No Other Gods before Me

Over the years, I’ve preached sermon series on any number of themes, but for no reason in particular, the one topic I haven’t touched in depth is the Ten Commandments.  

So, for the next 10-or-so weeks, we’re going to be unpacking that list of do’s and don’ts – given by God to Moses, a staple of Sunday school for generations – intended to bring some decency and order to a chronically unruly band of former slaves.  

The Ten Commandments are called “The Law” because it was the law.  

Old Testament times were something like the wild, wild, west – long before well-established civil authorities enacted and enforced detailed sets of laws and ordinances to govern vast swaths of the population with liberty and justice. Daily life was dog eat dog, every man for himself, you snooze you lose. The whims of the kings ultimately had the last word.

And into that sewer of exploitation and corruption enters the Ten Commandments.  

But wait, there’s more!  

The big 10 are counted among hundreds of biblical laws, ordinances, and specifications spread far and wide across the launch of the Old Testament, and here’s an explanation of how the Commandments fit into the bigger picture of the story of God with us.

When it comes to teaching about the Ten Commandments, a preacher has a couple options – including the legalistic, follow-the-rules-or-else approach, which goes something like this.  

Tempting as it is to start naming names and specific violations, you simply must view the Commandments through the lens of Jesus and with the eyes of love.  

When first delivered, following the letter of the Law was thought to be the essential ingredient of the recipe for staying in God’s good graces and savoring God’s love. The faithful regarded God’s love as conditional – parceled out in equal measure to one’s adherence to the Law. And with that, determination of your eternal fate.  

Then along comes Jesus: God in human flesh. Son of God, and Son of Man. The living, breathing, laughing, and crying Word of the Lord!  

Turns out – through, with, and in Christ, God’s love is not conditional but unconditional – particularly so for those repentant spirits who receive in their hearts extra measures of healing and forgiving grace. Which alone is sufficient to preserve your life in this world and the next!  

Plain and simple, we love God, because God loved us first, and no other god even comes close to granting that kind of undeserved favor. By the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, we abide in such love, extending it graciously and generously not only to the Lord but also to his people – friend, neighbor, and strange: The blessed souls whom Jesus calls “the least of these” – the widow and the orphan; the hungry and the homeless; the prisoner and the outcast; the sick and the dying.  

Listen, now, for the Word of the Lord, in two of many, many passages that urge us to share freely the love that’s been given to us. First, from Paul’s letter to the Romans:  

Owe nothing to anyone – except for your obligation to love one another.  

If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These – and other such commandments – are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. (Romans 13:8-10 NLT)

And from the Gospel of John, Jesus himself speaks on the eve of his crucifixion:  

As soon as Judas left the room, Jesus said,  

“The time has come for the Son of Man to enter into his glory, and God will be glorified because of him. And since God receives glory because of the Son, God will soon give glory to the Son. Dear children, I will be with you only a little longer. And as I told the Jewish leaders, you will search for me, but you can’t come where I am going. So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (John 13:31-35 NLT) 

Earthly love accordingly becomes a response to heavenly love.   And again by the Spirit, such love becomes our resurrected instinct – an action that requires about as much conscious thought as we give to breathig air or digesting food. Love simply is who we are – or ought to be, because our hearts have been forever changed – as they need to be!   I’m reading to you from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah:  

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 

It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34) 

“I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.”  

“I have forgiven your iniquity, and I remember your sin no more.”  

“What I require of you will be written on your hearts.”  

Some years back, the neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a fascinating vignette of an intriguing neurological condition: Tourette’s Syndrome, a disorder of the brain that causes victims to exhibit any number of physical and verbal tics. Some Tourettic people experience constant facial twitches; others find themselves uncontrollably uttering verbal whoops, beeps, and sometimes raunchy swearing.   

One man with Tourette’s whom Dr. Sacks knew was given to verbal shouts; deep, lunging bows toward the ground, and an obsessive-compulsive habit of adjusting and readjusting of his eyeglasses. These sorts of things go on constantly and non-stop for people with Tourette’s.  

The kicker is that the man Dr. Sacks knew was a skilled surgeon! Somehow, and for some unknown reason, when he dons mask and gown and enters the operating theater, all the man’s tics disappear for the duration of the surgery. And when the surgery is finished, the man resumes his shouting, bowing, and adjusting.  

This Tourettic surgeon stands as a very intriguing example of what it can mean to “lose yourself” wholly and completely in a particular role. Your life is transformed whenever and wherever you are focused on just one thing – focused to the point where unhelpful traits disappear, even as the performance of normal, routine tasks becomes all the more meaningful, and remarkable, and holy.

Something like that is our Christian goal as we travel with Jesus.   

Our ingrained desire is to love one another – in the end, to love the whole world, I suppose – as Jesus loves us. To do that, our hearts and minds need infusions of the kind of love that does not arise naturally from the context of a broken and fearful world.  

So, as we lose ourselves in Jesus, and in being his disciples, we find even our ordinary day-to-day activities infused with deep purpose and meaning, as love from a higher place fills out bodies, souls, and spirits. Because even if only a smidgen of sacredness sprouts from within, it will happen among the everyday pots and pans, and tools of the trade – not just on Sundays when we feel particularly jolted by worship or on Tuesdays when we volunteer for some service project.  If we are to love as Jesus loves us, this becomes for us a daily reality made possible if and only when the love of Christ fills us to the brim.  

“I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.”  

“For I have forgiven your iniquity, and I remember your sin no more.”  

“What I require of you will be written on your hearts.”  

Ancient words, ever true: The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!  

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, July 16, 2023. It is the first of a series on the Ten Commandments. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Scott Hoezee, Oliver Sacks, and The Bible Project inform the message.         

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