The Third Sunday in Lent March 27, 2011
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
21, 423, 175, 53
“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. You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.
Dear fellow-redeemed by the blood of Him who came to the cradle that He might die on the cross:
Back in 1996 a Minnesota court ruled that two congregations in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area could no longer call homosexual activity a sin. Those churches were allowed to say that homosexuality is contrary to what they believe the Bible teaches, but they could not call it a sin! That makes sense to this world, doesn’t it? After all, who is the God of the Bible that our society should do what He commands? Just because we believe that He alone is God, doesn’t mean that everyone must. But God says: “You shall have no other gods.” IS GOD ASKING TOO MUCH?
It’s the nature of mankind to set up their own gods to which they look for blessings, help, and comfort. People often think that idolatry is the worship of carved or molded images, but the First Commandment forbids “image-worship” of any kind. We call image-worship “open idolatry.” Likewise, it is open idolatry to worship Allah or Buddha or any god other than the Triune God who is revealed in the Bible as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
But what does it really mean “to have a god”? To have a god means to have something or someone to which we look for blessings, help, and comfort, and all that we need. It is not really the sculptor’s chisel that makes a god. It is the faith and trust of the heart that make both god and an idol to us. As Martin Luther wrote in his Large Catechism: “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is really your God.”
The purpose of this first commandment is to require a true faith and confidence of the heart that goes straight to God and clings to Him alone. God is saying: “You see to it that I alone am the God you seek. Whatever good thing you lack, look to Me for it and see it from Me. Whenever you suffer trouble and distress, come and cling to Me. I am the One who will satisfy you and help you out of every need. Let your heart cling to no one else.”
There are many examples of the failure to obey this commandment. In the year 248 AD a Christian by the name of Apollonia suffered martyrdom after all her teeth were knocked out. So if anyone in the church of the Middle Ages had a toothache, he fasted to the honor of Apollonia thinking that she could help against a toothache!
If a person in those days was afraid of fire, he prayed to St. Lawrence who was martyred by burning in 258 AD. There were many other examples of this kind of idolatry in the church before the Lutheran Reformation. It wasn’t so long ago that one of my favorite relatives carried a statue of St. Christopher in his car to protect him on the highway! But our God keeps saying: “You come to ME and trust in ME alone for every need!”
What our God says in this commandment applies to all of the gods we set up in our own natural hearts. This is what we call “secret idolatry.” For example, if anyone boasts of his great learning, wisdom, power, family, or honor, and trusts in these, he also has a god, but not the true God. He feels proud and secure because of such possessions, but when he loses them he is full of despair because he does not trust in the one true God.
How about the most popular secret idol of all—mammon, or riches. You may have a lot of money or very little at all and still be a mammon-worshiper. A mammon worshiper loves his riches and property often more than anyone else. He trusts in his riches, fixing his heart and his hope on them. He who has money and property feels secure. On the other hand, the mammon-worshiper who has little property or riches is full of worry and despair as if he never heard of the true God.
Mammon is a very popular idol in every state where the lottery and gambling are legal. The number of suicides committed by people who gamble everything away is on the rise. People make a secret idol of riches. When they lose them or can’t have them, they despair of life itself as if they never heard of the true God in whom is life everlasting!
Luther said that people are so blind to the truth about God by nature that they think “to have God” means to “lay hands on Him, or put Him into a purse, or shut Him up in a chest.” St. Augustine, the 5th century church leader, tells the story of a heathen who came and showed him his gods. He pointed to one idol after another, saying, “This is my God, where is yours?” Augustine writes: “I did not show the man my god, not because I had no God to show him, but because he had no eyes to see.”
Surely in the First Commandment God is asking too much of natural man, miserable and blind sinners that we are!
But the only true God is “jealous” for our sakes. That’s right! God can be jealous without sinning! There is only one God who can rightfully call Himself the “I AM.” [v.2] The almighty Creator of the universe and the deliverer of Old Testament Israel is the only God who was, is, and always will be. All of the other gods that man chooses to love and trust are false gods, idols—nothings! Therefore. God has a right to command that we “have no other gods.” “I am the Lord, that is my name,” He says in Isaiah 42:8, “My glory I will not give to another, neither My praise to carved images.”
Then too, God commands us to fear, love, and trust in Him above all things because He cares for us and wants to save us from the eternal consequences of our sins. In Isaiah 45:22 God says: “Look to Me and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other!”
Was God asking too much of the nation of Israel that they have no other gods but Him? No way! Israel knew Him. Before this event in our text and before God gave His Law at Mt. Sinai, He had revealed Himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God told these fathers of Israel that His love would send a Savior into the world as the Seed of Abraham. Because of this promise God brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt in 1350 BC. God reveals just how jealous He is of His honor and the loving devotion He deserves from Israel. He speaks both a threat and a promise: “For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” [vv.5-6]
These strong words teach us just how serious God is about obedience to His commandments. He means what He says, and He says what He means. Those who persist in their stubborn pride and rely on anything and everything but Him, who disobey His commandments and thumb their noses at His Word, are those who “hate Him.”
On these impenitent and unbelieving souls God threatens to take vengeance. God is fair in this. He justly condemns sin, but at the same time He is still seeking the salvation of those whom He is punishing, hoping to bring them to their spiritual senses before it’s too late!
On the other hand, God promises to show mercy to the thousands who love Him and keep His commandments. What does it mean “to love Him and keep His commandments”? First, it means to love Him above all else. Our hearts are involved. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt because her heart was divided. She seemed to obey God’s command when she left the sinful city of Sodom, but she did not love God above all things. She left her heart in Sodom!
Secondly, we should not be deceived by what the world calls “love.” Love for God is not an emotion, it’s an activity as the Hebrew and Greek words suggest. If we truly have no other gods, then our fear, love, and trust in God above all things will show in the way we regard the commands of His Word. “For this is the love of God,” John wrote, “that we keep His commandments” (1 John 5:3).
Finally, what does it mean that God will show “mercy” to those thousands who keep His commandments? Mercy is the happiest word in this text for every believing child of God. That God will show mercy means that we shall find abundant forgiveness for those times when we fail to keep His commandments. You see, like Old Testament Israel, we know our God too!
We know that His loving mercy brought us out of eternal slavery to sin, death, and the Devil, by the shed blood of His own dear Son. We know that His mercy watches over us each day and that He does not deal with us according to what we have deserved, but according to His own Fatherly goodness in Christ Jesus. We know it is with a Father’s heart that our God forbids us to fear, love, or trust in any other thing more than Him. He does not want us to suffer earthly and eternal punishment by being far from Him.
Is our God asking too much of us when He says, “You shall have no other gods”? We know the answer: He only asks what is right to ask as the God of our salvation. He only asks what we wish we could do better with pure and thankful hearts. Lord God, our Savior, ever help us to fear, love and trust in You above all things. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.