On Being an Image of God

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I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that most of you did not sacrifice a bull today and offer it to your chosen God. You probably did not pour olive oil over an idol hoping for a good crop and you probably did not wave incense in front of an image of your ancestor praying for a good day at work. These are things we often dismissively attribute to our ancient, misguided forbears.

Worshiping ancient gods was a tough business. Most ancient religions saw their gods as petty, fickle and requiring constant feeding, attention and affirmation. Incense, fire, animals, crops, virgins, eunuchs, and even your own children were often demanded as offerings in service to the gods. These offerings were often laid before some kind of image of said god in the hopes that your prayers and petitions would be answered. Healthy crops, appropriate amounts of rain, love, birth of children, health for you and your family, death and pestilence for your enemies were all potential requests. If you wanted something, there was a god for that. And you made your appeal before their likeness, and image of them if you will.

Judaism bursts on the scene and makes a unique claim, in Exodus there is the command that,

“Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God.”
Exodus 20:4-5 (CEB)

In Judaism there are to be no idols to worship. Worship of God is not to be defined and mediated by worship of things created by human hands. God is wholly other and he is to be worshiped and honored as such. Appeals to God are to be made not in front of idols, but at the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, where God’s “presence”  resides. The prophet Habakkuk has strong words for those who would choose to worship idols,

Of what value is an idol, when its potter carves it, or a cast image that has been shaped? It is a teacher of lies, for the potter trusts the pottery, though it is incapable of speaking.

Doom to the one saying to the tree, “Wake up!” or “Get up” to the silent stone.
Does it teach? Look, it is overlaid with gold and silver, but there is no breath within it.
Habakkuk 2:18-19 (CEB)

For the prophet Habakkuk, there is no reason to worship these idols as there is not breath (or life/spirit) within it. Why worship what is not living when you can worship the one, true and living God? Why appeal to that which has no ability to speak or move?

Earlier in the Bible, there is another unique claim about images and breath. The Genesis story contains this nugget,

“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”
Genesis 1:27 (CEB)

And in the next chapter,

“The Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life…”
Genesis 2:7 (CEB)

In the Jewish mindset, built into the foundations of creation is the understanding that humanity itself is a living, breath/spirit filled, image of their unseen, transcendent and all powerful God. While this does not mean we should go around worshiping humanity as some idol and image for God, I think there is a unique message to derive from this. But, before we get to that…let’s sprinkle in one of my favorite stories from the Gospels.

There’s this great story in the Gospels (I’m going to use Luke’s version), where Jesus has again been surrounded by a crowd listening to him speak. They hang out for quite a long time, so long that everyone is starting to get hungry and it’s a good time for a dinner break. Being the astute observers that they are, the disciples come to Jesus and suggest that it might be a good idea to send everyone into town so they can get some food since there’s no easy way to get food for everyone in the “deserted place” they currently are. Jesus looks at his disciples and, I imagine with a wry smirk, he says,

“You give them something to eat.”
Luke 9:13 (CEB)

The disciples begin to freak out because they barely have enough food for themselves and definitely not enough money to by enough food to feed everyone. Jesus then famously proceeds to use the five loaves and two fish they have to feed everyone gathered there and there’s even leftovers to pick up afterwards.

What I love about this story, and connecting it to the image and idol discussion above, is that the disciples see a need (maybe they heard the appeals of the crowd) but they in turn appeal to Jesus to encourage the people to solve the problem themselves. Instead, Jesus turns it around and makes it the disciples responsibility to meet the requests of the gathered crowd. “You give them something to eat.”

The disciples are not responding to their calling, indeed their foundational created purpose, to be an image of the creator and sustainer God to hear the appeals of these people and to meet their needs.

Humanity has tried to avoid this calling forever. Indeed, we still often respond like the disciples do in this story. But, if we are created in God’s image, then we have the responsibility to be the physical presence of God in the world. Not fickle and demanding like the ancient gods that were worshipped. But compassionate, caring and (most importantly) alive and present. We can be the ears that hear the appeals of others, we can be the eyes to see them and the hands and feet to help them. Prayer and intercession are well and good and great when time, distance or other obstacles prevent us from helping in tangible, incarnational ways. But, our first inclination should always be to “give them something to eat” rather than to “send the crowd away,” with prayers and good vibes hoping they may find a solution to their problems.

We are a living image of the living God who has breathed into us and called us to meet the needs of our neighbors, who are making their appeals to God through us. We can make tangible the promises and provision of God, when God feels absent, we can make him feel present. When, like the Psalmist, somebody cries, “Why do you stand so far away, Lord,
hiding yourself in troubling times?” (Psaom 10:1, CEB) we can respond and make alive the promise spoken through Jesus, “I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.” (Matthew 28:20, CEB).

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The Idol of Our Stability

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Ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, Turkey.

Recently, our church has been reading through the book of Acts. A few Sunday’s ago the sermon centered on the stories of Paul’s message at the Areopagus (or Mars Hill) and the following story of the riot in Ephesus.

“A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together…The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there.”‭‭
Acts‬ ‭19:24-29, 32‬ ‭(NIV‬‬)

Demetrius is afraid of Paul preaching this upstart religion which is going to cut into his business. If everyone turns from idols and believes in one god, nobody is going to want to buy the idols that him and his fellow craftsmen are making. They are the dominant religious and economic force in the region and they see Paul as a threat. Demetrius then veils himself in piety with the statement, “There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.” His first concern is for his business, then he turns to his secondary concern about the glory of Artemis.

If this story sounds slightly familiar, I don’t think things have changed much from Demetrius and Paul’s time to today. However, the shoe is on the other foot.

Christians in the Western culture of today are in the majority. Yet, as many reports, studies and surveys have shown…things are shifting. We are often the ones who feel like there’s something to lose when differing ideologies move in on our turf. We can often feel like our “way of life” is being altered and our “values” are being infringed upon because somebody else has a different way of seeing things. Much like Demetrius and the crowd in Ephesus, Christians can get riled up when they feel like their way of life is under attack and God may “robbed of [His] divine majesty.”

Is this truly the way of Christ? Many people will cite Jesus’ shenanigans with a whip and tables at the Temple as reason for their response. But, Jesus was taking issue with the powerful majority who was squeezing out the powerless minority.

“After entering the temple, he threw out those who were selling and buying there. He pushed over the tables used for currency exchange and the chairs of those who sold doves. He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He taught them, “Hasn’t it been written, My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations? But you’ve turned it into a hideout for crooks.”
Mark 11:15-17 (CEB)

Doves are highlighted here because they are the sacrifice allowed for the poorest of the poor (see Leviticus 5:7). So, Jesus is not upset because he feels like outsiders or minorities are challenging the status quo. He’s upset because those in power are deliberately keeping out the minorities, outsiders and needy and taking advantage of them in the process.

It can feel good to have a crowd behind you and to be in the majority. But, again I have to ask…is this the way Christ? Christ who had all the power in the cosmos, but gave up his “divine majesty” to look like a servant. Christ who commanded demons and chatted with Elijah and Moses yet stooped down to wash the disciples sand-covered feet. Christ who fed the hungry, healed the sick and raised the dead yet who was crucified, seemingly “discredited” by an angry crowd. Christ who was whipped, spit upon, demeaned and degraded yet is now worshiped throughout the heavens and the earth.

If Christ was not afraid of stepping down from his place of authority to serve those who did not deserve it…we should not fear either.