02 March 2008

Keeping Idolatry at Bay: Sermon for 2.Feb.2008

I do not have an official title for this sermon.  It is my longest to-date, 29 minutes I believe. Interesting that folk have not complained, if anything they have welcomed an exegetical, historical, spiritual and contemplative approach - go figure.  I also made a major faux pas, you will see it in the sermon italicized.  The congregation got a real kick out of it, in some ways it brought back those who had drifted off.  


Keeping Idolatry at Bay
Fourth Sunday in Lent
Psalm 1 and Matthew 4:1-2 & 8-11
by The Rev'd G. Travis Norvell

     The devil approached Jesus, for the third and last time, in the gospel of Matthew, enticing him with the grandest of all sins: idolatry. Take the entire Bible, it is not a book of greatest hits or great success stories. The Bible is a huge and ancient book giving us examples of how not to do things, how to avoid idolatry. Idolatry is simply stated, by the Apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, when we change the truth of God into a lie, and worship and serve the creature more than the Creator. You have had moments when you have felt a deep connection with your true self. You have had moment when you have felt a deep connection with God. They were both the same moment only seen from different perspectives. They were moments of truth, they were moment of the truth of God. But the connection left us, it slipped faraway beyond our grasp. Perhaps fear kept us from living from the truth we discovered. Perhaps we overanalyzed the situation and passed it off as unreal. Or perhaps we simply could not muster the courage to fully live from that center we found. You want to live life from that center; you can imagine a life totally different if you would live from that center. But we seem not to be able to live from this center and we all to easily exchange the truth of God for a lie when have created about life and ourselves. 

I dare say we are all here this morning trying to soothe the pain we live with knowing we have exchanged the truth about God for a lie. We are trying to self-medicate in the most healthy way possible, we are trying to fill the God shaped hole in our hearts with God.

Let us pray:
Living God, who sent your Son Jesus to be with us for a little while, long enough to show us the way, the truth, and the life. We beseech you at this time to make your Spirit known for a little while, long enough to soften our hearts, to set off sparks of love, and to fill us with hope. In the mean time we offer our attention and our whole selves in this time of proclamation. Amen.

The devil approached Jesus for the third time and tempted him once again. Beneath the devil’s plain spoken words are three varieties of idolatry: he tempts Jesus to deny who he is, to deny his calling, and to deny the truth he had discovered about himself and about God. In essence the devil wants Jesus to change the truth about God into a lie and worship the created rather than the Creator.

I want us to look at these three angles of idolatry as if we are cooking onions, you gotta keep stirring them at a low temperature for a bit before they turn brown.

The devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendors and said to him, ‘All these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me’.

Denying Who He Is

This temptation is based on a downright lie. The devil offers Jesus kingdoms that are not his to offer. The devil has no right to this world, this world as the old hymn says Is My Father’s World. This world is the place where Jesus, God incarnate, pitched his tent instantly sanitizing any thoughts of this world being anything other than the arena of God’s love.

The devil’s temptation is asking Jesus to deny who he is, God incarnate. Instead of God being in control of this world, the devil is asserting that he is. If Jesus will believe this than he is trading the truth about God for a lie.

Denying Who He is Called to Be

This temptation contains another layer or perspective and that is the devil tries to tempt Jesus to deny who is called to be. The devil wants Jesus to sell his soul at the crossroads by falling down and worshipping him.  

This aspect of this temptation stuck out like a flashing neon sign. Why would the devil ask Jesus to fall down and worship? There are places in the Bible where folk will lay prostrate on the floor and worship God, there are times when folk feel inferior to God and turn their heads, and there are spots when folk do fall down and worship. But these are few and far between. No where does the Bible require folk to fall down to worship God. As soon as the curtain opens in the Bible humanity is not viewed as subservient beings who do not participate in the affairs of God, instead we are defined as co-creators in this world. We are given the privilege of watching over creation, we are able to argue/bargain with God, and we are able to partner with God to help usher in the kingdom. Suffice to say that we do not fall down to worship. But who does, or better who did in Jesus’ time? What is the devil doing asking Jesus to bow down and worship him?  

