Sermon: Worshipping false gods

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
12th of November, 2017

Joshua 24:1-3a 14-25

Joshua, the successor of Moses, is old and well advanced in years, and giving his last words of advice to the people of Israel, now living in the land of Canaan. Joshua wants the people to choose to follow the God who rescued them from Egypt, but he isn’t at all sure that they can. He tells them: ‘Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’

The people, of course, say that they want to worship the God who brought them up from the land of Egypt and freed them from slavery. But Joshua says to the people, ‘You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.’ And the people said to Joshua, ‘No, we will serve the Lord!

It’s no wonder that Joshua doesn’t believe the people of Israel when they swear that they will serve the Lord. We know that on the journey between Egypt and Canaan the people became impatient when Moses tarried on the mountain with God and turned to Moses’ brother Aaron, demanding that he make gods for them. That was almost immediately after they had received the Ten Commandments and accepted them; these were not people in whom Joshua could have had a great deal of faith. And the history of the people of Israel from then on continues to show a people who constantly run after strange gods, and need to be brought back to the worship of the Lord by judges or prophets or punishments. Joshua knew what he was doing when he made the people promise twice. It’s a good thing that Joshua was exaggerating when he told the people that the Lord would consume them if they served foreign gods, or the story of the people of Israel would be much shorter.

The story of the people of Israel, and Joshua’s foresight, recognises the propensity that all human beings have to run after false gods, gods who make less demands than the God of Israel. It must have been much easier for the people of Israel to worship gods of their own devising, rather than the Lord who demanded, for example, that: ‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.’ (Exodus 20:13-16) We can feel a little superior to the people who demanded that Aaron make them gods from gold; together with the Apostle Paul we know that: ‘we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals’ (Romans 17:29). But we are just as prone as our ancient ancestors to worship foreign deities.

It would be easy at this point to condemn the modern worship of wealth or beauty or success. There are people who treat these things as gods and sacrifice to them, but I don’t think that any of those people are here. I have never thought that worshipping such things was a particular problem in this congregation or indeed in the wider Uniting Church. If I was talking to a congregation of thousands led by attractive young people singing songs sold around the world and making millions, I might need to preach against the love of money or the worship of achievement. But in a small, aging, suburban congregation those aren’t the gods that are likely to lead us astray. I want to talk about another thing that might become a foreign god for us. Initially I had two ‘alternate gods’, but then I got sick, my voice started to get a bit wobbly, and I realised a shorter sermon would be better than a longer one. So I’m only going to talk about one other things Australians worship: our families.

Families are highly valued in Australia, at least rhetorically. Politicians know to refer to families, preferably ‘Australian families’, if they want to be persuasive. So we have Kevin Rudd’s frequent use of the phrase ‘working families’ in his 2007 campaign, and Scott Morrison’s justification of negative gearing as the domain of ‘mum and dad investors’. Families, particularly those where both parents work and have enough money to invest are apparently Australian politicians’ favourite and most deserving demographic. Tax cuts and family benefits for them are good welfare, unlike support for the single unemployed. But the church has a similar emphasis on the value and virtues of families and that is, when you think about it, a little strange, given how anti-the-traditional-family Jesus was.

We’re told clearly in the gospels according to Matthew, Mark and Luke that Jesus’ priority was not his biological family. Instead he preferred the ‘new’ family created by doing the will of his Father in heaven. When told that his mother and brothers wanted to speak to him he responded:  ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ (Matthew 12:46-50) It wasn’t just his own biological family that Jesus snubbed. When one of Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus to allow him to bury his father before joining him, Jesus’ incredibly pastorally insensitive response was: ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’ (Matthew 8:21-22) Jesus was creating a new community, a new family, created by doing the will of God, rather than by blood.

Family Praise Service

And yet over the millennia the church has lost this radical interpretation of the followers of Jesus as family, and been co-opted into society’s over-valuing of the nuclear or biological family. Some churches have ‘family’ services, for example, in which the adjective ‘family’ does not mean what it should mean for the church – everyone, including the single, divorced, widowed, childless and orphaned. We know what a ‘family service’ means; it’s a service that is entertaining for children. (One church advertising a ‘Family Service’ made that explicit, explaining that children would be engaged throughout; there would be crafts for the under-5s; and that the service would only go for 50 minutes. Because God forbid that children ever be bored at church!) There is absolutely nothing wrong with services that try to enable Christians of all ages to worship God, but to call them ‘family services’ is to suggest that the Church isn’t a family every single time it gathers to worship. Every time Christians gather together to worship is a ‘family service’ even if the worshipping community is made up entirely of unrelated single people all over the age of ninety.

Family Harvest Service

Families are good things, usually. But they are not to be worshipped. Setting the family up as another god can lead us to ignore family violence; either because we believe that such violence doesn’t happen in nice families, or because we believe that the legal system shouldn’t interfere with families if it does. People are able to justify all sorts of things if they are done for the sake of their family; tax minimization, for instance. Why contribute to the needs of the broader population when instead you can keep all your money to make sure that your own family has everything it wants? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one of the most popular ways of doing that is through the so-called ‘family trust’. And when churches get a little too excited about families we can make the single, divorced and widowed feel isolated in a community that should, if we are truly following Jesus, be providing them with a family.

Families are not bad things in themselves. But to make them into alternate gods is hazardous. I don’t believe that God will turn and do us harm and consume us for worshipping them, but worshipping them will do us harm, when our worship means that we are not honest, for example, about the violence that can take place in families, or we focus on our families to the exclusion of those in need.

As Joshua reminded the people of Israel, here is only one God, the Lord, the one who liberated them. Of course, people have done dreadful things in this God’s name, too. There is nothing so good that human beings cannot pervert it, and over the centuries some Christians have believed that worshipping God means using violence to make sure everyone else joins them in that worship or to punish those that don’t. But I believe that we are less likely to get into trouble worshipping the one and only Lord our God than worshipping any of the foreign gods our society offers us. After all, the one and only God is fairly clear that the only and best way to show our worship is by loving God and loving our neighbour. If we seek to live out those two commandments the Lord is unlikely to be tempted to turn and do us harm, and consume us. Amen.

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