Editor’s note: The following is the text from the sermon I delivered at my church, Crossroads of Faith UMC, in Bolingbrook, Il, on Sunday, Aug. 5. You can also listen to the audio from the sermon on my church website, if you scroll down to sermon archives and click, “The First Commandment.”
The thing about the first commandment is that it’s so easy to think it’s a freebie.
“You shall have no other gods before me.” Check and check!
I don’t pray to Baal, I don’t worship Zeus and I don’t sing any songs about Buddha. I’m good. No other gods here folks. Moving right along.
Except. Well. You know.
There’s a reason God said that commandment first — it’s so important and we keep screwing it up.
Sure, sure, we may say we worship God, and we probably do. But we also worship a whole bunch of other stuff. Pride, money, status, people, ourselves. And sometimes, we even worship religion.
The good news is, we’re not alone. People have been choosing other gods for thousands of years. Like in today’s scripture.
What fascinates me about this text is that even though it was written thousands of years ago, it still so accurately describes human nature.
The story is basically the sequel to the Moses story. You know Moses, the guy who went through and hell and back to get his people out of Egypt, and then went through and hell and back again to get them through the desert to the promised land, which doesn’t even get to enter because he was so frustrated that the people had so quickly denied God at one point on their journey that he smashed the 10 commandment tablets. Ya. That guy.
Well, he dies. And then Joshua kind of takes over the cause. He is appointed as the new leader of the Israelites by God himself. And Gods all, “Be courageous.” And then, like a verse later, he’s all, “Be courageous.” And then seriously, a couple verses later, God tell him again, “Be courageous.”
And he is. And he gets through a ton of stuff, and everyone is all, “YAY GOD!! WEEE!! WE HEART GOD SO MUCH!!”
In Judges 2:6-23 it reads:
6 After Joshua had dismissed the Israelites, they went to take possession of the land, each to their own inheritance. 7 The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel.
So here basically what’s happening is that everyone who saw all the amazing stuff God did worshiped him. Makes sense. And I’m pretty sure those people told their kids, “Hey guys, God is awesome. He did a bunch of amazing stuff for us. Make sure you worship Him when we’re gone.” But you know kids these days. The never listen.
The text continues,
8 Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of a hundred and ten. 9 And they buried him in the land of his inheritance, at Timnath Heres[b] in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash.
10 After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. 11 Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. 12 They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger 13 because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.
So ya, that really didn’t go so well did it? Just one generation later and we have a bunch of people worshiping Baal and some chick named Ashtoreths. And then, as we read further, basically God is like, ‘Dudes. Are you serious? After all I did for you? Really? Wow.” Needless to say, he’s not too excited about the next generation and, like anyone who’s tried a thousand times to help someone with no luck, he’s pissed and He lets them know it.
The scriptures reads: 14 In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. 15 Whenever Israel went out to fight, the hand of the Lord was against them to defeat them, just as he had sworn to them. They were in great distress.
To sum up, God gets angry, shows it, the people get upset, and God feels bad for them.
The text says:
16 Then the Lord raised up judges,[c] who saved them out of the hands of these raiders.
But they still don’t listen. It continues:
17 Yet they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them. They quickly turned from the ways of their ancestors, who had been obedient to the Lord’s commands. 18 Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them. 19 But when the judge died, the people returned to ways even more corrupt than those of their ancestors, following other gods and serving and worshiping them. They refused to give up their evil practices and stubborn ways.
If you read it closely you see that God showed them grace, and then He showed them more grace and then He showed them more grace and then he showed them grace like 10 more times and they just did not listen.
What I want to focus on is how easily it was for these people to turn away from God. Over and over and over and over again no matter what he tried to do to get through to them.
It’s so easy to think, “Well, if I lived in biblical times, and I actually saw God part the Red Sea, or I met Jesus or I saw the mana from heaven, well then, I would never stray. How could anyone who had seen those things and then worshiped another God? I’m so much better than those people.”
But what I think we really need to take away from this text is the fact that these people were so incredibly close to the awesome miracles God performed when he freed the slaves from Egypt, and yet even THEY couldn’t stay on the right path. If my calculations are correct, that basically means we are, well, we’re in trouble.
The crux of the problem is the fact that Christianity is not a one-time decision, it’s a series of thousands and thousands of small decisions we each have to make every day. And it’s in the those small choices that we have to make everyday that we so often chose another god above God.
You see, once you become an officially authorized Christian, we think we don’t have to worry about the commandment at the top of the tablets. We’ve already acknowledged that God is a God and we’re good.
But that’s probably the most dangerous time for many people.That’s when the other gods start to look the most tempting. That’s when we’re lulled into complacency and we find justifications. That is when we can wake up one day and realize we’ve become worshipers at the feet of another god and we didn’t even notice that it had happened.
Its when the justifications start.
I mean, God doesn’t actually want me to love everyone? Because that guy is a total jerk.
The sabbath is cool or whatever, but I need to work that day, all right? I can’t go to church. God knows that.
