Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Idolatry Makes Something Good Into Something Ultimate

[This entry follows a sermon called "From Fear to Security".  Click on the title to find the audio.]

As we looked at Isaiah 41:1-42:17, we found that the prophet predicts the coming of a new world power and the fear that will result (41:2-4).  This strikes fear into the hearts of men and women, which leads them into an idolatry that God confronts.  Fear is a common experience in life...an internal alarm system to warn us of impending danger (real or imagined), and fear drives us to look for security somewhere. 

In other words, we echo the beginning of the psalmist's words: "When I am afraid, I..."  We will do something...we will look somewhere.  He finishes with the commitment to put trust in the Lord (Ps. 56:3).  Yet, the human heart is prone to wander from such trust...we are prone to trust anything and everything but the Lord.  We are prone to trust in idols.

Let me recap some of the examples I gave Sunday.  When we are afraid of economic failure, we run to the idol of money.  We serve money, sacrificing generosity on the altar of our money god...believing that such a sacrifice will guarantee our salvation from economic failure.  When we are afraid of rebellious children, we run to the god of parental control.  Those who do think if they just have rules that are strict enough, consequences that are harsh enough, etc., then they can securely say their children won't rebel.

I though of another one today.  Where do we run when we fear ministry failure?  Where do we run when it seems the gospel is not taking the desired effects in our congregation?  Where do we go when things aren't looking too good?  Well, we often run to one of two gods...human approval or fashionable methodology.  We believe that if we pander to popular opinion or or popular methodology, then they will deliver real security in the face of ministry failure.

All this is essentially review from Sunday.  In talking about idols, we said that an idol is anything that we look to for something only God can give us.  I want to add another caveat here.  We also make idols for ourselves when we take something good and make it into something ultimate.  For example, money can be a good thing...we can do a lot of good things, even biblical things, with money.  But idolatry is when we make money an ultimate thing in our lives.  The same can be said of parental control, human approval, or fashionable methodology.  These can be good things, but they become idols when they become ultimate.

The question is...do we see this in the Scripture anywhere?  Is the idea of "making something good into something ultimate" anywhere in the Bible?  The answer is yes.  In fact, it's in Isaiah's prophecy.  Take a look at what Isaiah 44:14-17 says:
"He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest.  He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it.  Then it becomes fuel for a man.  He takes part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread.  Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes an idol and falls down before it.  Half of it he burns in the fire.  Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied.  Also he warms himself and says, 'Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!'  And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down and worships it.  He prays to it and says, 'Deliver me, for you are my god!'"
Did you see it?  Think about the wood from a tree...it's good for a lot of things.  The wood can be burned (i.e.- used) for the man's good...baking bread, keeping warm, roasting meat that satisfies hunger, making s'mores to to eat after dinner, etc.  (Okay...the s'mores weren't in there, but we were all thinking it.)

Yet, this good thing...wood...can also be made into something seen as ultimate...an idol.  The man falls down and worships it, prays to it, and seeks deliverance at its hands.  One half of the wood gets burned up and is used for good purposes...the other half is made ultimate and is used for evil purposes. 

What can be said of the one who takes something good (like money, children, human approval, methodology, etc.) and making them ultimate?  In that man, there is no "knowledge or discernment" (v. 19).  I remember hearing Tim Keller say that people who make an idol of their career only think they work hard, and people who idolize their children only think they're just being good parents.  Yet, Isaiah says we lack knowledge and discernment.

When fear enters our experience, we tend to look anywhere and everywhere except God for security.  We look to the idols.  We do so in our own foolishness, and we do so to our own peril.  There are many good things in life...things which God has provided for our benefit, for our joy, and for our service to Him.  Yet, let us beware of making good things into ultimate things, for then we become idolaters.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Longing for Revival

[This entry follows a sermon called "Revive Us O Lord". Click on the title to find the audio.]

This past Sunday, our congregation focused on this statement, in light of the message of Psalm 85: We cannot plan revival, but we should plead for revival and believe God will answer. Feeling stale can be the experience of an individual Christian, and it can be the experience of an entire congregation. Psalm 85 is the expression of a people who have known the goodness of God (v. 1-3) and long to experience it afresh (v. 4-7). When we experience stagnant times in our spiritual lives, we too should look back on what the Lord has done for us in Christ and plead with Him to give us fresh joy...fresh life.

