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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Lord (Justice) vs. Baal (Growth).

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

            At the close of the book of Joshua, all the tribes of Israel gather at the sanctuary at Shechem.  Joshua, who has led them in their infiltration into the Promised Land, knows he is about to die.  So he asks all of them to reaffirm their devotion and allegiance to the Lord. 
            Joshua knows that this is the best chance he’s going to get to have the people make promises to God.  And he reminds them of what God has done for them, culminating, of course, with the deliverance from Egypt and the entry into Canaan.  God was with them doing miracles on their behalf the whole time.
            Now Joshua wants them to choose.  And the people strongly, definitively, and voluntarily affirm their faith in the Lord.  But we know from how the story continues in the rest of the Bible that they really don’t know what this means.  Certainly, they will have no problem worshiping the Lord.  What they don’t get is that Joshua means for them to worship only the Lord.  The Israelites would always worship the Lord.  But they didn’t know they had to worship the Lord exclusively.  They figured they could worship the Lord, and they could worship other gods too, depending on the situation.  There were after all many gods and each had a particular area of responsibility.  It would have been completely normal for the people to imagine that they could worship the Lord as well as other gods. 
            They would never stop worshiping the Lord.  They would turn to the Lord repeatedly for help in what they assumed was the Lord’s divine specialty: politics.  Whenever the nation was in danger from external enemies, they prayed to the Lord with particular fervor.  But when they needed other things, like rain, for instance, they went to the rain god, whose name was Baal.  They would even allow that the Lord was Baal’s superior in the pantheon.  But they still turned to Baal when it was a matter of drought.  To the polytheistic mind, praying to the Lord for rain didn’t make sense.  It would be like trying to buy a hammer at Coldwater Creek.
            It would take centuries for the Israelites to figure out that there really is only one God, and you pray to this God for everything, and this God is the Lord.

            And even though we know this cognitively, it is still a problem today.  It’s not a problem that people are sacrificing animals, burning incense, and prostrating themselves to other deities.  There are no explicit temples of Baal, or Zeus, or other spiritual entities around here.  Perhaps we think that if we’re not carving little effigies of Venus and praying to them that we’re not idolaters or polytheists.
            (In fact, a few years ago, when the animated Hercules movie came out, some fast-food places were actually giving away little effigies of the cartoon Zeus to kids with their burgers.  This spectacle of McDonalds or Burger King distributing little graven gods to children, may or may not prove the point I am going to try and make later in this sermon.)
            But the exclusiveness of worshiping the Lord is not just because God is jealous.  God does demand exclusivity, but it is for a reason.  It’s not just capricious and arbitrary.  God is not just a control freak.  It’s because worshiping other gods, especially these other gods, is dangerous.  It is dangerous because it spawns the kind of social injustice that the prophets are always railing against.  And it is dangerous because social injustice invariably puts the people so out of synch with God’s will that eventually something has to give.  Usually what results is a major catastrophe, or a natural disaster. 
            This is what happened to Egypt, and it is why the Israelites are now free.  The injustices of Egypt, culminating in slavery, brought down massive and comprehensive consequences in the form of ten plagues and the subsequent loss of much of their working class across the Red Sea.  These injustices were based on the Egyptians’ worship of other gods.
            These other gods that the people were continually tempted to worship were gods whose portfolios mostly had to do with the economy.  The Israelites were entering into an agricultural society in Canaan.  This meant the most important things to them economically were things that benefitted farming, mainly the growing of grains like wheat and barley.  Logically, then, the gods that were most important economically to these people were the gods who were perceived to govern the weather and fertility.  The most significant and powerful of these gods was Baal, the god of storms and rain.  This is what I mean when I refer to Baal as a “god of economic growth.”  Baal was the god people turned to in order to keep the economy of the time going.
            The land of Canaan was and largely remains urgently dependent upon regular rains.  Without rain, the grain would die and the result was famine, mass starvation.  So the people got into the habit of praying to Baal, the rain god, for rain.  It was just a safer way to go.  Even though the Lord famously and miraculously provided them water when their ancestors were in the Sinai desert for 40 years, the Lord did not yet have much of a reputation for providing rain.

