Monthly Archives: October 2018

28 October – The Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”

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Pentecost 23

Exodus 20:8-11
Psalm 62
Hebrews 4:4-11
Mark 2:23-28

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery, (therefore)…”
“Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy”

Arriving at this fourth commandment, we are faced for the first time by a change of form in the words used. No longer do we hear: “You shall not…” as we did with the first three commandments, and as we hear again for every other except this and the fifth commandment to come: “Honour father and mother”. For the first time we hear a positive and not a negative note: “Remember the Sabbath dayto keep it holy”. This recurring Sabbath day was originally a day dedicated both to memory and hope – a day remembering both exodus, and a day open for new possibilities in the life of Israel with Yahweh.

This simple recognition makes irrelevant so much of the sad history of “Sabbath observance”, as we have known it. The whole history of Sunday observance in the West is a fascinating if, invariably, a depressing story. Were we still able to question many previous generations, most might trace their lack of sympathy for the church to dull, negative, endless Sundays.

Although it was not until the twelfth century that the word Sabbath began to be applied to the Christian festival of the Lord’s Day, this negative Sabbath of comparatively modern times seems to have originated in the bitter religious strife of the seventeenth century. In Scotland at that time, for example, one poor wretch was dragged into court for smiling on the Sabbath. One commentator has suggested that considering the state of Scotland in his day he should have been congratulated for managing to smile at all. The fact is that, in general, seventeenth century Puritans tended to prefer the heresy of Manichaeism believing that time itself is evil, and that the Lord’s Day alone was good – an oasis in the desert, as it were.

This brings us to register that this fourth commandment is the one of all the ten that seems most fundamentally changed by the coming of Christian faith into the world. For, as is well known, Christians do not keep the Sabbath as the seventh and last day of the week, but as the Lord’s Day on the first day. This change is not simply an arbitrary shift; it is saying something fundamental about what is radically new in Christian faith. What is new about this relocation is the recognition that now there are no special sacred times, sacred days, sacred places, sacred things, sacred people, because the announcement of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the declaration that the whole world is now under his lordship. Consequently, everything in creation – that which formerly was regarded as being totally secular, that from which the sacred was “set apart” – is now set free for the service of God; not 1 day out of 7, but 7 days out of 7, 365 days a year.

So, it was that the sixteenth century Reformers could say all sorts of startling things which those who then, and subsequently, venerated Sunday as “the Sabbath” would surely find amazing. Martin Luther, for example, says of the fourth commandment: “This precept, so far as its outward meaning is concerned, does not apply to us Christians.” And perhaps even more electrifying: “If anyone says the Lord’s Day is made holy for the mere day’s sake, or anyone anywhere sets up its observance on a Jewish foundation, then I order you to work on it, to ride on it, to dance on it, to feast on it, to do anything that shall remove this encroachment on Christian liberty“.

What is striking here, in view of what was soon to happen, is that the Reformers of the sixteenth century did not see any direct connection between this fourth commandment and the observance of the Lord’s Day: God has not commanded “the Lord’s Day”, it is the Church which has chosen to keep the first day of the week. Any other day might do just as well. John Calvin actually considered keeping Thursday instead. But it was as well, he concluded, to keep to the usual day. Scarcely surprising is it, then, that on one occasion John Knox visited Calvin in Geneva one Sunday and found him playing bowls.

These anecdotes simply show that even the past situation is not as many people in former days imagined, whether inside and outside the church. It is, therefore, more important to ask: how are we to get to the heart of this commandment?  Most powerfully, perhaps, by reflecting on the whole context in which it is located in Exodus 20: 8-11:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work . . . for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day, therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it”.

