Sunday, May 2, 2021

Worshipping the One

I wonder if you've ever heard somebody say something like this: “Well, I don't think you have to believe in God to be a good person.” Have you heard somebody say that? I know I have. Talk with an atheist, an agnostic, or most other stripes of non-believer in God, and you're likely to hear it. Ever since high school, I enjoyed talking about these sorts of things with the few serious-minded non-believers I could find. And it's something that will crop up on a regular basis: they insist that you don't have to believe in God in order to lead a good moral life. Is there anything to what they're saying?

Well, in one sense, sure. Thanks to the impact of Christianity on the development of our moral culture, there live among us atheists and other non-believers who, by secular standards of human morality, do lead lives of decency and charity. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness,” so that sometimes they “by nature do what the law requires” (Romans 2:14-15). There are thus non-believers who stand on principle, whose consciences lead them to treat others well, and whose lives, in many ways, may not look that different from yours or mine some of the time. I've had atheist friends I'd trust with my life to do the right thing toward their neighbors in a given situation. In that sense, there are people who don't believe in God and yet are decent people who strive to treat their neighbors with justice and kindness – and that is being good, in at least that one sense.

But yet... it's the “fool” who has “said in his heart, 'There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1). And the word the psalmist uses there, 'fool,' has as much the sense of moral bankruptcy as of intellectual bankruptcy. There is, ultimately, a tension between disbelief in God, on the one hand, and moral wellness, on the other. So there is a sense, or maybe more than one sense, in which you do have to believe in God to be a good person. As we begin with a look at the Ten Commandments, we're reminded of something that I don't think many of my atheist friends ever considered. If a major area of morality involves moral duty, moral responsibility – then our first area of duty and responsibility is our duties and responsibilities to God. Our duties to God are part and parcel of morality – in fact, they are the core of morality. A person who treats every creature here on earth with utmost kindness and who yet ignores the Creator – that person is not, in fact, yet 'good.' We cannot be good, fully and really, unless we start a life of justice by doing justice to God. And that means treating God in the way he deserves.

The first commandment declares God in his own words. It expresses his character and his conduct. It demands that, so far as each one of us is concerned, he be the first one to whom we do justice and the first one to whom we do honor. It demands that God be the one we treat as God, because he has a rightful claim on our allegiance and a rightful claim on our devotion. Our responsibility in this commandment begins with a positive obligation: to give the true God his rightful due, everything he has a proper claim to. Those who fail to do this, St. Paul classifies as “the impious” or “the ungodly” (1 Timothy 1:9). And so another first-century Jew, writing for a Gentile audience, explaining the Ten Commandments, sums this one up by saying: “The first commandment teaches us that there is only one God, and that we ought to worship him only.”1

And that's exactly the gist of it. There is just one God, in the full sense of that word. There are no more, there are no fewer. And toward him, we must do justice, must give him his due. And that means we must worship him. God deserves our worship, our different ways of acknowledging and expressing God's worth. We'll say more next Sunday, but there are some things we can say already even now that God deserves from each person.

And the first of these is our faith. For as it's written, “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). One way we acknowledge and express the value that, say, our spouse has to us, starts by receiving and believing the truth about who he or she is: a human being of such-and-such a character, a person who loves, who has needs and wants and desires and a will of his or her own, and so on. And equally, one way we acknowledge and express the value or worth that God has in himself, starts by receiving and believing the truth about God and his greatness. God is the Founder and Maker of the universe, and of each thing in it. God is the summit of all life and light, of all wisdom and knowledge. God is the possessor of all power and every perfection. He is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love down through thousands of generations. God is “the giver of every good and perfect gift” (James 1:17), who shines the sunlight and pours forth the rain (cf. Matthew 5:45), who grants us “fruitful seasons, satisfying [our] hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17). He is the author of human love and kindness; he is the orchestrator of the rhythms of his creation. In every tiny split-second moment, he is the One who sustains all things in being. And he is the One who plans in wisdom to bring all willing things to an immeasurably beautiful destiny beyond our comprehension. Every heartbeat is his gift, every breath in our lungs is his gift. He nourishes us in sheer kindness as our Creator.

More than that, for ancient Israel, he was the Lord who liberates from slavery. There's a reason the Ten Words, the Ten Commandments, open with the declaration, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Once, they were not free. Once, they were not a people. Once, they had their dignity stolen in a land they couldn't truly call their own. And their oppressor, the Pharaoh, treated them so ill because he broke this first commandment: “Who is the LORD, that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I don't know the LORD; and moreover, I won't let Israel go!” (Exodus 5:2). And so the LORD, the Power above all powers, intervened for Israel to redeem them and ransom them, pouring down judgments on Egypt and its false gods, setting this people free from the prison that held them fast. They are not in the house of slavery anymore. As they stand and hear these words, they hear their liberty. And after seeing this God's salvation and this God's light, other gods standing anywhere in his presence should be a laughable thought, a ludicrous joke. To Israel, there ought never more be any such thing (Exodus 20:3).

