Get committed - Deuteronomy 5:6-7
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me tell you about Joe. Joe says, ‘It doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere.’ He is a very liberally minded and tolerant sort of fellow. He goes to church every Sunday, but he would be the last person in the world to press his religious beliefs on anyone else, least of all his wife. ‘I am sure she will find her own way to God in the end,’ he confidently affirms. ‘The Hindu has his way, the Muslim has his way, I have mine and my wife has hers. But like the lines of longitude on a globe, eventually we shall find that our paths converge at the same pole. After all, how could God be so intolerant as to let only Christians into heaven? No it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you are sincere.’
One day Joe is out for a walk in the country when he meets a hiker.
‘Lovely day’, says Joe. ‘Yes, it is’ replied the hiker, ‘I am on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. They tell me there is a very impressive cathedral there.’ Joe considers for a moment. He is pretty sure that the road the hiker is on leads in the opposite direction. But he is not infallible is he? And he doesn’t want to be a wet blanket on somebody else's religious enthusiam. Surely, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. After all, so long as you are sincere, it doesn't really matter what you believe.
Joe works in a chemist shop. He is not a trained pharmacist, but he helps pack the shelves and serves at the counter. And in the course of work he has picked up a little knowledge about medicine. One day an elderly lady comes into the shop clutching a box of pills. ‘My friend gave me these,’ she says. ‘He says they will help my arthritis. But I’m not sure how many I should take. Can you help me?’ Joe looks at the unmarked box hesitantly. Privately, he is almost certain he has seen the pharmacist dispensing pills like these from the poison cupboard. But then, what does he know? And he would hate to discourage anyone in their suffering. ‘If you really think they will help you my dear, just take as many as you like,’ he advises. After all, he reasons with himself, it doesn’t matter what you believe ,so long as you are sincere.’
Now you may say that my imaginary encounters have caricatured Joe’s position; that there is all the difference in the world between religious tolerance and the kind of irresponsibility which sets people off in the wrong direction or advises the taking of potentially harmful medicines. But is there really any difference? At the heart of all of those things, you see, is the issue of truth. To say that it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you are sincere, or that all religions are really the same deep down, is logical nonsense and is on the same level as claiming that all roads lead to Canterbury and all pills cure arthritis. The plain fact is that different religions offer rival and mutually exclusive descriptions of God, of salvation and of living. Hinduism claims that there are many gods, all manifestations of the one impersonal Brahma-who is beyond good and evil, of which this world is but an illusion, like a dream, and that we work our way to Nirvana-oblivion ,is through numerous cycles of reincarnation. Theravada Buddhism is essentially atheistic, or agnostic at best. The emphasis here is on the life of none-striving. Islam claims Allah is one and Mohammed is his prophet. It is claimed he is merciful, but such ‘mercy’ is more like the execution of strict justice depending upon how we have lived in this life. When someone says to me ‘All religions are the same, name two which aren’t, ‘ I always reply, Christian Science and Mongolian Frog worship.’ They can’t all be right.
‘Ah’, you say, ‘but things are different now, we live in a multi-faith society-a polytheistic society, with many religions. To start claiming that one religion is right and the others wrong smacks of religious imperialism.’ Well, let me say one or two things in response. First of all, let us get this in perspective. In the UK only 3% of the population identify with a religion other than Christianity. That is hardly a multi-faith society as generally understood. Secondly, one is not saying that everything in other religions is wrong. As in arithmetic-there is only one right answer to the sum, and all the other answers are wrong, but some of the wrong answers are nearer being right than others. But thirdly, there is nothing new for believers in the God of the Bible finding themselves in a polytheistic setting- stuck in the religious supermarket. It happened at the birth of the church in New Testament times, and at the birth of the Jewish nation in Old Testament times. And when you are surrounded by all sorts of attractive and apparently plausible religious alternatives, as we do today, it is vital that you know what you believe and why. So we should not be surprised to find that the very first commandment of all is to do with faith fidelity- Dt 5:6 ‘ I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.’
Now why bother with this command? Why not go straight to the more practical commands about how we are to relate to each other? Well, for at least two reasons: first which god we believe in will affect how we live, and secondly, which god we believe in will affect why we live.
