God is great, God is good

God is great, God is good

Exodus 20:1-17

There’s a prayer we say together before dinner at night.  I bet you can guess which one.  I’ll even give you a hint:  we have two small children.

Yep, you got it:

God is great, God is good,
Let us thank him for our food.
By his hands we all are fed;
Give us Lord our daily bread.
Amen.
(Optionally followed by:  Dig in!)

I’ve said this prayer my whole life… but I don’t think I thought about it until recently, when Anna Carter Florence made mention of it in a book I’m reading.  All of a sudden I stopped to wonder:

What does it mean that God is great and God is good?

Do we only say that because it conveniently rhymes with “food”?

I don’t think so; I think we say it because it means something.  Our God is not small and bad; God is great and good.  And that has consequences.  Consequences not only for our basic beliefs about the Creator of the Universe, but for the way God’s creation (that’s us) is supposed to behave.

Do you want to know what those consequences are?

Then let’s turn to Exodus 20, more commonly known as the Ten Commandments.

To set the stage, God has rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  God has led them across the Red Sea.  God has given them manna from heaven to eat and water from a rock to drink.  Now they’ve arrived at Mount Sinai.  God has descended in a dense cloud, and spoken loud enough so that Moses and all of Israel can hear.

And here is what God has to say.

Ten Commandments Marc Chagall 1966

Ten Commandments, Marc Chagall (1966)

I saved you out of Egypt.  I’m your God.  So…

  1. Don’t have any other gods before me. Just me:  I AM.
  2. Don’t make any idols, and definitely don’t worship them. Just me:  I AM.
  3. Don’t misuse my name. Treat it with respect.
  4. Set aside a holy day for me.

Do you notice a theme in these four?  Might we classify them under, “God is great”?

Then God continues… (some of this language is thanks to Trish and Richard Bruxvoort Colligan’s “Ten Commandments” song)

  1. Life is sacred; honor your mom and dad who raised you.
  2. Life is sacred; don’t murder.
  3. Love is sacred; don’t commit adultery.
  4. Relationships are sacred; don’t steal.
  5. Your word is sacred; don’t lie against your neighbor.
  6. Your life is sacred; don’t covet what your neighbor has got.

These commands are less about God and more about others – how we treat others.  They’re about valuing all life as sacred.  They’re about caring for the well-being of someone else.  They’re about wanting the best for others as we might want it for ourselves.

They’re about… goodness.  Because God is good.

God is great, God is good.  What a simple prayer – a child’s prayer.  But when you look at the Ten Commandments and see how it affects our lives, it’s really not so simple.  If we really believe that God is great, really believe that God is good… then everything changes.

Then this child’s prayer becomes a bold declaration, a defiant stance against the smallness and badness that is far too prevalent in the world.

God isn’t small.  God isn’t chasing after any old thing to try and build up our egos.  God isn’t selling our souls so we can buy our way into self-worth, or working 24/7 because we think we’re the most important things in the Universe.

And God isn’t bad.  God isn’t the disrespect of life that leads to 58 people senselessly killed.  God isn’t the disrespect of our parents that abandons them when they need us.  God isn’t destroying families by breaking marriage vows.  God isn’t drooling over the greener grass in someone else’s yard.

God isn’t any of those things.

Yes, they happen.  Sometimes the world is small, and the world is bad.  These commandments get broken all the time – sometimes by us.  When that happens, we don’t just keep going down some dark path; we ask God to forgive us (and we know we can, through Jesus Christ).  We pick ourselves up and start again, start living into our great and good God’s way of life.

Here’s a little fun fact:  the Ten Commandments show up twice in the Old Testament.  Here, in Exodus 20, and then again in Deuteronomy 5 (there’s this whole idol-making incident that leads to Moses smashing the original tablets… but that’s another story for another day).

After the Israelites are given the Ten Commandments a second time, God reinforces them with a “Great Commandment.”  Jews consider this passage so important they have a name for it:  the Shema (or Shema Yisrael) because of the Hebrew word for “hear” that begins it:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.   Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,  and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deut 6:4-9).

“Recite them to your children…”  How interesting that many of us parents have done just that, whether we know it or not, by teaching our kids to pray, “God is great, God is good…”

Kids do need to be taught what it means that God is great and good, how God wants us to live in the image of the good and great one who created us.  But notice it’s not just for the kids:  the Israelites are supposed to talk about them all day, think about them morning and night, make reminders on their hands and forehead and doorposts…  In other words, adults need to learn these, too.

So I challenge you to pray, every day this week, a sweet but revolutionary prayer:

God is great, God is good…

When you pray it, believe it.  And because you believe it, remember the first four commandments that order our lives around God’s greatness.  Remember the other six commandments that order our lives around God’s goodness toward all.

Remember… and live in a way that reflects your great and good God.

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