Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Futility of Chasing Idols

[This entry follows a sermon titled "The Only Hope for Mankind".  Click on the title to find the audio.]

Throughout the Bible, God condemns the pursuit of any other gods.  The first commandment tells that we shall have no other gods.  Now, admittedly, there aren't many physical statues of idols in our living rooms, but idols do abound in our culture.  They are primarily idols of the heart, and one way to describe an idol is to say this...when we look to anything for something only God can give us, then we have set up an idol for ourselves.

Take money, for example.  Making money is not inherently evil, and actually, being wealthy isn't either.  Paul gives specific instructions for the wealthy in 1 Timothy 6:17-19.  That being said, Jesus makes it very clear that you cannot serve God and money (Mt. 6:24).  As we look around our nation, there are many people that serve money...they find their greatest satisfaction in money, their security is in money.

Paul labels this kind of longing for money...this covetousness...idolatry (Eph. 5:5), and money idolatry is no respecter of persons.  It is lodged in the hearts of NBA owners as well as players.  It is exalted in the big banks and the OWS protesters against the big banks.  It is worshipped among the rich and the poor.  It reigns over the Republican and the Democrat.  It takes root in the lives of both Christians and non-Christians.  As I said, it is no respecter of persons.

And idols like money make great claims.  "There is great security in me.  If you serve me, you will find peace, joy, and lasting fulfillment.  You can even give a little away and earn eternal favor with God."  However, according to Isaiah 46, the idols never deliver.  Greed for money cannot earn favor with God, and generosity with money cannot earn favor with God.  If it could, then philanthropic atheists would be in for a pleasant surprise upon their death, huh?

No, the idols cannot deliver.  Isaiah says "if one cries to it [i.e.- an idol], it does not answer or save him from his trouble" (v. 7).  Let's stick with the money example.  Dave Ramsey is a financial advisor with a nationally syndicated radio show.  I've listened to Dave quite a bit in my life, and I've heard numerous callers ask if they should transfer credit card debt to a different card to get a better interest rate...or get a consolidation loan...or cash in their 401ks to pay things off. 

One of the things Dave usually says in this scenario is that just paying off these debts will not fix the problem.  Money won't fix the problem.  Why?  Because the debt was a symptom.  The massive debt typically represented a lifestyle of wanting to appear to have money without actually having money.  So, throwing more money into a lifestyle that serves money won't fix the problem.  You can cry out to that god all you want, but it's not going to save you from trouble.  The heart has to change, and money can't do that.

The picture of Isaiah 46 is a sobering one.  It is a picture of a people who set up their idols...who imagine them, shape them, give them divine characteristics, etc.  In other words, the men make the idols and then, through their life's devotion to them, breathe life into these idols.  They imagine a god who is at their disposal...who has great divine power but serves their needs.

And what God says through Isaiah is that no such god can deliver you.  The only One who can save you from trouble is the One who is absolutely unlike these gods.  Man did not give form and life to God...God gave form and life to man!  And it is only this God, who is the Creator and Sustainer of life, that can save you...that can truly satisfy your soul.  If you reverse the words earlier quoted from verse 7, then you have an idea of what God can do - If one cries to Him, He does answer and saves him from his trouble.

Don't waste your life serving gods that cannot save!  Serve the only God who saves, and your life won't be wasted.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Intimacy Doesn't Happen Overnight

[The following entry follows a sermon titled "Renewed Intimacy with God".  Click on the title to find the audio.]

This last Sunday, we looked at Isaiah 42:18-44:23 in a kind of overview fashion.  If you sit down and read these chapters, you will get a sneaking suspicion that certain themes seem to show up more than once.  Thanks to Alec Motyer's commentary on Isaiah, my hunch that themes were repeating themselves were crystallized.  The essential pattern could be outlined "Man's Problem - God's Consequences - God's Intervention - Man's Restoration."

As we read Isaiah, as we read the Bible, and as we observe human behavior, we notice that man has a tendency to walk away from God.  Yet, the good news of the Bible is that though we are "prone to wander," God is prone to pursue.  Man has a tendency to walk away from God, but God has a tendency to go after man.  We walk away from intimacy, but God works to bring us back into intimacy.

This is the message of the gospel, isn't it?  Man was created in a perfect relationship with God and with one another.  Adam could truly sing the lyrics of the old hymn "In the Garden": "And He walks with me and He talks with me; and He tells me I am His own; And the joy we share as we tarry there; None other has ever known."  Yet, in sin, Adam walked away from that intimacy...he fell out of intimacy.  And so the whole of the human race fell with him.  Man was excluded from intimacy with God in the garden, and there was no way back.

But there was another Man...a Second Adam...who had perfect intimacy with God.  He was perfectly submissive to God's Word and will.  He never walked away...He never fell.  Jesus Christ was this Man.  The Getty song says, "A second Adam walks the earth; Whose blameless life would take the curse; Whose death would set us free; To live with Him eternally."  In other words, as Jesus hung on the cross...though He never did anything to lose intimacy with God, He was completely cut off.  He was cut out of intimacy with God on the cross, so that we could experience eternal intimacy with God.

Nothing warms the heart like remembering the gospel; yet, even as Christians, our hearts still tend toward coldness.  We are still prone to wander, and we still need to remember the warmth of the gospel.  But what do you do when it seems you've been cold for so long?  Is there a way to a 'microwave' warm up?  Though we live in a "download at lightning speed" society, spiritual intimacy returns over time.

Think of it this way.  Imagine a married couple who has focused all their time and energy on their children.  They do soccer, basketball, dance recitals, band concerts, etc., etc., ad infinitum, ad nauseum.  Their focus on the tasks of everyday life have taken a husband and wife and turned them into a domestic partnership running the company they call "home."  Do you know when it's revealed?  It's usually revealed when the last child has left for college...when the nest has emptied.  Then, there's no buffer...there's no distraction...there's just distance and even coldness between them.

Can that marriage be rekindled?  and if so, how does it get rekindled?  It doesn't happen overnight.  It takes time...little steps, frequent steps, persistent steps.  Slowly, over time, the warmth returns...the love is rekindled.  We can draw a similar analogy in our relationships with God, though God never wanes on His end of the relationship.

Our spiritual coldness doesn't happen overnight, and growing in the warmth of spiritual intimacy doesn't happen over night.  It takes time...little steps, frequent steps, persistent steps.  What are these steps?  Well, some of them are what we call spiritual disciplines: Bible intake (e.g.- reading, meditating, studying, memorizing, listening, etc.), prayer, corporate and private worship, fasting, and more.  If you want some stimulating reading on the spiritual disciplines, then get Don Whitney's book on the subject.  I have found it very helpful.

If you're like me, you have a tendency to think that a couple of days of spiritual discipline should bring quick results.  We feel that it should be like a training montage in a Rocky movie...you know, about 2 1/2 minutes work of visible work resulting in complete preparation for a championship bout.  Why is that so wrong?  It's wrong because this is not the way that God normally works in us.  He works day by day, step by step.  As we walk in faith, He grows us spiritually, including our sense of nearness to Him. 

Yes, there are times that we seem to leap forward...leap closer to Him...but this is the exception, not the rule.  The Bible's picture of how God shapes us is like that of a potter with clay...His hand is on us, refining the shape of our character through spiritual disciplines, getting rid of extraneous material, burnishing us in the fire of trials, and conforming us to the image of Christ.  And let's not forget...this conforming to Christ's image...this sanctification...this spiritual growth...is a lifelong process, which means it's not quick.  And the sense of nearness to God, a blessing that accompanies spiritual growth, is not quick either.