Monday, October 18, 2010

The Binding

He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood (Genesis 22:9).

Late last spring we purchased a bike rack for the car. A Yakima – very boheme, the kind of bike rack that requires a trailer hitch bracket under your car. You can ride around Atlanta with this bike rack on your car, sans bike, just to look cool. Other drivers will see you and your Yakima and think that you’re athletic and outdoorsy.

Little do they know that our Yakima is for the kids’ bikes. We tend to mount it on the back of the car when we make our annual beach trip.

Each year we go through a ritual of packing and loading the car for the beach. The liturgy usually calls for miscellaneous beach stuff to go in first, then the luggage followed by bags of groceries and a large cooler. Once the back of the car is loaded, barely leaving oxygen for us to breathe on the trip, I close the back hatch and attach the cool bike rack.

As sturdy as our bike rack is, I don’t quite trust it when it comes to long trips on the highways. So once I’ve actually maneuvered the bikes into place and secured them with the rubber straps that came with the rack, I pull out my bungee cords and go through a final ritual of binding. I weave the stretchy cords through the bike frames, binding bike to bike. I do it again and search for clever ways to bind bikes to rack.

At some level, this binding is born of fear. I’m doing all I can to keep what I’ve got. I don’t want anything to get away or slip off. The binding is an act of securing what’s mine, holding it tight.

The Hebrew word for binding is Akedah. It’s the word that rabbis use to designate the story of Abraham’s binding his son Isaac to the altar, obediently preparing to give the promised child back to God.

We don’t like this story. At the very least, it baffles us. As people who love God, the story sometimes embarrasses us, raising more questions about God than it answers. At worst, the story simply offends us. Why would God ask this? What’s God doing? What’s going on?

I’m not even going to attempt answer to those questions. I’m limited by space and by a very finite mind. I will, however, lift up a single verse from the Genesis 22 story that gives some insight into what is happening with Abraham while shedding some light on our own tendency to make and cherish idols in our heart. The key to the story seems to be at verse 12.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” [God] said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

The word that catches my attention is “withheld.” The habit of holding something back, tucking it aside, putting it away for private use or enjoyment. I’m given to withholding Oreos, guarding some of them from my voracious son.

Abraham’s disturbing story on Mount Moriah has much to tell us about our idols – but one simple lesson is this: Idolatry is not about what we believe in our heads. It’s about what we hold in our hands. Strangely, plenty of idolaters in the Bible believe in God. Israel is exhibit ‘A’ for the sin of idolatry, and they never rejected their belief in God. They simply refused to trust the God they claimed to believe in, refused to live according to his word and carry out his will.

Abraham on Moriah is our model of radical trust, binding Isaac, nothing held back. He had spent years learning such “habits of relinquishment.”

There is a kind of “binding” that tries very hard to keep something in place – like bikes on the back of the car. But there is a different kind of binding, like the Akedah on Mount Moriah, where we give something up, let it go. Idols are discovered in those recesses of heart and mind where we say silently to God, “You cannot have this.” Often, we may not even be aware that we’re saying such a thing. But we are holding back, and the holding back is grounded in fear.

The question today: What are you withholding? What would it look like to bind it to an altar and offer it to God?

Show me, O God, what I’m withholding – keeping from you, fearfully binding it so I won’t lose it. Give me the grace I need to bind it to an altar where all I am and I have is yours. I ask this in the name of Jesus, your only son, freely given for the world. Amen.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Beyond Naming

“Bring out your son. He must die because he has broken down Baal’s altar . . .” (Judges 6:30).

Religiously minded people are good at naming idols.

Sometimes their idol-naming skills are the fruit of an authentic encounter with the true and living God. At some point, in some way, they encountered the Holy and found themselves undone. Like Isaiah in the temple, they got a taste of the real thing and knew in that moment who they were before God. Having encountered God, they can spot a fake.

Sometimes idol naming is picked up second-hand. Hang around a church long enough and you’ll catch the verbiage that comes so easily to practiced Christians. It’s not too hard to become adept at “church,” the programs and vocabulary. Some people are good at naming idols because they know what they’re supposed to say: “money, houses, diplomas, compliments.” It’s not a hard list to master, and you can add items freely to impress others with your piety.

But either way – whether by genuine encounter with God or second-hand mimicry of the same – naming idols isn’t enough. Our idols must be dismantled and dethroned. Not simply recognized, but removed. And this is hard, no matter how you learned to name your idols.

Those who know the true God find they still nurse a secret affection for the lesser god. We saw that yesterday in Gideon’s idolatrous relapse. Those who act like they know God find the acting works pretty well. They coddle their idols and no one at church suspects a thing.

There’s has to be something beyond naming, something bold and almost violent. The idol must be brought down.


Back to Gideon. The heart of Gideon’s story is a great battle in which God used a mere 300 men to route the Midianites. Gideon commanded the special ops forces through whom God displayed his power and glory. Gideon: Called, chosen, used by God for a great purpose.

But before any of that could happen Gideon had to deal with some idols in the land and in his own family. Not just some anonymous inanimate thing. These idols belonged to his Father, a priest of the Midianite god Baal. Gideon was told to “tear down your Father’s altar” (Judges 6:25).

Gideon obeyed. He tore the thing down, dismantling the altar and cutting down the Asherah pole. But because he was afraid of his family he did it at night. He took down the idol, but under the cover of darkness. It didn’t matter. When everyone awoke they saw the rubble of their altar and the charred wood of the Asherah pole. “Who did this?” they asked. When they learned it was Gideon, they wanted to kill him.

In the weeks ahead you will be asked to do something more than name your idols. You will be asked – challenged, pushed even – to bring them down. That will call for more than a few private moments in front of your computer with these words. What is being asked of you is more akin to violence, an act of spiritual vandalism aimed at the false gods in your life.

If you’ll do this you’ll discover what Gideon came to know: You cannot deconstruct your idol and keep your life intact. Get serious about bringing down an idol, and something will change. For Gideon, it meant alienating his family, taking a stand against his Father. The price tag will vary for each life, each situation. But there is a price.

Let’s not be content to simply name our idols, sitting comfortably with a daily “devotional,” scanning a few lines before hitting ‘delete.’ Let’s not skulk around these matters under cover darkness, like the timid Gideon. Step into broad daylight and bring down whatever seeks a place in your life that belongs only to God.

What kind of price-tag will idol smashing carry in your life?

Make me bold, Lord God, to do more than name the idols that occupy my heart. Help me to uproot them, tearing up and bringing down that which has taken your place in my life. Come to those once occupied places and establish your rule in me by your Spirit. Amen.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Snare

And it became a snare to Gideon and his family (Judges 8:27).

I have long loved the story of Gideon. Maybe because I see elements of the story that mean there just might be hope for me. God uses Gideon in a powerful way – but as for Gideon himself, he’s a stew of reluctance and doubt simmering over flames of caution and fear.

You can almost see Gideon looking around for someone else when God’s angel appears and says “The Lord is with you mighty warrior.” He doesn’t recognize himself in that greeting. Mighty warrior? Even we as readers are amused at this. Gideon is found by the angel threshing grain in the confines of a winepress. He’s cowering, guarding what he has from Israel’s enemy, the Midianites. Bent over in the winepress, Gideon hardly seems mighty, more wimp than warrior.

And once Gideon realizes that there’s no one else around to take up the mighty warrior mantle, he doesn’t fall to the ground in awe-struck humility. No, he’s got some questions. Times have been hard for the Israelites, and as far as Gideon is concerned God’s got some explaining to do. He gets right to the point with the angel. “If Gods is with us, why have all these things happened to us?”

Plenty of you woke up today asking the same question. You’d like to have faith and believe; you’ve tried to pray – but if God is really at work in this world why is the world such a mess? And if God cars the slightest bit about you and your life why have these things – whatever they might be – happened to you. I like that Gideon asked such a question, wanting to follow in obedience but needing assurances and then reassurances on top of that.

God bears patiently with Gideon. Giving signs: dry fleece and wet ground, wet ground and dry fleece. And then there’s the battle we’ve anticipated since the story started. God reduces Gideon’s force of 3000 to a mere 300. And then gives victory.

I love that. I need regular reminding that God works in just that way, stepping in with power when we’ve come to the end of our own strength and smarts and connections. This is how God gains glory – and glory is the one thing God refuses to share with other being.

Which brings us to the matter of idols and idolatry, our focus these days.

I had never seen until very recently that the story of Gideon begins and ends in idolatry. The discovery was a let-down for me, a tainting of Gideon’s otherwise ordinary image. But once again, this may be a part of Gideon’s story that tells us something that’s painfully true about all of us.

At the story’s beginning Israel’s neck is under the oppressive boot of Midian. Midian raids Israel at just the right time, waiting until harvest is ready then burning fields and storehouses. But all the while, ironically, Israel is worshipping Midian’s god Baal. And on top of that, Gideon’s father is the local Baal priest. The first thing Gideon has to do is destroy the altar his father has made to a foreign god. Destroy the altar, take the shards of ruined wood and stone and build another altar to Israel’s true God.

Having destroyed his Dad’s Ball altar, Gideon goes on to defeat the Midianites. All seems well. But at the end of the story, when Gideon is on top of his game and the people are ready to follow his leadership, he collects their jewelry and builds – of all things – another idol.

Gideon made the gold into an ephod . . . all Israel prostituted themselves by worshipping it there and it became a snare to Gideon and his family (Judges 8:27). As I said – that bothered me. Maybe it bothers you too. Why would he do that, especially after God had blessed him with a stunning military victory?

He did that for the same reason we do it. Our idols possess a powerful pull on our souls. As we start this journey together we ought to be honest enough to admit that this won’t be easy. Idolatry keeps dogging our heels. We don’t destroy our idols once and forget it. As with Gideon – they come back, even as we seek to live our faith. The idol becomes a snare, trapping us, tripping us.

What idol keeps rearing its head in your life? What has become a snare to you, refusing to leave you alone?

God, help me to do more than simply name my idols; give me the fortitude I need to dismantle them – over and over again. Keep me alert to the persistent lure of idolatry in all its forms. Guard me from that which could so easily become a snare in my life. I ask this in the name of your son Jesus. Amen.