Worship the Lord Our God
A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent
Have you ever been tempted to sin. . .while you're at church? Let me be clear. I'm not talking about a meeting. I'm not talking about those times when you've sat at a church meeting – or any kind of meeting, for that matter – and you've said something or thought something that was. . .well. . .let's face it, not very Christian.
I'm also not talking about what you might write in a letter, a note or an e-mail. Angry blogs or e-mails get broadcast on the internet. Forever. Those less-than-praiseworthy remarks become a pervasive, persistent source of what those of us who attended the annual meeting last Sunday heard described as “excessive gossip and drama.” Cyberbullying is the 21st century's contribution to a new list of “deadly” sins.
I'm not talking about what you might write – even if it's an unflattering note you would pass to someone in that seat near you. I'm not talking about times when you've been unable to exercise what one wise leader, years ago, described as “the restraint of pen and tongue” (Bill Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous). Today, that phrase that would certainly include “pen, tongue or keyboard.”
No, I'm not talking about what you think about, say about or write to someone else. I'm not talking about your relationships with other human beings, vital as those are to us Christians, who also want to obey a New Commandment – to love as Jesus loves. I'm talking about your relationship with God. I'm talking about the first of the Ten Commandments, which we've just said together. “You (thou) shall (shalt) have no (none) other gods but me.” I'm talking about what you and I do when we try to worship the Lord of Creation, the Savior of the world, the Spirit that leads us into all truth.
Worshiping God is the real, primary reason we are here. Worship is the most important thing, the main thing we do. And we need, in the lingo used in leadership circles, to keep the main thing the main thing. Actually, worship is an old English word, a contraction of “worth-ship.” It begs the question, To what do you give the greatest worth? “Great is the Lord, and most worthy of praise,” the Psalmist says, over and over again (Psalms 48:1, 96:4, 145:3, the New International Version). “It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God,' Jesus says to the devil in our Gospel story, quoting Deuteronomy (6:13). “Serve only (God)” (Luke 4:8).
So, Jesus' temptations are the kind that lead to one old, familiar sin: Worshiping someone or something else when we should be worshiping God. Only God is God.
What we're talking about here is the sin the world's religions call idolatry. Making an idol, or a false god or a golden calf. Like Aaron and the children of Israel did, while Moses was up on the mountain receiving those Ten Commandments from God. Like Judas did, when he sold out his Master for thirty pieces of silver. Like what you and I do, when we worship anyone or anything other than the one, true God.
It has been said that it is the preacher's job to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Here's what I hope might comfort you, especially if you are feeling idolatrous. Except for Jesus, all human beings are guilty of both temptation and sin, including the sin of idolatry. All of us. Some false gods do tempt us more than others. Some idols are so tempting, we have difficulty believing they are idols. Let me suggest three cultural idols in which we can take too much comfort, three time-tested idolatries: the pleasure culture, the celebrity culture, and the money culture.
Jesus confronts the pleasure culture when, famished at the end of his forty-day fast, the devil tempts him to make bread from a stone. But a whiff of fresh-baked bread, let alone the thought of a gourmet meal, is not what keeps Jesus going in his time of trial. Jesus is not spiritually hungry, because God's Spirit has filled the hole in his soul. Quoting from Deuteronomy (8:3), Jesus tells the tempter how he lives, not just for bread, but for other things that will feed him and help him feed others. All by itself, pleasure is not a sin, but consistently eating or drinking to excess, filling up on pleasant things in compulsive, insatiable or destructive ways, can lead to eating disorders and addictions. “Our self-indulgent appetites and ways,” Ash Wednesday calls it, “and our exploitation of other people” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 268).
The celebrity culture is all about exploitation. Musical, theatrical, athletic, royal and religious celebrities all become larger than their own life. Culture becomes cult, and people become objectified, marketed and consumed. History overflows with stories of celebrities who die far too young, having believed promises similar to those the devil offered Jesus: false power, vain glory, inauthentic authority. Whether they be stars of stage, screen or stadium; princes of palace or pulpit, we idolize our stars, and ultimately, they will fall from our heavens. Clergy, bishops and even popes come and go, lest their flocks falsely worship them. Again, Jesus quotes ancient Deuteronomic words. Again, worshiping God, for faithful people, is sufficient.
Sufficiency smacks up against the money culture. Last Fall that great preacher, Dr. Dan Matthews, told us about an old figure of speech. When asked if they needed anything, people used to say, “Thank you, but I have sufficient.” People felt they had plenty, enough – more than enough. Whether we're talking about buildings or bucks, do we have sufficient? Let me be specific, using some All Saints' scenarios: Is our church's spire a false God, because, on the seal of the city of Frederick, it's bigger than the other churches'? Is our endowment sufficient, or has it become something of an idol? What else might we be idolizing?
Our fabulous Inquirers' class has been asked to write their own creed, as a way of praying and thinking about what they actually believe. They are learning how the creeds are like poems or songs, which people can “cover” in different ways. People love this kind of thinking in the Episcopal Church! We have the freedom to hold our beliefs up to the light of reason and reflection. While we try to take our faith seriously, we try not to take ourselves too seriously. Now, maybe it feels to some of you like I'm giving in to temptation, but I have come to believe it's not just our creeds that need prayerful, careful examination. After years of praying it, I have come to believe there's one phrase in the Lord's Prayer that could use some help. It's the one about temptation.
“Lead us not into temptation,” we pray. There is another version of this phrase and this beloved prayer, authorized for use in the Episcopal Church. It came from the International Consultation on Ecumenical Texts, which studied and submitted, in 1975, “new” texts for the creeds and the Lord's Prayer. Creed text changes were widely adopted decades ago by the world's English-speaking Christians, but not so much with the Lord's Prayer. The Episcopal Church accepted the alternative by publishing it, side by side, in the Rite II sections of our Prayer Book. (Take a look at page 364.)
The alternative to “Lead us not into temptation” is “Save us from the time of trial,” trial being another word for temptation. I wonder: in today's Gospel story, does God tempt Jesus, or is that someone else? Doesn't it say, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the (same) Spirit in(to) the wilderness, where. . .he was tempted (not) by (God, but by) the devil” (Luke 4:1-2)? I don't know about you, but I don't want to give worth to a God who tempts me. I do want to worship a God who saves me in all my times of temptation, all my trials. That's why I now pray that phrase – “save us from the time of trial” – and not the other one. Because Lord knows, I will be tempted and tried, and I will, in the midst of all my trials, want to be saved by the One who will always be greater than I am, the One always worthy to be praised.
Martin Luther, whom Episcopalians now officially celebrate as a saint, once said, “Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly!” Sisters and brothers, fear not! When we are tempted, when we sin, even if it is the sin of idolatry, even if we are so bold as to commit that sin in church, God's grace abounds! As we begin the season of Lent, we need to take temptation and sin seriously – and the confession of our sins just as seriously. We also need to take God's grace, God's mercy, God' forgiveness and God's everlasting love even more seriously.
May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
February 17, 2013