A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 28, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Corinthians 10: 1-13
Isaiah 55: 1-9
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea,2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. 5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.
6 Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. 7 Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play.” 8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. 9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents. 10 And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. 13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
This morning, as we continue on this theme of “the Desert” and our Lenten journey, into and through the desert, I want to talk about the idea of a mirages. Now there are two different places associated with the desert that represent apparent relief. One is the Oasis, which is defined as a “fertile spot in the desert, where water can be found,” a place of real relief, and the other is the Mirage, which is defined as “the optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions, causing the appearance of water in the desert.” So the big difference between the oasis and the mirage is that one actually exists and the other only appears to exist, one of them actually offers relief, and the other just looks like it does, one will leave you full and fulfilled, and the other one will leave you exactly where you were, except with all of your hopes dashed. Most of time a person is in the frame of mind to be able to tell the difference, but when you are starved, and dying of thirst, where your tongue and your throat are so dry that blisters are forming, and it hurts to even breathe, let alone eat or drink, when your skin is burned, and your lips are chapped, when sand has been cutting you as the wind whips by, when you have as it would seem, no other hope at all, the optical illusion pulls you into its deceptive magic.
Now there are many deserts in life. There is the desert where you feel ignored, lonely, disenfranchised, not listened to. There is the desert where you have been trying and trying, and you just get nowhere. There is the desert where you have been loving and loving, and no love seems to come back to you. There is the desert where you have given and given and none of it has made any difference. There is the desert where you feel like everyone sees things the opposite from the way you do. There is the desert where your body is failing, and disease is ripping you apart. There is the desert where your finances just don’t add up. There is the desert where you feel that the system is flawed and oppressing you, the man is out to get you, the fat cats are bleeding you dry, or the government just doesn’t listen. There is the desert where you feel that everyone has lost their minds, and the bottom is about to all fall out. And quite possibly there is the desert where it seems all of these things are happening at once. You feel alone, you feel mad, you feel despondent, anger, hatred, like it would be better to just blow it all up, that any change would be better than it is now, even if that change is imaginary. The one word is “Desperate” Desperation. And you see a way it can be changed, fixed, solved, and you in your blindness dive all into that mirage.
I really think that this exactly is what idolatry is, within the life of discipleship. When you make something of your own to get you through, and that thing you make becomes your solution, becomes your change, becomes your salvation, but it isn’t real, only make believe, only man made, only artificial, and no real water ever flows from it, although it is deceptive enough like a mirage to make you think it just might. It is not alway just a golden statue like a calf, or like a graven image, but anything that can take the place of what you once knew in your heart was true. The Israelites made that golden calf, but they had already made idols before all that. They made one of Egypt, wishing to return there when the road got tough. Our bellies were full back then, why did we ever leave it to come out here. You see that’s an idol, it is an idol made of the past. Sometimes we do that. We find that something worked once, and we make an idol of that time, that process, we make and idol of the old days. . . wishing they would return, believing if they did, everything would work out, but those Old Days are an idol. Sometimes we make an idol even out of God, we do it anytime we limit God, to one concept, one idea, one event. God is the God who parts the Sea, now here we are stuck in the desert, should we go back there to the sea for help? Of course not, if you make an idol of one event, you miss the miracles of God working now.
The biggest problem of making an idol of God is that you limit God to one thing, and then find him lacking in that area. I loved Christina Rosetti’s poem about the Mirage, you know her from “IN the Bleak Midwinter” and her other poem about how “no one has seen the wind.” Here is “Mirage”
The hope I dreamed of was a dream,
Was but a dream; and now I wake
Exceeding comfortless, and worn, and old,
For a dream's sake.
I hang my harp upon a tree,
A weeping willow in a lake;
I hang my silenced harp there, wrung and snapt
For a dream's sake.
Lie still, lie still, my breaking heart;
My silent heart, lie still and break:
Life, and the world, and mine own self, are changed
For a dream's sake.
