How Not to Impress God

Ash Wednesday 2018

Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins. For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isaiah 58:1-11

As a relative newcomer to the liturgical tradition, I’ve found the tradition of Lenten fasting rather an alien concept. Several years ago, I was asked to preach on the subject of fasting but wound up declining the opportunity when I learned that I was expected to talk about the spiritual benefits of going without food rather than what I wanted to talk about, which was more along the lines of what Isaiah says in this passage.  I don’t mean to denigrate those who have found fasting a helpful spiritual practice, but as Isaiah observes, there’s a great deal more to the concept of self-denial than not eating. In some cases, I think “giving up something for Lent” can be rather self-serving. Nobody seems to give up vegetables for Lent. The most common options seem to be less healthy choices like sweets, alcohol, and meat.

Isaiah says that God isn’t impressed with fasting when it is self-serving. If one does a little reading between the lines, it seems that the Israelites are fasting in an attempt to manipulate God, trying to perform a sort of magic ritual that will get God to do what they want. They dress and act the part they think God wants them to play, but God is not impressed. God wants to see transformed lives, not actors playing the role of true believers. Isaiah goes on to give specific examples of what God is looking for in the lives of those who claim to worship God.  Don’t use people in pursuit of your own ends. Stand up for those who cannot or dare not speak for themselves. Don’t just say you oppose injustice; do something to stop people from being unjustly treated. Help those who are in need instead of blaming them for their mistakes. Stop the hate speech and rumor-mongering, which all too often culminate in violent acts. God isn’t impressed by empty words and rituals. In fact, God probably thinks it is blasphemous to claim allegience to God when you ignore God’s consistant commands to seek justice and demonstrate kindness. God would rather see you doing the kinds of things that might demonstrate your ultimate loyalty is to God and not yourself, such as treating other people the way you would like to be treated if you were in their place.

Isaiah isn’t the only Hebrew prophet relaying such a message from God. They are pretty unanimous on the subject, along with the Psalmist and the collector of Proverbs. Today’s reading also includes Joel’s plea to “rend your hearts and not your garments” Amos, never one to mince words, understands God to be saying “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” Micah puts it beautifully by asking and then answering his own question: With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul  He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.  Hosea, in speaking for God, proclaims “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” which is quoted by Jesus several times.

Speaking of Jesus, he didn’t have very many nice words to say for the spiritual descendents of the Israelites whose empty religion the prophets condemned. “You Pharisees and teachers are show-offs, and you’re in for trouble! You give God a tenth of the spices from your garden, such as mint, dill, and cumin. Yet you neglect the more important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” Neither did his brother James, who bluntly informed members of the early church that “faith without works is dead” and that “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.” James used the example of someone who encounters a cold, hungry person and instead of giving them a coat and something to eat, says “God bless you! Stay warm and eat well!” For James, words without corresponding actions were useless. It rather reminds me of the careless “thoughts and prayers” offered by many public figures in times of national tragedies. If thoughts and prayers don’t result in helping actions, what good are they?

I think that God is much more interested in how we treat other people than he is with a lot of things we think God wants. There are a lot of arcane laws and strange rituals described in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, but Jesus told his followers, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” Paul echoed this idea when he wrote to the Galatians,  “Serve one another in love. The entire Law is fulfilled in a single decree: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

It’s easy in retrospect to point fingers at the foolish Israelites who believed they could bend God to their will by reciting the right prayers and observing the right rituals. It’s easy to point fingers at the Pharisees who thought God is more concerned with rigid behavioral codes and rituals than transformed hearts. It’s harder to see the eighth-century Israelite or first-century Pharisee in ourselves. But I think it is critical that we do so, and not just individually. but corporately. It is sobering to me to see so many parallels and know that history repeats itself for those who will not learn from it.  Some very bad things happened to Sodom and Gomorrah because, as Ezekiel puts it, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” Some very bad things happened to the nation of Israel when as a society they did not heed the words of the prophets. Jesus wept over Jerusalem, knowing the very bad things that would happen to them because they would not listen to the words of the prophets or to him. The  apocolyptic books of Daniel and Revelation use the graphic imagery of dreams as metaphors for the fall of entire nations.

