Exodus 20:1-5a, 22-24, Matthew 6:24-25
Thankful People: Idols
I’ve mentioned to you before that one of the things Jesus talks about most in the gospels is money: our stuff, our things, what we treasure, what we do with what we’ve been given. Perhaps up to 40% of the teachings of Jesus relate in some way to our wealth and what we do with it. But throughout the scriptures as a whole there’s a broader, recurring topic that takes us from one end of the scriptures to the other, and that’s idolatry, the practice of making and worshiping false gods.
Today when we hear the word idol, we don’t usually think of worshipping false gods. Without a little context, that concept is kind of hard for us to get our heads around. What pops to our mind is American Idol, celebrities, sports figures, people we put on a pedestal, people we want to be like, people we admire. But I don’t think we’d say we want to worship those people, right? I think when we think about idolatry, we maybe think about the golden calf that Aaron and the Israelites made and worshiped, and we can’t picture ourselves ever doing anything like that, and so we’re pretty sure idolatry isn’t something we have to worry much about.
In the scriptures, most of the story we get of God and God’s people finds God’s people living in an extremely multicultural society. The Israelites were a tiny people, relative to the size of other nations, and they often found themselves living and moving among peoples of other nations and cultures, surrounded by people who practiced different faith traditions, worshiped other gods. And so, when God gives the law for God’s people to Moses, the very first of all of them is the one we read in Exodus in our text for today: “I am the Lord your God … 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. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” Instead, God says, at the altar, make offerings to me from your life, your livelihood. And I will bless you. Time and again in the scriptures, God and God’s servants demonstrate that God, creator of the universe, is not a god who can be contained, boxed in, controlled. And making idols is something that makes a deity small enough to be controlled by the one doing the idolizing, even though it seems like an act of adoration.
Our gospel lesson is two short verses from Matthew, and Jesus’ words demonstrate that idols are more than images of other gods. Idols are whenever we’ve let something else be master of our lives besides God. “No one can serve two masters” Jesus says, “for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”
When Jesus talks about worry, the word means literally to “be preoccupied with or be absorbed by.” When Jesus speaks of worry, he’s not speaking of the mild anxiety we might have about our upcoming to do list. He’s speaking of something that preoccupies us, absorbs our attention, takes our effort and energy and heart’s direction. In fact, in this way, Jesus is describing something that’s very close to idolatry. Idolatry is when we take anything that is other than God, and give it the place of God in our lives. All through the scriptures, idolatry is one of the things that God most deplores about our human behavior. Again and again, we’re putting something else in a more important place than we put God. Are you absorbed by something other than God? Letting your life revolve around that which is not God? You can never serve two masters, Jesus says, and doing so is putting your very soul at risk. If we don’t want to end up serving a master other than God, we must stop letting our lives be absorbed by things that aren’t God. Idolatry, then, is the thing God and the writers of the scriptures warn most against from one end of the Bible to the other.
Today I talked with the children about putting God first. It isn’t that God doesn’t want us to have the other good things that we enjoy in our lives. But we’re meant to put the things in our life in the right place, the right order, giving priority and weight to what matters most. God first, and God most and best, and then everything else. How often, and how easily, though, do we find that we’re trying to put everything else in and squeeze God and God’s hopes for our life in with the little bit of leftover room at the end!
When I was first in ministry, and making my giving commitment, I have to admit I did something like this. I’d make my budget and budget in what I wanted to give as my tithe – but I wouldn’t give it right away. I’d wait, because I considered it sort of a cushion of money if something went wrong during the month. Inevitably, things would come up and I’d spend a little more here and a little more there than I meant to, and the portion I was giving to God got smaller and smaller, and sometimes it disappeared altogether. After some time, I decided I needed to make a change, and I started having my tithe withheld from my paycheck. I’d never even see the money, so I couldn’t forget to give it first, and I couldn’t play around with the amount, and I couldn’t use it for other things. It was a hard change, but I learned to make do, and more than that, I felt like I was putting my life in the right order. God first, everything else next. And our financial resources are just a part of it. Who gets our time first? Who gets our energy first? Who gets our heart first? Getting your life in order, with God in the right place, the first place, isn’t a magic plan that will make you rich or make things trouble-free, or make things easy. But reordering our lives with God first will bring us deep peace, unfailing hope, lasting joy. God promises. Next Sunday we’ll celebrate Consecration Sunday, as we make a financial commitment to God for the year ahead. It’s one way in which we are called to tangibly reorder our lives with God first.
Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday. It’s not a day that we’re celebrating idols that we’ve put up on pedestals, as much as we loved the people who we’ll name today. That’s not what All Saints is about. In the scriptures, the word we read as “saints” literally means “holy ones.” Saints are people who are being made holy. Remember, last Sunday we talked about how God makes us holy, when we ask God to consecrate our lives – to take our ordinary selves and make them holy. When we have opened our lives to God’s work in us in that way, when we’ve committed to a life of allowing God to work in us more fully and completely all the time, when we’ve committed to reordering our lives so that God is first, and center, that’s what God does in us – make our ordinary lives holy, makes us holy ones, makes us part of the communion of saints.
We can be disciples of only one teacher. We can serve only one master. Only one thing can have first place in our lives. What are you putting first?