Monday Theme - Hannah
Monday Scripture - 1 Samuel 1: 9-11 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child...
The story of Hannah is a curious one. Israel's society seems trapped in a cycle of anxiety. If we were to continue to read on in 1 Samuel we would find them asking God to appoint a king. Up to this point, they are lead by judges, but the guidance the judges provide is inconsistent. Sampson, the most well-known judge to Christians, is strong and successful, but more often than not uses his God-given strength for his own benefit and not for the good of his people. The book which records the story of the judges ends by telling us, 'In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.' So society was in chaos. Israel had not maintained the safety and security they had hoped upon their rescue from Egypt generations before. Of course, the solution they suggested, a king is also warned against by God. God describes the result of choosing a king in chapter 8 of 1 Samuel as injustice, exploitation, poverty, inequality and suffering.
Israel's desperate attempt to find stability and realize the hope of prosperity that God offered them when they entered the promised land is understandable. As we have already said, the political leadership of the judges was not consistent or reliable. Neither was the religious leadership. The sons of Eli, the priest, themselves priests, are described as, scoundrels with no regard for the Lord or the people they were ordained to serve. Their behavior is cruel and exploitative. Perhaps it is all best summed up by a verse from the third chapter of 1 Samuel, 'The word of the Lord was rare in those days.' Israel is a disorganized and disheveled confederation of tribes, each doing what they feel best with little coordination and no clear vision or goal. There is anarchy. Political and religious leadership are failing. Cruelty and violence are commonplace, with priests and leaders using power for personal gain. The present and the future of Israel is grim
So it is shockingly odd that the story focuses first and foremost on an ordinary woman named Hannah, remarkable only for the fact that she is barren, which, in that time and place is a shameful failure. Would it not seem that God has more important things to attend and bigger issues to address than Hannah? Yet here God is, listening to the prayers of this woman, who is not a princess or a queen or the wife of a dignitary. She is ordinary in every way and yet her prayer cuts through the noise of Israel's political and religious storms and grabs God's attention. We are told that God hears her prayer and blesses her with a child she names Samuel. And with the birth of Samuel is the birth of hope for Israel. Samuel will be the priest who returns honor to the office and who anoints, eventually, King David. This isn't a Hallmark Channel movie, so Israel is not perfect after this. But Israel's best chance to survive, thrive and grow towards the righteous witness for which it is intended is born when Hannah kneels to pray. And we are reminded that Jesus once taught that the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed. And perhaps that is something to consider. In our own culture focused so intently on the wealthy, the powerful, the famous, the beautiful and the strong, Hannah is the vessel through which hope for the future is born. This story not only warns us about where our attention is focused, but also encourages us to believe that acts of faith, while they may not bring about miraculous change to the chaos we face like; hunger, poverty, racism, islamophobia, sexism, rape culture, are the seeds that become the kingdom of justice and peace of healing and wholeness for all those harmed by the chaos that seems to reign.
Tuesday Theme - Jacob Rachel and Leah
Tuesday Scripture - Genesis 29:31-33 31 When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. 32 And Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuben,[c] for she said, “Because the Lord has looked upon my affliction; for now my husband will love me.” 33 She conceived again and bore a son, and said, “Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given me this son also.” And she called his name Simeon.
As we have been working our way through the First Testament we didn't spend any time with Jacob, so perhaps we will begin with a quick review of his story today.
Jacob is the son of Isaac and Rebecca (Isaac the favorite son of Abraham and Sarah, who rejected Ishmael you will remember). The story of Jacob is complicated. The story tells us that Jacob will be the son to bear the blessing and the promise of God as did Isaac his father. But he is a twin, the second twin. So technically his brother Esau is the first-born son and the one to receive the blessing and the promise of God. Rebekah, his mother receives word from God that Jacob is the one to receive the blessing and thus begins the family drama and the interpretive error that has plagued the church. The family drama includes the stories of the ways that Rebekah and Jacob conspire against Esau to steal his birthright, the blessing, and the way Jacob manipulates him for the same end. The church has often overlooked the how ugly Jacob and Rebekah's behavior is to Esau because 'God ordained it.' (One of the points of these stories being to remind Israel that their status as God's chosen and beloved children does NOT make them superior to others.) Jacob treats the blessing of God as a possession to be grasped and hoarded AND as an excuse to treat others poorly.
