Sermon from March 1 on Commandments 1-3
One God Is Enough
Lent I; March 1, 2020
We were in a church on top of a hill in rural Nicaragua, a place called “Windy Hill” (Loma de Viento), doing a seminar with pastors and church leaders and inaugurating their course of study in the Seminary program that sponsored my visit. I was enjoying the exchange with these folks so much I strayed mightily from my notes on the Book of Hebrews. These pastors and scholars were young – 20s and 30s – and intensely interested in what we were doing. Well, most of them were. I’m not going to pretend they are any more virtuous than anyone else: at least one of them was leafing through the book he had been given instead of paying attention to what I was saying.
Anyway. We were talking about our service to God being more a matter of the heart than a matter of following particular rules, and that led us in a novel direction. I asked them what practices help them deepen their relationship with God: what do they do to have time in the presence of God? One man told us that when he drives he doesn’t listen to the radio, but he imagines God is seated next to him and he has a conversation. Another man talked about a particularly meaningful communion service they had recently had in his church.
And then the man who would a bit later be elected President of the group spoke up. He said that he had gone through stages in his life. For a long time his prayer life was asking, asking, asking; talking, talking, talking (“pidiendo, pidiendo, pidiendo; hablando, hablando, hablando”). Then he went through a change, and now most of his time with God is spent listening, listening, listening (“escuchando, escuchando, escuchando”). He is mostly silent, waiting for God to speak to him in some way, listening for God’s words to him. He said, “What God has to say to me is more important than anything that I have to say to God.”
My response was, “So young, yet so wise.” He is young – much younger than I – and he has learned something important that I have yet to learn, since my prayer time is still more devoted to what I have to say to God than to listening for what God has to say to me. For those of us who are working on our relationship with God, in these first three commandments God tells us some things about God: that God is the one who rescues from slavery, that God is jealous, that God’s name is precious. My general theme for thinking about these things is integrity of relationship with God. That is, you and I are here in the church-house because we want to have a relationship with God. Just as in any other relationship, some things are necessary in order to make it a good relationship.
A side comment: if you grew up Roman Catholic or Lutheran, you learned a list of the Ten Commandments that’s a little different from the way most other Christians list them; that difference really isn’t significant for this series so I’m not going into it, but I’m happy to talk with any of you who are interested. I just wanted to mention that in case you feel something about the list isn’t quite right and you’re not sure why.
So, these first three commandments tell us some things about God we should remember if we want to have a good relationship with God. The first thing is that the Lord God is the one who rescued God’s people from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery; therefore, we should have no other gods in our lives. That got me thinking: you and I are certainly heirs in the Faith of those who were rescued from slavery in Egypt, and we tell their story as our story, but since you and I have never been conscripted to help build a city for the Pharaoh, I started wondering what sort of slavery we may have to deal with. Where is our Egypt?
It’s different for different folks, I know, but the common thread is your Egypt is wherever something has power over you and you are not completely free. Where is your Egypt? Is it social media? Does that suck you in, draining the hours away as you chase one rabbit after another, causing you to doubt your own worth if you don’t get a certain number of “likes” on your recent post? Or maybe it’s the cell phone itself, so that you can’t sleep unless you know it’s nearby, you panic if you realize you’ve left the house and it isn’t with you. Is it screens, work, food, alcohol, drugs, or some other addiction? Where is your Egypt?
The Lord God is God enough to free you from that slavery, if you will cooperate with God. Leaving Egypt was not easy for the Hebrews, and they constantly yearned to go back; your Egypt and mine will always call to us to come back, to turn our backs on the God who is working to set us free and to return to slavery or addiction or whatever you want to call it. God’s desire is for our freedom, and if we single-mindedly put our hope on the Lord God and do not let other gods get in the way, then we will cooperate with the Lord God in the project of setting us free. Have no other gods but the Lord God and claim your freedom.
The second thing we learn is that the Lord God is a jealous God. Yep, jealous. Or “zealous;” the problem we have is they’re the same word in Hebrew. They’re also the same word in Greek and in Spanish. For some reason, this intense emotion is considered one thing in these other languages but we English-speakers divide it between the good kind – zeal – and the bad kind, jealousy. Whichever way you translate it, you get the sense that the Lord God is intensely devoted to… God’s people.
Maybe that’s why we traditionally translate it as “jealous,” because God’s people keep wandering after any god who comes along in skinny jeans, promising happiness. So the commandment warns against making idols. The Lord’s yearning for a relationship with people is constantly frustrated by people’s interest in other gods. Since that’s the way the story keeps going, I suppose “jealous” is a good translation. But however you translate it, please think of it this way: the Lord has an intense passion for people, and wants to be in relationship with people. This interest in us is so strong that when we reject it God’s anger lasts for three or four generations. But I hope you noticed that God’s love and mercy are much stronger: the anger lasts for three or four generations, but the committed love lasts for a thousand generations. God rescues from slavery, and God is intensely interested in us.
And the third Commandment tells us that God holds accountable anyone who misuses the divine name; God’s name is precious. And though it’s a good idea to refrain from the casual epithet such as “Oh my God!” (OMG) and the like, I think God is even more concerned with slapping the Lord’s name onto projects and programs that the Lord would not endorse. Let’s leave it at this: be humble about using the Lord’s name. Don’t claim that you have the Lord’s endorsement for your position, your party, your candidate, your idea, your project unless you have pretty good Biblical and theological evidence that you’re right about that. In Matthew 5:33-37, Jesus advises us not to use the name of God in making an oath, because we really don’t have any place invoking God’s name in that way; just let your word be good.
Okay, that was a lot of stuff, but here’s another, practical thought. One of the primary missions of the Church is to help people have a real relationship with God. Do you know anyone who may be looking for that in their lives? Have you invited them to come here with you? I was listening to a man talk about his upcoming retirement from a high-profile job, and he mentioned that one of his intentions was to spend more time and attention going deeper into his Catholic faith. Then he referred to something I knew about from my years of studying and teaching Hinduism: that in India they have a notion of “stages of life.” You spend the first part of your life as a student, then you devote yourself to having and raising a family. When you’ve accomplished that, then your next task is to work on your spirituality.
Many of us have been working on our spirituality our entire lives; wonderful! But perhaps you know someone middle-aged or older who is ready for that now: invite them to church. Let me put it this way: sometimes I hear people say, “What the church needs is more young people.” I’m going to be critical of that statement in two ways. First, it isn’t necessarily true that the Church needs young people. The story is that once Stalin was talking to the Metropolitan of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. Stalin crowed, “Look at your churches! They’re full of grandmothers. Where will you be when they’re all dead?” And the Patriarch replied, “We’ll have a new generation of grandmothers.” He was right; the Russian Orthodox Church survived the Soviet Union and is doing fine. So if you’re concerned about church membership, don’t focus just on a particular demographic: focus on anyone who is open to a relationship with God.
But my central criticism of that statement – “The Church needs more young people” – is that it’s completely turned around. We aren’t interested in what the Church needs. We’re interested in who needs the Church. Don’t look around for members to recruit for the institution. Listen for those you know who may be ready to look into having a spiritual life. They may be young, or they may be at a stage of life that they’re interested in spiritual things. Don’t invite them because the Church needs them. Invite them because they need God.
The young pastor in Loma de Viento has a head start on that stage of life. Open your ears and listen for God to speak to you about your own spiritual life, and open your ears and listen for friends and family who may be looking for a spiritual life themselves. The Lord God, who rescues from slavery and is passionate about people, is here for us.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master