As I face a new week and seek to get properly oriented on a Monday morning, my reading in Acts arrests me.
When Stephen is recounting to his accusers at his trial the unfaithfulness of the people of God during their sojourn in the desert between Egypt and the Promised Land, he includes a couple of startling details:
“Did you offer to me slain victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? No; you took along the tent of Moloch, and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship” (Acts 7:42, 43). While they were supposed to be quite clear about the identity of Yhwh, the one who had saved them and issued them promises and commandments from Mount Sinai, and they were supposed to devote themselves exclusively to him, they nonetheless cultivated what they trusted would be profitable relationships with the local gods.
We don’t hear the names “Moloch” or “Rephan” anymore. They lie on the ash heap of religious history, failed gods of extinct peoples. But in their day, they were mighty and fearsome. Rephan was likely associated with Saturn, while Moloch (possibly a parallel with Rephan) was equally bloodthirsty, the god to whom the Canaanites sacrificed their children by fire…which is what one eventually gets around to doing if one is truly serious about getting all the power one possibly can. (Compare Micah 6:7.)
Moloch and Rephan aren’t Yhwh’s competitors in Vancouver today. But other deities beckon, nonetheless. They are old gods themselves, sturdy gods, gods whose names keep changing but whose tempting wares remain the same: the power of wealth (Mammon), sexual delight (Aphrodite), conquest over enemies (Mars), abandonment to sensuality (Bacchus), and even the joys of sweet reason and refinement (Apollo).
Jeremiah wondered aloud about the double foolishness of ancient Judah: “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”
Go to God, Jeremiah and Stephen say, the God who is “only” (Deut. 6:4). Go to God for money. Go to God for love. Go to God for rescue and vengeance on your enemies. Go to God for a whole world of pleasure. Go to God for wisdom and knowledge.
For God is, as John Calvin echoes Jeremiah, “the fountain of every good.”
If it seems odd, even unseemly, to say, “Go to God for money,” then to what other god will you go, prepared to offer what sacrifices to get it? Or for love? Or happiness? Where in the world are you prepared to go to get those things…that can be found, finally and fully, only in the only God there is?
As Peter asked, “Lord, to whom else shall we go? You alone [“only’] have the words of eternal/abundant life” (John 6:68).
Oh, there are alternatives in the short term, surely. Quick and dirty ways to fame, fortune, and fun under the patronage of charming hucksters, spiritual con artists, or sanguinary bullies. But they, and their schemes, don’t hold water.
And one will eventually die…along with them…in the desert…or sojourn instead in faith that God, the only God, will truly bring us to the Promised Land.