As has been my tradition from years past, I am going to be posting my previous year’s #summersermonseries here. Slightly edited. Let’s see how it speaks to what is happening now…
I. You shall have no other gods before me.
My senior year of high school, I had the chance to travel to Europe with some of my schoolmates over spring break. We went several places, among them Heidelberg, the place where my great-grandfather, Lucien McElwee, my first son’s namesake, studied medicine in the nineteenth century. The big feature on that stop for us was the visit to Heidelberg castle. It was remarkable in many ways. But the thing I remember most was our visit to the basement.
Traveling with us on that adventure were two young men named Ryan and in the basement of the castle they found something that changed their lives forever. After walking down a long hallway, we entered a room, about the size of the church parlor, that was filled, floor to ceiling with a wine barrel. And the Ryans had found their new god. Then we went through a door at the far end of the room and entered a bigger room, about the size of the chapel and the kitchen. Again, it was filled, floor to ceiling with an even larger wine barrel. And the Ryans had found another new god. That is, until, we went through the final door at the end of that room and entered an even larger room, about a third the size of our sanctuary. Again, filled with the biggest wine barrel of all. I am still amazed that the Ryans didn’t fall on the floor.
Today we start a journey that will take us further into the depths of the covenant that our God made with the children of Israel all those millennia ago. A covenant written in stone, but also that was first etched out onto the hearts of those who had been drawn up out of slavery in Egypt. Saved from the oppression that had bound them. From the task masters that had bent their backs with impossible feats of work. It is that “I am” who delivered them and brought them out. Whatever other shared history God and these people may have together – with Noah, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, even with Joseph the great – God is basing this covenant on this one mighty act.
Why? Because this is the moment that will define who they are. Their years in Egypt and their deliverance from them will shape and mold these people and their way of life forever after.
With only a few exceptions, it is not the lives or the stories of the ancient patriarchs and matriarchs that create the established practices of the people. For though they were of one blood, and marked themselves as such, it was still easy enough to forget the primordial stories. To forget who God was in the days gone by. Remember, even Pharaoh forgot who Joseph was when the people grew too numerous.
Yet, they knew that their God, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob had acted before. Maybe God would act again.
And act God did. God brought the people out of bondage and led them to Horeb, the mountain of God.
There, in spite of what the people did, God still chose to make covenant with them. And it is the first ten commandments, the foundation of the law that Moses is repeating again to the people here, before they enter into the promised land.
And the foundation of all ten is this: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Remember who I am.
Then… you shall have no other gods before me.
In fact, the Hebrew here is a bit more complicated than it looks. Hebrew almost always is (which is part of the reason I usually preferred Greek, but I digress). The word translated as “before me,” could actually be translated one of four ways: “before me,” “beside me,” “besides me,” or “over against me.” In other words, there are a lot of places we can keep these other gods. And frankly, the scholars can’t quite decide which translation is best. Though for our understanding, the two that will help us most are either the one used in our translation or “besides me,” which really means that we would put another god in God’s place. Because quite honestly, that is what we are most in danger of doing, isn’t it?
Now, another key thing we need to remember when we look at this text: our God was not the only god on the block. We are talking about ancient times when gods were a dime a dozen and ours was simply the God of the Israelites. Monotheism was not really a concept on the horizon yet. And the Bible as we know it, even the first five books of it where this passage comes from, hadn’t been written down and wouldn’t be for hundreds, if not thousands of years. So God is quite serious when saying this. The people will be surrounded by a plethora of choices. God wants them to stay true.
Why? Because this is the God who saved them. Brought them up out of slavery. This is the God that loves them more than anything.
Times have certainly changed. We have come to know that ours is the God of the universe. The God of the people of Israel has revealed God’s self to be far bigger and far more loving than any could have possibly imagined in the very beginning. A God who would still have us have no other gods before God. And you might say, well, that’s easy. We don’t have other gods in this culture, right? Hmmm.
Let’s consider that for a minute. Of all the ancient gods available to the children of Israel, the two that would be most readily accessible when they came into the promised land were Baal and Mammon. You may have heard of them, but I bet that you probably do not know what they represent. The reason they were so dangerous is because of the lure they offered. Baal was the god of plentiful providence and fertility. Good crops, big family, prosperity in this life – you know who to thank. And Mammon, well, Mammon represented wealth, money, and possessions. But we do not have any kind of hang ups on prosperity, wealth or protecting our possessions in this life, right?
Here’s the thing, we may not think of them in anthropomorphic terms, human-like bodies, the way the ancients did, but we still have plenty of little-g gods we worship in our world. Wealth and prosperity are only two. Beauty. Power. Intoxication. Strength. Superiority. Fear. Lust. Hatred. And here’s the one we really don’t want to admit: ourselves.
There are plenty of ways were put other gods before or in place of where God should be in our life. Most often and most insidiously our own selves and we forget that we are not meant to control almost anything. We forget whose we are and in whose image we are made. What we are made for. And that makes all the difference.
So here is the heart of the matter, the very beginning of the commandments that will center all of the work we will do together this summer: our God is one. Our God is the one who saves. Who seeks us always. Who brought us out of bondage – not only the bondage to an Egyptian king long ago, but even the bondage to our own fallen selves. The ways we break ourselves, each other and the world. Because God loves us, no matter what. So it is our job, to work, with all that we have, to stop placing other gods where God should be in our lives. To start letting God’s Love rule. It is just that simple. And it is just that hard.