Tag Archives: Idolatry

An Important Postscript

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
1 John 5:21 (NIV)

I find it interesting how writers choose to end their letters. Some people regularly add postscripts with little bullets of thought that they realized they forgot to add in the body of the message. Some have a stock sign-off like “Sincerely yours” that might be personalized to the writers own preference. I’ve always been partial to one of Paul’s favorite phrases “Grace and peace” or the chipper sounding Brit salute “Cheers!”

So it was that John’s sign-off on the letter to followers of Jesus leapt off the page at me this morning when I got to the end of the chapter. For the entire letter John has been confronting the false teaching of gnostic contemporaries who spreading all sorts of contrary and false ideas about who Jesus was. Today’s final chapter was no different. The gnostics of John’s day that Jesus was just a man upon whom Messiah descended at his baptism but then departed before death. Therefore, the gnostics claimed, Jesus death was nothing special (and there was no resurrection). John writes that both the water of Jesus baptism and the blood of His death were essential in the spiritual sense.

Then John gets to the end of his letter and simply says, “Dear children, keep yourself from idols.”

Where did that come from?! He hasn’t written anything about idols or idolatry in the entire letter. It’s essentially a postscript thrown in without the “P.S.” But postscripts are typically important thoughts to writers. They want to get it in. They don’t want us to forget it. It’s worthy of sneaking in as a final thought.

So I’ve been thinking about idolatry this morning in the quiet. I find that it’s easy for me as a 21st century western human to dismiss the notion of idolatry. It conjures up images of ancient pagan statues and religious artifacts from art and natural history museums. I have no real connection. When I come upon an admonition to “keep from idols” I pass over it without giving it serious thought. But I looked up the definition of idolatry this morning:

idolatry [ahy-doluh-tree] n. excessive or blind adoration, reverence, devotion, etc.

Excessive and blind adoration, reverence, and devotion can be given to almost anything. It’s not confined to ancient statuary. Along my life journey I’ve encountered individuals who appeared to offer more reverence to the church building and/or sanctuary than to the God it was built to honor. As I meditated this morning on the things to which we offer “excessive devotion” and it wasn’t hard to think of things…

I’ve known men who are so devoted to a sport like golf that they pretty much ignore their job, their marriage and their family. It’s all they think about, talk about, and desire to do.

Just this week a person told me about a poor teen dancer in the family whose father was so blindly devoted to himself that he couldn’t show up on time nor practice the father-daughter dance for her recital. Instead he embarrassed her by simply standing there next to her refusing to participate in the actual dance.

I recently had a fellow believer who admitted that they were so obsessed with cross fit that it had begun to be all they thought about to the detriment of other areas of their life.

These are all forms of idolatry according to the definition of the term. Any hobby, interest, or activity and slip across the from  a healthy life-giving piece of life into an obsessive, blind devotion that begins to have negative effect on my life and relationships. John’s postscript bullet is important. If I believe all the right stuff with my brain but my life is blindly obsessed or devoted to the wrong thing, then my adherence to some statement of belief is meaningless.

This morning, I’m taking stock of my own interests and devotions. Do they bring life and goodness to me and my relationships, or do they distract me from critical life priorities?

Still Using the Same Bloody Playbook

So Jehu destroyed Baal worship in Israel. However, he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit—the worship of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan.
2 Kings 10:28-29 (NIV)

As I read the chapter this morning, I couldn’t help but think about the news reports coming out of the cities held by ISIS. Our own media have been slow to report the brutal daily realities there. People forced into religious submission and immediate death sentences for any who do not proclaim religious allegiance. Immediate death for anyone caught in the most minor moral infraction such as smoking a cigarette or not wearing the right garb. Those of other faiths beheaded or crucified. Dead bodies hung out for public display as a warning to all.

Life in ancient times was bloody and brutal. Today’s chapter is not a light, devotional read. It’s a veritable blood bath. Last week I used the Godfather saga as a modern parallel to Jehu’s take over of Ahab and Jezebel’s regime. The word picture continues to parallel in the today’s chapter. Having “capped” Ahab and Jezebel, the new Godfather Jehu consolidates his power by killing all of Ahab and Jezebel’s sons, all of their inner circle, their loyal followers, and then all of the members of the religious cult of Baal to whom Ahab and Jezebel zealously ascribed.

For ancient political upstarts like Jehu this type of bloody takeover was nothing new or groundbreaking. There was a well-worn playbook for taking over and consolidating power, and Jehu’s actions were strictly takeover “by the book.” Even in The Godfather II they reference the ancient Roman Empire as blueprint for how they organized and carried out “business.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I thought the most important thing mentioned in today’s chapter was when it is reported that Jehu had wiped out the corruption and idolatry of Ahab and Jezebel, but then he continued to commit his own personal idolatry by worshipping the idols of golden calves. One idolatrous regime gives way to another. Jehu was happy to violently wipe-out his enemies and set up his own personal empire, but in the end he wasn’t that much different from his predecessors.

