Worship the invisible God or our modern idols: Which?

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
I Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Guidance through the Wilderness

Emmanuel Anglican Church, Sunday March 7, 2010

A Warning against Idolatry

Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to a very young church that he himself had planted.  But the new Christians at Corinth were confused about what is ok for a Christian to do.  So throughout the letter Paul offers practical instructions about how they must behave as Christians.  In ch. 8, he begins to give instructions about idolatry, and how the Corinthian Christians must act.  In ch. 8, he gives specific instructions about idol meat:  it was a practice in ancient world to sacrifice an animal to idols and then cut it up and sell it in the market place.  This was a difficult dilemma for Christians since most of the meat that they could buy had been sacrificed.  Could they eat such meat?  Paul also instructs these new converts, men and women who used to be pagans, that they must shun idol worship.  This was a hard lesson for these early Christians, because so much of life in the ancient world revolved around religion; in some cases, in order to belong to a certain profession, you had to worship in a pagan temple.  Some of the Corinthians had a pretty lax attitude:  they believed that they could partake in the feasts in the pagan temples, visit the prostitutes there, and none of this would harm them.  They were fooling themselves saying something like, “Food is for the stomach, sex is for the body, but my knowledge of God remains intact.  The whole world belongs to God and I can go into the temple eat and visit prostitutes and it will not harm me.”  But Paul is horrified and warns them not to visit the temple:  Even though there were no other gods besides the One God, they would be eating at the table of demons.  Then he recalls what happened to the Israelites, who were brought out of the land of Egypt; While in the desert they feared that Moses would not return from the mountain. So they had his brother Aaron fashion a calf out of gold and Aaron said to them about this golden calf ,  “This is Yahweh, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”; they began a feast with dancing, and they began to commit sexual immorality too.

Why Idolatry?

After many long centuries of Christianity in Western culture, we no longer practice idolatry.  So it is nearly impossible for us to relate to these passages. What was the motivation of the Corinthians to return to the pagan temples?  Why did the Israelites have Aaron create an idol?  My African friends who are first or second generation Christian may understand better than us.  Dr. Abel Ndjerareou, who once preached here at Emmanuel, said that he practiced idolatry at his grandparents house before becoming a Christian.  They are much closer to idolatry than we are.  Perhaps, a little story can explain what motivates idolaters:

Barthelemy Kombo, a Bayaka pygmy of Central African Republic, was afraid to become a Christian because he did not know how he would hunt without practicing fetishism—certain pagan rituals must be done to placate the spirits and make it possible to have a successful hunt.  The evangelist told him however that, while he could no longer practice his pagan rites, he could pray to God.  So Barthelemy decided to become a Christian but he was still worried that without the fetishist practice which made him a powerful hunter, he would be unsuccessful.  Not only that, but all the other Bayaka believed that he would become an ineffective hunter and that his family would starve.

This gets to the essence of why pagans practice idolatry.  It works.  If you want good crops, you sacrifice to the goddess of fertility.  If you want protection from evils spirits, you make a sacrifice to a more powerful god who will protect you.  If you want to win a battle, you might sacrifice a child to a god of war.  If you are in love, you sacrifice to Aphrodite or to Eros, and they will help you.  It is all about happiness, peace, security and well being, things all of us desire.  Idolatry works.  It is powerful, and when accompanied by temple prostitution, as in Corinth, it provides a nice little net-back of pleasure.  You can worship the idols to satisfy your deepest spiritual needs, and it feels good too.

In AD 70, it is said, when the Roman General Titus destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, he entered the Holy of Holies and found it empty.  Eventually it was believed that Jews and Christians were atheists, because they had did have no visible sign of their God, no idols which were, for pagans, tangible and visible reminders of the power of the gods that they worshipped.

Gordon Fee writes about idolatry (NICNT; on 1 Cor 1.18 ad loc):

God must function as the all-powerful or the all-wise, but always in terms of our best interests—power in our behalf, wisdom like ours! For both [Jews and Gentiles] the ultimate idolatry is that of insisting that God conform to our own prior views as to how “the God who makes sense” ought to do things.

In Ephesians 5.5, Paul says that greed is idolatry.  Brian Rosner writes  (Greed as Idolatry p. 173; emphasis his):

“Greed is idolatry” may be paraphrased as teaching that to have a strong desire to acquire and keep for yourself more and more money and material things is an attack on God’s exclusive rights to human love and devotion, trust and confidence, and service and obedience.

