“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.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the twentieth chapter of the book of Exodus. Dear friends in Christ, the First Commandment doesn’t stand alone; it isn’t an isolated, arbitrary word. The jealousy of God doesn’t come from God’s cruel, spiteful nature, like the Greek and Roman gods, who were in competition with one another for the honor of men. No, the First Commandment, God’s demand for exclusive obedience, is predicated on the Gospel, it is rooted in God’s gracious action toward His people. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God has given Himself to His people, He has acted to deliver them, He has established a relationship with them founded on deeds of salvation—He is their God, they are His people—and now their saving God asks for their fear, their love, their trust.
The First Commandment implies a promise: ‘You shall need no other gods.’ Only the true God delivered His people Israel from bondage in Egypt; not the gods of Canaan, and not the gods of Egypt, Greece, or Rome. Only the God has delivered you from the bondage of sin and death; not the gods of Muhammed or Joseph Smith; not the many gods of the East. Only the true God has sent His only begotten Son into our flesh to suffer and die, bearing your sin upon Himself and paying the price that sin had earned. No other God offered up the sacrifice sufficient to take away the sin of the world; only the God who is the Father of Jesus. No other God raised up His Son, victorious over sin and death.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you can find another god who has delivered you from sin, death, and the power of the devil, you are welcome to him. But only the God who speaks in our text this day has given His Son into death for the life of the world, only this God has raised Him up again in victory, so that as Jesus lives, so you too will live. The First Commandment is founded on God’s action, that He has given Himself to you in His Son. It’s a command, to be sure, the most potent Law ever offered, the foundation of all other laws, every other command, but it is predicated by a promise, the saving relationship God has established with you through His Son. The God we are called upon to fear, love, and trust above all things has given Himself to you for your salvation, He has delivered you from the penalty of death and hell by giving His Son in your place.
The gods of this world promise much. They promise deliverance, they promise salvation, they promise to provide for our needs. They promise freedom, they promise prosperity, they promise greatness. They promise to fight for you, to take up your cause, to advocate for you. And we look at ourselves, we look at our lives, we look at our society, and we see much to be delivered from. We are poor, we are downtrodden, we are tyrannized. We are trampled on, we are exploited, we are treated unjustly. We are desperate for a word of hope, and the gods are all too happy to speak it. They know what we are seeking, and from billboards, on television, in the paper, they all make their offer of salvation. They trumpet their promises to the masses, hoping for obedience, seeking followers, desiring sacrifice. They are all in competition with one another; each is seeking to be the one whom you fear, love, and trust above all else. They know what you want, and they all want to be your god. And we are only too happy to oblige. Luther had it right when he said in the Large Catechism: “A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart.”
All gods demand worship, all gods demand obedience, all gods demand images. And so we craft our idols, we hew our monuments from the solid rock, and we travel many miles, we spend large amounts of money to see them. We build statues of our gods and house them in Greek temples, we carve their faces into mountains, we have our own hallowed ground and pilgrimage sites, we celebrate all the holy days. Every god has its image, whether it hangs on your wall, sits in your garage, or hangs from a pole. Every god has its demands, whether it be your loyalty, your money, or your vote. And every god demands sacrifice, whether your time, your integrity, or your worship. We bow down before the image of our gods, giving them homage, promising obedience, promising loyalty, promising to fear, love, and trust in them above all else.
We make our promises to the gods, we swear our oaths of allegiance, as they have promised to give us every good thing. We bow down before the images we have created in their honor, praying that they will notice and acknowledge our loyalty. But as we return, year after year to our idols, we see them deteriorate. The elements, the wind and the rain, the snow and the ice, take their toll on our images of stone and metal, cloth and paper. Fire consumes them, water damages them; time itself launches an attack on them, and the victory of time against our idols is as slow as it is inevitable. Time takes its toll, and will one day erase any sign that they ever existed. God knows this fate of our idols, our images, and so He says, “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.” Once again, this is a command—Law, stern Law—predicated on a promise. Like the ones in whose honor we made them, all idols will fail, all idols will pass away. In love, God calls on us to cling to something that endures, that will last, that can truly deliver on the promise of salvation.
For the gods cannot deliver. Their images will fade away, they will eventually succumb to the ravages of the years and centuries; but much sooner than that, the gods themselves will fail us. They will let us down, failing to provide for us as we had hoped. They will be shipwrecked by scandal and division. They will find the obstacles put in their path too great to surmount; they will be thwarted by forces completely out of their control. They will deceive you, they will take your obedience, your loyalty, your money and do the opposite of what you wanted; the gods whose image you travel to worship will be betrayed by those who follow in their stead. Or, on the other hand, maybe they will actually succeed. Perhaps the gods can give us some good; maybe they can deliver us from opposing armies, from criminals who wish to hurt us, from senseless violence. Maybe they can raise us from poverty, give us a voice, and protect our liberties. Maybe. But any benefit that the gods can give us ends at the moment that we draw our last breath. Even if they can deliver on all of their promises, when our final hour comes, they will all fail. At that moment, they will all be shown for who they are: false gods.
At the point of death, all false gods pass away, all false gods fail, for they too are subject to death, they too will one day be no more. The same enemies that surround you surround them, and their powerlessness in the face of death and hell proves that they were no place to put your fear, love, and trust. The only God who can save, the only God who truly deserves your fear, love, and trust, is the God who has the power over death and hell, the very God who said to His people of old: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Only this God, the true God, has conquered death for you by sending His Son to suffer, die, and rise again. Only this God, the true God, gives you that salvation, making you His child, by putting you to death and raising you up again in the font. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
The only true God is the Father of Jesus, who is the very image of God, an image that you can trust, because this image is not subject to decay or the ravages of time, but is risen from dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. There is no other god who deserves honor, no other god who deserves worship, but the one true God, and Him alone. “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 this world, it may be that those who trust in the gods and hate the true God live comfortably and without need, while those who reject the gods and worship the true God suffer want and deprivation. But appearances are deceiving, and death makes all things clear. For when death comes to you, so will the promise: “If we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.”
God is jealous for His honor because He loves us. He loves us so much that He has no desire for us to chase after other gods that promise much but cannot deliver. Therefore, He has not only acted to deliver us by sending His Son to suffer, die, and rise again, but He has come to us in the Word, worked faith within us by the power of the Holy Spirit, and now, only through the Spirit’s work, we believe; we are made His children, restored to our Father through the blood of His Son. The First Commandment, or any of the other nine, cannot be kept apart from the faith worked by the Holy Spirit; no one can keep the Law apart from Christ, who kept it for us. In Christ, by faith in Christ, you keep the Law, for in Christ, by faith in Christ, you have no other gods before the true God. And there is no other god that you need, for only the true God sent His Son for you: to live for you, to die for you, to rise again for you. In the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.