Play Video

"‘Idol’-y Worshipping"


Numbers 21:4-9

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea,[a] to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous[b] serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous[c] serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

John 3:14-21

14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[a] 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”[b]

MESSAGE – “Idol-y Worshipping”

Now I must admit when the scripture for today mentions a story involving God sending down snakes, it doesn’t leave me with a positive feeling. Probably because for me snakes are the one animal I cannot stand. As a kid I was afraid of snakes. I remember finding a rattlesnake by our family’s cabin and screaming as loudly as I could. I also remember being mortified when my Dad took my sandal and tried to hit the snake. Even as an adult, going to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago I cannot handle seeing any of the snakes. When I see an anaconda hardly moving in a tank, every ounce of my being is telling me to get out of there. Logically I know it is in the tank, and the likelihood of it escaping are not good. And even if it did, I could outrun it. But in the back of my mind, something is telling me “That snake could escape at any time and it will get you.” Also, I grew up watching the Harry Potter movies and the very first one involves a snake getting out of a tank. So, to quote Indiana Jones, “I hate snakes.”

And I could imagine there were a few Israelites who felt the same way as they were in the wildness and were forced to deal with poisonous snakes.

Today’s lectionary selection is from the book of Numbers and follows the Israelites as they continue to wander in the desert in search of a new land. And of course, it has to start with the Israelites complaining and whining as Moses leads them. This story follows a similar trope seen across the Hebrew Bible. A cycle of sin- punishment -repent- redemption.

1) At first the Hebrew people mess up; they miss the mark. In this story, they begin to complain about how awful the food in the wilderness is. I can’t imagine it is any five-star dining experience. God then hears this complaint and seeks to punish people for their sinful complaining.

2) As in this story God sends down a bunch of poisonous snakes. [side note: Now I do want to point out how this understanding of God can be rather problematic, so see God as the one who punishes and redeems. It is a hard thing, because we would not want to explain the evil or the sadness of the world as an act of God. However, for myself I choose to see this as the early understandings of theodicy- the origin of evil. The Hebrew people were searching for an answer to describe God and sort out how God operates, and this is merely one understanding the vastness of how God is understood. But I want to acknowledge this because unfortunately this could be used to say God gave you this because you were complaining. Rather than sort out who gives the form of punishment, it is about the response to the punishment and what God does]

3) As soon as the punishment, the poisonous snakes arrive, people begin to cry out to God. They repent they own up to the ways they messed up. And so, God finally responds

4) by redeeming and saving the people. God instructs Moses to make a serpent out of bronze and to save all who look at it. The bronze snake will save them from all the poisonous snakes which surround. It is their vaccine. By looking at this serpent, they do not have to live in fear. They do not have to worry about the death and destruction caused by the snake.  And so this is the pattern which keeps getting played out, one of sin- punishment- repentance- redemption. For this is an endless cycle seen throughout the Bible. And I could end it right there, God saves.

However, for the Israelites, this bronze serpent, this reptile on a stick became something more for them. As the generations passed, and the threat of poisonous or fiery snakes was no more, the people still looked to this reptile. It was no longer used to remember the story of God saving the people, it was the saving force. The snake itself was what would lead to redemption and protection. It was an idol. It was all people could think about. It got so bad they named it Nehushtan and made offerings to it. It was a good thing which turned into something in which it was not intended to be used for. Instead of worshiping God and leaving offerings to God, people began to see this as the way to be saved. And so later on in the book of 2 Kings, Hezekiah breaks the bronze serpent into pieces. To try and get people back on track to what is truly important to say: “Hey, you’ve missed the point of the serpent.” It is like when we have created something to be used for good, and all of the sudden it gets blown out of proportion. It gets mistaken. It gets idolized.

We fall trap to the idols of the world. While ours might not be bronze serpents which prevent us from getting snake bites, there have been golden statues made of political leaders. We idolize those who lead us, seeing them as all powerful people who can bring about change and greatness. But often the idols we create today are not as visible. We keep them hidden away, not wanting to admit to ourselves how much we idolize certain things and begin to claim the worldly things as our saving grace. We turn to them for salvation. Personally, I’ve recognized how for me I almost worship overworking. I worship staying busy with work, but also wanting to control everything. I think if it is “Maddi’s way” then I don’t need to worry. I’ll be saved. I become so focused on getting everything to go right, to stick to the plan and the schedule: to strive for worldly perfection, I am not listening to the call God has placed on my heart.

But there are many things we might idolize. We might idolize or hold on to our status in society. The accolades we’ve received. Other’s perceptions of us: usually only highlighting the good we do. Thinking it is our charitable nature which saves us. We idolize political parties. Holding our salvation to a certain party or candidate. On either side. We think “this political agenda will save us” or this Instagram post will make us the best.  Or perhaps we hold on to the past successes, or the stories passed down, much like the Israelites did. We idolize our past success and our leaders and see them as the time when we are saved. We hold on to those moments of redemption. When we equate our redemption, our salvation with the experience, the reptile on the staff instead of the experience of God’s forgiveness when we have missed the mark. And so I ask you, what are you truly worshiping today? Are you sitting by lifting our own egos? Our own prestige of ourselves? If we each had to hold up a staff – what would be on the end of yours?

I’ll admit, mine is not what I want to reflect, I might want to hide the fact that I’m worshiping my own ego or need to do justice. But even if that is where I am today, I know there is great hope because God shows us we are never out of reach from true grace and salvation.

I love reading from early Christian writers, perhaps it is because for them there was such an emphasis on internal reflection, a desire to sit in contemplation and experience the divine. Saint Augustine focuses on knowing thyself, in order to experience the divine. “Let me know myself and know Thee and desire nothing save only Thee” It is a recentering. It is about knowing what our idols are. We know we might not always have God at the center, yet God’s love will never cease. And God is calling us into true worship of the divine. 

While John 3:16 has become the commercialized version of Christianity- the message seen in the verses shows what we can do to receive eternal life- or another way to understand it “abundant life”. God loved the world so much that Jesus was not sent to condemn or to cast out judgment but to save the world. To show how abundance and life everlasting can be lived out today and always. This is the key. There is nothing else we can do to save. There is no other path we can follow to truly experience this light and love. And when we see the example of Jesus throughout the gospels, we see this power. He brings people close, never excluding always welcoming. He ensures all are fed. He calls out the bad practices, showing that the worship of greed, or violence will not bring about abundant life. The idols of the world will not have the final say.  Our egos, our political party, our ideologies will not save us. No golden calf, statue, or bronze serpent can bring about salvation. The one thing: the only thing at the center of it all is God’s forgiveness. The grace and love which is given to us freely without any restrictions. The grace which propels us to continue to work for justice and love because we want to share this message will all. The only thing we can worship is the love and forgiveness we receive through God. Not through anything else.

And because of this love, it means we cannot sit idly, (I am using the other idol) but rather we must get up and continue to do the work that we called to do by Christ. Perhaps that might look like sitting with those who are different than us and welcoming all to receive God’s grace. But also, it might be being with ourselves for a few moments and making sure God is at the center. To ask ourselves the question of do we know our flaws and are we ready to own up and to then worship God fully and authentically?

And so today I ask you, what is at your center? Are you idolizing the past successes, your own ego, or political agenda? Or are you lifting up the power of God The redeeming power. The power which saves us, and also fuels us to be a light in the world. The redeeming power which forces us to not fall down the same cycle of sin-punishment-repent-redemption. But propels us into action, knowing nothing, no bronze serpent or golden statue will be our saving grace. The only thing which can save is God’s grace. Amen.