Gods at war! Sermon for Sunday 14 August 2016 (Proper 15 Year C, RCL)

Scripture Readings: Psalm 82

            Luke 12:49-56

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

‘God presides in the heavenly council; in the assembly of the gods he gives his decision’ (Psalm 82.1).

Today’s Psalm asks us to picture a strange scene. The scene is a ‘heavenly court’, or an assembly of gods. The Lord God of Israel presides- but he’s not the only god there- he’s speaking to other gods. This is odd. Surely there is only one God?

I think that this Psalm has roots way back in the earliest days of Israel’s religious history. In ancient times, people tended to believe in a lot of different gods- the Greeks had Mercury, Apollo and Zeus, the Egyptians made gods of the Pharaohs and worshipped Ra the sun god alongside other lesser deities. The genius of Israel’s faith was that they began to see that their tribal God, the God Moses had met in the desert, this God who had no name, this strange God who insisted on love and justice- this God was maker of heaven and earth, was greater than all the other gods, was, indeed, the only true God.

This was an incredible insight. It changed the world. But it did not happen overnight. There were still people who believed in more than one God.

The scholars call belief in God ‘theism’. They add the Greek word for many- ‘poly’- to make a word for belief in many gods- ‘polytheism’. And where you only believe in one god, you add the Greek word for one- to get monotheism. So perhaps this Psalm 82 comes from a time when people were still swaying between polytheism- believing in many gods- and monotheism- believing in one God.

The Old Testament is full of stories about how Israel struggled to keep faith with the one true God. Often, the old gods kept their attraction and the prophets of Israel had a hard time convincing people to stop worshipping other gods. This Psalm tells the story of that struggle- the struggles of the gods on earth is here enacted in heaven.

The scene depicted in the Psalm is like a courtroom. The Lord God of Israel has put the other gods on trial- he brings charges against them:

God presides in the heavenly council; in the assembly of the gods he gives his decision: “You must stop judging unjustly; you must no longer be partial to the wicked! Defend the rights of the poor and the orphans; be fair to the needy and the helpless. Rescue them from the power of the wicked.  “How ignorant you are! How stupid! You are completely corrupt, and justice has disappeared from the world.”

The God who speaks here is the God of whom the prophets spoke- the God who has a passion for justice. This God wants to see the rights of the weakest members of society protected- he wants the poor and the orphans to get their rights.

But the other gods do not do this. These false gods do not defend the needy and helpless. And so the Lord God passes sentence- ‘“You are gods,” I said; “all of you are children of the Most High. But you will die like mortals; your life will end like that of any prince”.’ It’s a death sentence- these gods will die, says God- they will die like human beings. They are no longer immortal. You may be powerful, says the God of Israel, but so are princes- and even princes die, because they are mortal.

But surely gods can’t die- for gods, by definition, are immortal! And yet, gods do die off.

Olympic Rings

Originally, the Olympic Games were held to honour the ancient Greek gods of Mount Olympus, whose chief god was Zeus. They were held at Delphi, where kings and rulers sought the advice of the god, Apollo[1]. The first recorded games were in 776 BC, and the last in 393 AD[2]– a span of 1,169 years. Zeus and Apollo were worshipped and honoured for over 1,000 years, their oracles guided kings and helped determine the course of history. But- who worships Zeus or Apollo today? We don’t treat them as gods any longer, but as myths, ancient history, curiosities. Their religion lives on only as part of the theatre of the modern Olympic opening ceremony. Once thought to be immortal, Zeus and Apollo are dead gods now.

Apollo and Zeus and the rest of them died off because, in the end, they weren’t up to the job. The Romans believed their Emperors became gods when they died- the last words of the Emperor Vespasian were, ‘Dear me, I must be turning into a god’[3]– but who worships the Caesars today? Instead, the God of Israel prevailed- the God who came to us in Jesus Christ.

Sometimes we have a notion that Jesus was a gentle fellow who wouldn’t say boo to a goose. But if he was simply ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ why did they crucify him? The crucified him because he’d been sent by the Lord God of Israel, and he took the side of the poor and the orphans the needy. And when you take the side of the poor the helpless, then that means you take sides against the rich and the powerful, and against their false gods.

The religious establishment in Israel in Jesus’ day believed in a god of rules and regulations, who had no time for the outcasts of society. The political force in the land was the Roman Empire- an Empire built on force, on slavery, on fear, where the Emperors made themselves gods. So when Jesus took sides- for the outcasts and the needy, against the powerful- there was bound to be conflict. And it’s a conflict that will always rage for as long as people try to follow Christ and try to live out the Gospel of love. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading, ‘Do you suppose that I came to bring peace to the world? No, not peace, but division’ (Luke 12.51).

But is there not a contradiction here? At Christmas we celebrate Jesus as ‘The Prince of Peace’- but here he is saying that he will be the cause of conflict, even of families becoming divided against each other. For at times, Jesus was an angry man- so angry, that he turned over the tables of the traders in the temple. He was not always meek and mild- he created such as stir that he had to be executed. For Jesus was involved in identifying and unmasking the false gods- gods who were really no gods at all, who do not bring justice into the world. Yes, he stood for peace and love- but his enemies were threatened by the truth of what he was saying.

