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False Worship and Grace

(A sermon on Exodus 32: 1-14, and Matthew 22:1-14)

[for an audio recording of this service, click here. Photo by Edwin Andrade on Unsplash]

Due to our pandemic safety precautions, I cannot invite the children forward for a children’s sermon today, but I do have a story to share that comes from one of our delightful younger members. The story is from my first ever Easter Sunday here at Abiding Peace. We had a wonderful worship, and of course we talked quite a bit about Jesus during the service. After worship, as Aiden and his family were leaving, he turned to me with a huge smile, waved his hand enthusiastically over his head, and said “Bye Bye, Jesus!”

(That’s probably the most enthusiastic endorsement of my ministry that I will even get, so I am going to cherish that memory forever! And thank you Aiden for permission to tell that story!)

I tell this story not only because it is delightful, but also because Aiden very helpfully illustrates for us how easy it is to get confused about who and what we are called to recognize with our worship. As you all reminded me on a post this week on the church’s Facebook page, one of my most repeated phrases is “you can’t mess up worship.” I use this phrase to remind us all that when we lead or support in worship, we aren’t putting on a performance. If we pronounce an ancient name wrong, or don’t quite get the pitch in a hymn, or there’s a mistake in the bulletin, or if we make any other human error, our worship is no less honoring to God. The heart, the desire to draw near and worship God, is what matters.

But this week’s readings remind us that there ARE, actually, at least two ways that we can mess up worship.

The first, is when we worship a false god.

The Exodus story about the golden calf is perhaps the most recognizable biblical story about false worship, probably repeated so often because it is so comfortable! I don’t imagine that any of us here have ever been the slightest bit tempted to melt down our earrings to make a statue of a cow to worship.

But there is more to this story than ancient idolatry. Old Testament scholar, Rolf Jacobson, said on this week’s sermon brainwave podcast that “there are two false images that the people of God are tempted to worship throughout time:”[1] human leaders and religion itself.

We see in the Exodus story that the precipitating factor for the crisis was Moses’s delay in returning to the people. He went up the mountain to meet with God, and he was gone longer than expected. And this made the people anxious. They wanted a leader, a focus for their assurance, a visible representation of certainty that they weren’t there in the wilderness on their own.

Moses’s absence didn’t instigate their idolatry, it revealed it. Their trust was not in the Living, but Invisible God. It was in the person they could see. That’s why his absence caused such an extreme reaction… a reaction that replaced one false god with another.

Not the golden statue itself, so much as the trappings of worship: the declaration of a festival, the sacrifices, feasting, and uninhibited revelry. The rituals of worship were visible, and engaging. They felt real… and that’s what the people wanted. The worship was about their own experience, not the god they were supposedly worshipping.

This is the story we read, but Rolf Jacobson’s point was that these temptations are present throughout the history of God’s people, of all people, I would say. The temptation to put our hope and trust in human leaders, rather than remembering that it is God who has saved us before and in whom we are called to trust for the future. And the temptation to value worship for what WE get out of it. To seek experiences that feel familiar and gratifying to us, rather than hearing the call to honor the Living God.

So much for the first way we can mess up worship. The second is more subtle, and because of that, more dangerous. The temptation to worship a false image of the true God.

Did you notice verse 5 in the Exodus reading? The verse where Aaron declared the festival “to the Lord”? He should have known better. A golden cow statue was not honoring to God. The wild party to follow was not the way God chooses to be worshipped. But it’s so terrifyingly easy to believe our own press. To convince ourselves that because we have the right name for God, none of the rest of our instincts need to be questioned.

But the traditional interpretation of the parable we heard today demonstrates how wrong our instincts can be. How many of you have heard the king in this parable linked to God? Probably most of us, because we have a bias for idealizing powerful figures.[2]

But think for a minute about what we are idealizing:

  • A leader with such a fragile ego that he reacts to disrespect with indiscriminate violence…

  • A host who requires callous, self-serving revelry in the context of that violence…

  • A demonstration of capricious hospitality that welcomes all in one moment, and then furiously punishes one who responds in a way that doesn’t suit his honor?!

Put that way, we probably recoil. Surely we don’t want a God who behaves like that!

But maybe, we do. Maybe we accept the association between God and this king, because the story matches our human instinct to glorify righteous anger, even vengeance, against those we see as our enemies, and people who won’t follow the rules. I would like to believe that the Christian church is not so eager to cast undesireables into “outer darkness,” but any number of polls have demonstrated that judgement is exactly what we are known for.[3]

So, what are we supposed to do – with our own instincts for judgement AND with this disturbing parable? Well, we can start by paying attention to the way Jesus opens the story: “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” NOT the kingdom “may be recognized in…”, not “the kingdom is like….”, but the kingdom may be compared to.

What might we learn by comparing God’s way with this exaggerated (but not unrecognizable) description of the way human kingdoms often function: dominated by ego, indulging anger, and extending conditional welcome. If God were to interact with such a kingdom, which part would he play?

Debie Thomas has a thought-provoking suggestion:

“What if the “God” figure in the parable is the one guest who refuses to accept the terms of the tyrannical king? The one guest who decides not to “wear the robe” of forced celebration and coerced hilarity, the one guest whose silent resistance leaves the king himself “speechless,” and brings the whole sham feast to a thundering halt? The one brave guest who decides he’d rather be “bound hand and foot,” and cast into the outer darkness of Gethsemane, Calvary, the cross, and the grave, than accept the authority of a violent, loveless sovereign?”[4]

Her question forces us to grapple with the reason that false worship matters: because when we worship a false image of God that worship has consequences. When we want a God formed out of the things we value (our golden earrings) rather than letting God reorient our values, and when we want a God who hates and takes vengeances on the same people we hate, and when we want a God who will join in the party and make us feel good when people on the outside are dying and crying out in fear … then the true God doesn’t belong at our banquet.

But there is still some Good news for us, in these stories of warning. Even though they make it plain that we CAN mess up worship, God’s grace is not dependent on our worship, because we CAN’T actually shape God’s image.

Grace is a function of God’s character. Moses reminded God of that truth, when God’s anger burned against the people, and his argument won. We can trust that even when we mess up our worship, and try to re-make God according to our expectations… God’s promises will not fail.

And God has promised us a grace, that works in our lives to remake us instead!

Thanks be to God.

[1] [2] Richard Ford the psychological roots and consequences of the treatment of “superior characters” in his book The Parables of Jesus: Recovering the Art of Listening. [3] For example, A 2014 study from Barna found that 87% of millennials who don’t attend church see Christians as judgmental, and 91% see Christians as anti-LGBTQ. Study reported in the article “Millennial Mystery” in Living Lutheran from December 2017. [4]


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