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).