“From Asherah Poles to Altars”
Judges 6:1-10, 25-26
6 The Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, and for seven years he gave them into the hands of the Midianites. 2 Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds. 3 Whenever the Israelites planted their crops, the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoples invaded the country. 4 They camped on the land and ruined the crops all the way to Gaza and did not spare a living thing for Israel, neither sheep nor cattle nor donkeys. 5 They came up with their livestock and their tents like swarms of locusts. It was impossible to count them or their camels; they invaded the land to ravage it. 6 Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help.
7 When the Israelites cried out to the Lord because of Midian, 8 he sent them a prophet, who said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 9 I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians. And I delivered you from the hand of all your oppressors; I drove them out before you and gave you their land. 10 I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not listened to me.”
25 That same night the Lord said to him, “Take the second bull from your father’s herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father’s altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it. 26 Then build a proper kind of altar to the Lord your God on the top of this height. Using the wood of the Asherah pole that you cut down, offer the second bull as a burnt offering.”
The book of Judges tells the story of Israel in the time between the anointed leadership of Joshua and the sovereign rule of Israel’s kings. This was an era when God’s people were still separate tribes settling in the promised land of Canaan, and they lived in alternating periods of war and peace with their surrounding cultures. Under Joshua’s leadership the Israelites had begun to take possession of the land, and had won some key battles against their enemies. They had divided the land into each tribe’s inheritance by casting lots. And they continued to grow in power and influence in the region.
As Joshua died of old age we find the Israelites in a pretty good place, poised to conquer the remaining Canaanite tribes. And in Joshua 24:31 we are told what the key to their incredible success has been up to this point. It says, “Israel served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had experiences everything the Lord had done for Israel.” The key to their success was that they had been faithful to God, and had followed godly leaders. Joshua had prepared and led the people to follow God’s commands, and the priests had led the community in faithful worship. But the concluding verses of Joshua foreshadow what was to come next for Israel. As Joshua and Eleazar, the high priest, died and were laid rest along with Joseph’s bones, the symbol of God’s covenant with Abraham, the people of Israel found themselves without a unified leadership, and with a very short memory. In time, they would come to forget the mighty works of God on their behalf; they would fail to remember their covenant with God, and so they would lose their identity as a people called by his name.
As the book of Judges opens, the Israelites have decided to continue their campaign against the Canaanites. God commanded the tribe of Judah to lead the attack, and they had immediate success, defeating enemy after enemy. Though some of the other tribes who were not instructed to wage war experienced smaller defeats, Judges 1:19-22 says that the Lord was with Israel. But as the Israelites grew strong and stronger, they ceased to follow God’s instructions to the letter. Like their ancestors had done before them, they chose to ignore God’s decree that they were to drive out the Canaanites completely. Instead, they chose to enslave the Canaanite tribes and allow them to remain in the land.
By failing to follow God’s instructions, the Israelites had opened themselves up to not only physical, but also spiritual corruption. What seemed innocent at first, allowing these pagan peoples to live among them as slaves, eventually led to acceptance of their way of life, and soon that acceptance led to the blending of God’s people and God’s enemies through intermarriage (Judges 3:6). Just like the smallest bit of yeast will eventually work its way through an entire batch of dough, the pagan practices of the Canaanites worked their way throughout the tribes of Israel from family to family, until God’s people were utterly corrupted and turned away from him to worship idols made by human hands. The consequence for Israel’s disobedience was swift judgment at the hands of the Canaanites, who God allowed to overpower and subjugate the Israelite tribes.
The remainder of the book of Judges shows a repeated pattern of Israel forsaking their covenant with God, losing his favor and becoming oppressed by Canaanite tribes, then crying out for help and receiving deliverance from God through the judges. As long as the judges ruled, the people would follow God, but almost as soon as they died Israel would turn back to pagan gods and do evil in the eyes of the Lord. This happened a staggering six times in the book of Judges, over a period of just a few hundred years.
I wonder sometimes if the church’s memory of God’s blessing is as short as ancient Israel’s, and our hearts as stubborn to God’s leading in our lives. We have talked more than once already about memory, and how important it is that we remember who we are, where we have come from, and what God has done for us. When our memory fades, we run the risk of slipping into the same behaviors as the Israelites – behaviors that ultimately lead us away from God and his blessings.
