Tag Archives: Jeremiah

Breaking down the anatomy of idolatry

Idolatry is a major theme in the Scriptures and in Christian thought. Most popular writers describe an idol along the same lines as Tim Keller does in counterfeit gods: An idol is “anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”

This is a good definition, but whenever I compare it to the idolatry described in prophets like Jeremiah, I hesitate. In ancient Israel, the prophets had a very narrow and particular object in mind when they spoke about an idol: A piece of wood or stone or precious medal shaped like a human or an animal that represented some spiritual being.

How do we get from that narrow definition to Keller’s broad definition?

Ancient Israel’s matrix of power

When Jeremiah brought charges against Israel, he sought to undermine their entire worldview. Instead of trusting in their Creator God, they had begun to trust in a matrix of worldly powers. What “powers” did they turn to? They turned to false gods and the idols that represented them. They believed that those pieces of wood and stone had the power to make them safe and secure. They believed that the gods of the nations had some cosmic power over creation. They believed that certain rituals performed before the gods, or sacrifices brought before their idols, would secure for them what they really wanted and needed – the good life.

Jeremiah exposed the powerlessness of the idols. He mocked them:

Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field,
their idols cannot speak;
they must be carried
because they cannot walk.
Do not fear them;
they can do no harm
nor can they do any good.

Jeremiah 10:5

He also showed the foolishness of their religious rituals and their incantations. No matter how many times they said “the temple of the Lord,” they were not secure there.

The rest of Scriptures expose the powerlessness of false gods. Oh, the spiritual beings are real, and they have real power (read the gospels if you doubt this) but before the Creator God they stand utterly defenseless.

Here we begin to see the idea of idolatry expanding just a bit. Idolatry isn’t just about making a statue. It’s also about the sacrifices and rituals we do to appease it. It’s about the spiritual being behind the idol who supposedly has the power to get us what we want.

While there’s a form of spiritualism that seems to be gaining traction in parts of the United States – and is certainly still dominant in many parts of the world – this is still not characteristic of the community in which I live. But Jeremiah is not content to simply expose the foolishness of Israel’s false religion. He also exposes the more concrete and material powers.

When the threat of the Babylonians arose where did Israel turn? They turned to the nations of Egypt and Assyria. They relied upon their armies. When enemies were at the gate, what did they trust? They trusted the wall around their city. They trusted their fortifications. In a war, these are very practical things to trust – armies and defenses. What else should you trust? But for Jeremiah, this represented another sign that they had abandoned God. Astonishingly, their success or failure in war had nothing to do with weapons of this world. If they returned to God, he would rescue them. If they held fast in their rebellion, their best weapons of war would be completely overrun.

In the mind of the ancient Israelite these powers were inextricably linked. The idols were linked to gods who were linked to nations who were linked to kings who were linked to armies. When you tapped into one source of power you were tapping into the entire matrix.

With this in mind we can see how idolatry can fit into a broader system of acquiring power, of using some created thing to achieve some ultimate good. Idolatry fits into a broader framework of false worship and misplaced trust.

The anatomy of idolatry

Today we use the word “idolatry” to talk about that whole system. For my own clarity, I have broken it down into the following pieces and parts:

An ultimate good: Idolatry always aims towards some end. In Keller’s definition this is the “what only God can give” part. This ultimate good is usually abstract. Examples: Security, wellness, justice, recognition, meaning, etc.

A divine being: This was central to the belief structure of the ancient near east, and in the paganism of Jesus’s day. The divine being was said to have the power to grant you the ultimate good if you pleased it. Today, divine beings are often unacknowledged, though I suspect they are still at play in unseen ways.

An idol – a symbol said to have power within itself: Here things begin to get concrete. When we imbue an object with some sort of mystical power or if we treat an object with a special reverence that ought to be reserved for God (i.e., prayer, allegiance) then we can begin to fall into an idolatrous mindset. Examples: Use of crystals to gain a connection with spiritual beings to gain wellness, the use of a rabbit’s foot for luck, outsized reverence to a flag.

A created power: Something in this world that has a limited power to bring us a glimpse at an ultimate good. Money, for example, really can give us a level of personal security (the lack of it sure makes security difficult). The right foods can make us healthy (if our ultimate good is health). The right (in another sense) can give us happiness and comfort (if those are our ultimate goods).

A ritual or sacrifice: This is something that we can do to gain access to either the spiritual or physical powers. Israel prayed to idols to get them into contact with the divine beings. They paid tribute to kings to help the acquire the power of physical armies. Some religious systems today have certain rote prayers or incantations, but less religious people still have rituals which help them acquire the power associated with money or status. In one of its most blatant forms, the powerful practice oppression in order to maintain their hold on power. Oppression becomes a sacrifice to the god of power to achieve an ultimate good of security.

How then should we treat created powers?

Sometimes idolatry is obvious – you might be an idolater if you’re setting up a statue in your house or praying to a false gods.

