Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth, Pastor
Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Sermon July 12, 2015
EXODUS 19:1-6 & 20:2-3
19On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai.2They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain.3Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites:4You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
20Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;3you shall have no other gods before me.
“NO OTHER GODS BUT GOD”
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
For some time now, I’ve been considering preaching on the Ten Commandments. Today I begin a ten-part series of sermons on the 10 Commandments. Why do this? For two main reasons: 1) many people today couldn’t name all ten of the commandments if their lives depended on it and 2) the ten commandments aren’t always easy to understand without background - without going into some depth!
Those of us of a certain age will recall the giving of the Ten Commandments to Charleton (Moses) Heston in the blockbuster 1956 movie by Cecil B. DeMille, The Ten Commandments, which at the time was the most expensive movie ever made.
I recall going to see the movie with my mother and twin brother at the Capitol Theater at 79th and Halsted. I was 9 and was completely mesmerized by the movie and its stunning special effects. One of the most memorable special effects – after the parting of the Red Sea – was the hand of God writing the Ten Commandments on two stone tablets. Remember?
Well, sisters and brothers, today we start a journey into the heart of the Ten Commandments. I’m not sure where we’ll end up but I’m excited at the possibilities awaiting us.
First we should know that there is some discrepancy regarding the numbering of the commandments. If someone came to you and admitted having broken the 6thcommandment – what would think he or she had done? Well, unfortunately, the answer depends upon which denomination the person belongs to. If the person was either Catholic or Lutheran; he or she would have committed adultery. But if the person was Baptist or any other mainline Protestant (with the exception of Lutherans) he or she would be guilty of killing someone.
I’ve printed a list of the commandments for us – along with the designation according to denomination. There may be a test later! But just be aware there can be confusion about the numbering. Also understand there are two lists found in the Bible. The first list is from the 20th chapter of Exodus, verses 1 to 17. The second list is from the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 5, verses 4 to 21. The lists are somewhat different but not regarding the first commandment.
Let me restate the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” When we hear this commandment – what pops first into our minds? This obligation of “no other gods” arises because of what God did for the people. God brought them out of a place of slavery – out of Egypt.
So the first thing we notice in the First Commandment is that God is a God who abhors slavery. Otherwise, why would God have done anything about the slavery of the Israelites? But we need to look deeper here. The first commandment is a strong statement against the gods of Egypt.
It might be helpful to know that the Israelites were not true monotheists as we imagine. A strict monotheist is someone who believes that there is only one God. The Israelites – for most of their history – believed there were other gods – but that their God was the best and the strongest of the gods.
This understanding of the Israelites is made clear in a number of Psalm passages. Psalm 82, verse 1 proclaims “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” Psalm 95, verse 3 announces: “For the Lord is a great God and a great King above all gods.” Psalm 96, verse 4: “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods.” “All gods bow down before him.” (Psalm 97:7) “O, give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 136:2)
Sisters and brothers, the Israelites are surely our spiritual ancestors but they believed other gods existed. This is important because the deliverance of the people Israel by God through Moses – was deliverance first and foremost from the gods of Egypt. The Ten Plagues that come upon Egypt are clearly meant to show how the God of the Israelites was stronger than the gods of Egypt.
The first plague, for instance, was turning the water of the Nile into blood which showed the Israelite God’s superiority over the Nile god, Hapi, an Egyptian fertility god. The 9th plague, the three days of darkness, is a direct affront by God against the strongest of the Egyptian gods, Ra, the sun god.
Exodus reveals the superior power of the Israelite God against the gods of Egypt. This is one reason why the first commandment tells us to not worship other gods or bow down to them. But here’s an important dimension not often noted: the gods of Egypt were used to bolster the power, the privilege and the possessions of the Egyptian pharaoh and his large retinue.
Read again the 5th chapter of Exodus. Moses and Aaron ask the pharaoh for a few days to go into the wilderness to worship God. But pharaoh will hear none of it – and as a matter of fact – he increases the number of bricks the Israelites must make every day. There is, of course, no Sabbath rest for the Israelites. There is no rest of any kind.
Listen to what the Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann writes in his latest book,Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now: “It requires no imagination to see that the (memory of the) exodus … (and) consequently the Sinai commandments (flow from) … a ‘no Sabbath’ (no rest) environment. In that context, all levels of social power – gods, pharaoh, supervisors, taskmasters, slaves – are uniformly caught up and committed to the grind of endless production (more and more in less and less time).
“Into this system of hopeless weariness erupts the God of the burning bush. (This) God hears the despairing fatigue of the slaves, (and) resolves to liberate (them) … (liberate) Israel from that (exploitation) … and (God) recruits Moses for the human task of emancipation.”
Brothers and sisters, our God, the God of Moses and the God revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a God who wants to emancipate us. Whenever we work for emancipation, we are working in God’s service and in God’s name. Whenever we open our hearts and souls to our own emancipation, God’s spirit is working within us.
But what are we to be emancipated from in the here and now of our time and this place? What are the gods we bow down to in our own culture? The list, I imagine, is endless. Think about this! What false gods do we worship today? We still worship, as did the pharaohs, endless, overwhelming, brutal productivity. Do more and more in less and less time. Sabbath? You must be joking! Like the pharaohs of old we still worship the false god of productivity.
When we bow down to this false god, we become hyper. When we bow down to this false god, we become driven. When we bow down to this false god, we become compulsive. Ordinary life is no longer enough for us.
But when we stop seeking God – then we must put something else in God’s place. We must create a false god. This is inevitable! But let me summarize the proscription of First Commandment for us: Sisters and brothers, whenever we bow down to anything or anyone who would enslave us – we break the First Commandment. We create false gods when we allow any ideology, any pharaoh, anyone or anything to enslave us.
We have, unfortunately, allowed ourselves to be enslaved to the pharaohs of our present age. The pharaohs are still with us. A pharaoh is anyone who is trying to take away someone else’s freedom. Pharaohs today go by different names. Some of them are called CEO’s. Some of them are called “bosses.” Some of them are called “head honchos.”
Some of them are even called “pastors and clergy.” Some of them are even called “imams.” Some of them are even called “physicians.” Some of them are called “drug pushers.” Some of them are called “gang leaders.” Every terrorist today is someone trying to be a pharaoh. Pharaohs still live and thrive among us and they still want to keep us enslaved. Anyone who wants to keep us chained to anyone or anything is a modern-day pharaoh. And their name is “Legion.”
Brothers and sisters, whenever we give away our God-given freedom to someone else, whenever we give away our God-given freedom to some ideology or to some political party or to some narrow-view of reality or to some narrow-view of religion or to alcohol or to any drug – legal or illegal, we are worshipping false gods. But our God is a God who abhors slavery of any kind. This is who God is.
So what are we to do? We need to raise our voices to the God who wishes to lead us again and again from slavery to freedom. We need to raise our voices to the God who wants to emancipate us, the God who wants to lead us from the land of pharaohs to the land of freedom and rest.
As God announces: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery – and I will keep doing this again and again until you are finally and fully free! So do not bow down to any false god who wishes to enslave you! You are not built for slavery! You are built for freedom! This is what it means to be made in my image! Amen!