When Miracles Become Idols

Bronze Serpent Sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni, atop Mount Nebo, Jordan | David Bjorgen, Wikimedia Commons
Bronze Serpent Sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni, atop Mount Nebo, Jordan | David Bjorgen, Wikimedia Commons

By Cole Hartin

Once a month or so, after our Sunday worship, our congregation would sit down for lunch in the parish hall. We’d usually have soup — turkey, chicken noodle, minestrone — and we’d drink stale coffee and laugh and chat, and our children would run around screaming.

It has been over a year since we’ve been able to do this, and in my memory, these moments of fellowship and blessing look just like a heavenly banquet. Our sanctuary filling up, families making connections, engaged worship, all of this feels like a dream now, only months later.

It is so natural for us, when our world has changed, to look toward the past, the moments of blessedness, when we prospered, and the presence of God was near. Reminiscing has its place, but very subtly we can move from appreciating good times to idolizing them, treating God’s provision — even his miraculous provision — as worthy of worship.

This phenomenon of worshiping God’s blessings rather than he who bestows them is nothing new. It is a pattern that’s woven into Scripture from the time of Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness. The Lord brought deliverance to the Israelites, and yet they continually turned not to their God but to his acts of power.

Think of the memorable episode of the bronze serpent in Numbers 21. The Israelites were impatient on their trek to the Red Sea and muttered complaints against the God who was delivering them from slavery in Egypt. So the Lord sent deadly poisonous serpents among his people. Israel quickly repented, and pleaded with Moses for help, and Moses, following the instruction of the Lord, fashioned a bronze serpent and lifted it up on a pole, so that anyone who looked to it could live.

This was no small miracle, an image that brought deliverance to those suffering. And it is more than a discreet narrative in Israel’s history, as Jesus reminds Nicodemus in John 3:14-15 that “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” The deliverance from poisonous serpents becomes a symbol of Christ’s deliverance of all who would trust in him from the poison of sin and death.

Still, later in Israel’s history, this same image of deliverance becomes an object of idolatrous worship. In 2 Kings 18, we read of the reign of King Hezekiah over Judah. As a faithful king, he tore down many altars and idols, including one of Nehushtan, the name that the Israelites had given to the bronze serpent fashioned by Moses. What once brought deliverance by the power of God now was a barrier to him, a stumbling block. An image of grace became a sinful idol.

Pastoral ministry is more often than not filled with glorious highs and demoralizing lows. In a given week we might celebrate a baptism, and then days later, preside at a funeral. And in the wider arcs of our lives, especially as we age and our children grow, the memories of past blessings in ministry and life can take on a golden hue. We take photographs and write blog posts to capture the moments of success, of utter blessing. These moments of celebration and joy etch themselves into our minds, but they can become idols demanding our worship, just like the bronze serpent did for Israel.

During the pandemic, pastors are especially prone to idealize the past, to dig into the archaeology of earlier successes and moments of fulfillment. To mark these moments is wise, and prudent, but to worship them, to give our hearts over to them, is to forget that God is working even now.

I’ve experienced this temptation in my ministry now that we are gathering again, masked, spaced two meters apart, and singing muffled songs. I can look back to even a year ago, to our wonderful Christmas celebration when our sanctuary was filling up, and there was feeling of palpable joy: a moment of God’s blessing, but one that I could easily idolize now that times are tough.

And more broadly, many of us serving in struggling congregations can look back to the influential past of our parish or even our diocese, and reflect wistfully on the good old days, when people simply came to church unbidden, when folks tithed as a matter of course, when our churches thrived seemingly without effort.

Priests might be especially tempted to idealize God’s passed blessings now, when acedia is so rampant, and our isolation has contributed to what Jonathan L. Zecher describes as “a strange combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety, and inability to concentrate.” It’s hard to focus on the vision of our ministry when the future is uncertain, and this restlessness can often send us looking back to the past.

When he was grieving the loss of his wife, Joy, C.S. Lewis noted that he did not want only reminiscences about her, just like he did not want only memories of God. These images were not sufficient. For Lewis, the antidote to worshiping the goodness of God in the past is a renewed encounter with God himself. We cannot be content with what God has done, or our experiences with him, but we must continually encounter Jesus.

Or, as Fleming Rutledge put it in Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, “The church can’t survive on sentiment and nostalgia. … We need to face up to the horrors of the twentieth century and the apparent chaos and randomness of life and then see if we can still say ‘Jesus is Lord!’”

That is, to be a Christian, and to be a priest more specifically, one must be willing to gaze at the world as it is and still cling to hope in Jesus Christ.

We know that our memories can be easily distorted in many ways. But the good news for priests is that our hope is not built on our memories of what God has done, but on the objectivity of God’s revelation in Christ — his cross, his resurrection, and his ascension. Moreover, our hope is built on our continuing relationship with God mediated to us in the sacraments.

Besides, we often can ignore the difficult parts of ministry when the going gets tough in the present, forgetting the pain, the struggle, and the testing that accompanied the very real movements of God. The Israelites idolized the bronze serpent, but perhaps they forgot the reason for its necessity, namely their murmuring against the Lord.

Furthermore, as pastors we have work to do. It is true that our rhythms and practices have changed because of the pandemic, but the essence of our vocation has not. We serve God, who does not change, and this means we serve the work he has given us. We do serve our congregations, but we serve them only in a secondary sense, after we are first serving God.

However fuzzy today may be, and however ideal the past may seem, pastors have a vocation to see beyond God’s good providence to God himself, remembering that our work is directed to him alone, that he is with us even now, and he will be our hope.

The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is assistant curate at St. Luke’s in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada.


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