Narrative Lectionary Year 4
Welcome to the second Sunday of the first of our summer sermon series, where we are speaking about the Ten Commandments. Last week, we set the scene for God giving these commandments to the Israelite people through Moses: the Israelites are gathered at Mount Sinai after God has brought them through the Red Sea, given them food and water, and protected them from people who wanted to kill them. Last week, we heard how God established God’s relationship with the people of Israel. These laws that God gives are not arbitrary laws that God made up to take all the fun out of life. And these laws are not something that the people have to do in order for God to love them. If God didn’t love them, God wouldn’t have saved them from slavery in Egypt. The Ten Commandments are to be understood in this way: because God has done this, therefore the people do that. Striving to follow the laws that God gives are a way to make the people’s relationships with God and with one another work more smoothly. With this understanding in mind, we turn today to the first three commandments that God lays out before us.
The first commandment that God gives us is this: you shall have no other gods before me. Different faith traditions number the commandments slightly differently; in Lutheranism, we lump the command, “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” in with “you shall have no other gods before me.” In some ways, this is unfortunate, because we tend to think, “Well, of course I don’t bow down before statues of other gods.” When I was in Turkey, when we visited the ruins of the city of Ephesus, I bought a replica of a statue of the goddess Artemis of the Ephesians, which is a reminder to me of a story in the book of Acts where Paul encounters the worship of Artemis. But I certainly do not bow down to Artemis when no one is looking; it is just a statue; a souvenir. So, we think we’re good with this commandment because we don’t bow down to idols and maybe because we come to worship on a regular basis and bow down to the one true God. But our good teacher, Martin Luther, is not going to let us get away with that. Martin Luther wrote, “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”
OK, so that makes us think. We are not free of guilt just because we don’t bow down to a physical idol, like this little statue of Artemis. What is it that our heart relies and depends on, then? Is it truly God? Or, is it something else? Probably the most common culprit is money. We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, who worshiped money even above being decent to his fellow human beings. It took three visits from three different ghosts to show him that there were more important things in life, like relationships with his family and giving generously to those in need, before he gave up depending on money as his god. But we don’t have to be as tight-fisted with money as Scrooge was to trust in money above God. If we love money more than God, then we are constantly worried about making ends meet, rather than trusting in God to provide generously what we need. And money has then become our god, and we now love, worship, and trust in money before we love, worship, and trust in God. And we are officially in violation of the first commandment.
The second commandment, according to the Lutheran tradition is, “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” My mother taught me, growing up, that I was in violation of this commandment any time I said, “Oh, my God.” Perhaps many of you learned this was the way to interpret this commandment as well. Or, for those of you who went through confirmation class, you may have learned Luther’s explanation of it: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive using God’s name, but instead use that very name in every time of need to call on, pray to, praise, and give thanks to God.” Now, that explanation does cover the, “Oh, my God,” part of it, or, as I saw painted once on the back of a semi-truck, “Jesus Christ is Lord, not a swear word.” And I think most of us would say that we don’t use God’s name in order to practice magic. But what about this: saying that God would approve of things that are clearly not God-like? For example, if you are saying that God hates LGBT people, or if you are saying that God hates Muslim people, or that God hates some other group of people, are you not misusing God’s name? Don’t we believe and teach that God loves everyone? Because if God does not love everyone, then maybe God does not love you, either. Be careful what you say God hates, because you may be misusing God’s name.
But all of this is looking at the negative side of things. Do we understand what an incredible gift God has given us in enabling us to use God’s name? We can come to our God in prayer any time we want to. We can talk to God as we would talk to our father, mother, or best friend. We can use God’s name when we want to praise and give thanks to God for the many blessings that God has given us. And yet, we so often fail to do this. We fail to recognize the gift that God has given us, and we get too busy to pray. Or we only come to God when we are in need, and we forget to speak to God when things are going well. So, we are officially in violation of this second commandment as well.
And what about the third commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” And when God says “you” here, God means “y’all”—no one is to do any work at all. Many of us will remember “blue laws”: those laws that forbade businesses from being open on Sundays. Those laws have been eroded over the years. This economy that we have created values money over people. Everyone must work and work and work in order to have enough money to survive. But, as someone once said, God created us to be human beings, not human doings. If we just keep doing and doing and doing with no rest in sight, we will kill ourselves. What would it look like if we started to reinstitute those blue laws? Yes, it was annoying when you ran out of something on a Sunday and couldn’t go to the store to pick it up. But what would happen if we trusted in God to get us through one day—just one day!—without whatever it is we think we need? Not only would we be able to rest, but the people who work in the store would be able to rest, and perhaps then we might be able to appreciate other people for who they are rather than put the ultimate value on the things that they can produce for us.
Of course, there’s another part to observing the Sabbath besides resting, and that is this: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s Word, but instead keep that Word holy and gladly hear and learn it,” as Luther says in his explanation. If you’re here, then you’ve already got part of this down, and so I feel like I’m preaching to the choir. But, on the other hand, not all of you are in worship every Sunday, so maybe you have some work to do on that. And besides that, every one of you should be in a Bible study. I know that many of you have scheduling conflicts and can’t make it on a Thursday morning. I’ve been wanting to get an evening Bible study started for that very reason. Those of you who would be better able to come to an evening study, please come and talk to me, and let’s get something going. Because if we truly love God, then we should want to make time to hear and learn God’s Word.
The law is a mirror that, when we hold it up to ourselves, shows us our sin and our need for Jesus. The first section of the commandments tells us how we are to love God, and as we have seen, we fail miserably at this. We love and trust other things in life, such as money, before God. We misuse God’s name: using it to curse, speaking wrong things in God’s name, and not calling upon God’s name when we should be. We do not observe the Sabbath rightly: we do not take time to rest and to let other people rest, and we are not in worship and in Bible study as we should be. Jesus tells us to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our strength, but even though we strive to do this, we fail miserably.
But here is the good news: through Jesus Christ, God has set us free from our slavery to sin. God has given us grace and mercy, and through Jesus, God has forgiven us and has set us free. God loves us. You are each loved by God, and nothing you can do will change that. In his sermon on Friday night at Synod Assembly, Bishop Dunlop said that sociologists note that children will grow in the image that friends and family have of them. If your close family and friends say that you’re smart, for example, you will work harder at studying and you will become smart. So if God says that you are loved—and you are—how will you work to show that you are loved? God gives us these commandments, knowing that we are not going to be perfect at fulfilling them, but loving us anyway and urging us to keep on trying at loving God. So, love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, and mind. Trust God more than anything else in life. Pray, praise, and give thanks to God in every circumstance. Rest in God’s love on the Sabbath. Trust in God’s mercy and forgiveness when you mess up. And show the world that this is what it means for you to be loved by God. Amen.