She is describing the moment after you have made the idol in your desperation, when you grasp in that desperation, when you reach out for what was never there. The images are beautiful: “comfortless, worn, old, weeping willow, a silenced harp, wrung an snapt, silent heart, breaking, all for a dreams sake.” This is the picture of disillusion like I mentioned a few weeks back on Ash Wednesday. I’ve used this image before, but Huck Finn with the fish hooks, he prayed and prayed for fish hooks, but they never came. . . but he touched a rattlesnake skin and bad things happened, so he believed in the rattlesnake but not in God. His narrow view of what God is and could be, which is actually what he was taught, was found wanting. You see he was taught an idol version of God, and it was that he rejected. In Florence, Italy in 1347, the plague hit, and killed ⅔’s of the population. It was right after this tragedy that Boccaccio wrote his masterwork, “The Decameron” a collection of stories, but many if not all of these stories are rejecting the Church and Christianity because they were made promises about God and the way the world works that just weren’t accurate, they were making promises about why God does things, and why bad things happen, so when the bad thing happens, the mystery is gone, and the reality smacks the people in the face, and they know they’ve been lied to. . . like Huck, praying for the fish hooks, they prayed to be saved from tragedies like the disease, and it happened anyways, perhaps worse than they could have ever imagined. The real tragedy was that in that horrible time, since the religion was built on lies, the people were not sustained through the trouble. They turned on each other. . . and so this great city of Christianity, in the depths of despair, in the middle of the desert, did not Love their neighbors, could not love their neighbors, instead ignored their neighbors, and tried to preserve themselves.
Paul writes, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” God isn’t and insurance policy. God isn’t about ensuring that nothing bad will happen, but instead strength when it does. We know that, when we are here in church. We can talk about it, but somewhere deep inside, we want that insurance policy, we want to avoid. . . and in the desert, when we are being tested, that little deep inside voice gets louder, and we seek that way out.
This is what happens in the desert. Desperation, Despair. But it only gets worse when you grasp at what isn’t there, if your mind seeks an escape route that doesn’t solve your problem. I like to teach Spenser’s story of the Red Cross Knight to my students at Blue Ridge, because it is the story of St. George and the dragon, and that is our mascot, but the story also is a great allegory about the way that life works. The hero, Red Cross, St. George, is on a quest to defeat the dragon. It is his chosen purpose, and everything that he is and wants to be is wrapped up in that very quest, but the real journey is about how easy he gets side tracked in that quest. The first thing you get is a rain storm, and the rainstorm sends him seeking shelter, it all seems like a great thing, seems nice, seems, comfortable, seems dry, but in the crisis of the storm, he makes decisions without thinking, and symbolically he gets lost. Everything seemed ok, but nothing was ok. He wasn’t really in danger, but he also was no longer on the quest. He was lost, and he had to face the an adversary called falsehood, the lie that was saying you are lost and you will never get through, once he did, he was back on the track, but only having beaten the lie. And its cool how the lie is depicted, because it is a mother monster who never shows her face, and a bunch of little monsters that are her children. One lie begets many, and the lies are not of other people, they are his own. This place seems nice, it all leads somewhere, what difference does it make, we’ll never get there anyway, why even bother, let’s stay here, these are the lies he must defeat. Here. And he does with faith. But his next adversaries get much more diabolical, he fights pride, he fights, despair, he fights against those who are trying to deceive him. But all of these battles are just distractions from his quest, they are things that keep him lost, simply by delaying and distracting him, they are successful in what they are trying to do. He isn’t being what he was made to be. He has become different, he has made himself anew, instead of being what God made him to be, do you see the idolatry there: He has become his creator. . . mirage. Mirages are powerful. Seems.
Now this is what makes it difficult. There are mirages in the desert, but there is also an oasis. How are you ever to tell the difference? Moses told the people living in the land, once they got to the promised land, that they would face many problems. He said remember. Remember being led by the fire and the cloud, he said remember being led through the Red Sea, he said remember the water from the rock, and the manna from heaven. Remember that there are no exit ramps, easy exit ramps, rather that if you stand strong and face it all the Lord will provide. Remember and know, write it on your doorposts, put it in front of your eyes, remember at all cost. But even with all that it was still that they went astray because the mirage is strong, and even with memory and reminders it can happen that you miss the oasis and go after the mirage. Christ comes to set that memory, that covenant, that life giving water, directly on our hearts. With that Spirit within us if we are faithful, honest, and true, we can and will know the difference. Build that relationship with Christ, be tested in the desert, and the differences will be made known.
And this is the really interesting part. If you are honest with yourself about the mirage, and you choose the mirage instead of the oasis, in actuality you are no more worse off than you were before. You are still in the desert, you are still thirsty, you are still hungry, you’re still all those things, you are not any worse off than before, you just think you are because the hope that you had was robbed from you. But just because it was the mirage that you chose, doesn’t mean that the Oasis isn’t still there too, which is the simple amazing thing we call grace. That is the simple and amazing thing we call grace. Amen.