January 15, 2012

Cream of the Crop

Alright, we are officially two weeks into the New Year.  That’s it.  Three weeks from Christmas.  Doesn’t it feel like all of that was a long, long time ago?  Well, with all that time on your hands (right) you ought to have had plenty of time to formulate your New Year’s resolution if you are making any.  Who, by a show of hands, has made at least one New Year’s resolution this year?  Any brave souls want to share their resolution?  Did anyone or has anyone ever made a resolution to pick up what seemed to you to be a bad habit?  Or perhaps have you ever resolved to become worse at something?  No one?  That’s kind of what I expected.  No one resolves to see themselves become worse than they currently are.  That’s something pretty much every New Year’s resolution has in common: we all resolve to become better at something or to improve ourselves—our character, our habits, our bodies—in some way.  Resolutions like this are nearly always about self-improvement.  Have you ever thought about why this is?  Why do we feel like we need to improve ourselves?  What drives people relentlessly to make themselves better in some way?  Well, the simple answer is that we’re not good enough.  But what does that even mean?  Not good enough according to whom?  Not good enough in comparison to what?  Who or what are we trying to be more like?  Perhaps you’ve never considered this before when making a New Year’s resolution, but it’s worth half a thought some time.  If we make a resolution for self-improvement, there is obviously some image with which we are attempting to bring ourselves more in line.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest, there are actually a bunch of different images with which I would like to bring myself more in line.  Let me share some of those with you.  First, while I haven’t played in a few years, I really enjoy playing the drums and was actually in four or five different bands in college.  I even recorded a CD with one of them.  I played a dozen or so shows in a variety of different locations.  As part of this particular passion, there are several drummers whose sounds I would like to mimic.  There have been days when I thought that if I could play the drums like Jim Moss or Carter Buford or Mike Portnoy or Louis Bellson that I would have arrived as a drummer.  But, beating things with sticks isn’t my only passion.  I love to write.  But then I look at folks like Robert Jordan whose 14 volume, 12,000-page, nearly a half-a-million-word Wheel of Time series is going to be completed in a few months—5 years after his death, or Christopher Paolini whose bestselling series Inheritance I have just finished reading was first published when he was 19, and see my own writer image as far from what I dream it could be.  We could keep going in this line of thought, but I think you get the point and I fear you might start to psychoanalyze me.

The reality is that we all have images after which we’d like to see ourselves patterned more closely.  The image could reflect a certain skill or set of skills.  It might be concerned with a particularly desirable physical form.  It may be a social position or vocation.  But whatever it is, all of us have at least one.  Most of us probably have several.  In fact, it would seem strange if we encountered someone who was totally content with his current state; who didn’t believe she had any areas that were in need of improvement.  Now, from a theological perspective, the reason for this is that we are all broken by sin and in our most honest moments we know it even if we don’t fully understand what it means.  But, from a more cultural view, at least part of the reason for this is that we live in a heavily image-driven society and as a result we are daily bombarded with thousands of images.  Some of these are benign, but a large percentage of them are geared towards inciting within us a desire to reflect whatever the image is in our own life, most often with the aid of whatever product is being pitched.  The truth is that nearly every image we encounter on a daily basis is there because someone wants us to strive to remake ourselves in light of it.

Now, someone might take up the argument that such images don’t really impact us all that much (for instance a child trying to argue his parents into letting him watch something more mature than he’s ready for because his friends are doing it), but I would beg to differ.  Advertising—which is the source of the vast majority of the images we encounter each day—is a multi-billion dollar a year industry.  I think I saw that the most expensive ad slot for this year’s Super Bowl is $4 million which probably buys the advertiser 30 seconds of broadcast time.  Companies don’t spend that kind of money unless they are confident they are going to see a return on their investment.  From the other side of things, Noah has gotten to the age where he is watching television a lot more closely than he used to and is picking up on what he sees.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been watching something with him when a commercial came on and he started telling me that he wanted whatever it was.  Yes, for companies willing to shell out for a good advertising agency, the return on their investment makes the capital expense well worth it.

The point of all this, is to get you thinking about the images we encounter each day, but also to realize the importance of images generally.  Again, though, it shouldn’t take much effort on my part to do this because for many of you such thoughts are fresh on your minds as you work on your resolutions.  With all of this in mind, for this and the next three weeks, we are going to talk about images.  We are going to talk about the images with which we surround ourselves.  We are going to talk about the images we strive to see realized in our lives.  We are going to talk about the images that matter, the ones that don’t, and the implications of the ones we appropriate.  What my goal is for this series is that you will come to understand more fully and deeply the image you bear along with the implications of this.  And it is going to take more than one week to do all of this. In fact, it’s going to take four.  This morning we are just going to start scratching the surface.  Today is going to serve as an introduction to what’s coming in the next few weeks.  So, if when I get to the end of the message this morning you feel like things aren’t complete, you’ll be right.  You’ll have to keep coming back to get the full story.  And here’s why we are going to talk about all of this.  I think that self-understanding is really important.  The better we can understand ourselves, the better we are able to handle this life.  When we understand who we are, we are able to grasp more quickly and completely what we need to do and where we need to go to arrive at who we were created to be.  Well, who we are is intimately connected with the image or images we bear.  When we have good understanding of our image, questions of direction, worth, and value cease to be mysteries and instead become opportunities for worship.

