June 18, 2017 – Second Sunday after Pentecost
Proclaimer: Rev. Dennis W. Foust, PhD
Sermon Series: Ten Commandments for the 21st Century: The Calling of Wisdom
Sermon: The God We Must Have
Scripture: Exodus 20:1-3
As they were eating their Cheerios on Father’s Day morning, before they dressed for Sunday School, Gracie asked, “Daddy, where is God?” Daddy answered, “Honey, God is everywhere.” Is God in our house?” “Yes, sweetie, God is in this house.” “Daddy, is God in this room?” “Yes, God is with us in this room.” Gracie looked at the table and whispered, “Daddy, is God in my empty cup?” With a chuckle, he said, “Yes, Gracie, I guess in some way God is in your cup.” Gracie covered the cup with her hand announcing, “Daddy, I’ve got him.”
Do you know people who live as if they’ve captured God in a cup; Or, perhaps in a set of doctrinal positions or fixed interpretations of pet biblical passages or even some philosophical parameters bordered by scientific proofs and historical evidence? Although The Living God is beyond our capacity to comprehend, God is also hidden in plain sight. The language you use for your experience of God or your thoughts about God are important.
A pastor was once approached by a man celebrating his 50th birthday, his 25th wedding anniversary and his youngest child’s high school graduation in the same month. The man said to his pastor, “The reason I wanted to have lunch is because I am struggling with my faith. Maybe struggling isn’t exactly the right word. It’s just that some of the things about God that I thought I had settled seem to be coming unglued. I am asking questions about God and faith that I have never considered.” The pastor asked him, “Do you think your faith and your thoughts about God should stay the same throughout your life or should you expect your faith and your understanding of God to change and mature just like your body and mind change and mature?”
When you read autobiographies, you notice that people of tremendous influence experience significant change in their perspectives about God; the disciples, Paul, the early Christians – both Jews and Gentiles. At the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the dedicated monk Martin Luther realized his fear of God’s wrath was at conflict with the loving God revealed in Jesus Christ. Abraham Heschel continued to ask honest questions about God and eventually concluded that God is both transcendent and immanent; God is both beyond us and with us. He wrote, “God is both in and beyond all things.” Mother Teresa lived for decades in a ‘dark night of the soul.’ Yet, she stood in Oslo, Norway on the day she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize to say, “in the cross, God became the hungry one, the naked one, the homeless one, the dying one.”
Once upon a time, a boy found a cocoon of an emperor moth and took it home to watch it emerge. A few days later, a small opening appeared. For several hours, the moth struggled but couldn’t seem to force its body past a certain point. Deciding something was wrong, the boy used scissors to snip open the cocoon. The moth emerged easily, its body large and swollen, the wings small and shriveled. He expected the wings to eventually spread in their natural beauty, but they did not. Instead of developing into a creature free to fly and soar, the moth just dragged around a swollen body and shriveled wings. The constricting cocoon and the struggle necessary to pass through the tiny opening force fluid from the body into the wings. What the boy thought was a ‘merciful’ snip of the cocoon was actually cruel limiting the potential of the moth. Sometimes, struggle is exactly what we need. Just because we live in a rush doesn’t mean God is in a hurry.
As the Hebrews established their nation’s foundation upon religious principles or commandments from God, there were many concepts of God all around them. They struggled to grow in their commitment to a relationship with The Living God. Numerous stories in the Hebrew scriptures tell how people struggled with religious pluralism. Just like the 21st century, multiple ideas about gods were acknowledged. The first commandment recognized a variety of gods. Thus, the wording, “I am the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me.” The Living God had a history with those people. And those people had a history with The Living God. Their lives had been redeemed by The Living God. This commandment is about relationships, gratitude, faith commitments and worship.
