24th February 2013


The Ten Commandments (1): “No other gods!”

(Exodus 20:1-7).

Like most major cities, London has seen many changes to its skyline over the last twenty years. The London Eye, originally only planned to last for few years, has become a well-loved fixture on the south bank of the Thames. A little further downstream one encounters the building which houses the London Assembly; some people have said that it resembles a giant car headlight. The huge complex of offices at Canary Wharf dominates the Isle of Dogs in a way which would have been unthinkable back in the hey-day of the London Docks. The so-called “Gherkin” is one of the most iconic buildings in the City of London. And the latest addition is, of course, the so-called “Shard of Glass” near London Bridge, the tallest building in Western Europe.

Back in the mid-1990s, though, the most intriguing and, indeed, exotic new building was to be found in a run-down area near Wembley Stadium. At the time of its construction the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (more commonly known as the Neasden Temple) was the largest Hindu temple in the world. And it is a truly amazing place which combines traditional artistry and the latest technology, constructed of finely-worked marble and delicately-carved wood (but without a single ounce of metal), and festooned with extravagant and colourful decoration. The Hindu community is justifiably proud to say that it funded and built this remarkable and beautiful building entirely from its own resources.

To visit the Temple is to enter a religious world which most of us find incomprehensible. Unlike Islam and Judaism, which have some feeling of being “the same but different” to Christianity, Hinduism is utterly alien. Representations of the gods called “murti” sit in sacred niches and are wakened, bathed, dressed, fed, venerated, fed and then allowed to rest once more. However, while Hindu certainly possesses some central deities such as Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesh, Shiva and Durga, each with their particular image and persona, it is also clear that the total number of is much larger, possibly in the many millions. Behind all of these lies the shadowy figure of Adi Shakti, the feminine creative power who is sometimes referred to as “The Great Divine Mother” and seems to be the closest that Hinduism has to our Christian understanding of God.

So why am I beginning a sermon on the First Commandment by talking about the many deities of Hinduism? Well, there are two reasons. The first is to emphasise is that the ancient Hebrews lived in world in which people held conflicting notions of “God”. And that is true of most people over the ages who have believed in the Jewish or Christian God: the early Church lived in a world dominated by Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, African Christians often live in communities which believe in the power of a multiplicity of spirits (not to mention the departed ancestors), early missionaries to India had to confront that vast pantheon of Hindu gods, and the Hebrews under Moses were surrounded by peoples who each had their own deities, shrines, sacred objects and rituals. Many of us have been used to living in a society in which most people (apart from immigrants) shared a common concept of God, the Christian one. But that situation has never been true for the vast majority of believers and, in any case, it has now vanished from Britain for ever.

The other point I would want to make is that the idea of believing in only one God is actually not only unique but sophisticated. Most so-called primitive religions have a variety of gods who represent natural phenomena and who do different things: for instance, the traditional religion of the Yoruba people in Nigeria includes beliefs in Ogun, the god of both war and metalworking; Shokpona, the god of smallpox; Olokun, the god or goddess of the seas; Shango, the god of lightning; and Oshurun, the goddess of fertility, luxury and love – among others. Clearly you would need to keep on the right side of these gods if you wish to live and thrive; it is easy to see why it becomes important to worship not one god but many. To throw that all aside and say, “No! There is only one God, worship and serve him alone” represents a huge – and very risky – shift of belief in a frightening world of tempest and flood, drought and disease. What if you find you’ve put all your eggs in one spiritual basket and failed to cover all possible options?

But that is precisely what God is saying to the Hebrews, poised at this critical moment in their history between slavery in Egypt and a new national life in Canaan. If any of them had been following the old Egyptian religions (and I don’t know if they had), this was the time to desist in so doing. Conversely, they were going to enter a land whose inhabitants already had their own beliefs; the Hebrews are given very strict instructions not to allow their own faith to be contaminated. For the Hebrews were to be a special people whose remit was to fly the banner for the one true God and to bear his name. If they failed to do that, they lost any reason for existing as an independent nation.

Before I continue, I’d just like to pause and very briefly recap the introductory comments I made about the Ten Commandments last Sunday, a sort of “new readers begin here” – although this is not an excuse for those of you who were here then to switch off and go to sleep! For I think it is absolutely vital that we do not regard the Commandments as merely a set of arbitrary rules and regulations imposed by God on Jewish society (assuming, of course, that we are prepared to accept that they were given by God in the first place). Nor should we just think of them as a set of instructions for the successful ordering of human society, nor even a set of universal principles to human behaviour given by our Creator – although I most certainly do believe that they are both those things!

