“THE ONE AND ONLY”

EXODUS 20:1-3; MATTHEW 22:34-40

 

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             I have two recurring nightmares.  I wake up rattled after each one of them.  The worse of the two involves my preaching and you are not paying attention.  You begin coughing, which is a sure sign the message is boring.  Every public speaker knows about the cough meter.  If people begin coughing, you are in trouble.  And some of you go beyond coughing to nodding off.  That makes me think of the woman who called the pastor of a local church.  She was looking for a church for her wedding and she asked the pastor, “What is the capacity of your sanctuary?”  The pastor replied, “It sleeps 500!”

            The other nightmare is not quite as bad, but it’s bad enough.  In this nightmare someone is chasing me and gaining on me.  I seem to be running in oatmeal while the other person has on the latest track gear, and I try to go faster, but I can’t, and just before they catch me, I wake up, with my heart pounding and say to myself, “Whew.  It was only a dream.”

            Well, the year was 1290 B.C, and it wasn’t a dream.  Pharaoh’s boys were gaining on the Israelites.  They had chariots.  The Israelites were on foot, and at this moment in their history the Israelites had only one goal in mind: escape.  The Israelites at that moment were emergency oriented.  They were focused, but once beyond the reach of the Egyptian troops, after God has parted the Red Sea and obliterated the Egyptian forces, another challenge faced the Israelites, not the challenge of escape, but the challenge of living together on a daily basis.

            The same challenge faces every revolutionary movement.  After the revolution, after defeating the oppressor, each revolutionary movement faces the question, “What do we do now?”  We faced that as a nation after we won independence from the British.   The result was the Constitution, rules, laws of how we were going to live together in this new nation. 

            In a way, then, the Ten Commandments are the “What do we do nows.”  You see, the Ten Commandments are not so much prohibitions, as they are statements about how to live.  That is to say, if we want a less problem-filled life then we need to obey these commandments.

            Now, I want to make one thing clear as we begin this series.  What I want to make clear is this: we can break every one of these Ten Commandments and God will not love us any less, BUT our lives will have a way of becoming increasingly complicated and painful if we do.  In other words, if we break these commandments we will be required to deal with things with which otherwise we would not have to deal.  It’s like the law of gravity.  If we decide to ignore the law of gravity and jump from a ten story building it will not go well for us.  The same for the Ten Commandments.  If we play fast and loose with them, it will also not go well for us.

            And what’s important for us to understand as we begin this series is what’s at stake for us here is never God’s love for us - never - but what is at stake here is the quality of our lives.  Obey these laws and life will go better for us.  Break them and our lives will become increasingly complicated, stressful and painful.

            Well, having said that, let’s turn to the first commandment:  “You shall have no other God’s before me,” and we’ll begin by reviewing what Jesus had to say about this commandment.  Turn with me to our passage in Matthew.  Follow along as I read,

 

            When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees ...

 

            Once again the Sadducees were a Jewish religious group who did not believe in the supernatural, things like miracles, angels and the resurrection and that’s what made them ... good you got it ... sad you see!  Well, the Pharisees were another religious group, sort of the religious right on steroids, and they really loved the law, and making sure everyone kept the law, sort of the morality police of their day.  Let’s continue,

 

            When the Pharisees heard that the had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer asked him a question to test him.  “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? 

 

            Now listen to Jesus’ response.

 

            He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the first and the greatest commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

 

            Note a couple of things here.  First, note Jesus’ gift of brevity.  By that I mean, the Ten Commandments come in two sections.  The first four commandments - section one - deal with our relationship with God, things like no other gods, no idols, no taking the Lord’s name in vain, honoring the Sabbath.  The following six commandments - section two - address our relationship with fellow humans: honor mom and dad, no murdering, no committing adultery, no stealing, no lying, no coveting, and Jesus sums up the entire Ten Commandments, in fact, the entire law, using the same two natural divisions as the original Ten Commandments.

            Second, note not only Jesus’ gift of brevity, but also note that Jesus does not stray from the priority of the Ten Commandments.  In the Big Ten, our relationship with God is given priority over our relationship with others, and that makes sense because the kind of God we believe in influences the kind of life we lead.  If God is stern and judgmental, we will likely be stern and judgmental.  If God is forgiving and gracious, we will more likely be forgiving and gracious. 

            So, Jesus puts our vertical relationship before our horizontal relationships, just as in the Ten Commandments.  Moreover, Jesus puts the commandment we are studying this morning right at the top of the list.  So without further background information, let’s take a look at this commandment. 

