On Worshiping the Right God

Exodus 32:1-4

Philippians 4:4-9

The bible is as much a tale of dead ends and poor attempts at discipleship as heroic and faithful actions. In some ways this is consoling. When we see how badly the disciples misunderstood Jesus or the prophets ran in the opposite direction or doubted their calling despite the intensity of God’s presence, we are given hope that as imperfect, vacillating, ambivalent, and sometimes frightened as we are, God can still do great things in our lives.

In today’s reading, the children of Israel once more have a failure of faith. God had delivered them from captivity in Egypt and led them every step of the way; yet, how easily they forgot his providential care. While the story may be somewhat mythical, the Exodus from Egypt involved signs and wonders, the parting of lake waters, manna and quail in the desert, and water flowing from a stone. By now, the people should have known that God is real, alive, and will deliver them from every extremity.

But, once again, they forget all about God when the going gets rough. Moses goes up onto the mountaintop to consult with God. He’s there a little longer than expected, and the people become anxious. In family systems theory, you either look for a savior or scapegoat to calm the anxieties of a community. With Daddy Moses gone and Father God absent and too abstract, the people look for a savior in their midst, and what they come up with is a golden calf, molded from their jewelry. Now, of course, we might wonder, where did they get all this gold – after all, they were slaves in Egypt? Could petty theft been part of their departure from Egypt?

With no leader around, they create a statue to worship and then start partying. Out comes the wine, and dancing and debauchery.

C.S. Lewis once noted in speaking of Aslan, the great lion Christ of the Chronicles of Narnia, “He is not tame.” And, the God of the wilderness and exodus is far from tame either: in fact, as the story goes, God blows a gasket. The god of wind and fire wants to annihilate the people right on the spot, but is calmed by Moses, and once again God relents, going to back to work with this stiff-necked, rather dense, and fickle people.

The Protestant Reformer John Calvin once said that the human mind is a factory of idol making, and in some ways he was right. An idol is anything that claims to be god, or that we worship as god, despite the fact that it fails the test of divinity – it will die, be destroyed, or fail to deliver on its promises when the going gets tough.

The theologian Paul Tillich once asserted that faith involves our “ultimate concern” or what we deem most important in our lives. Often this is God, but more often it is the concern of the moment – finances, health, success, family, or popularity. In and of themselves, none of these is bad, but when these get in the way of our relationship with God, trouble’s around the corner.

One of the tasks of spiritual formation is to ask, “What’s my deepest desire?” “What’s most important in my life?” “What would I give my life for?” After all, we are constantly giving our lives up for what we hope is important – that is, we give our time, which is our most important and finite commodity, to things we believe will help us and others find fulfillment.

After we consider “what is most important to us,” our spiritual friends may ask us, “Is your life consistent with your values?” If you say family is most important, do you really spend quality with your spouse or children, or do you go to too many meetings, or give them scant attention while reading the paper or watching the Patriots? Do you give more undivided attention to your cell phone or I-pad than your spouse, child, or grandchild?

The reason to put God first in your life is not because God demands your loyalty, but because when you put God first, everything falls into place: you see your time, relationships, and priorities from God’s perspective. You love the creature – your spouse, child, grandchild, friend – with the vision of the creator’s love, and that helps us discern moment by moment what really matters and what will best help you and those you love find happiness, joy, and wholeness.

There is no one formula for putting God first, but Paul’s counsel to the Philippians is a good start. Let me read it again:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Put simply, we discover the true God amid all the competing values of life by a commitment to prayer, by saying thank you to God and everyone else, and by focusing on goodness and beauty. Author Anne Lamott suggests that our prayer life should focus on three things – “wow, thanks, and help,” and she is right.

Wow! Rejoice in wonder and beauty. Don’t let negativity, fear, or scarcity control your thoughts: yes, there is ISIS and al Qaeda, there is economic uncertainty, and political bickering, but in and through this, God is alive and working to bring beauty.   If we follow our better angels and look for what’s right in the world, we will be love givers and not fault finders; we will have peace, and not anxiety about life.

Second, give thanks for everything and to everyone. Gratitude connects us with the Giver of life. No golden calf or job can give us breath, spin the planet, or create the energy of love. Gratitude shows us how much we’re connected with others and liberates us from the prison of self-made individualism. It points us to beauty, love, and God.

Help! Prayers for what we need liberates us from creating our own golden calves to calm our anxiety; asking moment by moment what we need from God opens us to possibilities beyond imagination and frees us to trust God’s love in life and death. Wow – thanks – help – for love, beauty, and help are always on the way for those who trust God’s abiding care, even in the darkness.

Let me conclude with the original version of the Serenity Prayer, first given by Reinhold Niebuhr, in the dark days of World War II, and put into print in 1951:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.