Posted by: owizblog | September 11, 2016

Idolatry and Wrath, and the Idolatrous Worship of Our Own Wrath: Sermon, UCB, 9/11/2016

Exodus 32:7-14


The great Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was an atheist. He was wont to say “Isn’t it strange that the Bible says that God made man in his own image, when in reality, it’s the other way about…?”

In that, he was simply reflecting the thought of Ludwig Feuerbach, the German philosopher and contemporary of Karl Marx, famous as a critic, in the fullest sense of “critic”, of religion. Let’s look at Feuerbach’s actual words. We don’t need to be frightened of them, and I’ll tell you why.


Feuerbach analysed its ways of thinking, pulled it apart, recognizing that religion is a human need, and something cultural that human beings produce for themselves because of that deep need, a need for the world to be full of meaning. We need a Feuerbach now, today, in the twenty-first century, to explain to us how science, the courageous and single-minded pursuit of truth, has suddenly spawned a substitute religion in which populist writers tell us how a universe they say they see as empty of meaning is full of “wonder” – as though wonder were a substitute for meaning or a drug to dull the pain of a world without meaning. Science is the pursuit of truth; that’s what science is, and it should be left to its work, according to its own procedures. Faith should be confident enough to say that anything that leads us into truth is the work of the Spirit of God. Science shouldn’t frighten faith.

And neither should Feuerbach, because his atheistic philosophy fed into the great revolution in theology that rocked the world of faith just after the First World War, the revolution that is associated with the work of Karl Barth.



Barth took Feuerbach extremely seriously. Feuerbach means “fiery burn” in German, and as several theologians have repeated since Karl Barth, Feuerbach was the “fiery burn” that theology and faith have to cross if they are to be serious about the business of believing in the real world.

One of the basic things that Karl Barth recovered was the sense that we can’t elaborate God in terms of our own wishes and dreams and imaginings. God, said Barth, is “wholly other”… And, he says, that’s at the centre of the Biblical witness to God.But then, Scripture says the same.

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them…

That of course, is from Exodus chapter 20. It’s from the Ten Commandments.

It says that we are forbidden to make images and worship them as gods. It says that we are forbidden to make images and worship them as God


Here we need to draw on the work of a man who, in a glittering age of intellect, is possibly the only serious contender with James Clark Maxwell for the greatest Scottish mind of the nineteenth century, William Robertson Smith, Professor of Old Testament at Christ’s College Aberdeen, until he was tried for heresy by the Free Church for articles on Biblical Criticism and on Deuteronomy that he contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and, in the memorable words of my own revered Hebrew teacher, Professor William McKane, “was ejected from his Aberdeen chair, and had to make do with one at Cambridge…”

Robertson Smith was a polymathic student of the Orient, its languages, and anthropology and the scientific study of religion, in both of which fields he is a recognized pioneer. And in one of his lectures on the prophets of Israel, he draws on all this to produce the insight that the problem was not that Israel turned from worshipping her God, the God the Bible calls “Yahweh”, to worshipping Ba’al; it was that Israel turned to worshipping Yahweh as though he were Ba’al.


And that’s exactly what the passage that Isabel just read is all about.

The lead-up to the passage is fascinating. For some reason, I always imagine the Israelite delegation that comes to Aaron, once Moses’ absence to be in the presence of God has become too long, too unsettling, in a sort of Californian surfing beachspeak, mixed in with seventies psychobabble: He’s gone, dude. He’s not coming back. Totally bogus outcome, but you need to get your head round it. We need to move on, man. We need… something…

And with his backbone of butter, Aaron instructs them to bring all their gold adornments and their jewellery to him. And it’s melted down, and made into the idol of a golden calf. And Aaron says to them “Look, Israel! This is your God, who brought you up out of Egypt…”

It’s not that Israel turns from worshipping her God, the God the Bible calls “Yahweh”, to worshipping Ba’al; it’s that Israel turns to worshipping Yahweh as though he were Ba’al.

Now, this passage comes from many hundreds of years after anything we might call the Age of Moses, and that’s a horrible idea to the priestly circles who put this part of the Book of Exodus together; so they tell the story as though Israel’s sin and crime is to switch from her God to another. After all, they’d lived through periods, as we’ve seen in the readings from Hosea and Jeremiah that the Lectionary has made us look at, in which that’s exactly what happened.

But that isn’t what this is.

This is an image of the imageless God. This is men making God in their own image, or at least an image of their choosing, an image, and an understanding, that they impose on God.


Americans, when they need the emergency services, don’t dial 999. They dial 911.


Today is the fifteenth anniversary of what the whole world has come to call “9-11”, the atrocity that felled the Twin Towers and destroyed part of the Pentagon, and took 2,996 lives, and injured over 6,000 other people. The intention was clearly to inscribe an event so deeply on the American consciousness that every time an American phoned for the police or ambulance, they would be reminded. The perpetrators succeeded far better in the horror they generated than that. They inscribed the awfulness of what they did on the consciousness of the world and on virtually every aspect of the unfolding of its history since.


And yes, of course, they did this in the service of their image of God. And yes, of course, the God they portrayed in their horrible actions is a ghastly, nightmarish, filthy idol dredged up from the depths of the human psyche – and that’s something that thousands upon thousands of Islamic scholars have said plainly, and millions upon millions of devout Muslims believe and understand. Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, is a religious tradition which understands God as imageless, and the making of images of God as idolatrous.

So yes, of course, the actions which took thousands of lives fifteen years ago today were profoundly idolatrous. “Men making God in their own image…”

But the response of the West ever since, which has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, has been profoundly idolatrous, too. Whether God is invoked as the righteous God of American Protestant fundamentalism, or the righteous secular order of Western society, or the ideas of progress or a particular understanding of democracy, freedom and

People turn their ideas and ideals into images, and sometimes they turn the images into idols and worship them, and don’t see beyond them to real people, the way they really are in the world.

