Who's On First
By Ron Hanson
Text: Exodus 20:1-3
Two mothers were talking about their sons. The first said, "My son is such a
saint. He works hard, doesn't smoke, and he hasn't so much as looked at a
woman in over two years."
The other woman said, "Well, my son is a saint himself. He works hard, doesnít smoke, hasnít looked at a woman in over 3 years, and he hasn't touched a drop of liquor in all that time."
"My word," the first mother said. "You must be so proud."
"I am," the second mother replied. "And when he's paroled next month, I'm going
to throw him a big party."
According to the book The Day America Told The Truth, the result of a national survey on private morals, Americans are making up their own rules and laws. The book says that there is absolutely no moral consensus in this country as there was in the 1950s and 1960s.
Religion plays almost no role in shaping most lives, the study found. While nine out of every ten people say they believe in God, only two in ten had ever talked to a minister, priest, or rabbi about a personal problem. Four in every five said they believe in an afterlife. Almost half believe they're headed to heaven, while only 4 percent expect to spend time in hell.
The results of the survey conducted by the book reveal that only 13 percent of the population still believes in all the Ten Commandments. Nine out of ten lie regularly. Nearly one-third of married Americans have had an affair. One-fifth of the nation's children have lost their virginity by age 13. One in seven Americans carries a handgun or has one in a vehicle. One in five women says she has been raped by a date. For $10 million, 7 percent of the American people will kill a stranger, 23 percent would be willing to become a prostitute, and 25 percent would be willing to abandon their family.
If you were here last week, you heard me say that I think as a country weíre really, really, missing the point. Our moral compass is spinning out of control and our priorities are so confused we no longer know -- or care -- which way is true north. And all of this is just an indication of the success Satan has had in convincing us that we can make up our own rules; that we can be the moral centers of our universe.
Now you might think Satan is anti-religion. Heís not; Satan wants you to be religious about many things. You might think Satan is against your doing good things. Heís not; as long as youíre doing good because you think itís a good idea. In fact, Satan doesnít even mind if you worship God, as long as you throw in a few other gods for good measure. What Satan objects to is being religious, or doing good, or worshiping God, or doing anything because you have chosen to put God first.
The very first of the Ten Commandments says, You shall have no other gods before me. In other words, put God first.
Weíre going to look today at a story that contrasts a man who has put God first with a people for whom God has lost first place. You'll find the story in the 32nd chapter of Exodus, and I'd encourage you to turn there if you've got your Bibles with you. Whether you do or not, I'll paraphrase what happened rather than read the entire chapter.
It was three months to the day after the Israelites had escaped from Egypt that they came to Mount Sinai, where God spoke to the Israelites. As the nineteenth chapter of Exodus describes it in verses 18-19, Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, 19 and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. It was from this smoke that the Israelites first heard the Ten Commandments, the first of which was, You shall have no other gods before me. When they had heard these, and other laws clarifying the Ten, Exodus 24:3 says the people (NIV) ...responded with one voice, "Everything the LORD has said we will do."
Moses had already been on the mountain four times meeting with God when God told him "Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and commands I have written for their instruction." (Exodus 24:12 NIV) And we are told that To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. (Exodus 24:17 NIV) And this is what the Israelites watched Moses disappear in to. And that was the last they heard from him for over five weeks. We pick up the story in the 32nd chapter of Exodus.
Scene 1: God Loses First Place (vv. 1-6)
The people of Israel knew where Moses was; they had seen him going up the mountain; they knew he was meeting with God. But when Moses was gone so long, the people got nervous. And they went to Aaron, the high priest, Moses' brother, and said, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him." (v. 1) And amazingly, Aaron bowed to the peer pressure. He had the people bring him all their gold earrings, he melted them down, and made an idol in the shape of a calf. And when he was done, the Israelites said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." (v. 4)
Then Aaron builds an altar in front of the calf and proclaims that the next day there will be a festival to the Lord. And there is a festival. The Bible even tells us that the people got out of bed early to sacrifice burnt offerings and present fellowship offerings to God. Then they got up from worshiping God to worship and eat and drink and party with the golden calf.
