03/10/19 “Covenant People: No Idols”

Luke 4:1-13

Before we talk about what Jesus’ experience, I’d like to talk a little bit about what we’re going to be reflecting on over the next few weeks of Lent.  Lent is a time that we set aside for examining the state of our lives and our souls in preparation for the celebration of Easter.  During this Lenten season, we’ll be giving special attention to our identity as God’s covenant people and what it means to be faithful to that covenant.

Covenant is a word we don’t use very much.  It’s often used incorrectly as a synonym for a contract.  But a covenant is different from an ordinary agreement or contract between two parties.  In a contract, the parties agree to exchange something—maybe goods or services, skills, or money.  If one party doesn’t keep up their end of the bargain, the deal is off.  There is often an end-date or an end-point—when the contractual period is over or the work has been completed or the goods have been delivered.

But a covenant isn’t about exchanging things.  It’s a very special kind of relationship, where two parties each give themselves wholly to the other.  There aren’t any escape clauses or conditions.  There aren’t any end dates.  If one party fails to live up to the covenant, the other is still bound to it.  A covenant is intended to be life-long, or even longer, applying to future generations.

In the Church, we mainly talk about covenants when we talk about the marriage covenant, where spouses pledge themselves to each other, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do them part. But all baptized Christians are part of a covenant—a covenant with God.  All covenants are instituted through a special ceremony, and they are marked by a distinguishing sign.  A marriage is instituted in the wedding ceremony and marked by the exchange of rings. The covenant between God and each person is sealed in the ritual of baptism, and water is the sign that marks us as being in covenant with God. God gives God’s self to us in steadfast love through the gift of grace, and we give ourselves to God through our faith in Christ, expressed in the holiness of our daily lives.

If you haven’t yet entered into that covenant through baptism, there’s no need to feel left out.  Consider this your invitation to think about what it means to be part of that covenant with a loving, gracious, and steadfast God.  And then, I invite you to consider entering into that covenant through baptism yourself.  Please let me know if you think the time is right.

God is always faithful to the covenant, but often we are not.  From time to time, we need to review what we have committed ourselves to as God’s covenant people.  John Wesley created a special service and prayer to help us do that.  Over the coming weeks of Lent, we are going to reflect on each part of his prayer, which you’ll find on the cover of your bulletin each week.  On Maundy Thursday, we will affirm together our covenant with God.

The part of the prayer we’re focusing on this week has to do with the idols in our lives.  Idols are anything that we make into lower-case gods.  Our capital-letter God makes it clear in the Ten Commandments that idols have no place among God’s people. The first commandment says “You shall have no other gods before me,” and the second commandment continues, “You shall not make for yourself an idol.”  But, even though we know that living out our covenant with God means having no other gods in our lives, we often fail at that.

We need this time of Lent to identify and eliminate the idols in our lives.  Wesley reminds us that “God requires that you put away all your idols.”  And then he offers this prayer to God: “I here, from the bottom of my heart, renounce them all, covenanting with you that no known sin shall be allowed in my life.  Against your will, I have turned my love toward the world.  In your power I will watch all temptations that will lead me away from you.  For my own righteousness is riddled with sin, unable to stand before you.”

We are not alone in experiencing temptation and the allure of things that can easily be made into idols.  Jesus did, too. Jesus had been baptized and it was time to begin his ministry in the world.  The Holy Spirit had descended on him like a dove, accompanied by God’s announcement: “You are my Son, the Beloved.”  After his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, where we learn about some of the temptations he faced.

Luke tells us that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit when he went into the wilderness, but Luke doesn’t tell us why Jesus went, and he doesn’t suggest that the Holy Spirit made him go, like Matthew and Mark do.  Perhaps Jesus needed some time away to contemplate what had happened. Maybe he had an inkling of what his life was about to become, and he needed to gather spiritual strength in the quiet and solitude of the desert.  Perhaps he wanted to begin his ministry with a time of fasting, a time when he could devote himself to prayer and listening to the guiding voice of the Spirit.  But he gets to the wilderness, he finds that he and the Spirit are not alone.  The devil is waiting for him, and for forty days, Satan is all up in his face, tempting him.

Luke doesn’t tell us what the devil tried during most of those forty days.  But apparently whatever it was didn’t work.  So, Satan waited until Jesus was at his weakest—famished from his long fast.  And then the devil brought out the big guns.  “Hey, Son of God, you must be starving!  You’ve got divine power. Why not use it to turn these stones into a loaf of bread?  Make yourself a meal.”  But Jesus refuses.  His power is a sacred thing, not to be used for his own benefit.  He calls up the words Moses spoke to the Israelites as they prepared to enter the Promised Land: “One does not live by bread alone.”

Satan tries again.  In a vision, he shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and claims he has the power to give them all to Jesus.  There’s just one teensy little catch.  Jesus has to worship Satan instead of God. Again, Jesus refuses.  He resists the temptation to seize power the easy way and make Satan his god.  He calls up the words of Scripture that every faithful Jew recites twice a day, “Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

One thing you have to give Satan: he’s no quitter.  This time he tries fighting fire with fire.  “OK, Son of God, with all your Scriptural comebacks, you wanna know how to win friends and influence people?  Throw yourself down from the roof of the temple.  After all, your Scripture says that angels will swoop in and rescue you.  That’ll impress the crowds, and they’ll all be your fans.”  But Jesus goes him one better and, remembering what Scripture instructs, refuses to put God to the test, even though a stunt like that would have made him very popular.

