Imagine that your city is burning.
The school where your son learned is burning. The well where your daughter drew water is burning. The little pub where you had your first kiss: burning.
Your house is burning. The gentle fire that burned in your little hearth in the winter is now out of control, and the flames are spreading. The place where your babies were born is burning. The roof where your took your meals in good weather is burning.
The enclosure you built for your livestock is burning, and if the animals aren’t burning yet then they will be soon- roasting on the spit of the hated Babylonians. Your livestock- roasting on the spit of your conquerors.
And perhaps worst of all, the temple is burning. The temple – the holy home of the presence of the Almighty God of Israel, is burning. Babylonian soldiers are looting the sacred vessels and desecrating the holy places.
You want to run, try to save it all, but there’s nowhere to go and no way to get there. You’re shackled.
See, Babylon stays in the empire-building business with a strategic ruthlessness. They suppress rebellions among their subjects not so much by leaving a military force behind as by moving people into exile.
Why bother policing the provinces when you can just break your subjects’ spirits instead?
On your own land, you might think to rebel against Babylon. As a guest in another country, separated from people and country, you will have to learn to think differently. So you’re shackled and watching the fires burn down Jerusalem because you’re about to be marched into exile, for the greater safety of the empire.
It’s Babylon’s bet that once you’re hauled off into exile, once you’re separated from your homeland, you’ll start by necessity to think like a citizen of Babylon. You won’t identify with this failed and burning city.
With your temple burned and your home destroyed, you’ll identify by necessity as part of the glorious Mesopotamian empire of Babylon.
If the Jewish people had gone along with that plan, we wouldn’t be here now.
If they had been persuaded, we wouldn’t be here now.
But, no. They were hauled off to the capital of the empire that burned their temple and their schools and their homes, as slaves, and they carried with them a spark of defiance. A spark of hope, perhaps.
Imagine that you’re with them, in Babylon. Imagine that your child is wondering. Your child asks you why it is that you pray to this strange God of Israel, every morning and every evening.
Everyone knows, do they not, that the god Marduk is in charge around here? The child begins to recite a creation story, heard from God knows where, and the certainty in their voice frightens you:
When the sky above was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsû, who begat them
And chaos, Tiamat, the mother of them both,
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being.
You freeze, because you know how this story ends. It ends in bloodshed, as the creation of the world is brought out of a woman’s broken body. You freeze because this does not match the light within you, and how do you tell your child the different and redeeming story of your people while you’re exiled in a foreign land?
You begin to pray, and you begin to tell a story about a different kind of temple being built. It’s not the temple that you watched burning to the ground. It’s not a little human temple at all.
You begin to tell the story of a God so big that all of creation is the holy temple in which God resides. The outer walls of this temple are the heavens and the earth and the walls are the seas and the skies. The attendents in the temple are all of the animals in creation and the God of the temple is the Creator of the whole universe.
That’s the way the story really goes.
You’re surrounded by spears and shields and all the other powers of the world, which would indicate by swordpoint that the god Marduk and the Babylonians are the true rulers of this world. And, in the face of all that power, you turn and tell your child a different story:
When God started out, everything was chaos and nothing made sense. So the first thing that God had to do was invent time. God divided the light from the darkness to make daytime and nighttime. That’s how the first day went- and it was the first day because a “day” wasn’t a thing that had existed before.
The next day, God created weather and seasons, separating the water at ground-level from the water above so that precipitation would be possible. Now, we can have a rainy season and a dry season.
And the day after that, God makes the difference between seas and dry land. Now, there’s a place to live and plant crops and so forth.
Time. Seasons. Place. Think of that as analogous to raising a building to house a congregation. You’ve made a space where things can happen, but nothing is happening yet.
Day 4 is when things start to happen, when the first light switch flips from off to on. On the first day of creation, God made light and separated it from darkness… and now God’s putting that light to work. God makes two lights- the big one to light up the day, and the little one to light up the night sky.
On the second day of creation, God put some of the water in the sky and left some at ground-level. Now, on Day 5, those expanses come alive. Birds streak through the sky and fish swim in the seas.
On the third day of creation, God made dry land with plants on it. So, on Day 6, God made inhabitants of the land: cattle and crawling things and wild beasts of all kinds, and also a special sort of animal, the last to be made.
