ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH MARCH 8, 2014
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Exodus 20: 1 – 17; 1 Corinthians 1: 18 – 25; John 2: 13 – 22
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Last week Terry and I went to Arizona to celebrate his mom’s birthday; since I had never seen much of the area we decided to fly into Las Vegas and then go to the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon was magnificent. The Psalmist frequently expressed the grandeur of nature as a revelation of God’s glory and I’m sure he’d have been inspired by the Grand Canyon. We arrived there in the late afternoon and spent two hours watching the setting sun play against the canyon walls. I hope to return there for a longer visit another time. Las Vegas? Not so much. To me, Vegas is an over the top city of excess. It’s too loud, too colourful, too flashy, and too expensive. There’s too much eating, drinking, gambling, entertainment, sexual exploitation and shopping. If you can imagine being at a party in a loud bar 24/7, then you can imagine Vegas. It’s a place of big, broken dreams and false hopes. Billions of dollars have been invested, spent and flushed down the toilet. While some visitors were there to observe more than participate, many got in over their heads in debt, booze and the all-you-can-eat buffet.
I couldn’t help but wonder how a congregation in Las Vegas would compete with that level of stimulation? A sermon on “you shall have no other gods before me” wouldn’t exactly draw the tourists in. “Trust in God” isn’t on the radar of someone sitting in adult diaper at a slot machine. And unless you count, “Come on baby daddy needs a new pair of shoes”, prayer isn’t a priority. I wonder if LV churches are tempted to have slot machines in the foyer, a bar in the hall and Cher as the soloist. In reality it’s not only LV churches that face those challenges. All around us people seem to seek a hyper atmosphere in which to serve other gods. Look at our scriptures today – The 10 Commandments, Jesus driving the money changers out of the temple and Paul expounding on the saving power of the cross. What attraction do those messages have for people who play by their own rules? Who on earth prefers foolishness over wisdom or weakness over strength? The Church has a hard sell.
After attending an open house at his son’s second grade class, Justin P McBrayer, a philosophy professor at Ft. Lewis College, Colorado wrote, “I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read: Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven. Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.” In other words “faith” is and improvable opinion, based on neither fact nor truth. This dichotomy between fact and opinion has direct moral consequences. McBrayer cited an on-line test which asked whether the following statements are fact or opinion. They were: Copying homework assignments is wrong; Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior; All men are created equal; Protecting our country from terrorism is worth personal sacrifice; It is wrong for under-aged people to drink alcohol; Drug dealers belong in prison. In each case these claims were classified as opinions because each of these assertions is a “value claim” and value claims are not facts; anything that alleges to know good, bad, right, wrong, etc. (i.e. moral standards) is not a fact. Left unchallenged, the assumptions of this curriculum lead to an amoral universe where anything goes because opinions are options. When we teach kids that cheating is an opinion held by some people, we shouldn’t be surprised when they grow up to cheat on their taxes.
It’s not difficult to challenge the assumptions of this curriculum – if extra-terrestrials are building homes on other planets, we may not be able to prove it, but it would still be a fact. To say “I believe the earth is round” is both a fact and an opinion. But we have to admit things have changed from the time when The 10 Commandments were accepted as God’s moral law. Back in the day a Sunday school teacher was discussing the Ten Commandments with her five and six-year olds. After explaining the commandment to “honor thy father and thy mother,” she asked, “Is there a commandment that teaches us how to treat our brothers and sisters?” Without missing a beat, one little boy answered, “Thou shall not kill.” Nowadays, according to grade school curriculum, the Ten Commandments would be classified as “God’s opinion”, not “fact”. The “fact” that they’re in The Holy Bible is also dismissed because what’s in the Bible is based on beliefs.
Ironically, while our society denigrates God’s laws, we’re quite quick to uphold others. When I get into my vehicle I have to put on my seat belt. There my car must meet the standards of a biannual emission test. It needs insurance and a license plate. There are rules about what side of the road I’m to drive on, how fast I can go and how much alcohol can be in my system. There are signs to obey. These rules aren’t facts, they’re someone’s opinion. If we’re cynical we would say these laws are simply a way of generating revenue but most laws are designed to create a safer society. Some people obey laws because “it’s the law” or they want to avoid punishment; many others obey laws because it’s safer for all. We don’t want to hurt anyone, take a life or destroy a family. It’s about relationships not rules.
The same is true of The 10 Commandments. They are about relationships not rules. They are God’s directives to his people so they can build a community based on care and respect for one another. “Honor your father and your mother; do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness against your neighbor; do not covet” are all proclamations designed to protect and build relationships. It’s not surprising then, that the first three commandments focus on our relationship with God. “You shall have no other gods before me; you shall not make for yourself an idol… or bow down and worship them; you shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” God wants to be first in our lives. God wants us to love him before anything or anyone else. If we think of the most life-giving relationship in our lives, we realize that one of the most wonderful qualities of it was that we came first in that person’s life; whatever life threw at us, we knew that person would be by our side and on our side. Not only does God ask this of us, he gives this to us. God has saved us; we’ve been freed from all that stands in the way of our worship of him and our freedom in him. God doesn’t just want us to do what he says – he wants us to love him, to know him, to honour him, to put him first. Our God is not a faraway God who tests us or makes our lives miserable with a pile of arbitrary opinions and unimportant rules and rituals, He is the One who is “with us”; the one “who saves”; the one who brings us out of slavery to freedom; the one who lays down his life for us. Relationships transcend rules.
It was that depth of love for God that was in Jesus’ heart when he went into the temple and drove out those who were using the worship of God for their own gain. The money changers would make a profit off of the poor tourists who had come to the temple to make a sacrifice to God. These guys would make a killing in Vegas. The worshippers wanted to show their love for God and were being taken advantage of. Jesus was angry because the money changers were putting their desire for wealth before God and coming between God’s relationship with others. The temple was a house of prayer because prayer is a way of being in intimate relationship with God. For Jesus, God came first.
What about you? Is God first in your life? Do you look to God to meet your needs? Are you chasing after some illusive pot of gold or are you trusting in the One who loves you? Are you following a bunch of rules hoping that your goodness will keep you from being punished or are you building a relationship with God?
If anyone knew that Christianity is a hard sell, it was St. Paul. He’d been all over the world and had suffered in every way possible for Christ. He had argued with the great debators of his age, and endured the mocking of his own kinsmen. But when it came to drawing people into the church, the crucified Christ came first. Jesus was the beginning and the end. The cross was his entire show – no dancing girls, no one armed bandits, no free happy hour drinks. Just the cross. The symbol of God’s love for us. God’s invitation to live in a truly fulfilling, life giving relationship with him. In the end, all Christians have is the cross. And all we need is the cross. To those who are perishing, the cross is ridiculous, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God. And that’s not just Paul’s opinion or my belief; those who have entered into a relationship with God through the cross of Christ will tell you – it’s a fact.