The first word: “I am God, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a life of slavery. No other gods, only me” (The Message, Exodus 20:1-3).
[This is Week 2 of the Ten Words series. To read the intro, click here.]
Do you know anyone who has an identity crisis? They’re not sure who they are or what their purpose is. We often joke about midlife crises or other aging situations, but the truth is, that many of us (or someone we know) have struggled to figure out who we are and how we are supposed to live.
In high school, I knew a guy named Rick. Rick was pretty cool, friendly enough, and most people I knew liked Rick. But Rick had a strange habit of introducing himself to you and working in the fact that he had been a starting forward for the state championship hockey team– he never forgot to show off his high school champion ring! Some of you are thinking, “well, that’s something to be proud of!” True, but Rick was forty-five years old at the time, and the admissions counselor of a different high school!
Somehow, that hockey championship was still the thing that he was the most proud of.
In our Scripture today, we hear God explain who he is and what’s important to keeping the covenant that was first established with Abraham in Genesis. It’s an echo of the experience Moses had with the burning bush in Exodus 3.
When Moses approached the burning bush, he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. But hundreds of miles and several plagues later, he finds himself standing on the top of a mountain having a one-on-one conversation with God that would define nations and world views forever.
When Moses approached the burning bush, he didn’t know that God was about to call him out of his role as fugitive sheepherder. When Moses starts to get cold feet (amazing, so close to the fire!), he asks who he’s supposed to tell the Israelites who will be liberating them and who empowered him (Moses) to be the spokesperson. He wants to know why they should listen to Moses… or this voice in the burning bush.
Yahweh speaks back this straightforward answer: “I Am Who I Am.This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I Am has sent me to you'” (Exodus 3:14).
When God speaks to Moses, he doesn’t define himself by any characteristics, any explanation, any definition of time and space. He simply says, “I am.”
I am here.
Think about that: “I am” is the most basic sentence in the human language. It, all by itself, shares our individuality, our place in the world, that we matter.
It seems so simple, really. That Yahweh, who had called the Israelites through Abraham, and faithfully cared for them, would be the same God would rescued them from slavery. To those of us who have a monotheistic worldview, this is straightforward. But we’re getting our Scripture out of context: The Israelites weren’t sure that it was God and no one else. They’d just spent time with the Egyptians and their pantheon of religious icons.
And here is God saying: “this is me, and only me. And to fulfill this covenant together, your side of it means that you will only worship me. We’re not playing games; we’re not dividing loyalties. You are going to be all-in with me, the way that I am all-in with you.”
No masks, no identity crises, no nothing.
God is putting himself out there for the Israelites to see and experience. There’s a vulnerability there, with no masks and no mediums in between.
There’s an establishment of Yahweh God as the central focus and force in all of human existence. Louie Giglio has summed it up by saying, “I am not but I know I Am.” It’s an echo of the story found in Genesis 1, where God decides to make humanity in the image of God, the imago dei. It’s a reminder to the Israelites on Mount Sinai that the first thing they need to remember as a freed people is that they are not the image of the Egyptians or something formed with human hands, they are made in the image of God.
The God who is the only one. The God who was, who is, and who is to come.
We need to remember that God’s words were a reminder to the Israelites that God is faithful whether we are or not. God IS while other things WERE. Other things pass by but God IS constant.
God doesn’t have an identity crisis. God knows who God is. God doesn’t need masks or descriptors. God IS the answer to the questions about whether we matter or not, why we’re here, and where we’re going.
It’s not just a claim by God to establish himself as the central focus, but it’s an opportunity for the people of God to be reminded of their value, their purpose, their place in the created world.
They are special, and loved, and worth it. It’s something they needed to be reminded of after years of being told (and shown) how worthless they were.
Now, flash forward several thousand years, and humanity experiences Jesus. In Romans 8, Paul wrote that Jesus came to be a fulfillment to the law that began with “I am the Lord your God.”
After time had passed, God’s people still didn’t see how valuable they were. They still couldn’t see that the Ten Words were designed to show them how to value their neighbor as the image of God.
So Jesus arrives, and Paul says, in Romans 8:3-4, 12-16:
“For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
The Ten Words… fulfilled in Jesus… were to unite the people in spirit with each other and with God. To value and revere God above all and in all, was also to say that what God is all about, God’s people should be all about.
The God who liberated the people of Israel from slavery in Exodus and who set the people free from sin through Jesus, wants us to be about liberation.
“Love, it will not betray, dismay, or enslave you. It will set you free,” sings Mumford & Sons in “Sigh No More.” That’s what God wanted his followers to get from the Ten Words but they missed the first one and skipped to the prohibitions. That’s why Jesus had to come as the spirit-made-flesh, to be incarnational, God-with-us.
If we’re serious with ourselves, we have Jesus’ teachings and we still don’t know how to live or love. Sure, we can read about it or talk about it, but we get caught up in all of the little stuff.
We forget the basics: that God is God, that we are not, and that, if we would merely be faithful, that God promises to be with us.
Paul understood that. He wrote in Philippians 2:5-8: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
So, how can we “get it”? How can we follow through with this “no other gods” word?
1- By refusing to make ourselves the “god” of our life. Remember, God said that he and he alone had freed the Israelites. They hadn’t done it by themselves or for themselves. It’s a reminder that we can’t be forgiven of our sins on our own recognizance; we need the love of Jesus and his resurrected sacrifice to be made right before an almighty God.
2-By refusing to let anything else sit in the God-sized whole in our life. Some have said that when we’re addicted to something, we make it thing that is ‘god’ of our life. We’d do anything to get that thing, to have more of that thing.
