I edited one section of the sermon toward the end about a real-life person, now deceased, whose life spiraled out of control because of sin. Although the illustration included no identifying biographical details, and this person wasn’t connected with this or any church, I chose not to broadcast it out of respect for the family. The point of the illustration was that what happened to this person could happen to any of us, especially if we fail to appreciate the danger of sin.
Also, I notice that the sermon title on the screen behind me is incorrect. “On Our Side” was the name of the song that the band closed the service with. Whoops!
Sermon Text: Exodus 20:4-6
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The following is my original manuscript.
So… How are you doing? I made the point last week that God wants us to be fantastically wonderful. One of you who’s a Facebook friend of mine even said that you were doing fantastically wonderful in your Facebook status. I love it!
I also said that God gave us these Ten Commandments in part to teach us how to be fantastically wonderful—how to be happy.
Some of us may resist the idea that God gave us the Ten Commandments so that we could be happy. After all, eight of the ten commandments have “thou shalt not’s” in them. And we often think that anything that limits our freedom will also limit our happiness. Why can’t we be free to do what we want? These ten commandments feel so negative and restrictive.
Maybe it’s a part of our American DNA… We are “endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Liberty—or freedom—goes hand in hand with happiness. The freer we are, the easier it is for us to pursue happiness and maybe even attain it.
I don’t disagree with that as far as it goes. But here’s what the Declaration of Independence leaves out: We are badly defective human beings. We are sinners.
In fact, because of this, we’re not even really free, at least apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. We’re not free, even if our nation’s laws said, “You can do absolutely anything you want.” We wouldn’t be free even if there were no laws at all. We’re not free because, if we were truly free, we would freely choose to do what’s in our own best interest, what would ultimately make us happy. But we can’t do that without divine intervention.
In Romans chapter 7, the Apostle Paul describes the general problem of unredeemed, sinful humanity when he writes, “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
Some of you have struggled to kick dangerous and destructive habits like alcoholism or drug addiction, and you know first-hand what it feels like not to be free—to be enslaved. Many of us probably have some experience being addicted to something—even if that something isn’t as conspicuous, visible, or outward destructive. Spiritually, these addictions can still destroy us.
Like some of you, I have resolved in this new year to lose a few pounds—to pay for all the extra holiday eating I did. So I’m “dieting,” but what I’m really trying to do is make healthier eating choices, to limit my portions, to pay attention to what I eat. And you know what I’ve found? It’s hard! I really want to eat and drink whatever I want, whenever I want. I really feel like if only I could eat this thing, right now—even though I don’t need it, even though I’m not even hungry—I would be happy. This bag of chips is telling me, “Eat me! I will make you happy.” This doughnut is telling me, “Eat me! I will make you happy.” This candy bar is telling me, “Reward yourself. You deserve me. I will make you happy.” Food doesn’t make me happy. Food can’t make me happy. Coffee, on the other hand…
But the minute I convince myself that food can’t make me happy, I risk falling victim to another trap: If I just lost those extra ten pounds, then I’d be happy. That’s a lie, too! With a little bit of imagination, we can see how easily these words apply not only to alcohol, drugs, food, and body image, but also to choices we make about relationships, choices we make about sex, choices we make about career, choices we make about our hobbies. Potential idols are everywhere.
Do you see how insidious sin is? Do you see how pervasive idolatry is?
Here’s a good rule that relates directly to the second commandment: whenever we start thinking that some person or some thing will make us happy, we are making that person or thing into an idol. We are committing idolatry. Obviously, we don’t bow down and worship these things, but we demonstrate their worth to us by the time, energy, money, and thought that we devote to these things.
God doesn’t want us to do that! “You shall not make for yourself an idol… You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Not because God is some kind of killjoy who’s a stickler for following the rules, but because God loves us and wants what is best for us!
The Ten Commandments are all about love!
O.K., you may say. But what about these words of jealousy and punishment, which we find in verse 5? Surely, that doesn’t seem very loving! Jealousy, after all, is usually a vice. The tenth commandment rules out coveting, and jealousy often goes hand in hand with that: “I’m jealous that I don’t have what this other person has.” That kind of jealousy is a sin.
But the jealousy of partners who have entered into the covenant of marriage is different. It is no virtue to shrug your shoulders and look the other way when your marriage partner is either being unfaithful or is moving in the dangerous direction of infidelity. First, we’re not loving ourselves by doing that, obviously. What kind of low self-esteem would we have if we tolerated adultery?