But what should we do with our relationship to the “created powers” all around us – money, clothes, food, relationships, etc.? How do we know if we are treating these things in a way that is idolatrous or not?

I think the key distinction is found in the way that we relate to those created things. We can either view them as gifts from a generous God or we can view them merely as things we can use, apart from God, to achieve an ultimate good. Money can either be a gift from God that we can enjoy or give freely back to him or it can be merely a means towards which we achieve happiness. Politics can either be a gift from God which we can use to love our neighbors, or it can be a way to gain status and power for ourselves. Relationships can either be a gift to be enjoyed to the mutual benefit of all involved or they can be used to increase our status or give us a sense of meaning.

If we receive the world as a gift from a generous Creator God, we respond in worship in service. If we view the world as a means to power, we are falling into the trap of idolatry.

God is a generous God. He gives us both the ultimate good and the gifts to enjoy that ultimate good. He even gave us Himself and it is there we find all the ultimate goods wrapped up together.

If comfort is your god… (Sermon brief on Jeremiah 1)

Tomorrow I will be preaching on Jeremiah 1, looking specifically at the patterns in Jeremiah’s call. Here I have attempted to crystallize one of the ‘big ideas’ of the text:

If comfort is your god, you will never do what the LORD calls you to do when it threatens your comfort.

If happiness is your god, you will never do what the LORD calls you do do when it threatens your happiness.

If the approval of others is your god, you will never do what the LORD calls you to do when His approval is all you can expect to receive.

God will not only ask you to do things which promote your comfort, happiness, and approval of others. He will ask you to do hard things that threaten them.

Those who follow the pattern of Jeremiah follow the LORD simply because the LORD is their God, and they are not free to disown Him.

How did we get here?

Jeremiah the prophet wrote during a time of national, political, and religious catastrophe. His nation was in ruins. His people had abandoned God and God, at least for a time, had abandoned his people. During this course of events the people would have asked, “how did we get here?” The author of Kings wants us to know the answer and this Sunday I explored that question further.

For this post, though, I want to dive into one of the main themes, that compromise with evil, leads to an embrace of evil, which leads to judgment and death:

After Joash’s reforms, Israel’s southern kingdom, Judah, had a series of compromised kings, followed by a series of evil kings, followed by a series of kings that were captured, enslaved, and killed. There were a couple of good kings in that mix but, while they were able to defer God’s judgment, they couldn’t stop the inevitable. In the end, Judah persisted in her sin and was sent into exile in Babylon.

I see this same pattern in James 1:13-15:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

Notice the progression of sin: Desire – the juicy worm on the end of the hook – is conceived. Sin is born. It grows up. It gives birth to death. This is the nature of sin. If we let it linger, it becomes stronger and stronger until it kills us. Israel’s kings who compromised by letting the high places remain, who accepted a small amount of false worship, were setting up later generations for failure. When we compromise with the “little sins” we swallow the worm with the hook.

A misdiagnosed illness

Jeremiah condemned Israel’s false prophets who misdiagnosed Judah’s problems: “They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious” (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11). This is in contrast to God’s description of Judah’s condition: “Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing” (Jeremiah 30:12).

We’re tempted to view our own sins as nothing serious, as a cold or a small cut. But the principle of Israel’s exile should tell us something different. Sin is more like a cancer or an infected wound. It needs drastic treatment. The tumor must be cut out.

The progression

Paul tells us in Ephesians, in the context of anger, “do not give the devil a foothold” (Eph 4:27). What’s his point? If we keep anger around it grows into bitterness and hatred. Hatred, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.

Or consider King David’s lust for Bathsheba. It led to adultery, deception, and murder.

I heard the story of a young woman who struggled with self-harm. At times she would swear off that behavior and throw away all her razor blades… except for one. I don’t know where she is now, but it’s hard to imagine that she has made much progress in this area.

Sin is like an addiction, it traps and enslaves.

Not your experience

But maybe this isn’t your experience. After all, there are plenty of people with their pet sins whose lives aren’t in ruins. They are happy and successful. Their little sins aren’t out of control. They haven’t given birth to death. Maybe that’s even you.

The prophets struggled with this, too. Why, they thought, did Israel suffer for her sins but the nations around them, just as wicked, walk about in peace? God’s answer was always pretty simple: It’s coming. In the end, it’s coming. Sin is, in the final analysis, self-harm. God is, in the end, just. Almost all the compromised kings fell because of pride. Their outward success led to a belief that they were beyond the consequences of sin and that pride was their downfall.

Paul, in Galatians, puts it like this: “A man reaps what he sows. Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction” (Galatians 6:7-8).