And when human beings create idols of their own making, and worship them as though that’s what God is, that’s idolatry.

When people make God the image of their anger – that’s idolatry.

When people make God the image of their own righteousness, and especially of the righteousness of their cause – that’s idolatry.

When people invoke God to shore up the superiority of their culture, their way of life, their basic humanity – that’s idolatry.

Since 9-11, we have lived in a profoundly idolatrous world. Or perhaps, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, as Jesus would have said, 9-11 has simply shown up the idolatries of the world we live in for what they are.

Ancient Israel was led to a point at which she was given to see something very profound, something that stands at the very beginning of the tradition of faith which we share with Judaism and Islam.

God can be different to the way we think God is. Indeed, if God is God, God must be different to the way we think God is…

And that’s what Feuerbach helped Barth to get back to, and theology and faith to get back to, and that’s what all this helps us to get back to.

If God is God, God must be different to the way we think God is…

Judaism, too, shares with the Christian tradition – indeed it’s the origin of the idea – the insight that there IS the image of God. It’s in us. Or rather, we are made in the Image of God.

But the Christian tradition transforms this understanding in a unique way. Because the Christian tradition sees the lostness of that image, its marred, damaged quality in us the way we are, as restored and held out to us in Jesus Christ.

This is the Son of whom we say “He’s the image of his Father!” In him, we see God. And in him, we see ourselves.


God is Love. It’s an idolatrous counterfeit of God that hates. Because, ultimately, it’s we who hate, not God. We hate those who offend us, we hate those who differ from us, we hate those whose words, or whose mere existence, challenge the way we see the world.

God isn’t like that.


Moses, we saw, stood before God, and, full of disgust and horror and revulsion reported what the Israelites had done. It’s as though God, the imageless God, is like a blank screen, [Note 1] on whom Moses can project all that horror and anger and disgust! What wouldn’t he, Moses, like to do to these people who have sullied the pure relationship they had with their God, who have reduced God to an image of their own imagining?

And if Moses wants to destroy them utterly, what must God want to do to them?

And God reflects this all back to Moses.

‘I have seen these people,’ the Lord said to Moses, ‘and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.’

And that horrifies Moses even more. What kind of God would do that?

Is that Moses trying to foist his own image of God onto God? Or is it something different? There, face to face with the imageless God, does Moses have an insight into God that he’s willing to take the risk of pressing, even if – if God is full of the wrath he, Moses, feels – there’s a terrible risk in doing that?

If there is a risk – Moses takes it. [Note 2]

‘Lord, why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to… wipe them off the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self… I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance for ever.”’

There is something in this encounter with God that Moses can’t see, but that he trusts. This is how God really is, even if he can’t see it.

And the suddenness of the transformation is complete: it’s as though Moses had made his great plea, and finished, trembling and teary-eyed, and God had simply said “Aye – all right. Fair enough.”


We so often assume that what we want is what God wants – except that God can do it. Our image of God becomes a monstrous magnification of our own anger, our own hatred, our own cruelty – a magnification because all of the things we would love to do, we assume God can.

And we produce a monstrous image of God, an idol, that runs away with us. Isn’t that exactly what happened to the whole world after 9-11? And it was so understandable, in the hours, the days, the weeks, that the pain, and the horror, and the shock, and the disorientation, and the sense that we had been thrown into a broken world whose rules we no longer understood by evil people who wanted us all dead in the name of their god, that fear fuelled a ghastly rage, and we imagined revenge in the terms that it had been visited on us.

And politicians and world leaders went along with that.

But what if, in the weeks and months after, world leaders and politicians had been able to listen to the voices that called for nuance, for the recognition that there might be other ways, that “shock and awe” is no constructive response to terror and hatred, because it is full of terror and hatred itself…

What if, like God, when Moses stands before God and pleads “Please… rethink…” the people with the power to do so had said “Aye. All right. Fair enough…”?


God is like that. God is the God of reconciliation, and the love that transforms even enemies into friends, that overcomes estrangement. Jesus taught us that, not least in the passage Isabel will read to us in a moment, about the lost sheep, and the coin lost from a woman’s dowry necklace. God rejoices in reconciliation, restoration and peace, and all those things covered by the great Hebrew word “shalom”.

Jesus teaches us that. But Jesus takes us further. Jesus is the very image of the God who loves riskily, who trusts the untrustworthy and changes them – us – who loves the angry and wrathful and extinguishes their wrath, and breaks the circle.

We have such horrible pictures of God in our minds, which are really pictures of our own anger and fear. We make God in our own image, instead of seeing the image of God in others, and ourselves in the image of God reflected in them.

We said…

God can be different to the way we think God is. Indeed, if God is God, God must be different to the way we think God is…

We need an image of this different God.

For us, Jesus is that image…

[Reading: Luke 15:1-10 ]


  1. The parallel with psychoanalysis is, for me, almost irresistible. God, like the analyst, is the blank screen onto whom Moses can project what he is unable to process within himself.
  2. Another irresistible parallel is between this passage and that at the end of Genesis 18, where Abraham bargains with God over the fate of Sodom. “But what if fifty just men can be found in the city… Or forty…? Or ten…? Given the inherited understandings of what it means to stand – or bow- before God, there is a tremendous risk in speaking up, and pushing, and bargaining, but Abraham takes it anyway; and so does Moses, here. That is almost the more astonishing given the feelings of revulsion and contempt with which Moses initially presents the actions of the Israelites, as their accuser before God. He seems then to become their Counsel for the Defence, in the space of a few words.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: