June 14, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
GOD & gods
Here’s some trivia that will stump most of you. The book Robinson Crusoe originally had a longer title. Quite a bit longer. Can you tell me what it was? I didn’t think so.
The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who Lived Eight and Twenty Years, All Alone in an Un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, Near the Mouth of the Great River Oroonoque; Having Been Cast on Shore by Shipwreck, Wherein All the Men Perished But Himself. With an Account how he was at last Strangely Deliver’d by Pyrates. Written by Himself. Or . . . Robinson Crusoe for short.
I was tempted this week to use a sermon title that would have been too long. The title would have been, “The gods we make and the God who made us.” I shortened that to “God and gods.” You probably can’t tell from either one what I have in mind to talk about this morning. So I’ll try to explain.
Here are two statements. Both true. The first is the truth about God. The second is the truth about us. Here is the truth about God: God made us and God is worthy of our worship. And here is the truth about us: We make gods and we worship them instead. God, capital “G” and gods, small “g.”
The first truth is found in the first book of the Bible. Genesis tells us that God made everything there is, you and me included. It’s not a scientific description of how God managed to do all that. The Bible is not a science textbook. It just tells us that he did it. God is the Creator. We are the created. So it only makes sense for those who have been given the gift of life to express appreciation to the One who gave them that gift. That is why we worship God. God alone is worthy of our worship.
The second truth is found throughout the Bible. A couple of examples are found in Jeremiah. God asks the question:
But where are your gods that you made for yourself? Let them arise if they can save you in your time of trouble; for as many as your cities are your gods, O Judah (2:28).
The God who made us is alone able to save us. The gods we make for ourselves have no such power.
Then, later in the book, God asks and answers his own question: “Can man make for himself gods? Such are no gods!” (16:20)
Yes, we can make for ourselves gods. We are perfectly capable of that. And we are perfectly capable of worshiping these man-made gods. We do it all the time. But we must never confuse the gods we make with the God who made us. Yet we also do that all the time.
God considered this so important that it made his Top Ten List of Commandments. In fact, it’s the very first one.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2-3).
Most of us have broken most of the Ten Commandments, but I doubt if there is another one we have broken more often and with less remorse than this one.
Every time a poll is taken, the percentage of Americans who believe in God comes out right around 90%. This has remained fairly constant even as church attendance has declined. (And church attendance has really declined since about the middle of March!) But what do you think the percentage would be if we could measure how many of us actually obey the First Commandment? How many of us truly worship the God who made us more than the gods we have made? What do you think? 2%? That might be high. And would you be among that number?
I’ll get personal. I love God. I love Jesus. A lot. But I also love my wife. I love my children. I love my mom, my sister, my brother, my granddaughter. I love being a pastor. I love the church. I love this church. I love the mountains. I love the ocean. I love the stars. I loving running. I love walking. I love reading. I love my routine. I love sports. I love food. I love relaxing. I even love mowing my lawn. In short, I love life.
More than I love God? I wouldn’t say that. Why wouldn’t I say that? Because it’s the truth? Or because it’s what I want to be the truth. Because it’s what you would expect your pastor to say.
The Bible tells us that even the demons believe in God (James 2:19). So being among the 90% who believe is nothing to brag about. It’s not what we say that counts; it’s how we live. Do we truly live in such a way that we put God first? Or do we give lip service to God while demonstrating with our lives that our true priorities lie elsewhere?
The gods that we make are not evil. Not necessarily. They just are not God. I think we all know people who are among the 10% who don’t believe in God. These are not bad people. Many of them have devoted their lives to great causes. Peace. Justice. Race relations. Caring for our planet. Science. Curing disease. Literature. Music. Education. Politics. Law. Philanthropy. Working hard to make this world a better place.
I think of people I know who fit this description. I may never see them in church. I may never change their mind about God. But I won’t pretend to be a better person than they are.
So what’s wrong with living a good life that does not include God? Here are three Bible verses that help us see what a good life without God is missing.
The first of these comes from the 23rd Psalm. “He restores my soul” (verse 3). God can do this; gods cannot.
Here is the way a great saint named Augustine put it: “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
A few centuries later, the same thought was expressed in different words by Pascal: “There is God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.”
This makes sense. If God made us, then shouldn’t there be something about the way we are made that would draw us to God? It works that way in the animal kingdom. There is that curious drive birds and mammals are born with to imprint onto their mother. Or in some rare cases, to imprint onto someone other than their mother.
(YouTube: “Kyle the Goose”) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zRA3LnBwzvo
The second verse that helps us see what a good life without God is missing comes from the Garden of Gethsemane. It is Thursday. Jesus will be crucified on Friday. He is praying to God. He is sweating blood. He doesn’t want to be nailed to a cross. Who would? And then Jesus prays: “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done” (Luke 22:42).
We are born with a need for God who alone can restore our soul. We are also born with a desire to have things go our own way. That prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden does not come naturally. The prayer that comes naturally is: “Not thy will, but mine be done.” I’ve prayed that prayer quite a few times myself. “God, I love you, but just this once can’t I do like they say at Burger King and have it my way?”
Frank Sinatra sang about that. “I Did it My Way,” as if we should applaud him for that. As if that’s the best and the highest to which human beings can possibly aspire. I suppose if there is no God who made me and knows what is best for me, I’d may as well “do it my way.” I’d may as well do what I want to do, and do what seems right to me. But the problem is: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12). We human beings don’t have a very good track record of doing things our way without getting ourselves into a whole lot of trouble.
We need God to guide us. God knows better than we do. Life goes better when we let him take the lead. Somebody wrote about that in this very creative way:
I used to think of God as my observer, my judge, keeping track of the things I did wrong, so as to know whether I merited heaven or hell when I die. He was out there, sort of like a president. I recognized his picture when I saw it but I didn’t really know him. But later on, when I met Jesus, it seemed as though life was rather like a bike, but it was a tandem bike, and I noticed that Jesus was in the back helping me pedal. I didn’t know just when it was he suggested we change, but life has not been the same since I took the back-seat to Jesus, my Lord. He makes life exciting. When I had control, I thought I knew the way. It was rather boring, but predictable. It was the shortest distance between two points. But when he took the lead, he knew delightful long cuts, up mountains, and through rocky places and at break-through speeds; it was all I could do to hang on! Even though it often looked like madness, he said, “Pedal!” I was worried and anxious and asked, “Where are you taking me?” He laughed and didn’t answer and I started to learn to trust. I forgot my boring life and entered into adventure. And when I’d say, “I’m scared,” he’d lean back and touch my hand. He took me to people with gifts that I needed, gifts of healing, acceptance, and joy. They gave me their gifts to take on my journey, our journey, my Lord’s and mine. And we were off again. He said, “Give the gifts away; they’re extra baggage, too much weight.” So I did, to the people we met, and I found in giving I received, and still our burden was light. I did not trust him, at first, in control of my life. I thought he’d wreck it, but he knows bike secrets, knows how to make it bend to take sharp corners, jump to clear high rocks, fly to shorten scary passages, and I’m beginning to enjoy the view and the cool breeze on my face with my delightful constant companion, Jesus. And when I’m sure I just can’t do any more, he just smiles and says . . . “Pedal!”
We are born with a need for God who alone can restore our soul. We are born with a desire to have things go our own way. And not long after we are born, our minds tend to become set and hardened and resistant to change. The verse about this is in Romans.
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable
and perfect (12:2).
Good people want to make themselves better people. They try hard to improve themselves. But there is a limit to how much we can change ourselves. Old ways and old habits are hard to unlearn. Even when are successful, like a rubber band that is stretched, there is a force that wants to pull us right back to where we were before.
For there to be real change, lasting change, heart change, we need God. The God who made us, not the gods we have made. Only God can transform us. And what is involved in that transformation? “The renewal of our minds.”
When we are born, our minds are like a blank tablet. Which is a scary thought for a parent. Because you will be writing things on that tablet, whether you mean to or not. And it won’t be long before the things that are written there will be kind of like those things written on white boards that don’t get erased promptly. It soon becomes really hard, almost impossible, to get that board clean again.
We’ve been reminded in recent weeks that racial prejudice is not something we are born with. It is something we learn. And once learned, it is hard to unlearn. Almost impossible. But with God all things are possible.
Recent events have reminded us of the Civil Rights struggles of the fifties, sixties, and seventies. They have reminded us that the good work that was done back then was not nearly enough. There is a lot of work yet to do.
There were heroes and there were villains as our nation slowly awakened to the evil of racial prejudice. If I were to ask you to name the villains, I know the first name many of you would mention would be George Wallace.
When he was elected governor of Alabama in 1962, his inaugural address included these words: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” When the courts ruled that black students must be admitted to the University of Alabama he was standing in the doorway, blocking their entrance.
He ran for president in 1968. He won five southern states which amounted to 46 electoral votes. Almost enough to throw the election to the House of Representatives.
He ran again in 1972. While campaigning there was an attempt on his life. He was shot five times by a young man named Arthur Bremer. He survived, but he never walked again. He lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Pain was his constant companion.
For the rest of the 1970’s, he was searching and seeking. At the end of that decade he announced that he had become a born-again Christian. The announcement was met with skepticism, as I’m sure you can understand. But for those who knew him best, there was no doubt. He was a changed man. Most amazing of all, his mind was changed on racial reconciliation.
He had many regrets as he looked back over his life. He needed to apologize. He met with civil rights leaders in Alabama and told them how sorry he was.
Congressman John Lewis was very much involved in the civil rights movement with George Wallace as his antagonist. The two met for the first time in 1979, about the same time God was doing his thing with George Wallace. Here’s what John Lewis wrote about that meeting.
I could tell he was a changed man. He acknowledged his bigotry and assumed responsibility for the harm he’d caused. He wanted to be forgiven. When I met George Wallace I had to forgive him. George Wallace should be remembered for his capacity to change. Our ability to forgive serves a higher moral purpose in our society. Through genuine repentance and forgiveness, the soul of our nation is changed.
Governor Wallace was elected to a fourth term as governor of Alabama in 1982. He got 90% of the vote. That means he got an overwhelming majority of the African-American vote. They remembered what he had done in the past that had been so hurtful to them, but they also believed what God had done in him. They believed that his change was real. He had indeed been “transformed by the renewal of his mind.”
You can be a good person without God. Many people are. And you can be a bad person with God. Many people are. So why bother with God?
Because God makes good people better. And God makes bad people good. And God takes all people, sinners as we all are. He forgives our sins. He restores our soul. He steers that tandem bike. And he gives us a new mind, the mind of Jesus.
Thank you, God for making us. Thank you, God for sending Jesus. You alone are worthy of our worship. And yet we confess that you are not our first love. We have other gods – other gods before you. Which not only breaks a commandment. It breaks your heart. And it also breaks the close, deep relationship you want to have with us that makes possible life as it is meant to be. Forgive us, O God. And change us. Only you can do that. And only through Jesus, your Son. In his name we pray, Amen.