Undivided Loyalty

Reading: Ex. 20.1-17; Mt. 6.19-24
This week has seen the passing of two world figures - Princess Diana, killed in a tragic car accident in Paris at the age of 36, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta who died of a heart attack at 86. Following Diana's death we heard Mother Teresa make her last public appearance to pay tribute to her dear friend, the Princess. Both have made a significant impact on many by outstanding care which they have given to this world's needy. It is right that we honour their memory.

Today is Father's Day. We celebrate fatherhood, honouring our human fathers and committing ourselves to the well-being of the future generation. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, "For this reason I fall on my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth receives its true name" (Eph. 3.14-15). The Greek word for "family" comes from the word for "father". Harold Hoehner comments, "Paul was not saying that God is the Father of all but rather that he is the Prototype of all fatherhood" (BKC).

But especially today we meet to honour God, the Lord and Father of us all. From the least of us to the greatest, we stand under his rule. Right and wrong is judged by his law. To him we are accountable for how we live.

No other Gods

Twice in the book of Judges we read these words, "There was no king in Israel at that time; all the people did just as they pleased" (17.6; 21.25). They could be a comment on the modern permissive society. They speak of that innate self-centredness which breeds frustration, tension, hatred, unhappiness... - and all the other manifestations of human rebellion and sin against our Maker.

It is against this background of human sinfulness that we hear again the Maker's directions for living - what we call the Ten Commandments. They are mainly in the form of negatives because the people to whom they were first directed were so prone to go astray and so often needed correction. Our actions do have consequences, and for these reasons we need, again and again, to give heed to them too.

The Commandments are introduced by a statement about God and the hearers' relation to him - "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, where you were slaves" (v.2). It is the God who has chosen them, made himself known to him, redeemed them from slavery... who is now making his claims on their lives. Indeed, this same God has chosen us, revealed himself to us, redeemed us from the bondage of our sins... He continues to have the right over our lives. The covenant God has shown his compassion and love - his people are to keep their covenant obligations too.

The first stipulation was total and undivided allegiance - "Worship no god but me" (Ex. 20.3). They had recently come out of Egypt where, as in most of the ancient world, many gods were worshipped. They were heading for the land of Canaan where the locals would be pressing them to sacrifice to local deities who (so they thought) controlled weather, seasons, fertility... Again and again in the history of Israel we see two temptations - to forsake the worship of the Lord for other gods, and to worship the Lord and other gods as well.

These other so-called gods were not gods at all. Much later Paul was to write, "Ever since God created the world, his invisible qualities, both his eternal power and his divine nature, have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things that God has made. So those people have no excuse at all!… instead of worshipping the immortal God, they worship images made to look like mortal human beings or birds or animals or reptiles… They exchange the truth about God for a lie; they worship and serve what God has created instead of the Creator himself…" (Rom. 1.20-25).

To worship other gods is to misunderstand both nature and revelation. It is to forget the immense compassion and redeeming love of the Lord. It is to separate ourselves from God's promises within the covenant. The Lord's people needed to be reminded of this often. We hear Jeremiah, for instance, saying, "Look, you put your trust in deceitful words. You steal, murder, commit adultery, tell lies under oath, offer sacrifices to Baal, and worship gods that you had not known before" (Jer. 7. 8-9).

You cannot serve God and Mammon

In the New Testament we hear the Lord still calling us to total allegiance. Jesus said, "No one can be a slave of two masters; he will hate one and love the other; he will be loyal to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money" (Mt. 6.24). That puts it to us directly in terms we can apply to our own situation.

A rich young man came to Jesus, confident that he had kept all the commandments ever since he was young. The sore point came when Jesus said, "There is still one more thing you need to do. Sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven; then come and follow me" (Lk. 18.22). He went on to say, as the sad young man departed, "How hard it is for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God! It is much harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle" (vv. 24-25).

John Wesley, when he was eighty-seven years of age, with all the wealth of a vast Christian experience behind him, and standing on the threshold of another world, said, "One great reason of the comparative failure of Christianity has been the neglect of the solemn words, 'Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth' (Mt. 6.19)". Paul wrote to Timothy that in the last days people would be "selfish, greedy, boastful, and conceited" (2 Tim. 3.2). In his first letter to Timothy he wrote, "Command those who are rich in the things of this life not to be proud, but to place their hope, not in such an uncertain thing as riches, but in God, who generously gives us everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share with others. In this way they will store up for themselves a treasure which will be a solid foundation for the future. And then they will be able to win the life which is true life" (1 Tim. 6.17-19).

George Whitfield stopped a public subscription for himself in Edinburgh. He said, "I make no purse. What I have, I give away. 'Poor, yet making many rich' shall be my motto still." Baylor University is a fine institution in Beaumont, Texas. The Christian who gave the money for building that school later lost all his property. Others in the community asked him, "Don't you wish you had the money back that you put into that school?" He replied, "Not at all. It is all that I have saved. If I had kept that money, I would have lost it too. I am thankful that I gave that building when I did."

We are to worship only the Lord. The temptation comes to us in many ways, often as a strong and subtle pressure to add to the worship of God goals, ideals and values which contradict our professed faith. Sometimes our belief in God is mixed with practical atheism – we affirm our faith and then go out and live as if there is no God. Or we read our Bible and then go and look up our stars. Or we say that God is most important to us but have an obsession to acquire more and more "things". To worship God is to see him as central, the controlling factor in our lives.

It is said that an English M.P. emerged from the 1928 debate in the House of Commons on the Revised Prayer-Book muttering that he didn't see what the fuss was all about. "Surely," he said, "we all believe in some sort of something."

But our beliefs control our actions – sincere belief in "some sort of something" isn't enough. The Lord says to us, "Worship no god but me."

Each of us needs to examine prayerfully what that clearly says to us and for our lives.

© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 7th September 1997.
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.
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