For the New Israel which is the Church, we still confess him as the Lord who liberates – but not merely from a slavery on earth. No, he liberates from the slavery of sin, he liberates from the slavery of a bad character, he liberates even from the slavery of sorrow and of despair and of death. For we have beheld his mightier work in Christ, and the announcement of a greater exodus from darkness to light. And after having seen this far brighter light of salvation, turning our gaze away from this Lord our God would be nothing but madness. And we confess this when we believe, for instance, the things we say in the Apostles' Creed. We've spent so much time this year learning the Apostles' Creed, as the simpler statement of our faith, because – as we seriously believe it and seriously say it – we are committing an action that upholds this commandment.

You see, what we believe – and what we're willing to admit we believe – is, in fact, a moral activity. There are truths of beauty and dignity that it is morally good to believe, or seek to believe. And there are also twisted thoughts of ugliness and debasement that it is morally bad to believe, or seek to believe. The Apostles' Creed reminds us of truths of such beauty and such dignity that it is morally good to believe them (or seek to believe them), and morally not-so-good to refuse assent to them with our minds and our hearts.

And so my atheist and agnostic friends, in breaking this commandment, have sometimes failed their moral duty. Because we have a moral duty to believe that there is a God, or at least to seek to believe that there is a God. But atheists, by definition, do not believe that there is a God, and many are not even seeking. And as we live in God's universe, sustained moment by moment by his care which shines through in all things, even our damaged minds and corrupted hearts are “without excuse,” for God's “eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:20).

But if atheism is one way of breaking this commandment, so are all ways of trying to construct life or society on a God-denying or God-neglecting basis. And so are all ways of holding aloof from Jesus Christ. And so are all ways of misrepresenting Christ in our minds and hearts, crafting a caricature of him that's untrue, distorting his reality. Every denial of some part of the faith, as it's summed up in the Apostles' Creed or the other great creeds, is ultimately, objectively, a morally bad act – a violation of the first commandment we're given.

The first commandment also calls us to a disposition of trust – trust toward God, trust toward Jesus, trust toward their Holy Spirit. Because trust is also an indispensable part of what it means to have faith. The faith that God deserves from us isn't merely admitting that he exists. It isn't just describing him correctly. Both of those are essential, but God deserves our trust. And when we live our lives in ways that hold back that trust, that refuse that trust, we are in fact falling short of giving God his due. We are not adequately expressing his worth when we act as though he isn't trustworthy. Trusting him means, of course, believing the things he's told us in his word of revelation. But it means more than that. It means leaning on him in day-to-day living. It means we'll live consciously in dependence on him – because, as he's the Giver of all good gifts we get, we are dependent. As one second-century Christian named Aristides said, “Christians... know and trust in God, the Creator of heaven and earth, in whom and from whom are all things, to whom there is no other god as companion...”2

Second, we acknowledge and express God's worth by treating him with reverence. God deserves to be honored as God. God deserves to be held in the highest esteem and value. And that entails respect. It entails careful conduct toward God. We should be as careful with the things of God as if we were handling priceless artwork or radioactive materials. We should exercise appropriate caution. So often, we tend to overstate the themes in the New Testament of friendship with God, and think that it means being chummy, all buddy-buddy, paling around as if God is no more than just 'one of the guys.' But the intimacy with God to which we're invited is a miracle precisely because it's set in a background of God's infinite holiness. God deserves to be regarded by us with a sense of awe, dignity, and solemnity. And that sense of awe, of dignity, of solemnity – the biblical term for that is “the fear of the LORD.” As in, “the LORD commanded us... to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive” (Deuteronomy 6:24): “the fear of the LORD is Zion's treasure” (Isaiah 33:6). When we refuse to treat encounters with God as occasions for awe and dignity and solemnity, when we lack “the fear of the LORD,” we aren't living up to this first commandment. God deserves our reverence.

Third, we acknowledge and express God's worth by coming to him in prayer. For how do we treat God as great, as worthwhile, if we don't consider him worth talking to or worth seeking our good from? God is, we've said, the Giver of every good and every perfect gift. He invites us to engage relationally with him, to speak to him as well as listen. God is worth our time. God is worth our attention. God is worth our words. And so we honor him when we call on him. We honor him when we invoke him. We honor him when we cry out to him. We honor him when we take him up on this open-door policy of his. As Aristides said, “As people who know God, [Christians] ask from him petitions which are fitting for him to grant and for them to receive; and thus they employ their whole lifetime.”3 When we spend our days prayerlessly, when we caricature God as uninterested or else decide that we're too busy for him to have any of our time, we aren't living up to this first commandment – we're not giving God his due, we're not doing justice to God as God. God deserves our prayers.