Which brings me back to today’s headlines, and my own thoughts in the quiet of the morning. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The reports out of cities controlled by Islamic State read like the ancient story of Jehu (and the Inquisition, as well). Even in our own “modern” and “enlightened” culture we have groups of people both left and right who have actively ascribed to violence, power, and intimidation to do away with those who disagree and subject others to their personal world views.

Maybe we’re not so civilized as we think we are.

I’m reminded this morning of Jesus’ words, “You have heard it said…, but I say….” As a follower of Jesus I am called to a different playbook that says if you want to gain power you have to let it go, if you want to lead you have to serve, if you want to ascend you must humbly bow. Jesus’ playbook begins with a change of heart that leads to a change in behavior and relationships. It grows organically by contagion.

The problem with Ahab, Jehu, Rome, the Corleones, Islamic State, the Alt-Right, and Antifa is that it’s all about external power to subject others to their will, but this only serves to sow seeds of hatred and rebellion in the hearts those subjected. Thousands of years of human history and we still haven’t learned the lesson. We’re still falling back to the old playbook. It often works, for a time.

I much prefer Jesus’ strategy. Start with changing the individual heart and then working outward using simple tactics of love, grace, forgiveness, and generosity. I’m not forcing anyone to follow this path, mind you, but I’m happy to buy you a cup of coffee or a pint and tell you about my own personal experience.

Devoted to a Bread Maker

Their land is filled with silver and gold,
    and there is no end to their treasures;
their land is filled with horses,
    and there is no end to their chariots.
Their land is filled with idols;
    they bow down to the work of their hands,
    to what their own fingers have made.
Isaiah 2:7-8 (NRSV)

Last night Wendy and I were on the couch watching the Cubs game when we were surprised by the doorbell. There was a small group of high school youth from one of our area churches who were on a “bigger or better” scavenger hunt. They had with them a stuffed snowman they had procured from a previous, unsuspecting neighbor.  “Do you have anything that’s bigger or better than this that you’d trade for it?” the young people asked.

Our basement storage room (which is quite sizable) is filled with things we are not using and may not even remember we have. So is the garage attic, and the back of the garage. The answer to the young people’s question should really be: “Yes! How many options would you like us to give you among the infinite number of boxes, totes an bins full of things we own but don’t use?”

Then, as Wendy scoured the basement storage and I scoured the garage, the more nagging question became a reality. “What thing, of all this junk I don’t use and forget I even own, am I willing to part with?” It is so intriguing to find how much value we place, not on the object itself, but on the possession of it.

We offered the excited group of young people an old bread maker I found sitting in the garage, and Wendy put our new stuffed snowman with our stack of Christmas decorations. Everyone enjoyed a laugh and we wished the young people well on their scavenger hunt. I wonder what they ended up with.

I thought about last night’s experience as I listened to the prophet Isaiah (I listened to this morning’s chapter being read as I returned from a breakfast appointment this morning) describe the neighboring nations. He described their wealth, their riches and their possessions. They made cast idols and then bowed down “to the work of their hands.”

If find that we in 21st century western culture are quick to be dismissive at the thought of idolatry as described by the ancient prophets. People bowing down to a golden calf or a statue of some animal seems so silly. But, I’m not sure I’m really willing to see the point. What is “worship” but the act of being devoted to something? And what is “devotion” but the giving of time, attention and energy to something?

“…they bow down to the work of their hands.”

How much time, energy ad attention do I devote to the acquisition, maintenance, upkeep, renovation, and storage of “the work of our hands?” Perhaps I am devoted to things made by human hands. Perhaps what was called “idolatry” in 700 B.C., I simply call “success” in a consumerist culture.

This morning I am rolling my own eyes at myself, and the discomfort I feel with the questions I’m asking myself. I don’t like asking myself, “Am I willing to part with this old bread maker sitting in my garage which hasn’t been used in years?” and acknowledging that there’s a small voice in my soul that balks at giving it up. At the same time, I am feeling really good about giving it up and having it out of my garage. Perhaps it’s a mustard seed of change.

Lord, have mercy on this poor soul that bows down to things made with hands.

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Life is Messy

Gideon made an ephod of it and put it in his town, in Ophrah; and all Israel prostituted themselves to it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and to his family.
Judges 8:27 (NRSV)

Life is messy. We generally like things to be black and white and believe that things would be so much easier if they were. We like our movies to provide us with simple delineations between the people who wear white hats and those who wear black hats. We like the ending of our movies to wrap up neatly. The bad guy is dead. The good guy rides off into the sunset.

