i am the lord your god (year b, third sunday in lent)

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.

Thus begins one of the most well-known sections of scripture, sacred to Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  This is the beginning of the Ten Commandments, a set of laws to govern how we live together.  These are generally good principles, and these rules are ones we teach our children when they are very young: don’t hurt people, don’t take things that belong to someone else, don’t lie, don’t cheat, be happy with what you have.  It’s hard to object to these laws… well, most of them anyway.  We are really good at remembering the easy laws, but the Decalogue starts out with some really hard stuff:

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.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

How are we to deal with these commandments?  What do they mean for 21st-century westerners, who know there is not water under the earth?  What does it mean for God to be jealous?  And do we really want to worship a god who punishes generations for the sins of those who came before?

I wish I had all the answers to those questions.  I suspect they take a lifetime to work on.  In the meantime, there are a paltry few things I have learned about God and God’s people.

First, an idol does not require a physical manifestation in order to interfere in our relationship with God.  We can make idols of money or of beautiful movie stars or of an awesome convertible sports car.  But we can also make idols of more abstract things, like work or productivity.  We can make idols of holy things, like worship or even the bible itself.  When we elevate anything beyond what is appropriate, we make an idol of it, and we allow it to choke off our relationship with God.

Second, while we may not have needed to be rescued from slavery in Egypt, but God is perpetually rescuing us, releasing us from bondage, and renewing God’s covenant with us.  Bad stuff happens in this world, bad stuff that other humans do, bad stuff that our society has allowed over time, and even random bad stuff that just… happens.  God does not want bad stuff to happen to us.  God weeps with us in our pain, frustration, and grief.  And God brings redemption to the bad stuff, to every single bad thing that happens.  We may not see that redemption at the time.  We may not know how it manifests or when or even really why.  But God’s promise to us is that God will always deliver us out of the land of Egypt and out of the house of slavery.  Always.

In scripture, God often speaks through symbols, metaphors, allusions, exaggeration, and every single literary device you can think of.  Sometimes, God even gives it to us straight!  But most of the time, God is so far beyond us that we struggle to even imagine the smallest piece.  When you spend time with the prophetic books of the bible — like Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, or Ezekiel — you will find plenty of symbol and metaphor; the parables of Jesus are much the same.  All of our knowledge is related to some other bit of knowledge; we don’t know anything except in how it is related to everything else.  Thus, God uses comparison and relationship to communicate with us.  When we read that hard stuff about how jealous God is, the important part is not that God promises to punish three or four generations.  No, the important part is that God pledges steadfast love to the thousandth generation.  The point is not punishment but love and protection and forgiveness.  When we take the punishment out of context, it looms large in our minds, but when we see it properly in the Decalogue, we see that the punishment is tiny, trivial, irrelevant in God’s grand design.

And finally, in my list of paltry things, I have seen us actually making an idol of God.  I think it was St. Augustine who said something like this: if you can understand it, then it isn’t God.  But we are forever trying to circumscribe God, to put God inside a box and delineate the things that God can and cannot do.  Let me ask you a question: if someone says to you, “You cannot do X,” what is your first reaction?  If you’re anything like me, you immediately want to go out and try to do X, just to prove that person wrong.  I can do anything, we think, and much of the time, we’re even right.  So why do we try to say what God can and cannot do?  If I say, God cannot bless murderers or God cannot tolerate women as priests or even God cannot call homosexual persons into marriage, then I blaspheme.  Let me say that again: if I say that God cannot do something, then I blaspheme.  And yet, we are constantly trying to do this.  We don’t always couch it in this language.  We say things like scripture clearly says, as if God is bound to do only what God has done before and gotten documented in one book that hasn’t been changed in two millennia.  We try to divide up the universe into godly and satanic, even though God created all that is and called it very good.  We try to draw lines around who is included in God’s kingdom and who is not, even though we are not the host and we have absolutely no say.  In our need to feel important and valued, we use these techniques to lift ourselves up while simultaneously pushing down God’s other beloved children, our brothers and sisters.  In our desperate fear that we are unworthy, we blaspheme and we hurt others and we make ourselves unworthy.

But there is Good News.  The Good News here is that God promises to give us steadfast love to the thousandth generation.  I invite you to stop and think about that for a moment.  We can understand three or four generations: that’s our grandparents and great-grandparents; it’s our grandchildren and their children.  But a thousand generations?  A generation is roughly 25 years, or if you prefer, about 3 or 4 generations occur each century.  So the thousandth generation is roughly 25,000 years from now.  There have only been about a hundred generations since Jesus walked among us.  This promise from God is not limited by time or space, by life or death, by anything we can do or make or say.  God promises to give us steadfast love for ever.

God has delivered us, as God continues to deliver us every day.  God has forgiven us, even before we have lost our way.  God has invited us into an extravagantly loving relationship, allowing us to live in relationship with each other.  God has created us, breathed life into us, and called us very good.  So let’s quit blaspheming.  God can do whatever God wants to do.  There are no words that we can put in God’s mouth, no deeds that we can claim to be impossible, because if we can understand it, then it isn’t God.

Thanks be to God for the peace that passes all understanding.  Thanks be to God that God is so very much bigger than we are.  Thanks be to God for thousands of generations of steadfast love.

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