First of all, which god we believe in will affect how we live. You cannot escape the fact that belief affects behaviour. If you drive into a fog on the motorway and you believe there are cars in front of you, that should cause you to slow down. So it is when it comes to our general beliefs about the nature of the world and the purpose of life. Let me tell you something.500 years ago on a mountain top in the Andes, three children were sacrificed to Inca gods. The two girls and one boy were drugged, buried alive and left to die. Their mummified bodies were discovered by archaeologists in April of 1999.In all probability they were sacrificed to appease their gods. Now what should we say? Well, according to the, ‘You can believe what you like so long as you are sincere’ school of thought we should say nothing. Who are we to pass judgement on the values of another culture?W hat seems evil to us may appear good to someone else-it is all relative-good and evil simply lie in the eye of the beholder. The archaeologist who discovered them seemed to take this line he wrote: ‘Their death was not violent, and this allows us to see the ritual form from an Inca point of view: this was not a time of terror and horror but of peace and worship.’ A case of wishful unthinking if ever there was one. Who knows what torments and fears those children had as they trekked 22,000 feet to the summit, or what fear gripped their little hearts as they were administered the drugs and the blackness of death descended upon them? What drugs would calm the anguish of their mothers as they saw their little ones taken away? There is nothing remotely romantic about these deaths-any more than the deaths of those caused by Dr Harold Shipman. Belief affects behaviour.
Good job, then that we do not have beliefs today which demand child sacrifice. Really? In 1998,187,000 unborn children were aborted in England and Wales, that roughly works out at one abortion every 3 minutes. And the methods employed are pretty gruesome. Whatever the arguments for the lesser of the two evils when the life of the mother is at stake, the vast majority of those -over 97% occurred under the ‘social clause’-which would include the inconvenience of having a child. There is a god worshipped by millions today-the god of hedonism- pleasure, and the price it is extracting is phenomenal. How will future generations rate us, say in 500 years from now. Probably as we rate the Incas.
So what is the true God like and what difference should that make to the way we live?
Well, first of all he is the God of revelation-v6 ,’I am the LORD your God. The word for ‘god’ in Hebrew is Elohim. But then the ‘gods’ of the other nations were called ‘Elohim.’ It is a great mistake to think that simply because we use the word ‘god’ in a conversation means that we are talking about the same thing. The true and living God is distinguished from the false and non-existent gods in that he revealed himself to Moses from the burning bush as ‘I AM’ which was subsequently transformed into the Hebrew word ‘Yahweh’ or Jehovah-the LORD. That is he is the self-existent one, so unlike anyone or anything else we might conceive, and in this he is holy-totally distinct. he depends upon no one, whereas everyone else is dependent upon him. What is more this is his covenant name- the one who has pledged himself to the wellbeing of his people, so that their purposes are bound up with his loving purpose for the world-to be a light to the nations. What a contrast say, to the gods of Egypt. Every morning the Egyptian priests would knock on the doors of the temple to wake them up. Then they would wash them and give them breakfast, stand them out in the sun during the day and put them to bed at night. So by introducing himself at the beginning of these commandments in this way its as if God is saying to Israel: ‘I want you to understand the kind of God I AM. I AM the God who made everything and I AM the God who is self-sufficient .I need nothing from you but I will make promises to you and I will keep them. This is a very special relationship.’
You see, these commandments don’t hang in mid- air. They are not arbitrary or relative which we can make or unmake as we wish. They have the backing of God himself. For a start they reflect his character as LORD-the creator-ruler. The reason why we shouldn’t lie and keep our word is because God keeps his word. The reason why we should be faithful in our married relationships is because God is faithful in his relationship with his people. The reason why we shouldn’t murder is because God is the great life giver. The bitter irony is that in our sin, like Adam and Eve we want to be like God in making up our own rules-that is when we are least like him. We are most like him, expressing our god-like image, when we keep close to these commandments, being as truthful, faithful, caring and honest as he is.
But the true and living god is also the God of redemption- ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’ So these 10 words for living not only reflect God’s character, they express God’s care. He is not some cosmic killjoy who dispenses directives like some faceless bureaucrat in Brussels in order to restrict us, he is a personal God who has the good of his people at heart and so frees us. He personally intervened to set the Hebrews free from the crippling slavery of Egypt. He forged a people and to enable them to live the good life and to be a model society to the world so that people would see the difference knowing him makes and so seek after him themselves, he gave his law. And since he is God who made us and the world, he knows how we best function-what things will enhance our lives and what things will harm them .And now it is being shown by social scientists themselves that God’s ways are the best.
For ages we have been told that monogamous marriage is an outmoded institution-cohabitation is a viable alternative. Not so. A recent book by a non-Christian, Patricia Morgan, called Marriage- Lite has shown that in both the US and the UK fewer than 4% cohabitants last less than 10 years together, have more health problems and are more likely to suffer from depression than married couples. Also their children tend to do less well at school and are at greater risk of child abuse.