An incurable disease

The story of the kings would leave us hopeless if it weren’t for the rest of Scripture. Jeremiah hears from God that Israel’s wound is, indeed, incurable. The progression from compromise, to outright rebellion, to judgment and exile, is a force that will overrun Jerusalem and its people. But there is another force at work, the grace of God. “I will restore your health and heal your wounds” (Jeremiah 30:17), says the Lord through Jeremiah. Why? Because of God’s faithfulness, his grace, his mercy.

Alongside the spiral of sin James sets the progression of God’s grace expressed in his word: “He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created” (James 1:18). What, then, are we to do? “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (James 1:21).

The spiral of sin and judgment can be transformed into a virtuous cycle – but only through the grace of God expressed in Jesus.

Can the American Church be Restored? Or, Beware the Egyptians

Since preaching on Psalm 126 last Sunday (link to the sermon) I have been reflecting on the history of Israel, on their fall, and on their restoration. At the same time, I have seen a lot of worry over the status of the American church. Sometimes that worry is overblown, but there is cause for concern. Many are asking, can the American church be restored? And, what would it take for that to happen?

First, let me frame the question: I am not asking whether or not America can be restored, but whether or not the American church can be restored. In the Old Testament national Israel is the people of God. The closest correlation to Israel, is not America, but the Church, the people of God in Christ. Second, I am not asking whether the Church can be restored to cultural prominence – though that would be great, or political power – a mixed bag of good and bad, but whether we can be restored to faithfulness to the new covenant of Jesus, whether we can be restored with spiritual life and vitality, whether our dim light can once again shine brightly in a dark world.

I want to connect that question with the story of Israel.

God brought Israel into the Promised Land and he laid before them the promise of blessings – full, abundant, gracious, and glorious blessings. Read Deuteronomy 28:1-14 to understand the scope and nature of that blessing. God also set before them “covenant curses”, consequences from deciding not follow God. Those curses (warning, tough reading) are spelled out in the rest of Deuteronomy 28. The culmination of those curses is exile, expulsion from the Promised Land.

What we see next is a long and tortured history. Israel falls into a series rebellion and repentance, first under judges and then under kings. Collectively, Israel chooses to turn away from God and God, being faithful to his covenant, brings judgment. That judgment takes the form of foreign nations invading the land and taking the captives of Israel into exile. Israel messed up and they were facing the consequences.

As the threat of invasion loomed and the prophets warned of God’s judgment the leaders and people of Israel looked to Egypt for answers. Remember, it was the Egyptians who enslaved Israel. The Egyptians were still enemies of God and they were still under God’s judgment. Going to Egypt was a tactical move, but it was not a move that pleased God. Going to Egypt was an attempt to thwart or escape the Babylonians, but it was also a moral compromise.

Jeremiah warned Israel that their peace with Egypt would prove futile: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Tell the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of me, ‘Pharaoh’s army, which has marched out to support you, will go back to its own land, to Egypt. Then the Babylonians will return and attack this city; they will capture it and burn it to the ground” (Jeremiah 37:7-8). If you go to the Egyptians, Jeremiah says, “You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria” (Jeremiah 2:36).

As Jeremiah predicted, the Babylonians captured Jerusalem. In the aftermath of this terrible event the people asked Jeremiah what God wanted them to do. Jeremiah gave them this encouraging word of God: stay in the land, don’t be afraid of the king of the Babylonians, I have had compassion (Jeremiah 42:10-12). He also gave them this stern warning: Do not go to Egypt! “If you are determined to go to Egypt and settle there, then the sword you fear will overtake you there, and the famine you dread will follow you to Egypt, and there you will die” (Jeremiah 42:15b-16). Why this stern warning? Because Egypt was still under God’s judgment. To go to Egypt would be moral compromise. And here I think is one of the moral principles of this text: If moral compromise is what got you into the mess, moral compromise won’t get you out!

Israel would have been better to listen to the words of Moses when he predicted the exile in the first place: Repent and return to God and lean on his mercy and covenant faithfulness! (See Deuteronomy 30:1-6)

So is spiritual renewal and restoration possible for the American church? Yes. God makes restoration possible in any and all circumstances. But how will we get there?

Repentance and faithfulness to God.

We will not get there through moral compromise. And, to the extent that reliance on political power, or cultural influence, or methodologies, take us into a place of moral compromise, we will be led deeper into judgment, not out of it. It might lead to short term gain, but it will lead to long-term loss. Going to Egypt isn’t the answer.

I have up in the background of my computer the live stream of #Together2016, a one-day event at the Washington Mall. One thing they are getting exactly right is a call to repentance, not a call to national repentance, but a call to repentance of the church. Louis Giglio put it well, in citing 2 Chronicles 7:14, he said “God is saying ‘my people’, not ‘those people’ or ‘some people’, but ‘my people.’” And the “my people” of 2 Chronicles 7:14 is the redeemed people, the people called by the name God.

If we want renewal within the church, it begins within the church. Recognition of sin starts with recognition of our sin. That recognition leads to repentance. And that repentance opens up the possibility of renewal.