Much happens between these stories and today's, but the fact that Jacob treats his blessing as a possession to be grasped and excuse to treat others poorly ties the opening episodes and todays. Jacob flees from his brother Esau (who wants to kill him). He flees to his uncle's home and falls in love instantly with Rachel. But his Uncle Laban is just as sneaky and conniving as Jacob is and he tricks Jacob into marrying Rachel's sister Leah. Eventually, Jacob marries his beloved Rachel. But the narrator tells us that Leah is hated. I think it safe to assume that when Jacob looks at Leah, he does not see another human being, another child of God. Instead, he sees Laban's manipulation. He sees that he has been bested at his own manipulative game. So Jacob favor's Rachel and 'hates' Leah.
The point for us today is that God sees all of this drama from Leah's perspective. God does NOT side with Jacob, the bearer of the God's blessing, the person God has and will continue to keep covenant with. God sees this through Leah's eyes and takes Leah's side. We are never really told whether or not God had intended for Jacob to marry Leah, but much like Ishmael, God hears the weeping of the vulnerable and mistreated, sees their suffering and responds to them, whether they were part of the plan or not. Leah's life matters to God. That is what makes today's story so important. In a time when women are still paid less than men for the same work, when so many are caught in systems of slavery and exploitation and forced prostitution around the globe, when a major presidential candidate is recorded bragging about assaulting women, when a young man can be so readily excused from rape because of his bright athletic future, this is an important story. Women's stories, perspectives, and experiences are still woefully, sinfully dismissed. Today's story is a subtle but powerful interruption of a systematic dismissal of women as children of God created to be powerful agents cooperating with God in the mission of recreation and redemption. Leah's life-giving potential is lifted up for us to see in this story. And it challenges us to confront the many ways that women are ignored and silenced.
Wednesday Theme - Ruth
Wednesday Scripture - Ruth 4:13,17 So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. 17 The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
The very short story of Ruth and Biblical book it is contained in is rich with social themes that speak to our current experience. Let's take a look today. Ruth is the story of poverty. Naomi, who becomes Ruth's mother-in-law, and her family are forced to leave their homeland of Bethlehem in Judah due to a famine. They go to Moab. In Moab Naomi's husband and son's die and once again, she and her daughters-in-law are impoverished which no one to care or provide for them. Naomi and Ruth go back to Bethlehem and Ruth goes to work gleaning in the fields. This is the work of the impoverished, of those who struggle to find food.
As you have no doubt began to notice, Ruth is the story of refugees. Naomie and her family are forced to move because of famine. They move to Moab. The Moabites and Israelites have been enemies for generations. So Naomi is forced to go to a land where she will not be welcome, in order to survive. When the husband and son's die, Ruth CHOOSES to become a refugee herself. She will not abandon her mother-in-law, but instead becomes the despised and rejected outsider in Judah in order to care for her mother-in-law.
When Ruth and Naomi arrive in Bethlehem and Ruth begins to glean the fields, we see, like in yesterday's story, the perspective of women. Without husbands or grown sons to provide for or protect them, Ruth and Naomi are particularly vulnerable. Ruth gleans in fields belonging to Boaz. And the first thing Boaz does when he sees Ruth at work is to warn his male workers not to 'bother' her. He then goes to Ruth and offers sanctuary to Ruth among his workers and warns her not to work anywhere else. It might not be same for an unmarried foreign woman. There is little doubt in my mind that no small part of Boaz's concern is sexual violence. Boaz sees the world through Ruth's eyes. Miraculously he can enter into her perspective and understands the dangers to her as a foreign woman.
