Tearing Down the High Places (Why We Can’t Do Lent Alone)

Photo Credit: MTSO Fan, flickr

Photo Credit: MTSO Fan, flickr

I’m having a bit of a seasonal epiphany this Lent, kind of like the Grinch that Stole Christmas. I’ve been reading the same old stories and seeing new things.

A few weeks ago, I was reading 1 and 2 Kings. I’m sure it will shock you to know these have never been my favorite books of the Bible. Mostly the narrative is just a long list of the kings of Israel and Judah, good ones and (overwhelmingly) bad ones. (Again: corrupt heads of state? What a shocker.)

The whole thing is pretty repetitive and formulaic. Here’s the formula for your typical bad king:

In the eighteenth year of the reign of Jeroboam son of Nebat, Abijah became king of Judah… He committed all the sins his father had done before him; his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his forefather had been.

1 Kings 15:1-3

And here’s that rare specimen, the good king:

In the seventh year of Jehu, Joash became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem forty years. His mother’s name was Zibiah; she was from Beersheba. Joash did what was right in the eyes of the Lord all the years Jehoiada the priest instructed him. The high places, however, were not removed…

2 Kings 12:1-2

Good kings, bad kings, none of them were perfect, and almost none of them tore down those high places. They keep mentioning it again and again, “but he did not tear down the high places.”

I’ve always wondered why exactly that was so important. The high places were sacrificial altars from the surrounding cultures, but aside from not wanting Jews to assimilate, what was the point of destroying them? Wasn’t that a little harsh? Why would their very existence apparently break God’s heart?

A light bulb went on when I read the story of yet another bad king:

In the seventeenth year of Pekah son of Remaliah, Ahaz son of Jotham king of Judah began to reign... Unlike David his father, he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and even sacrificed his son in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.

2 Kings 16:1-3

Child sacrifice on these altars? Yeah, that would make God angry. That would be a good reason to want kings to tear them down.

The kings that failed to do it, failed to notice or care about the suffering of the most vulnerable, basically got this written on their tombstone: He did his best to live a good life, but he didn’t challenge society’s greatest injustices.

It got me thinking about our own society. It’s easy to demonize the people of the past and say we’ve evolved beyond such cruelty, but we haven’t. We still sacrifice our most vulnerable on altars of our own, altars we just won’t tear down.

In my culture, we sacrifice poor people, children, animals, and the environment on an altar called consumerism. Slaves produce our coffee and chocolate and sugar and cellphones and clothing, and we don’t care – or not enough to stop it. Our decadent lifestyles wreck God’s precious gift of creation and harm those whose livelihoods are most tenuous, and yet so often we crave even more.

During my Ash Wednesday fast, I reflected on this passage, realizing viscerally how many cravings torture my heart. Fasting makes it obvious: I think of food constantly. All too often, I’m one of those people Paul talked about when he said, “Their God is their stomach” (Philippians 3:19). This is not about Those Other People and how bad they are; I am guilty, daily, of letting my appetites rule me.

I pondered how to choose a meaningful Lenten fast this year, how to use it as an opportunity to shift toward a simpler lifestyle. And yet, the more I reflected the more I realized that fasting comes with its own temptations. It’s easy to turn fasting and simplicity from humility into egotism. So easily, my mind can twist this spiritual discipline into a kind of purity cult mentality Jesus would hate. No unclean food shall pass my lips! No unsustainable or unethical thing can be part of my life, for I am HOLY.

Believing that my efforts alone are So Important and that fasting justifies feeling high and mighty just means I’m trading one vice for another. I can give up a million things and set no limits on my appetite for attention, approval, and pride.

At the Ash Wednesday service, I heard these words as if for the first time:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

Isaiah 58:5-7

In other words, “Is fasting (and by extension, Lent) some kind of private pity party, a time for you to feel great about your relationship to God because you gave something up, a way to justify being prideful and unkind? Or is it time to join together with your brothers and sisters and make a better world, because you can’t do it alone?”

Some of these things you could do on your own, at least in a small way. But “break every yoke”? Yokes are huge and heavy, designed for draft animals – you would definitely need help to break one. And the “yokes” that burden our society, spiritual poverty and material poverty, are way too big to conquer alone.

So join with me, friends. Let’s make this Lent not just a season of personal repentance, but a time to bring the kingdom of God to earth.

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