            Let me ask the obvious.  Why is this commandment so important?  Why is it at the top of the list?  Is it at the top of the list because God is overly sensitive?  Is it at the top of the list because God is nervous?  Does competition threaten our Creator?  Why does God insist on being the number one priority of our lives?  Well, three reasons come to mind. 

            The first is the “satisfaction” reason.  Simply put, God wants to be first in our lives because no one else, nothing else will bring us ultimate satisfaction.  No one will be able to produce in our lives what we need produced in our lives other than God.

            I had an embarrassing moment a few years ago.  I was in a small group Bible study and the leader of the group begin the study with an icebreaker question.  The leader asked, “If you won a year’s salary in a sweepstakes, what would you spend it on?” and I answered before anyone else, and the first thing out of my mouth embarrassed me.  You see, I’m an introvert, and I usually think things through before saying something, but not this time.  This time I just blurted out the first thing on my mind and the people in my room saw one of my gods.  I’m embarrassed to say it, but I said, “A white, BMW 3-Series convertible.”

            Even though I love Jesus Christ every now and again I can be found worshipping at the altar or materialism.  I follow this God from time to time.  I pay homage to it.  I drool when I see a white convertible BMW go by, especially during the summer months.  Maybe you’ve caught yourself at the same altar thinking the next purchase will make you happy, that you will finally be happy if you buy that house, that car or that dress or that entertainment center. 

            The trouble with the god of materialism, or any other substitute god, is that it does not ultimately satisfy.  It’s like trying to hug a mannequin.  It can’t hug back.  It won’t give us what we need.  If something catastrophic happens in my life, how’s convertible BMW going to comfort me?  It won’t.  Only Jesus Christ can ultimately satisfy.  That’s why this commandment is so very important.

            The reformers put it well.  The first question in the Westminster Confession is “What is the chief end of man?”  The answer?  “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  In other words, we function best when we put God first.

            But there two other reasons, why this commandment needs to be first, why it’s so important.  It needs to be first not only because of the satisfaction reason, but also because of the “short” reason.  By that I mean, life is short.  We may not think of life as short.  We get caught up in life and we think it’s going on forever so that we choose this priority or that priority, but because life is short, my friends, let’s make sure we choose priorities which will last, and that will not fade as life itself fades away.   And the ultimate priority, of course, is God!

            California pastor Rick Warren says that we need to think of this life as a "temporary assignment," just a short period of time.  What are we going to do with this short period of time that God has given us?  Surely we need a priority in life that is eternal given the shortness of life.  The first commandment says, “Link your life, hook your life to something that is far greater than anything you can see around about you.” 

            So, this commandment is number one for the satisfaction reason, and it’s number one for the short reason, but it’s also number one for another reason.  Let’s call it the “surprising” reason.  Here’s the surprise.  When we put God first, we put a smile on God’s face!    When we put God first, we bring God pleasure!

            Some of you may remember the movie Chariots of Fire from some years back about the athlete Eric Liddell who competed in the Olympic Games in 1924, and who in later years became a missionary to China.  In the movie, at least, this is what he says about his running.  He said, "I believe God made me for a purpose.  But I’m also fast. And when I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”

            Have we ever felt God’s pleasure through what we’ve done, through what we’ve chosen, through what we’ve said, through what we’ve thought?  Bringing God pleasure.  Did we ever think that was possible, by simply putting God first in our lives?  What a surprise! 

            So we put God first, we have no other gods before God for the satisfaction reason, the short reason, and the surprising reason.

            Let me close with this.  A woman was determined to overcome her grief over the death of her husband by buying a parrot.  It was a very expensive parrot, but the owner of the pet shop assured the woman that since the parrot was a chatter-box it would make an ideal companion for her.

            Well, she bought it, but after a week, not a word from the parrot, so she went back to complain.  The store owner listened and asked, “Did you buy a mirror for it?  You gotta have a mirror.”  So she bought the expensive mirror.

            Another week passed and the parrot was still silent.  “Did you buy the bird a ladder?” asked the pet store owner.  So she bought an expensive ladder, but still no word from the bird.

            Next came a swing for the parrot, but still no effect whatsoever.  Finally, one day the woman burst into the pet store in tears.  “It died,” she cried.  “My expensive bird is dead!”

            “No!” said the pet store owner.  “Did it ever say anything?”

            “As a matter of fact, it did.  With his last breath it asked softly, ‘Don’t they have any food at the pet store?’”

            Like the woman we too can get preoccupied with non-essentials.  “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Amen.