Sermon: Letting Go Our Idols

Sunday, March 7, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday in Lent
watch this service online (readings start around 12:35; sermon starts around 20:27)
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A long time ago, in a congregation far, far away, I was one of the leaders of the youth group at the church I belonged to at the time.  We had been trying to come up with ways to get the youth more involved in the life of the congregation, and one thing that we decided we were going to do was to have a “Youth Sunday.”  Youth would plan the whole worship service for Sunday; they would be the readers, the ushers, the worship assistants.  Youth would come up with whatever the message was going to be for the service.  And youth would also plan all of the music.  

That last part made the music director of the congregation very, very anxious.  She was an excellent musician, deeply committed to providing beautiful music for the congregation.  But she had very high and very narrow standards for the kind of music she deemed “acceptable” or “appropriate” for worship.  I actually heard my pastor describe her once as a “benevolent dictator” in terms of how she ran our music ministry.

So when we sat down with her to plan the music for this service, she brought the worship resources from Sundays and Seasons – like we use here – and told us: “Okay, these are your choices.  You can only pick hymns from off this list.”  So, basically, nothing off-piste – none of that contemporary music stuff or, God forbid, that noisy camp-style music!  

So we picked out some hymns from THE LIST.  And as we were looking at our selections in the hymnal, I noticed that one of the hymns we’d chosen had a couple of different versions in the ELW – and the version that Sundays and Seasons had specifically listed for that Sunday was not the familiar, traditional melody and text; it was the Spanish language version, complete with guitar accompaniment.  So I got really excited and said, “Hey!  We could totally sing parts of this in Spanish and I could even play along on my guitar!”  

That was enough to set off the music director’s alarm bells, because she quickly jumped in and said, “Well, we don’t haaaaaaave to go exactly by the list…” – but we were like, “Oh no, we should definitely abide by what’s on the list.”  And that’s what we ended up doing.

And it ended up being great!  We put together a little youth choir and I and another guy played guitar, and we led the whole congregation in singing this hymn in Spanish and English.  It was really beautiful and I could really feel the Spirit moving.  And it was awesome to see the youth so excited about getting to take ownership of worship and getting to lead things their own way.  The congregation loved it too; people commented for months afterwards how meaningful the service had been – especially the music.

It was really a shame that this music director had basically closed herself off to the new things that God was doing in and through these awesome youth.  She put her vision of what worship music should be on such a high pedestal that she had basically made an idol of it.  For her, that idol took precedence over everything else happening in worship.  And so, even though she was engaged in an important ministry, her focus on it kept her from seeing and celebrating the movement of the Spirit, like the rest of us were doing.

And as I read our gospel reading for this morning, I can’t help but wonder if this is the kind of thing that’s happening in the temple – especially reading it alongside the verses about idolatry from our first reading.  The people selling animals and exchanging money in the courtyard of the temple were also engaged in an important kind of ministry.  People traveled to the temple from all over in order to make sacrifices as part of their regular religious practice.  And it was probably a lot more convenient to buy animals for sacrifice at the temple rather than traveling who-knows-how-many miles with an animal they already owned – so the merchants and moneychangers provided an important service.  But maybe, over time, that buying and selling started to overshadow the actual spiritual function of the temple – to the point where it became an idol.  Like Jesus shouts at the merchants and moneychangers, they were turning the temple into a marketplace – a secular place that was centered around the exchange of money, instead of a house of worship where God held central place.

And Jesus then seems to warn them about letting the temple itself become an idol.  After he flips the tables and yells at them about making the temple into a marketplace, Jesus says to the people:  You can tear this temple down, and in three days I will raise it up again.  Even though they don’t realize at the time that Jesus is talking about his own body, it still seems like he’s trying to tell them that even the temple itself is not more important than God – let alone the buying and selling and sacrificing that happened there.  Money will come and go; temples will rise and fall, but God stands firm forever.  And only God has power over life and death.  

This probably sounded like a harsh word to the people who heard Jesus speak it.  The temple was the heart of their religious life, and so were the rituals and sacrifices they performed there.  How dare he suggest that these things weren’t all that important?  Many of us would probably feel pretty similarly if someone were to say to us that this building isn’t really that important, that the rituals and practices we do here aren’t that important either.  Likewise, I can imagine that the music director I talked about earlier would be pretty offended by what I said about her music ministry being less important than she thought it should be.  

But if you read this gospel passage in the context in which it was written, Jesus’ words take on a whole new level of significance.  John wrote his gospel account after the temple actually was destroyed – decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection.  He was writing to people who had lost one of the central symbols of their faith – the temple – and who probably felt pretty lost as a result.  To those people mourning this devastating loss, Jesus’ words about the temple can actually be read as words of comfort and hope.  His words are a reminder that God is much, much greater than any temple – or any church building, for that matter.  And temple or no temple, God’s love and commitment to God’s people remain the same.  

In the same way, I think these words from Jesus speak comfort and reassurance to us, living in our own time of crisis.  Our ‘temple’ hasn’t been destroyed, but we have been forced out of it for almost a year, and we’ve had to change a lot of the ways we practice our faith together.  Jesus reminds us that just because we haven’t been worshiping together in our building, it does not mean that the church is dying – or even that the church is ‘closed.’  God is still very much at work in us and among us, binding us together in the body of Christ even when we are apart.  God isn’t bound to a building or to any particular way of doing things.  God is living and active, constantly bringing forth new life in ways that surprise us and even mystify us.  

This also makes me hear what we read about idolatry in our first reading a bit differently.  Idolatry basically means letting anything have higher importance in our lives than God – trusting in something more than we trust in God.  And if you’ve read pretty much any of the Old Testament, you know that it’s something that makes God BIG mad.  But it strikes me that the teaching against idolatry isn’t just about making God happy; it’s also about steering us away from paths that will lead us to disappointment – it’s a warning to us not to put our faith in things that will inevitably let us down.  Putting our faith in God makes God happy, and it’s also the path that will lead us to life.

To this day, the temple has never been rebuilt in Jerusalem.  In the wake of its destruction, followers of both Judaism and Christianity found new paths forward.  They found that God was still with them, faithfully calling them forward into something new.  And especially for the early Christians, as the movement became more diverse and Gentile believers joined Jewish believers in the Way, it arguably ended up being a good thing that the movement was no longer centered around the temple, but centered around the cross instead.

Likewise, I have faith that God is with us now, faithfully calling us forward into something new.  I mean, I’m not advocating that we let our building be destroyed by angry Romans or anything like that.  But I am hopeful that this extended period of change and discomfort will help us to see more clearly what it is that truly matters most.  And it’s not our building or any earthly temple that matters most.  It’s not the moneychangers or the music ministry or “the way we’ve always done” things.  What matters most is the way of the cross – the path of discipleship we walk as followers of Jesus.  No matter what life throws at us, our call remains the same: to keep our eyes fixed on Christ.  We can trust that he will always be with us – temple or no temple, guitar or no guitar, pandemic or no pandemic – he will be there, in this life and the next.

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