The story of Ruth and Naomi is not just about their struggle and their suffering. There is much to celebrate about their lives and their experience. There is the solidarity that Ruth shows Naomi that we respect and admire. There is the courage both women show, in risking life in foreign and unfriendly territories in order to provide a better life for their families. We see hard work on Ruth's part in the fields each day. And there is the humble agency she shows in going to Boaz and suggesting they marry. She is not manipulative or coercive, but she is strong and assertive and that is something to celebrate. Which brings us to today's verse. All of this trauma and stress, loss, and struggle, results in the birth of the father of David. Women's struggle, women's strength, and character in the midst of trauma, is celebrated as that which brings about the birth of a King. Israel's future lies in the experiences of those most often ignored, unknown, even abused. Their lives lead to life for the people of Israel. And that is something to celebrate.
Thursday Theme - Shiphrah and Puah
Thursday Scripture - Exodus 1:18-21 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives [Shiphrah and Puah] and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.
Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives of the Hebrews, speak a loud and resounding NO! to Pharaoh. Well, ok, so they don't exactly confront the Pharoah quite so bluntly. They are smart about their refusal, leaving the Pharaoh little room to react with anger as a result of insolence. Remember that Pharoah has commanded them to kill any male Hebrew children as soon as they are born. The fact that Shiphrah and Puah are clever in the way they refuse to capitulate to the leader of the Egyptian Empire does not reduce the courage that such a refusal reveals. What good can Shiphrah and Puah do if their resistance is perceived as a threat and they are done away with? Who will protect the infants then? Like a long line of women in the Bible, Shiphrah and Puah must use their wits to negotiate a system that denies them power and uses them to maintain its own cruel and violent power.
Another story of a woman who must use her wits to negotiate power is the story of Esther. She is brought to the court of the king (she had no other choice) along with hundreds of other women so that the king might choose another queen. (The queen he had wasn't compliant enough). The story of Esther begins with a detailed description of the opulence of the king's court and the grandiosity of the king's conspicuous display of power. The furniture is all gold and the parties last for months on end. It is unmistakable to realize that for the king, a queen is just another piece of furniture meant to display his power. Esther will have no power, no influence. She will not even be treated as a person, just a plaything for the amusement of the king and a prop in his power display. The King, who isn't a particularly wise or intelligent ruler, is persuaded by his court to slaughter all the Jews in his kingdom, he puts up no resistance. People don't matter to him unless they are entertaining and serving him or working(fighting) to increase his empire. But Esther is Jewish. And she must make her stand. A stand based on her beauty and her ability to cook. Certainly, there is more to Esther than this. There is the wisdom to realize that she can use the stereotypes that she has been reduced to as a weapon. So once again, we see wit and intelligence. And Esther rescues her people.
In each case, women enact courageous and risky resistance to power. And that resistance makes all the difference. Shiphrah and Puah resist the murderous intent of the Pharaoh, which we know results in the birth of Moses who would represent God to Pharaoh and lead the Hebrews out of slavery. And Esther, a simple country girl, brought against her will to the king's court, with only a pleasing face and an ability to cook, also ensures the safety and security of her people. So once again this week we can wonder at the wit and wisdom of women in the Bible who interrupt and undermine death and in amazingly simple and courageous ways facilitate life.
Friday Theme - mustard seed
Friday Scripture - Matthew 13: 31-32 31 He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32 it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Simple acts, slight skills, small characters. This has been our focus for the week. Sunday's sermon and Monday's reflection showed us that in the midst of social, political and religious upheaval and chaos, new hope was born when a women fell to her knees in prayer. On Tuesday, it wasn't even what Leah did, but how she was treated, that invited God to intervene in a life of shame and dishonor to bring life and happiness and hope. On Wednesday it was the love and faithfulness of Ruth and Naomi that allowed these women to negotiate the waters of trauma and trial, resulting in the birth of the father of King David. Yesterday, the wit of Shiphrah and Puah and the beauty and skill of Esther that both undermined the murderous intent of Kings.