WHAT THE FIRST COMMANDMENT IS NOT SAYING
The first commandment is not about believing in God. Atheism was unheard of in the ancient Near East. Just as the Bible never tries to prove the existence of God, other ancient religions did not try to prove the existence of their gods either. The first commandment is about prioritizing or preferring The Living God over and above all other allegiances in human living. The Hebrews knew about gods of the sky, gods of the depths of the earth, gods of the mountains, gods of the rain, gods of fire, gods that cursed, gods that blessed, gods of the sea and gods of the soil. Nidaba was a goddess who made the reeds thrive. If Nidaba did not produce a healthy crop of reeds, the shepherds could not make music and the scribes could not write. Each nation had their own gods. Not until the period of the prophets did Israel have teachers suggesting there was only one God.
Even today, numerous gods call to us. We bow before the god of individualistic individualism; we offer sacrifices to the gods of nationalism and political party affiliation; we pay homage to the gods of materialism; we pray to the gods of increased comfort and leisure; we lift our hands to praise the god of hedonism or self-indulgent, self-gratifying pleasure; and on and on and on. These gods will continue to call to us – and we will continue to respond.
WHAT THE FIRST COMMANDMENT IS SAYING
The first commandment is God’s wisdom calling to us saying, “Among all of the powers and gravitational pulls you experience, YOU MUST HAVE ONE GOD BEFORE ALL OTHERS. And, this God must be the ONE you love with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. There is no commandment more important than this commandment. Your relationship with and your worship of The Living God must shape how you relate with other gods.”
Let’s be honest, we know this ancient commandment. We know Jesus affirmed it; we can recite it by memory. We are okay giving a few minutes one Sunday to this old idea. But, surely, God understands the 21st Century is much more complicated than the ancient world.
I chose to title this sermon, THE GOD WE MUST HAVE, because of the way the commandment is phrased: It could be read, “I am the God who redeemed you so no other god can be your God.” The words are, “You shall have (or, YOU MUST HAVE) no other gods before me.” In other words, ‘We MUST HAVE one God before all others.’ Each god has a nature, a character, a mission and an effect. Yet, no other God has sacrificed for you; no other God has expressed grace to you; no other God has freed you from slavery; no other God can claim you.
Today, our major struggle with this commandment is the conflict within us between the God we want and the God we need. Often, the God we want is the God who will bless us as we dabble in relating with The Living God even while we serve many gods depending on the situation. Many people need to re-read the story of Hosea and Gomer. They want to be married to God; but they expect God to affirm their unfaithfulness as they date around and bear offspring of other gods. They are willing to wear the jewelry and be called by the family name, but they don’t want to become too limited by commitment. They still want to play the field. The God we want is the God who will leave us alone when we allow the other gods to shape the character and practices of our lives more than we allow The Living God to form us by our commitment to be disciples of Jesus. The God we want is the God who will be satisfied with our religious observances without asking us for sacrificial obedience. When Jesus became so angry that he flipped over the tables in the temple, it was due to the blatant refusal of people to worship The Living God sacrificially.
The God we need is the THE GOD WE MUST HAVE; the God who redeems us from bondage to sin, shame and guilt. The God we need is THE GOD WE MUST HAVE so we can pursue the life God desires for us; a life of freedom and blessing. The God we need is THE GOD WE MUST HAVE who guides each of us toward the common good for all of us. THE GOD WE MUST HAVE is the creator God who brings order out of chaos, the covenant God who makes and keeps promises.; the God who is like a good shepherd; the God who gives hope to the grieving; the God who touches the outsiders pronounced unclean and unfit by society; the God who pronounces religious piety to be worthless unless it rises out of an ethic of love; the God who reaches out to people of other religious traditions and other nationalities, like the Samaritan woman, moving us beyond fear and prejudice; the God who calls us to be servants of a kingdom not made with human hands; the God who looks beyond our sin and includes us in paradise even if we are criminals, if we ask to be included; and the God who rolls tombstones away to assure us of perpetual life.
We should echo Abraham Lincoln, who, during a heated debate related to a national issue, was asked “Mr. President, do you think God is on your side in this issue?” Lincoln responded, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my great concern is to be on God’s side.”
We cannot have God in a cup or in a doctrine. Yet, if we have no other gods before The Living God, in our living, then The Living God will have us. And that, beloved, is the question with which we struggle in this first commandment. The question is NOT, ‘Do we have God?’ The question is, ‘Does God have us?’