This last animal was made in God’s own image, and charged with taking care of the whole creation.
You see the pattern? Days one through three: God transforms the welter and waste into useable organized space. Days four through six: God makes use of this space, filling it with life.
And then what happens on the seventh day? God rests, right?
That sounds to us like God is taking a nap, like God is worn out from all the work, but that’s not the sense of it at all. It’s more like a coronation, after which a king or queen can stop working on taking charge and simply rule.
Which is to say: This isn’t a story about how the world was created. It’s a story about who is in charge of the world.
Marduk may be a big deal in Babylon, but your God rests in the temple of all of creation.
The structure of this story would have seemed pretty common, in the ancient world. It’s basically the way in which any new temple to any god would be dedicated. The physical structure would be raised, and then the various functionaries would be installed- singers, floor-sweepers, butcherers, and so forth.
But stop, for a moment: if you picture a generic pagan temple, what do you see? There are pillars, and high painted ceilings, sure… but the structure that commands attention in the room is that of the idol, that of the image of the God that the people have come to worship.
That idol would be brought in at the very end of the period of preparation. The building would be raised, the workers would be installed, and then when everything was absolutely ready and perfect, the idol of the God would be brought in.
Think back to the Genesis story. What’s brought into creation at the very end of the sixth day?
Us. Not as gods in the temple, but as images of God. We’re the idols.
That’s a bit of an odd concept, so let me unpack it some. We have this stereotyped vision of ancient people as silly bumpkins who thought that praying to rocks was a great idea. And sure, some people probably believed that, just like some people today believe that a crucifix might have mysterious powers.
That wasn’t really the idea, though. It wasn’t a whole lot different than people praying with icons today, or from playing while gardening and paying close attention to the beauty of the flowers. It’s not worshipping the flowers or the icon, but rather using it as a doorway into worshipping the Divine.
So if you went into a Babylonian temple you might see an image of Marduk, the great warrior God who created the world. That wasn’t really Marduk, but by showing reverence to the statue, you could show reverence to the god who inspired the statue.
But say that you’re trying to raise a Jewish child in Babylon. They can see the temple of Marduk, who built the Babylonian world out of violence and bloodshed. The temple of Israel’s God is a lifetime away and lying in ruins. What do you have to offer, in place of the violent victory of Marduk?
You have a story. You have a story about a different kind of temple, one which was built by a God too strong to bother with the violent ways of lesser deities. You have a story of people, created to bear the image of God in a temple that consists of the whole beloved creation.
You have a different kind of story, and the hope that a story is enough.
Ok, so what does this have to do with us? It’s not like there’s a massive statue of Marduk enthroned in the City Building, so far as I know.
But I want to ask you to think, Friends, about the idols that we see every day. Think about the ones that you may have seen just coming to worship today.
Did you drive past a military recruitment billboard, with its violent narrative of what honor and sacrifice are all about?
Did you see a magazine that offered five easy ways to make sure that your partner never stops loving you?
Did you see an advertisement for a degree that would let you finally live the life of your dreams?
Goals and love and honor are all good things, but the story is scrambled. We build monuments to things that don’t really matter and pay our worship to idols that can’t save us.
We’re not, in the end, so different from the Babylonians.
And what we have, instead, is the story of a God who creates by calling forth beauty and calling it good. We have a story of ourselves in which we aren’t the creators but we’re – each one of us – an image of that creative beauty and goodness.
What if it’s our job, as the images of God in this temple of creation, to call forth beauty and name it as good?
What if, in order to do this job well, we need to practice reverence for the ways in which the people around us also bear the image of God?
I want to leave you with a quote from Neil Gaiman, from the beginning of Anansi Boys:
“It begins, as most things begin, with a song. In the beginning, after all, were the words, and they came with a tune. That was how the world was made, how the void was divided, how the lands and the stars and the dreams and the little gods and the animals, how all of them came into the world. They were sung. The great beasts were sung into existence, after the Singer had done with the planets and the hills and the trees and the oceans and the lesser beasts. The cliffs that bound existence were sung, and the hunting grounds, and the dark.
Songs remain. They last. The right song can turn an emperor into a laughingstock, can bring down dynasties. A song can last long after the events and the people in it are dust and dreams and gone. That’s the power of songs.”