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There’s something sad about idolatry, something truly pitiful. You just can’t help but feel sorry for those people who worshiped idols.
In our reading from Acts, Paul walked around the city of Athens and he saw idols everywhere he looked. The ancient city of Athens was loaded to the gills with idols to the Olympic gods. And when Paul saw all these idols, he couldn’t contain himself. He had to say something. So when he wouldn’t be quiet, they gave Paul the stage. And when he had his chance, Paul let them know how sad it all is.
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.”
It’s sad! God gives you everything you need day in and day out. He gives life and breath and everything we have. Or, as Paul said earlier in the book of Acts, God “did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness,” all so that you could know your creator and trust in his goodness. Or as the catechism puts it, “God has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey him.”
God gives you everything you need to support your body and life day in and day out so that you’ll know your creator and trust in his goodness. But instead of thanking and praising him, serving and obeying him—instead of trusting him—you take one of God’s gifts and worship it as if it were everything. And then you spend all your time in worry and anxiety trying to serve the idol: building a little shrine, putting flowers around it, sacrificing animals and offering meat and food to it, trying everything you can to make it work! It’s sad!
The prophet Isaiah really drives this home: “[The carpenter] plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, ‘Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god!’”
And so really, it’s no wonder that you’re tossed around like the wind. God gives you trees and rain so that you can have a fire to roast your food and stay warm. But instead of thanking and praising him, instead of trusting him, you take the wood and carve it into an image and worship the wood statue, as if the wood made the sun rise or the trees grow or the rain fall! And then you worry and fret or become angry and frustrated because you trust in something that is insecure and empty!
Here God gives you everything you need to support your body and life day in and day out so that you’ll trust in him. And you take one of his gifts and act like it’s everything. And since it obviously isn’t everything, you spend all your time in worry and anxiety trying to serve your idol, or in anger and frustration trying to protect your idol. It’s sad. You can’t help but feel sorry for those idol worshipers. You can’t help but pity them.
Until, that is, you realize that we do this all the time! God gives us everything we need day in and day out so that we’ll know his goodness and trust in him, and we pick out one thing in God’s creation, we take one of God’s good gifts, and we prop it up as if it ran the world. And the better the gift, the more likely we are to idolize it, to let the gift eclipse the Giver of the gift. And then we spend all our time in anxiety and worry.
Like the government! The government is one of God’s good gifts. As Paul says in Romans 13, the governing authorities are “God’s servant for your good.” But we take that gift and act as if it were everything. Whether we’re for or against the people who hold office, we put so much stock in them that when they aren’t perfect or when people accuse them of being imperfect, we flip out as if the sky were falling. This is why we can’t take our attention away from the news. We can’t stop speculating about conspiracy theories, or talking about whether our government is going to save us or damn us. We act as if we just had the right people and the right policies there wouldn’t be a pandemic. But let’s get real! The government, no matter who is running it, doesn’t make the sun rise or the trees grow or the rain fall. The government does helpful things and the government does unhelpful things, but our lives don’t depend on the government. Whether we have a good government or a poor government, our lives are finally in the hands of the Creator. If we put our fear, love, and trust in the government above all things, of course we’re going to panic and fret and get angry and frustrated when things get rough.
The same is true for our family and friends. Our family and friends are good gifts from God. They’re there when we need someone to talk to. They give us company and something to do, someone to share life with. They are truly God’s good gifts. But they’re not everything. And if we put our fear, love, and trust in them above all things, then we’ll act as if we’re completely lost when we can’t get together with them. Yes, it stinks when we have to be isolated from them. But just because we’ve been separated from our family and friends doesn’t mean the horizon has been wiped away! The one who gave us the company of family and friends can more than compensate us with his good gifts of daily life—getting up in the morning, watching the beauty of the sunrise, listening to the birds sing, sowing or working in the yard, calling each other on the phone.
The same is true of this place. This building is a good gift from God. Our sanctuary, our liturgy, our hymns, our ability to safely gather all of us together—these are all good gifts from God, really great gifts. But they’re not everything. If we think our sanctuary, our liturgy and hymns, and our ability to all of us gather together at once is everything, if we put our fear, love, and trust in those things, then when they’re taken away, we’ll panic and fret or get angry and frustrated. We’ll act like all has been lost, and we’ve been betrayed and forsaken. But as wonderful as those gifts are, as much as we enjoy them and delight in them, they are not God. God is the one who richly and daily provides us with all that we need to support this body and life, and then some. He is also the one who continues to grace us with His Word, to uphold us with his promises, and to give us forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus’ body and blood.
God gives us everything we need day in and day out so that we’ll know his goodness and trust in him, and we take one thing in God’s creation, we take one of God’s good gifts, and we prop it up as if it ran the world, as if it were everything. And then we spend all our time in anxiety and worry, or in anger and frustration.
But look! God didn’t raise Jesus from the dead so that we could run around in panic and anxiety or in anger and frustration, acting like the sky is falling and all is lost as soon as there’s a little trouble. God raised Jesus from the dead so that we would know that there is someone who is greater than the government, greater than our family and friends, greater than buildings and hymns and liturgies—the one who gives life to the dead and calls into existence things that do not exist. God raised Jesus from the dead so that we could know that there’s someone who does what no idol could ever do—give life even in the midst of nothingness and death! God raised Jesus so that we could be confident that our lives are more than the government, more than our companions, more than this place. God raised Jesus from the dead so that we could know our creator—the God of self-giving love—and trust in his goodness.
God raised Jesus from the dead so that we could thank and praise, serve and obey him, as the catechism says. That’s not what we have to do. That’s what we get to do. That’s what we get to do because we know that our lives are not in the hands of wood or stone, our government, our family and friends, or anything else, but in God, the inexhaustible fountain of good gifts, who out of love for us and for his creation gives and gives and gives some more. That’s what we get to do because we don’t have to worry and fret or get angry and fight when a little trouble comes our way. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have been redeemed and delivered from these empty, false gods. And now we have a true God—the maker of heaven and earth, who raised his Son Jesus from the dead, and who has promised us that nothing shall separate us from his love.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
16 Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. 19 And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.
22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for
“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;
as even some of your own poets have said,
“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’
29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”