How to Love God: Lessons from the First Four Commandments
In this sermon on Exodus 20:1-11 we will explore the meaning of the first four commandments. While doing so, we will find ways to see them not as a list of negatives but in a positive light that can help us in our daily lives. The commandments aren’t about blind obedience, but about finding how to apply faith to all dimensions of life. Following them in a deliberate way can help increase our faith and help us see how to love God.
The context of the commandments is an ongoing liberation.
The Israelites had been wandering in the desert for a long time. One day, Moses climbed a mountain to receive instructions from God that would help the people do two things: trust God and get along with each other.
The Ten Commandments begin with Yahweh reminding the people of the wonderful deeds already performed on their behalf. God interjects, “I heard you when you cried out under the oppression of slavery to the Egyptians. So, I sent Moses to lead your liberation, and I worked wonders on your behalf, including the parting of the sea. In the wilderness, I gave you food to eat and water to drink even though you all were just a bunch of doubting, whiny babies. I didn’t do all that just for you guys to turn into a bunch of jerks who forget me and treat each other poorly. Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, calls the Ten Commandments, “Strategies to Stay Emancipated.”
How to love God? Remember what God calls you to.
I think of the time my mother discovered that I had shoplifted a deck of playing cards. She launched into a speech that from my perspective went something like this, “David Joseph Clark, I did not raise you to be like that. I carried you in my womb for nine months, and you thanked me by weighing 11 pounds when you were born. You screamed with colic all night long for four months. I’ve provided a home for you, I cook for you, clean for you, and have done more than you can imagine, mister, and I didn’t go through all that just to have you turn out to turn into a thief. We are going back to the manager, and you are going to do the right thing.”
The Ten Commandments are God’s way of saying, “I see how you are starting to treat each other. I didn’t bring you out of Egypt for you to oppress each other, I brought you out to lead you into a better life. Therefore, I want to build some things into your life that will help you remember who you are and how I expect you to behave as my children.
The word “therefore” is right there at the beginning of the commandments and it’s the key to understanding where God is coming from. Everything turns on it. God liberated the people from a horrible situation so that they could, therefore, find a way to live that honors God and treats other people fairly.
Ten Commandments carved into two distinct stone tablets.
Tradition tells us God engraved the commandments on two tablets. On the first tablet were four commandments that dealt with how you show love to God, and the second tablet had six commandments that related to how you treat your neighbor. Jesus summarized the first tablet, Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind; the second tablet he summarized as Love, your neighbor as yourself.
How to make the commandments more relevant to daily life.
I remember a Vacation Bible School with kids who’d been learning about Exodus. I dressed up as Moses and asked them if they knew the Ten Commandments. After an uncomfortable silence, one kid chirped up, “Don’t lie.” Then other kids chimed in: “Don’t drink and drive; don’t do crack; if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all; don’t run with scissors.”
They were so cute. And to be honest, I was relieved because I’d rather talk about those things than try to explain adultery to a 5-year-old. Besides, I thought maybe these things were more relevant to their lives. The things these kids were expressing came from someone who loves them to protect, not ruin their lives. So it is with God’s Ten Commandments. They are not about rules and regulations—for their own sake; God wasn’t intending to set up some impossible religion that was just about squeezing all the joy from your life. God wanted us to live with some boundaries that are good for us; so we will know where to turn in our lives every day for life and to get along with our neighbor. It’s a Right and Wrong 101 lesson.
I would like to help you hear them and find a way to apply them to your lives in a more profound way. Often, we boil them into their Sunday school versions, but when you get to the heart of what they meant in their original form, they feel more applicable to everyday life. I believe that if you start looking at them in a new way, they can be of more significant benefit to you.
How to Love God? First, have no other gods before me.
I am the God who led you out of Egypt; therefore, you shall have no other God’s before me. With the whole exodus story as the context for this commandment, we can hear it this way. Don’t worship some fake deity such as the sun god Ra who sanctioned your slavery. That is, don’t fall for some belief system that degrades the sacred worth of another human being. Furthermore, don’t be duped by a religion that would say the few should prosper while the masses suffer.
The first commandment reminds us to make this liberating God the foundation of our lives. The commandment is a reminder of everything this story has told us about God. God hears the cries of those in bondage and he responds by sending ordinary people, like Moses, to demand an end to the suffering. This is the God who provides a way out of no way and provides during the wilderness times of life. God who promises to go with us wherever we go.
When you put this faith first when you have this at the forefront of your mind something very hopeful and positive. Putting the God of the Exodus first means that you have a perspective on life that will keep you from dwelling in the pit of despair. When you put no other priorities above these principles that we learn in Exodus, you will be the kind of person who looks out for those who are being neglected and who don’t have the opportunity. You will find hope and perseverance to face the obstacles in your life.