II. Tearing Down Idols
Our reading this morning from Judges, chapter 6, falls in the middle of this period of Israel’s history, and we find that for the fourth time since Joshua’s death the Israelites worked evil in the sight of the Lord. Just forty years after God had rescued them through Deborah’s leadership they slipped back into their old ways. And in judgment, God allowed the Midianites oppress them so severely that the text says they became impoverished to the point that they cried out for help from the Lord.
God’s response to the cries of Israel was two-fold. First, he called the people back to remembrance. And he did this through an unnamed prophet, who told them:
“This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I brought you up out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. I rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians. And I delivered you from the hand of all your oppressors; I drove them out before you and gave you their land. I said to you, ‘I am the Lord your God; do not worship the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you live.’ But you have not listened to me.”
With this message, God reminded the Israelites who they were, where they had come from, and what God had done for them. And then he clearly stated to them what their sin was. God didn’t leave them wondering, unsure of where he stood or of what they were guilty. But he also didn’t cut them off from himself, with no hope of return.
The second thing God did was to answer the prayers of Israel by once again calling a deliverer from among the tribes, choosing a young warrior from the smallest tribe to show his power, made manifest in weakness. Notice what God didn’t do here. He didn’t wait for the Israelites to get their act together before acting on their behalf. He didn’t wait for them to repent, and he didn’t wait for them to purge themselves of evil. Instead, he acted in mercy to rescue them when they were totally helpless. This is the holy and loving character of God, which we still see displayed every day in people’s lives.
Though God is holy, and demands that his people likewise pursue holy lives, he doesn’t leave us to do this on our own. God is able to see our weakness, and offer grace to overcome. Just like the Israelites, God shows us the dark places in our lives and convicts us of our lawlessness. But he doesn’t leave us there, and he doesn’t wait for us to fix ourselves before showing us his loving kindness. He knows that we are incapable of loving him, until we have received his grace. And so the Bible tells us “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” If we will only confess with our mouth that he is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead, we become recipients of his grace, and he frees us from the tyranny of sin and the fear of death. This is the good news of the gospel.
In the same way, God extended his grace to the Israelites in their time of greatest need and raised up Gideon to deliver them from the Midianites. But before Gideon and Israel could belong fully to him, God knew there was something that needed to be removed from their lives. The thing that had tripped them up over and over again was still holding them back. They had cried out to Yahweh, because they were desperate, but they were still harboring loyalty to false gods. And so, God’s first command to Gideon was to destroy his father’s altar to Baal and tear down the Asherah pole beside it. Then to show that God alone is King of Kings, he told Gideon to build a proper altar and use the Asherah pole as fuel for a burnt offering to God.
An Asherah pole was a representation of Israel’s idolatry. It was a physical symbol of all those things that were keeping the Israelites from submitting to God fully. I wonder if we look closely enough at ourselves, whether we would find Asherah poles in our lives; those things that we have allowed to creep in, and which steal our attention from God. Before you object and say to yourself that you aren’t an idolater, and that you haven’t developed the kinds of life patterns that would warrant the wrath that Israel experienced, I would remind you that with the Israelites, their separation from God began slowly and, like yeast, worked its way throughout their community until they rejected the one true God to follow gods of their own making. You see, Asherah poles don’t always seem so sinister when we first encounter them in our own lives. But left hidden or given free reign they eventually take on a power of their own, and can be life stealing.
So, what are some of these things that resemble Asherah poles in their ability to draw us away from God? I think you’ll find they are common enough that we easily overlook them, but if we examine them closely we quickly see their damaging effects. Here are just a few:
1. Distraction – no one can deny that we are in an age of distraction like never before in history. We have more opportunity than any generation before us to get caught up in both trivial and non-trivial things that distract us from what is most important. And though there are many culprits that fit into this category, the biggest one in our time is entertainment. We are entertaining ourselves to the point that normal life events seem boring and meaningless by comparison. We allow entertainment to steal time away from family. We allow it to interfere with our work. We use vast quantities of money in its pursuit. The desire for entertainment even keeps us away from church, away from the study of God’s word, and away from those practices ,which have for centuries helped the people of God to listen to him more closely and to guard themselves from evil. And we are always wanting more.
Now I am not suggesting that God doesn’t want us to enjoy life. Entertaining activities are part of any healthy existence. But when we begin to allow these good things to distract us from the more important things in life, particularly spiritual things, we create idols out of them and they pull us away from God’s best for us. And entertainment is only of a thousand distractions in our lives.
