Thursday, June 23, 2016

Best God in the Whole World


In my sermon prep, I usually read the psalm and then move on. Sometimes there are clear resonances with another lesson or two ("I am the Good Shepherd" and Psalm 23), but, more often than not, in our worship the psalm serves as a liturgical element like a hymn or prayer, drawing the congregation together in an act of worship. Because of that, psalms rarely feature explicitly in my sermons. I doubt mention will be made of Psalm 16 this week, but, when I read it this morning and heard the psalmist pray, "But those who run after other gods shall have their troubles multiplied," a funny thought popped in my head: "Do we miss the days of polytheism?"

As a way of explanation, let me offer a brief sketch of how Judaism became a monotheistic faith. It started with Abraham, who in the Genesis account answered Yahweh's call to leave his home and go to the land that this God would show him. At that time, there were other gods being worshiped by other people--even, presumably, Abraham's kinsfolk--but this particular divinity, whose name is Yahweh (often abbreviated the LORD), spoke to Abraham, and Abraham listened. The rest of the Hebrew Bible is about the relationship between Abraham and his descendants and this particular God. But, as all the pages between Genesis 12 and Malachi attest, that wasn't a straightforward thing.

Anthropologically speaking, ancient cultures believed that gods resided in certain places and with certain peoples. If you lived in this area, you were protected by this god, whom you worshipped. Your neighbors might worship a different god, and, when you went out to do battle against them, it wasn't just a matchup between armies but also between divinities. In the earliest days, before the traditions and laws of Israel were codified, the descendants of Abraham were like their neighbors--monolatrous. They believed in the existence of other gods but had faith that their god--Yahweh--was the one who would protect and save them. If you have any doubts about that, flip through the psalter, which offers a glimpse at the oldest sacred texts in the Judeo-Christian tradition (e.g. "There is none like you among the gods, O Lord" Psalm 86:8). That sounds strange to us, but that's what it meant to be faithful in the ancient world--to believe that your particular god was the best god in the whole world.

Then, everything changed--and a lot more recently than you might think. Sometime during the Babylonian Exile (middle of the 6th century BC), Judaism became monotheistic. During that time of captivity in a far away land, a relationship with Israel's God was maintained not through cultic worship and festivals but through prayers (i.e., the psalms), historical teaching, dietary observances, and circumcision. This separation from the mechanics of worship forced God's people to think about their access to God in completely new ways. The content of their faith was held in contrast with that of their captors, who worshipped "false gods." Clarity was the gift of the Exile, and, when they returned to Palestine, they took with them a new sense of the uniqueness of Yahweh and left behind even the acknowledgment that other gods existed.

I wonder whether we wish for simpler times. In Psalm 16, the poet asserts his faithfulness to God, writing, "I have said to [Yahweh], 'You are my Lord, my good above all other.'" Critical of his enemies for their faithlessness, he writes, "But those who run after other gods shall have their troubles multiplied. Their libations of blood I will not offer, nor take the names of their gods upon my lips." His expression of steadfastness is cast as invocation only of Yahweh and worship only of him. As a contemporary Christian preacher, I often call people to steadfastness of faith, but I never think to exhort our congregation to abandon its worship of Baal.

Still, we worship false gods. They don't have names like they did in the Hebrew Bible--Amon, Asherah, Baal, Dagon, Molech. Instead, they are so much harder to pin down--image, success, happiness, control. "Money" is often labeled as the false god we worship, and money has a lot to do with it, but not worshipping this false god isn't as simple as being poor or giving money to charity. It's deeper than that. It's a recognition, as the psalmist says, that the Lord is "[our] good above all other." It is confidence that God alone "will not abandon [us]to the grave, nor let your holy one[s] see the Pit."

What is it that we believe will save us? And I don't mean "save us from the fires of hell." I mean "save us from today--from hunger, from fear, from disease, from calamity, from war, from distress." What are we counting on to save us? Back in the old days, when human power was fleeting, everyone was faithful to some sort of god. A divine power was your only hope. And faithfulness meant identifying the source of your salvation as the one, true God. Today, we all assume that there is only one God, but we still put our faith somewhere else. Maybe the prayer of the psalmist is more important now than ever.

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