How to Love God? Second, do not worship idols.
I am the God who has surprised you and helped you when you didn’t think anyone could; therefore, do not worship idols and things that can be made with human hands. Not long after the commandment was issued, the people fashioned a golden calf and prayed to it.
We are tempted to make gods out of all sorts of things that we create. The commandment is saying to us: don’t worship your buildings, your technology, your economic system. Don’t put people on such a pedestal that they become your idol, and they are not allowed to be human, and your faith in humanity is destroyed when you learn of their failures.
God’s of our own creation will never challenge us to be better, to do better. They will only congratulate us on how great we are and hate the people we hate. Keeping the God of the Exodus as our God is a reminder that we are always challenged to let the better angels of our natures transcend the reptilian reactions we have against others.
The second commandment prohibits worshiping graven images. That is, don’t set in stone your images of what you think God can and can’t do–of whom God can and cannot accept. Let God be God and believe enough your life can be better right now. The great thing about believing in God is that it saves you from having to do the job yourself. That would be exhausting.
How to love God? Third, do not use God’s name in vain.
I am the God who has privileged you to live with great freedoms: Therefore, do not use God’s name in vain. Most of us learned that this meant there is one swear word we especially need to avoid. But it’s deeper than that. It turns out that God cares about what is being said about God. God cares about her reputation. The Hebrew word translated “vain” is means “vapor,” something that has no substance. Don’t think up what you want and then invoke God’s name to justify it. Be careful about saying stuff like, “God caused this natural disaster because he wanted to punish (insert name of the group you hate here).
The commandment keeps us from using God as a mere prop for individual acclamation—”look at me I’m a believer,” or a prop for a political statement. Try to get yourself on God’s side rather than invoking God’s name as justification for your side. The positive dimension here is that our faith can be more than playing at religion or just mouthing the right words. It’s meant to be a dynamic relationship with a God who stands beside you always.
How to Love God? Fourth, keep the sabbath holy.
The fourth commandment we associate with Blue Laws—those ordinances that kept businesses closed on Sunday. What if we saw Sabbath as fuller than that? Under Pharaoh, the people worked all the time. It was all about constant, maximum production. But this commandment sets up a way of living that is not about total constant production. Our Lord did not design us as perpetual motion machines, constantly producing 24/7, 7 days a week. God did not build us to be slaves to production. But to celebrate to good creation of God. Pharaoh would never allow that, God commands it.
The sabbath has always been seen as the most joyful of the commandments. It was never intended to be a bummer about things you can’t do. Here are four reasons it’s considered the most joyful commandment.
Four reasons sabbath keeping is the most joyful commandment.
First, we are reminded to enjoy God’s creation. There is something about taking time to enjoy and rest in creation that restores us. For me, it’s walking on the beach, sticking my toes in the ocean that has been around for billions of years and will rise and fall for billions of years after I’m gone.
Second, sabbath gives us rest. We get so busy that we need time to regroup and restore our inner resources. Sabbath rest, however, shouldn’t be confused with simply recharging our batteries. Many of us arrange our lives in unhealthy patterns of busy-ness that drive us to collapse. That’s not the life-style the fourth commandment envisions. Sabbath rest is different from vegging out on the couch, though it may include that. It’s an active rest, a time of getting close to God, learning about God in worship and nature, and in fellowship with others.
Third, there is a social dynamic to sabbath keeping. It is the first fair labor law in history. Notice that in the commandment everyone gets the day off. The servants, the aliens, and animals get a break, too. It’s the first labor law. Notice the labor law is inclusive of those who are on the bottom rungs. Taking time off from work sets our faith apart from a mindset driven by production and consumption. Egypt had a production and consumption mentality that destroyed people.
Sabbath reminds us to enjoy life and one another.
Fourth, everyone gets time so they can celebrate together. Traditionally, there is a time of sharing a family meal. There were all the prohibitions about making a fire and doing work, presumably because you’d make and prepare everything ahead of time and it wouldn’t wind up being huge labor for the women on the sabbath and blow the whole point for half of the people. Rabbinic teachings instructed couples to spend intimate time together on the Sabbath. Make sabbath the happiest time of your week. Prepare for it and make it set the tone to embrace all the goodness of God and life.
How to Love God? Conclusion
We can build sabbath into our lives more fully, just as we can build the other three commandments into our daily lives. The point of the first tablet is to help you to remember to love God. Not just any old god of your own making, but the God of liberation, the God of providing, the God who calls, the God who empowers and makes a way out of no way. Follow these commands and discover how to love God in a more meaningful way. Amen.
Sermon by Rev. Dr. David Clark at Bay Shore Community Congregational Church (UCC) in Long Beach, California.