More importantly, we are not loving our partners if we tolerate that behavior. This is harmful and destructive sinful behavior for a spouse, and they need to stop it—for the good of the marriage and family, obviously, but also for the good of themselves! Of course, they don’t fully appreciate the harm and destruction they bring on themselves and others in following this path of sin, so they need to be held accountable. And if being held accountable feels like punishment, so be it! Anything less would be less than loving. In this case, jealousy is justified, appropriate, and good.
What does it mean that God’s love for us can be compared to the jealously guarded love that one marriage partner has for the other?
Truth is, we may not want God to love us that much. Because if God loves us that much, God has a complete and utter lack of tolerance for any and all unfaithfulness, just as spouses have a lack of tolerance for any and all unfaithfulness in one another. That’s what we get when we are in a covenant relationship with a holy God! You want a God who loves you? You got it! This is what love sometimes looks like.
Granted, if we were creating a god in our image, we wouldn’t create the kind of God we have. We would want our god to shrug his shoulders and say, “It’s no big deal. You’re only human. Everyone makes mistakes. Besides, the important thing is that you be true to yourself. Do what you want. I’ll make sure there are no consequences.” But that kind of god would hate us if that were his attitude toward sin.
A couple of months ago, we rescued a pound puppy that we named Neko. She is this little black blob. She can’t take a good picture because all you see is black—shiny black coat, black eyes. Lisa and the kids love Neko, in spite of the fact that she is a little spawn of Satan. When I look into her eyes, I imagine her wheels spinning: She’s constantly thinking, “What can I do right now to make mischief? What can I do right now to cause destruction? What can I do right now to annoy Brent? What can I do right now to find trouble?” And the moment anyone in our house asks the question, “Where’s Neko?” Guess what? It’s too late. When you find her, she will have already done something you don’t want her to do, gotten into something you don’t want her to have gotten into, destroyed something you don’t want her to have destroyed!
Be that as it may, I do sort of love this dog. I love her enough, in fact, to put her in a crate—doggy jail—when I can’t attend to her. This is to prevent her from getting into trouble. We have a cat named Peanut, meanwhile, who is completely free to roam the house at will. And I think that when Neko is in doggy jail, Peanut makes a point of parading his freedom in front of the dog, as a way of taunting her.
If Neko were capable of thinking this way, she would surely think that it’s unfair that Peanut gets to roam free while she’s stuck in a crate. What Neko can’t know is that Peanut doesn’t enjoy his freedom because we took an “anything goes” attitude with the cat and tolerated his misbehavior. We had to teach him to use the litter box instead of the carpet or a pile of laundry; to not get on the kitchen table or kitchen counters; to not scratch up the furniture; to not get in the Christmas tree when it’s up. We used to confine Peanut to a bathroom at night, to keep him out of trouble. We used to spray him in the face with water to punish him. We clip his claws, which he used to hate. The freedom that he now enjoys has come at a cost.
Neko doesn’t know that we’re disciplining her now in order that one day she, too, will be able to roam the house freely. When Neko feels the sharp tug on her pinch collar when we’re taking her for a walk, it hurts her a little, and she squeals. And if she were capable of thinking in this way, she might think, “Why does my master hurt me? Why doesn’t he love me?” But you know what hurts worse? You know what is less loving? The dog getting run over by a car.
I hope you see my point… A loving God does not and will not tolerate sin. The number one thing in life that can prevent us from being happy—from being fantastically wonderful—is sin. God hates it. God hates it when he sees it tragically and violently lived out in the world, as it was last week in those shootings in Arizona. God hates it within us. God hates it for us.
In fact, God hates it for us so much that through the cross of Christ, God received the punishment that we deserved—God died the death that we deserved to die—so that we could be brought into a saving relationship with God. This is God’s gift of love for us. And if we’ve received this gift, and persist in believing it, we can be confident that our sins are forgiven, and we have eternal life.
In the meantime, however, God isn’t finished with us! We still have sin in our lives to identify and, with God’s help, overcome. We don’t have an excuse to take sin lightly, to play around with it, to tolerate it within our own lives.
If you’ve received God’s gift of love, forgiveness, and eternal life, don’t mess around with sin. It can destroy you; it can destroy or greatly harm people you love and care about.
[Sermon illustration redacted.]
The good news is that God has given us a better way: coming to grips with sin, taking responsibility for it, and repenting of it. God has given us the power through the Holy Spirit to change.
Lord, out of this incomprehensible love for your children, teach us, train us, discipline us, that we might find true happiness, joy, and peace. Amen.