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.

The Problem With the Ten Commandments

The Decalogue, otherwise known as the Ten Commandments, have impacted the world in ways that very few things have. They are the basis for many legal systems, they are foundational to our understanding of God, and unfortunately they are the source of much controversy in our day and time. They are a small portion of the sum of God’s Word given to Moses, and yet everyone seems to know (or know about) them. 

And still I think they are greatly misunderstood. The Decalogue is referenced throughout Scripture, and is present in its entirety in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. And yet even in these two passages there are differences between the two lists. They are ten “words” to be literal with the Hebrew language, and even what exactly those ten are is debated. Jewish readers will tell you the first command is:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

Deuteronomy 5:6 NIV

If one counts this as a command rather than an introduction, then you wind up with 11. Various groups have debated on how to settle that discrepancy, some by uniting 2 & 3 (Dt. 5:8 & 11), while other groups combine 1-3 as one command and divide up the last command into two parts (Dt. 5:21).

In reality, determining the exact grouping is not as important as the text itself. But even the text is problematic when removed from the context of the Torah…after all the Decalogue isn’t independent of the rest of Torah, and really serves as more of a summary, or a statement of understanding before we get into the more technical parts of the law. What kind of killing is defined as murder? That detail is not in the Decalogue. We need the rest of the Torah for that.

Many government buildings have had statues, or monuments removed because the Decalogue was printed upon them. And while I can understand the Christian’s desire to see these monuments remain, I’m also puzzled. If we want God’s Word present at these government buildings, then why not seek to have the Sermon on the Mount put on a monument instead of the Decalogue? Or better yet, why not the Greatest Commands?

When Jesus was asked what the greatest command was he gave two, not one. They are connected and inseparable. I would suggest you cannot fully keep one without the other. Fully loving God requires loving your neighbor, and truly loving your neighbor requires you know and love God. 

I think it’s worth noting that neither of the commandments Jesus gave came from the Decalogue. Rather they come from the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9) as well as the eighteenth verse of the various laws found in Leviticus 19.

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” 

Mark 12:28-31 NIV

Jesus said all the laws and prophets hang on these two commands (Mt. 22:40). Even the Decalogue falls short when compared to the Greatest Commands. Love God with all of your everything. Love your neighbor as yourself. “There is no commandment greater than these.” 

The real problem with any commandment from God is that if they simply exist in writing, they are useless. These monuments with the Ten Commandments inscribed have done little to prevent our culture from turning further and further from God.

Perhaps our world would be better served by Jesus’ followers living out the Greatest Commands instead of relying on words carved in stone. 

(Sermon text for 10/6: Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Mark 12:28-31)

5 Reasons Not To Obey God – The Calling of Moses

Last week our focus was on Jacob and the faithfulness God showed by keeping his promises, even while wrestling with Jacob. He also gave Jacob a new name, Israel – one who struggles with God.

This week we will talk about Moses, a complex character just like Jacob. Moses had been hiding out for about 40 years as a shepherd because he had committed murder back in Egypt. Now, at roughly the age of 80, Moses saw a burning bush and God called him to lead the nation of Israel out of slavery (Acts 7:23,30).  There are several points to ponder in this great text, but I want to focus on just one area: Moses didn’t want to do it!

At least 5 times in Exodus 3 & 4 Moses comes up with excuses for why he cannot do the job. “Who am I…what shall I tell them…what if they don’t believe…I have never been eloquent…” And the final excuse makes it abundantly clear what Moses wants:

But Moses said, “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.”

Exodus 4:13 NIV

To state that Moses was a reluctant participant in the work of God through the Exodus is an understatement. He did not want to go! The text tells us that Moses made God angry through his excuses and hesitation, but once again notice the faithfulness of God through this statement:

“I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do.”

Exodus 4:15 NIV

Even though Moses was not the most eager participant, God promised that he will “teach” Moses and Aaron what to do. God wasn’t going to just toss them to the wolves, he would be with them and would teach them.

Life is often difficult. And if we’re honest, God has called the church to do things that most of us don’t want to do. We would prefer being called to sit in the pews instead of obeying the command to make disciples (Mt. 28:19) Most of us can think of a hundred reasons why we aren’t qualified to do what God has called the church to do, but we forget that God is also a teacher at heart. 

There’s an old saying that I love:

God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called.

That’s the story of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses…and it’s our story too. We don’t have to rely on our own abilities if we are obeying the work God has called us to. He will prepare the way, he will take care of all the variables, and he will teach us as we go (Lk. 12:12, Jn. 14:26, 1 Jn. 2:27)

(Sermon text for 9/29: Exodus 1:8-14; 3:1-15; Mark 12:26-27)