If all you knew about Christianity came from popular culture, you might think that all we think about is stamping out sin.
It’s as if we only care about ridding our lives of bad things. To be honest, some Christians seem to have that misconception, too.
Now, it’s true that God gives us the moral law and that we are responsible for obeying it. But the core of following Jesus is not about ridding ourselves of bad things. It’s learning to give up good things.
It can be difficult to give up destructive and self-destructive habits. But even more difficult than that is to give up good things. Our desire to hold on to good things is our greatest stumbling block to receiving the best.
That’s because clinging to good things turns them into idols and turns God into our butler. Let me explain by turning to the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert.
The Israelites have a problem. Well, strictly speaking, they have two problems.
The most obvious problem is that they need water and they’re in the middle of a desert. There is no water to be found. They responded by demanding water, quarreling with Moses and asking, “Is the LORD among us or not?” (Exodus 17:1-7) Despite their grumbling and complaining, God solves this problem by miraculously providing water from a rock.
This is where most of us stop when reading this passage. The Israelites are in need. God provides. Accordingly, the moral of the story seems to be only that God is our provider and that we should trust that he always gives us all we need.
This reading is only partially true. God does provide and trusting God to provide is an important spiritual challenge. But this particular episode has much more to teach us.
The Israelites face a second, deeper, more serious problem. And while we are not in the middle of a desert, we are confronted by this same problem ourselves.
Let me put in terms of a question. Do we love God because he is God? Or do we love God because of what he can do for us?
When the Israelites cried out, “Is God among us or not,” they were at one level expressing an understandable concern. The desert is a waterless wasteland and they were not only thirsty but there was literally no water. Period. They really needed a miracle.
However, they are already showing symptoms of a disease that was growing in them. They were making their provisions their god and loving God only for what he provides. They were not loving God as God.
There are two clues for this in the text.
First, consider the question they asked and what they actually meant by it. When they said, “Is God with us or not,” they really meant, “Where’s my water?” They did not complain that God was not present, only that water was absent. God was only a means to what they really wanted.
Second, look at what Moses names the place. Massah and Meribah do not mean, “The Lord Provides.” They mean, “Quarreled and Tested.” Moses knew that the lesson in this episode was much more about how we approach God than who God is.
This is underscored by the larger context of this episode. The desert narrative and in fact the whole history of Israel turns on God’s question to the Israelites: Who will be your God? Will it be food? Water? New Land? Political and military power? Economic abundance?
Later in the desert, the disease of idolatry erupts full-blown when the Israelites worship a Golden Calf instead of God. They have made what God provides their god.
We face the same question every day. Who will be our God? It’s not that we are, for the most part, faced with the obvious choice of gods. It’s as if we subtly, almost unwittingly slide into the habit of pursuing what God provides instead of desiring God himself.
So, Jesus teaches his disciples to develop habits that reinforce for us that God is our God, not the stuff he so graciously gives us.
For example, disciples serve the poor, the lost, the lonely, and the helpless.
God wants us to give away our time in service. Not to rack up points with good deeds, but to recognize that he has given us this time on earth to glorify him. Serving the poor, the lost, the lonely and the helpless reminds us that we do not belong to ourselves.
Fasting is another common habit for disciples.
We need food to live, but we are don’t live to eat. We live to serve. Fasting is not self-deprivation and certainly is not dieting for Lent. When we fast, we refuse to live to eat. When we let go of food we remind ourselves where it fits in our lives. We let go of a good thing in order to give ourselves completely to the best thing, to God.
Disciples commit themselves to tithing.
Money is a good thing. It is a means to pursue holy purposes. Tithing reminds us that God has given us money as a means to serve him. We give our first ten percent (or the percentage you presently give) to assure ourselves that we would never trade God for money.
In each case, God guides us into the discipline of letting go of what he has given us in order to be clear that we do not prize it over him.
If we do not intentionally make God more important than our time, our food and our money, we will gradually let them take God’s place at the center of our lives. These good things will become idols because they will assume an improper place in our lives. The truth is, good things can always become deadly idols.
Here’s what I mean.
When we think of our time as our own, we inevitably seek to fill it with entertainments or thrills or work or some form of busy-ness (that may even externally resemble service). We start by filling our time, but we end appalled by the prospect of our own emptiness.
When food becomes our idol, it may throw us into a cycle of bulimia, leave us with diabetes, beset us with gout, or give us high cholesterol.
And just as soon as we make money our idol, we discover that it’s a tyrant. There is no such thing as enough money when having money is the point of life. You could always have a little more, so there is always a level of security or comfort that you lack. When money is our idol, fear and insecurity always sit at its right hand and its left.
By letting go of good things, we let God be God in our lives. It sounds paradoxical, but letting go of good things that we need helps us to have our heart’s true desire.
The habits of discipleship like service, fasting and tithing are not designed to win God’s affection. On the contrary, they are designed to help us focus our affections on the God who already loves us.
(Preached on September 25, 2011 at St. Mark’s Cathedral. Follow the link in the right column to hear it and other sermons. My sermons are also available as iTunes podcasts at St. Mark’s Cathedral.)
The image above is Sebastiano Ricci’s Moses Drawing Water from the Rock found at this link.