In large part, I hope that this week's devotions have been a celebration of the critical role women, too often unnamed in the Bible itself and far too often overlooked for the male characters like Abraham, Moses, & David, played their role, their vitally important roles, in the mission of God. But I am also reminded of Jesus's parable of the mustard seed. The Kingdom is born from the smallest of seeds. My point, of course, is NOT that these women are small in any sense of that word. But still, the ways that they inspired, incited and enacted life and hope and resistance and change were indeed, small. Hannah prayed, Leah wept, Ruth loved, Shiphrah and Puah joked and Esther cooked and from each of these seeds of hope and lament and resistance, amazing things happened.
Too often I fear, whenever American Christians ponder this parable it gets subtly shifted so that it excuses setting the bar low for how it is that we will live out our faith. The Parable of the Mustard seed does not condone slacktivism. It does not mean that because we post a bible verse on Facebook that we have planted a seed. Instead, it is meant to inspire us to risky and courageous acts of compassion, solidarity, and resistance even when logic tells us that our action will not lead to change, will not make a difference. Parable sets the bar higher, not lower for it promises that what may result from our halting and fearful acts has much greater impact than we can imagine. Let's not forget what's really happening on the larger stage. In the life of Hannah, God is intervening in social chaos, political corruption, and religious infidelity. Through Ruth God in interrupting systems that denigrate and exploit immigrants and foreigners. In Leah God attending to the experience and the voice of women who are ignored and dishonored by men. In Shiphrah and Puah and Esther, God in intervening in violence and genocide and death. The parable of the mustard seed inspires us to rise to the occasion when we perceive any of these systems in our culture believing that while we, on our own, may feel too small or ill-equipped or lacking in influence, God can and will magnify our efforts and bring life and hope to bear on cruelty, exploitation, and death.
Monday Theme - Aaron and People Pleasing Theology
Monday Scripture - Exodus 32:1-2 [the people] said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me."
the people want a new god. it's easy to rush to judgment for their lack of faith. but for me, their desire for a god with whom connection was immediate and the experience of presence was constant is a very understandable one. All of us, at one point or another experience the doubts, fears and frustrations that are a part of faith. These may be born of the struggles and challenges that are a part of life. It may be that we feel alone and abandoned by God at times or that the faith community of which we are a part, disappoints. But we all feel alone, unsafe, vulnerable at some points in our lives and this is the moment when we can begin to wish, like Israel, for a new god, a closer god, a more immediate god, a god of our own making.
As we considered Sunday, it is not necessarily doubt or disappointment in God that opens the door to other gods. Studies show the slow but steady progression in our country of those who simply do not believe in God at all. It is not necessarily that they have been let down by the church, but that they stop believing in God. God is a story, a fairy tale as there is no rational proof of God. The weakness is the idea that because one does not believe in God one is now free to view the world from a position of rationality. We are always 'worshipping.' We are always putting our trust and hope in something though we are not conscious of it. James K.A. Smith suggests that we are defined by, become, what we love. Simply because we do not devote ourselves to traditional religious practice does not mean that we are not choosing what is good, what is due our love and devotion. But as Smith and others suggest, we are left loving (worshipping) success, competition, power, acquisition, in order to attain fulfillment. Gratification is promised to us through guns that will make us safe, gadgets that will connect us with others and give us status, wealth, and possession will bring us purpose and fulfillment. But force, consumerism, self-gratification, entertainment, offer empty promises. And these become the gods we worship.
Once again, we see the temptation of Adam and Eve to master that one last tree played out for us. Again, like Abram and Sarai, grasping for control of the blessing, Israel creates material gods to assuage fears and guarantee safety and security. It will be played out time and again in Israel's collective life of faith. The prophets will warn about the subtle temptation of safety and security through profit, power, military might, mastery over the people of other nations through their superiority as 'God's chosen people.' All of these are golden calfs. All of these the gods that Israel will grasp for a sense of security and status. And all of them echo through to our own experience. Still, today profit, wealth and material possession promise to make us happy and comforted.
