Catechism Series: First Commandment
September 24, 2023
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The text that I have chosen for this morning’s sermon from Exodus 20:1-6: “And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or 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 or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
In 1528, Martin Luther and other reformers visited the Lutheran congregations in the Saxon territory of Germany. One purpose of these visits was to assess the Biblical knowledge of pastors and their congregations. Unfortunately, the visits revealed that most who claimed to be Christians didn’t know what Christians believe. Luther was so discouraged that in 1529 he wrote his Small and Large Catechisms. The Small Catechism was to be a simple statement of Christian teachings that pastors, and more specifically parents, could use to teach their children, and to learn for themselves, the basic doctrines of the faith.
It’s been a long time since most of you sat in confirmation class, and even if it hasn’t, I thought we’d spend some Sundays reviewing what we Lutherans believe. To kick off this series on the Small Catechism, we’re going to start from the very beginning: the First Commandment, in which God tells you to get rid of your idol.
While all ten of the Commandments are important, the Lord starts off with the most important and which is violated when any other commandment is broken. If you steal, you’ve broken the First Commandment. If you lie, you’ve broken it. If you covet, you’ve broken it. You get the picture. The Lord says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” He also says He’s a jealous God, which means He wants your full attention and adoration. Nothing else is to come between you and Him. He doesn’t share! In his Explanation to this commandment Luther writes: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” We break the First Commandment when we fear, love, and trust in something which isn’t God. Luther says in the Large Catechism: “Whatever your heart clings to or relies on – that is your God.”
To explain this further God demanded that His people were to never make a physical idol, something He called a graven image. These idols represented the false gods that when worshipped led to horribly immoral practices. When you hear this commandment, you may think that since you don’t bow down to little statues, you don’t have any idols. Is this true? Nope. If you have material possessions you love as much as or more than God, you’re violating the First Commandment. The Lord echoes the first commandment in Jeremiah 25:6, “Do not go after other gods to serve and worship them, or provoke me to anger with the work of your hands.” If your possessions push God out of first place in your life, you’re fearing, loving, and trusting something other than God, which means you have an idol.
I said earlier that God tells you to get rid of your idol, and I used idol instead of idols because underneath all our sins, all our false gods, all our violations of the Ten Commandments there is just one idol – the self. Take Adam and Eve for a moment. Why did they eat the forbidden fruit (which wasn’t an apple by the way)? They ate it because they wanted it more than obeying God. They ate it to please themselves. The first sin was selfishness, and the first idol was themselves. Why did the Israelites chase false gods? They did it to please themselves, rather than living in a way to please God. Why do you commit the sins you do? To please yourself!
Luther described people as being “curved in” on themselves, and this attitude is readily apparent because we’re wrapped up in the mindset of “What’s in it for me? What do I want to do? What makes me happy? What fulfills my desires?” What is your idol? It’s you because you’re focused on your wants and desires. This selfish idolatry all too frequently leads Christians to be entitled and thinking that God should revolve around them rather than the other way around.
Your idol molds God into a god of your liking. He’s your God on Sunday, but perhaps the rest of the week He disappears. He lets you have your own truth and doesn’t demand that you agree completely with what you read in the Bible. Your idol tells you that God doesn’t get angry over your sins, He’s just disappointed that you made a small mistake. Your idol convinces you that God loves you because you’re a good person. The God of your making isn’t a jealous one, rather all that matters to Him is that you’re happy.
This self-directed pursuit of happiness is going to fail you because you search for happiness and meaning in things and people who are just as flawed as you are: hobbies, relationships, life advice from clueless celebrities, therapists who minimize the role that God plays in your life, and even in breaking the other nine commandments. These are always going to let you down. Jeremiah describes idols as stupid and foolish and that whatever we idolize is worthless and a work of delusion (Jermiah 10:8, 15). That pretty much sums it up when it comes to our breaking of the First Commandment.
Too many people think God gave the Ten Commandments just to throw His weight around, be bossy, or steal your fun. He gave them because He knows what’s best for you and that obeying the commandments is meant to keep you safe and bring you blessings. He calls you back to Himself because He knows that peace found in earthly things is only temporary. He knows that nothing lasts forever because everything is sinful. He knows that self-justification, trying to excuse your sins and behavior leads to despair and spiritual exhaustion. He knows that when we remake Him to fit what we want Him to be, it’s never going to be right. His Word, twisted to fit our selfishness, can’t deliver true help or healing, and it certainly can’t deliver the true God, including the true Son of God. This is why God wants you to put away your idol and put away your selfishness because they cannot possibly do for you what He has done.
To let go of your selfishness is to let go of your idol, and while it’s hard, it’s what God commands us to do. It’s not easy and if you look inside yourself for the will and the power to do so, you’re just turning back to your idol. It’s by the power and grace of God you can turn from your idol of self back to the one, true God. In Ephesians Paul has this great prayer. He prays: “For this reason I bow my knees before the Father… that according to the riches of His glory He may grant you to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph 3:14-17). Where do you find help and power? In God alone!
Moses writes that after the people gathered at the base of Mount Sinai, “God spoke all these words, saying, ‘I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’” God’s voice rattled heaven and earth as He reminded them of who He is. He’s the one who delivered them from Egypt, from slavery and abuse. He’s the Creator, the Almighty, the all-powerful One who demands and deserves our sole worship and adoration. He is the only one with any power whatsoever! Idols, whatever they are, can’t do anything you ask them to do!
You weren’t part of the mass exodus from Egypt, you didn’t stand at Mount Sinai when it was covered in a cloud with fire and lightning, with the sound of thunder and a trumpet, and with the voice of God booming out over you. Instead, God freed you in a different way. When Christ’s voice boomed out from the cross at His death it rattled heaven and earth. It freed you from slavery to your idols, to your sin, to your own selfishness. It’s in His death you’re turned from being inward focused to being outward focused. Out of pure grace, He calls you to be His people and then He gives you all you need to turn your back on selfishness and the idol of your self. It’s by the power of Christ’s death and resurrection and the forgiveness of your sins, that you’re able to fear, love, and trust in God alone.
Now the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen