In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Last week we touched briefly on what a remarkable, strange thing it is that the Israelites rebelled against God. It’s remarkable because these Israelites have, in a very real way, seen God with their own eyes. They were slaves in Egypt; they were delivered from Egypt with signs and wonders – signs and wonders which demonstrated the superiority of YHWH over all the gods of Egypt; They were delivered from the Egyptians once again when God destroyed their enemies at the Red Sea; they were led through the wilderness by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire; They were given water, manna, and quail in the wilderness to sustain them. God confirmed the covenant with His people and gave them the covenant law. And still, the Israelites broke the covenant and betrayed their God.
It seems surprising, but it’s really not. In fact, we see played out in the story of Israel the history of humankind. We see it played out in the story of Adam and Eve; we see it played out in the story of Cain and Abel; we see it in Noah’s descendants and the tower of Babel; and we see it played out in the story of Abraham and his sons. It’s the basic human story of, do we allow God to be our God or do we want to be our own?
We’ve talked a lot about this concept – specifically about this being the fundamental sin. In my opinion, the desire to choose for ourselves what’s right and what’s wrong leads to more problems than anything else. This is the root of all idolatry, I think. And this is essentially what’s going on in our story today.
We’re all probably fairly familiar with the concept of idolatry so I won’t try to be comprehensive today. That is, I’m not going to talk about every possible example of what idolatry looks like. We’ve all known people who seem to make an idol out of things and we’ve all probably had idols in our own lives. We can all relate to the person, and maybe we’re that person ourselves, who turns their job, or their house, or themselves into an idol. As we’re probably well aware, anything can be an idol. Anything can take the rightful place of God in our lives.
So what makes an idol? What do we need to watch out for? And how do we address these things in our lives? An idol is anything that we turn to, to provide for us the things that only God can provide. What are those things? What are the things that human beings long for?
Security: This is probably the easiest one to imagine. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes described life as “nasty, brutish, and short.” That’s perhaps a cynical view of life, but it’s hard to ignore that life is often hard. And sometimes, for some of us, life is incredibly hard. We have a natural desire to avoid pain and to avoid difficulty. We also typically do best with (some level of) stability. I’m not talking about monotony; of course most of us like a certain amount of variety. What we’re talking about is chaos or disorder. We all desire, generally, to avoid chaos. We don’t like change. We don’t like to be reminded that things are out of our control. We all long for security.
Belonging: Community is something we’ve talked about a lot. Human beings are made for community and we all long for community. More specifically, we’re all looking for that place and people where we feel like we belong. Sometimes we talk about this in terms of home. We long for our family home; we long for our homeland, our home-city, or our home-town. It’s why we root for the home team. This is all related to our desire to love and be loved. When we speak of community, we’re not just talking about a place, but we’re talking about a kind of relationship. We’re looking for that place, that situation where we are known and we are loved. We long for belonging.
Identity: Identity is related to belonging, I think. Its related to belonging because you cannot have identity apart from community. I know that current worldviews say that identity is fundamentally about “being who you are,” and I think there’s truth to that. If who you are is based entirely on the expectations or on the approval of others, there’s a problem. But at the same time, in my opinion, identity is meaningless outside of a context of relationship. We cannot truly and fully know who we are unless we are truly and fully known.
Now I hope it’s obvious that none of these things are bad things. They are parts of life and I think essential for life. What’s wrong is when we look to things other than God to provide or fulfill these things in our lives. When we look to something else for these things, it can quickly and easily become an idol.
Let’s look at a couple of quick examples.
Many of us are familiar with the man or woman who works too much. There’s nothing wrong with working a lot or even, what some would call, too much (because “too much” is actually impossible to determine). However, we have to ask the question of why they are working so much. Is it because they are trying to earn a lot of money (money, also, isn’t inherently bad)? And is this because they believe, that by doing so, they’ll be able to buy all the things their family never had as a child? Are they so afraid of not having enough that they are constantly trying to gain more? Perhaps they are trying to find security.
Do they work so much because they are trying to get ahead, either in their own company or in the larger community. By having a higher position, are they hoping to have more status or more influence? Are they, maybe, trying to make mom and dad proud – something they never were or at least never expressed? If that’s the case, maybe they’re looking for belonging.
Maybe they work so much because “if they didn’t, they wouldn’t know what to do.” This may be one of the reasons so many people struggle in retirement. Do they understand who they are in terms of what they produce, or at least in terms of being productive. Does the production, or the title, or simply the routine of going somewhere every day and having and meeting goals; does it allow them to never have to deal with deeper questions of who they are and what are they here for? Are they seeking identity?
The truth is, as I’m sure you know, that it could be any one or any combination of these things. But inasmuch as we try to fulfill these things through our job or career, it can become an idol.
Has social media become an idol for people? Do we look for affirmation and belonging through the opinions and ‘likes’ of anonymous usernames on our computer screens? Can relationships be idols? If we’re looking for other people to tell us that we’re loved and that we matter. If we’re constantly trying to demonstrate our worth, or affirm our place and position – does that not turn into an idol? Can a church be an idol? Can we look for things in the institution of church and religion to provide security, belonging, and identity without ever being all that concerned about God?
It’s easy to give the Israelites a hard time here. It’s easy to think about the story they’re a part of, the journey that they’ve been through, and think, “what silly Israelites.” But I think the Israelites didn’t have it any easier than we do. I realize that they’ve been first-hand witnesses to what God’s been doing, but think about their situation:
They had just left Egypt. They had escaped, yes – but they had left the only home that any of them had known, the place that had been their home for generations. Nobody would argue that their life of slavery in Egypt was easy, but at least as slaves, they knew their place in the Egyptian society. They knew what they were supposed to do, they knew who they were responsible to, they knew their place.
And now they were in the middle of the wilderness, being led to who-knew-where. They were thankful to this new God, but they didn’t yet truly know who He was. They didn’t know where God was leading them and they didn’t know what they would find when they got there. And Moses had been up on that mountain for a long time. They hadn’t heard from him in ages. Maybe he wouldn’t come down at all. Maybe he died and the God they had been following had forgotten about them. What were they going to do?
So they turned back to what they knew. They turned back to what their society and culture told them they were supposed to do. Yes, this demonstrated their unfaithfulness in response to a faithful God. But more relatable, I think it simply shows us that they were afraid. In fear, not knowing what was going on, not knowing would become of them, they did what common wisdom told them they should do. They did what every other nation on earth, every other peoples, would have done.
So What Now…?
It often doesn’t make any sense to trust God. It certainly seems easier to follow the common wisdom. We “know” that if we do certain things, we will get certain results. We know that if we work hard, if we make good choices, we won’t have to worry about money. We know that if we’re kind, and generous, and funny, and good looking, that people will love us. We know all kinds of things about how to live life and get what we want.
Except that we don’t. We don’t actually know any of how things will turn out. We all know people who work hard and work faithfully and yet are still struggling. We all know people who are talented, and kind, funny and still seem to be lonely. There are no guarantees. But every time we gamble our lives on something else – we might get lucky but we might not – we are gambling our lives on something that is a part of life, but is not the source of life. Any of these things might contribute to our lives, but none of them can be our whole life.
The conviction of our faith is that, through Jesus Christ, we can be re-connected to the source of life. It doesn’t mean that we will have any guarantees in this lifetime. It doesn’t mean that we will get everything that we think we want. Nor does it mean that we will avoid everything that we’re afraid of. What it does mean is that, if we have faith to believe and faith to walk, no matter the situation that we find ourselves, we will be able to find our rest, find truth, and find life in Him.