No Other Gods
This is the second sermon in the series, Out of Egypt. It is formatted for presentation and not the prevention of errors.
They say that preachers preach to themselves more than anyone else. Maybe that’s why, as I read the first four of the ten commandments, I hear the one that demands “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy” much more loudly than the other three. Because that is the one I really struggle with.
I think that we all have the commandment, a life rule that also a gift from God, that is the hardest for us to follow. I don’t have a lot of trouble with coveting (that is, wanting what other people have) or with murder, stealing, and on and on, but trusting myself, trusting others, and trusting God enough to stop moving, stop working, stop trying to control my little corner of the universe… This is, perhaps, my greatest personal failing – or at least it has been historically.
Perhaps that harder truth is that I’m not alone. Taking time to rest and getting enough sleep has become one of the least important priorities in American lives. We think that our work will not wait. We think that responding to messages quickly is more important than our personal well-being. And, then there is a fear of missing out and a struggle to be okay with being bored.
Like, for example, what do we do as soon as we get in a line? Or, at least, what do I do? I pull out my phone and check my messages. God forbid I talk to someone else or just think…. Then we go to bed with our phone screens blazing in our faces and we wake up in the morning bleary-eyed and struggling to greet the day.
It would be easy if we could just keep pretending that this is a problem for the millennial generation, but the research is showing that it is the boomers and gen x who are using social media and their phones the most. So, for those of us in those generations, what is happening to us that we need to be so distracted? Are we simply so hungry for personal connection, so desperate for information and what passes for education, that we let this electronic version fill in for the real thing?
Worse still, it’s stealing from our health, our well-being, and our happiness – AND it may be killing us. The CDC says that nearly ⅓ of all Americans are seriously sleep-deprived. That means, your Uber driver, the person delivering your packages, the cop who pulls you over (for using Facebook and driving) – they’re all in danger of making a bad decision or having an accident on the job that causes someone’s life. That’s not even to mention the chronic health concerns that come from a lack of sleep.
Rest is at the core (that is, it’s a core need ) of being a human being and, yet, we struggle to take it seriously.
The scripture says that humanity was made in God’s image. There’s something ingrained in all of us that tells us that we should be like God. So, we get to the story of the Garden of Eden and the serpent tells Adam and Eve, “if you eat this fruit, you will be like God.” We often say that the serpent is a liar, but, in this case, he was right. Adam and Eve had been innocent. They did not know right from wrong, good from evil. Then, after they ate, they did and we find them cowering in the bushes, naked and afraid with this knowledge. They wanted to be like God, but they wanted to do it on their own terms, in their own way. They wanted to take it from God, not have Godlikeness given to them as a gift of grace.
Sabbath is a gift that comes from God, a way that God makes us more like himself, but we think we don’t need it.
Our family takes sleep very seriously. When Katherine was quite little, we would tell her that she could wake us up, but not before 7 a.m. We bought her a little watch and put clocks in her room, teaching her the time earlier than her peers had needed to. That way, she could know not to wake us up. And, it has worked. She normally does not wake us up before 7.
We’re also pretty protective of her sleep. We’re still those over-protective parents with early bedtimes, even though she’s getting old enough to start rethinking it. But we remember what happens when she is sleep deprived. We have seen the markers of what happens when she doesn’t have enough sleep. And, because we’ve taken sleep seriously and kept a strict schedule, she has slept like a log, all night long, since she was just a few months old. It stayed that way for many years.
Then she got old enough to go to school. She was in kinder and we let her stay up until like 7:30 p.m., but now she had to get up at like 6:30 a.m. That meant about an hour less sleep than she had been getting. We knew she was getting a little grumpy, but really thought no more of it than that. She was a little whiny, a little more likely to disobey. But, then, one day we got a call from the school that she had gotten in big trouble, bigger than she ever had before.
She had had an argument with a friend and got so angry that she poured milk over her friend’s head. Then, after her friend said that she was going to go tell on her, Katherine stole her shoes so that she couldn’t walk over to the teacher. I have to admit that I was actually pretty impressed with her logic and critical thinking in this situation. The friend needs shoes to walk to the teacher. The friend needs to walk to the teacher to tell on me. Remove friends shoes, she can’t tell. It’s kind of good problem-solving skills there, but we’d never experienced such bad behavior like that before from her.