The story of the golden calf maintains its power and its influence as it gives us a vehicle to interrogate the promises for safety, security, happiness and joy that we hear. We know before we even encounter this story that there are many empty promises. The story, told and retold, prayed and pondered, helps us to discover the gods that promise a great reward, but succeed only in distancing us from the source of our being. The golden calf reveals empty promises. And encourages us to turn to God who promises to provide abundantly the full life we were created to live.
Sunday Sermon Reflections - Tuesday - God's Anger, God's Pain and the Invested God we Don't Always WantRead Now
Tuesday Scripture - Exodus 32:7-9 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’”
Let's not kid ourselves. God is a bit baffling and even troubling in this week's story. 'Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation,' God says to Moses in Exodus 32:10, and we are reminded of God's anger with humanity in the story of Noah and the ark. Our worst fears of God are realized in this verse. The God that was presented to some of us as children, stern and watchful, quick to anger and vengeance, is on full display. And it is frightening. As we saw on Sunday and will revisit again later this week, Moses talks God out of this rage. But as the story goes on, God returns to anger again. And God's lack of consistency in troubling too.
In order to make some sense of this moment, without completely ignoring or dismissing it, let's take a little trip to another story where God's passion is stirred by Israel's lack of fidelity. In the opening verses of the prophet Hosea we read, 'the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” Now, I know, that still sounds pretty angry. You have to read the whole story to get how this is a shift in how God is thought about and presented. Hosea takes an unfaithful wife as a symbol of the infidelity of Israel to God. In other words, God is a heartbroken spouse. In both Exodus and Hosea, God is passionate. In Exodus, this passion is orge (rage or anger). But in Hosea, it is pathos (grief). God is a despairing spouse, heart-broken at the dissolution of a relationship, at the shattering of intimate trust.
In each case, Israel's testimony about itself is refreshingly honest. They have broken trust with God and in so doing, have inspired God to a powerful, passionate emotion. This is no God that is passive, resolute, or distant. This is not a God that waits passively simply do Israel's bidding. This is a God emotionally invested in a relationship, who loves deeply and passionately. This is the God we need to proclaim in a culture in which increasingly God is dismissed. Even more, it is the God we need to proclaim in the Church, where too often God is thought of and treated as a grandfather, waiting patiently for a phone call from his distracted and busy grandchildren, that is, not as a priority or of value, except when we need a loan.
It is, no doubt, painful and dangerous to think only of God in angry, wrathful, vengeful terms. It is, I would suggest, equally dangerous to ignore these stories of God's passionate engagement with humans, because then we are left as functional atheists. We make a God of our own choosing, a God who expects little and demands little. And a God who expects little and demands little has no power to liberate us from enslavement, rescue us from stormy seas, reshape us as a potter does to a shattered vessel. We do definitely need to interpret the stories of God's anger carefully so that we are not inspired to act violently in God's name. We also need to tell these stories to be reminded that we matter a great deal to God, a God who will not be remanded to the corner of our lives.
Wednesday Theme - But Moses Implored
Wednesday Scripture - Exodus 32:11-12 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.
We return today to the God who cannot make up God's mind. Will God react in anger or relent in mercy? And is this not a troubling picture of a God who wavers so?
Let me go out on a limb and say that I don't find the stories where God changes God's mind troubling at all. These stories are only troubling when we buy into the god of greek philosophy who is the immovable mover and described with a host of 'Omni' words like; omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc. These descriptions, as I've just hinted, come from outside Israel's testimony of God. God is a concept in greek philosophy and bound by consistency. The God of Israel is not a concept. God is the creator, the liberator, the covenant maker, the blessing bestower, the promise keeper. God is intimately involved in life with humanity through life with Israel. And Israel has no problem telling stories where God's mind is changed.
For instance, in Genesis God sends three angels to visit Abraham. Their visit is a courtesy from God to announce to Abraham that God plans to visit upon Sodom and Gomorrah a judgment of fire and brimstone because of their sin of abuse, exploitation, and inhospitality to the stranger and the vulnerable. Verses 16-21 of Genesis 18 are fascinating because we are treated to God's internal dialogue about whether or not to share God's plans with Abraham. God decides that since God now has a covenantal relationship with Abraham, Abraham deserves to know God's plans. But Abraham does not just receive the word of God's plan. Abraham responds, much as Moses does in today's verses. Abraham bargains for the lives of those who are innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah and, amazingly, God relents. God gives in to Abraham's, plea's. God considers and accepts Abraham's suggestions. What does this mean?
