Exodus 32 and 33; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
There was an Indiana Jones movie marathon on TV last Sunday, so I set my PVR to record all four movies. The first, of course, is Raiders of the Lost Ark, which features Indy on the trail of the Ark of the Covenant – the box in which the stone tablets Moses brought from Mt Sinai were kept. The Hebrews believed that where those tablets and the Ark were, God’s presence was especially strong. In fact, God’s presence was so strong that it manifested as light and energy – so bright that no-one could look directly at that presence. The presence of God as described in Scripture was so vivid that Moses’ face glowed with reflected light and he had go about veiled; it was so strong that one could die of exposure to the fullness of God. So in the story from Deuteronomy, when Moses asks to see God, God shows only his back – God’s face would be too much for Moses to handle.
The bad guys in the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie are the Nazis, who are also looking for the Ark. The real Adolph Hitler was obsessed with the occult, so it’s not such a stretch that he would seek out religious artefacts for his own private collection. But the story takes the idea of misuse of sacred things and sacred acts to a bizarre conclusion. The Nazis want to use the Ark as a weapon, believing that whoever possesses it could somehow control its power. This is a kind of reverse-idolatry: taking what is sacred and using it for profane purposes. By the end of the movie, this gets downright ridiculous – with faces melting and holes being punched in the bad guys by the power of the Ark.
The story told in Deuteronomy is one of straightforward idolatry – and the consequences were potentially as serious as those in the Indiana Jones movie. While Moses is up the mountain talking to God directly, the people down below give up on God and on Moses altogether. They had insisted they did not want to face God directly, because they were afraid, so Moses acted as intermediary; but they get tired of waiting for their intermediary, and with Aaron’s collusion, begin to worship an idol instead –after they’d just sworn a covenant with God declaring they would worship and serve only the God of their ancestors! How quickly they forgot! They took something that is not holy and treated it as holy; they worshipped gold and forgot God. And God is not amused. Moses has to talk God out of a sweeping punishment – so severe that Moses would be the only one left. Not a great picture of God, but it certainly makes it clear that idolatry is a serious offense!
I titled this sermon “Canadian Idols”, not because I have anything against the program of that name, but because I think we, as Canadian people, sometimes need help identifying our idolatry. We’re not setting up any golden calves and burning incense in front of them. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own idols.
I ask you: is there anything in your life that comes before God? Is there anything to which you give more attention, praise, honour, and commitment than the One who created all things? What’s your golden calf?
Let me say that despite what it says some places in Scripture, I do not think God is jealous, at least not in the sense of resentful. I don’t think God resents the time and attention we give to other things. The issue is one of loyalty. Where does your ultimate loyalty lie? If you had to choose between faithfulness to the ways of God as taught to us by, and the other demands and commitments or desires of your life, which would you choose?
In the Gospel reading, the temple authorities are trying to trap Jesus with a similar question. Paying taxes to Caesar is immensely unpopular, as the Jews are a conquered people forced to pay taxes to their conqueror. Everyday people saw little benefit from their taxes – mostly the money went to make life more comfortable for those already wealthy. So the authorities are trying to spear Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. If he says not to pay taxes to the emperor, he’ll be in trouble with the Romans; if he says to do so, he’ll be less popular with the people. So he says, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” On the one hand, that could be interpreted as saying, “Taxes are due to Caesar, so you have to pay them”, but his words could also be understood as, “All things belong to God, so God comes first.”
On one of my favourite websites, Daniel Clendenin writes for today’s audience:
Paying your taxes is simple. However distasteful, you hold your nose and write a cheque. Rendering relative honour to that subordinate Caesar is the easy part, and perhaps even necessary. As a friend of mine once observed, civilization is expensive, and taxes pay the tab. But absolute allegiance to an ultimate God, rendering our entire selves to Him without preconditions or limits, without hedging our bets, demands a higher order of magnitude. That takes a lifetime.
I think Daniel’s right about that. In our society, while we may not be entirely happy about how our tax dollars are spent, we do see direct benefits from those dollars. So “rendering unto Caesar” is a relatively easy decision for most of us. But rendering unto God everything that is due God – that’s a lot harder. For what is due God is “our heart, soul, mind and strength” – our whole selves. It’s our first fruits: the best we have to offer, before we make an offering to anyone or anything else. It’s our devotion, our calling, our lives.
Martin Luther, the great 16th C reformer, wrote extensively about vocation: he understood our work as the primary way we lived out our commitment to God. So one question for those of us who are still working for a living is – how does our work serve God? Does it merely serve to keep a roof over our heads and to pay our bills, or does it offer more than that?
Those of you who are pretty much full-time volunteers these days might have an easier time with that question. It is much easier in our volunteer time to answer the question, “How does this serve God?”,since many of us volunteer our time working with children, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sorrowful.
What about our family time? Our time with friends? What about our financial resources? What about our leisure time? Do we do all these things, share all these things, for the glory of God?
It’s easy for me as a preacher to set the worship of God over against a lot of what happens in our society – our worship of celebrities, of consumer trends, of pop culture phenomena, of the newest technology, and so on. I think it’s harder for us to ask ourselves whether any of the truly good and blessed things in our lives can become idols. I think it’s harder for us to ask in all that we do, “Does this serve God?”
The song we’re going to sing after the sermon has a verse that says, “I follow, serve and cling to Christ, amid our culture’s tides and trends; for here Your Name is most revealed, Majestic Love and Best of Friends”. We follow, serve, and cling to Christ, praying that taught and inspired by him, with his Spirit living in us, we might keep God first in all things. Amen.