That night, after Katherine had gone to bed, Christina and I talked about it at length and we decided that the only thing that was different in her life, the only thing that might be contributing is that maybe she wasn’t getting enough sleep because of the new wake up time. So we pushed back her bedtime and tried to steal as many minutes of sleep for her as we could, and letting her sleep in on the weekends. And, guess what? All the behavior problems went away like they’d never happened.
Rest is more important than we give it credit for. There’s a reason that it’s a commandment: It makes us more like God.
The ten commandments were given as a gift from God to tell us who God is. But not more like God in the ways that we like to try to be. Not like the Pharisees that take these words and think that they are more like God when they do certain things or don’t do certain things and then lord it over the heads of other people.
And, not in the way that those desert-dwelling Essenes, that look a lot like John the Baptist, liked to think either. That is, taking themselves out of the world, away from all temptation and then, being removed from what they considered to be the ‘cesspool’ of culture, they think they are more like God. No, the Sabbath makes us more like God because we are actually acting like God does. The scripture says, “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy” (NIV). When we live and experience Sabbath rest, we are following what God does, not just what we think God tells us to do. We are actually participating in God’s actions.
The first three commands: No other gods; no worshipping idols; and not misusing the name of God – these are all about letting God be our God. First, we must not accept any other gods. Second, we must not worship any other than God. Third, we must honor and respect God enough to use his name with seriousness and gravity. But the proof that we trust God is that we rest like God. Six days was enough for the God to create the universe. Six days must be enough for us. Being able to follow God’s lead is being able to trust like God trusts. When God rested on the seventh day, it was the ultimate sign that God trusted that the work was done, that he had done enough, that creation was good. We have to trust that our best is enough and God will take care of the rest.
It reminds me of when I did my Master’s thesis. I walked in the class on the first day of the program and a disheveled looking guy who was in his last year stared deeply into my eyes and said, “Take it from me. If you want to finish, start your thesis today!” He was struggling to write the hundred-plus pages and get approval from his committee for his thesis. He wasn’t totally serious. He was actually kind of just blowing off steam and complaining, but I took him seriously and began writing just a few days later. It was casual, but I started.
As a result, I spent two years writing my thesis, and before I even got to the final thesis class I had over 100 pages written. In fact, I was almost done. Because of that warning on my first day of class, I was able to do the work slowly and I enjoyed my time in grad school, even the writing, all the way to the end. There was no rush and I was able to enjoy other projects, get to know other students, and have a life outside of the library. For much of my time, school felt like Sabbath is supposed to. It felt like I could trust that, with God’s help, my work would be enough.
Sometimes we’re so rushed, so frenzied, that it feels like we can’t trust that it will all come together. It doesn’t feel like our work will ever be enough. So we keep working through the breaks instead of trusting that it is going to work out, or that, when it doesn’t, God will take care of what’s left, or help us fix what has been broken. We can’t trust so we do too much.
So I think it’s time that I admit something. If I step out of the pulpit and hear this message myself, I have to admit that I have a small sense of “yeah right” growing inside of me. Like, “Preacher, you don’t know what my boss expects from me.” Or, “If I don’t do it, no one will.” The Israelites, freshly freed from slavery, must have heard this same message with the same small sense of “yeah right.” Because they remember slavery. They remember how Pharaoh told them that it was okay to take care of their needs, but only after the work was done (Exodus 5). Isn’t that exactly how we treat ourselves? We can take care of ourselves when the other work is done.
When we do that, we are Pharaoh to ourselves. We’re the taskmasters. But God wants to free us, free us from ourselves. God wants to free us from the self-harm, free us from our inner tyrants, and guide us into Sabbath life in Christ Jesus. Life like Jesus says: “For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Mt. 11).
It’s like Jesus is asking, begging us, “Give up the heavy burden. You have stacked your carts too full. Be freed. Receive life in me (in Christ), through God, our father, the one who brought you out of slavery.” Trust him, trust his call. Don’t make Christ beg any longer. Allow yourself to have Sabbath rest. May we listen to him. May we truly have no other gods… especially the god called “self.” And may we trust God enough to rest.