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The First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 10, 2016
The New Testament: Acts 8:14-17
Sermon: "God, the Cosmic Vending Machine?"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
When the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
God, the Cosmic Vending Machine?
Televangelists don’t usually become part of family discussions in our house, but New Year’s Day was an exception. A couple of them had put ads on television that morning to take advantage of folk’s tendency to make New Year’s resolutions. Such ads are usually upbeat, positive, and promise the moon, in exchange for watching the upcoming shows. One ad had been particularly glaring that morning.
“We’re praying for you” the preacher declared, “that this will be your best year ever.” With an arena filled with at least 10,000 applauding people, cheering his every word, he went on, “Do you need your family to get on better? It’s gonna happen! Do you need that promotion at work? You’re gonna get it! Do you need love in your life? You’re gonna find it! All you have to do is sit back and let God fight all your battles for you, and God is going to bless you. Just join us and see what God will do for you!”
My son-in-law, noticing that I was grimacing at the TV, asked, “So, what would you say to that message?” The response just came out of me. I said, “The point of the Gospel is not that we impose our will upon God, so that God’s will becomes material success in our lives. The point of the Gospel is that we surrender our will to God, so that God’s will happens through our lives.” He smiled and nodded. Then he added, “I like that, but you’ll never fill an arena with that message!”
I can understand the success of the televangelist’s message. Wouldn’t it be great if God was some sort of automatic cosmic vending machine. Just insert the right prayer, pull the lever with the right attitude, or push the button with the right action, and “viola”, out comes the desired material blessing, right into our laps! Truth be told, we’ve all wished that to be true at some point. Oh, maybe not out loud, but we’ve thought it, because, somehow, it would be pretty cool if God could be persuaded to do whatever we wanted, and whenever we wanted it.
There are a lot of people who actually believe that God is some sort of vending machine. That’s why spiritual hucksters thrive, and why they’ve thrived from the beginning of time. The fact is, we meet one such huckster in our Scripture lesson from the book of The Acts of The Apostles this morning. Here, in the eighth chapter, we hear of the great good news of how the Spirit of God brings healing between Jews and Samaritans as they receive God’s spirit in Christ. But this story is sandwiched, before and after, by the story of a character known as Simon the Magician.
Simon lived well in Samaria. He amazed everyone with his slight-of-hand magic. He persuaded them that he was "someone great" (v. 9), we are told. He was so convincing that folks thought Simon was himself "the power of God" (v. 10). But then Philip comes to town preaching about Jesus. Many in Samaria, including Simon, believe. In Simon's case, however, our passage suggests that his conversion is, in part, because he is dazzled by the healings that Philip performs. Still, when Philip baptizes the new converts, Simon accepts baptism as well.
Then, Peter and John come to Samaria to reinforce Philip's work, and Simon gets even more interested! The two apostles pray for the Holy Spirit to descend, and the converts are filled with the Spirit. When Simon sees this demonstration of the real power of God, he pulls out his wallet and offers cold, hard cash to Peter and John if they will but teach him how to bring the Holy Spirit upon people, too.
For this, Simon gets a severe rebuke from the Apostle Peter. "May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God's gift with money!" (v. 20). Peter's words in the original are actually far stronger than the translation. In effect, he says, "To hell with you and your money! Your heart is not right before God," Peter says. "Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” (vs. 21-22) Simon apparently does repent, if for no other reason than to avoid the bad consequences of his presumption (v. 24). The book of Acts tells us no more about Simon, and he disappears from the Biblical record; although, later Gnostic writings will use him as a favorite foil in some very fanciful stories.
The point is, we can learn from the example of Simon the Magician; his story could actually help us know God, and better live our faith.
And the first thing we learn from his example is this: God will act in our lives, but not as our servant. Simon wanted a God to control. He wanted to use God as a secret assistant, his personal wizard. He wanted a cosmic vending machine. Many people want the very same thing. Many people think of faith as a kind of bargain with God. They attend church, pray, go the extra mile, try to live an upright life and so on, and, in return, they expect God to see that things go well for them. Perhaps we’ve even had such an unspoken expectation. I say unspoken because it’s not likely that we've consciously thought that. Somehow, we know better, and our practice of our faith is just not that calculating. Yet, we may well have made some unspoken assumptions along those lines.
We’ve all witnessed the "bargain-with-God" mentality at work when someone stops coming to church, or even stops believing in God after something bad happens. The erstwhile Christian explains the change by saying, "Well, if God was really loving (or really existed, or really cared about me, or was really powerful, [fill in your own line].), God would not have let that happen." What is really being said in that instance is, “I had a deal with God, but God didn't keep up his side of the bargain.”
When we say it right out like that, we can see the problem with it, but it's still easy to fall into that kind of expectation. In fact, there's even a Bible verse that seems to lend itself to such an approach. In Matthew 7:7, Jesus says, "Ask, and it will be given you; seak, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you." In context, that verse is clearly not some deal with us that no matter what we ask for we will get, but some will read that way.
The current Powerball fever is inspiring lots of bargaining right now. It reminds me of the cartoon character Ziggy, who climbs to the top of Mount Sinai to get close to God.
Looking up, Ziggy asks, "God, what does a million years mean to you?"
God replies, "A minute."
Ziggy asks, "And what does a million dollars mean to you?"
God says, "A penny."
Ziggy then asks, "Can I have, a penny???"
God says, "In a minute."
Simon wanted a God with whom he could make deals; deals with guaranteed outcomes. But we cannot buy our faith, anymore than we can buy love. Faith, like love, is an end in itself. It cannot be sought in order to make us well, or to make us happy or to make us prosperous. It can be sought only for itself; but once found, faith, like love, overflows in byproducts of health and happiness and purpose. God cannot be manipulated or controlled by anyone’s personal desire. Those who pretend to such controls are charlatans. God does act in our lives, but only as our sovereign, not as our servant. That’s the first thing we learn from Simon’s example.
Here’s the other: The life of faith is surrender of our wills to God’s will. In the end, Simon surrenders. He repents and surrenders himself to God. Here’s a more positive example of surrender; one that we can always follow: Jesus. In our Gospel lesson this morning Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John. Clearly, Jesus doesn’t need to repent from sin, or be saved. His only motivation, as other Gospel accounts tell us, is to fulfill God’s will; to surrender himself fully to God’s plan. He will do this over and over. Later on, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he surrenders yet again. In that powerful moment he prays for a different outcome than the one that is coming. Ultimately, he prays, in effect, “Here’s what I want, but I am here to do what you want.”
Here’s what Jesus’ example shows us: there's nothing wrong with asking God for what we'd like to have happen. It’s actually important to voice what we want, as Jesus did in the Garden. But, real faith means to want God's will, and then work to cooperate with it. God is able to act through any means God chooses; even those that seem unlikely to us. But, the decision to act is never ours to command. With that understanding, we can offer ourselves to be conduits of God's will, and even ask to be recipients of it. Faith is surrender. That’s the other thing we learn from Simon’s example this morning.
When we really grasp what Jesus says about God's love for us, we see why bargaining with God or trying to obligate God to what we want is so wrongheaded. God already loves us. God has come to earth as one of us, and has gone to the Cross to prove to us just how far that love will go to win us to him. God has already filled all the space between us and around us with his love. We don’t need to bargain for it.
Life does not always go as we want it to. But, when we surrender our will to his, we put ourselves in his path where we can become channels of faith, and grace, and hope, and love, for him to all around us. That is God’s will for you and me: a life of blessing beyond our imagining. We won’t get that from any vending machine.