3-To be like God, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we must be active in setting others free, in vocally, not just ‘by our behavior,’ in the things we advocate and the way we behave. Theologian Fred Craddock says, “We’ve told ourselves we can walk the walk, ‘I’ll let my life be my witness’. But the problem is it’s not true. It’s a cop-out. It’s not enough to walk the walk. Someone has to talk the talk.” To fulfill the covenant, we have to be like God who wants to be known as the ‘Slave Freer.’
Of course, we’re just getting started. There’s still the space between who we want to be and who we are. But it’s not just enough to be set free from slavery, we have to live free. William Wallace, in Braveheart, said, “Every man dies, but not every man truly lives.”
If we believe in the covenant, if we believe that God’s words to the people and Jesus’ life really matter, that sin and death don’t get the last words, that there’s a comma between death and what comes next and not a period at the end, we need to live differently.
Too often, we’re like the Israelites, who thought that slavery, and wandering in the wilderness were all that was. Too often, we throw a pity party for ourselves instead of boldly proclaiming the message of freedom in the cross of Jesus and living it out.
This week, in Justice Awakening, I read the story of South Korea’s Onnuri Community Church in Seoul, who recognized that to bear the image of God, they had to pursue mishpat or dikaisoyne (justice), that singing “This Is My Father’s World” wasn’t enough. They recognized that human trafficking was such an epidemic in their community and their country, that they set out to end the trading of people as slaves.
It’s the kind of thing that Steve McQueen (the director, not the actor) talked about when 12 Years A Slave won the Oscar for best picture. It’s what Martin Luther King Jr. was talking about when he said, “if one is oppressed, all are oppressed.”
The church began to research the problem and study possible solutions. They figured out that human trafficking generates $32 billion dollars a year, and that reasons ranged from labor use, mail-order brides, begging, child soldiers, organ trafficking, adoption, and sexual exploitation. The victims weren’t of just one population but many, and their freedom wasn’t nearly as sudden or forceful as Liam Neeson’s Taken might lead us to believe.
Pastor Eddie Byun knew Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s back to the Garden of Eden, with God walking side-by-side with ‘Adam,’ and back to Mountain Sinai where God is setting up the covenant.
“I will take care of you, and in return, you will honor me.”
“I will be your God and you will be my people.”
“You will follow these words, and I will call you mine.”
Of course, those in involved in the sex trade weren’t Byun’s only opposition. Church people said things like, “It’s not the church’s role to be involved. Let the ‘experts’ handle it. Stick to the gospel! Stick to the ministry! It’s just a passing fad. Isn’t it too dangerous?”
Byun wrote, “The church has gotten too used to not taking risks. For far too long we’ve let governments do what God has called the church to do. We are letting others take the role of church in our communities and forgetting that Jesus was the great abolitionist. In fact, we’re letting the world take over our identity!”
There’s that whole identity thing again. Who are we? Whose are we?
We’re called to free captives to slavery and captives to addiction. We’re called to serve those others neglect and to comfort those who others won’t touch. We’re called to give money to those in need and to use our spending and voting to impact the way that corporations and our government handle fair trade and other people. We’re supposed to advocate for those who can’t speak for themselves!
As United Methodists, we don’t even need to look to William Wilberforce to understand that slavery is incompatible with our beliefs. John Wesley fought for the freedom of slaves from Africa and the indentured servitude of his fellow Englishman. He spoke against prostitution, gambling and other evils which are used to hold people down for profit.
Byun quoted Edmund Burke (who Bruce Wayne AKA Christian Bale quoted in Batman Begins): “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
We can’t do nothing! We’re living into the covenant. We’re saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus! If we believe it, we have to, we’re obligated to, do something.
The Onnuri Community Church launched HOPE Be Restored (HBR) (“Helping the Oppressed and Prisoners of injustice Escape and Be Restored”) in 2010 and set up teams of people to pray for those who were mistreated, to raise awareness about the global problem of trafficking, to research the situations and find ways to help, to build networks and set up opportunities for healing, and to team to rescue and prevent those in slavery.
Byun says that his church prays for the victims, the traffickers, and the justice system, for the places where slaves are ‘broken’ to be destroyed, for the people doing the rescuing, for the church to be proactive, and for more people to get involved.
Late in the book, he quotes David Bastone (Not For Sale): “There are times to read history, and there are times to make history. We live right now at one of those epic moments in the fight for human freedom. We no longer have to wonder how we might respond to our moment of truth. It is we who are on the stage, and we can change the winds of history with our actions. Future generations will look back to judge our choices and be inspired or disappointed.”
No pressure, right?
But you say, ‘what can I do in my little corner of the world? I don’t know anyone who is kidnapped or imprisoned!’
Consider where you shop. Consider where you eat. Think about the situations you know of or can research where people are denied their identities, where they are held back by other people, or their addiction, or their economic situation, and recognize that we have it good so that we can be a blessing to others.
Injustice takes many faces, and the Israelites knew that. Evil shows up in the spears of the Roman soldiers who beat Jesus and in the casual, empty tones of those who called for him to be crucified. Not all slavery looks the same.
But by claiming your identity in the one, true God, you can make a difference.
This week, ask how you can be a slave freer, how you can bear the image of God into the world in the way you serve others, preserving justice, and showing mercy.
Jesus broke the chains of slavery to sin and death. We are to do the same.
Rise up, to be breakers of chains, and slayers of injustice.
Rise, to be the church.