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1st Commandment: The Freedom Found in Worshiping God Alone


Award winning novelist, David Foster Wallace, once said the following to a room full of college graduates during a commencement speech at Kenyon College years ago. He said:

“The compelling reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”

That’s quite the quote now, isn’t it? And it’s quite the claim … I think he’s right, by the way. “Pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

As shocking and as startling as that quote may be, I think there’s a foundational truth that Wallace’s claim is based upon, and that is,

For all of us, the choice before us is not if we will worship something or someone, but rather, who or what we worship.

As people made in the image of God, you and I were created for worship. We are made to look for meaning. We are designed to search for joy. We are wired to find purpose. And therefore no one can remain neutral or totally indifferent when it comes to worship. Instead, whether a person is atheist or agnostic, Christian or Buddhist, we all worship someone or something, whether it be money or beauty, power or intellect, or Jesus himself.

In other words, when it comes to worship itself, it’s never a matter of if, but rather who or what.

And so, heeding the words of David Foster Wallace, we must be thoughtful and deliberate when choosing the object of our worship, otherwise we might find ourselves worshiping something that is sure to eat us alive.

Last week we started our summer sermon series on the 10 Commandments. God’s people had just been freed from slavery in the land of Egypt, and as they began their new life together as the nation of Israel, God gave them his law, beginning with the 10 Commandments. God was setting his people apart to love God and love their neighbor, calling them to a grace fueled obedience so that they could reflect his love and character wherever they went. And as we discussed last week, the 10 Commandments were and continue to be given to a people who had been set free so that they could live free.

Last week’s message served as an introduction of sorts, and today, we begin with the first of the 10 Commandments.

3 “You shall have no other gods before me.

The first commandment is all about who or what we will worship. It is short and sweet, easy to comprehend, yet for all of us, it will take a lifetime to live out.

And the first commandment is placed first for a reason, because when we are worshiping the right God in the right way, our hearts, our obedience, our very lives are sure to follow suit. In other words, if we get this one right, all the other commandments, everything else begins to fall into place.

But of course, easier said than done, I know. With all this said, let’s do a deep dive into the first commandment, and we’ll structure today’s message in the following way.

The reason for the 1st commandment

The terms and conditions of the 1st commandment

The freedom to be found in the 1st commandment

The reason for

At the risk of being captain obvious here, part of the reason for the 1st Commandment is rather simple. You and I, and all humans past and present, have a tendency to worship other gods. Where the human heart always seems to be searching for something or someone to worship, as we look to things other than God for our hope and happiness, significance and security, to borrow a phrase from the New City Catechism.

And yet, that’s not to say that other gods or deities in fact exist. Where it’s not as though our God gives us the 1st Commandment because he feels insecure about his place in the world and threatened by rival gods. Indeed, only the triune God as revealed in the scriptures has ultimate power and authority. Every other god ever is a false god, a counterfeit god.

This past Thursday, a couple of us met to discuss ch.1 from the Jen Wilkin book, 10 Words to Live By, and in her book Jen pointed out something in the Exodus story that I had never seen before.

Where you might recall from last week as we briefly discussed how God sent plagues upon Egypt to force Pharaoh's hand and free God’s people from slavery. And what Jen Wilkin pointed out was how each plague that was sent was a symbolic defeat of an Egyptian deity.

For example, when God turned the waters of the Nile into blood, it was a symbolic defeat of Hapi, the god of the Nile.

When God sent dead frogs to cover the earth, it was a symbolic defeat of Heqet, the frog goddess of fertility.

When God made the light of the day turn into darkness, it was a symbolic defeat of Ra, the god of the sun.

Each and every plague was a visible demonstration that the gods of this world have no power and authority over the Lord God, who brought his people out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. There is indeed only one true God.

And though we don’t worship the gods of Hapi or Heqet or Ra, every culture, in every time and place, has had their own false gods.

Consider the false gods that we worship, the false gods of money and power, status and fame, comfort and achievement, family and work.