To the creation itself, therefore, there belongs this particular rest of the seventh day, in which the living God gives himself a place to be the free Lord of that which is his. Now it appears that even today, after centuries of Biblical scholarship, the vast majority in our society, or indeed many in our churches, have no idea how to hear a text like this. Having encountered fundamentalists who imagine that the first chapter of Genesis is factually true as chronology, the thoughtful can only grimly conclude that it is ‘not literally true’. That’s more than a shame! This is to give up far too soon. Much better to say that it is literally true because it is metaphorically true – the “letter” of the text is true literally – but as metaphor! Another illustration of how hard it is for Christians to find a literary home in this technocratic culture.

This is how it goes as true metaphor. We can liken the imagery of these first six days to the building of a theatre, in which the drama of human life is to be played out. First, there is the building of the theatre itself, the heavens and the earth; then the stage, the separation of the land from the sea as a human dwelling place; then follow the props for the play: the sun, moon, stars, trees, plants, and animals, until finally, on the sixth day, the actors, male and female humanity, step onto the stage. Here the limit is reached.  Human beings are the crown of all that has to this point been called into being. Everything has come about with an eye to this eventual appearance. The stage has been set for us. All that we need is at hand. The play is about to begin. And now Israel’s God, as it were, relaxes, assuming sovereignty over the world, celebrating joyfully all that has received the divine imprimatur: that it is “Good”, and of the human “actors”, that they are “very Good”. For it is as the Lord of this world, and the Lord of human life whose master he has now become, that he takes his rest. This was the day to which the previous six days were moving: the day when God committed himself to the world, and to humankind, by blessing the seventh day and hallowing it.

Can we see what the benediction of this text means for us? The seventh day for God is the first day of our life. We now, like God, not only have time, but we have the same sort of time that God has. This means that God’s seventh day, which is our first day in the world, has for us the same meaning that it has for God. And this means for us that it is first of all a day free from work. This is radical benediction:  that we who make our appearance on the sixth day find that on the seventh – to say again, our first day in the world – that it is a day not of work, but of rest with God in this celebration of what he has given. All that is in our world receives God’s benediction. Everything is good. All is grace. This is the intention of the Sabbath.

Our life, then starts with a holiday, with joy and celebration, with the gospel, for it is life with God. With God, our first day is a day of rest, not of work. Our time begins with freedom, not with obligation. It does not start with a work day, with toil, with life under the law. These other things will all come, but when they do, they will be secondary, additional to what is primary. All this is simply to register that our first consciousness is that we belong to God, just as God’s final declaration of the Creation is that he belongs to us. So, we who do not witness God’s creation, who enter his world without any say of our own, find that our first call is to rest with him, celebrating by imitation in joy and freedom all that has been given.

The apparent destruction of the Jewish Sabbath day by Jesus was precisely to make this point – that we should be made free to hear the meaning of all the claims made on our daily life, and the relentless activity of the world. By his victory, every day became, and becomes, a “Sabbath” day, so that the original Sabbath day as such was made out of date.

It is evidence of how much the resurrection of Jesus meant to the first Christians that it caused them to change the celebration of freedom from the seventh day to the first, or perhaps better, the eighth. “Sunday” became the sign of a joyful new beginning, a day of rejoicing, for the day that changed all history, and for the presence that can fill the least significant thing in the world with meaning. But not only the present. As we heard in the Letter to the Hebrews, the early Christians saw the fulfilled intention of the ancient Sabbath also as a future projection taking place as the resurrection from the dead in the last days, as “the Sabbath rest” that belongs to the people of God.

The question to us then is inescapable. How can Sunday in a radically post-Christian culture again be the sign of this transformation, and so a sign for every day of the week?  Not so long ago, contemporary Western society was described as “nihilism with a smiling face”. Given daily media attention to increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness, that may be too optimistic an assessment. At the very least, nothing, it seems, transcends our week any more, no sign of any “beyond” breaking into our midst – just the pursuit of “one long round of pleasure” for the affluent, and “one damned thing after another” for the rest. Perhaps in the end the greatest contribution Christians can make is to demonstrate how Sunday represents total renewal – of a week filled to the brim with reconstituted time. If Christian faith has indeed transformed the ancient commandment so completely, we can always do better at practising the freedom and “rest” which Sunday is intended to celebrate.

Rejoice roundly then in this fourth commandment, transformed for us, and for everyone in our society:

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery” (therefore) “remember the (reconstituted) Sabbath Day to keep it holy”.

21 October – The Third Commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”

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Pentecost 22

2 Samuel 6:1-2; 6-7
Psalm 24
Acts 5:1-11
Matthew 7:21-23

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery, (therefore)…”
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

As we come to this third commandment, it is instructive for us to appreciate the order in which the commandments follow one another.

The first commandment: You shall have no other gods before me rejected idolatry in favour of the worship of the only true God. We might say that this first commandment is a call away from heresy. The second: You shall not make for yourselves any graven image, called for the rejection of constructed images in order to know God by his own giving of his “image”, which the New Testament sees fulfilled in Jesus Christ himself. We might say that the second commandment is, in effect, a call to orthodoxy – a word which means “right praise” not, as is frequently misconceived, as “right thoughts”, or perhaps better, right thoughts proceeding properly from right praise.

This third commandment before us now illustrates what “right praise” must consist of: to resist taking God’s name, that is to say, its accompanying grace in vain – an ever-present temptation for those to whom the truth has been given.

Most people probably think that this commandment is intended primarily to forbid casual profanity. In this respect, we are all aware that as standards in the community change or fall – depending on your point of view – the name of God and of Jesus Christ is increasingly profaned. It is certainly a strange fact that apparently the less people believe in God, the more readily is the name present in everyday speech. We must leave it to the psychologists to tell us whether the thoughtless oaths by which daily speech is punctuated is a form of rebellion against a domination from which an escape has been made, or perhaps more significantly, thought to have been made. An empty noise, “O my god”, is made from what in the past was the most real and profound of human experiences, substituting a meaningless verbal habit for a serious confession of God. If this vacuity has any effect at all, it may well make any genuine encounter more problematic.

Casual profanity, tasteless and offensive as it may be to a shrinking minority, is perhaps the least of our offences against the commandment. To try to think of the commandment in a more profound way, we need to remind ourselves again of the power and significance of “the name”, which in our day we have all but lost. Once we have understood the centrality of “the name” in the Bible, much of what we otherwise skip over becomes crucial. Here name as priority reminds us that we generally employ names rather cheaply and irresponsibly. We might choose our children’s names, for example, for the sake of a pleasant sound, even as a temporary splendour destined alas soon to fade. Names are mere labels or tickets. But at the beginning of history, we find people thinking that possession of the real name of anything – man, woman, beast, city or God – gave them power over the thing itself. The city of Rome had a “real” name, but it was kept secret by the priests in case an enemy might learn it and use it for hostile magic. It was a secret kept so successfully that we do not know it to this day.

The God of the Hebrews has a “real” name too, too full of power for it to be written or spoken. For a while, only the High Priests were permitted to invoke it once a year in the privacy of the Temple Holy of Holies. Eventually, even they dared not utter the sacred syllables. Instead of the name of God, Yahweh – originally represented by the four Hebrew consonants anglicised as JHVH – the word Adonai “Lord” came to be used. Then the vowels from this word: A, 0, A, combined with the consonants JHVH, produced the name Jehovah.

So powerful was the sacred name in the beginning that when writing it a scribe had to be totally on guard. For example, as copier of the law, the scribe must sit in full Jewish dress, must have just bathed, and must never dip his pen in ink in the middle of writing the name of God. Indeed, should a king address the scribe while writing that name, the scribe was to take no notice of him. So powerful is the name of God and everything associated with it. For this reason, to indicate the change in status brought about by God’s call and choosing, human names are changed. Abram’s name is changed to Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah; Jacob becomes Israel; Saul becomes Paul, Simon becomes Peter. What, then, could be more powerful than the name of God? The original point was to comprehend how disastrous were to be the likely consequences of breaking the commandment.