Fourth, we acknowledge and express God's worth by putting our hope in him. We treat God as great, we treat him as worthwhile, when we listen to his promises and expect him to make good on them, and when we look forward to them, and when we think about them, when we let them shape our vision of our future. Particularly, we treat God as great and as worthwhile when we surrender our imagination to his promises – that is, when his promises so captivate our imaginations more than any other picture of the future, knowing that one day these dreams will be fact. And we treat him as great and as worthwhile when we rely, not on our attempts to control the future, not on our efforts to penetrate the future, but on God as the One in whose hands the future rests. That's why the Church has always considered this first commandment to be broken when people go to fortune-tellers, even if it's meant for fun – because the forbidden act of fortune-telling is at odds with placing our hope in God as the unveiler of the future. This commandment is also broken when we despair of God's promises. Maybe one of my favorite lines from the whole Bible is the declaration that “all the promises of God find their 'Yes!' in [Jesus Christ]” (2 Corinthians 1:20). They already have their yes! “Hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:5)! So “if we hope for what we do not [yet] see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25). Like Aristides said: “Christians know... God..., from whom they received commandments which they engraved upon their minds and which they observe in hope and expectation of the world which is to come.”4

Fifth, we acknowledge and express God's worth by giving him our praise and adoration. “Praise God... for his mighty deeds, praise him according to his excellent greatness!” (Psalm 150:1-2). “Shout for joy to God, all the earth! Sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise! Say to God, 'How awesome are your deeds! … All the earth worships you and sings praises to you...” (Psalm 66:1-4). God, in and of himself, is deserving of praise, just for being who he is. All things are intrinsically defined in relation to his greatness. He is the peak of the mountain of goodness. He is the standard of all excellence. Any true thing said about him is a praise. He deserves to be the focus of our attention and the celebration of our mind and speech. But too often, we become ungrateful to God. As if he stopped giving us gifts! As if we had received no new favor since our last heartbeat! As if he weren't keeping the very atoms in our body from breaking apart! As if the warmth of the sun weren't from him, as if the flavor of food or the refreshment of water weren't from him, as if the color of each and every flower weren't called forth by him! Yet we're ungrateful sometimes. Or we become indifferent – we spend an hour, we spend a day, we spend even longer, just ignoring God, just acting as if he weren't there, still actively supplying our most basic needs. In those times when we refuse to care, when we refuse to thank, when we refuse to praise and adore – we are not living as this first commandment calls us.

But we fulfill the commandment each time we do proclaim God's worth, each time we celebrate him, each time we proclaim his greatness out loud, both to others and to God, by returning thanks. It's not, as some unbelievers will assume, because God has an ego that just needs scratched, and that's why he tells us to praise. No! No, it's because it is right and just to praise him! Withholding praise from someone or something who deserves it, is an act of injustice, it is negligence and wrongdoing. Refusing to thank someone for a gift or favor – that isn't just a social faux-pas, it's an act of injustice, it's failing to return what the gift or favor deserves. It is right and just to praise God, and particularly, to praise God with higher praises than we give to anyone or anything else, with more excitement and effusiveness to anything else. That's why we sing! That's why we sing with meaning, with feeling, with gusto – because, as best as we can, we know we ought to praise God, and we want to!

Sixth, we acknowledge and express God's worth by obeying him, by serving him. “It is the LORD your God you shall fear: him you shall serve” (Deuteronomy 6:13). “Return to the LORD your God and obey his voice” (Deuteronomy 4:30). “Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). God merits our obedience. God merits our service. God is God, and we are not. In our actions, we should act for the sake of God. We should act in ways where God is centrally relevant in our motives and in our drives. God deserves to be relevant to why we choose what we choose, and why we do what we do. His will should be the beginning and end of our actions. “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

Seventh, we acknowledge and express God's worth by imitating him. “Be imitators of God, as dear children,” we're told (Ephesians 5:1). We imitate him by learning his wisdom. We imitate him by sharing his mercy. We imitate him by seeking to be holy as he is holy (Leviticus 11:44-45), and to be complete lovers as he is perfect love (Matthew 5:48). When we consider God's character worth imitating in all these ways, we are worshipping him – we are seeking to give him his due by expressing his worth with our lives.

All this is commanded us because worshipping the true God is good for us. Because God is truth, and God is beauty, and God is goodness. God is light, and God is life, and God is love. And what we worship, whatever we think most worthy and most worthwhile, we open ourselves up to, we become more and more conformed to, step by step. In worshipping God, we open ourselves up to a beautiful life that floods ours, and so we allow ourselves to be “transformed... from one degree of glory into another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

And we have a perfect example in Jesus. Jesus, when he descended to earth and took on our human nature, took on also the Law, and he perfectly lived out its commands – including this first commandment. As Jesus himself said, “I honor my Father” (John 8:49). Jesus kept the first commandment perfectly, and he fulfilled it. In every moment, Jesus was about God his Father, Jesus was open to God his Father, Jesus was imitating God his Father, and Jesus served God his Father all the way to the cross. Let us follow Jesus, imitating him as he imitated his Father, worshipping him as God and worshipping God his Father alongside him as he leads us. Let us give God his due, with and like Jesus. And in this way, we will begin the adventure that is truly good human living. Amen.

1  Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 3.5.5

2  Aristides of Athens, Apology 15

3  Aristides of Athens, Apology 16

4  Aristides of Athens, Apology 15

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