As we gather on this 1st Sunday in Lent to continue the journey we began together on Ash Wednesday, we are confronted with the very thing with which Martin Luther began his Small Catechism. Turn with me to page 1160 in the back of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, it’s after the hymns, in the additional resources part of the book, and let’s look at the first commandment and Luther’s explanation of it.
The First Commandment
You shall have no other gods.
What is this? OR What does this mean?
We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.
Most catechisms, before and after Luther’s, start with explaining who God is and why God made humanity, but not Luther’s. No, Luther begins with the 10 Commandments, because he’s fully convinced that we must first be confronted by, and put to death by, the Law – meaning by comparing our frail and sinful human nature to the purity and holiness of God almighty, realizing that we are sinners, that we are dead in our sins and trespasses and completely unable to bring ourselves back to life. Luther is convinced that we must first be put to death
Before we can be resurrected, that is, before we can be restored to life by the saving grace of God in Christ. And so Luther begins with the 10 Commandments, explaining them one at a time for what they mean, and for what they don’t mean.
All, that is, except this first commandment, you shall have no other gods, meaning: we are to fear, love, and trust God above all things. There is only one explanation for this one, not the normal pattern Luther uses for the rest, wherein a do this and don’t do that approach is used. Here there’s only a one line explanation. God must be first. God must come first. God must be our all in all.
- It must be understood that there is no life apart from God, and so we fear God’s rejection for that means death
- It must be understood that there is no life apart from God, and so we love God, for God, in Christ, first loves us, and brings us to everlasting life
- It must be understood that there is no life apart from God, and so we trust God, for God is the source of every good and perfect gift – the One who gifts us with all that we have in the first place, our gifts of time, talent and treasure. It all comes from God!
As we gather on this 1st Sunday in Lent, we’re confronted with this central idea in each of our readings…
Deuteronomy 26 is an interesting text. It’s basically a liturgical text – it tells a worshipper what to do and what to say when that person brings their first fruits offering to the tent of dwelling where God was thought to dwell in the Ark of the Covenant. And we find some really important foundational ideas within these ritualized words and actions.
First of all, the people are reminded that God has delivered them from slavery and brought them into the promised land, but the prayerful response they’re supposed to speak when the priest takes the offering begins with ancient history. It goes back to Abraham’s story many hundreds of years before: A wandering Aramean was my ancestor. We see this sort of historical thought repeatedly in the psalms, as well as in the practice of modern Judaism, as God’s people are always looking back at how God has dealt with them in the past and declaring their trust in God’s faithfulness moving forward based on what God has done in the past. So God protected Abraham and his ancestors, and delivered them when they were enslaved in Egypt, and provided a fertile land in which they could settle, but God wants to be first, right? God never wants the people to forget their dependence on God’s provision, and so they’re told to bring the first fruits of the land, and to present it to God’s priest at the tent of meeting.
And I want to be careful here that we don’t miss the significance of this first fruits giving.
If you don’t have crops, what happens? You starve, right? And from where do you get your seed for your next planting? From the previous planting, right? It’s not like they had a seed store they could visit to buy seed to plant. So if I give God my first fruits to God, I’m giving God the seed for my next planting. In other words, I’m surrendering control to God. What if a storm comes, or a plague of locusts, or a drought? What if this first harvest is all there is? What if the rest of my crops die tomorrow? What happens to me and my family them? You see, first fruits giving is about complete and utter dependence on God. It’s the 1st commandment in action. It’s fearing, loving and trusting God above all else!
In our thinking about stewardship in the church these days, we still use this language of first fruits giving, and we debate whether that means we give before or after taxes, or whether we pay our bills first and then give from what’s left over from our paycheck, and things like that. But what a real first fruits offering would look like is far more radical than this. A real first fruits offering would be to give everything you make to the church until your annual pledge is fulfilled, and then you get to live on what’s left. Now, mind you, I’m not telling anyone to do this, and I certainly won’t pretend that I do this, but I want to give you an idea of how radical this reading is, and how radical it is when we consider it in terms of the first commandment.
Do we really fear love and trust God above all things? Could we prove it by a close examination of our lives?…
Our reading from Romans 10 is also a first commandment reading. Whether it’s the promise of God’s nearness in the word dwelling in us – on our lips and in our hearts. Whether it’s God’s acceptance of all people, regardless of their religious identity and pedigree as God in Christ is Lord of Jew and Greek (or non-Jew) alike, showing generosity to all and saving all who call on the name of the Lord. You shall have no other Gods. You shall fear, love and trust nothing and no one above God, for God alone is the source of saving love and generosity…
Even Jesus, in his time of temptation, had to learn this lesson.
Jesus has just been baptized by John and the Spirit leads him out into the wilderness where he’s tempted by the devil for forty days.
- He’s tempted to feed his physical needs and desires by exercising his power for his own benefit. It’s as if the devil says: You’re hungry? Well, go ahead and turn these stones into bread. Who could blame you? You’ve got the power to take charge of your own destiny, so why not? I mean, a good God wouldn’t want you to suffer, right?
- He’s tempted to worship the devil in order to gain worldly power and authority. Like the devil’s saying: Your Father might be the God of heaven, but I’m the god of this world, so, I’ll give you all the power and authority you could ever want, and all you have to do is worship me; tell me how great and powerful and awesome I am!
- And he’s tempted to test God’s faithfulness, whether or not God will keep God’s promises. Like the devil’s saying: Throw yourself down from the top of the temple, because, after all, God promised to send angels to catch you, right? So what do you have to fear? Or maybe you don’t really believe that God’s really all that faithful. Maybe you’re afraid.
All three of these come down to the first commandment, in the end. Who and what do you trust?
- Life’s about more than the belly
- There’s no one and nothing more worthy of worship than the Lord your God
- God’s not to be tested, God’s to be trusted…
Fear, love and trust. That’s the whole thing right there. Whoever or whatever we fear, love and trust, that’s our God, plain and simple.
- It might be our own strengths and wisdom and education and skills
- It might be our own piety and religious practices
- It might be our society our nation our military our laws
- It might be our family heritage or our belonging to a particular group
You name it. The list could go on for as long as there are people living on the earth, because we all have our false gods. But there is only salvation and deliverance and help in One – The God who became fully human, and went the way of the cross to save us from our sin.
May we fear, love and trust in him above all else.