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Beauty Against Idolatry

Exodus 35:4-19

· Exodus

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Exodus 35:4 Moses said to all the congregation of the Israelites: This is the thing that the Lord has commanded: 5 Take from among you an offering to the Lord; let whoever is of a generous heart bring the Lord’s offering: gold, silver, and bronze; 6 blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen; goats’ hair, 7 tanned rams’ skins, and fine leather; acacia wood, 8 oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, 9 and onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and the breastpiece.

10 All who are skillful among you shall come and make all that the Lord has commanded: the tabernacle, 11 its tent and its covering, its clasps and its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases; 12 the ark with its poles, the mercy seat,[b] and the curtain for the screen; 13 the table with its poles and all its utensils, and the bread of the Presence; 14 the lampstand also for the light, with its utensils and its lamps, and the oil for the light; 15 and the altar of incense, with its poles, and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense, and the screen for the entrance, the entrance of the tabernacle; 16 the altar of burnt offering, with its grating of bronze, its poles, and all its utensils, the basin with its stand; 17 the hangings of the court, its pillars and its bases, and the screen for the gate of the court; 18 the pegs of the tabernacle and the pegs of the court, and their cords; 19 the finely worked vestments for ministering in the holy place, the holy vestments for the priest Aaron, and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests.

A few years ago I had the chance to go visit a friend who was living in Turkey. On my way home, I spent an evening in Istanbul. I took the subway into the old city, and after wandering around lost for longer than I care to admit, I found my hostel. I dropped my bags off and found a dinner spot that served lahmacun (which is kind of like pizza) for dinner and I strolled around as the sun set until all of the sudden I turned a corner and immediately stopped in my tracks. What I saw actually took my breath away. It was like I’d come around a building and found a mountain looming before me. In the dusk, little domes were bubbling up from the ground, spilling over the top of each other and joining together to make massive arches. Everywhere I looked, curves and circles and domes, alive, frothing and cresting, pushing higher and higher in a grand crescendo—like building applause or a geyser ready to burst—until they all met at the top and then…it all stopped. The flurry of structure below became still as my eyes fell upon the one great dome that crowned the whole assemblage. It was simple and immense, the One kissing the multitude that held it up. It was eternity in stone and I might’ve fallen in. I had found the Hagia Sophia.

This was one of the world’s oldest and grandest places of worship, first as a church and later as a mosque. Even though it was built in the 6th century it remains an architectural marvel. I even arrived too late to go inside, but it was still one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Without even worshipping there, I was moved to wonder, the great dome above and its imitation in the smaller domes below so clearly figured God’s relationship to creation. We are many and scattered, and our movement is often divisive and flailing, but every so often we catch glimpses of infinite beauty in the stuff of this world, like light refracted through stained glass. That is what matter was made to do, to stoke wonder and delight and desire for the infinite.

This is easy to forget or to deny altogether because creation has been organized into a world that so often does not work in those ways. The world takes creation and makes it brutal, exploits it, colonizes it. We saw an image of this last week when we read the story of the golden calf: the Israelites take their gold and in setting it up as a “god,” exploit it by using it as a means to the end of their own comfort. Remember, gold doesn’t come from the jewelry store; it comes from the earth, it can be an image of creation refined so that its beauty shines out…or it can be used to make ourselves feel like gods.

Right after the episode with the Golden Calf, the LORD commands the Israelites to make a place of worship. Moses has them take up an offering—mimicking how they collected gold for their idol—but instead of an idol this time they build a tabernacle. Instead of a statue, they make a space, a space that does not depict but instead suggests. The idol gave a surface depicting a god and said “Here, for your consumption,” but the Tabernacle opens up into a depth and says “Enter in.”

And in the Tabernacle, the depths are beautiful. The Israelites collect gold and bronze and silver, fabrics woven from goat’s fur, and acacia wood, all beautiful materials, all produced by the land. And they use the fabrics to make walls for the tent and the wood to make pillars and tables, and everything is covered with precious metals so that when the torches are lit the whole space glitters and glows. They make an ark so that they have a place to keep the Law and the ark is a seat, so that instead of an idol they worship they have made both a particular place where they can remember their God, but also that God cannot be confined to any one place.

The Tabernacle is beautiful and that beauty points beyond itself, so that as the Israelites are stirred up with delight and wonder and even pleasure, their desires would grow and grow. And that is the beginning of worship. This is how God shapes the Israelites to worship after the Golden Calf. Yes, Moses rebukes them. But the beauty of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, makes them long for something better. Beauty is really a much better teacher than argument. I love a good argument, and it is possible to change each others’ minds and have ours changed in turn in that way. But we tend to be far more easily convinced by delight. I could make an argument for why you should watch Stranger Things, but that argument will not be as effective as showing you the first episode, which makes its own argument by delighting us with it’s storytelling. This is what made the calf so powerful to begin with. It was pretty. It was nice to look at. But it’s prettiness was a glitzy imitation of beauty, as an airbrushed magazine cover does not compare to actually holding and being held by your beloved. But to know that the one is a bad imitation, you have to know the delight of the real thing.