For Jesus, conflict was inevitable. Yet when they did get him in the end, and nailed him to a cross, what did he do? Luke tells us that at moment of ultimate conflict, when it seemed that the gods of this world had finally triumphed, Jesus hung dying on the cross and prayed to God, ‘Forgive them, Father. They don’t know what they are doing’ (Luke 23.34). Even in the midst of his suffering, Christ was thinking of those who had brought him to this place, and praying for God’s forgiveness of them.

For the followers of Christ, too, conflict is inevitable. If we try to follow Christ, to live with his values, we will also be attacked by those for whom the truth of the Gospel is a threat to them. Yet followers of Christ cannot succumb to hatred or bitterness. St Paul says that those who follow Christ have the gift of the Spirit within them. And the fruits of the Spirit are, he says, ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control’[4]. When we fail to show these virtues, we fail as Christians.

For the God of Jesus Christ is a god of peace. St Paul says that ‘we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 5.1). A Christian has an inner peace, a peace which comes from knowing that there is a good God in charge of the universe, who loves you and accepts you, and who has a special care for the weak and powerless. And you will also be a person committed to peace in your everyday life. But just because you are a Christian, you are not promised a quiet life.

Too often, we are tempted to be seduced by other gods. The main danger for us is not that we might go off and follow other religions. Few of us here are tempted to convert to Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. Our faith is in the God of Jesus Christ, who taught us to love our neighbour. When he was asked by a Jewish teacher what that meant, Jesus told a story about a Jewish man who gets robbed and needs help. The person who didn’t walk past, but gave him first aid and took him to safety, who spent his own money in looking after the stranger he’d found by the road- he is the one that Jesus says show us what love is: ‘Go and do likewise’ (or, in Glaswegian, ‘Jist you dae the same’[5]. But Jesus tells us that the man who taught what love in action is was a Samaritan- and not an orthodox Jew. People whose faith is not our faith can teach us about how we should live. And we are to care for others, regardless of their faith (or lack of it).

So other faiths are not what tempt us. It is more subtle false gods which tempt us.

When I did my study leave in America a few years ago (it was four years ago- how time flies!) I was lucky enough to spend time with friend I had studied with, the Rev Dr Troy Jackson. He is an evangelical Christian who is very interested in issues of justice. He’s based in Ohio, a state which has seen much unemployment as a result of economic change. It’s the sort of place which makes you understand why American politics are in such flux at the moment, for there are many poor white people feeling left behind, and many poor black people whose poverty is made worse by institutionalised racism.

Some time ago, Troy wrote on his blog about the way too many churches in his evangelical tradition seem to have lost their way. Rather than speak about the Gospel, rather than sticking up for the poor and needy, they have sold out to political interests and a consumerist approach to religion. Troy wrote, ‘Far too many congregations have become consumers of Christian programming rather than followers of Jesus Christ. Many have been co-opted by the leaders of the so-called “culture wars,” forfeiting the power of Jesus’ gospel of love and grace for hate-filled attempts to protect and defend Judeo-Christian mores’[6].

Troy wrote that a couple of years ago- a warning to his fellow evangelical Christians. But some of them (by no means all!) have continued to confuse the Gospel with politics. They try to use the God of the Bible to defend conservative values. The name of Jesus is used to defend policies which I suspect Jesus of Nazareth would be very unhappy about. And now we have got to the ludicrous situation in which so-called Christian leaders have come out in support of a vulgar, misogynist and racist presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Truly, for some American Christians, false gods have supplanted the God of Jesus Christ- and, indeed the God of Psalm 82, with his call to ‘Defend the rights of the poor and the orphans; be fair to the needy and the helpless’.

Anything which draws us from faithful obedience to the God of Jesus Christ is a false god. Anything which draws us from faithful obedience the Biblical God of justice and peace is a false God. Last week, Jesus reminded us that ‘your heart will always be where your riches are’[7]. As we seek to live out our Christians life, even a life committed to peace will lead to conflict- maybe even, as Jesus warns, conflict with our nearest and dearest: fathers against sons, mothers against daughters. This is the tragic result of living in a world which does not yet know Christ fully.

In Christian humility, we are to stand up for peace and for justice. But in doing so, we will daily face the question: ‘Whom will we follow? The God of the Bible and of Jesus Christ, or some other, false God which ultimately has no real power to help the needy?’ Living by the values of Christ’s kingdom, we will find ourselves in conflict with other gods and other systems. Yet hate and violence (including violent speech) is not an option for those who call themselves followers of Christ. The Christian weapons against today’s false gods are forgiveness, patience, courage, humility and- above all- love.

Ascription of Praise

The God of grace who calls you all

to his eternal glory in Christ

restore, establish and strengthen you.

All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.

Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2016 Peter W Nimmo

NOTES

[1] Meyers Grosses Taschenlexicon (1992) vol.5, p109, ‘Delphi’

[2] Norman Davies, Europe: A History p127f

[3] Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, tr. R Graves; quoted Davies, p.18

[4] Galatians 5.22-23

[5] Jamie Stuart, A Glasgow Bible p120

[6] https://sojo.net/articles/collapse-evangelicalism

[7] Luke 12.24