Buried deep in the Old Testament histories of Israel, there is a brief little story meant for you and me (1 Kings 20:40). It is the story of a soldier who was asked to keep watch over a prisoner during a battle. The general in charge reminded the soldier of the importance of keeping faithful watch, so much so that should the captive escape, it might cost the guard his life. But alas, the guard’s mind wandered, and the man escaped. When asked for an explanation, the guard replied, “While your servant was busy here and there, the man disappeared.”
Distractions from the center are all too easy for each of us. Sometimes I fear distractions may be the last word about my life, “I was busy here and there, and the one important thing seems to have escaped.” How about for you? Do you ever worry that your day by day life is more caught up in distractions and less in a direction?
Whether you and I meet over coffee or at a hospital bed, whether in your office or mine, in a group or individually, I routinely hear about some experience or other that has served for you as a “wake up call.” It might be a medical emergency that brought you face to face with your mortality. It may be a marriage issue or a family problem or a legal hearing. It could be a book you read or a news account of something deeply unsettling like a soldier or a civilian trying to do the right thing and getting killed. You are interested in moving from distractions to direction.
God made us to have lives that are not only free but focused, not meandering but meaningful. Jesus called us to build the foundation of our lives like a good house, not on shifting sand but on solid rock. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all else will be added to you.”
There is no more solid rock of good religion, no deeper core of faith and faithfulness, than the Ten Commandments. Here is God’s wisdom, God’s word for how we are to live our lives. The Ten Commandments are at the heart of the Old Testament Scriptures, the foundation for the Christian faith. They compose the very center and are known as the Law of God. Around them, the first five books of the Bible are formed, and these are known as the Torah. Around that nucleus, the biblical prophets provide commentary, the biblical writings give reflection and the biblical histories give record. The Ten Commandments is the starting place, as timeless and as pertinent as anything anywhere.
On some Saturday afternoons, back when I was growing up in the Mid-west, I watched on television great college teams play football on Saturday afternoons. I later learned that they were a part of the Big Ten Athletic Conference. At the time, I was not aware that football existed much beyond those particular teams. I imagined what it would be like to go to one of those schools, so full of fervor and excitement. What would it take to “make it in the Big Ten?”
God’s Big Ten for each of us is our desire to live into the heart of our faith. These ten commands, really “ten words” from God are the footing Jesus used for his own life. He preached that he came as the fulfillment (the embodiment) of God’s law. Here we encounter bedrock.
Some 1,300 years before Christ, Moses the Hebrew leader brought the Israelites, God’s chosen people, out of slavery in Egypt. But they were not yet in the Promised Land. He had the people on what we now call the Sinai Peninsula. For some forty years, They had been wandering. Their physical wandering became so dominant a reality that they began to wander spiritually, emotionally, morally. They were lost—they needed clear guidance and help.
God called their leader Moses up to a mountain (any time we find a mountain in Scripture we ask whether that is a reminder from the writer of the Bible that the scene is particularly spiritual and God-filled). Up on Mt. Sinai, Moses encountered thunder, lightning, and a thick cloud, three more signals from the ancient days that indicate a sacred, religious experience is at hand.
There, God delivered to Moses the Ten Commandments and Moses brought them down on two stone tablets to form the heart or groundwork of Judaism and Islam and Christianity, the world’s three great monotheistic religions. The first tablet contains the four commands concerning our relation to God and the second tablet contains the six commands concerning our relation to each other. The Ten Commandments are found twice in the Bible. The best-known version is found in Exodus 20:1-17. The other is in Deuteronomy 5. These two accounts contain some minor word differences, but in essence, they are the same.
We humans have always been challenged by the Ten Commandments. In all honesty, when people complain that they can seem so negative, they do have a negative quality to them. I don’t mean that they are so filled with “Thou shalt nots” as much as they teach us that choices have consequences. We don’t like to be told that there are limitations, prohibitions, and boundaries in life. Commands are not an “in” thing these days. If somebody tells us they command us to do something, like it as not, our back gets up and we want to resist, just for the orneriness of it all. We’d much prefer people take a poll for the majority opinion and to ask us for our feelings on the matter.
According to a recent survey, one of every 10 Americans believes in all of the Ten Commandments—40 percent subscribe to five or fewer Commandments. Now there’s an option we could take all day discussing—which commandments to keep and which to ignore, in sort of the “way of the world,” I guess. We may relate to the man who told pollster George Gallup, “I can’t name the Ten Commandments, but I’ve seen the movie.”
Gallup research shows a frightening lack of basic information among so-called believers about the Bible, the meaning of Easter, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the heritage of the Church, and so forth. He concluded that the lack of basic information about the faith of the Church and the word of God threatens the very life and future of the Church. And we know that the strongest churches across the country repeatedly are those where people love to worship Jesus Christ and to take adult classes to deepen their base of knowledge. The church cannot go too often to its ancient foundations to maintain an informed identity about who God in Christ is and how the blessings of God are shared through Christ Jesus.
The Commandments are a set of principles, not a detailed body of rules and regulations. They do not give ready-made instructions to apply to any situation but, instead, give a person an attitude toward God of reverence and toward other people of respect. That’s worth repeating. The Ten Commandments give us an attitude toward God of reverence and toward other people of respect. From this base, our actions can be determined. Like a goal post toward which we are moving with our team, they provide a visible and clear destination, just as a football team would have on a playing field. And the good news is that they are not a moving target.