Tithe 10 percent? Whatever. God knows I need the money right now.
But if I ask everyone to pray before dinner, they’ll think I’m nuts or one of those crazy Christians. He doesn’t actually want me to pray right now.
I could go on for years. When we want to choose things over God, there’s always a reason.
And the reason is, we think we know the world around us better than God, and we have a better idea of what’s going to turn out well than he does, so we ignore his commands and makes ourselves God in his place.
For me, the god I am constantly tempted to worship is people. I’m a people pleaser.
Other people. Every other people. Persons. Jane Q. Public. My boss, the youth, my best friend, hot guys, the cashier at Wal-Mart. People. I want to please people above all else, sometimes even God.
Trust me when I tell you this is a really easy god to justify. God wants me to love others. That’s all I’m doing. I’m loving others.
But “loving others” blurs with “Why don’t they like me?” pretty easily. And that’s when I usually end up crying in bathroom.
Back in grad school, when I waitressed tables, it was, “The cooks are ignoring my request for an extra piece of garlic bread, the woman at the table thinks I purposely handed her a hot plate so she would burn her hand and die, and oh my gosh why does that one waitress seriously hate me so much? All I need her to do is move out of the way so I can refill a Sprite.”
Bam, crying in a bathroom.
Then, in my newspaper jobs, it was, “One of my editors sent me an email explaining that I needed to be more careful with my typos and the lady who just got arrested for selling drugs got super mad at me when I tried to ask her questions for my story and nobody invited me to lunch!.”
Crying in a bathroom.
For while there, I had a streak of, “He dumped me, but he was the love of my life and I wanted to be his wife and I don’t know how I’ll ever feel happy again.”
Crying in a bathroom.
There was the one time it was, “My old roommate thinks I’m an idiot because I lost her house keys and left scuffs on the wall and I never remembered to take out the garbage.”
Crying in a bathroom.
Some anonymous dude left a comment on my blog saying simply, “You’re an idiot.”
Crying in a bathroom.
And, the youth group thinks I’m nuts.
Crying in a bathroom.
Or, the parents think I’m nuts.
Crying in a bathroom.
I’m actually really great at crying in bathrooms. If “crying in a bathroom” was an Olympic sport I’d have more medals than Phelps. You just go to the last stall, pretend to pee, and then you silently cry as you sit on the toilet while grabbing gobs of cheap toilet paper and staring down at the beige tiles. As you blink away tears, it’s important to carefully dab your mascara so as not smudge it.
Sure, sometimes the details change. You stand instead of sit, the tiles are baby blue instead of beige, the toilet papers is actually good.
But the crux of the situation is always the same. Someone, somewhere who I had worked so hard to make like me, didn’t like me. Someone, somewhere who I had put my faith in had let me down. And as a result, I was crying in a bathroom.
But as I’ve grown closer to God, the crying the bathrooms stuff has finally started to diminish.
Don’t get me wrong, it still seriously hurts my soul when someone doesn’t like me. But I have worked really hard over the last few years to change my way of thinking about the whole thing.
I have come to learn that God alone is God, and he always loves me. Where people are fickle, God is steady. Where people project their own inadequacies, God’s analysis is fair. Where people will always fail me, God never will.
And as I long as I earnestly seek His ways, things usually end up working out even better than I could have dreamed.
And of course, the first commandment stuff isn’t just in the old testament. Jesus talks about putting God before everything else all the time.
In Matthew 6:33, at the end of his parable about why worrying makes no sense, Jesus says, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
That’s what disobedience to the first commandment really is, isn’t? Worry. Worry that things won’t go how you want them to if you follow God’s ways. Worry that he’s not actually going to come through for you. Worry that the world will think less of you.
But when you think about it, why on earth would anyone ever worry about the creator of the universe not coming through for them? That he’s not going to catch them every, single time.
We all do it though, which is probably why Jesus talked about prioritizing God a couple of time.
The story, I most related to is found Matthew 8:18-22, in The Message Bible, a modern translation, it reads:
18-19 When Jesus saw that a curious crowd was growing by the minute, he told his disciples to get him out of there to the other side of the lake. As they left, a religion scholar asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.
20Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”
21 Another follower said, “Master, excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have my father’s funeral to take care of.”
22 Jesus refused. “First things first. Your business is life, not death. Follow me. Pursue life.”
Now there’s a test to see what’s most important to you. Think about funerals for second. Think about the way our society responds to funerals. We literally drop everything we’re doing and focus all our efforts on that one event. And every time I read this passage I have to ask myself, “If my father had just died and his funeral was in a couple days, would I just leave? Would I really choose God in that situation?”
I’m pretty sure I’d be more apt to say, “Dude, Jesus. Chill for a second. My dad just died. I need a couple days, all right?”
But when you look at the situation from another angle, it becomes easy to understand the urgency and need to prioritize. God must come first. Above even people. Above even your own father.
