"You shall have no other gods before me."
—Exodus 20:3, NIV
It was the biggest night of the year, when every youth group in my area gathered together for a special time of worship. And it was one of those nights when everyone in the room could feel the presence of God.
I was leading worship. Standing on that stage, singing with as much passion as I could muster, I knew that I was worshiping God and he was pleased. But when the night was over—when the music had stopped, the emotions had leveled, and the people had gone home—I couldn't help thinking, God, is this it? Is this what it means to worship you? Or is there more to worshiping you than nights like this?
God placed an answer to my questions in the first commandment. It's the one that goes: "You shall have no other gods before me." It seems crazy at first, but there's a whole lot about worship packed into that little sentence. So let's go back to the time when this sentence first appeared on a tablet of stone.
When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 19:1-20:17), the nations around Israel believed that different gods ruled over different, specific areas. These gods only held power over the land their people owned.
And why is this important to know? Because Israel didn't have any land. Since the days of Abraham, the people of Israel were nomadic—wandering from place to place. They had no homeland. But it got even worse for the Israelites. For the 400 years before God gave them the Ten Commandments, they'd been held as slaves in Egypt. So it makes sense that the people of the time assumed Israel's God was a pushover. A wimp. A failure. A God to a bunch of people who were landless losers. So when this "wimpy" God issued a command to "have no other gods before me," it must have sounded completely ridiculous! Why would Israel, who'd been enslaved in someone else's land, obey this command?
Exodus 20:2, the verse that begins the Ten Commandments, has the answer:
"I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." God reminds Israel that he freed them from slavery. And he did it with more than a dozen miracles in the land of Egypt—a land Israel didn't own.
It was a whole new way of thinking: God was not limited to certain pieces of land. He was present and powerful wherever Israel went. He was on their side. And contrary to popular belief, this God was certainly no wimp!
When I look at how we treat youth group and church sometimes, I am reminded of the nations around Israel who believed that gods only ruled their special area of land. Whether we realize it or not,
I think many of us might believe exactly the same thing. We expect God's presence and power in special locations—a sanctuary, a retreat center, a small-group meeting, or a prayer chapel. We call our actions in these places "worship" because we believe God is there. But it is so easy for us to forget that there are no buildings or boundaries that tie God down. He is present and powerful in every place.