Well, we have established this morning that images are really important and that we are surrounded by images aimed at convincing us that we are incomplete until we more closely resemble them.  But this isn’t the only place and power of images in our world.  Images can also serve as reminders of who the sovereign is over some realm.  In fact, in ancient days, when images were not nearly as prevalent as they are now, this was a much more common use of them.  Going back to the Roman Empire, there were two major images that people encountered on a daily basis.  The first was the various statues of the gods and goddesses in and around temple complexes.  These, much like modern images, were crafted to give people pictures of beauty.  The gods and goddesses were essentially idealized humans.  They were the supermodels of the day.  People wanted to have faces and physiques patterned after the gods and goddesses (but not too closely lest they get jealous and lash out vengefully).  The other image people encountered then was that of the emperor.  The image of the emperor was placed around the cities on buildings and street corners for people to see.  This served to remind the people who was the real owner of the city and its buildings.  They all existed because of the graciousness of the emperor.  Even more importantly than buildings, though, was the image of the emperor on all the coinage.  This reminded the people who owned the money.  The emperor was proclaimed as the provider of all the needs of his people.  Furthermore, beginning with Caesar Augustus, the first emperor who proclaimed himself the son of a god—his father Julius Caesar—the emperor’s image was there to remind the people who they were to worship.

The idea of the king flooding his kingdom with his image—which was usually an idealized version of himself, emphasizing the traits that reinforced his divine heritage—stretched back several thousand years before even Rome.  The king was thought to bear the image of the god or gods and his image served to remind the people who their lord was.  Now, a thinking person might be led to ask here: if the king bore the image of the gods, what about the rest of the people?  Well, they didn’t matter.  They weren’t the king.  They weren’t related to the king.  They were expendable.  The purpose of their life was to make the life of the king easier.  They had no real value.  Pondering on this response for just a minute that same thinking person might realize that the average person in this kind of a culture might not care all that much for being treated as if they had no value.  It was perhaps welcomed news, then, when what we now know as Genesis was written into this kind of a culture.  While many of the stories contained in the book of Genesis were probably revolutionary at the time of their writing, the part of particular note for our purposes this morning comes right at the beginning in the creation stories.  If you have your Bibles, open them up to Genesis 1.  I’ll get to that text here in just a minute.

The first few chapters of Genesis form what amounts to the Hebrew creation story.  When it was first written—assuming a Mosaic authorship for the moment—every culture had a creation story.  All these stories, while different in detail, were basically the same.  The gods were created somehow, they in turn created the world and everything in it, and things went downhill from there.  The reason people were created by the gods in these stories varies.  It could have been they wanted some entertainment.  Sometimes the gods wanted someone to worship them.  Other times they relied on the people to provide food and drink for their table.  Whatever the reason though, people were not of inherent worth.  Their value was connected to what they did.  As for why the gods designed them to look the way they did, the stories varied here too.  In the Greek story Prometheus, the creator of people, had a brother, Epimetheus, who created animals.  Zeus, the king of the gods, had decreed that so many traits were available for the creatures that populated the earth.  Epimetheus started creating first and used all of them up.  Prometheus didn’t have much to work with when he created us and so we were a sort of baseline model.   He defied Zeus and gave us fire so that we had a chance.  Again, though, there isn’t anything special about us.  There is one reference in one of the Egyptian creation stories to all people being made in the image of the god who did the creating, but this was an exception to the rule.

The Hebrews’ story was vastly different from all of these.  First, instead of lots of gods involved in the process, there was just one.  Second, whereas it usually took some masterful effort on the gods’ part to work the various features of this world, the Hebrew God, Yahweh, simply spoke them into existence.  Look at Genesis 1:3: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”  Light is kind of a generic force, though, or so the people of the day thought.  Often they worshiped specific bodies of light in the heavens.  Usually, the sun god was the most powerful.  Consider this worldview belief, then, in light of Genesis 1:14-15: “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night.  And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.’  And it was so.”  The Hebrews looked at the world and said, “You know all those things you worship as gods?  Yeah, our God created all of them with no effort.  He just spoke…and it was so.  It gets even better, though.  Think about how many people have worshiped the stars throughout history.  People still worship stars today—horoscopes anyone?  Listen to v. 16: “And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.”  It sounds almost like the stars were an afterthought.  It’s like God looked over what He had made so far and thought, “You know, the sky is kind of boring.  Let’s perk it up a bit.  And…stars!”  For there to be only one God who created everything by Himself simply by speaking it into existence was as unheard of then as it is now.  Except now instead of people preferring to believe that a committee of gods and goddesses did it, they prefer to believe that it all just happened by blind, random chance because the idea of anyone…out there…unless you’re talking about space aliens…is too superstitiony-sounding for educated folks to believe.