The thing to think about it is, when things go bad (they always do eventually), what are you turning to? Whatever it is, that’s your God. That’s the thing you are putting your faith in.
Or, maybe you’re different. Maybe you always turn to God when things go bad, so that’s not your issue. Then, what’s the one thing you would give up anything keep? The one thing you just could not give up under any circumstances, not even for God.
We read about a man who struggles with this in Matthew 19:16-22. Again, from The Message Bible. It reads:
16Another day, a man stopped Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17Jesus said, “Why do you question me about what’s good? God is the One who is good. If you want to enter the life of God, just do what he tells you.”
18-19The man asked, “What in particular?”
Jesus said, “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you do yourself.”
20The young man said, “I’ve done all that. What’s left?”
21″If you want to give it all you’ve got,” Jesus replied, “go sell your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me.”
22That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so, crest-fallen, he walked away. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn’t bear to let go.
He was holding tight to a lot of things, and he couldn’t bear to let go.
Just like that man, nobody, not even Jesus, can force you to worship the Lord above all else. Nobody can force you to live in peace with your creator. Nobody can force you to build a relationship with Him.
Even if God himself is standing in front of you, it’s always your choice.
But I must warn you, there’s something you need to understand about the other gods — they will always, 100 percent, completely and totally, absolutely, thoroughly, fantastically, let you down.
They will always fail you. They will never give you true peace. And they are not worthy of our worship.
But, when we do live with God as our main thing, we exist the way we were meant to exist. And trust me when I tell you, there’s nothing better than that.
You see, that’s why I’m standing up pushing God on you guys. Because every time I put Him first, amazing things happen.
I’m not here to tell you that it’s easy — our main scripture clearly shows that people have been tempted to stray for thousands of years. But easy isn’t the point. The point is, God will always blow your mind when you follow him above all else.
Now you’re going to hear all about our recent mission trip next Sunday, but I want to take a couple minutes to explain to you my passion for them.
You see, they are time when you I personally feel as though I’m living in perfect harmony with God.
The trips are no joke though and it’s very tempting to lose sight of the reason we’re there — to serve God and God alone. And I’m not going to lie, the planning is stressful and I get worried a lot, and it would way easier for me to just not do mission trips.
The one we took to Denver I actually booked in October — I remember because we got the “October special” on the deposit rate — and I prayed about every single day for the next nine months. I also incessantly asked others to pray for it, I begged youth to sign up, I begged parents to let them, I asked for donations, I asked for more donations, I begged for donations, I begged for more youth to sign up and then I prayed some more.
So many times I asked got, Are you sure we’re going to have enough money? And are you sure kids are going to sign up for this? And are you sure everyone is going to be safe?
But I pushed through it because although I knew it would be easier to just stay home the third week in July, I also knew that God would make everything more than worth it. When you fall back into his arms even though you can’t see him yet, and then he catches you, it’s incredible.
You see even though we served others, that was just part of the story.
We also bonded while jamming to MC Hammer Pandora radio on the 16-hour drive there; learned to live without our cell phones; realized that one or two days without blow drying our hair wasn’t the end of the world; saw each other with bed head and hugged anyway; prayed over every meal, and every meeting and every day; lived a whole week without any air conditioning; dove into deep theological discussions at 10:30 p.m. when we were so tired that some of the youth were literally falling asleep while we spoke; shared our deepest wounds, our deepest fears and deepest secrets and then saw the wounds start the heal, saw the chance to conquer our fears and realized that some of our secrets aren’t so bad after all.
We loved, we felt the Holy spirit, we saw each other in a new light, and we saw ourselves in a different way.
We truly lived as God intended his children to live. And despite all the sacrifices, everything was more amazing then we could have ever dreamed.
On Thursday morning (our last full day on the journey), there was a moment that highlighted all the things God could do on a trip like the one we were on.
Near the end of the morning devotional time, one of the youth came up to me, with tears in his eyes, and said simply, “Thank you” and then gave me a hug.
And I knew, that this trip had left a mark on him. And that right there is what God does when you choose to follow Him above all else. He makes things amazing.
Every single moment is a chance to worship God, but it’s also a chance to worship other gods.
There’s a reason I always go around saying, “It’s for God.” Because it’s so easy to lose focus on what’s really important. Because most of the time, when people stop for a second to think about their motivations and what’s right, they realize that when God calls, it’s important to answer.
And it’s important to constantly question your motivations. One hundred percent of the time, the answer should be, “This is for God.” And it should, always, always, always be humble.
And at the end of the day, truly putting God first, is a response to the fact that God is perfect and will always come through for you. Maybe not in the way you think he will, or in the time frame you think he should. But if he did what you thought he should do, he wouldn’t be able to show something so much greater than what your brain can imagine.
So I pray that all of you will chose God, in the little moments. And then even in your times of pure doubt, you will fall into Jesus’ arms and let him catch you.
A wise man once told me, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.
I pray we all find our way to keeping God as the main thing.