Idolatry and Sabbath Part 1: Leviticus 26:1-2

I don’t remember the first time I heard the idea that God’s provision of the land to the Israelites was conditional. I know it was a sermon I listened to online, but I don’t remember who it was or where I found it. That simple idea changed the way I thought about the modern nation of Israel and their conflict with Palestinians. Leviticus 26 describes this provisional gift of the land to the Israelites, but it goes deeper than a place for them to lay their heads.

You shall make for yourselves no idols and erect no carved images or pillars, and you shall not place figured stones in your land, to worship at them; for I am the Lord your God. You shall keep my sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord. (Lev 26:1-2)

I’ve written a bit here about idolatry and about Sabbath, but I’m not sure I’ve connected the two the way this passage does. The rest of Leviticus 26 is framed, and should be read, with this initial statement in mind. Do not make and/or worship idols and keep my sabbaths. I am God.

I’ve unpacked before that Sabbath is not about taking a day off to lie in the hammock (but that does sound nice). The sabbatical laws include the Sabbath day in the creation narrative and enshrined in Exodus (20:8-11), the Sabbatical year every seventh year to give the land rest and culminate in the vision of the Jubilee in which both land, humans and non-human animals are restored to right and whole relationships. These laws gather together a vision of the right relationship between YHWH, God’s people and the land including non-human animals.

Who cares about idolatry?
To our ears idolatry in the Bible sounds strange and foreign. It doesn’t sound like anything we would ever do. “Don’t make little (or big) figurines/statues out of wood or stone and then bow down to them.” That doesn’t seem like much to ask. I haven’t been tempted to do that lately and don’t foresee my new whittling hobby turning into a religious obsession. Am I right?

However, in the marketplace of gods and religions that Israel found itself in, this was a real problem. People had friends and family (especially after the intermingling during the Babylonian Exile) who subscribed to all kinds of different gods and religious notions. In a world where you are focused primarily on survival and security for yourself and your clan, people were probably willing to go along with whatever seemed to work. They were not concerned the way we are with whether or not a theological idea or religious belief system is the correct one. They wanted a good yield from crops and their livestock to be protected. They didn’t want to get killed by other clans, tribes or nations.

I’m not saying they didn’t actually believe in these gods or the myths and beliefs surrounding them. I’m sure they did (though let’s admit that it’s pretty hard to get inside the head of these people). What I’m saying is that their rationale or reason for choosing to believe or follow particular god or gods did not stem from their quest to discover the “Truth”, their own existential journey for self-enlightenment or self-actualization. These are modern inventions.

What is idolatry?
The prohibition against idolatry comes from Exodus 20:2-6,

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

The end of this prohibition certainly sounds overly harsh to our ears, but this kind of prohibition was a new thing and worshiping whatever god worked for you was probably the norm. Monotheism was the new kid on the block and the point had to be made that this was serious. The game had changed.

In this prohibition to worship or create idols we have the same reason given as in Leviticus 26, “I am the Lord your God.” In other words, I am YHWH, the one who demands absolute worship and rejection of other gods. The invocation of the name of their God and their relation ship as God’s people is tied in to what God has done for them, “the one who brought you out of Egypt.” So, in part, idolatry has to do with relationships and right-relatedness. These people have entered into a covenant relationship with YHWH through their ancestors, the oft invoked “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

YHWH has also held up YHWH’s end of the deal. They have been incredibly liberated from slavery in Egypt. This is the foundational act which ties these people to YHWH and which is invoked to maintain their covenantal commitments to this God and what this God requires. With this background in mind then, idolatry is a breaking of this covenant relationship with YHWH particularly by following other gods, creating and worshiping idols.

So, why does this YHWH, the new kid on the block, demand something that none of the other gods do? I’ll explore the answer in the next post which will connect Sabbath to this idea of idolatry.

Mary, Mary More Than Quite Contrary

As I wade into Advent, the days of waiting, expectation and longing, I think about Mary, the mother of Jesus. I have been reflecting on Mary’s reaction to Gabriel’s announcement about the conception of her son (some of which comes from The Real Mary by Scot McKnight). There are two incredible things that Mary accepts in that account. She is given an incredible message that as a Hebrew woman certainly means shame and ridicule. Yet she says, “Let it be according to your word.” Then she turns to her cousin Elizabeth and launches into one of the greatest protest chants of the Bible, which is often called the Magnificat.

Visitation_handLGHere is what Mary accepts. Mary accepts that nothing has to change for her to be involved in God’s plan except for God to get in the mix. She didn’t have to earn a Masters in Social Work or Economics to analyze the problems in her society and come up with a solution. She didn’t work her way into the places of power in order to affect change. She remained a humble, common person brought even lower by God’s means of reaching out to us. Being part of God’s plan didn’t make her life better. It made it worse. She also didn’t need to be special. She only needed to be faithful and that is what the phrase “Let it be according to your word” shows, her faithfulness and trust in something so outrageous and difficult, yet true and good.

the-real-mary-why-evangelical-christians-can-embrace-the-mother-of-jesus-1So, Mary accepts her own reality. She takes life and the world as it is and doesn’t expect it to magically change. She will suffer because of God’s plan. Yet she is also able to proclaim something totally unbelievable. She proclaims the Great Reversal in which God turns the world upside down and reverses the unjust ordering of the world. She didn’t pull this out of thin air. She would have heard the words of the prophets proclaiming just this. The incredible thing is that she accepts that this is the way things will be and that this is what God is doing in the world. It’s not abstract and it’s not future tense. This is what is happening.