Our readings demonstrate the gravity of its disobedience. For the ancient Hebrew, the name of God was almost literally like a live wire, so much so that, to take but one example, we heard in the Old Testament reading how an Israelite, Uzzah by name, touched the Ark of the covenant while trying to keep it from falling, and was struck dead by the divine power (2 Samuel 6). Not really fair, perhaps, from our point of view, but the point is that, in the popular mind of the day, his death was attributed to his violation of the sacred character of the ark which was where the name of God dwelt. In the same way, in the Book of Acts we heard of the disobedience of Ananias and Sapphira. They lied to God by making a vow, only hypocritically pretending to fulfil it. They died sudden and terrifying deaths when the lie was disclosed (Acts 5). We would not know what to make of all this without a real consciousness of the power of the name. Such a dramatic outcome demonstrates that to invoke the name of God, or to demean it, and with it the power of God, is literally to play with fire. All this helps to fill with more profound content this third commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain“.

We no longer live in such a world. But there are insidious ways that we continue to take the commandment in vain in what we call modernity. Two are particularly critical in our own experience.

The first is the retreat from the Name in favour of abstractions. This move is especially dangerous because it looks so much like the real thing; that is, our preference when it comes to talking of God is invariably for the general, the abstract, the universal, rather than the particular, the concrete and the specific. It is a sobering thought that abstract language for God, which seems to be utterly reverential, can end up by denying the very power and name that is given to us in Christian faith. So often what we have learned as the “divine” qualities of God – omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience – these take precedence over, and effectively destroy, the primary character of “the Name” central to Jewish tradition:

“. . . a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exodus 34:6).

Not surprisingly, then, if we start as many want naturally to do with the “infinity” of God, we destroy the knowledge of God’s special Name, for we destroy the decisive character of his active presence. The one who says, for example, “The Almighty is merciful” is merely stating a theory, whereas the one who says “The Lord, the Name, the merciful, is almighty” is turning the universe on its axis. “Omnipotence”, after all, is not something that can be experienced, or conjectured, or revered: it can be known and confessed redemptively only as the power of this name. It is with good reason, therefore, that the creeds of the Church confess: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty” rather than “I believe in God Almighty, the Father”. The Name, that is to say, must qualify and inform everything else that subsequently will be confessed. A God of abstraction may appear reverential, but it breaks this third commandment.

The second problem revealed as vanity by the Commandment is the eclipse of the Name by employing euphemisms. This preference for the abstract and the general is to be found among those who are uncomfortable with all names, even with the word “God” itself, which it is increasingly apparent has become an impossible word for many in our day. We ourselves may well feel the power of no name, or of impersonal names, or else of what we take to be more expansive names for speaking of “the Other”. Euphemisms are common. “Mother Nature” is perhaps the most common. “First cause”, “Universal Law”, “Mystery”, “Providence”, “Ground of Being” are others.  Why do we find these so attractive?  Perhaps because they are more ‘majestic”, more all-encompassing, more befitting the absolute claim that we are being invited to worship rather than the apparent poverty and particularity of the Name. Or is it that these high-sounding alternatives make no claim on us? Causes and forces may have made us, but they have no voice, they cannot speak, they cannot claim us, they do not judge, they cannot love. Sometimes – always? – such gods appear much easier to live with than the Name which became flesh and assumed “a name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:9).

Finally, we must reckon with this. Although this commandment appears to be a negative, we find that it is actually a double negative: “You shall not …. in vain”. Two negatives make a positive, so the commandment really reads: “In all things, you shall honour the Lord your God” or: “In all things you shall take the name of the Lord your God in earnest”. Positives are always to be preferred to negatives. So, when this commandment is read positively, it sets the stage for the next two that follow this positive form: Keep the Sabbath; Honour father and mother.

