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 A Sermon Preached by Rev. Gregory Hall at Clarence Presbyterian 
on June 23, 2019.

FIRST COMMANDMENT: CHOSE GOD

I am the Lord Your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other Gods before me.    Exodus 20:2


        A husband and wife were discussing the possibility of taking a trip to the Holy Land.  The husband asked his bride, “Wouldn’t it be fantastic to go to the desert and stand and shout the Ten Commandments from Mt. Sinai!” 

The wife replied, “It would be better if you stayed home and kept them!”  

Today we begin our summer focus on the Ten Commandments.  Between now and Labor Day Judith and I will work our way through each of the Ten Commandments.  During this summer season we shall seek to discover the meaning of the commandments given to Moses on Sinai for our lives today. These are living commandments that can shape our relationship with God

I would like to provide a quick preview of the purpose of the Commandments.  They are given both to individuals and the larger community.  Remember, the people of Israel had been liberated from slavery in Egypt and were traveling through the wilderness towards the Promised Land.  It was there in the desert that Moses received the commandments that were to shape their common life.  The commandments help to order our individual and community life.  As the author Christopher Hedges wrote in a preface to a book on the commandments: 

They were for the ancients, and are for us, the rules that, when honored, hold us together and when dishonored lead to alienation, discord and violence.

In our text for this morning we begin with the first commandment.  God begins by saying that he is the one who has given his people freedom.  It was God who sent Moses to Egypt.  It was God who delivered the people of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. Now he asks them to freely give themselves to him.  They are called to choose God as their God.

In his great allegory, The Divine Comedy, Dante describes an imagined trip through hell, purgatory and heaven.  As he approaches the gates of hell he reads an inscription carved into the gates.  The inscription reads in part:

I was raised here by divine omnipotence, primordial love and ultimate intellect.

At first it is confusing that hell could be built by the love of God.  Yet on reflection, the reality of hell is the greatest testament to the dignity of human beings.  It reminds us that God so respects the integrity of human freedom and choice that he will not violate it.  If we decide against God, if we say no to his love, God will respect that choice even for all eternity.

The reality of hell teaches us that our choices matter.  God has created each person in his image.  This means each one of us has been given the freedom to make choices and decisions for ourselves.  God is telling us that we must take responsibility for our lives.  We live in a time when people increasingly attempt to avoid responsibility for their actions.  

Some try to avoid responsibility by blaming genetics.  This excuse basically says your great grandparents made you do it.  The reason you have such a volatile temper is in your genes.  Your great grandparents had short tempers and it's in your DNA.  So if you lash out at people around you, it's not your fault.

There are others who place all the blame for their behavior on their upbringing.  There is much truth in counseling which seeks self-understanding by exploring one's childhood.  You and I are shaped to a great extent by the nurture that we received as children.  But this help in self-understanding is not an excuse for bad behavior. 

Remember the Menendez brother's case in California almost thirty years ago.  The two Menendez brothers were accused of killing their parents.  One of the boys took a shotgun and shot his mother, then reloaded and shot her again.  The actions of these boys were not committed in the heat of passion.  These were cold and deliberate acts.  The defense did not dispute that the brothers committed these heinous crimes.  The defense tried to make the case that the boys had been abused by their parents and thus were not responsible for their actions.  At least part of the jury bought this argument.

This may be an extreme case, yet how many young adults spend energy and time blaming their parents for all their problems.  Yet our parents are not responsible for all our behaviors.  

One of the favorite ways of avoiding responsibility is to blame our actions and problems on the people around us.  We see it in Adam when he blames Eve for his eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. We see this in the husband who comes into marriage counseling and asks the counselor to change his wife.  We see it in the mother of the troubled family who asks the school to fix her son.  We see it in the person who says all his trouble at work is due to a boss or fellow workers.  

All of these are evasions of personal responsibility for our actions.  They are each forms of Flip Wilson's great line, "The devil made me do it"

Friends, God has created us in his image, he has given us the freedom to choose.  This freedom means that we have to take responsibility for our own lives.  We are not slaves but free men and women who must make decisions concerning our lives.  We control how we treat people.  We choose who we marry, what occupation we pursue, how we raise our children, how we manage our money.  We are responsible for the major decisions of our lives.

