2 Samuel 7:1-9
Psalm 89: 1-4, 14-18
Romans 8: 1-11
John 4: 7-30
Grace and peace to you from God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
"Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."
I once wrote a little study for Fortress Press on Idols and False Prophets.
It was an interesting learning experience
and led me to the discovery of bits and pieces
of the Christian journey
that have since come together in a way that makes sense to me.
The fall of the Christian Empire in the western world
has helped stimulate me to remember,
not only the lessons I learned about idols,
but also how the prophets understood God's way of dealing with them.
I began with Martin Luther's definition of a god:
"That to which we look for all good."
In the Small Catechism, Luther wrote:
"I believe that God has created me and all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul with all their powers."
God is the One who creates, gives and sustains life.
Anything that drains life out of you
or has to be made to appear alive by human devices
is not a god but an idol.
So an idol is the opposite of God;
it sucks life out of us instead of pouring it into us.
Thus the carved images that Israel's enemies had to load on wagons
and haul into battle were not gods but idols.
They were artistic representations
of the hopes and dreams of an emperor
who lived and thrived off the labour of his subjects.
He did not live for the people's welfare.
His welfare came at their expense.
Those gods could be present
only if their subjects made them to be present.
They were only as strong as the people who served them.
The people gave their lives to those idols,
but the idols gave them no life back.
In contrast, the God of Israel could take an ambivalent person like Gideon
and a buffoon like Samson
and liberate Israel through their leadership.
The people did not carry God;
God carried the people!
When David wanted to make a house for God that was like his own house,
that is, a house, not in God's image,
but in the image of the human king,
God gave Nathan, the prophet, this message:
Thus says the LORD of hosts: I took you from the pasture… to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house.
2 Samuel 7:8-11 (NRSV)
God allows people to be drained of life by their idols,
until people can see the emptiness in them.
When people finally realize who the real God is,
then God comes to them in compassion,
raises them back to life,
and leads them forward once again.
And so the people of Israel faced many displacements:
The enslavement in Egypt;
The defeat by the Assyrians;
The exile in Babylon;
and the Diaspora after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.
Each time they were at the bottom,
they felt abandoned by God;
each time they were restored,
they tried to go back to the old ways.
However, God had never abandoned them;
God had simply shown them the lifelessness of their idols:
idols of their religious institution,
of their political ambition and
of the exclusive relationship they thought they had with God.
God did these things so that
they would not go back to the old ways.
God used their wilderness experiences as training places.
They were being trained to trust only in God,
not in the institutions they created.
They were being trained to follow the mission God chose,
rather than being allowed to drag God into their missions.
Jesus' conversation with the woman at the well dated back to an old corporate memory.
When the Israelites returned from Babylon
to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
they refused the help of the Samaritans
because they considered Samaritans too unclean for such a holy task.
Hurt and angry,
the Samaritans rewrote holy history
by substituting Mt. Gerizim in Samaria
for Mt. Zion on which Jerusalem sat.
They rejigged geographic history to fit the new story.
Each side was attached to its longings for superiority and sacredness.
As a consequence of such longings throughout the ages,
God's people have gone through several cycles
of falling and being raised.
Our attachments to these longings
become our idols
and replace God as our source of life.
The good news is that there is one more wave in the cycle.
As a faithful child of Israel,
Jesus also fell and was raised.
But when Jesus died and rose again, he broke the cycle.
Jesus did the cycle in reverse!
King David forgot his former life as a shepherd
and left it behind for the luxury of his palace.
Jesus left his privileged home in the mansion of the Trinity
and took up the role of shepherd.
David was the shepherd become King;
Jesus was the Good Shepherd become the Lamb of God.
Jesus was passionate about the religious tradition in which he was raised,
but he allowed the Spirit of God to bring him into contact
with those whose faith was considered corrupt
and whose way of life was considered incompatible
with the purity required of a sacred assembly.
The people who caused the fall of Jesus
were those who were inordinately attached to rules of righteousness
and who rejected those to whom Jesus reached out.
So when the woman at the well argued comparative religion,
Jesus could comfortably tell her that salvation is from the Jews.
However, his religion would not save her—
it would reject her—
even though she clearly hungered and thirsted for the water of life.
Thankfully, as Carl Braaten reminded an old academic foe:
Religion does not save;
When our religion gets in the way of anyone's access to Jesus,
it becomes an idol standing in the place of God.
The place to worship is where God encounters the people,
not where the people try to place God.
God goes where society needs blessing and dwells there.
In John 1:38, Simon and Andrew ask Jesus,
"Where can we find you?"
and he says: "Come and see!"
Jesus never says, "Tell me where to come."
He always says, "Come with me."
The Spirit is a wind that blows where it wills
and enlightens whom it will.
Nicodemus the Pharisee ached for a personal relationship with God,
but it was a Syrophoenician woman
who knew how to challenge Jesus' ecumenical commitment
and erotic Mary who anointed Jesus' feet with costly perfume.
In the early stories, Jesus prefered Mary to Martha
because Martha didn't understand
that organization must serve the mission.
Once Martha knew Jesus as the resurrection and the life,
she found her vocation
and used her organizational ability
to ensure that Jesus was front and centre at Lazarus' graveside.
The point is that God does the leading,
not the religious institution.
In and of themselves, religious institutions are not bad.
The danger is that we can make idols out of them
and allow them to suck the life out of people.
Unless the institution follows the shepherd,
it will keep straying where
there are no cool waters and no green pastures.
The nature of the synod
for which John's gospel was written
was that of a conflicted community.
The writer wanted to help them get over their desire to dominate
so that the gospel would be allowed to save who it would.
The gospel, as John heard it,
was not for the church,
but for the world.
Its purpose was not to serve the church,
but to serve the world in which the church was placed.
I have a hope for this church.
I have a hope that this church will break out of its domestic idolatry
and follow Jesus Christ into the public life of this land.
I have a hope that this church will understand this saying:
…unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.
I have a hope
that we will stop worshipping the 16th century event
that brought this church into existence
and rather follow the call
to bring freedom and salvation to people
through the insight God gave us through that event.
I have a hope
that we will identify the forces today
that enslave people to this world's guilt and indulgence peddling
and bring them the gospel of grace in their context,
religious or not.
The world doesn't need us singing the same old songs to ourselves
in the same old places.
It is time to sing the world a new song.
It is time to sing the world a love song:
To sing a lament where there is pain;
To sing a protest song where there is injustice;
To sing a lullaby to the lonely.
These are the songs that the Spirit sings.
May we have ears to hear and eyes to see.
-- Bishop Raymond Schultz
This sermon was written for the opening worship of the Ninth Biennial Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada held in Camrose AB, June 12–15, 2003.