Of course, determining which false gods we worship is not always easy to do. How do we distinguish between those things in life that are a good thing vs. those that have become a god thing? Oftentimes, our false gods are not always that easy to see and diagnose.

And so, briefly here, before we turn the corner to point #2, here are a couple diagnostic questions to ask yourself:

What do you find yourself often incessantly worrying about? In other words, pay attention to what you pay attention to.

For example, if you find yourself relentlessly checking your finances, then that might be a sign that you worship the false gods of wealth and comfort and security itself.

Or here’s another, what are those areas and moments in life, where if things don’t go your way, you’re absolutely devastated?

For example, If watching your sports team lose so devastates you that your weekend is ruined, then that might be a sign that you worship the false gods of sports and success and entertainment.

Or consider the nature and subject of conflict itself. If you are always ready and willing to engage every conflict, win every argument, die on every hill, that might be a sign that you worship the false gods of power and control. And yet, there’s a false god on the other side of the spectrum too. If you refuse to ever engage in conflict of any kind, that may be a sign that you worship the false god of approval and popularity, where we convince ourselves, “that person will like me or love me less” if I broach this difficult topic.

Those are just a couple diagnostic questions to help us identify our false gods. And if you’re unsure of what your false gods are, you may want to ask someone who you deeply trust, maybe even someone in your life who has refrigerator rights, that is, someone who you are close enough with that if they came over to your house, they have permission to grab whatever they want out of the refrigerator without asking. Ask them, what false gods do they see you worshiping more than Christ himself?

Friends, the reason for the first commandment. The human heart is always searching for something to worship and God wants us to worship Him alone.

Which brings us to the second aspect of this first commandment.

The terms and conditions of

I’ll be honest, and I can’t be alone on this one, I almost never take the time to read the terms and conditions of anything I purchase or sign up for, whether it be an IPhone update or whatever else.

But here, we must reckon with and understand the terms and conditions of the first commandment. Do you see what it is? It’s rather subtle, yet makes a world of difference.

Notice that the first commandment does not read. “Worship God.” or “Follow me.” or “Give me our allegiance.” All of those things are true and accurate to some extent. That is what our Lord wants.

But notice the terms and conditions here. Our God wants more when he says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

In other words, the first commandment is this, “Worship only God and God alone.” God wants our worship, our affections, our love singularly focused on God and God alone.

In one of the other books that I’m reading on the 10 Commandments, Pastor Kevin DeYoung puts it this way, that while so much of life needs to be lived as a “both/and”, our God demands that our worship is lived out as an “either/or”

In so many areas of our lives, to choose the path of wisdom is to find a way to live “both/and.” For example, we might ask, how do I lead, how do I speak with both truth and grace in any given moment. So much of life is finding the both/and.

And yet, here is one of those moments in life where we must live into the “either/or.”

For as God says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Jesus himself picks up this point when he gives the Sermon on the Mount, saying, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

You could put just about anything in the place of money there and the point still stands. You cannot serve both God and work. God and politics. God and family. The list goes on and on …

And while one on hand I find the terms and conditions of the first commandment to be so incredibly convicting, I also find them to be incredibly clarifying and revealing.

After all, and I imagine you’re with me on this one … the reality within my own life (or so I think), is not that I’ve said, “God, get out of my life, get away from me, I want nothing to do with you, I’ve found other gods to worship.”

Rather, it’s that I want the “both/and.” God and status. God and achievement. God and approval. God and comfort.

I think things like, “God, I love you, but I’d love you more if you keep building and growing this church.” In other words, I want to have my cake and eat it too.

Friends, I imagine you can relate. After all, if you are here, in worship, on a beautiful summer Sunday morning, I think I can safely assume you’re here because you love God and desire to worship him.

And yet, do you too, desire a “both/and” worship?

God, I love you, but I’d love you more if you gave me ____________.

God, I trust you, but I’d trust you more if you answered this prayer in this way … “

You and I long for the both/and. A God plus Christianity. And yet, God sets the terms and conditions here within the first commandment. He commands an either/or. He will not settle for our halfhearted, conflicted, dual allegiances. He wants us to be “all in.”

