idolatry in the heart

Some of the elders of Israel came to me and sat down in front of me.Then the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’

“Therefore say to the people of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!

Ezekiel 14:1-6

Idolatry is everywhere. Some might think of it as something of a bygone era, when people used to make images representing gods, and bow down and worship the god of the image. But idolatry essentially is anything in our hearts we put before God, either in being devoted to it, or trusting in it. Anything, period, even things which in themselves in their right place are good. But also things which are either questionable, or not good.

Idolatry always exacts a steep price, and devastating consequences. Although much of it might be subtle enough to cover a lifetime, yet with some less than desirable fruit along the way.

I wonder myself. What do I put in the place of God? What can easily become an idol to me? Do I think that if I had enough money, I would be okay? Hopefully I am not under that illusion, knowing that some of the most empty people in the world are driven by money, and will scuttle truth and righteousness to make more of it. Knowing scripture and life. And yet those kinds of idols can still make their appeal to us.

Idolatry. It’s something to think and pray about, asking for God’s discernment to uncover where we’re most prone to it. We’re to have no other gods before us, but the one true God. And as Jesus told us, we’re to worship God in spirit, in the Spirit, and in truth, because the Father seeks such worshipers, and because God is spirit. God alone deserves our worship, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no other.

And in the process of wanting to learn what worship of God is, and wanting to put it into practice, we need to become aware of any idols we may have set up in our hearts. Things so close to heart that they are a part of us. But if idols, in an unhealthy way. And again, most of what we make into idols, in their proper place and in God’s intent, are good. But not all of them. Maybe some of them, at least for us, we need to get rid of forever. Or let go of for at least a time.

And it’s not enough to get rid of idols, if we don’t replace that with the worship of God. So that our practices of faith characterize our lives, who we are from day to day, and hour to hour. Something I frankly am not sensitive enough to, myself. And want to grow much in, in and through Jesus.

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getting rid of the “what ifs” and “if onlys”

Joel is a book that can be read or listened to in less than fifteen minutes. You will notice passages which are used in the New Testament, though the fulfillment in Christ seems somehow different in that in Christ is the day of salvation, God having taking on himself the judgment deserved by the world in Christ on the cross. Nevertheless there remains a day of reckoning for all, when the decision and result of our lives will be confirmed, and as it were, sealed.

But for so many, including myself, “What ifs” and “If onlys” can haunt and plague us. And we can rightfully wish that others will do better, that perhaps we can help them by gentle, wise instruction, and above all, by prayer. But we ourselves are left with the fallout of either the poor choices we made, or the lack of good decisions as well, or likely the combination of both. There is certainly nothing we can do in the present to change the past. But we live with God’s promises to us, each and everyone of them somehow fulfilled in Christ:

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.

2 Corinthians 1:20

Back to Joel. A book that needs to be read in its own context, and then in the context of the entire Bible, and considered in how it is applied in the New Testament. For us today in this post, it will be in terms of the “What ifs” and “If onlys” of our lives. First I want to note the call to repentance God makes to his people, one that can still echo to us today:

“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
    and he relents from sending calamity.
Who knows? He may turn and relent
    and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings
    for the Lord your God.

Joel 2:12-14

This call was given in the midst of God’s judgment. Hard times had come from the hand of God, arguably through others who in the end God would judge. So there’s the prior, necessary call to repentance. We are sorry, yes for the consequences our past actions or inaction has caused. But the heart of repentance is always with reference to God. We’ve abandoned God, and we’ve lost out on God’s will for us, as well. We have sinned against the goodness of God, turning to our own understanding and devices. Or whatever we have fallen for in the past, making idols of that, rather than worshiping the true God. Whatever our past, we need to work through it in terms of repentance which gets right to our heart, no less. So that our life will follow.

And then we have God’s gracious promise to help us move away from the “What ifs,” and “If onlys”:

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—
    the great locust and the young locust,
    the other locusts and the locust swarm—
my great army that I sent among you.
You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
    and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
Then you will know that I am in Israel,
    that I am the Lord your God,
    and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.

Joel 2:25-27

Exactly how that plays out, or what it looks like for each one of us, we do not know. We have to trust God in that.

All of this is in the context of the big picture, for Christ and for the gospel. It is not about us having our own dreams fulfilled, but rather, the dreams which God gives us:

“And afterward,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your old men will dream dreams,
    your young men will see visions.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days.
I will show wonders in the heavens
    and on the earth,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved

Joel 2:28-32a

We can be assured that no matter what our past, if we repent, God will somehow restore the years, so that we can serve him in and through Christ for the gospel. As witnesses by how we live, and what we say. In and through Jesus.

counting the cost

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.

“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

Luke 14:25-35

Jesus didn’t care about popularity, or even about being misunderstood, it seems. It’s not that Jesus didn’t want people to understand and follow. It’s simply that he knew better than to think that everyone would, in fact, just the opposite. He assumed most people would not (Luke 13:22-30; Matthew 7:13-14).

This passage fits into the “hard sayings of Jesus”. Hating loved ones, as well as one’s own life is not to be taken literally. It is a way of helping one understand just how supreme one’s allegiance to Jesus is to be. So that the disciple who does love their family, and in the proper sense their own life as well, does so out of their supreme devotion and allegiance to Jesus. And ironically to not love Jesus in that way would mean that one loves others and one’s self all the less. But when push comes to shove, there’s only one God and one Lord that we give our hearts completely to. And in so doing we find that there’s plenty of love to go around for everyone, even for, as Jesus taught us, our enemies.

We might as well face reality, because there’s no escape from it. Following Jesus in this world is not always going to be easy, and sometimes will end with the ultimate sacrifice. Indeed that was what Jesus was referring to in this passage, that whoever wants to follow him would have to take up their own cross, which meant one thing at that time: crucifixion. Jesus knew that only those who understood something of what they were getting into, would persevere. The call is stark here, but it is in the rest of scripture. We’re to have no other gods before God, and we’re to realize that the world in which we live is no friend of God’s. This is throughout all of scripture from almost the very beginning, to close to the very end.

Jesus calls us to count the cost. And to realize that unless we give up everything we have, we cannot be his disciple, which means his follower. It’s a matter of allegiance, as well as trust. It involves giving our all to the One who gave his all for us on the cross.

Jesus deserves all of this devotion because he is God. But also because he as God is completely human, one of us. So that he takes us with him on the one true way to life, through his death and resurrection. May we have God’s grace to follow, and keep following to the very end. In and through Jesus.

romantic love

There is a kind of mystery to romantic love. It is definitely an important aspect of human life. See (and a good read for Valentine’s Day, or listen) Song of Songs, traditionally Song of Solomon.

Sadly, not everyone had a love which resulted in marriage in this life. But the tradition of allegorizing this song to mean something of God’s love and relationship to his people surely has some merit. The people of God, Israel, are said to be in a covenant with God which is likened to a marriage in the Old Testament. And we read in the New Testament that the church is the bride of Christ. All of us in Christ together.

There is no part of romantic love which isn’t good. Some might see the sexual part as somehow dirty, but it is a part of God’s good creation. It’s we who have cheapened it to mean something less than the place it has in a covenant relationship of love. But the sexual part is only one ingredient of romantic love. Closer to the heart of it is a sheer and really kind of mysterious mystique (to say the same thing in two words). How one can “fall in love” with someone else in a way which excludes all others. Hence the exclusive claim of God to be worshiped and against all idolatry. But also the importance of humans holding to the covenant with the one that was either chosen for them, or that they chose, in a special bond reserved only for each other. And making sure no one else takes that place.

For those who are single, and may have never been married, or perhaps have experienced the heartbreak and dishevel of divorce, or are a widow or widower, God’s promise extends to you to be for you what the missing partner would have been, and beyond that. Of course in a spiritual way, but in a way which can help you to be content in that love. And note the advantages to those who remain single in being devoted to Christ (1 Corinthians 7:25-40).