This then is certain. When read positively as: “You shall take the name of the Lord your God truthfully”, this commandment changes everything. It becomes an invitation to rid the world of demons, ancient and modern. It lets the world again be what God wills it to be. We can put this gift in many ways:

Because the name of God frees us from the world, the name frees us for the world.  Because the name of God breaks the domination of the world, the name gives us responsibility for it. But most of all, because the name of God drives out the liking and the misliking of the world, the name creates room for pure joy in the world. Therefore, rejoice roundly in this commandment:

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery”
(therefore) “you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.”

14 October – The Second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourselves any carved image”

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Pentecost 21

Jeremiah 10:1-10
Psalm 115
Colossians 1:13-20
John 19:1-7

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery, (therefore)…
You shall not make for yourselves any carved image.” (Exodus 20:4)

The first commandment has already renounced the many gods, commanding trust in the one and only real God. This second commandment now stands as a preventive warning. A world of many gods must have statues or pictures to distinguish one god from another. But if God is indeed One, then the making of idols must inevitably be prohibited.

This commandment, then, is no incidental, idle, petulant whim of a primitive, tyrannous and jealous deity.  On the contrary, this second commandment is the only safeguard and security of God being able to be God, and therefore the possibility that we might be truly human.

So, the second commandment prescribes the form or shape which faith is to take. It demands that we seek not images or pictures, but the very being of God: God communicated to us – not as an ultimately impotent image, but as living word. The difference is crucial. Words listened to and acted upon create new worlds; visible objects bring us to either a respectful or horrified halt in front of them. Of course, words certainly may become dead things, as Jesus was continually forced to impress on his Jewish contemporaries. Images, equally, are not immune from recording dead things. But the word of another is unique if there is to be a world of living personal communication – communion, in fact.

The people of God, therefore, are not so much enjoined to see the unseen God or his likeness, but to hear his word. And what is more, when God does present his image and likeness, it is seen to be at once identical with his word, which the New Testament sees incarnate in the man, Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).

As the first commandment implied, Israel’s neighbours worshipped tangible images in holy places as the bearers of divinity, images carved as constructs of the way they thought about and understood the world in which they lived. For them, what happened to the images concerned the gods themselves. Priests washed and clothed and fed the image – a well-honoured image rewarded its faithful, an abandoned image avenged itself.

Israel was called to something quite other. The God of Israel allowed no image to be made. Why must there be no image from our side? Why such implacable hostility to images? Because in the image the sovereignty of God will inevitably be arrested, imprisoned, possessed and used. In the image, God will be forced to surrender. Therefore, the anger of Yahweh – the sacred name which called Israel out of the nothingness of Egypt to a unique vocation – the anger of this invisible yet powerful presence fell on the one who worshipped an image or served it.  The prohibition against images, therefore, is to safeguard the freedom of God, and thereby the freedom of the people.

Now, of course, the magical power of these old images no longer exists. Rather we have much more subtle images which are even more dangerous, so that the commandment is needed as much as it has ever been. Martin Luther is reported as having said of human beings that we are “idol making factories”. That rings true when over the subsequent millennia from the giving of the commandment we encounter the crude abstract images that human beings have foisted onto God; intended as warnings they may be, but nonetheless images of cruel judgement are merely extensions of the devising of human law courts, not to speak of images of eternal punishment in unending flames. No wonder that millions who once trembled before such a God, now in even greater millions, turn away in disgust. Or think of the equally contrived but much more sophisticated images. Perhaps the most notable is the fiction of what we call “the problem of evil”, for which God is made responsible: the assured popular assumption that God must be either all powerful or all good, but certainly not both at once. All these mental images of our own making are no less hopeless than the crude material constructs of the day of our text,