But life is rarely that way. We would like a simple choice for President. We want the person who is fully qualified, looks the part, has no moral flaws, is void of skeletons in the closet, inspires us, communicates clearly, and unites a diverse citizenship. That person, however, does not exist.

Even the great heroes of the faith, whom God raised up as leaders in ancient days, were sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. They were flawed the same as me and you. God raised up Gideon to defeat the Midianites, but in today’s chapter we find that Gideon was far from perfect. He defeated an idolatrous oppressor only to create a golden ephod (generally, a garment woven with gold) that became an idol itself. Gideon, for all of his leadership qualities, had his flaws. With his power and prestige he amassed for himself many wives and concubines. With 70 sons on record, the total number of his children had to be well over a hundred. Talk about messy.

Today, I am reminded that on this life journey East of Eden we rarely get the storylines of our lives to work out how we like them in our movies. Despite our perceptions, people rarely fit into simple black hats or white hats. Most all of us wear shades of gray. We all make mistakes along the way; Some of them tragic. We have messy lives, messy relationships, and mortal flaws. Riding off into the sunset is often just the view we choose to see through our rose colored glasses.

I do not believe, however, that this is cause for pessimism or cynicism. Rather, it is an opportunity for grace, forgiveness, and understanding. Just as Jesus taught, if I can be honest about the log in my own eye, I can learn to have grace for the speck in the eye of my brother, my sister, my friend, and my neighbor.

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featured photo by senorhans via Flickr

It’s Not an LSD Hallucination…Really!

Ezekiels Vision

Now the cherubim were standing on the south side of the temple when the man went in, and a cloud filled the inner court. Then the glory of the Lord rose from above the cherubim and moved to the threshold of the temple. The cloud filled the temple, and the court was full of the radiance of the glory of the Lord.

Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim.
Ezekiel 10:3-4, 18 (NIV)

For those reading the prophetic visions of the ancient prophets for the first time, they must seem like nothing more than the recollection of an LSD induced hallucination at a Grateful Dead concert. It is difficult, if not impossible, to make sense of these visions in the vacuum of the chapter itself. There is a broader context that has to be considered in order for things to start making sense. Think about it, if someone simply read the “prophecy” about Harry Potter and Voldemort revealed at the end of The Order of the Phoenix and didn’t know anything about the rest of the story, would it make any sense by itself?

For me, there were three pieces of information outside today’s chapter that brought Ezekiel’s vision out of the haze and into focus:

  1. Moses experience on the mountain of God. Way back in the story of Moses and the Ten Commandments, Moses goes up the mountain to receive the tablets with the commandments on them. He sees God “face to face” and when he returns from the mountain his face is “radiant,” so bright that he had to cover it (Exodus 34). It wasn’t sunburn, it was God’s “glory” or radiance. In fact, at the end of the Great Story when eternity is described, there is no Sun or Moon (or day and night) because God’s glory provides all the light needed. God’s glory throughout the entirety of God’s Message is a sign of God’s presence.
  2. The dedication of Solomon’s temple. When the temple was built by King Solomon and the ark of the covenant (think Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) was brought into the temple, God’s presence filled the temple in the form of a cloud. The cloud, like the veil over Moses’ face, was a sign of God’s presence and a protective covering for the bright radiance of God’s glory (Did you notice when Indy opened the vault that contained the ark it glowed? That was Hollywood wizardry doing their version of the glory of God) . After the dedication of the temple, God warned Solomon: But if you turn away and forsake the decrees and commands I have given you and go off to serve other gods and worship them, 20 then I will uproot Israel from my land,which I have given them, and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. I will make it a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. 21 This temple will become a heap of rubble.” (2 Chronicles 5,7)
  3. The context of the last few chapters. Today’s vision is part of a broader vision Ezekiel is recounting from chapters eight through 11. It began with God revealing to Ezekiel the idolatry (the same idolatry He warned Solomon about) in and around the Temple and it continued with God’s judgement on the idolators. Today, what Ezekiel is seeing from the spiritual realm is a further consequence of the idolatry and further fulfillment of  God’s warning to Solomon. God’s glory and presence is being taken out of the temple in preparation for its destruction.

Today, I am mulling over the events Ezekiel describes in this broader context of the entirety of the Great Story being told throughout God’s Message. When God warned Solomon about idolatry, He knew very well what would eventually happen. It’s a grand word picture of my own personal experience. Despite my best intentions, I fall short of spiritual perfection. Look close enough (actually, you probably don’t even have to look that close) and you’ll find plenty of ammunition to accuse me of hypocrisy. Guilty as charged.

