Sermon for August 18th, 2013
28 One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ 29Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” 31The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ 32Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; 33and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.
6I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 7you shall have no other gods before me. 8 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 9You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, 10but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Ten Laws, One Love: The Second Commandment
In our New Testament reading today, the scribe asks Jesus "Which commandment is the first of all?" I have a better question for you today: Which commandment is the second of all...or, what is the second of the ten commandments?" That sounds like an easy question, right? But according to our Lutheran brothers and sisters, as well as our Roman Catholic friends, the second commandment is "Don't take the name of the Lord your God in vain." According to the Talmud, our Jewish friends (and you'd think they would know a thing or two about the ten commandments!) name the second commandment as "you shall have no other gods before me" which they take to include the verse about no idols. And finally, for Presbyterians, the Greek Orthodox church, and Episcopalians, the second commandment is "you shall not make for yourself any idols" but NOT "you shall have no other gods before me" (which we view as the first commandment). So if you've ever been worried or unsure about whether or not you are following the Ten Commandments, don't worry...for the past 500 years and more, we as God's children haven't even been able to agree on how to number them, let alone understand them.
Last week, it was my intention to preach on the first commandment (hence the sermon title), but I never quite got that far, and instead last week's sermon was a general introduction to the Ten Commandments, and hopefully challenged some widely-held assumptions about what exactly the Ten Commandments are, and what God actually intended them to be. So today, I'll be following the example of our Jewish friends and mushing together what we as Presbyterians consider to be the first and second commandments: You shall have no other gods before me, and you shall not make for yourself any idols.
What exactly is an idol? We tend to think of golden calves and carved statues, and these certainly would have qualified as idols in ancient Israel. But Mark Driscoll, a pastor in Seattle, tells a story of the time he was in a small, rural village in East India. He describes being surrounded by idols as far as you could see, every kind of idol, shrines to idols, sacrificial altars to idols covered with chicken blood and chicken feathers. He asked a woman in the village (a Christian who was helping to plant a church there) if she would ever consider coming to visit America. The woman replied and said, "I've been to America once, and I don't think I could ever go back. There's just too much idolatry there. Mark Driscoll remembers looking around himself, staring at the altar where chickens get whacked for the local chicken God, and thinking, Really? So he asked the woman, "where are the shrines and altars to idols worshiped in my country?" The woman said, "your god is your stomach...and you have restaurants everywhere you look. You worship your sports teams, and you build multi-million dollar stadiums for them in every city. Your god is your television, and all of the chairs in your homes are lined up so your family can gather around the altar and worship that god." Mark Driscoll concluded that it's often easier to see the idols in someone else's culture than in our own.
Now, I know that when you leave here today, having heard this powerful message, you'll probably all rush home to throw out your flat screen televisions, burn your UTEP season tickets, and never set foot in Chile's or Applebee's again. But before you do, let me make a small distinction that might be helpful. Food is good. Recreation and entertainment are good things too. I don't think any of those things in and of themselves are idolatrous. But when you take a "good" thing, drop one of the o's and make it a "god" thing, that's when you cross the line into idolatry. When you take a good thing, and give it so much importance in your life that it rivals God, that's idolatry.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
So far I've picked on sports, restaurants and television, but there are plenty of others. Like when the "good" of a healthy diet and exercise becomes the "god" of obsessing over body image. Or when the "good" of getting an education becomes the "god" of obsessing over grade point average and getting into the most prestigious school. Or when being a "good" parent crosses over into the god-like desire of being a "perfect" parent, controlling and scheduling every aspect of our children's lives to make sure they never have the opportunity to fail. We can make idols out of just about anything, including our kids.
But I suspect that all these "good" things that we tend to overdo, rather than being lots of little idols, are really just symptoms of our one great idolatry, the one thing we most often elevate above God and our neighbors: ourselves.
Jesus actually names three different types of love when he gives the greatest commandment as a summary of all the commandments. He says we should love God with all our hearts, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Love God, love neighbor, and love...yourself. The third love is implied; "love your neighbor in the same way that you love yourself.' So it is important, then, to love yourself. If you can't do that, you'll probably have a hard time loving your neighbor, or God. Some people genuinely get stuck at this point, and have a hard time loving themselves enough to love others, to love God, or to even realize how much God (and others) love them.
But more often, I think especially in our American culture of rugged individualism, our Texas "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" culture, even our West Texas "si se puede / yes you can" culture, we tend to go the other extreme. We flip those three loves upside down, and put our love for ourselves above all others, then after we'll maybe love our neighbors...and then if we have any left over love at the end of the day, well, maybe God can have that. We do this with our time: My time belongs to me first, then to others, then whatever is left over God can have. We do this with our skills and talents and treasures: Me first, then others, then God. Jesus also said that where your treasure is, there your heart is also. If we want to know where our idols are, we should look at where we spend the most of our time, our money, and our talents.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. In that order.
For most of the commandments, God doesn't give much of an explanation, but for this one, the one on idols, we read that "You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments."
That may sound pretty harsh to us...you mean God punishes innocent children for things their parents do? That's not fair! But as a parent, I can promise you that my children pay attention to the things that are important to me, the things I spend my time and my money on...my children watch me, learn from me, emulate me...and their children will watch and learn from them. Three or four generations...that's not punishment, it's just psychology. But look at the flip side, the promise: "showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments." There's a little bit of a difference there! To put it in monetary terms, if I give you a job to do and you don't do it, you lose $4. But if you do the job, you get $1,000. One thousand generations goes far beyond the reach of psychology, that's supernatural blessing. A gift God alone can give.
Last week I said the Ten Commandments, the "ten words" were a gift from God that, just like Jesus, are a reflection and representation of who God is among us. The first and second commandments, by asking us to be faithful to God alone, above all others, are a reminder to us that God is, by nature, faithful to us, never leaving or abandoning us, always walking alongside us, and carrying us when we can't go on any further.
I said last week that the Ten Commandments are not an ethical code, but rather a treaty, a covenant between God and God's people. Thirteen years ago I stood at the front of a sanctuary and made a covenant with my wife, Amy. In that covenant, those marriage vows, I promised to forsake all others and love her only. We may not always be able to wrap our heads around idolatry, but anyone who's ever been in a relationship understands faithfulness--how important it is, and how much it hurts when someone you love turns away to love someone else. If we are truly God's people, that's the kind of relationship he wants with us: A faithful relationship, an exclusive relationship, forsaking all others as long as we both shall live, which, when we belong to God, means forever.
Finally, I said last week that the Ten Commandments are a call to turn away from the Empires of the world, and follow God into an uncertain future, a new kind of Kingdom. For the Israelites, this meant leaving behind their golden calves and wooden statues, leaving behind gods they could see and touch and understand for one who was invisible, unfathomable...but also one capable of infinite love, mercy and grace. Our idols may look different today, but God still calls us to leave them behind and follow him into a different kind of life, to trade our finite things for his eternal things; to love ourselves, but to love our neighbors more, and to love our God the most.