Ash Wednesday, 17 February 2021

A Sermon on Exodus 20:1-3 by Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS

Exodus 20:1-3 English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. “You shall have no other gods before me.

The First Commandment (from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism)

You shall have no other gods.

What does this mean?

We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

     We suffer. We lose. We have heartache and grief. Lives are a mess, and life is difficult, because we fear, love, and trust in people and things which can never be God. And that is why we die. From our very first parents, Adam and Eve, we have stupidly been in rebellion. It’s a no win game, but we keep playing that game, because we fear, love, and trust people and things, which can never be God.

God is a holy God, meaning He is unlike anyone or anything else. He is sui generis, one of a kind, because He has no beginning and no ending. He is the Creator. Everyone and everything in this world, except evil, comes from Him. And that which is unholy, that which is not God, even that or those, which are gifts from the hand of our Creator, can never be God. When we fear, love, and trust in people and things other than God, our hearts are destined to be broken.

Are you grieving? Are you anticipating grief? Deep down inside, you know why. We sentient creatures can never escape the truth about reality. Never. Perhaps you’ve heard that old country song by Tim McGraw entitled, “Don’t Take the Girl.” In the hour of trial, when his wife has just given birth but is fading fast, a man prays: “Take the very breath you gave me, take the heart from my chest. I’ll gladly take her place if you’ll let me, make this my last request. Take me out of this world. God, please, don’t take the girl.”

The first commandment says it all. The other nine are commentary. Indeed, the six hundred thirteen commandments of the Torah by which Orthodox Jews order their lives can be reduced to two, “Love God. Love Neighbor.” But, in reality, all the commandments come down to what Roman Catholics and Lutherans call the first commandment: You shall have no other gods.

Forty-four years ago last night, a group of seminarians were gathered for a few beers after choir rehearsal on Shrove Tuesday. We were in a pub in suburban St. Louis, and one of the seniors asked me, “So, Sam, what are you giving up for Lent?” I answered I didn’t know. He saw me take a puff from a cigarette and said: “You should give up smoking for Lent.” I knew he was right. After all, my Dad had died from lung cancer at age sixty-two a year and one-half before. But part of me resisted. I had already tried to quit once before and had failed. Seminary was stressful in my first year for a variety of reasons, and that part of me that resisted, my old Adam, the old sinner in me, did not want to give up smoking. It was part of my daily routine. It was my crutch when I was hungry or uptight. It was part of my identity. I was a smoker.

I would never have identified smoking as my idol. I would never have admitted that every time I lighted up another cigarette, I was looking to an idol to give me what I needed in that moment. But smoking was a God substitute. It was a false god. Every time I lighted up another smoke, I was declaring my allegiance to cigarettes. I feared, loved, and trusted them in place of God. But, in denial, I could not admit that. About whom or about what are you in denial?

To what do you turn or to whom? Is it that glass of wine or whisky? Is it that frosty mug of beer? Is it what some people call a blunt or a joint? Is it that favorite bowl of ice cream? Is it that secret stash of porn or a favorite lascivious memory? Is it a collection of precious metal coins or bars? A bag or tray of precious jewels? A safe filled with guns or certificates or bonds? Is it that toy in your garage or that boat in a slip? Is it the delight you take in winning at the expense of others? Is it that lover on the side? Is it the mirthless joy you take in wounding enemies or even friends? Is it that set of ideas, that political party, that philosophy about which you are most passionate? Is it that dear one, whom you have grown to fear, love, and trust more than God?

Oh, we have many idols: those things we fear, love, and trust more than God on a daily basis. But what is that one you tell yourself you cannot do without? What is that one that is integral to how you see yourself? What is that one you always turn to? Whoever that is, whatever that is, dear one, you know deep inside that’s the one you don’t ever want to give up. That’s your god.

Today is the day for brutal honesty with yourself and no one else. Is there anything about you that God doesn’t already know? Of course not! As the old spiritual goes: “There’s no hiding place down here. There’s no hiding place down here. I went to the rock to hide my face, the rock cried out, ‘No hiding place.’ There’s no hiding place down here.”

In Lent, we go with the Lord Jesus into the wilderness for forty days. We go to that place where the devil tempts us to turn from God and to return to our idols. For accountability’s sake, you should tell one person what you are giving up for Lent. If it’s embarrassing to tell another, then say, “I’m giving up something for Lent, and I want you to ask me every day how I am doing with that.” It’s best for you to have a prayer partner who is likewise asking you to hold him or her accountable. You pray for each other. In a particularly difficult hour of trial, you call your prayer partner and ask him or her to pray for you. If it’s an easy sacrifice, that’s not your idol.

When people asked our Grandma Josie what she was giving up for Lent, she would say, “Turnips.” When her children said, “But Mama, you don’t like turnips,” she would answer, “Well, that’s what I’m giving up for Lent.” Grandma’s honesty was, nevertheless, duplicitous.

It’s become fashionable, particularly among liberal Protestants, to add something for Lent instead of giving something up. Well, that’s half right. First, we give up something important, even vital to our identity, and then we replace it with Bible reading, prayer, and good works.

Once again, I’m sending out daily devotions entitled, “Unsung Saints,” brief vignettes about people, who have shaped and impacted my faith and life. Not all of these people are admirable. In fact, some are downright less than admirable. They have been important in ways that I don’t always want to articulate or can’t. But you have people like that in your life and in your faith walk, and I hope to trigger those memories for you to ponder. In those devotions, there is always the epistle lesson appointed for that day. There is always a short prayer. There is always the challenge to set aside a little offering each day to be shared with the poor at the end of Lent.

Why do we keep a holy Lent? Why do we give up and add? Why do we go into the wilderness with our Lord Jesus Christ? Is this what we do for God? No.

This is the practice of Holy Baptism, which is not a onetime event. We die daily to ourselves with Christ and rise daily to new life in Him. If you have not been baptized, Lent is a time to prepare for Baptism at the Easter Vigil on Saturday, April 3, at 6 p.m. If you have been baptized but have been away from your Baptism for a long time, Lent is a time to come home. Please.

The prophet Joel reminds us today and throughout Lent, “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (2:13-15).

But why do we turn and return to the Lord our God? He loves us more than His own life. For us and for our salvation, while we were yet sinners, yes idolaters, Christ Jesus died for us, the ungodly. He took our death sentence upon Himself on the cross. He feared, loved, and trusted His Heavenly Father above all things. He is faithful and obedient, while we are faithless and disobedient. We go into the wilderness with Him, because that is where intimacy with God is.

Keeping Lent does not save us. Jesus saves us. Keeping Lent shows us our sin and shows us our Savior. Do not be afraid, dear ones. Jesus fears, loves, and trusts His Father above all things, and in Him and through Him we are able, by grace and mercy alone, to let go to take hold!

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©Samuel David Zumwalt, STS

St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church

Wilmington, North Carolina USA