            There is therefore a connection between the economy, religion, and politics.  The agricultural economy of Canaan was different from what the people were used to in Sinai.  Farming communities developed a more centralized government.  The populations of agricultural societies tended to grow, and this growth meant they had to put more and more land under cultivation to feed more and more people.  This meant developing a sophisticated military because the only place to get more land was from someone else… and you were always in danger of the people from the neighboring city wanting your land.  So a big concern was security.  Agricultural societies developed institutions like kings, regular armies, slaves to work the land, weapons production, and so forth.  Social and economic hierarchies emerged, and these naturally merged with religious hierarchies.  The basic tradeoff was that you got a regular, consistent food source… but it was very expensive.  It cost you your freedom. 
            This whole system depended on regular rainfall.  So the god that the people with the most to lose in this system encouraged if not forced the people to worship was the rain god.  To worship the rain god was to affirm your allegiance to the king and the State, the landowners, the army, and the whole establishment.
            If you worshiped Baal it was not just a “religious” choice, no: you were effectively choosing a whole social system, one diametrically opposed to the covenant God makes with the people at Mt. Sinai.  That covenant is about equality and justice, lifting up the poor, protecting the weak, giving due process to everyone.  There is not supposed to be a king, or a ruling class, or a standing army.  But Baal worship was about economic growth, supporting the king, enriching the wealthy, and empowering the military.
            Joshua had just spent several years in war against the petty rulers of these city states of Canaan who made their wealth and based their power on the exploitation and oppression of the common people.  Their cities fell one by one to Joshua’s movement of escaped slaves with their egalitarian law from their God.  He was not about to countenance his people falling into the same idolatrous religion and unjust economics as the rulers they had just defeated. 
            Now God’s law, not some thug who calls himself king, would tell them what they were allowed to do and not do.  God’s law is designed to benefit everyone, especially lifting up the poor and disadvantaged.  So God’s law is a severe infringement on the freedom of the privileged and powerful… but a great advancement in the freedom of everyone else.

            Now, we can get somewhat patronizing when we read a story like this.  We hear the vocal affirmations of the people and we might imagine that, making the same assertions, we would surely have a better subsequent track-record.  But I suspect we don’t take any more seriously than they did the real demands of worshiping the Lord.  We have conditioned ourselves to believe that making these affirmations doesn’t have much bearing on how we live our lives together.  We most certainly are very slow to understand that faith in the Lord has anything to do with our economic or political decisions.
            In truth, that’s almost all it has to do with.  Because it isn’t just about your private, personal religious faith.  Following the Lord is not about making a verbal confession of assent to some theological propositions, and having done with it.  It is about how we actually live together.  It is about the quality of our relationships.  It is about how we organize our communities.  It is about how we make decisions, distribute resources, allocate assets, what kind of world we leave our descendants, and what kind of footprint we leave on the Earth. 
            The Torah and the prophets, as well as Jesus the Messiah, are all about living in communities of peace that Jesus identifies as at least a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.  They are characterized by sharing, forgiveness, humility, mutual responsibility, honesty, non-violence, and equality.  They are all about healing and liberation from all kinds of bondage.  In God’s plan there are no kings, there are no wealthy, there are no privileged people or classes.  God’s plan keeps society level, which means always lifting up the lowly and bringing down those who exalt themselves.
            This is what it means to worship the Lord.  This is what the Israelites were taking on when they make their wonderful affirmation of faith.  But worshiping and following the Lord means adopting specific values and practices.  It means living in a certain way.  It means living a life of sharing in which we are more concerned for the well-being of others, especially the least among us, than we are for storing and hoarding resources for ourselves.
            If you want to worship these other gods, these gods of economic growth, that would mean advocating and building a society based not on God’s law, but on selfishness, enmity, inequality, greed, avarice, gluttony, theft, competition, and war.  The consequences for that are not pretty. 

            Jesus reveals and demonstrates the character of the Kingdom of God in his feeding of 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish, resulting in 12 baskets full of leftovers.  We read about it in John 6.  In this miracle he is making a spectacular statement about God’s generosity and provision for the people.  He strikes directly at the economic question: How do the people get fed?  But instead of having the people worship Baal and trade their freedom to a king for a reliable source of food, Jesus instead offers a counter example.  He says we need to rely on him.
            Instead of scarcity, Jesus demonstrates abundance.  God made this planet good and perfectly able to feed everyone.  He says that “those who come to me will never hunger, those who believe in me will never thirst.”  If we trust in him, he will feed us.
            Now trusting in him is not passive.  It is not sitting on our hands and daring him to materialize food out of thin air. Trusting him means following him and living according to his commandments.  It means gathering in his name in communities of sharing and generosity.  It means living in the same kind of selfless service, humility, forgiveness, healing, and blessing, that he reveals as the heart of God.
            When Jesus delivers this apparently bizarre teaching about the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he is talking mainly about his words.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died.”  In other words, not literal food that we digest in our bodies.  “But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”  “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” 
            Jesus feeds us now by his words.  His words are the bread of life.  And if we follow his words by living together in love and compassion, which is what he commands his disciples to do, then there will also be plenty of literal bread, physical food, to sustain us.  Because if we keep his commandments, we will have rejected systems that keep people poor, hungry, thirsty, and sick.  We will have rejected violence and greed.  We will have rejected idolatry and the injustice it spawns.
            What we witness to whenever we gather, especially when we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, is the truth of how God feeds us, and feeds the world, in community.  When we participate in the Lord’s body and blood, it is an active way of affirming with the ancient Israelites: “It is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from… slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight.  He protected us along all the way that we went….  Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.’

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