Which brings us to the third and final aspect of the 1st Commandment. And it’s,

The freedom to be found

This I think is where we must end our message for today. Because on one hand, when we think about the reason for the first commandment and the false gods that we so often worship, you might begin to move towards self-loathing and guilt and shame, as though the message is, “Hey everybody, you stink! Get your act, get your worship, get it together.” Or you might conclude that the terms of conditions of the first commandment are rooted in an insecure God who can’t tolerate a world where he isn’t the center of attention.

Now, I hope that’s not the message that has come across and yet I can understand if those thoughts linger beneath the surface.

And so, in light of all that, I think this is where we must end, as we dwell on the freedom to be found in the first commandment. After all, that is in many ways our thesis as we reflect on these 10 Commandments, that they were and are given to a people who have been set free so that they might live free, be free, stay free. After all, it’s been said that if you worship just about anything else, it’ll be sure to eat you alive.

And so we ask, how is there freedom to be found here in the first commandment?

We can approach this question in all sorts of different ways.

In one sense, there’s freedom to be found because all of a sudden the decision making process becomes a bit easier. When you are asking yourself, what should I choose in this instance? How should I act under these circumstances? Who am I trying to please in this moment? Let the choice be rather simple. You worship God alone. And so choose what honors him. Act in a way that reflects his love and character. And please God first and foremost, before you aim to please anyone else.

I know I personally wrestle with the false gods of approval. I want people to like me. And I admittedly have a tendency to care more about what other people think of me than what God thinks of me.

And at times throughout my life, I can look at people who don’t struggle with this and think to myself, “How can you care so little about what other people think of you? How can you be so indifferent and unaffected by the opinions of others?” And friends, what may sound like a condescending question of judgment, is really, as I discern within my own heart, a question rooted in want and desire. How is it that they are so wonderfully, blissfully free? And how can I have that?

And often what you realize in those people is that they fear God more than they fear others. So often we think of fearing God as scary and oppressive and limiting. It’s in many ways just the opposite – it’s wonderfully freeing. You can do your best work and sleep peacefully at night knowing that you work for God not for man. You can engage conflict at the right times in the right ways because you fear God more than fearing what others might think of you. There’s a great freedom to be found in worshiping God alone.

And so maybe ask yourself or discuss with a friend in the next day or two, “How might I be more free if I worshiped God alone?”

The reason for, the terms and conditions of, the freedom to be found.

And I’ll finish with this. A few Saturdays ago, I snuck out to Seattle for the day to attend the memorial service for my former pastor and one of my pastoral mentors, Earl Palmer. Earl served as one my references in coming here – and I believe it was Graham Smith who made that call.

The service was spectacular. Tears and laughter, followed by tears and laughter. As I reflect back on all that was shared that day, I am reminded of how freely Earl lived because he worshiped God alone.

He preached freely, because he knew that honoring God through his words, rather than pleasing the crowd was his top priority.

He encouraged freely, never intimidated by the success of others, rather simply cheering and rooting them on.

He delegated freely, knowing that others were stronger than him in certain areas and that their gifts needed to be utilized for the good of the church.

And he never seemed to be overly concerned by what others thought of him – almost blissfully unaware – because he cared more about what God thought of him than others thought of him.

I don’t mean to suggest the man was perfect. Nevertheless, I reflect back on a man who was wonderfully free.

And during the service, a favorite quote of Earl’s was shared, it comes from Blaise Pascal.

“Do great things, as though they were small, because of Jesus Christ, and do small things, as though they were great, because of Jesus Christ.”

It’s the freedom of not taking yourself or thinking of yourself too highly when you do great things, because you do them all for Jesus, because you worship God alone. While at the same time, it’s the freedom to focus on the little things, little things no one may notice because they are great in the eyes of Jesus, because you worship God alone.

“Do great things, as though they were small, because of Jesus Christ, and do small things, as though they were great, because of Jesus Christ.”

Those are words to live by, that’s for sure. And we live them best, when we worship God alone.

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