Today I celebrate my love with my wonderful wife, Deb, who is my true love and friend. We have been through much together. She has had to put up with me over the years, and we have seen rough patches in our relationship. But God has been so faithful. There is nothing I like as much as a good getaway with her, the longer the better. And I would like to be with her forever in the life to come.

But in Jesus we will all be one in the love of God. Not to say that old relationships will no longer matter, because I think they will, and will somehow be heightened and fulfilled in a way which is not possible in this life. But all in the love of God. The love extending to us to bind our hearts to him, to our beloved, and to each other in friendship. In and through Jesus.

faith and money

Looking at life and the Bible might make one wrinkle up their nose and shake their head. It seems like some things are irreconcilable, or don’t make sense. But then one needs to step back and look at the whole, and try to process it all as much as possible. And then simply trust God. I am thinking right now about faith and money.

Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount about treasures in heaven and not worrying about one’s life (Matthew 6:19-34) are classic in trying to understand and sort through this. And then we have passages that encourage us to not get into debt and save, although in the Biblical world, when one could save, that is taken for granted that they should. But that they shouldn’t hoard, meaning store more than they needed, and that they should be generous to the poor and needy.

Jesus in the passage referred to above suggests that we can end up serving God or money, but not both. The idea is that money can become an idol, money itself not being an evil, but the love of money a root of all kinds of evil, as we read in 1 Timothy (6:10).

I have to wonder at the Christian leaders who actually are worth millions and millions of dollars. I don’t try to judge them for a second and I’m not critical, except when their life styles are exorbitant. Or when their teaching ties one’s material wealth to one’s spirituality. This has been a problem with the health and wealth preachers who seem to suggest that material wealth is indicative of the faith one has. They have great faith, therefore they have the material wealth. And people are to follow their example, especially, too often, by giving to their ministry. I take it for granted that we should give regularly to our church both for the continuation of the ministry in the gospel and in teaching, and in outreach for those who are in need.

Jesus himself said that he had no place to lay his head. And he taught us to pray that the Father would give us our daily bread. Translated for us today in America, that doesn’t mean we have to live from paycheck to paycheck. But that we should be devoted to God in how we handle money, and be generous in giving, and not trust in our material wealth. And a big trap for us here in the United States is debt, whether through student loans, or even through credit cards which we mean to pay off right away, but all too easily accumulate with interests which even if on the lower end then make them hard to pay off.

Faith looks to and depends on God, and what God gives us we are stewards of, in other words we’re responsible to handle that money in a way that honors God. Helping the poor and needy is central to honoring God (Proverbs 14:31). We want to do well with the money we have, but we don’t want to be devoted to money and making more of it, but only to God. All of this requires faith and wisdom, prayer and dependence on God.

Our Father is the one we count on to meet our needs, and that together, as we continue to grow and mature in and through Jesus.

the idolatry of certainty

In recognizing and dismantling the idols of my life (and lifetime), one particularly subtle one which has come starkly into the light lately has been the idol of certainty. I’m not referring to the assurance we have by faith through the gospel. But the idea that we can be certain about this or that apart from God. In more practical terms where I live, it’s the idea that somehow I can rest secure because I have all the ducks in line in a row, everything done right and well.

In the first place in this life, we can only do the best we can. By nature, existence and all that goes into it has too many variables to be assured that all is or will be well. And we humans are marked by our limitations every bit as much as our abilities. It is hit and miss with us, and we might as well accept that, and again, just do the best we can.

But central to all of this for me is to know and acknowledge God as God. The God who made all things, and is making all things new in and through Jesus. I do the best I can which in part can be struggling to arrive to some decision, but all of this in prayer, because I don’t want to rest in certainty, but in God.

