I love comedy, and the greatest joke I have ever heard, by far, is by Abbot and Costello. Their comedy routine, “Who’s on First?” If you have never heard that joke go to your computer tonight and type in “Who’s on First” to Google and watch it. It is the best joke ever written. The premise of the sketch is that Abbott is identifying the players on a baseball team for Costello, but their names and nicknames can be interpreted as non-responsive answers to Costello’s questions. For example, the first baseman is named “Who”; so, saying “Who’s on first” is ambiguous between the question (“Which person is the first baseman?”) and the answer (“The name of the first baseman is ‘Who’”).
On first base is Who, on second base is What, on third base is I Don’t Know, out in left field is Why, out in center field is Because, the pitcher is Tomorrow, the catcher is Today, and shortstop is I Don’t Give a Darn.
In September 2007, Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Chin-lung Hu, a late-season callup from Albuquerque, got his first major league hit against the Arizona Diamondbacks, a single; the announcer said, “Shades of Abbott and Costello, I can finally say, ‘Hu is on first base.’”
That joke came to my mind when I titled this sermon, “Who’s on first?” Naturally, we are asking about who is first in our lives and hopefully the answer is God. When you look at the Ten Commandments, you will see that the very fundamental element of serving God is putting God first in our lives.
The Ten Commandments are a perfect place to start when asking the question, “What does God want?” Understanding the New Covenant is built off of the Old, the New Covenant does not always reestablish the principles said before it. It is good to dig to the very basic, most fundamental roots of our God’s requests, the same requests Jesus built upon later.
When we look at the Ten Commandments you will find that they all tie together. #1 leads to #2. #1 and #2 leads to #3-10. #1-4 how you treat God, #5-10 how you treat others.
One person said there was a university professor who gave out copies of the Ten Commandments to his students and asked them to arrange them in order of importance. Ninety percent of the students reversed the order, putting the commandments about how we are to treat our fellow man first and the commandements about how we are to relate to God last. When it comes to organizing a society that is the order people put it in: how you treat others and then, if you want, how you treat God. But that is backwards!
Jesus made this very clear when he said the first commandment is to love God and the second is to love others. We fool ourselves into thinking that people will love others without first loving God. To have a society where people love people, to be a person that loves people, they must first establish their love for God. Satan has convinced people that we ourselves are the center of the moral universe.
When schools are teaching children about abstinence, it goes horribly wrong. Why? Because they give horrible reasons for abstinence. Why in the world should children wait until marriage? The public schools try to give good reasons but fail: avoid pregnancy, avoid diseases, avoid poor reputations. All poor reasons. Sexual interaction of children has only become more prevalent. How about we give them a good reason? How about we give them a reason that actually has some moral ground? Instead of going with consequentialism, how about go with God-defined deontological morality? The best reason for not doing anything is because God said so! It is the strongest reason, it is the only reason that makes us grow, it is the only reason that actually motivates for moral reasons.
You have to have God at the foundation in order to have any moral motivations. Honoring the father and mother, stealing, adultery, false testimony, murder? None of it matters unless we first establish that God is first. Without a moral God there is little to no motivation to do anything moral. And without giving the good God your life, his commands have no bearing on your life.
Command #1, No Others: Me First
[Exo 20:1-3 ESV] 1 And God spoke all these words, saying, 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me. (Deu. 5:7, same)
The first command is not, “You shall believe in a god.” Because the honest truth is, everyone believes in a god. Some people’s gods are not invisible, all-powerful, or good. We could say, a god is whatever has first place in your life. That is what is taught by Paul in Colossians when he says coveting is idolatry (Col 3:5). The question becomes, what god have you chosen?
The God of the Bible says he will be your god and no other god. Sin is a result of putting other gods as first in your heart. Satan is not bothered by us worshipping God, he isn’t. He just wants to make sure God is not the only one we worship. He wants us to mix in some other gods with the God of Abraham.
We may not have a temple to Aphrodite in Decatur, the goddess of sex, but does that mean no one here worships sex? Not at all. In the past, people would give their gods names, make up personalities, and give them mythological fables. They did not worship sex, they worshipped a goddess of sex who love, beauty, pleasure, passion and procreation, adorned with myrtles, roses, doves, sparrows, and swans. She was married to Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths and metalworking, but had many lovers including Ares, the god of war.
Today, we don’t make up a person to the thing, but that does not mean we are not worshipping that thing. We think it is not worship if the thing doesn’t have a personality like in Ancient Times. We think it is not worship to devote our entire life to something, but that is the very definition of worship. We do not need a god to have a god.
God made this commandment first because all mankind from the beginning have been worshipping other gods, with or without names. All of the commandments reflect the first one; the Sabbath says, “don’t let work be your god;” “do not kill” says, “don’t let violence or hatred be your god;” “do not commit adultery” says, “don’t let sex be your god.” The first commandments God gives to his people is, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
The Jews would try to make this command into a simple box to be checked; they thought as long as they did not worship other gods and the Lord was their only god, they satisfied this commandment. But the commandment is more than a simple command for monotheism and a simple prohibition of idols, it is about the priority in life. Is God first in life?
Only once you obey the first command will you obey the others. Have no other gods means, Put God first.
Command #2, No Images: Take Me As I Am
[Exo 20:4-6 ESV] “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. (Deu 5:8-10)
Behind this negative command is the positive principle: Take God as He Is.
The true form of idolatry is not seen very much anymore–the kind you see in Hinduism and read of in ancient times. The more personal form of idolatry is usually what we concern ourselves with, the quasi-idols of whatever you worship. But there is another aspect of idolatry that we need to be concerned about; this kind of idolatry is not about having a material idol or a spiritual god, it is about distorting the true God.
Some worship wooden idols, some worship quasi-idols like money, and some worship, not God, but their version of God. This kind of worship has become all too common. This is the Theory of Reification, which said basically that religion is a fraud–a guise under which selfish human beings justify and rationalize their pursuits by giving them divine endorsements. You see this principle in idolatry and Hinduism so clearly. If one group of people wants to go to war and conquer the people around them, they create war gods, because war gods promote war. Or sex, or money, or education.
The eighteenth-century philosopher, Montesquieu, offered the same sentiment when he wrote, “If triangles had a god, he would have three sides.” Humans make gods like humans; humans make gods who like human desires. What we really seem to want are user-friendly gods. We want a god who is like us. We want to reshape God to fit our own needs.
There is a temple in Kyoto, Japan, called The Temple of the Thousand Buddhas. Inside this temple are 1,000 statues of Buddha, each one slightly different than any of the others in the temple so that the worshiper can go in, find the image of Buddha that looks most like himself, and worship that one.
And this is not limited to non-Christians. Christians do the same thing when they try to warp God into the kind of god they want. God made us in his image but humans try so hard to make God in their image.
The problem is that if God is not a false god, if God exists and is not a figment of our imagination, then he has his own personality and being that we cannot change. You can make an imaginary friend into anything you want, but your real friends can’t be changed by just imagining.
The first commandment prohibits the worship of false gods and only allows worship of the true God. But the second commandment forbids false worship of the true God.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is the Golden Calf. The Israelites had been rescued from slavery and were waiting for Moses to come back with the Law. They got impatient and took gold and made an idol of a calf. Now idolatry is bad. But here is the even worse thing they did: they said the calf delivered them from Egypt and they named it the LORD/Jehovah, God’s personal name! [Exo 32:1-5] That has to be one of the craziest things I have ever read. Beyond the stupidity of the idol-worship, they made the true god out to be this false god!
But the amazing thing is that Christians do this all the time today! They may not make an idol and call it Jehovah, but they are taking the God of the Bible and making him out to be the god they actually want. That might as well be idolatry or worshipping a false god.
God is who he is. He is the “I AM.” You pretending that he is something he is not does not change who he is. When you warp God, you are saying that you know better than God; you are saying that God is wrong in who he is.
The second commandment may not seem like it applies to us today because idolatry is not a common thing today. But this does apply to us so strongly, not in the sense of metal images of God, but mental images of God.
We are like the four-year-old boy whose Sunday school teacher asked what he was drawing. “I’m drawing a picture of God,” replied the little boy. Amused, the teacher probed further, “How can you do that, since no one knows what God looks like?” The boy kept right on drawing, and, without missing a beat, he replied, “They will when I’m through.”