Does God have a place in the hearts of the Israelites? Sure. Just like some people get out of bed early on Sunday mornings to come and worship God, the Israelites got up early to worship God. But does God have first place in their hearts? No. Once again, just as some people spend an hour with God on Sunday morning and forget him the rest of the week, once the Israelites were done worshiping they went on to spend time with gods they had made themselves. It is one thing for God to have a place in your heart; it is quite another for God to have first place in your heart.
Scene 2: Godís Reaction (vv. 7-10)
Now God sees all of this. God knows what's going on, and he's not happy. He sends Moses away, saying, "Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them." (v. 10)
A few years ago some university professors gave copies of the Ten Commandments to their students and asked them to arrange them in order of importance. What do you think happened? Ninety percent of the students reversed the order, putting the commandments about how we are to treat our fellow man first and the commandments about how we are to relate to God last. (The Sinai Summit, p. 26)
Weíve really got our priorities mixed up. But God made it clear that loving him is the only proper motivation for doing anything good and decent. In fact, the first commandment, Put God first, is the basis upon which all the other commandments rest. If you donít put God first, does it matter to you what God says about stealing or lying or honoring your father and mother? No, because you havenít acknowledged his right to be in charge of those areas of your life. You may very well not be motivated to keep the other nine commandments if you donít keep the first.
And God sees us just as clearly today as he saw the Israelites dancing naked around that golden calf thousands of years ago. And if you havenít put God first, heís just as angry.
Scene 3: The Righteous Manís Reaction (vv. 11-20)
Moses intercedes on behalf of Israel, and pleads with God to spare Israel from his wrath. It had been God's intention to destroy the entire nation except for Moses, but because of Moses' intervention we are told that God relented. You see, even if God becomes angry with you, his love and mercy are extended to a thousand generations of those who turn to him and keep his commands.
Moses goes on down the mountain, carrying with him the two tablets of the testimony, what we know as the Ten Commandments. And as he gets close to the bottom of the mountain, where Joshua has been waiting for him, they hear the noise of people shouting. This party is so loud and so out of control that Joshua says, "There is the sound of war in the camp." But Moses says "It is not the sound of victory, it is not the sound of defeat; it is the sound of singing that I hear." (vv. 17-18)
So what do you think Moses sees when he gets to the camp? Remember that Moses has just had the ultimate mountaintop experience, spending 40 days and nights in the very presence of God. And when he gets to the camp of the Israelites he sees the people not worshiping God, but dancing naked around a golden calf, engaging in an orgy to honor a statue they had made with their own hands. Moses is so angry he throws down the two tablets, breaking them to pieces. He seizes the golden calf and burns it and grinds it to powder and scatters it on the water and makes the people drink the water.
What Moses had was righteous indignation. When God has first place in your heart, you should get mad about the things God gets mad about.
Scene 4: Whoís To Blame? (vv. 21-25)
Moses goes to Aaron and asks, What did the people do to you, to cause all this? Aaron offers a really lame excuse. He says the people are prone to evil, and that when they brought him their gold, he simply threw it in the fire and out popped a calf. Could he really have expected that God, let alone Moses, was going to buy that? And verse 25 reads, "Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies."
Friends, I believe this is where we're at today. The people are running wild. The nation that was once the moral leader of the world has become a laughingstock. Like Israel of thousands of years ago, we are really, really missing the point.
Aaron took a page from modern psychology, or maybe modern psychology took a page from Aaron, when he tried to explain things away by blaming the background of the people. When Aaron offers as an excuse that the people are prone to evil, isn't he saying that personal responsibility plays no role in what happened?
More and more, people today look to place blame rather than own up to their responsibilities. The other day I got a cup of coffee at McDonalds, and do you know what it said all over the cup, in bright red letters? Caution: Contents Hot. Now anyone who orders a cup of coffee knows that itís hot, so why the warning? Because a few years ago a woman in a car spilled McDonalds coffee in her lap and then sued because the coffee was hot. And she won millions of dollars!
