idols 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

John Calvin was only echoing what scripture says when he referred aptly to the propensity for us to set up idols in our hearts. And I mean Christians, followers of Jesus, even worshipers of God.

Of course true worship most certainly excludes such. Worship is a proper response to God’s revelation of himself in and through Jesus. It is dependent on the Spirit who helps us not only see the truth, but align ourselves with it.

But as there has always been, there are plenty of idols in the land. An idol, simply put is anything which either sets itself up, or is set up in place of God. And in our society and culture there are idols aplenty.

Anything can become an idol so that most often the things people idolize are well and good in their proper place, or at least elements of them. Whereas the good out of place becomes evil.

Idolatry, as we can see from the text, leads to evil deeds. We become like the god we serve (as it says in the psalms). Usually that’s a mixture of good and bad, which in the end doesn’t add up. But is deceptive, nonetheless. It always seems good to be devoted to something and do well by it. But we must beware lest that devotion stifles our devotion to God. We can end up being double minded, not serving God, or having the faith needed to serve him.

We must be careful here, because what may easily become an object of idolatry for myself, by grace may not be so at all to another. The idols referred to in Ezekiel were set up in their hearts, in other words, it was a heart issue. So that we must beware of making a list of idols. Some things may be much more prone to becoming idolatrous than others, but again, much is dependent on the take of each individual, or people group.

The best antidote against idolatry is the reception of grace in and through Jesus, so that we might learn to worship God acceptably with reverent awe. Sometimes we must take drastic measures ourselves to get rid of the root in our hearts bearing the poisonous fruit. But that will do no good unless it is replaced with the worship of God in our hearts and lives. With the readiness to receive needed forgiveness and ongoing cleansing through regular confession of our sins.


one thing the brevity of life suggests: the blink of life is about God

“Show me, Lord, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.”

Psalm 39

It rather occured to me yesterday, while working my way in meditation through this psalm, that the brevity of life is suggestive that life is really about God, period. Of course it’s about so much more. But God is to be our god, the one who is first, who we’re devoted to,. God is like the air we breathe spiritually, we’re even dependent on him for physical breath. He is the love and life in which we all consist and live, through whom we live and love others. So it’s silly for us to want to cut God off or think we have no need of him.

Life is lived in the light and life God provides in the natural and spiritual spheres. And we are meant to live in close fellowship and communion not only with other human beings, but first and foremost with God himself (or God’s self, since God strictly speaking is not masculine, but whose image includes all the good created in humanity, including masculinity and femininity. Nevertheless as N. T. Wright, I believe, wrote, I retain how God was spoken of by those who recevied scripture so that I use the masculine pronoun). And our heart’s devotion and worship is to be of God. In doing so we love others in the love of God. In a certain sense very true in creation even apart from such devotion, but all the more true in the communion of the new creation in a love that overflows in and through Jesus by the Spirit.

And so, while I was meditating on that psalm which has nothing directly to say on this, the thought that came to me is certainly in keeping with all of scripture and how the church has traditionally understood scripture: Life is all about God. Life is here and gone, just like that. Which makes it all the more urgent that we keep God front and center in and through Jesus. Hands down our own highest good and the highest good of the world.

always worshiping — a good word and reminder to me from Brad and Rebekah

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Room. He brings their blood as a sin offering. But the bodies are burned outside the camp. Jesus also suffered outside the city gate. He suffered to make the people holy by spilling his own blood. So let us go to him outside the camp. Let us be willing to suffer the shame he suffered. Here we do not have a city that lasts. But we are looking for the city that is going to come.

So let us never stop offering to God our praise through Jesus. Let us talk openly about our faith in him. Then our words will be like an offering to God. Don’t forget to do good. Don’t forget to share with others. God is pleased with those kinds of offerings.

Hebrews 13

Brad and Rebekah are a husband/wife worship team, who by faith have shared their ministry of leading worship which includes writing worship songs in helping people in the church worship God. I’ve heard them twice in our chapel at Our Daily Bread Ministries. Truly a gift from God in both their skills and talent in leading and in song writing. What I like best about their ministry -and the rest is good- is the setting of it: it is in real life.

We were once part of a Vineyard church, and my love of what is called the Vineyard, continues. In fact, Deb and I need to get away when it doesn’t conflict with our own schedule to take in and be a part of some Vineyard worship again. Some criticize that way of singing to the Lord and to each other in a church setting. All I know is that for years we would do so, and God would be front and center in and through Jesus and we would be singing, often with tears streaming down our faces, people kneeling and sometimes dancing. I think of David who in the eyes of at least one played the fool when he danced before the Lord with an uninhibited exuberance and freedom (2 Samuel 6). I think we would do better if we did something of the same at times, even regularly.

Brad and Rebekah helped jog in me my need to connect more with God in this way, to lift up my voice to the Lord in praise regardless of circumstances or how I feel. Their focus is on God and the gospel, and that is the focus of true worship and praise. In an interview, they point to Lamentations 3 as central in how they view worship. I need that right now, to learn to worship God in the midst of trouble. To be among the worshipers the Father seeks (John 4).

As I noted yesterday, this doesn’t mean we don’t come to God as we are in all our brokenness and even fear. But we do so, knowing that God receives us in love, in and through his Son. That by the Spirit, we can worship and in so doing become more and more God’s children through and through, not referring to status, but practice and yes, experience. A worship that carries through to all of life. In and through Jesus.

the Psalms and a popular Christian mindset contrary to them

Once when leading devotions for our team at work, I asked them in line with Psalm 88 (which ends with, “darkness is my closest friend”), something like if a Christian could ever identify with such a thought, and no one raised their hands in affirmation. And the popular worship songs of today seem to exclude the likes of me, who readily admits to such struggle as not only isolated, but ongoing, certainly interspersed with praise and the Lord’s help in overcoming such.

As in the tradition of the church we need to regularly read the psalms along with the rest of scripture. In our church every week, along with an Old Testament reading (historical reading), New Testament reading (reading from a letter) and Gospel reading (the last and climax of all from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John), we have a responsive reading from a Psalm. And I have been reading the Psalms through every month.

But I sadly dare say that perhaps contemporary worship today, while it has much good, fails to some extent to reflect a worship which comes before God with much struggle such as we read over and over again in the psalms as well as in the rest of scripture, I would argue the New Testament not excluded. And I believe this is surely to our great loss. Although at the same time, I am appreciative of people who seem to live freely of the struggles which plague me, not that people around me pick that up, particularly if I’m in conversation with them, which I often find uplifting.

Michael Card has an excellent music album which is a brilliant exception to this rule, well worth your listen: The Hidden Face of God.

I might want to suggest that this problem is part of an aversion to scripture in general in what is called pop theology, or how the faith is taught (or I might want to say, not taught) to people today in the churches. We don’t want to face the hard things in scripture, or we might even want to ignore them or even explain them away. One of the strengths I’ve noticed in a great, relatively new resource, Our Daily Bread for Kids, includes hard things normally excluded in material for children, doing so in a wise, careful way. I think we should end up seeing God, not reduced at all in greatness and goodness, which I think is an unfounded fear found in Christians considering scripture today. I would guess that much of the time this is of course a mistaken reduction of God to the likes of us, the God who is love.

This all may be a case of a triumphalism which wants to press into the present what will only be true in the future. At the same time no one really lives there, and people who advocate such spirituality will for the most part acknowledge that, I think. We live in the tension of the “already/not yet.” And in that tension we find God to be gloriously great and gloriously good in and through Jesus.

our head is where our heart is (and the rest follows)

What are we thinking about? And from that, what are we doing? One can be sure that where our heart is, there our head is as well. And the rest of us follows.

That is intimated or made clear in both Jesus’ words as well as in the New Testament letters. Here are a couple places:

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

It doesn’t take long in reading the Bible and specifically the New Testament and Jesus’ call to realize that this life takes all of us. Not part, not just a bit here and there, not even the best part or parts of us. Everything, period. We get into trouble when we think we can work through or attempt to do the hard stuff when our minds have been elsewhere. Why? Because our hearts were taken up with something else.

This can be so subtle. I’m not even thinking about what is clearly and overtly sinful. But this becomes sinful, even in things that in themselves are well and good and have their place. If we are entirely occupied with them.

Where is our head? Well, we have to ask the question, where is our heart? Then confession of our sin should follow. So that we can get our hearts and heads back on track. And follow.

meditation for the Epiphany

With today being the Epiphany, Christmas season has ended and the season of Epiphany has begun. Epiphany is the idea of a revelation that makes a difference, that changes things, that can even change our lives.

In the case of the Christ child, lives indeed were changed many years ago, when Magi from the east, perhaps from the far or near east, we don’t know, but from scripture and at least from divine guidance through the appearance of a star made their way to visit a king who would be the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Messiah for the world.

These men were struck by this star and persevered in this planning and undertaking of a long journey with the costly gifts of gold (emblematic of royalty), frankincense (symbolic of prayer rising to God) and myrrh (reminding us of the suffering to come). When they arrived at the house where the young child and his mother were, they fell prostrate before him and presented to him their gifts.

May we have that same spirit, that same light, yes that epiphany, that come what may we may persevere to follow the light, that we too may see his face and behold his glory.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod,Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him.When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Matthew 2:1-12

Lois Tverberg on the Shema being a call to (or oath of) allegiance rather than a creed to be recited

Echad—The One and Only

The other key word in the first line of the Shema is echad (ech-HAHD). Its most common meaning is simply “one,” but it can also encompass related ideas, like being single, alone, unique, or unified. The multiple shades of meaning of echad and the difficult wording of the rest of the line have made the Shema a topic of debate for millennia.

Part of the problem is that Deuteronomy 6:4 doesn’t even have verbs. It literally reads: “YHWH … our God … YHWH … one.” The verse can be read either as saying “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone,” or “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Of these two readings, the more common reading is the second, that “the LORD is one” in the sense that God is unique. There is only one God, the God of Israel. So this line is usually understood as a statement of belief in monotheism.

The word echad has been a sticking point between Jews and Christians. Often Jews point to the fact that it means “one” as a reason that they cannot believe in the Trinity or in the deity of Christ. And Christians respond that echad can refer to a compound unity, as when God created morning and evening, and together they made yom echad (“one day) (cf. Genesis 1:5). Or when Adam and Eve, through marriage, became basar echad (“one flesh”) (Genesis 2:24).

This whole debate hinges on interpreting the Shema as a creed; that is, “the LORD is one” is a statement about what kind of being God is. But, interestingly, one of the most widely-read Jewish Bible translations now renders Deuteronomy 6:4 as “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone” rather than “The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” It does so because in recent decades, scholars have come to believe that the original, ancient sense of echad in this verse was more likely to be “alone” than “one.” In Zechariah 14:9, for instance, echad has this sense: “The LORD will be king over all the earth; on that day the LORD will be echad and his name echad” (pers. trans.). This is a vision of the messianic age, when all humanity will cease to worship idols and revere only God and call on his name alone.

Jewish scholar Jeffrey Tigray asserts that even though the Scriptures clearly preach monotheism, the Shema itself is not a statement of belief. It’s an oath of loyalty. He calls the first line of the Shema “a description of the proper relationship between YHVH and Israel: He alone is Israel’s God. This is not a declaration of monotheism, meaning that there is only one God…. Though other peoples worship various beings and things they consider divine, Israel is to recognize YHVH alone.”

Why is this important? Because it changes the sense of what the Shema communicates. Rather than merely being a command to a particular belief about God, it is actually a call for a person’s absolute allegiance to God. God alone is the one we should worship; him only shall we serve. As often as the Shema is called a creed or a prayer, it is better understood as an oath of allegiance, a twice-daily recommitment to the covenant with the God of Israel.

As Western Christians we are used to reciting creeds and statements of belief in order to define our faith. We expect to find one here too. So we easily could easily misunderstand that Jesus was saying that it is extremely critical that we believe in God’s “oneness.” But when properly understood, this line shows that the greatest commandment is actually a call to commit ourselves to the one true God.

Reading the line this way solves another mystery about what Jesus was saying. If he was asked what the greatest commandment was, why does he begin by quoting a line about God being “one”? Because if you read this line as about committing  oneself to God as one’s Lord, it flows directly into the next line in the Shema, explaining why we should love God with every fiber of our being. If the Lord alone is our God, and we worship no other gods, we can love him with all of our heart and soul and strength. The two sentences together become one commandment, the greatest in fact—to love the Lord our God.

Once again, in the light of their Hebrew context, we find that Jesus’ words call us beyond what is going on in our brains. We are not just to “hear” but to take heed, to respond, to obey. And we are not just called to believe in the oneness of God, but to place him at the center of our lives.

To do that, we are to love God with all of our heart and soul and strength and mind. Each of these words, in their Hebrew context, can expand our understanding of our calling and the very essence of the Scriptures, as Jesus understood it.

Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life, 38-40.