I am afraid that in today’s world, religion has been similarly emptied of meaning in too many ways to discuss in one post. Like the ancient Israelites, we try to use God to get what we want. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, we mouth the words and perform the rituals, but our lives are not transformed.  It seems to me that although holding onto a form of Judeo-Christianity, many people’s loyalty is not really to the one God we see revealed in Jesus. Rather, we give our hearts and minds and souls to a pantheon of other gods including Mammon, Ares, Dionysius, Aphrodite, Narcissus, Caesar, and Trithereon, along with the gods we have created in our own image. I don’t think the real God is any more pleased with this kind of idolotrous synchronism than God was pleased when the Israelites tried to cover all their bases by adding the worship of Baal and Astarte to the worship of Yahweh.  I don’t think the real God is particulalry impressed when people act more like followers of the Pharisees than followers of Jesus. And from what I understand from studying the Bible and from history, our society is in a very dark place right now and the outlook for its future is not good. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Lent is a reminder that humans are mortal and neither they nor the societies they build will last forever.

The good news is that God never gives up on us.  Isaiah 58 goes on to say that if only Israel will change her ways, things can be different. “If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.” Even Ninevah, which was about as high on the axis-of-evil badlist as they come, was spared when they changed their ways. The arc of the moral universe is long, but God is bending it inexorably towards justice. We can either help or find ourselves pushed out of the way.

 

 

 

 

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Thou Shalt Not Make Graven Images

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.

The second commandment overlaps the first quite a bit, so much so that in some faith traditions the two are combined. While the first commandment is concerned with putting God first, the second specifically deals with symbols for the kind of things that might be given priority over God. Depending on the translation, these may be called “idols”, “carved images”, “likenesses”, or “statues”, and the categories used to describe these were quite broad. Most scholars believe that it was not images per se that were forbidden, but the worship of those images. However,  there are some Biblical literalists who disagree. The Protestant reformers  in Tudor England went about destroying religious works of art quite zealously. and there are many other examples of iconoclasm throughout history. An internet search on the phrase “graven images” will show you that there are people who hold to that line of thought today. One site I visited even suggested that allowing children to play with stuffed animals was a violation of this commandment, and might create an opening for demonic attack. (Cue theme from “The Exorcist.”)

Since I am not a literalist, I tend to agree with the idea that it is not the “likenesses” themselves that are a problem, but idolatry, or prioritizing anything above God. God is not particularly concerned with the family pictures or artwork I display on my walls, or my Instagram pictures of cats, but God is concerned that I have the right priorities. Anything that is given priority over God’s prime directive of love can become an idol. It is not things themselves that are bad, but the wrong use of things, and even good things can become idols. Each one of the “seven deadly sins” can be seen as idolatry: the result of taking something good and elevating it to a bad extreme. And symbols which might have represented one thing at one time can come to represent something entirely different at another time. When the created symbol becomes more important than the reason it was created, bad consequences are sure to follow.

There’s a story in Numbers about a bronze snake that God commands Moses to make intended to be an instrument of divine healing. Many years later, the writer of the book of Kings commends Hezekiah for destroying it   because it had become an object of worship.. It seems to me that the meaning of the symbol had changed over the years. Where once it was used by God as an instrument of healing, it came to mean something different in Hezekiah’s time. Perhaps they still saw it as a source of healing, but one that was under their control instead of God’s. Burn a pinch of incense, say the right words, and you would be healed. God has become a peripheral part of the equation, subject to the magical properties of the symbol. The story reminds me of the proliferation of relics in the medieval Catholic church, which were often viewed as having magical healing properties.

When I think of the de-evolution of the bronze snake into an idol, I can’t help but think of the quasi-idolatry demonstrated by some in connection with the American flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the National Anthem. As I understand it, the flag and the Pledge of Allegiance were meant to be symbols of the freedom and unity enshrined in our Constitution.”One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”. The brouhahas over standing vs sitting vs kneeling when the National Anthem is sung have eclipsed the original meaning of these symbols; it seems the symbols have become more important than the reasons they were created. If the flag “still stands for freedom, and they can’t take that away” why shouldn’t a person have the liberty to stand or sit or kneel as they choose? I suppose freedom also means a person attending a sporting event has the right to drink beer, talk to neighbors in the stands, or peruse a smartphone during the national anthem, although I personally wouldn’t opt to do those things. As I understand it, those who choose to kneel are doing it because they do believe in freedom, liberty, and justice for all, and love America enough to want to see those ideals more fully realized. And I’m really not sure how the idea that not standing is meant to convey a lack of support for those serving our country in the military got into this equation at all. Just as the Israelites forgot the original purpose of the bronze snake, I’m afraid that the meaning of the flag as a symbol of freedom and equality has become distorted into something different. Unity in conformity has replaced unity in diversity.