I recently saw a cartoon that demonstrated how people don't like to take responsibility. It was a Peanuts cartoon, and it showed Peppermint Patty talking to Charlie Brown. She said, "Guess what, Chuck. The first day of school, and I got sent to the principal's office. It was your fault, Chuck."
He said, "My fault? How could it be my fault? Why do you say everything is my fault?"
She said, "You're my friend, aren't you, Chuck? You should have been a better influence on me."
But if God does not have first place in your heart, who are you going to blame?
1. There Is More Than One God To Worship.
Now Iíve been around for 46 years, and Iíve seen a few things, but Iíve never seen a large group of people dancing naked around a golden calf. But you know what? I do know people who worship their gold. Iíve never seen a temple dedicated to the worship of Mars, the god of war, but I know people who worship the military. I donít know of anyone who worships Aphrodite, the sex goddess, but I know people who worship sex.
I know people whose bank account is their god. They were good tithers when they came to church, but if there was an opportunity to make money on Sunday morning, it was the lure of money that had the stronger pull. The bank account had first place in their hearts, but no amount of money will take them to heaven.
2. Whoís On First?
Now listen very carefully to this: In every heart there is a throne, and on every throne there is a god. The question is whether that god is true or false. What you need to know, and what you need to be able to communicate to your loved ones, is that a god is anything that takes first place in your heart. And everyone has a god.
And if you wonder why your life gets messed up, why things get so complicated, why itís sometimes hard to get along with people, look no further than your heart. If you wonder why the love of your youth is so strained in middle age, look at whatís in first place in your heart. Because just as true peace and joy are the result of putting the true God on the throne of your heart, all sins are the result of putting other gods on that throne.
3. Facing the World With God on the Throne.
The issues that we face as a church, and the issues that you face as a Christian, are really not very difficult or complicated when you have the right God on your throne. Issues like whether or not itís okay to lie about something because you are embarrassed by your actions. The most basic issue of whether or not God is the God in your life. Because it's important to remember that the people dancing naked around the golden calf were the same people who earlier that day had sacrificed burnt offerings and gave fellowship offerings to the one true God.
What are the issues that face you today? And how will you respond? If God simply has a place in your heart, you will probably react like Aaron. You will allow the world to influence you more than you are influencing the world. That's how we got to where we are today in America; the world has had a greater influence on Christians than Christians have on the world.
When it comes to being a Christian in the world we don't want to be an Aaron. We don't want to be so influenced by the world that we are no different than the world.
When your friends are telling dirty jokes, it's not easy being the one to say you don't appreciate that type of humor. When people are making crude comments about women, it's not easy being the one who says those kinds of comments are inappropriate. When people are swearing and using the Lord's name in vain, it's not easy being the one who says that language is offensive. When the guys from work are going out drinking, it's not easy being the one who says my family needs me more.
As we go through this series, the thing you need to remember is that God gave us the Ten Commandments, not to restrict us, but to show us how to love and how to live in freedom. And if we are ever to find true peace and joy in this life, itís going to be because we did it Godís way.
Before the days of modern navigational aids, ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean used two separate compasses. One was fixed to the deck where the steersman could see it and try to keep the ship on course. The other compass was fastened at the top of one of the masts, and often a sailor would climb up to check it to be certain they were still on course.
On one voyage a passenger asked the shipís captain, Why do you have two compasses? The captain replied, This is an iron vessel, and the compass on the deck is often affected by its surroundings. Thatís not the case with the compass at the masthead; that one is above the influence of whatís around us. We steer by the compass above because itís more reliable. Itís safer.
And thatís why we should steer our lives under the direction of God above. As human beings we are often affected by our surroundings. God is beyond the influence of whatís around us. He alone is the reliable and unchanging moral center by which right and wrong are determined. Doing things Godís way is the only way to travel in this life, and the first step is to put God first.