But image making is a truly comprehensive activity. It is not that we are simply prisoners of strictly projected God-centred images. What is true of God is equally true for us. If human beings are indeed made in the image of God, then we can feel the redemptive force of the commandment as it extends to our human situation too. Subject no longer to the manufactured cultic image influenced by magic, the corrosive image becomes newly manufactured – the pigeonhole, the slogan, the caricature, the cliché. All this has been true literally from the beginning of civilization.  We all experience the power of generalised images to rob us of our humanity, infringing a freedom that inhibits our future. Confining choices always present themselves as mandatory, requiring that we fall in usually under twofold imperatives: everyone must be unrelentingly imprisoned by constructed ideologies – reactionary or progressive; left or right; homophobic or inclusive, to name but three powerful contemporary straightjackets. Or consider how a child who is branded as stupid is likely to be confirmed so in everyday life; or closer to home, how prevailing secularism increasingly assumes so-called “religious” people to be unintelligent. Should you believe this to an exaggeration, here is Alex Turnbull, the son of the former Liberal Prime Minister only days ago justifying to some public surprise a prospective vote for Labor at the forthcoming election: “If you want blind unthinking faith, you can go to a place of worship”. So now you know why you are here – to celebrate blind unthinking faith. In very truth, the other – whether God, or another individual, group or race – becomes simply in Jeremiah’s evocative image “a scarecrow in our plot of cucumbers” – rigid, lifeless, dead (Jeremiah 10:5).

It is yet worse. The viciousness of the image has now in only a decade become ever more acute. Technology now allows the transfer of electronic images, the implications of which millions of young people are only now beginning to regret. The image is literally permanent. In our cultural wasteland, unimpeded freedom has brought its enduring contrary. Fixed forever, nothing can be done to remove it. Images have become lethal. A living future is betrayed.

You shall not make for yourself any carved image.” But it happens all the time. Perhaps there is no other commandment broken to our hurt so often in thought, word and deed. We inhabit a society that categorises endlessly, as Jeremiah suggests, adorning our slogans and labels with the silver and gold of what is currently fashionable or politically correct. Like the images of old, these too are the work of the highly skilled, draped in colourful violet and purple, literally so as virtually the whole world appears willing to commit potential ambulatory suicide fixated on their iPhones.

The point, then, is that in this “No” to the constructed image, the path is open to a genuinely free future for the whole world. The God who issues the prohibition wants to make himself the defender of our freedom, as well as of his own freedom. We can understand that God does not guarantee freedom – that is why he proves to be the true God in the face of our human freedom to break the commandment, as we invariably do. The God of the commandment does not even promise us freedom as Jesus later does because we have so obviously lost it. Rather, this commandment in a new world seeks to defend genuine freedom for all – freedom for himself, freedom for the neighbour, freedom for each of us. In this, God thinks more highly of human beings than we usually manage to think of ourselves. But, of course, this is always so where there is genuine love.

Can the commandment be kept?  The answer is clear. The New Testament speaks of one who above all lived the commandment, yes and died for it and continues to die for it at our hands. Remember, as aptly enough the Gospel reminds us, it is this man who, though in truth “the image of the invisible God”, took our disobedient images upon himself, and whom ironically, we draped in purple, and with hammer and nails fastened on the cross, speechless except for the word of forgiveness. In terrible truth, we made him literally a scarecrow in our plot of cucumbers.

But there the parody ends, for he did not remain a scarecrow. Those scarred arms are now stretched out for a different purpose. Just so, the living God shows himself to be free from the graven image, the rigor mortis of our death, continually extending upon the world his life-giving benediction of freedom.  And this for us only because this commandment: “You shall not make for yourselves any lifeless image” has been unswervingly obeyed, once and for all time. That is why in this obedience a way has now been offered for all to know perhaps for the first time what increasingly the otherwise puzzling word “salvation” truly means.

As we come together as church each week, this new conferral of true image, both of God and of ourselves, is offered to us in the liturgy when as church we confess of him – “who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Virgin Mary – and became truly human”.

All we must do is – again and again – resolve to image this gift. When this happens, in this one event when God is permitted to give himself as true image, all will find themselves on the way to the fullness of truly human life. For then it will become quite clear that all constructed, and especially destructive, images will finally be shown to be worthless. Embracing this image of grace is really the only way finally to nail this second commandment – not as some imposed ultimatum, but as true lifegiving promise:

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out ….”
(therefore) “You shall not make for yourself any no- life image”.

