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.

A Shield and Reward

This is week 2 of Immerse Beginnings, and Sunday will be our second week of our sermon series As He Promised. We are focusing in on the many ways our God keeps his promises to his people. Even when the people are not faithful, God remains faithful to his promises!

Sunday we will be looking at God’s covenant with Abram. To fully understand this covenant promise we need to look across several chapters of Genesis. Let’s start with Genesis 12:1.

     The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.

Genesis 12:1 NIV

It’s not uncommon in today’s world to move away from family. My family lives hundreds of miles from family. This is not unusual in our culture. This would be nearly unheard of, however, in the ancient world. A male was identified in the ancient world as a member of his father’s household, and would assume all property and responsibilities at the time of his father’s death. To leave your country, your people and your father’s household is to give up all rights to Abram’s inheritance.

This still might not resonate with us since we’re so far removed from this culture. Allow me to try to modernize this calling a bit. Suppose God called you to walk away from all your bank accounts, your job, your retirement, your social security, your cell phone and email accounts, and move to a foreign land under an assumed name. You have no safety net of any kind and no way to contact anyone you know. You have very little means of making money because you have left all your assets behind. Now you are startinging to get a grasp of what God is calling Abram to do. And Abram actually does this! He gives up everything and goes where God (who up until now may have been unknown to Abram) calls him to go. And now look at the beginning words of Genesis 15.

“Do not be afraid, Abram. 
I am your shield,
your very great reward.”

Genesis 15:1 NIV

Abram gave up his protection (family clan living in close proximity), and gave up his inheritance. God’s promise to Abram is that God would be Abram’s protection (shield) and inheritance (very great reward). Abram didn’t give up everything to follow God. He followed God and gained everything.

Just like Adam and Eve didn’t have to concern themselves with self care in the Garden, God has promised to take care of, and provide for Abram if he would answer God’s call in faith. And even when Abram deviated from God’s plan, God remained faithful and fulfilled the covenant with Abram, As He Promised.

(Sermon text for 9/20: Genesis 12-15, Heb. 11 – Immerse Reading – Genesis 30:25-50:26)

Forgiveness and the Heart of God

Prayer is less about getting God to do something we want, and more about getting ourselves in tune with who God wants us to be.

When Jesus said “When you pray, say…” I believe he meant it. There is something transformational about the commanded words that Jesus gives us within the Lord’s Prayer…but they aren’t given for us to speak in order to transform God. They are given so that by saying, reflecting, and absorbing these words into our hearts we can be transformed to where our very longings resonate with the heart of God.

Simply put, every desire of our heart cries out “Your kingdom come!”

Close to the heart of our God is forgiveness. When Yahweh draws near to Moses on Mount Sinai, he reveals himself as follows:

“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7 NET

Notice that part of God’s hesed (“loyal love”) is that he forgives iniquity and transgression and sin. This is huge! When God introduces himself and represents his character in words, it includes compassion, grace, loyal love, faithfulness, and forgiveness! What an amazing God!

But God is no push over either. When you choose to be his enemy and reject his covenant, then punishment comes. God is generous, abounding in grace and willing to forgive wrong, but he will not force his forgiveness on those who don’t want it. 

Forgive us our sins, 
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

Luke 11:4 NIV

God is willing to forgive our sins, and we should realize that our sins are many. God is willing to forgive! And God wants our hearts to be like his. The two lines of this statement are connected. We ask God to forgive because (Greek: gar) we forgive. 

We must have a forgiving heart toward those who have sinned against us in order to receive forgiveness from God. This is the way Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness. Our forgiveness depends on our willingness to adopt God’s posture of forgiveness towards others.

So if you still harbor unforgiveness towards others, now is the time to ask God to soften your heart and help you forgive as he does. It’s clear that forgiveness is important to God. Is it important to you?

Prayer: What is it Good For?

Have you ever struggled with how to pray? Have you ever felt like you are supposed to say nice things and be thankful, but you really don’t know how to do that? You’re not alone.

Jesus’ followers asked him to teach them how to pray. It was (and still is) very common in the Jewish world to have memorized prayers for different situations. There was a routine set of prayers that you used every day, and in every situation in which you find yourself. Acts shows us that the early church continued the practice of “the prayers.” (Acts 2:42, 3:1, etc.)

Because of this practice, it’s no wonder that Jesus’ followers wanted their Rabbi to teach them a prayer. Afterall, John had done that for his disciples. (Luke 11:1) And in Luke’s account, due to their request, Jesus gives them a prayer to recite.

 “When you pray, say: 

“ ‘Father, 

hallowed be your name, 

your kingdom come. 

Give us each day our daily bread. 

Forgive us our sins, 

for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. g 

And lead us not into temptation.’ ” 

 Lk 11:2–4 NIV

Notice that it’s Jesus’ expectation that his disciples will pray these exact words. For some reason in my past that rote prayers became akin to vain repetitions, but Jesus doesn’t see it that way at all! He expects his disciples to repeat these words over and over again. “When you pray, say…” The Greek word for “when” is hotan, which means “whenever.” Jesus wanted his disciples to pray this prayer over and over and over again until it became second nature to them.

Why? Because in this prayer we find the heart of Jesus revealed. What he prayed for is of first importance to him and his mission, as it should be for us today when we recite this prayer. In his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, James K. A. Smith talks about the habitual practices we all encounter every day. Even your morning routine, or work routine, or shopping routine, or school routine program and shape you into a product of the world, not a product of the Kingdom. We need reprogramming, and Spiritual habits like prayer do just that!

“If our loves can be disordered by secular [routines], it’s also true that our loves need to be reordered (recalibrated) by [counterroutines]–embodied, communal practices that are ‘loaded’ with the gospel and indexed to God and his kingdom.”

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith, pgs. 57-58

This is exactly what prayer, and specifically the Lord’s Prayer, is designed to do in our life. Prayer isn’t so much moving God into our will, but being shaped into the mission and will of the Father.

I hope you’ll join us Sunday morning at 9:30 CST as we talk about Prayer: Grasping the Heart of God.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?

Sunday in our Bible study we spoke about what it means to fear God, and we noticed that there are a wide range of views on what this means. Some even recounted being taught to be terrified of the Father in the past.

We also referenced a sermon by the great preacher Jonathan Edwards from July 8th, 1741. The Title of that sermon was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” and Edwards could not finish the sermon that day. So many in the congregation were crying out and weeping because they were so terrified of hell based on the words of Edwards that day. I spoke about the abhorrent theology present in the sermon as well. You can read the sermon for yourself, but I want to share a quote from this sermon that illustrates the point.

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: His wrath towards you burns like fire; He looks upon you as worthy of nothing else but to be cast into the fire; He is of purer eyes that to bear to have you in His sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in His eyes than the more hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry GodJonathan Edwards

Effective as this type of preaching may have been, this is not what the Bible tells us about God! Let’s look at 1 John.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.

1 John 4:18-19 NIV

God doesn’t abhor you. He loves you, and he loved you even when you didn’t love him! This is the very reason that Jesus came into the world; not that God abhored you and couldn’t even look at you, but he so loved you that he sent his only Son! (Jn 3:16)

Notice also John’s admonition that in love there is no fear. Why? Because fear has to do with punishment. And just to be clear, there is no condemnation (punishment) for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). For those who are in Christ Jesus, there is no fear of punishment!

Trying to scare the Hell out of people may make for effective preaching, but it distorts the message of Scripture. God isn’t eager to destroy you. He paid the ultimate price for you! You are loved, you are precious, and as a loving Father he pleads with you to love him as well. And those who have chosen to love him in Christ Jesus have no reason to fear.

And yet, we are told that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” (Prov. 9:10)

So what does it mean to fear God? We’ll talk about that Sunday morning. See you there!

Do Not Be Afraid? – Part 2

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 10:27–28 NIV

Notice that Jesus does not teach his disciples that fear is wrong, but rather he reorients their thinking. In Matthew 10 Jesus is sending his disciples out into a world that was hostile to his message. Powerful people were already plotting to kill Jesus, and those speaking in his name would likewise be in danger. Within that context, Jesus commissions his followers to not back down from the mission they have been given. They are to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” and they should not abandon their mission just because it was dangerous. 

But notice also that Jesus never promises to keep these disciples safe. He never says that God is safe! He reminds them that the death they would face in their mission might kill their body, but blowing off their mission would face eternal consequences from God!

I confessed on Sunday morning that for years I read this passage as a reassurance that God would never let anything bad happen to me as long as I was doing what he asked me to do. That’s exactly the opposite of what Jesus is saying! Look at the very next verse.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.

Matthew 10:29 NIV

Jesus never tells us the sparrows won’t fall. God will not keep the sparrow from falling, but he will care for that sparrow as it falls.

Our focus should not be on if we will fall, rather we should focus on whose arms we are falling into.

Our mission is dangerous. Our calling is not safe. But we should not fear what will happen to us in this life. We are worth more than many sparrows, and we will not fall outside of our Father’s care. We should, however, fear the consequences of not carrying out our mission. Disowning Jesus means he will disown us. Living as disciples of Jesus means we have nothing to fear.

If there’s anything in this passage that causes you fear, then there are things that need to change in your life. 

Focus on your mission. Focus on your Father. Focus on Jesus, and don’t be afraid.

Do not be afraid?

“Do not be afraid.”

That phrase appears 74 times in the NIV translation of the Bible. It’s one of the most common phrases in the entire Bible. But even more common than being told to not be afraid, the Bible tells us no fewer than 85 times that we should fear God, his Word, his actions, and his judgement.

God knew that we humans would struggle with fear. That’s why he told us so many times not to fear. But at the same time, there are things God wants us to fear.

Tim Archer shared with me a great illustration of fear. Every day we sit in rooms filled with electrical wiring, and devices. We even carry some of them around in our pockets. We have no fear of this. And yet at the same time we aren’t afraid of our environment or devices, we aren’t willing to stick a screwdriver into an electrical socket. We don’t live in fear of electricity, but we do realize there is a dangerous side.

We understand this when it comes to electricity, but often we don’t act in similar ways when it comes to other issues. We tend to live in the extremes when it comes to fear; either we fear everything, or fear nothing. Neither of these is what God wants.

Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes. – Ecclesiastes 7:18 NIV

On Sunday in the auditorium Bible class, we will begin a study on fear. What does Scripture say about fear, why did God create fear, and how are we to live as followers of Christ?

These lessons will be recorded for later access. You can also join us in person, or via livestream. Until then, I leave you with the words of Moses to God’s people reminding them of how they are to live.

And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good? – Deuteronomy 10:12–13 NIV

Daily Prayer – 7/20/2020

God of all comfort, grant us peace. We pray that as Jesus calmed the storm on Galilee, you would also calm the storms of our lives. May you grant us faith over fear when we face the tumults of health crises, hateful political climates, and blatant injustice. Remind us that though this world is not our home, we do have a mission to fulfill here and now. And help us to show your kingdom, your power, and your glory through our lives this day. Through Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior. Amen.

Morning Prayer for 7/13/2020

God of peace, teach us to live according to your will. May we learn your wisdom so that we may reach those dying in sin around us. May we receive your strength to build your Kingdom while living as foreigners in this land. And may we hear your voice above the noise of this world so that we may go wherever you call. Through Christ, our brother, Lord, and Savior. Amen.

What Kingdom Are You Building?

Let’s try a little eye-opening activity…

Look on Facebook at your previous five posts (or think about your previous 5 conversations with friends). 

Pay close attention to what you said, or shared with others, and then answer these questions:

  • What kingdom am I building with my posts? An earthly kingdom, or Christ’s Kingdom?
  • Were my comments an attack on others made in the image of God, whom Christ died for?
  • Since I am an ambassador of Christ, do people see his likeness in the way I talk to, or about others?

A few verses for your consideration:

With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. – Jas 3:9–10 NIV

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. – Mt 7:1–2 NIV

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. – 1 Jn 4:20–21 NIV

…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. – 2 Co 5:19–20 NIV

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” – Jn 13:34–35 NIV

“I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God. Lk 12:8–9 NIV

You either represent Christ in your actions, or the world in your actions. All the time. In every interaction you have. May we all represent our Savior well.