I am certain that somewhere this morning, some preacher will stand up before their congregation and say, “I must confess to you that I have failed to keep one of the Commandments.” After a dramatic pause, long enough for members to mutter to themselves with shock and surprise, the preacher will continue, “I do not keep the Sabbath day,” and everyone will get a good chuckle. In post-Industrial, 21st century America, it is easy to look at the Ten Commandments, see the admonition to keep the Sabbath, and roll our eyes. Forgetting, for a moment, the reality that being able to order take-out, buy a widget, produce a car, and be in touch 24 hours a day, seven days a week is literally killing people by way of heart disease, cancer, and even COVID, it seems to me that the real sin of failing to honor the Sabbath day isn’t that it violates the fourth Commandment, but that it actually violates the number one, top of the line Commandment that God gave to Moses after rescuing the Hebrew People from Egypt, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
We live in a world that is full of false gods constantly vying for our attention. When we are young, it is the god of cool who tries to convince us to talk the right way, hang out with the right people, and wear the right clothes so that we will fit in. The god of advertising would have us find happiness in the right car, shoes, or cell phone plan. The god of 24-hour news brainwashes us to think only a certain way. The god of right would have us break off all relationships with those with whom we disagree. There are hundreds of gods in this world that would have us turn away from the One, True, God.
Perhaps the most insidious god of them all is the god of success. If we can only get the right grades, go the right school, and focus on the right career, all our hopes will be fulfilled. Of course, in order to succeed, we have to work, hard, constantly. We work, and we work, and we work, until one day, we realize that Sabbath no longer exists, and that we have not only put our lives at risk by not taking the kind of rest that even the Lord God Almighty took at the Creation of all that is, but that we have replaced God entirely.
Of course, the devious nature of the gods of this world is nothing new. There is a reason that the first Commandment that God gave to Moses some thirty-five hundred years ago was to have no other gods. Human beings have been susceptible to the temptation to replace God since the very beginning. It is why Adam and Eve ate that piece of forbidden fruit. It is why Jonah ended up in the belly of a big fish. And it is why Jesus went bonkers in the Temple one Sunday afternoon. It was the days leading up to the Passover Feast. Pilgrims from all over were making their way to Jerusalem in order to remember God rescuing their ancestors from slavery in Egypt and to make their various offerings at the Temple. Jesus and his disciples, being faithful Jews, went as well. What they saw upon their arrival in the Temple Court was the gods of this world running rampant in the house of the Lord God Almighty.
The sacrificial system had been established to give people a hands-on way to get right with God, but in time, many middlemen had entered the equation. There were the cattle sellers, who, for a nice profit, would sell you the unblemished lamb you needed for your Passover sacrifice. Of course, they had doves by the dozens should you need to be purified after childbirth, cleansed of a skin condition, or simply wanted to present a burnt offering to God. Jesus, no doubt, saw the need for such businesses, as many pilgrims would have been unable to travel with their animal offerings in tow, but he also saw the god of the almighty shekel at work. He saw the god of ritualistic religion taking the true intentions of the people and turning them into profit. So, he tied up a whip of cords and began to chase the vendors, and the gods they represented, out of his Father’s Temple.
As they fled, Jesus turned his attention to the money changers, who were even worse. The Temple Tax, which had to be paid by every Jewish person for the upkeep of the Temple, was paid in a very specific way. In Jesus’ day, the currency of Rome broke the Second Commandment. In violation of the Commandment against idols was the graven image of the Emperor with an inscription that declared Caesar as divine and a high priest in the state religion. This would obviously not do as payment for the Temple tax, and so the money changer took on an important role. For a decent profit, they would take your Roman coins and give you the proper half shekel needed to pay the Temple Tax. Here again, the god of the almighty shekel had teamed up with the false gods of ritual and government to bring distance between the People and the One, True, God. In response, Jesus flipped their tables, sent change skittering all over, and ran them out. Jesus has little patience for false gods in his Father’s house.
Today marks our fifty-second Sunday of Church at Home. It has been a long, difficult year. I miss seeing each of you so very much, and I look forward to preaching to more than a camera and Linda Mitchell someday soon. But I also worry that this past year has introduced a new god seeking our attention – the god of normal. I fear that we are all so desperate for normalcy, that we could lose sight of all that Almighty God has sought to teach us over these last 12 months. Normal feels easy. We can simply slide back into the old routines that we knew so well. We’ll fall right back into the habits of the past, and this year long Sabbath that has been forced upon us will have been for naught. On April 2nd, 2020, only about three weeks into the first pandemic shut-down, poet and social justice advocate Sonya Renee Taylor reflected on what was, even then, the already alluring siren song of the god of normal. She wrote, “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was never normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, My friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”
The First Commandment might be the hardest one to keep. The gods of this world are myriad. Specifically, right now, the god of normal is seductive, but we must resist its temptation and instead listen for the will of the God of All Creation, the God of Love, as we discern what life looks like in months and years to come. Lest Jesus enter into our lives and tie up a whip of cords, perhaps, in what we hope are the waning days of the pandemic, we should take time to root out the false gods who would vie for our attention and turn our focus toward the One, True God. Thankfully, it is the Season of Lent, a time of preparation for new beginnings. The tools we need are already at our disposal: self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. My friends, with so many false gods running around, I am certain we have all occasionally violated at least one of the Commandments, but with the help of Almighty God, we can find forgiveness and restoration through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.