7 October – The First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me”

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View the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving

Pentecost 20

1 Kings 19:7-13
Psalm 121
1 Corinthians 8:4-7b
Mark 12:28-32

Sermon preached by Rev. Bruce Barber

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery, (therefore)…
You shall have no other gods before me.”


We live in a time in Western history of increasing atheism and anti-theism. So, it is a real question whether it is even possible to appreciate the urgent necessity of this text – either three thousand years ago, and, most of all, especially today. The irony is profound, since this commandment has been the foundation stone that has created the modern world – a world in which it is now possible to disavow that origin.  Indeed, this commandment possesses a legitimate claim to being the most important discovery that has ever been made. Even in the face of every potentially new technological advance, we may dare to predict that it will remain the greatest discovery that will ever be made: “I am the Lord your God”.  How may such an immoderate claim be sustained?

When it was first uttered, the world was in the grip of uncontrollable forces. The gods of the natural world were alive and well. Life was lived in the realm of a throbbing, pulsing kingdom, in the interplay of gigantic forces to which life must be attuned. In the storm one met the god storm. There was a god of the spring, a god of the harvest, a god for every human activity. Sometimes these gods were benign; sometimes they fought each other; most often they needed to be placated. It was a threatening world. At all times life was unpredictable in a way which, from this distance, we can scarcely comprehend.

Abruptly the scene changes; into this chaotic arena, into this world “dripping with divinity” an absurd “jester” appears. The role of jesters is to bring to public notice what is hidden or obscured. The jester’s message? Although it might look like a world of “gods many and lords many“, the truth is that the claim is false. Behind what everyone took for granted – a world of a multiplicity of divinities – this then absurd voice announces: one God claims total allegiance, the single source of all that is.

When we think ourselves back into that world with the force of this first commandment, a literally incredible new destiny immediately opened up. How successful this “fool” has been is witnessed to by the three great historic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. From the synagogues of the Jews; the minarets of Islam; the pulpits of Christendom, the voice has sounded loud and clear: receive the universe as the one creation of the one God. Without the conviction of this “fool”, we would not now be living in the much-vaunted secular society that we inhabit today; a world from which in principle all gods have been expunged.

When the first pilgrim people were born with this infant cry on its lips, when their faith in this God was awakened by the release from their Egyptian servitude into a real freedom, the gods of the natural world were irretrievably unmasked. They were shown to be nothing more than the silence which they had always been (1 Kings 19:11-13). This confession: “I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me” has undermined in principle and, wherever it has been understood, has continued to shatter all other religious pretensions.

This first Commandment, then, is the happiest of all the texts in the Bible, a liberation for all, in every time and in every place. Belief in this God destroyed the fetishes and the totems.  For example, as we heard in the Psalm, no longer could it be said: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills” expecting there to discover the helping god. Rather, the confident confession resounds: No – not the sacred mountain, but: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121). How illusory is the god of the high places if Yahweh in truth be God – that “still small voice” which makes all things human; that power which brings into being what does not yet exist. In the place of every human religious construction, there is now initiated in Israel this name, “the Lord your God“, to be made known to the ends of the earth.  This name will end a life bedevilled by fate and, in its place, what was previously an impossible concept – the word “purpose”, signifying for the very first time the prospect of a meaningful life.

The profound consequences of this demolition continue to be far reaching. It is scarcely possible to exaggerate this revolutionary gift of the Hebrews’ way of living in the world, declaring as it does their trust in the One God to be the consequence of a genuine emancipation from the bondages of their world. Contrast this with the virtually universal assumption of those who write sarcastic letters to The Age debunking faith in what they assume to be an imaginary God. Invariably they assume that “God” represents some theoretical assumption, some groundless presupposition for what a religion will then want to offer.

