Independence Day calls to mind the many blessings we have as Americans. Maybe the most cherished of which is freedom. We are free to speak our minds, free to gather, free to worship, free to decide where to go to school, where to live, whom to marry, free to bear arms etc. Freedom from the tyranny of the British king and his taxation without representation was what our founding fathers fought and died for. But our forefathers were wise enough to realize something else in their fight for independence – that freedom cannot exist all alone. Freedom can only exist in a place where there are laws and authorities in place to protect that freedom. So that, while the Declaration of Independence declared freedom from British rule – the Constitution, with its principles, establishment of government, provisions for laws and law enforcement protects and preserves those freedoms. Human nature – because it is infected with sin – will always ruin absolute freedom, so that freedom must be limited by law. As we study the Ten Commandments, we will see that the same is true in the spiritual realm. Our sinful nature prohibits absolute freedom because by nature we are totally self-centered, hostile to God and one another. Which is why even though God wants us to see that obedience to his commands is the path of freedom in life (James 1:25), it doesn’t always feel that way because they restrict and curb our sinful human desires. We see that in the 1st commandment where God protects his crown and by doing so, protects our crown of salvation.
And God spoke all these words: “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. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Why is this commandment necessary? Why should God – who bought Israel with the blood of thousands of lambs and bought the world with the blood of the Lamb – have to give this command? Who would be so bold as to challenge God’s claim to the crown – after he had destroyed the world in a flood, shredded Egypt’s land and people with the plagues, parted the waters of the Red Sea with a word, and descended on Mt. Sinai in lightning and thunder? The entire ancient world, for one. Polytheism – the worship of many gods – was not the exception but the rule in Moses’ day. Israel’s Egyptian overlords worshipped no fewer than 40 different gods, gods fashioned in the image of man and beast and sometimes combinations of both. There were sun gods and moon gods, gods that looked like crocodiles and cats, gods who allegedly controlled the wind and the Nile and fertility. Polytheism continued to flourish under the influence of the Greeks and Romans in the days of the NT. The gods and goddesses of the Greeks and Romans were strikingly similar to the rich and famous of today – they were larger than life, but with very human flaws and weaknesses. Paul warned the Corinthians that all of these gods and goddesses were nothing less than demonic creations of men. (1 Corinthians 10:18-22)
Nor is polytheism a relic of history. As always, some of these idols are right out in the open. Hinduism with its numerous gods and goddesses, the mystic spiritualism of native tribes that deify nature, ancestors and animals, Mormonism and the Eastern religions which teach that we can all become gods are modern forms of polytheistic idolatry. But some idolatries are hidden and therefore, more seductive, even for Christians. Lodges, like the Masons and organizations like the Boy Scouts – demand allegiance to a nameless, faceless, moralistic deity – which is why membership in those organizations is incompatible with the Christian faith. Sadly, in many American churches the God and Christ proclaimed is whoever you want him to be. So that if you want a female, social justice warrior, tree-hugging, gay-approving, morally relativistic, hip Jesus who only wants you to be happy – you can have it your way. And there are still others that are so engrained into society that we might not even notice them. Secular schools are filled with disciples who study at the feet of the gods of Reason and Science. The business world bows down to Money. Social media has elevated Popularity and Peer Approval to divine status. And millions of people regularly present huge offerings of time, effort and energy on the altar of Sports.
In a society filled with false gods; in a religious atmosphere that fosters Burger King’s concept of god (the have it your way god) we, who have just confessed the Bible’s truth in the words of the Nicene Creed, know better. We know that you shall have no other gods means exactly what it says. God claims a monopoly on our hearts – not only as number one, but as the only one. To fear, love, and trust any other god or any other thing on heaven or earth is idolatry punishable with death and hell. Anyone who claims otherwise is not a Christian and will not be saved. Period. We’re comfortable with that little Catechism lesson, aren’t we? If our presence in God’s house is evidence that faith in the true God is beating in our hearts – then the first commandment sounds to us like a call to arms, summoning us to stand firm against the waves of false gods that are crashing onto the modern cultural landscape.