Rather than being passé, Paul’s warning to the Corinthians against idolatry is relevant and applicable to us today.  Why?  If we define idolatry as being those things in which we place our confidence, then we have plenty of idols.

What are our Idols today?

I will speak as an American who last week sent in his application to become a Canadian.  Americans tend to value self-reliance just a little bit more than Canadians.  Especially Alaskans.  We think nothing strange about living in our cabins in the woods far away from all civilization—just us, the snow and the moose and the bears.  Self-reliance however is not the same as reliance on God.  In a sense it makes a god out of one’s self.  But here I’d like to talk about the Canada context, where we have some idols, the things that we trust and rely on.  So I will speak as a soon to be Canadian.

Basically we tend to trust powerful things; things that we can see; and things that work. E.g., (1) Well-functioning utilities:  We love going into our houses and having tap water and electricity. Sometimes we don’t even know how these things work, but we rely on them anyway. (2) Money. We have our financial system (an idol that has recently been undependable; as an investor I have to worry about greed as idolatry because investors are always trying to make their bottom line grow.  But those who are retired or approaching retirement, we have our CPP, OAP, and our RRSPs. We trust in money to take care of us in our old age. (3) Health care:  when we are sick or in pain, we don’t sacrifice to an idol, but we have the god called “health care” who takes care of us.  Health care is a jealous god.  You know if someone says, we are not going to seek medical care for our sick child, but we will pray only. Then our society will throw those parents in jail for negligence.  But if parents say, we are not going to pray, we are just going to rely on health care, nobody goes to jail, and it doesn’t make it into the news.  So we believe in our god Health Care, but the invisible God—he is not powerful at all, and we can’t rely on him. (4) Government is also an idol, an all benevolent nanny state, that is supposed to care for us for us from cradle to grave, particularly when we ourselves fall on hard times; the government provides us with education, with protection and security as well—everything we need to feel at peace and to succeed in life, the government provides for us.  (5) Consumer goods.  In our culture, if you feel uneasy or sad, you might just turn to shopping as a release valve.  It makes us feel better to go out and buy something.  Part of it is that according to Neil Postman, one of our foundational myths is the TV commercial, which teaches us the most profound problems in life, marital stress, low self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy, lack of a girl friend or boy friend (just think of the Head & Shoulders commercial), and just about any other problem you can think of, can be solved by just going out and buying the right product.

So today we Canadians have many powerful idols, powerful because they are visible and tangible and they work: money, health care, government, consumer products.  Our reliance on these idols supplants what is supposed to be our the complete trust and confidence in God.  How does God shake us of these idols and get us to trust in him and him alone?  That is what the desert experience is about.

In the Desert the Israelites were supposed to learn to trust God

In the Desert the Israelites would learn to trust God for food. When there was no food, God provided it for them directly from heaven and they called it Manna.  In the desert, the Israelites would learn to trust God for water.  When they were thirsty he provided them water from a rock.  But as Paul said, the first generation of Israelites who left Egypt fell under judgment because they committed idolatry, fornication, and because they groaned against God, and they tested him.

In the desert there is no running water, no electricity, no stores to go shopping.  There is no health care in the desert, no government.  There is just wilderness, the demons and God.  In the past, Christians went to the desert to experience again this total reliance on God; Anthony the Great, e.g., inspired many generations of Christians to a live wholly devoted to God.  We can read his story because the great Patristic father, Anthanasius wrote the Life of Antony in the fourth century.

How do we experience the desert?

Relatively few people today can have a desert experience like what the Israelites had; or like the Desert Fathers like Antony had.  Here in Toronto, we don’t even own a desert.  And the wilderness here in the winter would kill us.  So how can we learn to trust God?  By turning to him in the good times and in the bad times:

(1) When turning on a light switch or the tap water, thank God that he allows us to have good things.  Remember that the true “power” in life is God, who made the heavens and earth:  he made the wind, the hydro, the coal and natural gas, all the things that make electricity possible.  (2) When worried about finances, turn to God.  We can appreciate that everything we are able to make or have is a gift from him.  We can show our reliance on him through our generosity. When we are generous, we show that we trust God to maintain us.  (3)  Instead of trusting in health care, we must remind ourselves that our lives our ultimately in God’s hands.  Health care is only one of the instruments that God can use to heal us: there is also prayer and spiritual healing;  (4) Instead of relying on government, which has deficits and is in no way certain to provide everything that we need–in the US it is worse (that’s actually one of the reasons I’ve decided to become a Canadian).  It is certain today that the US Federal Government will not be able to keep the promises that they have made. So we need to trust God for our security;  he is our only true safety net.  And (5) we must remember that the purchase of consumer goods often lead to an empty feeling; the Bible reminds us that being close to God leads us to contentment; the possession of many things will never satisfy us.

