God, the Maker of heaven and earth, created our first parents in His image and after His likeness to be in a relationship with Him as they served as stewards of the world He had created. Rather than being faithful stewards, they instead went their own way, preferring to take the world for themselves and to be like God (or so they thought), and to exploit the world for their own purposes. Yet God, while cursing the ground and condemning man to toil and to eat bread by the sweat of his brow, promised a coming Savior who would defeat the serpent, Satan, the Father of lies, who would restore humanity to Himself.
Yet, humanity continued to rebel, and the promise was lost and obscured. God saw fit to destroy humanity by the Flood, saving only Noah and his family by water. Yet even as the world was rebuilt people remained estranged from God. God needed to appear specifically to Abraham, choosing Him by grace to become the father of a nation from whom He would become the ancestor of the one by whom all of the nations of the earth would be blessed. Through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob the Hebrew nation came into being and was led into Egypt, where ultimately they were forced into slavery, Under Moses they were led out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and to Mount Sinai, where God established His covenant with the nation. But even by the time of Moses, they had forgotten much of what God had done for them.
But in His grace, God called them out of Egypt to be His people, to be a nation which would be a beacon to the world and the source of salvation for the entire world. At Mount Sinai, God gave ten words, or commandments, to the people, which described how the people, as God’s people were to live before God and before the world. After the commandments were given to the people by the voice of God as recorded in Exodus 20, God called Moses to come to the top of Mount Sinai where God wrote the commandments, the two tablets of the testimony, by His own finger. Moses was on the mountain with God for forty days and forty nights, receiving instruction from God as to the proper form of worship and honor that was to be given to God.
Fast forward to Exodus 34. Here we are told that Moses went back up the mountain, again for forty days and forty nights, and received the commandments on tablets of stone once again. Why again? Well, you know, or should know that the people of Israel got impatient waiting for Moses to reappear, so they made a golden calf out of their jewelry and then marched around it, bowing down to it, declaring it to be their God.
What’s wrong with this picture? They had heard God’s proclamation, “I, the LORD your God have brought you out of the house of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You will have no other gods before me.” “You shall not worship me in the form of a graven image. What don’t they understand? They saw the mountain, they saw the fire and the smoke, and they heard the voice of God, telling them who He is and what they were to do about it. Yet they got impatient, and in the spirit of “What have you done for me lately?” they abandoned the God who had brought them out of Egypt in favor of a god of metal who just stood there and did nothing. Even worse, if this were possible, Aaron, the divinely appointed high priest, actually aided and abetted their apostasy!
Naturally, when Moses came down from the mountain and saw what was going on, he threw the tablets down and broke them (a little visual aid about what it means to “break the law”), destroyed the idol, and put many of the idolaters to death.
Idolatry is the first and foremost sin. We may not flagrantly commit it by worshipping golden calves, but if we seize on something in this life and make it the be-all and end-all of our existence, we are idolaters.
All sins, even the sins that we commit against our neighbors, are acts of idolatry, since they are matters of putting ourselves at the forefront. Our acts of charity may help our neighbor, but apart from true faith in God they could very well be done for our own glorification rather than for God’s glory. Look into your own heart and see what is there. Any and every one of us make idols of ourselves. Instead of trusting the promises of God and letting the days own troubles be sufficient for the day, we can easily be distracted by the cares and pleasures of the world. Remember Jesus’ parable of the sower. Growth in the word can be stifled in several different ways. The devil may snatch it away, it may wither because it does not take root, or it may be choked because of the distractions of the cares of this world. Jesus tells us these things because He desires us to be prepared, lest this life become more about things, about other gods, than about rejoicing in the gifts God gives us and praising the giver. We are told to seek first the Kingdom of God, then everything else will become ours as well.
Idolatry can show itself also in a show of piety. We see this and hear this in the passion story. Caiaphas, the son-in-law of the high priest, had spoken of the expediency of putting Jesus to death, since it was better that He die than that the nation die. We know that this is true, and that the death of Jesus does in fact avail for the sins of all the people, including those of the priests, who had made their own lives and livelihoods their idols and had topped it all off with blasphemy, denying that Jesus, who truly was and is the Son of God, is who He claimed to be. In their blindness they rejected the Scriptures that they claimed to respect, those Scriptures which testify of Jesus.
The commandments were given to us for our sake. Disobedience to the commandments not only dishonors God, it dishonors us as well. Our disobedience also shows us for what we are as well. So often we treat the commandments in a rather cavalier manner. Since Christ died to pay for my sins, the thought goes, sin has ceased to be a big deal. In fact, it sounds like a good arrangement, doesn’t it: I sin and God forgives.
Yet if you look at God’s actions against even His own rebellious people, we see that God takes the opposite perspective. Rather than sinning all the more so that grace may abound, we are reminded, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked.” God does not desire an arrogant heart; He desires a broken, contrite heart. In the end, if we insist on breaking the commandments, they in fact will break us. The saying goes, “Whether the stone hits the pitcher, or the pitcher hits the stone, it’s going to be bad for the pitcher.”
So, how is your heart? We pray that God would give us hearts that are set to obey His commandments, and that when we fall short of that we pray that He would not despise our broken and contrite hearts.
Even if we do not seek to disobey the commandments with impunity, we can work to manipulate them in other ways, to use them to our advantage over other people. The commandments can be used as a power grab, to keep people in their place and to keep the one who issues the commands in power. Or, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, we can make use of the commandments as a way of justifying ourselves before God, demonstrating (at least in our own minds) how righteous we are, when in fact they serve to demonstrate our own piety to the detriment of the welfare of our neighbor. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warns His disciples (and we are among that number) against parading our piety among people, seeking human glory rather than giving God glory, or bringing others to glorify God.
But if there is a danger of falling into the trap of self-righteousness, of trying to justify ourselves before God, there is also the danger of falling into despair and believing that our sins are so great and so grave that God could not possibly forgive a sinner such as me. But if we look at the two great sins committed by members of the Twelve, we see that the gravity of the sin is not what leads to condemnation, but the question of trust in the God who is willing and able to forgive those sins. Even as Jesus prepares to die for the sins of the world, we see the disciples forsaking Him and fleeing. Judas committed the sin of betrayal, yet even that sin was paid for by Christ. Judas was certainly sorry that he had done this and sought to undo it by returning the money he has received. Yet, instead of returning to Jesus and begging for forgiveness, he gave up in despair and killed Himself. His sin was great, but it was not the unforgiveable sin. Peter, though boldly declaring that he would go to death for Jesus rather than deny Him, also failed miserably, denying his Savior not once, but three times. Yet Peter repented and returned to Christ, recalled by Jesus look at him. Peter returned to the fold of the apostles, was an eyewitness of the resurrection, and was restored to his ministry by Christ’s threefold command to tend to Christ’s sheep. Though Peter was faithless, Jesus remained faithful.
As we look at the commandments, given by God to His people through Moses, we see a disobedient people who turned to idolatry at the first opportunity, who committed adultery with the people of foreign nations, who even sinned with impunity, thinking that since they had the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant, and later the temple, that they were immune from punishment. All of those temptations are there in front of us as well. To think and behave that way brings a stern warning. Yet the nation, for all of its rebellion, did enter the promised land. Some died and did not enter the promised rest. Yet the faithful remnant did. And the promise remains for us as well: repent, turn from your sin, turn to the Savior who has redeemed you, and you will live. That is God’s promise, and that promise is sure. Amen.