makes you think twice when you’re asked to help, doesn’t it?
The EFFECT of the First Commandment is not merely to limit us in terms of our religious identity, so that we don’t pray to other divinities, e.g., or receive the rites of initiation into alien religions. If having no other gods before the Lord means anything, it means that you have to decide in advance that there are things you will not compromise with, because to do so is to betray your service to him. And if you lose him, you will lose yourself as well.
And I don’t want to paint the foul lines too far out. I’m a tolerant guy, and I’m not going around looking to be offended or to get into arguments with people. But it doesn’t matter where you paint the foul lines – close in, or far out – eventually, that line will be crossed – by somebody - and you will face some unpleasant choices. And the reason for this is that the devil won’t stay on his side, and the world won’t either. This is the way the world works
If you have no final principles, you will of course never face those unpleasant choices, and you will eventually wind up agreeing with things and participating in things that you would have found abhorrent at first. But then, you’ll have so much company on that path. Whereas, if there is anything you will not do – whatever it is, however small – and if you stick with that, for love of God or for shame to do whatever it is, your refusal will mark you out, and may wind up costing you dear: in friendships, in job opportunities, in who knows what.
Yet we fear to be thought fanatics. We associate refusal to compromise with Islamic fundamentalists or white separatists or people who join secret cults. We don’t want to be like THEM. We see ourselves as healthy and normal and tolerant, and we want others to acknowledge that that is what we are. We want to live on the sunny side of the street. Well, blessed are those who can do so and not be tested by those who fear what makes us different; unfortunately, it is not up to us to decide what kind of times we will live in, or what kind of forces may be percolating through our society. The commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” has to result in the apostles’ statement, “We must obey God rather than men” or it means nothing.
I remember when I graduated from seminary. The liberals and the conservatives were always butting heads over one thing or another: nuclear freezes, social programs, ethics, saving the whales, evangelism. And I didn’t want to spend my career constantly wrangling over the latest controversy, so I staked out a position for myself that I thought nobody would ever breach. I chose creedal issues – Christological metaphysics – as the issue I would treat as the last ditch to die in.
NOBODY was talking theology back in the late '70s. Even those who thought we weren’t spiritual enough didn’t care about the creeds. What do the creeds have to do with spirituality? I had the field to myself. And for many years I ignored as best I could the various controversies in the Church – until the mid-'90s, when to my shock and amazement, various radical groups began to publicly question the very definition of God. They called it “re-imagining God.”
The line I thought so close in it could never be crossed was crossed at last. And I had to speak up, risk looking foolish or contentious, make enemies, maybe lose some chances for advancement along the way. The alternative was to lose myself: not merely to lose the fight of the day, but to lose my self, to become somebody I wouldn’t have recognized when I first gave my life to God and promised to be his servant.
And will it be worth it? Well, God says it will, but maybe not in this life. And while asking that question is understandable, you’ve got to be careful. Because to ask if keeping yr service to God exclusive to him, putting nothing and no one before him, will be worth it, implies that it might not be. Once you entertain that notion, you’re saying that you have a price and you can be had, and God must bid against those with more immediate benefits to offer – and more immediate terrors to intimidate you with.
And sometimes it’s hard to remember why it seemed so important to stand up for what God commanded. You get confused, and you’re tired, and all the people you trust are telling you that it’s okay, you can go along with them and it’ll be fine. That’s why it’s important that we pray for each other and support each other, and offer a haven for each other against the nastiness and stress of the world’s demands.
Knowing the right, and doing the right even when you KNOW the right, are not always easy, but God has promised that those who stick by him he will stick by. And he will be our everlasting inheritance. So, yes, he WILL make it worth our allegiance, even if it costs us more than we thought we could pay. For he will give us himself, and share with us his peace, and he will love us for ever. And we are not alone, even when we feel alone, for he is with us, now and for ever.