Symbolism and Idolatry

13 06 2009

The doors parted, and in walked this shaky-legged man, gripping his staff for support.  Everything in him wanted to turn and run.  By all rights, he should have, except that to flee the wrath of this king would land him at the whipping post of another, far greater,  king.  This staff that he was leaning on was more than just a stick.  It was a symbol of power, given to him by the king whom he came to represent.  Physically, he knew that it was just a stick, but it was an ever present reminder of the moment when his shepherd’s crook had been turned into a snake and then back again.  Whenever he doubted himself, all he had to do was look at this staff, shaped like a rather long serpent, to remember that he was not just acting upon a foolish fancy.  He was, in fact, fulfilling the command of I Am.  The staff had become a symbol of God and his power.  It was the central object in each of his miracles, a way of identifying those miracles with the same God that had altered the shape of this stick.  If the stick parted the water, then God parted the water.  If the stick made water come from a rock, then God made water come from a rock.  God performed the miracle, and the stick’s involvement was the symbol that identified that miracle as having come from God.  Ultimately, though, it was still just a stick.  That would eventually change.

 The great Pharaoh looked up and saw the prophet of God standing before him.  This man had become a symbol of God, himself.  If this mortal turned water into blood, then it was an act of God.  If this man made fire rain from Heaven, then it was God that made fire rain from Heaven.  Had it been a miracle by any other hand, it would have been a miracle by some other god.  Ultimately, though, this was just a man.  Men could be stopped.  Defeat the symbol, and you defeat its reference, right?  No, but Pharaoh could not defeat either one, anyway.

 After succeeding in taking his captive people out of Egypt, the miracles of I Am continued through Moses, or, as Moses would see it, the miracles continued through the staff.  A change was taking place in the mind of the prophet, though.  As time progressed, the stick was less and less a reminder of Yahweh and the burning bush and more a reminder of all of the miracles that it had been party to.  Moses’ own history with that piece of wood had grown to eclipse its symbolic reference, God himself.  His trust in the stick was no longer symbolic of his trust in God.  He actually had come to trust the thing independently of God.  However, God does not empower idols.  The stick had to go.  One day, God told him to speak to the rock to make it bring forth water.  Moses then struggled between his faith in God versus his faith in a piece of wood.  Formerly, there could have been no such dilemma, because his faith in the stick was synonymous with his faith in God.  Unfortunately, the stick won the battle of the wills.

 Our lives are filled with symbols.  Some of them are traces of ink on a paper.  Some of them are actions.  Some are objects.  The cross is a symbol of Christ.  A statue of Mary is a symbol of Mary, who is, herself, a symbol and testament to Christ.  However, when we bow to statues or pray to people, we cross that fine line between symbolism and idolatry.  A prophet is a symbol of God.  Every magical thing he does and every edict that he pronounces is attributed to the God he serves.  Sever that psychological connection, and the prophet becomes a god.  It’s like the people of Lystra, bowing before Paul and Barnabas, calling them Zeus and Hermes.  The identity of the prophets was temporarily shattered, making them objects of idolatry.  Instead of representing God, they were competing with him.  God empowers no idol.  If they had not rectified the situation, they surely would never produce another miracle, at best.  It’s the Devil’s first rule on how to destroy a prophet.

 This is an interesting matter, because it means that an important part of what determines who will be the prophet is based on someone other than the prophet.  A good man does not make an acceptable prophet.  A charismatic man cannot be a good prophet.  Any man of any character shape or style cannot be a prophet.  The choosing of a prophet is determined by what that person represents in the eyes of those who see him perform miracles.  They are the listening ears that hear the prophet and know that they are hearing the words of God.  The difference between a good Christian and a good Christian prophet is how other people relate to him.  Granted, any two people could be exactly alike, and one would become a prophet while the other does not, because God does not automatically choose any specific course of action just because certain factors happen to be true.  He is not just an impersonal force, like gravity, which always behaves a certain way under certain conditions.  However, while we can not say exactly what he will do, there are certain things that we can know with certainty that he will not do.  He will not promote idolatry.  He will not mislead.  He does not instigate sin.  God does not make supermen.  He makes servants.  The prophet is to the world what the staff was to Moses, initially.  The prophet is God’s way of letting people know who really did it and who really said it.

 Moses put a brass serpent on a pole, so that people bitten by a viper could look at it and yet live.  The brass serpent was a symbol of God’s mercy and a symbol of the Christ who would one day hang on a cross.  As such a symbol, it served God’s purpose.  Eventually, though, it came to be seen as an entity in and of itself.  It became an idol and had to be destroyed.  The fine line between symbolism and idolatry was crossed.

 Symbols change their meanings with time, often.  Words, which are written symbols, have their own unique drift.  The word “gay” used to mean “happy.”  In those days I would have been content to call myself gay.  When that meaning changed, not in my own ears but in the ears of my audience, I could no longer comfortably use that term to describe myself.

 The pastor of a church can be a symbol of God.  He can also be a usurper.  The difference is subtle, and the line of distinction is often crossed.  If he is not seen as just a person, and if his authority seems innate, then he creeps ever so imperceptibly toward idolatry.  However, if he is not seen as a representative of God and his authority, then he cannot be a pastor at all.  On the one hand, he stands as an authority and a representative of God, but on the other hand, he is just a man, like any other.  When I say he is just like any other, I mean exactly that.  Moses could have been carrying any stick the day that he met the burning bush.  The power of that stick had nothing to do with the qualities of the stick, but it had everything to do with God.  Moses was just a dirty aimless shepherd, carrying an ordinary shepherd’s crook.  Without God, he and his stick would have continued to be exactly as they were.  God could have used any man and any stick.

 Jesus was crucified on a cross, and so the cross has come to symbolize Christ.  But the cross is not a talisman.  It has no power of its own.  A cross is only meaningful in so much as it represents Christ.  You can spell out the word, “Jesus,” or you can carve a cross, but both the word and the sculpture are effectively the same thing, a symbol meaning “Jesus.”

 Christians, these days, are becoming increasingly fearful of symbols.  Non-phonetic symbols hold a certain intrigue to people not thoroughly familiar with them.  However, a phonetic symbol can also become an idol.  Even the name of God can become a dissociated symbol, treated like a talisman, worshipped as an independent thing.  If you say “Jesus,” and you’re thinking of the name, itself, rather than the person it refers to, then you’ve made the name an idol.  It’s no wonder God chose to call himself, “I Am.”  It’s akin to not giving himself a name.

 The prophet is a symbol of God.  The Bible is a symbol of God.  The word, “God,” is a symbol of God.  A painting of God is a symbol of God.  A cross is a symbol of God.  Even a thought about God is a symbol of him.  Remove the symbols from society, and you remove God from society.  On the other hand, if the meaning of those symbols changes, if they stand independent from God, if we worship them, then they become idols.  It’s like looking at your reflection and forgetting that it’s just a reflection.  If you start talking to that thing, then you’re nuts.  The reflection is just another way of looking at yourself, in the same way that a symbol is just another way of looking at God.

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