Positively, evidence is pouring out of America of how practising Christian belief( and that proviso is vitally important) actually enhances every aspect of life. In his book ‘Why America needs Religion’ Guenter Lewis set out to write a book defending secularism (that is a view of society which seeks to keep God out of it), but after surveying the data came to the startling conclusion, that active belief in God makes people happier and more fulfilled: ‘Whether it be juvenile delinquency, adult crime, prejudice, out-of-wedlock births or marital conflict, there is a significantly lower rate of such indicators of moral failure and social ills amongst believing Christians.’ Christians tend to be physically healthier and more socially adjusted than their non-Christian counterparts. That doesn’t mean there is no failure or ill health, of course there is, we all are sinners living in a fallen world, but as a general trend-God’s ways are proving to be the best ways. Of course. He cares for people and wants the best for people. It is the false gods-like those of Christian science which denies that suffering exists, or the gods of pleasure and me-first which lead to destruction and death. Which is another reason why the Jews as God’s people were to keep away from the worship of other gods, for as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:20, these are not gods at all but demons, designed to produce misery not happiness. Certainly short term gain is dangled tantalisingly before our eyes- give your life to this, chase this relationship or that and you will be happy. It is the great Lie. We are called to follow the one who is the Great Truth-the great I AM. If you leave God behind you will eventually leave reality behind and will pay the price, to deny the moral laws of God is as foolhardy as denying the laws of gravity-reality will win out in the end-it just takes longer that's all. As a society we are now picking up the tab for the great social experiment that began back in the 1960’s.
But it is not simply a matter of leaving God behind in our thinking, it is also a question of putting another god in his place. Notice what the commandment says: ‘You shall have no other god before me’, literally ‘before my face.’ This is another way of speaking about the presence of God. Sin always results from God’s presence being withdrawn in judgement, or us hiding from his presence in fear-the two are often linked. So the first tragic result of the fall in Genesis 3:8 is described in these terms , ‘They hid from the face of the LORD God.’ To put something else ‘before him’ leads to putting ourselves out of fellowship from him. It is a form of spiritual suicide. Without the presence of God we cannot hope to keep the commandments of God, we will inevitably veer towards breaking them and bringing about social destruction in its wake-as we are seeing today. Why else do you find God appealing to his people to ‘seek my face and live’?
Not only will the god we believe in affect how we live, but will also determine why we live-our motivation for living. Why should we seek to live this ‘good life’? Three reasons. First because God says we should. And he has every right to say so, after all he made us-he is our creator, and if we are believers, he has saved us, he is our redeemer. In other words, he has owners rights over us. John in his first letter puts it like this: ‘ This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world.’ (1 John 5:3). If you find yourself resenting God’s commands, then really you need to ask yourself whether you are a Christian at all. Do you know what the Bible says and yet you still decide to do the opposite anyway? Then check yourself out. But secondly, as we have seen, his commandments are good for us, they are simply the best, they enrich our lives and as such they lead us on to the third reason why we should seek to obey those commands-out of gratitude. This is a kind God we are talking about, one who has saved his people from slavery. To live is way is a way of saying ‘thank you’ for what you have done, it brings glory to him.
And if that was the case for these Israelites, how much more so is it for us Christians? You see, we worship one who has rescued us from a greater slavery than that inflicted by the taskmasters of Egypt, we have been saved from the tyranny of Satan and the certainty of hell. While God spoke to his people through Moses, he has now finally spoken through his Son, the Lord Jesus, who described himself as the great I AM. Remember his words: ‘I am, the way ,the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.’? (John 14:6). Here is the exclusivity of Jesus then. Does the Buddha show me more of God than Jesus? No he does not. Did Mohammed die on a cross to save me? No he did not. Has Moses the power to give the Holy Spirit to change my life and increasingly bring it into conformity with God’s will. No he does not. However, wise and ‘spiritual’ these men may have been, they remain simply that -men. Now do you see why Christians cannot share the glory of Jesus with anyone else? He alone is God and Saviour. This is not arrogance, it is humility-humility before the truth. It is not arrogant for a scientist to claim that the earth is round and that the flat earth society is wrong- it is the plain truth, that is where the evidence leads. And neither is it arrogance for Christians to claim that Jesus is the only way to a saving knowledge of God and that he came to bring life in all its fullness. What was spoken to Israel then is now spoken to us with greater precision, for it is Jesus who is the Lord our God, who brought us out of the land slavery. Therefore we shall have no other gods before him.
Could I ask: who are you serving? Is it really the Lord Jesus? If so how does it show in you wanting to keep his commands? If not, then who are you serving? What is your god? Because I am willing to bet deep down it is killing you. You are restless and feel dirty and guilty if dare you look into your heart. If so, then there is only one you can come to who will clean you up and put you on the right track-and that is the Lord Jesus.
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