In fact, some of us here have the exact opposite problem. Some of us are more distracted by our work than anything else. Whether its because we truly love what we do, or we feel overwhelmed by all we have to get done, or because we are afraid that we will be fired if we aren’t at the office for ten hours a day; whatever the reason, we have allowed our jobs to take center stage in our lives. We have fallen prey to the great lie of Western society that we are what we do for a living, when our true identity can only be found in Jesus Christ.
But most of us lie somewhere in-between those polar opposites of too much entertainment and too much work. We don’t find our attention focused completely on one thing, but rather divided over everything. We are constantly overwhelmed by life, harried by the “to do” list, and consumed by the clock. We have become slaves to the tyranny of the urgent, and a myriad of overlapping things in our lives have cobbled together to form a giant, faceless idol that tears our attention away from the only One who can give meaning to it all and provide comfort for our souls.
Have I stepped on everyone’s toes yet? I don’t want to leave anyone out; because the truth is that we are all distracted at times. We are all guilty of putting other things before God, of letting our gaze fall from him, in order to focus on the temporary, instead of the eternal; the finite, instead of the infinite.
2. Discontent – Because we are privileged to have so much, there will always be a danger of us becoming discontented with what we have. We are surrounded by excess, and it is all too easy to become discontent with our own lives as we look at the lives of others around us. But God has called us live in a different way from the rest of the world. We are called to value people over possessions and relationships over exotic experiences. We are called to lives of sacrifice for the good of others. But when we allow discontent to seep in, we forget the blessings that God has already given us, and we become inwardly focused, rather than other oriented.
3. Distrust – Let’s face it, some of us have good reasons to withhold trust. We have been lied to, we have been hurt, and we have been betrayed by those we have depended on. For some, the ability to trust seems so far away, we can’t even imagine what that looks like. But while fallible, sinful humans sometimes betray trust and harm one another in the process, we have a God who has proven himself worthy of our trust. The essence of faith is not just belief in who Jesus said he was, but also a sure trust and confidence that he was able to accomplish what he said he accomplished, and that he can lead us from death to life. When we allow our past wounds to fester and distrust of other people to continue in our lives, we impair our ability to trust God fully to supply all that we need. Without trust, we won’t ever be able to fully submit to God’s authority and follow him as our Lord and King.
I want to pause for a moment and point out that these first three life patterns that pull us away from God were familiar to Jesus too. In fact, these are some of the oldest tricks of our adversary. Satan used these same three things to tempt Adam and Eve in the garden, ultimately leading to their fall, and in Luke 4:1-13 we read the story of Jesus’ temptation, while he lived in the wilderness for forty days, where Satan used a variation of these same things in an attempt to derail Jesus’ mission. Fortunately for us, Jesus did not give in to these things, because he remembered who he was and what he was called to do.
These are not the only three Asherah poles that we sometimes construct in our lives. Another we should be wary of is despair, where we allow tragedy to choke out God’s grace in our lives, leading to hopelessness and lack of faith. Also denial, where we openly reject God’s commandments and his desires for us. It is a tragedy for many of us that we continue to break God’s commands, when Jesus has already freed us from the power of sin. When we willingly engage in sinful acts, we are choosing to deny Jesus and his power in our lives. Over time, this can separate us from God again. Other Asherah poles might be the love of money and power and fame. These are all recurring topics in scripture, and they are all condemned as contrary to the character of God’s faithful people.
My purpose today is not to point out some sin or other as more damaging, but rather to show that even seemingly harmless things like distraction, discontent, and distrust, when left unchecked, can draw us away from God and become idols for us. But there is an antidote for these things. God commanded Gideon to build a proper altar and offer a sacrifice on the ashes of his Asherah pole. In the same way, God calls us to erect altars over the remains of those idols we once worshipped, allowing them to be consumed by his holy fire, as we offer a pleasing sacrifice to him.
III. Building Proper Altars to God
So, what does a proper altar look like? I believe it is simply this: it is a life that gives glory to God, submits to his Lordship, and in all things points to Jesus Christ as the purveyor and perfector of our faith. It is the life of faith lived in hope of God’s promises, seeking to love God and one another as Christ loves us. This is a proper altar to God, and a sacrifice pleasing to him.
