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Sermon for 3rd Sunday in Lent

First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17

1God 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.3You shall have no other gods before me. 4You 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. 5You 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, 6but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. 8Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. 12Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

Psalm 19

1The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. 2One day tells its tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another. 3Although they have no words or language, and their voices are not heard, 4Their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world. 5In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber; it rejoices like a champion to run its course. 6It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens and runs about to the end of it again; nothing is hidden from its burning heat. 7The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent. 8The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes.

9The fear of the Lord is clean and endures forever; the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. 10More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold, sweeter far than honey, than honey in the comb. 11By them also is your servant enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward. 12Who can tell how often he offends? cleanse me from my secret faults. 13Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense. 14Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

18For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Gospel: John 2:13-25

13The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. 15And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” 19Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21But he was speaking about the temple of his body. 22When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. 23Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.


Our Exclusive God, The First Three Commandments

Two men rented a big moving truck from the local Penski dealer and needed to drive through a small town not far from their destination.  They were taking an unfamiliar route, and they needed to pass through the town to get to their delivery location.  Just outside the small community was an overpass with a sign which read: “Clearance. 11’3”.  Unsure of how tall the truck was, they got out and measured their rig.  It was 12’4″ tall.  As they climbed back into the cab, the passenger asked, “What do you think we should do?”  The driver looked around, then shifted into gear, as he said, “Not a cop in sight.  Let’s take the chance.”

This may sound silly, but far too many people have the same attitude toward God and His Ten Commandments.  They perceive God as some great cop in the sky whose laws are designed to cramp our style and prevent us from having a good time.  So, if they think they can beat the rap, they try.  The opposite, however, is really the case.  The truth is, the Ten Commandments are God’s guidelines to ensure us a good life and a good relationship with Him and our neighbors.  Our all-wise and loving God gave us His commands and statutes to us to protect us from harm and direct us toward a fulfilling life.  And while we should never take any of the Commandments in isolation, for this morning, I’d like to focus on the first three.  Let me ask you a quick trivia question.  There’s only one Commandment that you can break without breaking another.  Which is it?

The answer is simple, the First.  Think about the other 9.  If you break any of the others, aren’t you putting yourself and your desires first, therefore you’ve also broken the First Commandment to have no other gods before the One true God?  It’s something to think about as we consider Commandments 1-3 this morning.  Luther understood the importance of the 10 Commandments and spent a great deal of time writing on them.

Luther taught that the 10 Commandments can easily be broken down into two tables.  The first 3 Commandments have to do with our relationship with God, and the last seven focus on our relationship with others.  It’s these first 3 Commandments that I want us to focus on for this morning.  In the first Commandment, God tells us, and His people, that we’re to have no other gods before Him.  Our relationship with God is to be exclusive.  God made this clear in the 5th verse of our Exodus reading when He said, “I am a jealous God,” therefore, He will not share His Lordship with anything or anybody.  The problem for us is, we don’t perceive this command the way the Israelites or other religions understand this passage.

To help us better understand this reading, I ask folks, anytime we discuss this commandment, what is an idol or what I like to call a little “g” god.  The answer is of course simple, whatever is in first place in your life is your god.  Or another way of saying this is, anything that gets between you and God is an idol or little god.  It’s amazing the things we have in our lives that take the place of God.  Be it computer games, sports celebrities, fame, fortune, power, popularity, fashion, friends, even family can usurp God in our lives.  An idol, or little “g” god can be anything that comes first in our lives.  And by definition, you can have only one god at a time.

Six times in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, God describes Himself as a jealous deity.  The word “Jealous” here doesn’t mean suspicious or apprehensive of a rival.  Rather it means that God demands absolute loyalty.  In the Old Testament the Hebrew adjective qan·nā, or “jealous” is only used 6 times and only in reference to God.  God wants to be in an exclusive relationship with us and doesn’t want to share us with anyone or anything.

There was a man who had been married twice, first to Mary and then to Tilley.  He outlived both his wives.  Finally, as a very old man, he gave directions concerning his own funeral and burial.  He said, “I want to be buried between Mary and Tilley.  But tilt me a little toward Tilley.”  There is no tilt when it comes to our devotion to God as Lord of our lives, it must be absolute and unreserved.  Either He is Lord of our lives, or He is simply one among the other idols.  Jesus was clear, “You cannot serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will despise the one and be loyal to the other” (Matthew 6:24).  We cannot have our cake and eat it too when it comes to God.  Interestingly, it’s the First and Third Commandments that sets the Jews and Christians apart from other religions.

None of the other Ancient Near East religions’ early laws prohibited the worship of other gods.  Nor do these other religions prohibit work on the Sabbath.  Our reverence for God is to be exclusive and we’re to set aside one day a week to focus our time on rest, in learning about Him, honoring Him, and worshipping Him.  But still many will say, all this is outdated.  In biblical times there were false gods everywhere, statues of wood or stone which people worshipped, people don’t do that anymore.  I say, the worship of false gods is just as popular as ever.  The only difference is that we’re more subtle about it.  We aren’t as ‘up-front’ as were ancient peoples about our god-substitutes.

In one of the old Tarzan movies, the plot revolves around a pagan god that some explorers are trying to find.  Tarzan asks a native chieftain what he knows about this god, a four-faced creature called Tumbero.  The chief replies with this gem of wisdom: “The world is full of private gods.  I have not seen this one.”  The truth is, we make gods out of the silliest things.  We’ve all seen them on TV.  Take sports teams and celebrities for example.  You see the idol worshipers in the stands and at the concerts.

The diehard fans who will sit in the most brutal weather, traveling hundreds, even thousands of miles, just to watch “their team” play.  And when the sports team doesn’t perform well, coaches have received death threats for the team not winning.  Then there are the “Super fans” of some celebrity.

These are the people who idolize a movie or music artist, creating shrines to them, sending them letters, again traveling thousands of miles just to be near them.  They’ll wear the clothes the celebrity wears or advertises for.  They’ll alter their diet if the person forwards this or that diet is best.  These are the people whose identity becomes entangled with that of the celebrity.  These are the rare few I agree.  Most people never go to these extremes.  But what about the more subtle gods like work, fitness, leisure, money, or status?  These are the more subtle, yet just as much an idol as the celebrities and sports teams can become.

The movie of a few years ago, “An Indecent Proposal,” caused people to do some talking about what they would, or would not do, for money.  A professional polling company asked people what they would do for ten million dollars.  Here’s the results: 25 percent said they would abandon their family.  25 percent would abandon their church.  23 percent would become a prostitute for a week.  16 percent would give up their American citizenship.  16 percent would leave their spouse.  3 percent would put their children up for adoption.  Two-thirds of those polled would agree to at least one of the options I just listed.  When the craving for more becomes the dominant drive in one’s life, then the thing we desire becomes an idol.  And one must admit, there are any number of things in this world that begs for our loyalty and attention and it’s easy to place something, even temporarily, ahead of our loyalty to God.

In Mark chapter 10 (vs.17-22) our evangelist records the conversation between Jesus and the Rick Young Ruler.  In this account, the young ruler comes to Jesus asking Him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”   Jesus replied, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”  “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”  Jesus looked at him and loved him.  “One thing you lack,” he said.  “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”  At this the man’s face fell.  He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

Setting the man’s idolization of wealth aside, what I want to focus your attention on is Jesus’ reaction to the young ruler’s reply: “I have done all this from my youth,” to this Jesus looked at him and loved him.  Jesus clearly was proud of the man for his keeping of God’s commands.  The problem was, what was the man’s ultimate devotion?  It wasn’t to God; the man loved the things of this world and wasn’t willing to give them up.  For the Young Ruler, it was far easier to keep a set of rules than it was to give His devotion exclusively to God.  This is why we need to not see the 10 Commandments as simply a set of rules to follow because it keeps us safe.  The 10 Commandments are about our relationship to and with God and others.  This could be one of the reasons Jesus reshaped the 10 Commandments into just two.

In Matthew chapter 22 (vs. 34-40) the religious leaders come to Jesus to test Him.  Here Matthew records Jesus quoting from both Leviticus and Deuteronomy: “Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.  One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ (Deut. 6:5).  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18).  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Jesus understands, and wants us to understand, that a true relationship doesn’t depend solely on obedience to a bunch of rules.  For one to truly honor and be devoted to God, it requires loyalty, love, and commitment.  I can tell people that I’m a good and law-abiding driver and I can point out that I have a clean driving record.  However, my basis for the claim is that I simply haven’t been cited.  Do my actual driving habits reflect my commitment?  Or does it simply mean that I sin less than the drivers around me?  Any of you that have ridden with me please don’t answer that question!  Commitment and loyalty mean, you do what’s asked even when others aren’t looking.

For any of you that have read Luther’s writings, you know that Luther always takes things one step further, and his treatment of the first 3 Commandments is no exception.  In his article on Good Works, (section FA27) Luther said this: “In the First Commandment is prescribed our heart’s attitude toward God in thoughts, in the Second, that of our mouth in words, in [the] Third is prescribed our attitude in work.”  A few pages later Luther restated this statement.

In section 24, Luther continued by saying, “See, therefore, what a pretty, golden ring these three Commandments and their work naturally form, and how from the First Commandment and faith the Second flows on to the Third, and the Third in turn drives through the Second up to the First.  For the first works is to believe, to have a good heart and confidence toward God.  From this flows the Second good work, to praise God’s Name, to confess His grace, to give honor to Him alone.  Then follows the Third, to worship by praying, hearing God’s Word, thinking of and considering God’s benefits, and in addition chastising one’s self, and keeping the body under.”

The point being made here is, we cannot take the Ten Commandments simply as a list of rules we need to follow in order to inherit eternal life.  God gave us these Commandments, and all His rules and statutes, to guard and protect us and to provide us with guidelines for a good and healthy relationship with God and others.  Luther points out our short comings in his writings and helps us to recall our Confession each week: “Most merciful God, we confess that we’re in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We’ve sinned against you in thoughts, words, and deeds by what we’ve done and by what we have left undone.  We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  For the sake of your dear Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.  Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.  Amen”

Thoughts, words, and deeds.  The First Commandment is about thoughts, what we think of God, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of slavery.  You shall have no other God’s before Me.”  The Second Commandment is about words: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”  And the Third Commandment is about deeds: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.  Six Days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.  On it you shall not do any work…”

The commandments are more than just a list of rules to follow, they are guidance for us and our relationship with God and others.  And Jesus went further to instruct us it’s also about attitude: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

In closing, I’d like for you to consider David’s words from our Psalm for today: “The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.  The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.  The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.  The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.  The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.  The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.  They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.  By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward (vs. 7-11).


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