But they are a target. The preacher, Dr. Phillips Brooks, tells of a church member who was going to visit Mount Sinai where the Ten Commandments were given by God. He told Dr. Brooks that he planned to climb the mountain and read aloud the Ten Commandments when he reached the top. Thinking this would please Dr. Brooks, the church member was surprised to hear his pastor say, “You know, I can think of something even better than that.” The man responded, “You can, Pastor? And what might that be?” Brooks replied rather bluntly, “Just this. Instead of traveling thousands of miles to read the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, why not stay right here at home and keep them?”
So we come to the first command, “You shall have no other gods before me.” In the New Testament, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters.” “God will not accept a divided heart,” Dwight L. Moody preached on this command. “He must be absolute monarch. There is no room in your heart for two thrones.”
Let’s take a quick look at the world from which this command sprung: Beliefs about God passed through three discernible historic stages. The first was polytheism, which was the belief in many gods. This was the predominant religious style surrounding the Hebrew people of that day. Neighbors believed in a different god for everything: one for the moon, another for the sun, another for the sea and another for fire, wind, wood, seasons, fertility, and so on. These gods were competing for people’s attention, and there was no one god who was worshipped for having all and ultimate power.
After polytheism, came henotheism, in which a people would accept just one god as their own, and worship no other. But they also were ready to submit to other nations each worshiping their own gods, as if those were as real so the one God. In effect, if one were to take a trip across several valleys, one would worship a different god in each valley, giving it homage, assuming it had the power of all gods for that region. This of course is a basic denial that our God who created heavens and earth has ultimate power in all places and times. This middle stage reminds me of how some people choose to interpret the command to have only one spouse to mean one spouse this day, or week, or year, and when they decide to take the next one, they will drop the first one first. It is called serial monogamy, and has nothing to do with monogamy. So there was a time when people practiced henotheism, one god at a time, skipping merrily through the pack.
The final stage in the development of the idea of god is monotheism. This, of course, is the belief that there is only one god, not just for each nation, but for all the earth, indeed for all the cosmos. If religion is to mean anything to a person in every circumstance of life, this concept finally had to come. This, of course,, is the concept of God that the Bible teaches.
To have no other gods before the Lord is to honor God and to be committed to God and to God alone. The word in Hebrew actually can also mean “no other gods beside me.” Everything else finds its rightful place in another tier down, including really good things. Let me illustrate. Say you are getting married. The most important person on the face of the earth for you is your fiancé(e). But in Christian marriage, each will (and should) pledge to lay even that relation before God for God’s guidance, strengthening love and blessing. To be married in the presence of Christ is to make a commitment to each other that is strong not because of husband and wife alone but because God is a participant. No other gods, not even marriage love, parental love, patriotic love, before or beside the God revealed in Old Testament to Moses and in the New Testament as Jesus the Christ.
As Ogden Nash put it, have you ever reflected on “How odd of God to choose the Jews as his chosen people?” We might understand better if God had chosen a strong and mighty nation that could defend itself and chart the course of world history. But choosing the Hebrews? They were a small nation, unfortunately, positioned not only today as virtually the only Mid-East country without oil, but back in biblical times, they were the passageway other countries used to get to where they wanted to go to conquer and rule. The ones getting ground under the chariot wheels were always the Israelites. Why would God choose such a problematic country? Perhaps, that was the point! God’s lesson was that these were a people who had little, if anything, going for them, in worldly terms. They had no economic base to speak of. Their land showed little promise for abundance. Perhaps, God chose the Jews because when a people, or a person, rely on God as their sole source of strength and direction, of comfort and courage, then they have something, and great things can happen. No other gods before me. This was precisely the place for the experiment in full trust in God could dramatically take place.
Who is this God we are called to put in the first place in our lives? We can picture Jesus as a kind, gentle person knocking at a door. Or we can know Jesus as the Troublemaker, overturning the tables in the Temple. Both are correct and biblical. Only a God who cannot be molded and shaped by human beings can enter human history to mold and transform it. As God was bigger than the notions of nations who simply wanted military power, so God in Christ is bigger than merely one notion we can put into our heads—He is God!
C. S. Lewis, in The Chronicles of Narnia depicts God as Aslan, the fun-loving lion. The children love to hold onto the lion’s mane as he runs across the fields. They love to romp and play with him. However, Lewis also depicts the lion as one who growls and roars with a deep tone of voice. There is a time to keep silent before him, reverence God. This is who God is: no other gods before Him. Day in and day out, no other gods.
One of my roles as a pastor is to visit and pray with those facing death. People allow me into the most sacred of times and spaces, as around the bedside of a dying loved one. And more often than not, I hear children of the one who is in the process of death and resurrection tell, right next to the bed, of how they saw the purity of intent in their loved one, how above all else he or she really tried to live life for God, to please God, to walk with God. And I am humbled to be in the presence of a child of God who has taken this command to have no other gods as seriously as could be done, all the way to the bed of death. What an honor, and what a joy.
Perhaps you recall a Kansas City Royal’s baseball game televised from their stadium a while back. A dog walked onto the playing field and wandered around. The game was stopped so that the dog could be removed. The umpires tried to shoo him off. The players yelled and hollered at him, “Get out, go home, you idiot dog.” The dog by this time was thoroughly confused, ran here and there, and, finally, lay down on Third Base, refusing to move. A sports reporter summed up the situation when he wrote, “The problem was that the dog could hear no dominant voice.”
That’s our call in the midst of our distractions: to hear the dominant voice of God more than all the distracting voices around us. “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so I would have told you.” “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Will you take again as if for the first time this great God in Christ as your God and your master? No other gods before me or beside me. The Word of God. Amen.