Saturday, August 07, 2004

Of God and gods

Hidden deep within the murky, obscure historical passages of the Old Testament history books are strikingly prescient glimpses of human nature. In chapter 17 of the otherwise vile II Kings, I found an incredible scene that looks and sounds familiar. Assyria has conquered the northern half of the land of Israel, and has settled Samaria with its own peoples in order to “replace the Israelites.”

But the forced migration doesn’t work. The new settlers don’t worship the Lord, causing lions to come out of the wilderness and devour some of them. This scares the Assyrian king, who wisely sends a captured Israelite priest back to Samaria to “teach the people what the god of the land requires,” which he does successfully.

Then begins an extraordinary passage which describes the people’s response to the “god of the land.” Verse 29 reads, “Nevertheless, each national group made its own gods in the several towns where they settled, and set them up in the shrines the people of Samaria had made at the high places.” The people decided to worship the Lord and their own favorite, personal gods! Well, why not cover all the bases?!

The passage goes on to say that “they worshipped the Lord, but they also appointed all sorts of their own people to officiate for them as priests in the shrines at the high places. They worshipped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought.”

I am fascinated by the sentence construction: “they worshipped the Lord, but …” For the people living in Samaria, worship was nothing but a lucky charm to ward off evil; apparently they were only willing to worship Israel’s God in order to keep the lions at bay. But they didn’t actually change their living patterns. No, they kept their favorite gods around.
Isn’t this a terrible indictment of our own faith?

We worship the Lord -- yes, we go to church on Sunday mornings and endure the sermon and songs – but … the true gods we worship are other things. Like desire. And the accumulation of things. And self.

When worship is a ritual that is performed in order to fulfill a religious duty or obligation, then it becomes simply one amongst many such rituals. We let God get his due, but then we pay homage to our other gods, too.

Unfortunately, when that happens, then we really aren’t worshipping God. Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters … or three or four. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the others. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

This underscores the radical nature of discipleship. You’re either following after Christ, or you’re not. You can’t say you worship God, but hide a few idols underneath your mattress. One or the other.

This isn’t only a personal problem, but it’s a problem in our churches and in our nation. We worship the Lord in our churches – yes, we have correct liturgies and sing good praise and worship choruses, and we say prayers sincerely, and we ordain people properly. But … do we also bow down to the gods of success, financial prosperity, and bureaucratic authority?

How about our country? We sure pay lip service to the notion that we worship the Judeo-Christian God. We print on our money that we trust in this God, and we let the President talk about the wonderful liberty that God has bestowed on us, but … the true gods we worship as a nation are other things. Like military power. And national security. And pride of place.

In the end, we’re left with the harsh choice – God or gods. One or the other.

Unfortunately, the story in II Kings never really ends. The last verse of chapter 17 tells us, “To this day their children and grandchildren continue to do as their fathers did.”

And we do.