On the Plains of Moab Blog
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October 3, 2016, 7:23 AM

First Take on the First



Writing is not an activity I enjoy. I love the edit, but I do not like the writing part. Writing is especially un-fun starting with an empty Word document page. There’s something jarring about a bright white, blank, digital page staring back at you. Sermons are challenging in many ways. Of course, exegeting a passage. Getting it right. Making it interesting. And keeping it concise. That dreaded word count always looms large, almost as foreboding as the noon hour on Sunday morning. When I first started as a pastor, I always worried I wouldn’t have anything to say. Now, years later, I worry I have too much to say.

With that in mind, I wanted to share how this sermon series on the Ten Commandments began a few weeks ago. I was writing the sermon on the First Commandment. It was Saturday morning. Things were humming along pretty good. A week of reading. Taking notes. Churning the structure over in my head. Praying. Then, that note of dissonance. This dog ain’t gonna hunt. Won’t work. Junk! Then, that cold sweat on the forehead. Got to start over.

Indeed. I had to start over. But, as I look back over the sermon I started on the First Commandment, I hate to mothball it completely. So, here are a few sections of that ill-fated sermon. I feel like at least some of it ought to see the light of blog-day.

So, here it is:

Last week we began our study of the Ten Commandments with the preamble: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The preamble sets up the commandments. The preamble says this is why you are to plant my commandments in your heart; this is why you are to live out my commandments.

And so we come to the first commandment (5:7): You shall have no other gods before me.

This is the commandment Jesus had in mind when he said, “This is the great and first commandment.” “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. (Matt. 22:37-38 ESV). J.I. Packer, in his thoughtful book on the Commandments notes that the first commandment is “the fundamental commandment, first in importance as well as in order, and basic to every other…. True religion [he says,] starts with accepting this as one’s rule of life.” (Keeping the 10 Commandments, Crossway 2007, p.47).

John Calvin says “the purpose of the [first] commandment is that the Lord wills alone to be pre-eminent among his people, and to exercise complete authority over them…. for it is unlawful to take away even a particle from his glory.” (Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, Baillie, McNeill & Van Dusen eds. 1960, pp.382-83).

I think this is illustrated well from an exchange between the Father of our Country, George Washington, and his official portrait painter, Gilbert Stuart. Stuart painted the famous full length portrait of Washington that hangs prominently in the East Room of the White House, the portrait that Dolly Madison famously saved before the British burned the White House down to the ground during the War of 1812.

“As a portraitist, the garrulous Stuart had perfected a technique to penetrate his subjects’ defenses. He would disarm them with a steady stream of personal anecdotes and irreverent wit, hoping that this glib patter would coax them into self-revelation. In the taciturn George Washington, a man of granite self-control and a stranger to spontaneity, Gilbert Stuart had met his match…When Washington swept into his first session with [Gilbert] Stuart, the artist was awestruck by the tall, commanding president. Predictably, the more Stuart tried to pry open his secretive personality, the tighter the president clamped it shut. Stuart’s opening gambit backfired. ‘Now, sir,’ Stuart instructed his sitter, ‘you must let me forget that you are General Washington and I am Stuart the painter.’ To which Washington retorted drily that Mr. Stuart need not forget ‘who he is or who General Washington is.’” (Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, Penguin, 2010, p.xx)

We tend to think of God the way Gilbert Stuart thought about his encounter with the president. The president set him right. God does the same with us.

The first commandment teaches us first and foremost that our God is an exclusive God. Isaiah 45:21 says, There is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. (ESV).

When the second generation camping on the plains of Moab by the banks of the Jordan River looked over into the Promised Land, they had to understand that they were going into a land full of multiple nations worshiping multiple gods. Baal and Asherah with the Canaanites; Chemosh with the Moabites, and Molech with the Ammonites, to name but a few.

But, as Paul says, echoing Moses, …We know that… “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth-- as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”-- yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor. 8:4-6 ESV).

So, the question that remains for us here is, what does it mean to have no other gods before the one, true God?

The 3rd century Church Father, Origen, taught that “the first commandment has to do with what we love. He wrote, ‘What each one honors before all else, what before all things he admires and loves, this for him is God.’” (Philip Graham Ryken, Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis, P&R, 2003. p.66).

Reformer Martin Luther defined it thus: “A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need…That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.” (Carl Braaten and Christopher Seitz, ed. I Am the Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments, Eerdmans, 2005. p.43).

Puritan commentary writer, Matthew Henry put it this way: “Pride makes a god of self, covetousness makes a god of money, sensuality makes a god of the belly; whatever is esteemed or loved, feared or served, delighted in or depended on, more than God, that (whatever it is) we do in effect make a god of.” (Ryken, p.67).

Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College sums all of this up rather painfully when he says, “Whether it’s money, power, or even your own belly, the world is full of God-substitutes and God-additives – things that take the place of God in daily life. The reason we have trouble recognizing our own private idolatries is not because we don’t have false gods anymore, but because we have so many!” (Ryken, p.67).

Whether we want to admit it or not, we have many “unholy trinities” in our lives:

Sex, Shekels, Stomach. Or, Pleasure, Possessions, Position. Or, Football, the Firm, the Family

“…anything that anyone allows to run his life becomes his god…” (Packer, p.48).

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And, that’s as far as I got.

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