Idolatry – a Sermon on Jeremiah 2

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Leonard Sweet, in his ‘Soul Cafe’ newsletter, included this list of “Top 10 Lies”:

  • We’ll stay only five minutes.
  • This will be a short meeting.
  • I’ll respect you in the morning.
  • The check is in the mail.
  • I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.
  • This hurts me more than it hurts you.
  • Your money will be cheerfully refunded.
  • We service what we sell.
  • Your table will be ready in just a minute.
  • I’ll start exercising (dieting, forgiving…) tomorrow.

This list inspired me somewhat, and I thought I’d compile a list of the ‘Top Ten Spiritual Lies’prevalent in this country (unfortunately I’ve only come up with 5 so far):

  • A little religion is a good thing, so long as you don’t get too fanatical about it.
  • You can be a very serious Christian without having to go to church.
  • Following the golden rule – that’s what Christianity is all about.
  • Religion is a purely personal affair.
  • All religions are basically the same.

Jeremiah would certainly not have agreed with this last statement

‘Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.
Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror’, declares the Lord.’
(Jeremiah 2:11-12)

Jeremiah certainly did not believe that all religions were the same. This means that Jeremiah would have been out of step with most Australians, which would not be surprising, as Jeremiah was out of step with most of his own peers too.

Jeremiah didn’t fair too well amongst his contemporaries. He was threatened, beaten up, imprisoned and dropped down a sewer because his peers found both the message and the man offensive. Jeremiah told them that God was coming to judge them, and they didn’t like that. Jeremiah told them that they were all idolaters, and they didn’t like that either. He told them that they’d changed their religion, and exchanged the God of their forefathers for a bunch of useless idols, and the point I want to make here is that they didn’t simply disagree with Jeremiah over hisevaluation of their new religion. They claimed rather that they had not adopted any new religion. They claimed that the charge of idolatry was false – that they were just as ardent in their worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as ever!

“Has a nation ever changed its gods?” says Jeremiah. “But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols” “Who us?” say the people. “What idols? We haven’t been changing religion. We’re the same God-fearing followers of the God of the Bible as we’ve always been…. We’ve just updated certain aspects of our worship. That’s all.”

You could get the impression from reading certain section of the Old Testament that the people of Israel used to change religions more readily than they changed their socks. One day everyone is as keen as mustard on following Yahweh, God of our forefathers, but the next day they’re thinking that Marduk, god of the Babylonians, really deserves a second look. So they all decide to transfer their allegiance to Marduk or to one of the ‘Baals’ – the gods of the Canaanites.

The truth is that the country never officially ‘changed its gods’ at all, ever. There were occasions when foreign deities were worshipped reasonably openly within Israel (Jezebel, wife of Ahab, used to get away with that it seems) but this was not the norm, and this was certainly not the problem in Jeremiah’s time. No. Officially, everybody who lived in Israel at the time of Jeremiah worshipped the God of Israel. It was just that to the perceptive eye of the prophet, the God of Israel was starting to look a lot like the gods of the surrounding nations. Indeed, to Jeremiah’s mind, their religion was starting to look so much like the religion of their neighbours that he felt justified in saying ‘hang on a second, this isn’t the God of our forefathers you’re worshipping any more. This is Baal!’

This is the way idolatry normally works in the Bible. No one gets up and says ‘what are we bothering with Yahweh for? Baal has got so much more to offer – unlimited wealth, as many women as you want. Let’s ditch the old ‘Thou Shalt Not’ god for one who says ‘Thou Shalt’. No. What you get is a group of well-to-do religious people saying ‘you know, I think we’ve overstated some of the ‘Shalt Nots’ in our interpretation of the Scriptures.’

Take a good look some time at what’s going on in those classic Old Testament stories where the people seem to reject Yahweh, the God of Israel, for idols. What does Aaron say when he casts the golden calf while Moses is stuck up the mountain? What does Jereboam son of Nebat say at the beginning of the Israeli Civil War, when he erects a new temple in the north and sticks a great bull in the middle of it? Do these guys say ‘Let us ditch Yahweh, the God of our forefathers, for Baal, god of the Canaanites?’ Of course not! They say ‘here O Israel is your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt – Yahweh, the god of our forefathers. OK – he’s looking a bit more robust and virile than last time you saw him, but this is him!’

This is the process of idolatry. It’s not a matter of going after a god with a different name. The normal process involves keeping the same name for God, but changing the character so that he or she fits in much more easily with the prevailing culture. This is a process that we are familiar with.