It doesn't mean that God is not consistent or trustworthy. It does mean that God is consistent in love and mercy balanced with justice. God's anger is raised against Sodom and Gomorrah on behalf of the vulnerable who are abused in that city. We are assured that God will consistently act on behalf of the vulnerable and the exploited. We are also assured that God will consistently act with love and mercy. That love is demanding and experienced as disturbing to those who abusive and unjust. But God is also merciful. God forgives Israel and promises to relent should innocents be found in Sodom and Gomorrah.
The point of these stories is not to call into question the trustworthiness of God. Instead, it invites us to meditate upon the God who invites us to participate with God in the caring for Creation. This is not a God who requires our input, but asks for it and appreciates it still. This is what it means to serve and protect in the Garden. There is a healthy give and take, a productive cooperative creative partnership in which God makes room for the created in God's redemptive plan. And that is exciting as well as humbling. It is exciting that the creator of all things invites us to be co-creators. It is exciting to consider that our gifts and talents, experiences and perspectives are valuable to God. It is humbling to consider that God, by inviting us to cooperate, then holds us responsible to, indeed, cooperate. As in the story of Moses, God comes to rescue the Hebrews but sends Moses. God invites us to participate, but then, expects us to take the risks and accept the demands of cooperating in Gods creative and redemptive plans for the world
Thursday Theme - Forgiving God
Thursday Scripture - Exodus 32:14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Is God, as portrayed in the First Testament, loving and forgiving, or angry and wrathful? Unfortunately, many Christians tend to understand the First Testament as portraying an angry and vengeful God and the New Testament correcting this error with the loving, merciful God incarnate in Jesus. But is that accurate?
Although I understand why it is that many have experienced the God of the First Testament as angry and vengeful, I think that this oversimplifies the way that God is portrayed. Israel's is a rich and complex testimony about the God they worship. It begins creatively. We are told that God lavishes Adam and Eve with a verdant and abundant garden, good for food and a delight to the eyes. Even when Adam and Eve sin by seeking total mastery over the Garden God has given, God clothes them, a sign of the victory of God's love over God's disappointment. The tension in the story of Jonah and the whale comes from Jonah's understanding that if he delivers God's message of warning to Ninevah, and the inhabitants heed the warning, God will have mercy on them. And Jonah does not want God to be merciful. Israel's testimony is consistent in its portrayal of a loving and merciful God.
Although we do not often enough hear them in our worship, the First Testament includes a number of feminine images of God and even refers to God's actions as like that of a mother. Isaiah, in particular, uses this metaphor. “For a long time I [God] have kept silent, I have been quiet and held myself back. But now, like a woman in childbirth, I cry out, I gasp and pant.” (Isa. 42:14) “As a mother comforts her child, so will I [God] comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem.” (Isa. 66:13) “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I [God] will not forget you!” (Isa. 49:15) In each, God is not angry or vengeful. In the first, God is described as a mother in the throes of birth. In the second, God is nurturing and comforting. In the third, God, compassionate.
But what of these prophets? After all, the prophets also contain strong, blunt, even shockingly destructive and angry images of God. Unfortunately what happens is that we get a small sample of the prophets and not the full picture. There is, no doubt the threat of an angry and wrathful God in the prophets. But, as Isaiah revealed above, there is also mercy and forgiveness
All of this to say that not only is idolatry the sin of putting our hope in trust in created things, in things we can control and manipulate. Also, idolatry includes the false images of God that we create. Israel's testimony about God was incredibly complex and at times complicated. It was even, as in today's story, confusing. Why is it that Israel tells this story of a God who moves from anger to mercy, to anger to mercy? I would suggest so that Israel did not ever grow too comfortable or complacent in its description of God. Once we as humans think we have God completely understood and totally described, we are worshiping a god of our own making. Instead of invoking fear, this should encourage us to nurture, humbly a deeper experience with God. What images of God do you identify with? What one's do you like the most? Creator, Mother, Father, Liberator? What images of God trouble you? Judge, Warrior, Angry Parent? Pray, ponder, journal about your favorite and least favorite images of God. What would be the weakness of only thinking of God in your favorite images? What could the positive side of the images you like the least?