In God we do have certainty about the outcome of everything in the end, and of God’s goodness to the end. If all was well in this life, we would surely too easily lapse into a lack of dependence on God like the Laodiceans of old (Revelation 3). Not that we can’t worship God when things are going well. Of course in this life under the sun, not all is well in the human community at large, and sooner than later in our own households and families, either. Even with ourselves.

But a breakthrough I’m experiencing is to recognize my own inclination to want certainty above anything else. When what I really need is God, and God’s promise to us in and through Jesus.

the idolatry of the cross with the flag

While there may well be a subtle critique going on in the New Testament of the idolatry of the state in light of the gospel, and the kingdom that brings, I think by and large the Christian faith was meant to be planted in a way that transcended any nation or government, internationally, and yet not tied down to any one nation or all of the nations put together, but very much on its own, in our American terms today: independent. The church was to be submissive to rulers and authorities, or at least those making up the church, but only insofar as that submission is faithful to the lordship of Christ. We bow the knee in the end to one Lord, and are submissive to those placed in authority insofar as they remain in their place.

In the beginning America was kind of a breakaway from the old world of church and state, but in another way, not. Yes, many people came here to have religious freedom from the state which imposed on the church much of its will in the old world, in fact we might say all of it. The roots of that is back to the Constantinian shift which began what was called the Holy Roman Empire in which only Christians could serve, everyone else essentially excluded. The Reformation in large part was responsible for this shift, though it was the Anabaptists and Baptists who pressed that. Infant baptism, except for Jews was required in the old world and was part of what it meant to be a member not only of the church, but a citizen of the state. In the complexity of that time, many came over with no axe to grind on that score, but to put their roots into the new world. Many of them were of the Church of England, Anglican, called Episcopalian here. While the new world in theory would hold to religious liberty, it was not practiced until the 1830s except for the Quaker state of Pennsylvania. This was a huge shift from the old world, yet almost the same allegiance of the church to the state remained in place. Of course with all kinds of varying understanding as to what that meant depending on the tradition, but except for the Anabaptists who were surely a relatively small minority (Mennonites, Amish, Hutterites, and the like), the state in some measure and degree could be considered Christian.

Fastforward to today. There are many who find no problem at all with pictures of the US flag draped over the cross, maybe with an image of Christ hanging on it. And even for Christians who would be uncomfortable with that, there is little or no hesitation to see the United States in its best version to be a Christian nation. Of course the US always had both believers and nonbelievers in its mix, and while scripture was pointed to as part of its original understanding of what is right and wrong, there was never any pretense on the part of the founding fathers (except for a very few) that the United States was to be a Christian nation, but quite to the contrary. They more or less invoked, or wanted the blessing of the church and of Christianity on and in their endeavor, but this was wholly another experiment entirely, steeped in the Modernist Enlightenment which was still relatively new and fresh at that time.

We have those today on the left and on the right as it’s called, who both make the case more or less of what the United States ought to look like, yes, as a Christian nation. And neither vision is the vision we find in scripture, and specifically in the New Testament in which we read of God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus, and what form that takes through faith and baptism in the church, and instead of what place that has in the world, how the nations and the world should be seen in light of that. One might say the place the state has in the picture in which the gospel and Christ’s kingdom is the main point of it all.

And so the idea of draping a flag over a cross, or for that matter even having the US flag to be understood as basic to the identity of any church, or of course any other national flag for that matter, is idolatry at its core, or at least in danger of bowing the knee in worship to something other than the Lord Jesus. Due respect, honor and submission is one thing. But amalgamation is quite another. Churches, denominations, and individual believers have to make difficult decisions related to this, like whether or not one can be Christian and serve in the military, or in the political arena, and to what extent. But there should never be any question in all of the due submission to the state just who is lord. It is never ever the state, and never the state with the church. Christ is Lord over all, King of kings and Lord of Lords. The gospel is at the heart of our existence as Christ followers, as Christians, whether we recognize that or not. And nothing else can be a part of that.