But we actually undergo desert-like experiences in our bad times and trials:  if we lose a job, become sick, experience financial setback, or if our private business goes bankrupt, experience a profound loss of loved one—these trials are our desert experiences.  It is at these moments of most profound difficulty that we must remember that we are in the hands of God, and we belong to him, so it is up to him to take care of us.  Often in the desert, we may feel that our God isn’t just invisible; he’s not there at all.  Perhaps he never existed at all; or we say ask God why he has abandoned us.  It is in such times that we learn to trust God most profoundly.  They are our desert.  We should remember also the teaching of Jesus, that, when bad things happen, it is not a sign that God does not love us.  In our Gospel reading today, Luke 13.1-9, Jesus refers to people who were publicly exterminated by Pilate; others, 18 in number, died when the tower of Siloam fell on them.  People often see such calamities as a sign that their God has abandoned them.  It is common to take such powerful signs as supernatural, e.g., being struck by lightning or being killed in a natural disaster.  But Jesus says, no, those whom Pilate killed and upon whom the tower fell were not worse than the rest of us. The important thing for us, even in the worst of times, is to continue to trust God and to bear good fruit.

Reliance on God will lead to power, when we need it

While God is invisible, he is not powerless.  He is there when we need him.  Protestants are often critical of the Desert Fathers.  According to Athanasius, Antony holed himself up in an abandoned fort, and lived there for twenty years, eating only the bread that his friends brought to him; but when he emerged from the desert, he had prophetic powers and he became and adviser to both ecclesiastical and political leaders.  Many people make fun of Simeon Stylities (see his Life translated from Syriac), but he had a very powerful ministry, as people from far and wide came to him for advice.  God uses the desert to make us strong.  The Israelites, after the first disobedient generation passed away, a new generation arose who had lived off of Manna their whole lives, were powerful army ready to take the promised land, not because of their own might, but because they had learned to rely on God.

Barthelemy Kombo was hunting all day and as the sun was going down he had nothing to bring home.  His family would go hungry.  So he kneeled down to pray, “God please provide for my family.  I’ve honoured you by not practicing my fetishisms.  But now, I need your help.”  Then, to his amazement a forest deer, no larger than small dog, walked up to him and lay down before him.  He took the deer home and his family ate well, and it became a testimony to all the pygmies, that they didn’t need to practice their fetishisms because God, who answers prayer, would provide for them.

Finally, I would like to end with the words of Isaiah 55; the Lord issues and invitation to cast aside all the other things upon which we rely, and return to him to depend on him alone.  The Lord says in Isaiah:

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!… “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”  (Isaiah 55.1, 8-9).

Let’s pray:

Father in Heaven. Help each of us to recognize the things that we rely on more than on you, and to put those things away from us.  May we come to you, thirsty and hungry, to be filled with real water, real food and real money.  When we are feeling sick, alone and afraid, help us lord to turn to you.  When others let us down, help us to trust in you.  Even though you are invisible, o Lord, you are not absent, but you care for us by providing us good things like the Sun, the rain, and harvests in their season. You feed us, you sustain us.  Help us Lord to trust in you, not in technology or money, or in government or health care, but in you alone.

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One thought on “Worship the invisible God or our modern idols: Which?

  1. “Many people make fun of Simeon Stylities (see his Life translated from Syriac), but he had a very powerful ministry, as people from far and wide came to him for advice.”

    I remember reading about the Desert Fathers in church history and thinking something similar: it’s almost as if God wanted to save these men from completely sinning against him by abandoning Christian fellowship, so he sent a constant stream of acolytes to them, which from their point of view was an annoyance, but in the long run probably was very beneficial to society via those in society who were influenced by them. A bit more proof, maybe, that God has a sense of humour.

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