The fact is that this relocation of God talk from imprisoned nature to a promising history waits to effect its powerful liberation all over again: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out…therefore …. “. In this respect, it is important to heed what is said of Frederick the Great, the nineteenth century King of Prussia, when he asked his chaplain for just one proof of God. The chaplain’s reply was: “Sire, the Jews”. We need to keep on saying this again and again, especially in a culture incredulous of locating the word “proof” with regard to God linked to the vagaries of this minority people. Moreover, to assure those who today are offended by the intractable Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the unequivocal declaration: “Sire, the Jews” serves equally as a reminder of a perhaps more honourable history embraced by the Jews.

There is an account of a Hasidic Rabbi who, on hearing this preface to the first commandment, was so overcome with ecstasy that he screamed and gesticulated so wildly that he had to be taken out of the gathering. What was it that caused such emotion? It was the implications of a profound revelation: “And God said“. Taken out, he continued to beat his hands against the wall continually crying aloud: “And God said; “And God said”; “And God said”. Imagine that happening today in our churches, even as we register how utterly incomprehensible these three words would be in the larger society. That which once turned the world upside down, the message that the one God had made himself known through his name “I am the Lord your God”, has now become the meaningless inanity: “O my god”. So many people, so many gods!

Could it be that the old gods have returned in all their multiplicity?  Obviously not, given that increasingly we live with a modern paganism which today takes its form not as the question of the One God against the many, but of the One against none at all. The pathos of the loss of the one God today is that many have arrived at this conclusion, not by some clear conviction, but as prisoners of cultural factors of which they are quite unaware. One feature of this development is that Christian faith now presents to an apparently increasing number of our Western contemporaries a face which is marked by an impenetrable silence. But silence implies a vacuum which, like all vacuums, inevitably will be filled. In a sense, then, new gods have arisen, and are knocking on our gates. They are present today in the form of a paganism which shows itself as the religion of human nature, whose deity is now “choice”, rather than that ancient imprisonment of the natural world, whose deity was “fate”.

Today, the rich variety of the human experience inevitably makes it possible that where and when the One is silent, we have no alternative but to accept the new clamouring conflictual “choices” after all. But when we think about it, this new god, “choice”, must surely be a mystifying concept – certainly to the billions living in the daily imprisonments and predictabilities of the non-Western world, but even mystifying to all but the last generation or two in Western society for whom choice was inevitably restricted by place, economics or education. By contrast, functioning as it does as the contemporary evangelical creed in a day when all religious creeds are anathema, “choice” may superficially be innocent enough. But like all constructed gods, “choice” conceals its dark side. For example, how many young people can be its unalloyed devotees confined as they are by little prospect of housing themselves, much less of secure employment? In any case, the demands of “choice” are insatiable, so that, sooner or later death by exhaustion, figuratively or literally, will surely emerge.  Then it will become apparent that we are in a much more vulnerable position than our earlier ancestors.

We may be mildly amused, and certainly condescending of them – with their tangible idols and images and sacrifices and rituals. But when all is said and done, this must be acknowledged: they knew that they were not worshipping themselves. The fact is that without this preventive command of the one God, we face an insoluble dilemma. In a world that has become radically human, but which now as it flirts with developing artificial intelligence is in the process of rapidly becoming post-human, nothing else is able to transcend us, so that sooner or later a society will become prisoner both of its gods and its devils.

You shall have no other gods before me”. If we hold to this word, the present loses its disorders and the future its terrors. The first Commandment is, in fact, the foundation of all life, of all joy, and of every resolution, not least because One who supremely embodied the Commandment, the redeemer Christ, stands for us and beside us to enable us to live by it. But this first Commandment does not merely offer itself to be the truth by which Jewish and Christian people learn always anew to identify themselves. Even more, especially in these convulsive days, it offers to the wider culture the true source of a happy future, even as that society celebrates its presumed secular emancipation from its illusory deity.

“I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of slavery”


“You shall have no other gods before me”.

Or, if we prefer, the surely contemporary words of the apostle Paul:

For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth …yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ – through whom are all things, and through whom -we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6).