For the point I really tried to stress last Sunday was this: that the Ten Commandments are principally about maintaining a relationship, they are all about a God who has done mighty acts to form a nation and bring them out of slavery and who now wants to guide that nation forward in love and desires its people to flourish together. This is not a harsh God who is setting the bar impossibly high so that he can catch people out and condemn them; rather, it is a holy God who wants his people to aspire to the highest level of holiness. And it is in this context of saving grace (God springing his people from captivity) and relationship (God creating a covenant of love) that this first command, “have no other gods besides me”, begins to make sense.

One question which some people might be asking is whether the God of Israel and the Christian faith, is the only true one or not; whether the one whom we know as the Almighty and the Jews call “Yahweh” (or something like it) is the same or different as the Muslim “Allah” or, indeed, the “High God” that many pagans might reach up to in their devotions. Well, I’m not saying that those questions are unimportant – far from it, I think they are hugely important in the contexts of inter-faith dialogue and missionary work; they also raise issues about the revelation of divine truth to the human race. But they are irrelevant to our discussion today. For God is not saying to the Hebrews, “follow me, for I am the true God and all others are either deceivers or figments of your imagination”. What he is really saying is, “I want to enter into an exclusive relationship of love with you and I will be pained if I have to share your affections with anyone else”.

Perhaps the best analogy I can give is with marriage – and I, as a Minister, have conducted a fair number of weddings over the years! For, in the marriage service, the prospective couple are required to make a number of solemn vows: not just to stick together “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health”, but also to love, comfort, honour and protect each other and – this is the crucial bit! – to “forsake all others” and be faithful to each other for as long as they both live. I think we know that this is the part of the wedding vow that is most exposed to the pressures of temptation and which most easily gets unpicked as one or other member of the couple encounters someone who appears more interesting, more caring, richer or simply plain sexier than their partner at home. Will they stay faithful to their spouse, or will they run off and leave their family to deal with all the pain and mess that will almost inevitably follow? The issue is not about whether other men or women they may see are “genuine” or not, but whether they will remain faithful to the one they have got!

In case you think I am being fanciful in making this comparison, I’d like to take you to two Bible passages. One comes from the prophet Hosea, who describes Israel’s constant tendency to abandon Yahweh and begin worshipping the pagan gods of their neighbours as not just infidelity “harlotry” – the old King James version of the Bible uses the striking phrase “you have gone a-whoring after other gods” which, in fact, is repeated about a dozen times throughout the Old Testament. Shockingly the prophet, we are told, is commanded by God to marry a prostitute and have children by her in order to demonstrate both the nation’s unfaithfulness to God and his persistent love for it.

The other passage comes from the New Testament book of Ephesians. In a well-known passage about family relationships, Paul tells Christian wives to love their husbands as wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it. The analogy here is, of course, reversed; but again we have the sense of a God who loves his people, cares for his people and enters into an exclusive covenant with his people. It is therefore a matter of deep distress to God if those people turn their backs on him; and things are even worse if they perversely decide to pledge their allegiance elsewhere. That’s not simply a matter of changing from one “brand” of god to another; it’s not even a case of turning from truth to, I believe, falsehood. Ultimately it’s giving the God who loves you a stinging slap in the face.

I heard a minister say recently in their prayer something along the lines of us sometimes thinking that we are doing God a favour by following him and bothering to come to worship. I suspect there may have been more truth in his remark than we might admit to. We follow God and serve him purely as a response – a very fitting and appropriate response, I must add – to the great and mighty acts he has done on our behalf. In the time of Moses the particular act that the Jews remembered (and continue to recall every Friday at their Passover meal) was the bringing of the nation out of slavery, taking them across the sea, sustaining them in the desert and bringing them into the Promised Land: the writer of Psalm 78, seeking to bring his readers back to truth faith in God, reminds them that God “worked marvels in the land of Egypt; he divided the sea and let them pass through it; in the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all night long with a fiery light; he split rocks open in the wilderness, and made streams come out of the rock”. Equally, in the Church, Christians constantly refer back to the story of Jesus which culminated in Christ’s death, the salvation story which is recalled every time we celebrate Holy Communion. It is surely good to say, “I never will forget what he has done for me”.

And therefore I would close by asking us to examine the depth of our love for God, the strength of our commitment, the single-mindedness with which we follow and serve him. Can we examine ourselves and truly say that we love him with “all our hearts and all our souls and all our minds”? Can we say that our allegiance to him is exclusive ad complete, that we have – spiritually speaking – forsaken all others and (to horrendously mix our metaphors) are not keeping a foot in some other spiritual camp? Can we say that we are truly awestruck and amazed by the strength of God’s love for us, a love which sent his Son Jesus to die in the most horrendous circumstance? For that is the strength of the challenge which the first Commandment issued to the Hebrews gathered in the desert before Mount Sinai; and it is the strength of the challenge which is issued to God’s Church today. Will we respond in the way for which he hopes and yearns?