Choosing the Right God to Worship

Sermon delivered on Trinity 19A, Sunday, October 22, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. Check it out.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 33.12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10; Matthew 22.15-22.

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

In one way or another, our readings this morning deal with choosing to worship the one real God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But why is this so critically important for us to get right? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

At its very core, the issue before us is whom are we going to worship? Being created in God’s image, we are naturally inclined to worship something or someone, whether we realize it or not (and we often don’t realize this). Before our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, rebelled against God, the choice was easy. They worshiped God their Creator and enjoyed intimate fellowship with him. The result was Paradise and complete health, a life that was devoid of the various anxieties, sicknesses, and brokenness we all experience in this mortal life.

But then came the Fall, and with it our enslavement to the outside and hostile powers of Sin, Evil, and Death, so that our hearts—our wills, our minds, our emotions, our entire being—are inclined to worship idols or false gods. We see this problem clearly in our lessons this morning. In our OT lesson, Moses talked with the Lord about whether God was willing to accompany his people to the promised land. This conversation came on the heels of Israel’s great sin of worshiping the golden calf that we saw last week. The people perceived that God was not with them, nor was God’s servant Moses, and so the people promptly looked for other false gods to lead and guide them—thus the golden calf. But God was gracious to his wayward people and did not permanently consign them to wander aimlessly in the wilderness or destroy them. Instead, God promised Moses to send God’s angel to lead them to the promised land.

But this wasn’t good enough for Moses. How can we be your people, he asks? How can we bring your healing love and blessing to the world if you no longer go with us? In other words, how can we be your one and only unique people whom you have called? No, God, if you are going to consign us to someone else’s care, I’d rather you just let us die here in the desert in your presence rather than lead us to a new land without you. Do you have that kind of humble faith, that desire to have a real relationship with the living God?

And of course God relented. God was gracious to his people Israel and did indeed lead them into the promised land. This reminds us again why God created us as his people in Christ, the newly reconstituted Israel. God calls us to live up to our creative purpose as his image-bearing creatures. This was why God called Israel into existence through Abraham. God wants us to act in ways that will bring God’s healing love, God’s goodness, God’s justice, and God’s mercy to bear on God’s sin-sick and broken world. To do that, however, means we must first hit the mark when it comes to worshiping the one true God. If we worship idols or false gods, we will end up reflecting their image (and pathology) out into the world instead of God’s goodness, love, and mercy. For example, if sex becomes our idol, we will develop lifestyles that reflect our worship of it and we will pursue it above everything else. The result? Promiscuity, adultery, porn addiction, prostitution and the like. We don’t have to be a victim of any of these vices to understand the destructiveness of such a lifestyle, both to ourselves and to our loved ones. Or consider the cost of self-worship. It leads to narcissism, alienation, and a host of attendant anti-social behaviors. Our worship of these idols will inevitably bring God’s wrath on them and us. How can a good and loving God look the other way when our lifestyle promotes illness, brokenness, anger, alienation, and death? If God really won’t do anything to restore justice and make right all the hurt in God’s world and our lives, why would we want to worship a god like that in the first place? But that’s what happens when we worship false gods, gods who are powerless to promote right and healthy living and put to rights all that is wrong in this world and us. No wonder Moses preferred to stay in the desert with the true Living God than to enter the promised land without God!

St. Paul saw the same issue at work in the church at Thessalonica. Many there had responded positively to his preaching and claim that Jesus was the image of the one true but invisible (to our mortal eyes) God. They had turned away from worshiping the false gods around them, including emperor worship, and had instead chosen to worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom they had redemption, the forgiveness of their sins. In a culture where refusing to worship the chosen idols could prove to be costly and dangerous, the little church at Thessalonica remained steadfast in their true worship, despite facing persecution for not bowing to the Roman emperor as most around them did. But what could these false gods offer? Could they save them from the coming wrath of God as their faith in Jesus could? Did those who worshiped false gods have the hope of new heavens and earth with its promise of the abolition of all evil and sorrow and death? No. Only faith in the Son of God could offer them that hope and protection. For St. Paul, their faithfulness and their willingness to conform their lives after Jesus their Lord was powerful evidence that the Holy Spirit was at work because it is only in the power of the Spirit that we are able to live faithfully as God’s image-bearers.

We see the same struggle over whom to worship in our gospel lesson as well, and Jesus leaves his opponents speechless in their attempt to trap him. What else would we expect when we see humans trying to trap God? Give to the rulers of this world what is due to them (which of course isn’t all that much) and to God what is God’s. Ever since Tertullian, that great second-century Christian theologian, many in the Church have identified the “things that are God’s” as God’s human image-bearing creatures. Caesar’s image was on a coin that stood for transient and fallen things, whereas God’s image is on and in his people whom he calls in his Son our Lord to embody God’s great love and mercy and goodness out into God’s world. In other words, the whole world belongs to God and he has created us to run it wisely as his image-bearers.

And the challenge of who or what to worship remains with us today. To be sure, most of us don’t make golden calves to worship anymore, although alarmingly a recent news article notes the rise of witchcraft and astrology amongst millennials in lieu of organized religion. That notwithstanding, we have our own legion of idols: money, sex, power, security, status, youth, fame, diversity, inclusion, and a host of others that we elevate to god status. Will we choose to worship the one true and living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, or will we choose to worship the idols of our choosing? This is more than just an interesting question, my beloved. It is a matter of life and death for us to choose wisely. When we choose to give our lives to idols, we can expect nothing but disaster in our lives and we have no real hope for anything beyond this mortal life.

But when, by the power of the Spirit, we choose to put our hope and trust in our Lord Jesus, the very embodiment of the living God, we begin to walk the path of freedom and release from our slavery to Sin and Evil. It also means we will discover real meaning and purpose for the living of our days—to be God’s image-bearers to the world, who will embody God’s love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, goodness, and justice to those around us. Some will find this lifestyle attractive. But many will not and they will hate us, just as they hate God. And if you do not think people hate God and are openly hostile to him, look no further than the Passion of our Lord and today’s gospel lesson. That’s why some enemies of the faith brand orthodox Christians as “extremists,” to marginalize us and pave the way to persecute us. Ever since our first ancestors, humans have always wanted to get God out of the way so that we could run things as we see fit. But that way doesn’t lead to forgiveness of our sins and reconciliation with God that are made possible by our Lord’s death. It leads to our enslavement to Sin and Death.

No wonder, then, that Scripture is so concerned about idol worship. God made us for himself and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in him. Nothing else will do. Nothing else will satisfy. May we all find our health and well-being in the Lord Jesus who died for us while we were still God’s enemies so that we could live and be reconciled to God, thus enabling us to truly make a difference for him. This is the Good News we are to pronounce and live out, my beloved, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

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