The question gets to the heart of Jesus’ calling as the Messiah, God’s Annointed. Folk did bow down in Jesus’ time, it was the ceremonial act of those who were subservient to the Romans in the occupied territories of Palestine and beyond. The occupation and Roman hegemony caused great anger and resentment among the populous; so much so that a great fervor for God to deliver swelled up. People hoped and believed the messiah, another King David, would come to lead them in a violent overthrow of the Romans and re-establish the kingdom. The devil is tempting Jesus to be this kind of Messiah and not the kind of Messiah God has called him to be. The devil is asking Jesus to fall down and worship him so that he can give him all the kingdoms of this world. Jesus will not trade the truth of God, that he is the Messiah in the image God has created him, for a lie about God, that he is the messiah created in the devil’s image.

Denying the Truth He Discovered
Lastly the devil tempted Jesus to deny the truth he had discovered about himself and about God: bow down and worship me, forget about that Yahweh figure. I believe Jesus discovered his true self while in the wilderness during the forty days and forty nights. He truly came to terms with his call to be the Messiah, to reflect fully his true self as the Christ, to live out of the center that centered in God.

In response to the devil Jesus quoted a passage from Dueteronomy: Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name. Jesus quoted from Moses’ last speech to the Israelites before they entered the land flowing with milk and honey. Moses warned for he knew how tempting the foreign gods would be to the Israelites and how easily they would forget all that the Lord had done for them. But the warning only to worship God also came with a practical element, which we know as the Shema.  

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. Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your head and let them serve as a symbol on you forehead; inscribe them on the doorpost of your house and on your gates.  (Dueteronomy 6:4-9, Tanak translation

Moses knew and the devil knew that the life of faith ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, goes through moments of drought and floods. Sometime God feels very close, but for most of the time folk experience God far away. So Moses gave his plea for Israel to remember; as a sign of remembrance they are to place reminders all over their homes, on their bodies and to pass on the story to future generations. The devil hoped to find Jesus at a low point in his faith when he tempted him to make a deal: sell me your soul and I will give you the world.

The temptation is to commit idolatry to exchange the truth of God for a lie; to live out of an untrue center.

The So What

The temptations of Jesus in the desert were Jesus’ temptations alone. We will not relive the temptations in the wilderness after fasting for forty days and forty nights. But you and I will be tempted throughout the remainder of our days. You and I will commit adultery (I meant to say idolatry, the congregation got a kick out of this slip), we will worship other gods and we will live as reflections of our false self rather than our true self. One step is to continually confess our sins as we do each week, but is that enough? Is it enough to take one step forward on Sunday and two steps back on Monday thru Saturday?

Perhaps we have made Christianity too easy. Perhaps we have set the bar of expectation too low rather than too high.

We are all present here this morning for reasons we cannot fully express. But there is a desire to know more about God and God’s Word. There is a desire to live a more fruitful life, a more abundant life. We want to move away from our fickleness and live a more centered and true life. We want to have faith that is sure and sound, deep and true. We want to live as one planted beside the streams of water. We want to be one of the monster sycamore trees down along the bike path or on River Road. So what is our next step? How do we move from desire to practice?

For me the only route that makes any sense is the contemplative route. I set aside time when my mind and body are most alert and devote it to God. I prefer to read classic Christian devotional literature, the psalms or a portion of the gospels. I prefer to sit with what I am reading till a word, image or metaphor appears, then I like to stay with that emergence till I can understand why it has popped off the page the way it did. Sometimes the answer comes immediately, other times it take a good part of the day for it to bubble up. At the end of the day I can usually tell that it was came as a word from the Lord, an image that reflects the image of God in me, the true self.

For some of you silence would drive you crazy, there are some who need a visual image to guide them, others need a spoken word or music, some people have to be doing something like walking, knitting, drawing, etc. Whatever avenue you seek to explore there are time honored disciplines within Christianity to accompany you. The task is to just do it; to be intentional about it and to give your best time to God. I am talking here about ten to 15 minutes a day.

Our relationship with God, mimics any relationship with humans: it is only good as much time we put into it and nurture it. We will never ever stop committing idolatry, but we can greatly lower the odds, we can focus more intently on God, we can let our true self rise up rather than our false self for a good amount of time. But we can only do this if we increase our attention, devotion, knowledge and experience of the living God.

All you need to grow deeper in your faith is to show up, that is it. To devote ten minutes to God. You may say only ten minutes, but believe me all you have to do is provide a small crack and God will illuminate. All you have to do is provide a little spark and God will spread like wildfire.

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