“Time, Money, and Idolatry”
Exodus 20:1-3, 5b; Deuteronomy 8:11-14, 17-18b; Matthew 6:19-33; James 4:13-16
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I’m sorry I need to join you remotely today,
instead of in person.
I’ve been having cold symptoms the last several days.
Thankfully, it’s not COVID
(I’ve tested three different times to be sure).
So to avoid coughing or sneezing around any of you,
and to set a good example to us all—
since we ask any of you with cold or flu-like symptoms
to stay home—
I will do the same,
and share my message from my home office.
I wonder how many of you are like me, in that,
while reading the Bible, especially the Old Testament,
we have a slight mental hiccup whenever we read God saying,
“I, Yahweh, am a jealous God.”
We might even silently substitute the word for something
more fitting for the Creator of the Universe,
than this immature emotion called “jealousy.”
But . . . we can hardly overlook or dismiss the biblical notion
that God gets jealous.
It comes up at least two dozen times in scripture.
And in today’s reading,
it shows up right in the Ten Commandments,
the most universally affirmed scripture in the Bible.
So how do we make sense of
a God who gets jealous and possessive of our affection?
Does this really paint a picture of God as an insecure deity?
Is the kind of jealousy God feels
anything like what we remember from our school days,
when a certain star athlete got more attention than we did,
and more perks,
like having a seat saved at a certain table in the cafeteria—
back in the corner—
where we were NOT welcome to sit.
Not implying that ever happened to me!
Or is it the jealousy one partner in a couple feels,
when a third party starts infringing
on protected space in that relationship?
So who is God jealous of, actually? other gods? other lovers?
Is God jealous of all the attention going to Baal?
Does God feel threatened by a golden calf?
Is God afraid of being bumped from a spot at the lunch table,
in the cafeteria of the gods?
No. No. And no!
This is the sort of trouble we get into
when we try to make God in our image.
Of course, God is not insecure.
God does not get riled up about idolatry,
because it hurts God’s fragile ego.
No, that’s our issue.
In psychological jargon,
that’s taking our dysfunction, and projecting it onto God.
Let’s look at the word “jealous.”
It actually has the same Latin root as “zealous.”
Other potential synonyms are,
But even more to the point,
what, exactly, is God jealous for?
To what end is God impassioned, protective, and vigilant?
In other words, what gets God riled up?
If we look at the question from a wide angle,
considering the whole narrative of scripture,
the answer comes more easily.
God is jealous, or protective,
of a gift God has given us—
a precious gift,
a priceless gift that the whole future of God’s shalom project
is riding on.
As our Creator, God gave humanity a precious gift—
the possibility of a full and flourishing life
that reflects the image of God in us.
And God put us in charge, trusted us, as I mentioned last Sunday,
with the job of taking care of all creation,
with all the love and regard that God had for it.
The priceless gift is that we are God’s partners, God’s co-workers,
in the project of seeing that creation returns to its original intent,
to reflect the shalom of God—
in all its abundance, diversity, beauty, and harmony.
God trusts us humans, even though we are responsible, primarily,
for messing things up.
God’s great gift is that we have the means—
the authority, the power, and the resources—
to do what God trusted us to do:
to live into our honorable calling,
and pour ourselves into this shalom project.
When we worship gods of our own making,
we reject, discredit, and undermine
God’s whole shalom project of restoring and reconciling creation.
God is jealous for the shalom of all creation!
Can we all hear that?
God is not jealous for God’s own sake.
God is not trying to preserve a fragile ego.
God is jealous, passionate, vigilant, and protective
of the shalom of all creation.
That’s why we should all stop and consider how fortunate we all are,
how fortunate the human race is,
how fortunate all creation is.
God is a jealous God (fortunately).
Because the worship of gods that are not the Creator God,
results in the very opposite of what the Creator has invested in.
Idolatry breeds human self-interest.
Idolatry breeds fear of scarcity,
fear of the other,
and all manner of other evil impulses.
The God we worship has a heart of compassion for
God’s intention is deliverance,
full and abundant human flourishing.
God is jealous for our well-being,
and for the shalom of all creation.
And that, is a precious gift,
for which we should all be grateful.
The other thing we learn about idolatry, from reading our Bible,
is that idolatry is most likely to crop up
in unsettled times.
In times of crisis, when survival is being threatened.
There are many examples,
but the most well-known is probably the Golden Calf story.
That happened when the people were all stranded, together,
in the desert,
and the leader who brought them there, Moses,
He had gone up a dangerous, remote desert mountain,
and after weeks went by,
he seemed likely not to return.
So in the face of uncertainty,
in the face of a leadership vacuum,
in the face of having nothing tangible or secure to lean on,
they created a god to fit their needs.
A god they could see and touch and feel,
one that would accept their worship,
and never run off and disappear on them.
I think that describes pretty well
the way idolatry creeps into our experience, as well.
A golden calf is more relevant to our experience than you might think.
The worship of idols is not unusual or exotic.
This is not about poor benighted heathens
bowing down before statues and trying to feed them.
No, idolatry is about us.
And it is a real and present problem for us.
As we follow God into the unknown,
into life’s unchartered wilderness,
idolatry is anything we create or depend on
for comfort, for predictability, for controllability—
anything that’s a tangible substitute for the in-tangible.
It’s whatever we create, and say “it looks like God!”
because it looks like what we wanted in the first place.
We are tempted daily to misdirect our worship,
to misspend the sacred currencies of our time and money,
on tangible things that give us
some degree of security or satisfaction,
like material possessions or investments or social status
or entertainment or food or sex
or you name it.
These things are not evil in themselves.
Just as a Golden Calf is not inherently evil.
It’s how we relate to these substitutes,
that determines whether it’s an idol.
Are we spending time and money on these
in an effort to remove the risk of faith?
or to calm our anxiety for an unknown future?
or to give us the comforting illusion of control?
If so, we may well be engaged in the practice of idolatry.
And God is jealous.
Jealous for our well-being.
Jealous for our ability to receive the life God wants for us.
Especially in times of stress and uncertainty and risk,
we are prone to spend our sacred currency on idols.
And we should be on guard against it.
This is terribly hard to avoid,
and we should give ourselves plenty of grace when we do it,
and give plenty of grace to others, as well.
It’s especially difficult to put our trust
in the unknown and unseen and mysterious,
when the world is trembling around us,
when the church is changing,
when a recession and inflation looms,
when there is political chaos, a pandemic,
and climate-induced super-storms and super-fires,
and a sharp rise in gun violence and mass shootings,
and a scorched-earth war in Ukraine.
So yes . . . let’s give ourselves grace
when we grasp for something (anything) solid to hold onto.
But let us also keep reaching toward
the God that is beyond our control,
and who promises to be with us in the wilderness.
We are all in need of grace,
and it can be ours in abundance, as we repent.
So let us read together the confession,
printed in the bulletin,
as Moriah leads us.
one God, we confess we fall short of full trust in you,
especially when the world around us shakes.
We are captivated by new and shiny substitutes,
we are tempted by hollow promises of security and success.
all Forgive us. Redirect us. You are the only God we need.
one God, we are grateful for your jealousy,
for your impassioned and fiery and single-minded
commitment to our wellbeing, and to the shalom of all creation.
all Draw us to yourself. Hold us in your embrace.
You are the only God we need.
one The God of steadfast love forgives us. Again.
God always welcomes our whole-hearted worship.
Thanks be to God.
—Phil Kniss, June 19, 2022
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