Satan knows who Jesus is.  Satan knows that Jesus’ mission is to reconcile the world to God.  And, he knows that completing the mission will require that Jesus remain faithful to God in all things.  Jesus can’t allow anything to get in the way of his relationship with God.  He can’t allow anything to take the place of God in his life.  He can’t allow any idols to come between him and his Father—not the allure of power, not his emotional need to be loved, not even his own physical needs and wants.

Satan knows who Jesus is.  Satan knows who we are, too.  Satan knows we are people who are struggling to live faithfully in a challenging world.  People who have all kinds of temptations to contend with. People who find it all too easy to fall into idol worship.

In Biblical times idols were often depicted in carved images of stone or wood or precious metals.  Trees and rocks were worshiped as gods. Now, we create idols out of other things.  Just about anything—even good things—can become idols if we let them: food, exercise, our work or our hobbies, our clothes or our houses, our video games or our smartphones, even our friends and families.

None of these are bad things until we give them control of our thoughts and our time and let them take the place of God in our lives.  The theologian Richard Keyes observed that “the seductiveness of a nearby idol for the Christian is that it promises to get things done, to be powerful, to make good changes…”  Some of the most seductive idols start out as positive things in our lives.

But darker things tempt us to make them our idols, too.  Serious health concerns may lead us to make idols of doctors and treatments.  Long-held resentments become idols when we keep them at the forefront of our thoughts.  Someone in our lives we decided long ago we would never forgive or accept be becomes an idol when we devote our time and energy to maintaining and defending our hostility towards them.  Some of our idols are formed in places buried deep inside us, in places where we experienced betrayal or neglect, abandonment or rejection, and (sometimes unconsciously) we allow them to become gods that dictate our reactions to whatever happens to us now.

I heard of a man whose friend was focused on financial success—making money, investing money, saving money.  The man was concerned about the place money had in his friend’s life, realizing his friend had made money an idol to be worshipped. He tried to convince his friend that worshiping this idol made it impossible for him to have a relationship with God.   The friend insisted he could have both.  Finally, the man took a slip of paper and wrote three letters on it:  “G-O-D.” “What do you see?” the man asked his friend.  “God,” the friend responded.  Then the man took a coin and placed it over the letters.  “Can you see God now?”

The things we make into idols are the things that make it impossible for us to see God.  So, it is critical that we identify and eliminate the idolatry in our lives.  It doesn’t necessarily mean getting rid of the objects—or people—we’ve made into idols.  It just means that we need to refocus and move them away from the center of our vision where they keep us from seeing God.  We reorganize our priorities, remembering that loving God more enables us to love ourselves and others better.

As we work to remove the idols from our lives, we need to be vigilant, because the temptation to idolize someone or something other than God is an on-going thing.  Every day, we are offered things we want—possessions, relationships, money—and it’s hard to keep them from becoming idols that get between us and God, especially if they are good things.  The poet Edmund Vance Cooke wrote about this in his poem called “Desire”:

Oh, the golden chink and the sibilant sign
Which sang of honey and love and wine,
Of pleasure and power when the sun’s a-shine
And plenty and peace in the day’s decline!
Oh, the dream was schemed and the play was planned;
You had nothing to do but to reach your hand,
But you didn’t (or so I understand),
But tell me—didn’t you want to?

Oh, you wanted to, yes; and hence you crow
That the Want To within you found its foe
Which wanted you not to want to, and so
You were able to answer always “No.”
So you tell yourself you are pretty fine clay
To have tricked temptation and turned it away;
But wait, my friend, for a different day!
Wait till you want to want to!

We have to be vigilant, and I think it’s safe to say that Jesus had to be just as vigilant.  Our Scripture passage concludes with what I think is one of the most chilling verses in the Bible: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.”

There were probably a number of “opportune times” in Jesus’ life which Satan tried to exploit: when the people came to make Jesus king after he fed the five thousand, when he was dining with the Pharisees and their powerful friends, in the garden of Gethsemane, when he told the mob that came to arrest him that he could easily call on God to send out legions of angels to rescue him. How many opportune times where there when Jesus was in a position to put something between him and his Father?  How many opportune times where there when our fully human Lord had to resist the temptation to make an idol for himself? And yet, he did resist, and he kept God and his mission as his only focus.

Satan watches for opportune times in our lives, too.  How can we stay strong in the midst of those “opportune times”?  How can we resist giving in to temptation and making idols for ourselves? The example Jesus gives us is to rely on Scripture.

We know that Jesus’ family was faithful in their religious practice.  We know that Jesus was steeped in Scripture.  Each time he was tempted, he drew on the wisdom and instruction of the Bible.  We can follow his example.

The more we hear the Word read and proclaimed in worship, the more we make reading Scripture a part of our daily routine, the more we study it together, the more it becomes part of us.  The more it becomes part of us, the deeper the well we can draw from becomes, and the more quickly we can dip into it when we are faced with temptation.  The more quickly we can dip into that well, the better equipped we will be to put away the idols and resist making new ones.

In a few moments, we’re going to sing the old hymn “Nothing Between My Soul and My Savior.”  It speaks of the things we can make into idols and place between us and God.  It speaks in the voice of someone who has successfully “put away” those idols.  But for most of us, that is still something we aspire to rather than something we’ve achieved.

If you are in that category, as I certainly am, don’t be discouraged.  Because while we often place worldly things between us and God, God puts nothing between us and God’s love for us.  As the apostle Paul assured the Romans, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God is faithful to the covenant in which we are joined, even when we’re not.  But, by God’s grace (which is so much greater than our sin), through the mercy expressed in the forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can grow in faithfulness as we put away our idols.  Each day, we are being perfected in love, and one day, we will all be able to claim “there is nothing between our souls and our Savior.”  Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young