Idolatry and the Church

Late Saturday afternoon I was paralyzed with a thought…a realization…an all consuming alarm going off in my head, and a knot in the pit of my stomach that just wouldn’t let go. This same thought had floated through my mind on and off over the course of the last 6 months, but today it hit me like a ton of bricks. And I can’t ignore it any more.

I’ll be preaching from Exodus Sunday morning from a text most people think they are familiar with. After God performs many signs and wonders against Egypt, after Israel crosses through the sea, and after God provides for them in the wilderness, the people arrive at Mount Sinai. A beautiful and powerful covenant ceremony takes place…a wedding if you will between God and the people of Israel. This is where we receive the 10 Commandments in the Exodus narrative. They begin like this:

20:1  God spoke all these words: 

20:2 “I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 

20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 

20:4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water below.20:5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me,20:6 and showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. 

Ex 20:1–6 NET

After we read the 10 Commandments, we hear the voice of the nation of Israel speaking to Moses:

“You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.”

Ex 20:19 NET

Did you follow that? The first thing God wants them to do is recognize that He is the one who brought them out of Egypt. They should not worship any other deity, nor try to capture or constrain Him to some sort of created image. That’s what everyone else in their part of the world would do, but this is not what they are called to do. And their response is that they don’t want to hear directly from their Savior. The Creator of heaven and earth is willing to speak directly to them, and they don’t want to hear it.

After God finishes talking to Moses, the very next thing to happen after this wedding scene is sin. Aaron (co-leader of Israel along with Moses and Miriam, the priest who just finished dining in the very presence of God) makes a golden calf idol for the people to worship. But notice what the text tells us:

Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 

32:5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the LORD.” 32:6 So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play. 

Ex 32:4–6 NET

Do you hear the Garden of Eden narrative ringing in your ears within this story? The very first directive God gives Adam and Eve is to not eat this fruit. What’s the first thing they do? They eat the fruit.

The first directive God gives Israel is that He is the one who brought them out of Egypt, so don’t worship any other gods or make an image of him. What’s the first thing they do? In their own context, they eat the fruit. God wants his people to be a “kingdom of priests” who are different from the world around them in order to lead the world to God. But Israel chose to be just like the world.

Now fast forward to today. COVID plagued election season in America.

God has called his church to be a “priesthood” so that we might “proclaim the virtues” of Christ and lead the world to him. But just like Israel, the church has chosen to be just like the world. “Christians” are routinely bowing their knees to a golden donkey or elephant while proclaiming that this is the only hope our world has.

The church has bowed to a golden calf instead of humbly leading the world in worship of our Savior, Jesus the Messiah. Instead of pointing to the cross and the empty tomb, we’ve been pointing to our chosen candidate as if they were gods.

We are also good about pointing to ourselves saying “look what we have made!” When it comes to reaching the lost we focus on programs, and music, and skilled speaking, and comfortable buildings, and coffee bars, and awesome children’s wings, and flashy websites, and social media…the list goes on and on and on. And don’t hear me saying that those things are inherently bad. They are not! Very good things can come from all of them. But when we start thinking that the power to reach the lost comes from that list of things instead of the Holy Spirit’s work on the hearts of the lost bathed in the prayers of the saints, we have bowed our knee to the golden calf.

When did we stop trusting God? When did we stop believing in God’s active role in our world? When did we trade our mission of being the hands and feet of Christ for the cheap substitute of producing an entertaining show?

The last word that Jesus has for the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel is to “Go and make disciples.” And we are all too often comfortable with sitting inside of a nice church building and politely whispering “Ya’ll come!” And now that God has allowed our world to be upended, and our worship routines to be disrupted, our instinct has been to immediately return to the “Ya’ll come” comfort we had in February.

But instead of focusing on how we can get people back at the church building post-COVID, maybe we should focus on how we can get out membership out of our buildings and reach the lost in our communities. Perhaps one of the byproducts of us all dealing with this routine altering plague is that God is sick and tired of our routine!

Sisters and Brothers, it’s time that we stop being just like the world around us. Trusting in the trappings of this world in order to save the lost is worshiping the golden calf. We must be the people of God who get outside of the building and shine His light in the darkness of the world that surrounds us. It’s time that we obey our Savior’s voice and “Go and make disciples,” not stay and wait for the lost to show up. It’s time to stop putting our hope in routines and resources of our own making, and begin prayerfully pleading for the courage and wisdom to fulfill our mission to the lost.

Long story short: Stop bowing to the golden calf.

3 Sins You Likely Ignore

Most followers of Jesus could probably recite the fruit of the Spirit. But Paul actually gives two lists in this passage; one list to live by, and one to avoid. Unfortunately we don’t do a very good job of avoiding the so called “acts of the flesh.” Do you know what’s on the list?

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Galatians 5:19-21 NIV

Some of these are fairly self explanatory, but I’d like to focus on three that you may not have paid attention to. The first is discord. The Greek word is eris and is translated as discord, dissension, rivalry, arguments, strife, and quarrel in your New Testament. The second word I’d like to look at is dissensions. This Greek word dichostasia is only used here and in Romans 16:17 to instruct the church to stay away from those who cause “divisions.” The last word I want us to look at is factions. The Greek word is hairesis which is translated as factions, heresies, sect, and party (group).

Most of us would heartily agree that sexual immorality, fits of rage, drunkenness, orgies, idolatry and the like are clearly wrong. Of course living like this would keep someone out of the kingdom of God (v. 21). But causing division? Arguing? Rivalry? Really? Yes! A divisive person “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” 

It’s clear that Jesus and the writers of the New Testament hated division. It’s almost always listed along with all those sins that we hate. And yet we seem to be ok with division for some strange reason. The only time it’s really ok to divide is from a divisive person. The church is supposed to have nothing to do with people like that! (Rom. 16:17)

So before we speak we need to check our hearts, check your motives, and carefully watch our words. We are the people who are called to build up the body of Christ, not tear it down.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

Ephesians 4:9 NIV

Stop Acting Like Satan

For the next 5 weeks the attention of our bulletin articles will be to support our readings from Immerse: Messiah. If you haven’t decided to join us for Immerse yet, it’s not too late. We have 5 groups meeting on 5 different days in 5 different locations. Hopefully you can make one of them fit into your schedule.

This week what really stood out to me was from Romans 14 (Immerse pg. 198). After talking about differing views about food between Gentile and Jewish Christians in Rome, he also talks about calendar differences between the two. Coming from very different backgrounds means they obviously have very different practices. Yet Paul’s goal is not who is right and who is wrong. Instead his goal is unity. Each group should be fully convinced they are right before God (even though they are not practicing the same things!)

Again, Paul is concerned with their unity, not uniformity!

He then summarizes his argument, and gives us some clues as to what might be happening in Rome.

So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember, we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For the Scriptures say, 

“ ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, 

‘every knee will bend to me, 

and every tongue will declare allegiance praise to God.’ ” 

Yes, each of us will give a personal account to God. So let’s stop condemning each other.

Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall.

Romans 14:10-13 NLT (emphasis added)

Apparently these Roman Christians were spending a great deal of time accusing and attacking each other. That’s acting like Satan, not Christ. (FYI – “satan” means accuser)

Paul isn’t concerned with matters of opinion, he’s concerned with infighting that might ruin someone’s faith in the Lordship of Christ. Specifically in the context, don’t appear to be worshipping idols (which are demons – see Deut. 32:17 & 1 Cor. 10:20) and in doing so cause another person to fall into this practice.

The history of the Church is full of those who excelled at accusing and condemning other Christians. Sadly this is not just a sin of the past. It still happens today, and people lose their faith as a result. This is exactly what Paul is telling us not to do!

Disagreements will happen. God knows that. Paul tells us to seek unity, not uniformity.

But the moment we let these disagreements turn into accusations and mud slinging, we’ve joined team satan. (Rev. 12:10)

And that’s simply not a team I’m willing to be a part of. How about you?

Don’t Make This Mistake Today!

Have you ever wondered why people are afraid of being different?

How boring would this world be if we were all the same?

If we all had the exact same abilities, and all had the same areas of deficiency, what would this world look like?

The same is true of the church.

The apostle Matthew tells us about Jesus’ thoughts on being different.

Matthew 5:14 “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden.

Cannot be hidden…yet too often we try to hide. We are called to be a bright light in a dark world, but we try to cover our light. A city perched on a hilltop for all to see, but we often try to camouflage who we truly are.

Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t try to hide!

Matthew 5:16 – “In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”

We are called to be different. We are called to stand out. We are called to shine our lights so bright that people will take notice of how different we truly are called to be as Christians.

This week we’ll be looking at examples that Jesus and his followers left us of just how different we are supposed to be in this world.

In the meantime, don’t be afraid to be different. Don’t be afraid to stand out.

Don’t be afraid to shine!

Picture by Stefano Cacciatore

The Shocking Truth About Floaters

Floaters frustrate me.

Do you know what I mean by “floaters?”

Floaters are the people who float from church to church so frequently that they never settle in one place long enough to really be a part of a church family.

Floaters frustrate me.

I knew a family of floaters one time. The head floater of this family told me that his family simply couldn’t find a church family that suited them. Oh they’d find churches where they liked the music fine, but didn’t much like the sermons. They’d find a place where they liked the sermons, but didn’t much like the music. And the members of these churches  seemed friendly enough, but the floater family never could seem to make friends (probably because they wouldn’t stay put long enough to really get to know anyone.)

Floaters frustrate me.

But they are also a valuable source of insight and information for a church.

You see, floaters have had far more first experiences with churches than you or I probably ever will. They are hyper aware of their surroundings each and every time they step into a worship service. Because of this, they will see things and experience things you miss due to familiarity.

What do I mean? When we become familiar with our building, our worship style, our Bible class style, the layout of our building and parking lot, we overlook certain things that might be off-putting to visitors simply because they are familiar.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. I visited a church a few years ago that had a serious odor as soon as you walked in the front door. It was bad. It smelled like an open sewer the moment you cracked the front door. Turns out that there were bathrooms just inside the front doors that were causing the problem (huge problem), but nobody there seemed to notice.

Another example was a church that had a lighting problem. Over the years a large number of bulbs and fixtures stopped working, and nobody bothered to fix the problem. It was so bad that I witnessed people getting out flashlights in order to read their Bible. And no, I’m not exaggerating.

We become blind to the way other people view us, our worship, and our facilities. It’s a good idea every once in a while to ask visitors, or frequent floaters how things could be improved.

If nothing else, ask yourself some of these questions as if you were visiting your church for the very first time:

  • When I pull in the parking lot, can the entrances clearly be identified, or am I going to have to drive around the building a few times in hopes of finding an entrance?
  • Does the exterior of the building look like this church cares about its facilities, or is the landscaping and appearance an absolute mess?
  • If I am stepping into this building for the first time, do I have any idea where I’m going? Are there signs and people here to help me find my way?
  • Will anyone explain to me what I’m going to experience during my time here? How long is the service? What are we going to do? Why are we going to do these things? How am I supposed to find this information out?
  • If I visit the church website (yes, you absolutely need one) will I be able to answer all of the previously mentioned questionsas well as get a sense that this is a loving, vibrant, and active congregation that cares deeply about people? All people?

And quite possibly the biggest question of them all:

  • If I were to attend this church as a visitor, would I feel that my presence was greatly appreciated, that people cared about me enough to get to know me, and that my time here was the highlight of my week?

If you are unsure about that last question, then I would suggest your congregation do some serious rethinking of how you do things, because you just might be the reason those floaters keep floating by.

And floaters frustrate me.