Day Five of An Advent Calendar: Sex and Idolatry

Thursday December 1, 2016     Thursday after the First Sunday of Advent
Is 2.12–22
1 Th 3.1–13
Lk 20.27–40The text of the readings follows after the comments.

YHWH & Asherah.jpg

The passage from Isaiah inveighs against the arrogant who follow idols. The people living in Judea and Israel in the 8th century BC worshiped YHWH (the name of God in the Hebrew Bible usually replaced in English translations with “the LORD”), but they also worshiped other gods, most notably Asherah, who many considered to be the consort of YHWH. Asherah seems to have been closely connected to trees and in imitation of the trees, posts in temples. David and Solomon sought to centralize the worship of YHWH in the Temple at Jerusalem, but this was resisted by the northern kingdom of Israel that broke away from Judea after Solomon; apart from Israel’s official temples in Shechem it appears that the ordinary people continued to worship idols in groves of trees and on high hills. I think this is why Isaiah challenges the cedars of Lebanon and the oaks of Bashan, and the high mountains and the lofty hills, because they represent to him idolatry and a turning away from YHWH, the one God, who cannot be represented by an idol. I love the idea that the idols will be tossed to the moles and the bats.

We have idols today as well, only they are not Asherah. Our idols are political, economic, and sociological. And just as YHWH and Asherah were combined and many saw no problem with that, so today people conform our religion to these dominant systems of thought. However, if one takes it apart we see that it is idolatry. The arrogant pride we have in the our nations can be idolatry. The material wealth we have accumulated can be idolatry. Our physical appearance, r our standing in the world can be idolatry. What is not idolatry is our relationship with God, without which we will find it hard to see creation in the right way. If we are idolatrous, we will privilege natural resource development over the long-standing grievances of indigenous people. If we are idolatrous we will emphasise security in immigration to the reduction or elimination of offering help to refugees.

In the reading from Luke Jesus is teaching in the Temple, and a series of people seek to confront Jesus and trap him into saying something that would justify action against him. In today’s reading the Sadducees  challenge him on a point about the logic of the resurrection. Among the Jewish people in general (and the surrounding Hellenistic and Roman cultures) marriage was a central value. The purpose of sexuality in First Century Palestine was not self-expression or even necessarily joy, but the making of alliances through marriage and the propagation of those relationships through the procreation of children. Marriage was such a central fact of society and such an important value that the Sadducees could not imagine that it would not persist into the resurrection (even though they did not believe in it). So they posed their question to Jesus, and you can see the response. Basically, marriage, which seems to be such a cosmically ordained factor in human existence, just will not be of any important in the the new creation.

Marriage, which is “an honorable estate”, can become an idol as well as anything. The kind of culture Jesus was in so valued marriage that it overwhelmed many other aspects of human relationships. We might not think of this as having much to do with “sexuality” as we understand it in the 21st century, but it does – who we are as sexual and gendered beings are determined by these kinds of relationships. Marriage as understood in the 1st century was not really about love, or sexual expression, human fulfillment, or care and affection, it was about the extended family. As a result some of these other aspects were repressed.

It’s in this light that we can see the emergence of celibacy as a virtue. Celibacy was a subversive challenge to the idolatry of marriage, the belief that nothing was more important than making a good marriage and having lots of children. It created a space in which other aspects of the individual could flourish in ways that they might not in a traditional marriage. It called into question the presumptions of patriarchy and clan association.

Such was the case in the early centuries of the faith. What are the idolatries of today that need to be challenged?

Isaiah 2.12–22
For the Lord of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up and high;
against all the cedars of Lebanon,
lofty and lifted up;
and against all the oaks of Bashan;
against all the high mountains,
and against all the lofty hills;
against every high tower,
and against every fortified wall;
against all the ships of Tarshish,
and against all the beautiful craft.
The haughtiness of people shall be humbled,
and the pride of everyone shall be brought low;
and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day.
The idols shall utterly pass away.
Enter the caves of the rocks
and the holes of the ground,
from the terror of the Lord,
and from the glory of his majesty,
when he rises to terrify the earth.
On that day people will throw away
to the moles and to the bats
their idols of silver and their idols of gold,
which they made for themselves to worship,
to enter the caverns of the rocks
and the clefts in the crags,
from the terror of the Lord,
and from the glory of his majesty,
when he rises to terrify the earth.
Turn away from mortals,
who have only breath in their nostrils,
for of what account are they?

1 Thessalonians 3.1–13
            Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we decided to be left alone in Athens; and we sent Timothy, our brother and co-worker for God in proclaiming the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you for the sake of your faith, so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions. Indeed, you yourselves know that this is what we are destined for. In fact, when we were with you, we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution; so it turned out, as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labour had been in vain.
But Timothy has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us—just as we long to see you. For this reason, brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith. For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

Luke 20.27–40
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’ Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ For they no longer dared to ask him another question.

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About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Baptised 1962. Anglican priest. Fly-paper brain. Husband & Father. Refugees welcome! I remember when Facebook was on paper.
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