(Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 21:33-48)
Have you ever heard of the Marshmallow Test? The name refers to a series of experiments conducted by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the studies, a child was offered a choice between a small reward given immediately or two small rewards given about 15 minutes later. Often, the reward was one or two marshmallows, which is why the experiment is now referred to as the Marshmallow Test. A child would be seated at a small table and given one marshmallow. The adult conducting the test then told her that if she waited until that adult returned to the room later before eating the marshmallow, she could have two marshmallows. The adult then left the room.
Video of the children taking the test reveal what would happen while the adult wasn’t in the room. Of course, the children wanted to eat the marshmallow right away, but they also wanted to earn the second marshmallow and thus have two marshmallows to eat, so they tried to wait. Some smelled the marshmallow to satisfy their craving for it. Some played with the marshmallow to keep from eating it. Some distracted themselves by tapping the table or making noises or singing. Some nibbled at the marshmallow. And some just went ahead and ate it!
It’s a brilliant experiment, because it reveals a fact about human beings: We want what we want when we want it – whatever “it” is, and there are lots of “its” – and we struggle with ourselves when our wants are delayed. The children in the experiments are us, my friends – all of us!
We see this fact about human beings in the Bible for the first time in the Garden of Eden with the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That fruit was so tempting, and the temptation eventually proved too much! And we see it today in the story of the Hebrew people and the making of the Golden Calf.
The Hebrews had just received the Ten Commandments from Moses, who had received them from God at the top of Mount Sinai, including the first two commandments, which are all about not worshiping anything but the Lord their God.
Yet, as soon as their faith was challenged by Moses’ delay in coming down from the mountain, they turned to Moses’ brother Aaron and asked him to make a god for them! Aaron gathered all of the gold that they had, melted the gold, and cast it into the shape of a golden calf. Then, the Hebrews had the audacity to proclaim the golden calf their god and to say the golden calf brought them out of the land of Egypt. They not only made a new god for themselves; they also stole their real God’s victory from Him and gave it to a statue!
I think it’s safe to say that the Hebrew people failed the marshmallow test! When Moses was delayed, they lost faith and gave up all that God had promised them if they were faithful!
The first two commandments state that we are to worship only the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac, the God that we, as Christians, call the God of Jesus Christ or the Trinity.
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex 20:2-6).
However, human beings are idol-making machines. We are constantly tempted to create gods out of people and things. We may not be gathering our gold together to make a golden calf, but we are worshiping things other than God all the time. Why do we do this?
We do this for all sorts of reasons, all stemming from the feeling that we aren’t okay, even though God has told us that we are okay. Adam and Eve had everything they needed to be content in the Garden of Eden but, still, at the first suggestion from the serpent that they weren’t okay as they were, they believed it and made the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil into a god and ate it. We know we are beloved children of God and that God walks with us as we journey through this world but, at the first sign of trouble or doubt, we turn to something material to reassure us, making that thing a god. That thing could be food, money, sex, beauty, a person, a substance – anything! We can turn literally anything into a god – to our own peril! We are all children with a marshmallow in front of us, tempting us to eat it when we know we would be better off if we didn’t.
So, what should we do instead of creating idols to make us feel better? I believe Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, gives us the answer to that question: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (4:6). It’s that simple. Do not worry about anything. Instead, pray; communicate with God. Thank God for all God has given you. Ask God for what you need or desire. Ask God to comfort, support, and guide you. Basically, remember that you are a beloved child of God and can go to God when you are in need.
What happens when we do that? “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and [our] minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). What happens? We receive God’s peace, which is better than anything else the world can give us.
The children in the Marshmallow Test had to wait on the adult administering the test. They had to wait for the adult to return before they could get a larger reward and eat two marshmallows, which is what they wanted. We don’t have to wait on an adult administering some test to us, but we do have to wait on the Lord. We pray, and then we wait. Like the Hebrew people, we may become impatient if the answer to our prayer is delayed. Like the Hebrew people, we may be tempted to make something into a god to worship so that we feel better. In other words, we may be tempted to “self-medicate” so that we don’t feel whatever it is we’re feeling: anxiety, fear, worry, self-loathing, self-pity, and so on. But that would be a mistake and a transgression, for we are to have no other gods before the Lord our God.
I think it’s safe to say that the 23rd Psalm is the most beloved psalm of them all. It’s a confession of faith, a belief statement. Because the Lord is my shepherd, there is nothing that I need or want. He gives me rest in fertile places. He leads me calmly. He restores my soul. He keeps me going in the direction I should be going. He walks with me through every trial and in the midst of evil. Even though I may have enemies around me, I have an abundant life. My life overflows with his blessings. I dwell in his house and, thus, goodness and mercy are mine at all times. This is the reality we claim as disciples of Jesus. This is the reality we can trust.
Therefore, even when the answers to our prayers are delayed, we can wait on the Lord because we trust in the Lord. We trust in the reality revealed to us by his life, death, and resurrection. We tremble in fear, but we wait on and trust in the Lord. We shiver with anxiety, but we wait on and trust in the Lord. We are overwhelmed with craving, but we wait on and trust in the Lord. We are beset by impatience, but we wait on and trust in the Lord. We are assailed by temptation, but we wait on and trust in the Lord. For, the Lord is our shepherd and we shall not want.
The children of the Marshmallow Test who were successful at waiting for the adult to return and who thus received double the reward were those who were able to cope with the tension created by the wait and those who trusted the adult. They had techniques to help them cope with tension and they trusted that the adult would do what the adult said she would do and return with a second marshmallow.
We have a technique to help us cope with the tensions of our lives, too – prayer – and we trust that our God will do what He said He would do and not abandon us. With prayer and trust at our disposal, we can handle the tests of our lives without creating idols. In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving we can let our requests be made known to God. Then we can recite the 23rd Psalm and remind ourselves of what is real: The Lord is our Shepherd and we shall not want. After praying and reciting the 23rd Psalm, may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus, as we wait on and trust in the Lord. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, October 15, the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost.
 Details about the Marshmallow Test are from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment