Let me begin by quoting three verses from the Book of Exodus.
4You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.Exodus 204-6
Many of you will have recognised that as being the 2nd Commandment and as if to stress the importance of this statement just a few verses later, in the same chapter, we read:
22Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the Israelites this: “You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: 23do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.Exodus 2022-23
Approximately 1500 years later Paul appears to have had these words in his mind when he was writing his letter to the fledgling church in Rome where it seems there were godless and wicked people of whom he says –
25They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is for ever praised.Romans 125
They worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator – but what were those things? You see, idolatry isn’t always what you would assume it to be so I’d like to spend a few minutes thinking about the lies for which we often exchange the truth and ask, what are our idols? And in what ways do we perhaps worship and serve created things rather than our creator?
It’s easy to convince ourselves that this is a problem which relates only to the unchurched – those people who have never known or have, for some reason, rejected their relationship with God – but, in reality, that is far from the truth!
In this morning’s second reading (Matthew 151-20) we find the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were all men of God, or at least, that is what they claimed to be; and yet, when they saw the disciples eating before they had ceremonially washed their hands, they challenged Jesus.
2‘Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?’Matthew 152a
That wasn’t just a question, it was an accusation, but Jesus challenged them with another question rather than a straight forward answer:
3‘Why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?’Matthew 153
He then went on to say to them:
6‘You nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.’Matthew 156b
At this point I could take a diversion into a 3 hour thesis about current traditions and how they affect the ways we approach God but I think I had better stick to the point because over those 1500 intervening years since God’s commandments had first been received by Moses, the ‘Pharisees and teachers of the law’ had translated those 10, God-given rules into 613 (or so it is claimed) man-made clauses and sub-clauses (referred to here as the tradition of the elders) and these had taken on a life and sanctity of their own. God’s laws were being treated as if they were of only secondary importance and as an example, Jesus reminds them that they have invented ways to bypass the 4th Commandment – Honour your father and mother.
Now don’t get me wrong, some of the traditions made perfect sense: a number of the food laws for example, were necessary if you were living in a hot country without refrigeration. But Jesus was trying to point out that if there is any conflict between God’s laws and these ‘man-made rules’, God’s laws should always be treated with the greater respect and authority.
Now this is a rhetorical question so I do not want a show of hands — but how many of the commandments can you actually remember? – 5? 8? all 10? – and if you can remember all 10 can you place them all in the correct order? – don’t forget I have already given you number 2 and number 4!
But if you find it at all difficult to remember and order 10 without referring to your Bibles, just think how demanding it must have been to ensure that you didn’t contravene any of the 613 rules that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were fiercely trying to enforce.
Those rules were not engraved on tablets of silver or gold but they had non-the-less become like idols which were deflecting true praise and worship from the one who was truly deserving. In many cases, they were being used like sticks with which to beat people or belittle them … and God’s love and compassion had been lost or discarded in the noise.
In this example Jesus has pointed out that it is our thoughts and the way we behave that matter. Washing your hands before you eat may be a good idea but eating without washing is by no means a mortal sin nor is it in the same category as ignoring God.
So how should we address God? Sometimes we seem to treat our own Christian faith as a destination and we relax when we think we have arrived and ‘found faith’ but, in reality, it is more of a journey – a continuing journey in search of the truth, God’s truth. The fear is one of giving up and simply doing our own thing, but in his letter, Paul reminds us that we should be more concerned about God giving up on us than when we declare that we have had enough.
In the early days recorded in the Book of Genesis, things seemed to be clearer: people who sinned faced the judgement and wrath of God – the people of Sodom and Gomorrah became all too aware of that. But here Paul tells us that the consequences of sin are the lack of God’s protection: if we follow our own desires we must face the consequences alone.
Suddenly, one of the most frightening aspects of God’s dealings with us is that he lets us have our own way, and sometimes … it feels as though we have been programmed to fail. We look for the easy ways, or the least painful ways, or the ways which offer the most self-satisfaction, or the ways which will maximise our personal wealth and possessions rather than following God’s ways.
Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans was just a snippet and it would be easy to come away believing that, from what we have heard today, his main focus was sexual impurities, but read on just a few more verses and you will find that the scope is much wider. In verse 28 he says:
28Furthermore, just as they [that’s the godless and wicked people he had referred to earlier] did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practise them.Romans 128-32
All of these things deflect us away from God’s truth and in a way could be treated as idols. However, it appears that the wrath of God will no longer result in people (us!) being turned into pillars of salt but rather, they will effectively be disowned and left to plough their own furrow … until they decide to turn back to him of their own free will. If any of you can recall the parable of the Prodigal Son that should not be any surprise because the younger son there also turned his back on his father to go and do his own thing. However, the hope that we still have and retain is that when the younger son hit rock bottom and realised the error of his ways he returned to the father to repent, he was immediately forgiven.
So in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans this morning he reminds us that:
And there is strong advice which I would almost refer to as a warning: do not be tempted to exchange the truth about God for a ‘man-made’ lie. But don’t treat that as an admonishment, accept it as a challenge – a challenge to worship and serve the one true God and not to be deflected from the path of righteousness.
So let us pray: Lord, help us to trust you
with our decisions and our futures.
Let us lean on you with all our hearts
instead of relying on
our own imperfect understanding.
Give us clear guidance in our lives, Lord.
And as we submit ourselves to you,
may we know that you will direct our paths
so that we may have confidence that
your direction is always the best way to go.
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