But then there is the uncomfortable reminder from Paul that the law is spiritual (Romans 7:14). The first commandment not only forbids us to have a Hindu shrine in a spare bedroom and shows us why the Boy Scouts is an idolatrous organization – it forbids us to rob God of the fear, love, and trust that rightfully belong to him. Luther’s definition takes aim at the central issue: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing him with the heart. I have often said that the confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust is right, then your god is also true. On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you do not have the true God.  In other words, the heart of the matter is the heart. We can confess the Nicene Creed with our lips, but if we aren’t looking to the God described there both for every good thing and in every time of trouble we are just as guilty of idolatry as the atheist or the Muslim. God puts up with an awful lot in the hearts of his creatures – but second place is not one of them.
That’s what Jesus taught the rich young man today, wasn’t it? By showing him that because he was unwilling to give up his wealth he hadn’t even kept the 1st commandment, Jesus shattered that young man’s smug self-confidence. But Jesus’ lesson was broader than just a warning against idolizing wealth. The disciples – not always noted for being quick to catch on – actually caught on for once. When Jesus said it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24) the disciples – who were not rich by any means – threw up their hands and said who then can be saved? (Matthew 19:25) In exposing the rich man’s sin, he had exposed the disciples’ as well. They realized they were still trusting something other than God for salvation and so they were ashamed, shocked, guilty, convicted – and so they repented. Does this lesson bring us to repentance, or have we constructed walls in our hearts, no-trespassing zones where we don’t want God or his spokesmen to go; certain things that we don’t want to be exposed or discussed? Whatever it is – money, sexual desires, ambition, popularity, convenience, priorities, drinking habits, the church of the holy mattress on Sunday mornings, siding with family and friends when they live in defiance of God’s Word, how we raise our kids or spend our time, science or reason or beauty or pleasure – whatever it is – if we do not submit any of these things to God’s command and direction, if we are unwilling to abandon them for God’s sake, then they have become the gods of our hearts and lives. The 1st commandment still thunders: you shall have no other gods!
Why is idolatry – whether its out in the open or hidden in our hearts – so foolish and dangerous? Because the nature of idolatry is to lead us away from God and lead us to hell. Isaiah painted the idols Israel – and we worship – as they truly are. He pictured them as helpless and worthless – gods that have to be carried on carts like a child pulling a teddy-bear in a wagon; gods that had to be nailed down so they don’t fall over; gods that you pull out of your wallet and then bow down to worship. (Isaiah 44-46) And not only are idols empty and lifeless – they are unrelenting slave masters. They demand more of us than we can give. They are deaf to our cries for help. They promise us peace and happiness but never follow through. When death comes, they leave us to rot.
Who then can be saved? With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:26) For the people of Israel, the people of Isaiah’s day, for Jesus’ first disciples and for us, it’s an unparalleled comfort to know that the true God doesn’t need to be carried – that instead he’s the one who carries us. He carries us even when our bones creak and our hair grays and our lives fall apart, he helps us when all other helpers fail. The true God is the only God who is not a burden to believe in or follow because he’s the God who bears our burdens for us – to the point of sending his own Son to bear the burden of our sins against this and every commandment on the cross.
So the voice that thunders from Mt. Sinai you shall have no other gods, is not only protecting his crown with this commandment, he’s protecting our crown of salvation. His demand that we never allow wealth or wisdom or pleasure take his throne in our hearts is not motivated by a petty sense of pride – as if the Creator and Judge of the universe is worried about losing his job. No, you shall have no other gods because there is no other God; no other God who really is looking out for your best interest, no other God who gave himself to us before inviting us to give ourselves to him, no other God who loved you before you were born, no other God who will always answer when you call for help, no other God who promised salvation for sinners and then became a man, lived a perfectly obedient life in your place, suffered and died on a cross to get it done. You can look far and wide and you will never find a God who has done all that for you – except here, in the Bible, in Christ and his cross. Protect God’s crown, his rule in your heart – because you know and believe that the One who gives this command has given everything to win and protect the crown of your salvation.
While the 4th of July is a great opportunity for us to give thanks for the many freedoms we have and cherish – maybe this year we can give thanks for the constitution, the laws, the authorities that protect and preserve those freedoms. More importantly, today, let us hear and heed God’s first and most important commandment: you shall have no other gods, because we recognize that the One who demands that we submit everyone and everything in our hearts and lives to his crown has already sacrificed his one and only Son to win and protect the crown of our salvation. This God, and this God alone, is worthy of our fear, love, and trust because there is no other God and there is no other Savior. Amen.
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