I don’t know in what era it was that we started depicting Jesus as a white man. I’ve seen a fair sampling of the religious art of the west, and Jesus has been pretty white in Western Christian art for some time now! Mind you, I have also seen a couple of very modern renditions of Jesus where he did look a bit more swarthy in skin tone. We had one in the Youth Centre at one stage – A swarthy-skinned Jesus with engaging eyes and a warm smile. I noticed though that this Jesus wasn’t on the cross either. Is that coincidence, or is that a modern tendency? Some of these modern Jesus’ actually seem to be doing pretty well!

I do not particularly want to knock religious art, but I suspect that it does reflect that ancient pattern wherein we allow our God to be increasingly fashioned to resemble the values of our surrounding culture. As one writer said ‘in the beginning God created human beings in His own image, and ever since then we’ve been returning the favour – creating God in our image’

Maybe one day we will reach the stage where someone will have the courage to depict Jesus as not only being white and comfortable, but also as being fat, and looking at us through the window of his convertible, giving the ‘thumbs up’ signal to the world.

Of course, what we need before we get to that stage is a prophetic figure like Jeremiah to come along and say ‘hang on a second. This is not Jesus, son of the living God, you are worshipping. This is Ralph Nader. This is Bondy. This is the Baal of middle-class materialism – the god of the surrounding culture. Repent, or the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ will disown you as His representatives to the world.’

All this smacks of what most Australians might call ‘religious intolerance’ of course, which is something I noticed our new Archbishop was also accused of this week.

I read on Friday an article by Rabbi Appleby of the Great Synagogue responding to the recent speech by our new Archbishop were the Rabbi expressed his deep resentment at being apparently targeted for conversion by the Christian community.

‘Leave me alone in my religion’ he said. ‘Why do you have to make me you’ he said. ‘I am quite happy being me. I have my own religion, thank you very much, and I am quite satisfied with it.’

Upon reading Jeremiah again, it occurred to me that there was something of an irony in the Rabbi’s stance, in that the aggressive prophetic critique of religion quite possibly started within the Jewish community. Indeed, I felt that there was nothing distinctively Hebrew about his attitude. It seemed to me to be more of a typical Australian attitude to take.

Religion is a purely personal affair – that’s a cultural dogma in this community. Your religion is nobody else’s business but your own. That’s very Australian. And behind it is that other great Australian cultural dogma that we have been looking at – that all religions are basically the same.

You see, if I was having a religious argument with someone whose religious practices included child sacrifice, no Australian would say ‘mate, his religion is his own affair. Leave him be’. If I was dialoging with someone who believed that (what is referred to as) ‘female circumcision’ was an appropriate religious rite, I don’t think any Australian would say ‘buddy, those are his own personal religious beliefs. Leave him be.’ No. People only take this attitude when they naively assume that what all religious people are on about is basically the same thing. All this means is that they haven’t taken the time to examine the other person’s religion seriously.

At a recent clergy get-together I was talking to a guy who leads a ministry amongst Arabic-speaking people out Lakemba way. He was telling me that they are having an amazing revival at the moment – people coming into the church in unprecedented numbers, which is wonderful. He was also sharing something of the difficulties and dangers that go along with that. He was saying what a huge learning curve it was for some of the men who had given themselves to Christ. He said that they have been used to seeing their wives and daughters as their property, and now they have to learn to rebuild their most intimate family relationships upon an entirely new foundation. We must not underestimate how hard that must be.

I have Islamic friends, but I do not pretend that our religions are basically the same. I take their religion more seriously than that. They do not believe that our religions are basically the same. They take my faith more seriously than that.

I’m not saying that we should take some narrow-minded stance that says that every belief of everyother religion is somehow demonically inspired. I’m not saying that we might not have a lot to learn from persons of a variety of other religious traditions. Indeed, I’m not even suggesting that, if we took some broad prophetic sweep of the religions of the world, that we might not find ourselves feeling a lot closer at points to some other religions than we would to certain sections of the church. What I am saying though is that we should not be so na�ve as to just assume that what other faiths are on about and what we are on about is all basically the same thing.

Of course the prophetic critique of Jeremiah isn’t a critique of other religions at all. It’s a member of the people of God making a critique of the religious practices of the people of God to the people of God. The prophetic critique is one that begins in your own backyard, and that’s where we should begin too.

I quoted Spinoza last week – ‘that if triangles could talk they would say that God was in essence triangular, that if circles could speak they would say that God is circular.’ It is a simple human tendency to fashion God in our own image, and we must expect that our natural movement as a community will be to reshape God and Christ so that they fit more easily into the lifestyles we feel comfortable with.

That’s why we need the prophets. That’s why we need to keep going back to the Bible. That’s why we need to keep meeting together and why we need to try to take that scary step of being accountable to one another. Lest we wake up and find one day that the god we are worshipping is a white, fat, middle-class Jesus, who, as Jeremiah would say, is not really a god at all, but an idol!

First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, September 2nd, 2001.

Rev. David B. SmithParish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.
www.FatherDave.org

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About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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