Now some of you may say wait a minute.  We are not in complete control of our lives.  There are forces outside of our control that can limit our lives. There are currents of family history which can overwhelm whatever control we have on our lives.  There is truth in such statements.  Yet we still maintain the freedom to choose our response.

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and a Jew who was imprisoned in the death camps of Nazi Germany.  His parents, his brother, and his wife died in the camps either by starvation or in the gas chambers.  With the exception of his sister, his entire family perished.  Frankl himself suffered torture and innumerable indignities, never knowing from one moment to the next if his path would lead to the ovens or if he would be among those chosen to remove the bodies from the gas chambers.

One day, naked and alone in a small room, he began to become aware of "the last of human freedoms", a freedom his Nazi captors could not take away.  They could control his entire environment, they could do what they wanted to his body, but Viktor Frankl himself was a self-aware being who could look as an observer at his very involvement. His basic identity was intact.  He could decide within himself how all of this was going to affect him.

Each one of us has been created a free soul.  We are not merely passive victims of events.  We are to be proactive in our lives.  We can make decisions about how we will behave and how we will react to the world around us.  This is part of what it means to have been made in the likeness and image of God.   God has created us to be responsible for our lives.  The first commandment reminds us that we have been given the freedom to act.

The first commandment also teaches us that our faith in God is a choice as well.  We are not born with our faith in Christ.  Faith does not come from our genes.  Our parents' love of God does not substitute for our own love of God.

God does not force himself on us.  In the Book of Exodus, God came to Moses on Mt. Sinai and offered a covenant to the people of Israel.  He gave them His law and love if the people would choose to worship Him.  This covenant on Sinai was not forced on the people of Israel.  God did not threaten them; he did not take away their free-will.  They were offered God's love if they would give their allegiance in return. 

It is the same with the New Covenant found in Jesus.  Jesus came into the world to offer us his presence and love.  He offers us a "new covenant" in his blood.  Jesus offers us forgiveness and the gift of eternal life. The great symbol of our faith is the cross.  In his willing sacrifice on the cross Jesus seeks to win our love.  In his poem The Sacrifice George Herbert portrays Jesus on the cross suffering abuse.  He has Jesus say I answer nothing but with patience prove if stony hearts will melt with gentle love.

Jesus does not force his love on us, but rather seeks to win our allegiance. The great writer of the early church, Origin, tells us:

Christ does not triumph over anyone without that person desiring it himself.  He triumphs only by convincing.

God is never going to use his power to make you or me acknowledge Him as Lord.  He does not pull our arms behind our backs until we say uncle.  God does not want to use force to make us submit to his will and law.  No, God desires that we freely choose to serve him.  In Jesus' loving sacrifice on the cross, God attempts to win us to his love.  God wants us to freely decide to “Have no other God's before Him."

The people of Israel accepted God's covenant on Sinai.  They chose to love God. But that is not the end of the story.  In the book of Joshua, we read that Joshua gathered the people of Israel together again.  Almost all the people who had been with Moses at Sinai died during their time in the wilderness.  A new generation was born and grown to maturity.

After he had brought them together at Shechem, Joshua began to retell the story of all that God had done for the Hebrew people.  He retold the story of the calling of Abraham. He reminded them of the liberation from slavery in Egypt.  After the long retelling of the past, Joshua calls on the people to renew the covenant.  He says:

Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

Joshua reminds us that each generation and each person must choose for themselves whether they are to serve God.

Our faith is not a product of genetics,
faith is not something which is determined by our nurture.

Faith is a result of our choice, of our saying
Yes to the good that God would give to us. 

I am the Lord Your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.  You shall have no other Gods before me.

The first commandment asks us to question, have you chosen God?  
Not do you merely believe in God.
Not merely assent to God’s existence.

It asks each one of us, have you said to God I will serve you?

This choice is not just a onetime occurrence.  You and I are called daily to obey this commandment.  When we arise each day we are confronted with the words: "Choose this day whom you will serve."  

What about you. 
Who do you chose to serve today?