The biggest difference between Genesis and all the other creation stories of the day, though, became clear when you got to the part about the creation of people.  Keeping in mind everything we’ve said about the creation of people in all these other stories, listen to Genesis 1:26 and following: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.  And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  And God blessed them.  And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”

This is one of the most empowering and incredible texts ever written.  We’ll talk more about what it means over the next three weeks, but for now let’s take a few minutes to think about the majesty of what I just read.  Here’s what this text says: You were created in the image of God.  You weren’t an accident.  You weren’t created solely to support someone else.  You weren’t created as an afterthought.  You aren’t a baseline model.  You were created in the image of God.

Imagine the subversive power of this text in cultures like what we talked about a few minutes ago.  People had been told for centuries that on the whole they didn’t matter.  The gods created the ruling class to be sure, but everyone else didn’t really count.  And then the Hebrews came on the scene and proclaimed that everyone was created in the image of God.  That’s not all.  Hear the text well.  Most of the time it talks about people with the masculine generic that was used before neutral terms to describe groups of people were invented.  But at the end of v. 27 the text says specifically: “male and female he created them.”  We might respond to that today by asking, “So what?”  But in its day this was an enormous leap forward for the position of women.  Women didn’t count as people in most ancient cultures.  But the Hebrew creation narrative specifically cites them as created with the same spirit and worth as men.  There’s a reason women have always rushed to the worship of Yahweh faster than men.  Among His followers their status is elevated far beyond whatever their current culture assigns to them.  Even today, although we don’t always get it right, women who feel like they are little more than a maid/personal chef/daycare director/other physical needs provider can find purpose and value in the church that they don’t find anywhere else.  And why?  Because you were created in the image of God.

There’s one more thing here that would have rocked and in fact still rocks the world when it is understood and properly embraced.  After God created people He blessed them.  Not a select few of them to rule the rest.  Not some of them who He loved the most.  Not even most of them with a few bad nuts thrown into the keep things interesting.  He blessed them.  And He told them to be fruitful and multiple and to have dominion over the whole earth.  In other words, there isn’t anyone who has the right to rule over you or to determine the direction of your life or dictate the level of your worth unless you allow them to do so.  Any human leader who has ever proclaimed otherwise is operating apart from Biblical parameters.  This means that freedom is the natural state of people.  The freedom to be able to live and worship and love and serve and work and recreate to the glory of God is built into the fabric of every person on the planet.  Now, this is different than total self-autonomy which is not a Biblical virtue.  But real, Biblical freedom, which at its core is an unfettered ability to live one’s entire life to the glory God, is part of who you are.  Any why?  Because you were created in the image of God.

But why should this be any more likely than the narrative that has been perpetuated by nearly every culture in the world since its foundation?  Again, even today, while the belief in a pantheon of gods and goddesses ruling over humanity isn’t in vogue, the faith confession of the Darwinian naturalism that marks so much of the secular media and intelligentsia is that people ultimately don’t matter.  People are thought to be simply a random collection of atoms that have somehow risen above themselves to gain self-awareness.  I’ll give you three reasons why.  First, the God of the Hebrews demonstrated clearly in Biblical times that He was more powerful than the other gods on the block.  The Egyptians in particular learned this the hard way.  Second, because in our heart of hearts, we know that the narratives which proclaim our worthlessness, our insignificance, our randomness aren’t true.  The idea may have been beaten down when it was expressed, but there has been some point in your life when you had the thought: I matter.  I don’t know how.  I don’t know why.  I don’t know to whom.  But, I matter.  Let me assure you that you do.  Third and then we’re done for today: when God decided that He was going to come down Himself to start the process of making the world what it always should have been once again, He didn’t come as an animal.  He didn’t come as an angel of light.  He didn’t come as an impersonal force.  He came as a person.  The image He chose to use to present Himself to the world was that of a person.  And why?  Because people were created in the image of God.  You were created in the image of God.   In the next few weeks I’ll prove it to you and we’ll talk more about what it means.  For now, though, be assured and confident that you weren’t a random act of an impersonal natural force.  You were created in the image of God.