And while I’m busily alienating those who don’t agree with me about this, I don’t think national flags belong in churches, either, especially not front and center on the platform, and certainly not as the focal point of a worship service. I’m all for celebrating Fourth of July with flags and parades and fireworks and patriotic songs, but to me those patriotic displays belong in a secular setting, not in a church. I’m pretty uncomfortable when love for God is conflated with love for country. As a Christian, my primary allegiance is to God and the kingdom of God, which transcends all national boundaries. As the writer of Revelation envisioned heaven  “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:“Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”  I really am concerned that, for some people, the American flag has become an idol, one which is elevated in practice if not in name above God. And of course, this is only one example of a misused symbol.

“Thou shalt not make any graven images”. I’m afraid the human race hasn’t outgrown the siren song of idolatry. And as Moses warned, when we listen to it we endanger not only ourselves, but our children and our children’s children and our children’s children’s children.

 

Revelation:To Hell with Hell

“Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades”

“Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire”

I began this year’s adventure in blogging through the Bible with the idea of “wrestling with God”. In a way, that has been the story of my spiritual journey my whole life. I’ve never been satisfied with a second-hand faith, with believing whatever others tell me without question, and never asking “why”. I want more out of my relationship with God; I want to “see him more clearly, love him more dearly, follow him more nearly” day by day. That isn’t easy. There are always folks who want to tell you that if you step outside the boundary lines of what you’ve always been told, you are on a slippery slope to hell, with one foot on a banana peel. Maybe that’s where I am. All I can say with any surety is that “I know in whom I have believed, and am committed that he is able, to keep that which I’ve committed, unto him against that day.”

Revelation is an enigmatic book, one that I think lends itself to multiple interpretations and layers of meaning. One of my strongest memories of what I think of as my transition to adult faith (but which others think was the beginning of my slide into heresy) was a bible study I attended at the BSU during my senior year in college. For the first time, I heard that there might be different ways to understand and interpret Revelation. I was intrigued, but the friend who accompanied me was horrified. (See Wikipedia article here, which I think gives a pretty good idea of the diversity of opinion regarding it)  The best approach I’ve found to Revelation is to think of it like dream imagery: full of symbols that are meaningful, but not necessarily literal. I don’t see it as some kind of time-machine window into the future,  but as a symbolic rendering of truth: God will write the final chapter. No matter how bad things seem to be going in the battle between Team Love and Team Hate, in the end the good guys will win. The wrong will fail, the right prevail, and God himself will put right everything that once went wrong

When John had his visions on the isle of Patmos, Christians were under terrible persecution, probably under Domitian, who was heavily invested in making Rome great again by forcing a return to its traditions (pagan) values..The faith was also under siege from within, in the form of variations of Gnostic teaching including the Nicolatians mentioned in the warning to the churches in Ephesus and Pergamum. Jesus had not returned as soon as expected, and the eyewitnesses to his life, death, and resurrection were fast dying out. Had they been mistaken in their faith? What was going to happen to them?  John’s visions as recorded in the book of Revelation would have been a great source of comfort and reassurance to them, as well as an exhortation to not give up. John tries to put his vision of worship in heaven into words  (I like the musical interpretation of these chapters here) and follows that up with many chapters detailing how their oppressors are going to get what’s coming to them. Babylon, which would most likely be understood by John’s readers as code for Rome, would fall, and party time in heaven would commence. Evil would finally be defeated, once and forever, and all God’s people would live happily ever after. “See, the home of God is among mortals.He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,for the first things have passed away.”

What intrigues me most on this year’s read-through of Revelation is the idea that hell itself, along with death and assorted bad characters, will be thrown into the lake of fire. If hell is the “eternal conscious torment” popularized by Dante and Jonathan Edwards, how can hell be thrown into hell? Or is the “lake of fire” a metaphor, one that  “spells the end of sin and wrong?”  There have been quite a few very serious Biblical scholars over many centuries who have come to quite different conclusions about what hell is, who goes there, and how long they might be there. This includes some from very early in the first centuries of the church, before the split between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches. A few years ago, Rob Bell got into quite a bit of trouble for his book “Love Wins”, which I didn’t find too terribly different from C.S. Lewis’s “The Great Divorce”. Richard Rohr, along with a number of others, seems to following the same line of thought.

Revelation assures us that it is Jesus who has the keys to death and hell, so it is Jesus who will make the final call. I think of the parables Jesus told of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, and I can’t help but hope that God’s love will indeed win, and that hell, now vacant, will finally be thrown into hell and destroyed. And that would be very good news indeed!