Sermon March 19 3rd Sunday in Lent.  Exod. 20:1-17, 2Cor 1:22-25, John 2:13-22..

 

John Calvin, described the human heart as "a perpetual factory of idols".

 

It seems that we have to have something to hold on to, some treasure, some ideal that will give direction and hope to our lives, something to keep the darkeness at bay.

 

And so we find some thing around which our lives coalesce.  

 

This is true of all people no matter their orientation in life.

 

While we all value certain things, financial security, health, family, professional life, these values tip over into idolotry when they become ultimate for us, when they act as the central compass that directs our thinking and action.

 

So idols are not things that are restricted to the religious, although they are certainly not exempt.  The person who believes in nothing may make the darkness into which men and women may step, into idol. Calvin was right, the heart is a perpetual factory of idols.  It comes with being human.

 

This urge to hold onto something is universal.

 

And it is this urge that is forbidden in the first commandment.

 

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.  You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

 

It is not by accident that the first commandment is so detailed. The writer knows that we may make an idol of many things.

 

Of course idols do not exist in nature, they are definitely not a creation of God but a creation of man.

 

We invent them, they seem desirable to us. We need them to feel secure  and to have a purpose in life.

 

The most seductive idols are those that seem to us to be good.  This is what produces religious pietism, the attempt at self righteousness that masquerades as faith and keeps God at a distance. It is often where God is most loudly proclaimed that he is most radically denied.

 

The first commandment tells us that nothing is to displace God from the centre of our affection, even, and perhaps especially, the things we find so close to our hearts, family, marriage, parenthood, or the good life or what has now been called lifestyle.

 

Our thinking on this is that if we hold something as of ultimate importance, something that defines who we are, something for which we strive with all our might, then we must know who we are. We approach the status of being a person; a person who contends, who is to be taken seriously.

 

Idols are in part an answer to the question “who am I”? Of course, again, it is natural to identify oneself with our roles in life and to take pleasure in that.  One of the great crisis of retirement is this loss of identity that goes with the role. 

 

However, idols are only idols when we place our ultimate trust in them, when they become the total goal of life.  When that happens “who we are” may have a shallow foundation that may be swept away in times of crisis.

 

In the beginning of the Ten Commandments Israel is told who it is:  Israel is the nation that God brought out of the house of slavery.

 

Among all of the attributes of the nation of Israel, this is top of the list, this marks the nation for who it is forever, it is the nation who was brought out of slavery into freedom.

 

It is no accident that the first commandment follows on from this identification: you shall have no other gods before me.  Israel can only exist as a nation as long as it obeys this commandment.

 

And we can be a member of the church as long as we obey this commandment.  If we understand ourselves primarily as a mother or father or lawyer or accountant or engineer or doctor we fall into the trap of idolatry and we will never transcend those roles in order to be the church.  Our persons will be shallowly rooted.

 

The primary function of idols is to protect us from an encounter with God. We place something in the place that only God can occupy.   God is thus displaced.

 

Why would we want this?  The stories of the bible tell us that fear always accompany the appearance of God so that it is necessary for God, or Jesus to say “fear not”, be not afraid.

 

It is a pity that the present church, in its need to be liked, has emphasized only the love of God to the exclusion of the fear and trembling that he evokes.  God comes over as a dear old grandpa with a pocket full of sweets.

 

There is good reason to place something in the place only God should occupy.  For his love is a burning and consuming fire.  We are right to fear him.

 

Our idolatry is a way of avoiding this fire that would strip us of our false comforts and investments.

Our fear is that we will have to stand naked before God, unprotected by our piety, our self righteousness, our religiosity, our spirituality, our robust or weak self esteem or a list of our accomplishments.

 

It is the fear of this that makes us manufacture believable and good idols that convince us that we are OK. 

 

Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

 

We of the 21st century demand correct attitudes, business plans, mission statements, strategic plans, church outreach, respectability, accountability and responsibility.  We demand lifestyle, the best medical help. Our hope is in education and the economy and the rewards of hard work.

 

The temple in Jerusalem may have been awash with the blood of sacrificed animals, dumb beasts killed to gain favor with God.  But we are awash with public relations experts, mission statements, strategic plans, outcomes based analysis,  and all kinds of humbug designed to disguise the gaping vacuum at the centre of our lives. 

 

It seems as though in its headlong rush to be free of the church, our society has multiplied its idols. To work in any large institution is to encounter language that can only be described as religious.  I am sad to say that in the institution in which I work, the university of Western Australia, we have been almost completely overtaken but such language to the extend that I wonder if we really are about learning after all.

 

But we proclaim Christ crucified, a horror and a failure and a destroyer of idols.

 

For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.  In the face of this proclamation where now the idols of our time?

 

Where now the idols of competition and the sweet deal and the market economy?

Where now the idols of international prestige so loudly trumpeted by our universities?

Where now the political idols of accountability and responsibility and heart felt commitment?

Where now the idols of our Anglican tradition, our denominationalism?

 

Before the crucified one they become as dust and it is only then that we are free for an encounter with God and the resulting true humanity that does not require idols to prop it up. In this we have nothing to lose but our self delusion.

 

The God on Mt Sinai has become the crucified and risen one.  We are to have no other gods than him.  While all of the other gods that we may have will load us down with heavy burdens, only this strange and unexpected God will set us free and create in us a true humanity.

 

For the person that we create with the help of idols will possess but a trace of true personhood. They will be jerry build, thrown up constructions, cobbled together from the odds and ends of transient fashion.

 

They will not be real and they will not be free.

 

Our only hope of becoming real and free is to look to Him who is the only real and free person. It is only when we live in him and he in us that we approach being human.

 

Otherwise we are stuck with the unreality of our idols that really have no existence apart from that given them by our imagination. In this there is no resurrection, no hope, no real being, only ghosts.

 

What then should we do? Paul tells us to pray without ceasing.  This is not an invitation to hyper religiosity which is an idol in itself. Rather it is an invitation to live in a conversation with the living God.  This is the conversation that will remove the idols from our hearts and set us free for the humanity created from the beginning of time.

 

Then, we might be someone.  But we will not be our own fragile creation.  We will be the sons and daughters of God, created in his image, in the image of the true humanity that we see in the person of Jesus of Nazareth with whom the father is well pleased.