There is a sense of desperation in this kind of praying because we know that if God does not answer, we will remain stale. We certain cannot revive ourselves...we cannot refresh ourselves. We need God to act on our behalf and breathe new life into our stagnant spiritual state. After Sunday's service, I was discussing this desperation with a man in our congregation, and it reminded me of a story.

I once heard that Socrates had a student come to him seeking his help. "What do you want?" the eminent philosopher asked. "I want to be wise." Socrates led the young man to sea shore, and they waded into the water together. Socrates promptly plunged the student's head beneath the water and held him there.

After a few moments, he allowed the student to stand and asked again, "What do you want?" The student replied, "I want to be wise." Again, Socrates plunged the young man's head under water...this time holding it longer. Eventually, the student came up with a bit of a gasp, and Socrates asked more firmly, "What do you want?" "Teacher, I want to be wise."

For the third time, Socrates pushed the boy's head under water...holding it still longer. This time, the boy was struggling under the water, eventually fighting his way out of Socrates' grip and up to the surface. "What do you want?" The boy shouted, "Air! I need air!" Socrates instructed him, "When you want wisdom the way you now want air, then you will have wisdom."

That's the kind of desperation that the one praying for revival should feel. Alexander Cumming, a minister who lived in the 18th century, said: "It is the invariable constitution of the kingdom of heaven that blessings of great magnitude are not imparted except to the prayers of deepest urgency." Desperation...deep urgency. Does this mark the way we pray for God to revive our own hearts? For God to bless our church with "blessings of great magnitude"? Do we even pray this way in 2011?

It is interesting that we can think about a subject such as revival on a Sunday morning, and then the busyness of the week can set in and make our memory fade. I know that the dentist, the doctor, gymnastics, homeschool co-op, and basketball practice have filled our family's schedule in the 48 hours since Sunday. You know...in the midst of service, we may feel a great sense of urgency to pray for God to bring greater conviction of sin, greater commitment to the cause of Christ, greater fruit in our evangelistic efforts, and more. Yet, the routine of life can dull that great urgency into a sweet memory of a 'good service.'

What should be our response to this? Even more prayer...fighting in prayer...remaining steadfast in prayer. I said it Sunday, but in the evangelical world, we have trained ourselves not to feel this desperation for God to work in our midst. We have relegated desperate prayers to the realm of tragic events, when it seems that the general ineffectiveness of many churches (maybe even our own) should feel more tragic.

Of course, we resist the idea that we can formulate services and programs that can produce immediate, large-scale, genuine, spiritual results...and this is a right resistance. Yet, it seems that in resisting this path, we seemed to convince ourselves that the very absence of immediate, large-scale, genuine, spiritual results is the evidence that we are doing things well.

Of course, it is true...many of us will not see the kinds of awakening and conversion that we read about in church history under the preaching men like Edwards or Whitefield. And when we don't see these kinds of results, we do persevere because God works through what seems mundane to us. We don't despise the days of small things.

However, shouldn't we want great awakenings in our churches? Shouldn't we long for God to save on a large scale? Shouldn't we long for God to make His glory known in this way? Knowing the desperate wickedness and depravity in our world, shouldn't the believers' soul cry out for God's reviving work? Psalm 85 looks back on the past work of God and longs for it again; shouldn't we do the same?

For those of us who believe in God's sovereignty, this kind of desperation should be increased...not decreased. We may plant, and we may water...yet, it is only God who can give the increase. And this God who gives the increase has designed that His work is regularly accomplished in response to our prayers. So, we don't lose heart in the days of small things...and we don't stop desperately praying for God to do more.

I close with these words from C.H. Spurgeon: “Oh! men and brethren, what would this heart feel if I could but believe that there were some among you who would go home and pray for a revival of religion– men whose faith is large enough, and their love fiery enough to lead them from this moment to exercise unceasing intercessions that God would appear among us and do wondrous things here, as in the times of former generations.” Amen.