What does it mean to say that someone has made an idol of something in his or her life?
Do you resonate with the challenge to resist idolatry? Or is idolatry, to you, a kind of outdated word that points back to ancient times and golden calves and pagan gods - all with a general lack of application for our present circumstance? Many people these days don’t believe in any gods, much less the wrong ones. Surely idolatry is not a pitfall that enlightened people like you and I face today.
What’s more, I wonder if our showing up here – our being in church today, the front end of Spring Break, time change to boot – doesn’t prove that - even if idolatry still happens from time to time - we, at least, have not been fooled into lifting up our hearts to shiny bovines? What I’m looking for is the honesty to ask: why do we even bother anymore with readings like our reading from Exodus today?
“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.”
“You shall not make for yourself an idol.” None of us do that. Is this simply another case of preaching to the choir, a message for the heathens out there, with the bizarre but unavoidable realization that the ones who need to be called away from idolatry will, by definition, never be in church to hear that word?
Not so fast, says Martin Luther. Luther believed that idolatry remained a challenge for Christians. Indeed, Christians experience the challenge, he thought, more acutely, exactly because Christians commit through baptism to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christians state our living intention to trust wholly in the living God. We have promised ourselves to God. And so, relative to those who never give themselves over to God in baptism, we experience the pull of idolatry, unfaithfulness, perhaps more destructively than they do.
Many a one thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions; he trusts in them and boasts of them with such a firmness and assurance as to care for no one. Lo, such a man also has a god, Mammon by name, i.e., money and possessions, on which he sets all his heart, and which is also the most common idol on earth. He who has money and possessions feels secure, and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise. On the other hand, he who has none doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God…So, too, whoever trusts and boasts that he possesses great skill, prudence, power, favor, friendship, and honor has also a god, but not the true and only God. This appears again when you notice how presumptuous, secure, and proud people are because of such possessions, and how despondent when they no longer exist or are withdrawn. Therefore I repeat that the chief explanation of this point is that to have a god is to have something in which the heart entirely trusts…[So] ask and examine your heart diligently, and you will find whether it cleaves to God alone or not.
Three observations here:
First, Luther is adamant that idolatry afflicts believers in God. Idolatry finds us all, even in Church.
Second, I’m struck by Luther’s observation that love of money affects rich and poor alike, to the extent that money is the place wherein our hope comes to rest. Being a poor person or a poor church does not insulate us from putting our hope in the false god of Mammon. And of course, wealth almost certainly means we will require the daily reminder to not rest in - not become attached to - that which does not actually belong to us. Hope that is not in God is not our lasting hope.
Third - and most significantly, I think - notice Luther’s language at the end: “…ask and examine your heart…you will find whether it cleaves to God alone.” This language of cleaving is familiar; it comes from Genesis 2:24: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they will be one flesh.” Sometimes the word “cleave” is translated “be united to.” A man will be united to his wife. Made one flesh. And Luther asks us if our hearts cleave to God like this.
This language of cleaving is helpful, I think. It takes idolatry from the land of stone pillars and golden cows and places it in the context of living, intimate relationship. Like husband and wife. Bridegroom and bride. In the introduction at the beginning of the marriage liturgy marriages – somewhere after, “Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God” – we hear these words: marriage “signifies to us the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church.” The Church cleaves to Christ as a spouse cleaves to her spouse.
Does your heart cleave to God? asks Luther.
I think this is why, just after the commandment to not make idols, we hear these words in Exodus: “…for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…”
A jealous God. But isn’t it bad to be jealous? we think. What does it mean for God to be jealous? The jealousy of God makes sense, I think, when we remember that word “to cleave.” God’s desire is marriage to God’s people. Holy union. What I’m trying to say is that idolatry understood in the context of relationship with the living God is less about laws of stone and more about temptations to lust: the constant, furtive, and faithless glances we cast at false gods, even ourselves - idols in whom we place the trust of our hearts meant for God alone.
I remember a sermon I heard on marriage once. The pastor didn’t beat around the bush. He said, “Some days I come home, grab a beer, and hole up by myself, don’t check in with my wife, my family, don’t offer to help with the routine of the evening chores. I just check out.” He went on: “On those days, my actions say out loud, ‘I’m acting as if I don’t want to be married. I am un-choosing my marriage today.”
Does your heart cleave to God? Are there days, times, in which you un-choose the promises of baptism (which is analogous to our marriage, as a people, to God)? Which are the short-skirted culprits that most often steal your eye and your trust?
What truths do our actions speak about the priority of God and the places of ultimate trust in our lives?
This is something of what Jesus is on to when he tells his friends and followers that he didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfill the law. For it is exactly in Christ that the relationship between God and His People finds its fullest expression. Idolatry not as a breech in the tax code but as un-choosing the union, the marriage, that God re-chooses, perfects on the cross. Because he is jealous.
One early church theologian writes of our gospel today - the jealous Jesus, chasing out the money changers and all the rest from the temple - that: “Christ is [also] jealous for the house of God in each of us, not wishing it to be a house of merchandise or that the house of prayer become a den of thieves, since he is Son of a jealous God.”
So what began as a consideration of golden cows becomes admission of our unfaithfulness by which we discover the Good News of the jealousy of God. The Good News of the jealousy of God is this: God has not, will not, give up on you. God’s love is from everlasting. And the invitation of that love is to receive it.
Thus Lent comes with the invitation to repentance and self-disciplines. We acknowledge that, some days, in our life with God, we come home, grab a beer, and hole up by ourselves, don’t check in with the church family, don’t offer to help with the routine of the evening chores. We just check out. There are some days, that by our actions we say, ‘I’m acting as if I don’t care that I am God’s wholly beloved child. I am un-choosing my baptism today.”
We name this truth about ourselves in Lent, and then we are confronted with the glorious and honest question with the power to defeat even bad days like this – God’s question when he comes to you and says, “I love you. I forgive you. I am wildly jealous for you. I pray that you will become wildly jealous for me. But just now, will you believe me – this is the question – will you trust me when I tell you that I choose not to un-choose you - ever?
[Sermon preached at St C's, March 11, 2012, Lent 3]