Fifth Scripture - Exodus 32:4-5 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold,[a] and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”
Let's end our reflections this week by reconsidering last weeks devotions. Each day of the past week we pondered the purpose of the ritual practices of our Christian/Baptist tradition; Communion, Baptism, & Worship specifically. In today's verse, we see Aaron the the Israelites create another ritual, a festival to 'the Lord,' which was not to the Lord at all. Rituals are not empty. They are forms of practicing our faith which help us consciously or unconsciously discern how our beliefs operate in our everyday lives. They teach us how to act our beliefs. Today's verse shows us that we also engage, again unconsciously, rituals or practices that shape us in ways that are counter to becoming the humanity created us to be. They are tempting but they disfigure the image of God we are born with.
In 1 Corinthians Paul's great issue with the way the church practices communion is that it reinforces the social hierarchy that communion is meant to undermine and erase. Roman culture was built on the foundation of a clear demarcation of what people had value. Caesar at the top, wealthy men, wealthy woman, lower classes, then slaves. In our own experience, we should recall the restriction in our own history on those who were allowed to vote. Initially, this was free, land-owning (wealthy) men of European heritage (not black). There was a clear hierarchy of dignity, honor, and humanity. The communion meal was meant to offer the Christian community a way to practice living into the promise of the prophet Joes that on the day of the Lord (resurrection day) the Spirit would be given to ALL people, young and old, men and women. There was a radical new equality in the community as all were dignified by the Spirit. But the Corinthian church, in having the wealthy claim the seats of honor and the best food and wine, leaving leftovers for lower class church members, was not practicing this dignifying or subverting the social norm that devalued women, workers, and slaves.
Our practices form our habits. Communion was meant to habitualize dignifying all people created by God.
In terms of today's verse, we don't get to see what the great concern of worshipping a golden idol, apart from God's wrath. But what is the practical concern? Once again, the prophets reveal it most often. Isaiah specifically rails against Israel when they observe the proper rituals but do not advocate for or create a just society. They allow poverty, take advantage of the poor for profit and ignore the vulnerable. In the story of Elijah and King Ahab, we see it even more clearly. Ahab is roundly criticized for worshipping both God and Baal. This worship of Baal is lived out in Ahab's use of his power as King. He is interested only is acquiring more wealth and land. He seeks mastery over others. His subjects are not treated as beloved creations of God, but as pawns to use or enemies to defeat in his lust for more property and power. Israel's testimony is clear. Worship of Baal and its rituals and practices disfigured Ahab.
Which leaves us to ponder carefully not only the religious rituals we practices but also the idolatrous ones. This isn't necessarily a reference to other faith traditions. What we do habitually shapes who we become. James K.A. Smith uses consumerism as an example in his book Desiring the Kingdom. He describes our national ritual of shopping. The practice of seeking and acquiring the latest gadgets and fashions make us feel fulfilled as people (for a time, until the next release of fashion or gadget is released). He suggests that as a result of our self-image being built on what we can purchase, those who do not have the finances to keep up with the latest and the greatest fashion and technological advance, are unconsciously considered less valuable as people. It would be easy to deny this, but I personally remember NOT being the cool kid because we couldn't afford the new Nike Jordans. What we practice, shapes who we are, and how we relate to one another. This doesn't mean we stop shopping. It does mean we become more aware of the deeper meaning to even the simplest of our habitual practices so that they do not disfigure us as well. What are some of the habitual practices, or the messages we hear repeatedly, that have a shadow side that draws us away from realizing the image of God in which we were created?
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.