And so God’s people do not reject beauty or delight or pleasure as though these experiences are necessarily opposed to worship. There is a history of what’s called “iconoclasm” in the church, where Christians have found icons or priestly vestements or statuary in churches to be idols and so they’ve destroyed these things. And in another vein, whatever the popular form of entertainment has been—whether it was ancient tragedies, Shakespeare’s plays, or movies and television today—there have always been Christians who have tried to boycott them because they thought they too risked distracting people from the moral life of the Gospel.

But there have always been Christians who have used icons and stained glass and statues to move them to worship, and there have also always been Christians who have found profound depth in works of art that don’t seem to have anything “Christian” about them at all. The early teachers of the church loved to read pagan poetry and find there “echoes” of the Gospel which of course are there because people who aren’t Christians bear God’s image, too.

If you hear nothing else today, I want you to hear that your delight, your enjoyment, your pleasure are at the heart of the Gospel. Dr. Brittany Cooper, who you should Google and read, has said that “there is no liberation without pleasure.” You see, the fear of idolatry can become it’s own idol: in response to the perceived excesses of the Roman church, many Protestants begin to distrust pleasure, identifying it with excess and indulgence. And so you can’t trust yourself. Any delight you have, unless it comes from sitting in a pew, is suspect and you have to learn how to police your own desires. Austerity becomes one with holiness. You are close with God not so much in delight but in being ashamed of your sin. So many Christians carry with them this sense that they must be austere, too, that too much enjoyment is something you should feel bad about, that pleasure shouldn’t be too pleasurable. And yet the Israelites enter into worship in a Tabernacle of silver and bronze and gold. Beauty can be the way into worship. Artists can echo the Gospel without even trying to (sometimes because they’re not even trying to).

Now this doesn’t mean that idolatry isn’t a risk. Beauty can move us into worship, but people wouldn’t be scared of it if it couldn’t also seduce us in other ways. The guards in charge of Auschwitz were known to read the finest literature and philosophy and they listened to Bach and Handel in their quarters. Like Hannibal Lector, they were murderers and cultivated men who appreciated the finer things in life. Their enjoyment of beauty made them think they were refined enough to cleanse their society. For them, beauty referred to a world that was well-ordered, organized, and that organization meant they were the master race, and the Jews and the Romani and the queer and the disabled were blights that made the world ugly. They made a golden calf of whiteness and masculinity and Western culture, and they bowed down to it while sipping a chateauneuf and scoffing at abstract expressionism.

For Christians, Beauty has to mean something different, not because pleasure is bad, but because there is no end to the kinds of golden calves we will make. It’s important that in the sanctuary the Israelites don’t worship the gold, but God has them use the gold to create a space where other things can come to the fore. And that space is full of shadow; it’s dark. We tend to identify beauty with the light, the shiny, the glitzy. But the tabernacle, for all it’s fire, would have been dim. There are no fluorescent lights in the desert. The gold would’ve glowed with a soft flicker, only shining out if you caught the light the right way. The Tabernacle, like the Lover in Song of Songs is “dark and beautiful.”

Christians don’t just delight in the clean, luminous beauty that everyone sees. We look for beauty in dark places, too. On a wondrous cross, in the wounds of a crucified Jew, with the poor and the tired and the beaten down; in wrinkles and limps and scars; not just in poets but in the stutters of our friends with disabilities. The beauty of the Tabernacle, of the Cross, is a beauty in shadow, a beauty that is not easily presented on a surface to be consumed, but it is no less beautiful.

A couple days before I went to Istanbul, my friend and I rented a car and drove north, away from the sea and into the mountains. It was dark when we got there and snow covered the ground. We woke up the next morning and I looked out on the landscape of a place called Cappadocia. This place should have been ugly. There were no trees, only stubby brown shrubs, and everything was the same shade of tan except for the snow. Rock formations jutted up from the ground like giant teeth, and it felt like we were in an alien world. Hundreds of years ago, monks traveled to this ugly wilderness. And they started chiseling the stone. They hollowed out the rock formations and made places to sleep and places to eat and places to worship, little chapels carved in sandstone that are still there today. They went to do the work of prayer, chiseling on their hearts just as they worked the stone, sleeping and eating and worshipping together. After a day of walking through the spaces they made, we climbed to the top of one of the teeth and looked out over hundreds of openings carved in the rock. And the sun hung low and cast a rosy light on the stone and patches of ice glinted like precious metal. The clouds swirled and the sky turned to liquid copper and the rock became as gold, and that scrubby, rocky place was even more beautiful than the great dome I saw days later.

That has always been the calling of God’s people, to enfold ourselves in the beauty of the wilderness, to name Beauty wherever we find it and to find it in places that many would call ugly; to know desire and delight and pleasure because God desires us, delights in us, is pleased with us; to chisel on the rocky stuff of this world, making spaces where the Beauty of creation shines out hinting at the Beauty of the infinite. Our calling is not just to smash idols, but to make tabernacles. Amen.

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