How hard it is to accept both things, that my life is ordinary and that suffering and pain are part of life and that will not change no  matter how much I pray or love God, AND that God involves me in God’s work of redemption and reconciliation in this world just as I am (without one plea). Perhaps it is my privilege that makes this so difficult, but that is a post in itself.

As I yearn and long for God to make things right, for life to have balance, meaning, purpose and fullness, may I also recognize that God is already here. Nothing has to change for God to show up, and just because nothing changes doesn’t mean God is absent. We proclaim a reality and truth that has already arrived and changed everything, yet life continues and remains ordinary and mundane. May we follow Mary’s example and proclaim “Let it be according to your word” somehow living between these two realities.

image from http://www.bcartfarm.com/visitation.html

The High Holy Days Approach

Last year around the same time that our annual consumer frenzy was reaching a fever pitch I was wrapping up a series inspired by fellow Truett grad, preacher extraordinaire and soon-to-be published author, Kyndall Rae Rothaus, about the nature of our purchases and how they function in the consumer religion (Holy Purchases). I’ve just gone back and re-read these posts and am again struck by how enmeshed we are (I am) in this religious-economic system.

consumerism_project_by_immense

I would love to say that because I have diagnosed these things to an extent, I am somehow immune or above, but that’s always the biggest lie. That is the danger of any purity code whether it’s Leviticus or Fair Trade. You believe somehow that you are able to live up to its perfection by following the letter of that law. Jesus clearly points out that the spirit of the law is more important than the literal interpretation and strict adherence when he repeatedly breaks the ritualistic practices of sabbath-keeping. Purity codes can twist us into valuing holiness for its own sake and devaluing life and creation. We keep ourselves apart and separate so we can believe that we are different.

Maybe this is why Paul writes in Phillipians 2:3 that we are to “regard others as better than yourselves.” It’s not about demeaning ourselves, but rather humbly exalting others and placing ourselves within the greater context of all creation. We are created and loved, but not as special and unique as we would like to think. We are no better or worse than others no matter what we buy or don’t buy. By all means live faithfully and follow your convictions, but don’t believe for a second that this gives you any special status with God or anyone else for that matter. It doesn’t and it shouldn’t.

Hope everyone has a happy and blessed holiday this week. Let’s remember our native brothers and sisters this week. They have given and continue to give gifts to us, if we are open to receive them. Sometimes it looks like repentance and confession, but those are also gifts to be thankful for. 

image via http://www.alexclermontwrites.com/2009/09/14/lifeinc/

Mindfulness and Eating

My wife has been taking a class on centering prayer and the women of our community recently had a silent retreat. My friend Michelle shared this on her blog, More With Much Less, about mindfulness and eating.

Mindful eating involves paying full attention to the experience of eating and drinking, both inside and outside the body. We pay attention to the colors, smells, textures, flavors, temperatures, and even the sounds crunch! of our food. We pay attention to the experience of the body. Where in the body do we feel hunger? Where do we feel satisfaction? What does half-full feel like, or three quarters full?

We also pay attention to the mind. While avoiding judgment or criticism, we watch when the mind gets distracted, pulling away from full attention to what we are eating or drinking. We watch the impulses that arise after we’ve taken a few sips or bites: to grab a book, to turn on the TV, to call someone on our cell phone, or to do web search on some interesting subject. We notice the impulse and return to just eating.We notice how eating affects our mood and how our emotions like anxiety influence our eating. Gradually we regain the sense of ease and freedom with eating that we had in childhood. It is our natural birthright.

The old habits of eating and not paying attention are not easy to change. Don’t try to make drastic changes. Lasting change takes time, and is built on many small changes. We start simply.

via More With Much Less: An Anorexics Guide to Mennonite Cooking: Pizza Rice Casserole.

Run the Race in Such A Way…

identity-640x480A friend from seminary recently asked for some help with theme of creation care for a sermon and the coming church year. She even said, “I don’t know why I didn’t think of you sooner.” I have spent enough time and energy in this area to develop a reputation as someone she “should have thought of sooner.”

I scoured the archives for some relevant writings to share. I was thankful to have some of my past work on this blog to point her to. Hopefully it was helpful. I realized that everything I shared with her is several years old or more. There’s nothing wrong with that. One of my good friends only reads books that are over 20 years old, because often time sifts out the junk and leaves us with those things that are worthwhile and timeless.

But it leaves me wondering what I have to say today. What is it that I want or need to write today?

The answer is that I don’t know. Continue reading