Judges 17 tells the story of Micah, a man who steals 1100 pieces of silver from his mother and then returns the silver in fear of the curse that she put on the person who stole the silver. That may sound like the whole story, but that is actually just the beginning. Judges skips past telling us all the juicy details: why did he steal the money, what were the details of the curse, etc. Instead, Judges focuses on the mother's instructions after the son returns the silver: he is to take the silver and create an idol out of it.
Now, for most ancient Israelites (and for us preachers who are preaching through the 10 Commandments right now), this sent off all kinds of alarm bells. The second commandment specifically states that God forbids the creation of idols or "graven images". However, this story is just getting started.
Micah builds the silver idol and places it in his home. The scene then shifts to a nameless Levite in Bethlehem who grows bored of Bethlehem and sets out to find some new place to live. This Levite finds himself at the home of Micah. Micah invites this Levite to become his personal priest. Now remember, the Levites were the tribe charged with leadership in the worship of God. The book of Leviticus is filled with all the regulations the priests had to be sure to follow to insure proper worship of God by Israel. One would suppose a good Levite would refuse Micah's offer, especially upon discovering the silver idol in Micah's house. However, the Levite accepts Micah's offer and settles in to Micah's house. Judges 17 closes with Micah saying, "Now I know that the LORD will prosper me, because the Levite has become my priest."
In preaching this past Sunday, I stated that at the core of the second commandment is a restriction of our desire to control how God will be God in our lives. Micah's story and his closing words are case study #1 in why the second commandment is so important. I read a story on cnn.com yesterday that talked about the growing number of people in the United States who identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious". As I read this story I realized how much we want to make faith about us. We want faith's purpose, like Micah, to be personally prospering, and that desire impacts how we practice our faith. The problem becomes that such a desire ends up limiting God. God ends up being as big as our house rather than the eternal, universal God of creation.
I'll be the first to admit that I understand why people reject religion for spirituality. The organized structure of Christian faith has done much to overshadow the good news of salvation with the burden of guilt, power, greed, and hatred. There have been plenty of times when I have wanted to flee the Church and embrace personal spirituality, just me and God. However, what we often don't see is that often our pursuit of a relationship that is just me and God really ends up being just me. We tend to soften the prophetic aspect of faith that calls us outside of ourselves and reminds us of God's holiness and the brokeness of the world, all because we believe that our faith should be that which keeps us comfortable. We create our own images of God and, at times, even hire our own personal priests who will tell us only what we want to hear. If anything, the 10 Commandments remind us that faith is a covenant between God and His people, and that covenant is intended to be beneficial for both parties. God's people are set free and allowed to enjoy that freedom so that God's name might be honored by all people. That sounds very different from a faith that one person in the story on CNN described as "Burger King faith - you can have it your way."
Being the body of Christ, practicing faith as part of a larger community, is a struggle for sure. It is a struggle because we are imperfect people. However, it is also a struggle because it forces us to hear other voices that differ from ours. It forces us to consider that our way of looking at things is not the only way and may not be the right way. It forces us to consider that our faith is ultimately in God who is bigger than our individual worlds and individual lives. I guess you could say that what makes it so hard to be the community of Christ is what reminds us of how great our God is.