But how do we begin tearing down our Asherah poles that get in the way? I think it begins by getting rid of those things that lie at the root of our distraction, our discontent, our distrust, and all of those other things that pull our attention away from God. When we remove these things from our lives, the idols we have constructed quickly fall.
The first thing we need to do away with is unrepentant or habitual sin. By the presence of the Holy Spirit living in us, we have been given power to overcome sin in our lives. This is not a future promise, but is something that we can realize right here and right now. When we have confessed Christ as Lord, but continue to allow sin to reign in our lives, we open the door for all of those other things that pull us away to come pouring back into our lives. When we continue to willfully violate God’s commands, once we have been reborn, we spit in the face of God and make a mockery of Christ’s sacrifice for us.
Please hear me friends. We all may slip up from time to time. Though we are redeemed by the blood of the lamb we are still living in vessels of clay. But when we willfully commit sin, using God’s grace as a free license to do whatever we want, we invite ruin upon our heads. We have been purchased at a great price, and we have been brought from darkness into light. Why would we willingly turn around and walk back into the darkness from which we came?
The next thing we must get rid of, if we want to tear down our idols, are attitudes like bitterness, envy, malice and hatred. The Bible tells us that all who belong to God will be known by their fruit. But these attitudes run opposite to the fruit of the Spirit. There is no place for these things in the lives of Christians, and we have got to stop allowing them to take root in our hearts.
The third thing we must cast out in order to tear down our idols is fear. I have mentioned this before, and I will do so again and again; from cover to cover the Bible gives us the clear message that we are not to remain captive to fear, because Jesus has overcome death and the world. When we live in fear, we will never be able to fully trust in God.
Finally, if we really want to tear down the idols that keep us from God, we must purge our lives of apathy and laziness. These things are most closely related to the idol of distraction we talked about earlier, and are two of the biggest hindrances to Christianity in America today. We show our apathy when we become content to remain inside our walls, unwilling to step out as active participants in the Great Commission. We display our laziness, when we make excuses for why we haven’t spent time in God’s Word and prayer, or when we ignore spiritual disciplines that form our character and help to guard us from sin. We demonstrate the depth of our spiritual apathy and laziness, when we care little for our own spiritual growth and well being, and even less for the spiritual well being of those who are living apart from a saving relationship with Christ. We must rid ourselves of these immediately, or we are not truly living for Christ.
Friends, do any of these things strike a chord with you this morning? Are you taking time to regularly examine your life, asking God to show you the areas that you haven’t yet fully submitted to him? If you aren’t already doing that, I encourage you to start doing so right away. If we ask God to show us where we have constructed idols in our lives, he will be faithful to help us tear them down and construct proper altars to him. Like all difficult things that God asks us to do, we have to be willing first. He won’t force us to do it. But we also know that he won’t leave us to do the work on our own. When we submit ourselves fully to him, the Holy Spirit will open up all of the dark and dusty places in our lives and clean house.
So examine yourself. Are you distracted, are you struggling with discontent, or are having difficulty trusting again? Or do you see signs that you have constructed some other idol that is pulling your attention away from God. If so, ask God to help you seek out the root causes and remove them from your life.
I make it a regular practice, when I pray, to ask God to show me any sin that still remains in me. I ask him often to cast light on the areas of my life that I have not yet fully given over to him. And you know what? He continues to answer that prayer for me. He shows me where I am weak, and asks me to rely on his strength instead of my own. He shows me where I have given in to temptation, and provides a way for me to avoid it in the future. He shows me where I have failed to love others as he loves them, and assures me that I can learn to love more fully if I will follow in Jesus’ steps. And when God is done showing me all of these things, he always reminds me that I am his beloved child, and that he is pleased with me. This is the greatest gift a father can give to his child, and he gives that gift to me freely, every time I ask him to continue transforming my life.
Have you asked God lately what things remain in your life that interfere with your relationship with him? If not, I encourage you to make it a regular practice, starting today.
V. Closing Prayer
Heavenly Father, we thank you that you have not left us alone in our greatest hour of need, but have entered the world you created in order to restore it to yourself. We thank you that, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have power over the gods of this world. We are no longer held captive to sin and we need not fear death, but are called instead, by your grace, to ‘cast down our idols’ and turn to you, who alone can save us and make us your people. Amen.