Gen 35:2-4 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.” So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem.
Last week in our study of Genesis we watched Jacob come to terms with the price of idolatry. After a shocking display of his own inadequacy in chapter 34, Jacob renews his resolve to worship only God and commands his household to get rid of the foreign idols in their midst. Determined to put the past behind him and live in the truth that God is his only hope, he symbolically buries the idols under an oak tree. Why there? Because it was the place idol worship was practiced. With beautiful irony, the place for idol worship becomes a burial ground for idolatry. It is not until Jacob perceives clearly his need for God that he is able to bury his idols. Until that point, a “both-and” relationship has worked fine for him. I can relate.
For the unbeliever an idol is someone or something that takes the place of God in their affections. Believers, too, wrestle with idolatry, though perhaps not in the same way that unbelievers do. For the believer an idol is something that competes for our affection for God. Rather than replacing God in our thinking, an idol fills a gap in our ability to trust God. Idolatry is a “both-and” arrangement: I need God and I need my idol. I need God and I need a husband. I need God and I need outward beauty. I need God and I need my health. I need God and I need my stuff. We do not replace God with our idols – like Jacob we simply add our idols to God. And it often takes a crisis to point out our folly.
The summer I turned twenty-seven I joined my first women’s Bible study. I had just had my first baby and was feeling all the inadequacies of new-motherhood. The farther into the study I got the more I became aware of my complacency toward the things of God. I clearly remember praying and asking God to show me that He was all I needed – not a career, not the approval of peers, not high-school skinny, not a double income, just Him. As has always been the case, God’s faithfulness exceeded my request.
That October, six weeks pregnant with my second child, I was diagnosed with malignant skin cancer. Though the cancer was safely removed and I continue to have successful follow-up to this day, I learned something I had previously taken for granted: that each day is a gift from God to which I am not entitled. I learned, as A.W. Tozer says, that I am “a derived and contingent self”, dependent moment to moment on the grace of my Creator – given life by none other than God Himself. I learned to put to death and bury my idols that could neither give life nor sustain it. God answered more than my summer request – far better than showing me He was all that I needed, He showed me He was all that I had.
When life moves along smoothly I forget this truth. I forget the lessons of my times of crisis. I scrabble in the dirt beneath my oak tree to resurrect my idols. I begin to say again that I need God and comfort, God and financial security. I consider again the lie that my life is sustained by possessions, people, circumstances. I begin again to devote my heart, soul, mind, and strength to things that pretend to meet the needs only God can meet. When life is easy I appear as though all is in order, but if you look closely you’ll see the dirt beneath my fingernails.
I am a grave-robber. So though I do not look with pleasure on the prospect of trials or suffering I acknowledge that they are for my great good: burying what must stay buried, raising to life what God would see live. And though it is right to be thankful for times without trials I will celebrate them circumspectly, remembering the lessons of discovering my own frailty, praying for clean hands and a pure heart, praying that the cemetery of my idolatry harbors no empty graves.
There is only one empty grave that brings life - it is the empty grave of Christ, with whom I too have been buried and raised. May our worship and our work be solely devoted to the Chief Grave-robber, who has stolen us from death to life. He is not merely all we need, He is all we have. And He is enough.
Colossians 3:5-10 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.