And, that’s really the main point I find in these Old Testament stories. Try as we may, we can’t achieve an acceptable spiritual level on our own that meets God’s standard. We keep slipping back into our own personal forms of idolatry by choosing our own way. The results, as Ezekiel is seeing in his vision, are disastrous. It seems like God was trying to let humanity fail so we’d learn the lesson the same way a wise parent sometimes let’s a child fail for the same reason. “You can’t do this on your own,” God seems to be saying. “If you are to escape the deathly consequences of your own choices, you need a savior to save you from yourselves.”

[cue: enter Jesus, stage right]

Turning God into a Good Luck Charm

English: The Ark of the Covenant, by James Jac...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then they said, “Let’s bring the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord from Shiloh. If we carry it into battle with us, itwill save us from our enemies.” 1 Samuel 4:3b (NLT)

In todays chapter, the people of Israel were desperate for a victory. As a fan of both the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Cubs, I can totally relate. Rather than seeking out God the way God had prescribed, the Israelites took the Ark of the Covenant (remember Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark?) from the Tent of Meeting (a kind of moveable temple that the Israelites built and used while making the trek out of captivity in Egypt) where God said it should be and stay. They carried the Ark with them into battle as if it was some kind of secret weapon. Of course, that’s not how God purposed the Ark. They took something God had designed for one reason, and tried to use it for their own self-centered intentions.

The results were not positive.

We as humans have an ages old habit of turning God’s metaphors into mascots; We turn images into icons and idols that we wear, bear, rub, and relish. In doing so, we so easy to reduce the omnisicent, omnipotent, omnipresent Creator into a good luck charm. This is the very definition of profanity: to empty something of its meaning.

Today, I’m searching my own heart, life, and thoughts for ways that I subtly turn God into my personal talisman. I don’t need superstition. I need a savior.

Loving Well in the Midst of Differences

What's left of the meat market in Corinth (source: GloBible)
What’s left of the meat market in Corinth (source: GloBible)

Chapter-a-Day 1 Corinthians 8

And when you sin against other believers by encouraging them to do something they believe is wrong, you are sinning against Christ. 1 Corinthians 8:12 (NLT)

Keep in mind when reading books like 1 Corinthians that they were originally handwritten letters. In the case of Corinthians, it was a letter from Paul to the followers of Jesus in the Greek city of Corinth. Paul spent 18 months there sharing the Message about Jesus and building up a small but faithful group of believers. Paul moved on to other cities and regions. As with any group of humans, conflicts and differences arose among the new Corinthian believers. Word reached Paul about some of these conflicts and he wrote this letter to his friends to address these differences.

Back in the day when Paul was writing his letter the city of Corinth was largely pagan, and a person could visit any number of pagan temples in the city. They were mostly temples to the various Greek and Roman gods we all studied in English Lit and Western Civ classes. Corinth had two large temples, one to Apollo and one to Aphrodite. As part of the pagan worship rituals, animals would be sacrificed and the meat would be cooked up for a feast with the temple priests and wealthy patrons. Leftovers were taken to the local meat market and sold to the public.

A conflict rose up among the followers of Jesus in Corinth. Should you buy or eat meat that had been part of a pagan sacrifice? Some said it was no big deal and felt free to eat it. Others felt strongly that they were defiling themselves by eating it. While this is not a burning controversy in our American culture today, it doesn’t take me long to come up with a number of similar conflicts we have today about social behaviors and appropriateness.

I’m not a very legalistic person. At least, I’m not any more. I’ve become increasingly less so with age. Having meandered through God’s Message these past 30 years or so, it’s become clear to me that the people who ticked Jesus off the most were the religious legalists.  Note to self: Don’t be one of those guys. Put me in Corinth and I would likely be found hanging out with the pagans and enjoying a nice steak without thinking a thing of it.

But, there is danger inherent in freedom for ourselves and for others. Freedom can easily creep into destructive license. Also, followers of Jesus are called not only to look out for our own needs, but also the needs of others. This includes the needs of our fellow believers, some of whom have a distinctly religious legalist bent. Exercising my freedom can confuse, discourage and trip up another believer. I have a responsibility to be respectful of others and their beliefs, even when “other” refers to fellow believers with whom I disagree about the appropriateness of certain social behaviors. I am not to be led by my “right” to exercise my freedom, but by love for others. This may require me to circumstantially choose to curb my freedom in order to graciously love and respect a fellow believer.

Today, I’m reminded of how difficult it can be to navigate human relationships. When do you speak? When do you shut up? When do you prod? When do you pull back? When do you choose in? When do you choose out? It takes wisdom, humility, deference, and a lot of love in order to do it well. God, please give me these in abundant measure.