- Some people make God out to be Uncle Sam, wanting us to be completely patriotic, “If you are a good Christian, you are a good American.”
- Some people make God out to be a free-love hippie, where all is good, all you need is love, let people be, you do you, we are all brothers and sisters in this crazy world doing our own thing.
- Some people make God out to be a grandma, who always wants to hear from you but will settle for seeing you on holidays. Anytime you want a treat or a good meal, you can make a special trip to come see her.
- Some people make God out to be the big vending machine in the sky; when you put in your quarter (your prayer, good deeds) you get out a candy bar. Good deeds and rewards become a transaction.
- Some people make God out to be the utopia-maker, who wants you to have the perfect life. Your life will be perfect, you will never be sick, never have bad times, never suffer.
- Some people make God out to be the fire-and-brimstone judge, who will punish all evildoers. All the people who sin will perish. All the people who are just like you but are not you will be condemned.
- Some people make God out to be coal-less Santa Claus. Santa is here to give you a gift and no matter whether you have been good or bad, Santa is all out of coal.
The images go on and on. The point is that we shape God into a more “suitable” image so we can excuse our beliefs and behavior. In this way, whom you worship reveals who you are.
Even Jesus faced people trying to make him out to be something he is not. Peter wanted Jesus to be the one who would lead to war. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to be a charlatan. Judas wanted Jesus to be more financially concerned. John wanted Jesus to be more punitive to call fire from heaven.
Why do we try to reshape God? Because shaping him into our image is easier than being shaped into his. It fits our purposes to reshape God, for a divine power who endorses everything that we already want can come in very handy. And that is why idolatry, worshipping false gods, and worshipping a perversion of the true god is all actually self-worship. It humanizes god and deifies man.
If you think about it, most distorted images of God contain some grain of truth, but they are the result of focusing so much on one particular facet of his character that other qualities important to God are left out of the picture. Anytime we try to shape God, we de-emphasize some facets of his character because we emphasize others.
It becomes vitally important for us not to overemphasize the parts of God that we like and not to underemphasize the parts of God that we do not like. I like God’s forgiving nature, but that does not mean he forgives everyone. I do not care for God’s condemnation, but that does not change the fact that God condemns. You will have the parts of God you like and, whether you admit it or not, you have parts of God that are not your favorite. But we must take God as he is.
And the solution to this is learning your Bible. Read God’s word to figure out who God is. You will not know who God is unless you spend time reading your Bible. As you learn about God your mental image of God will change and improve. You will begin to see more clearly who God actually is, instead of who you want him to be.
This God, the I AM, the God of Abraham, is to be your God, says the first commandment. And now the second says, you do not get to mold this God. This commandment reinforced that God is God and you will take him or leave him. You do not get to make a golden calf and say that is Jehovah. Jehovah is who he is, you do not get to customize him.
You shall not make a graven image means, Take God as he is.
For the longest time I have wanted to get a caricature. Caricatures are so cool and unique. They emphasize certain parts of your face. Obama’s caricature is usually with a very skinny head and low hanging huge ears. Trump’s combover hair is a foot long and his lips are sticking out from his classic expression. Caricatures are funny and unique ways of seeing things. But sometimes our view of God is a caricature, where one part of God is overemphasized and others under-emphasized. What is important for us is to see God as he is and worship him for who he is.
These first two commandments are extremely powerful and relevant to us today. These commands are not just about having only one god and no idols. These commands are a lesson to us to put God first in our lives and to not change who God is. God’s first two commands are to worship him alone as he is.
When God set out to create a list of rules/principles that teach all mankind how to behave to please him these are his first two. They deserve our full attention. As you read throughout God’s word you will see these two commandments everywhere; you will read of people failing to put God first, you will read God telling people to put him first (in other words), you will read of people worshipping idols, you will read of people making God out to be something he is not. Any chapter in your Bible will directly or indirectly tie back into these commands. Because these are the pillars of worshipping God. Out of all God asks of you, these are the first commands. This is what God says,
[Exo 20:2-6 ESV] 2 “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 4 “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. 5 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, 6 but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Put God first and take him as he is.