Not to us, Lord, not to us
but to your name be the glory,
because of your love and faithfulness.
Why do the nations say,
‘Where is their God?’
Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever pleases him.
But their idols are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
One of the most famous of Christian paintings is the Isenheim altarpiece by the German artist Matthias Grunewald. It was painted in the early 16th century for a monastery where the monks looked after victims of plague and a dreaded disease known as St Antony’s Fire, which afflicted its victims turning their skin black and gangrenous and condemning them to excruciating pain, frequently accompanied by hallucinations. The central image of the altarpiece, Christ crucified, is in stark contrast to many more familiar compositions. The body of Christ is tortured, riddled with sores, emaciated, his flesh is a sickly green, blood runs from the thorns pressed into his head. There is nothing calm or serene about the scene. Grunewald portrays Christ dying in agony. Neil MacGregor, Director of the National Gallery (1987–2002) described it as ‘the most terrifying Crucifixion in Western art.’ Somehow those who suffered there, the victims of the plague or St Anthony’s Fire, would have looked at the altarpiece and seen a God who was not distant from their suffering and they would have known that they were not alone, ‘only the suffering God can help’ (Bonhoeffer).
To the left of the cross, in Grunewald’s painting, Jesus‘ mother Mary is overwhelmed with grief and collapses into the arms of John, the beloved disciple. To the right of the cross is another John – John the Baptist. At his feet there is a lamb, carrying a reed cross, symbolic of Jesus who gave his life as a sacrifice to take away the sin of the world. John’s index finger points towards Jesus, he has the longest finger in the whole wide world. Next to John the Baptist, in blood red, are his own words from the Fourth Gospel, ‘He (Christ) must become greater; I must become less’ (John 3:30).
John’s elongated finger embodies what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian is to be a witness, to point away from ourselves and our own achievements and to point towards the crucified one. There in the darkness, in the figure dying in agony upon the cross, seemingly God-forsaken is the only one who can truly help us. No wonder Paul wrote that the message of Christ crucified was ‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (1 Corinthians 1:23).
The writer of Psalm 115 could know nothing of the strange fulfilment of how God’s promises to Abraham would be met in a crucified Messiah, but he did know of God’s love and faithfulness (v. 1). Verses 2–7 are a broadside against idolatry and verses 9–11 a call to trust in the God who is not made with human hands or fabricated by the human mind. It is only the living God who can deliver real blessing and so the psalmist prays that God will do just that (vv. 14, 15).
Verse 8 is a commentary on idolatry. Those who are caught up in idolatry will become like their idols, just a parody, just a shadow of what they should be. We were created for a relationship with the living God who is the source of all that is good, all that is beautiful, all that is true. Inevitably when we give our hearts to something or someone else, we are diminished and dehumanised, less than what we should be. When we chase after what is false, we miss out on what is real.
In Romans, Paul also reflects on the nature of idolatry. He writes of those that God gave up to ‘the degrading of their bodies’ because they exchanged the glory of the immortal God’ for created things (Romans 1:24). As humans we were created to reflect God’s glory, worshipping bits of metal and wood and stone degrades us as does the unrestrained pursuit of money, sex, power, or genuflecting to the gods of nationalism, militarism, hedonism.
Scandalously the true God reveals himself in a broken figure upon a roughly hewn cross. To quote Bonhoeffer again: ‘It is a strange glory, the glory of this God.’ But, for those with eyes to see, it is the crucified Christ who displays the staggering extent of God’s love and stubborn faithfulness. For the Psalmist there was little prospect of life beyond the cessation of his heartbeat (v. 17) but Jesus has shattered the silence of the grave and gives us even more reason to praise and to witness to him.