Sunday, May 2, 2010


This week’s chapter is still working on the situation that we looked at last week. Judah is looking for protection from the bully on the block, Assyria. Sadly, instead of looking to Jesus they are looking to Egypt. In this chapter Isaiah includes something that he also referred to in the last though I didn’t do much with it then. Today’s sermon is going to focus on the notion of idolatry, a theme that runs throughout Scripture and Isaiah in particular.

Listen as I read Isaiah 31.

There are two references to idols in this chapter. The obvious is in verse 7. ‘For in that day everyone shall cast away his idols of silver and his idols of gold, which your hands have sinfully made for you.’ Isaiah also refers to idols in verse one but in a way that you might not have noticed. ‘Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD!’ The language of ‘rely’, ‘trust’, ‘look to’ and ‘consult’ is language that is to be applied to Jesus but here it’s referring to Egypt. There is no statue here, but there is still idolatry. And it’s this kind of idolatry that remains with us today. What I’m going to do today is ramble on a bit about idolatry. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about. And it’s something that I think you would do well to think about also.

Let’s start with a definition. An idol is anything that takes the place that Jesus is supposed to fill. So, in our text we have those words I mentioned already, rely, trust, look to, consult. But there are other words that fit here also. Words like love, fear, heed, serve. But those are church words. Consider these instead: give your affection to and expect affection from, depend on, yield to, live to please. Those are words to be used in reference to Jesus in the places that He is supposed to fill in a person’s life. And the places He is supposed to fill in a person’s life include every place.

Now, that’s a definition that you’ll need to ponder a bit. But here’s a variation on it that I hope will have a little punch right now. Whether we say these exact words or even think them consciously, we all apply them to something. ‘For life to work for me, I must have this.’ In our text, the ‘this’ that Judah insisted on was Egypt’s military strength. But there are lots of other possibilities. Here are some things on people’s list. For life to work for me I must have friends, I must have time for myself, I must have a spouse and that for the rest of my life, I must be a great parent, feel good about myself, have others like me. You get the idea. But, the way that we’re supposed to finish that sentence is, ‘For life to work for me I must have Jesus.’ What that means is that if you have absolutely nothing else but Jesus that’s enough to make life work for you. That’s enough for you to live your life with joy. Ending that sentence with anything else is idolatry.

Seeing things this way makes it easier to expose your idols. Imagine something that is now a part of your life, whether it is tangible or not, suddenly being taken away. What happens next? It is good and right for you to mourn. Something good has been taken. You have experienced evil. To be sad makes sense. But if your mourning becomes despair – and despair is just another word for life not working – then whatever was taken was an idol. All you need for life to work, and joyfully so, is Jesus. The rest is gravy.

So, two thoughts here: The first is our definition. An idol is anything that takes Jesus’ place somewhere in your life. The second is the honest acknowledgement that we are all idolaters. We all have our lists of things that we think we must have.

Paul adds to our understanding of what going on here with these words from 1 Corinthians. ‘What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.’ Behind your idols are demons and behind them is Satan. And that makes sense. Let’s go back to the Garden of Eden, back to the first temptation to learn some more about idols. What is Satan doing in his conversation with Adam and Eve? He’s offering himself as a savior. Now, you’re thinking, ‘Savior from what?!? Everything was perfect.’ And that’s exactly right. But notice Satan’s scheme. He creates a problem. He tells Adam and Eve that God is holding out on them. Now that he has created the problem, he presents himself as the one to rescue them from it. He has the solution to the problem. Or to use a church word, he offers them salvation from this terrible situation. All they need to do is trust him. ‘Eat the fruit. Life will not work for you unless you eat the fruit.’ And that’s what temptation is. It’s the offer of salvation. It’s rescue from some problem. Satan does that using some idol. ‘Trust me, rely on me, not Jesus. Look to me, and I’ll save you from this problem.’

This gets all the more interesting when you follow this out to the consequences. First, this plan of salvation doesn’t work. Idols never do. Were Adam and Eve better off after trusting their idol? But then – and note this well – their idol shifts roles. He presents himself here as their savior. But how is he referred to later? John, in Revelation, describes him as, ‘… the accuser of our brothers …’ And that explains some of what Paul was getting at in Romans 8, ‘Who shall bring any charge against God's elect?’ Well, Satan will, of course. First, he offers salvation outside of Jesus and then, once we’ve taken the bait, he condemns us for our sin. Idols shift from saviors to accusers.

This helps to explain false guilt. True guilt is when you break God’s Law. The solution is clear: repentance from that sin and faith in Jesus. Once a Christian does that, the matter is dealt with and gone. But false guilt is another matter. There is this sense of having done wrong, but you’re unaware of breaking God’s Law. There’s nothing to repent of. But you just can’t get rid of this feeling. This sense of guilt doesn’t come from the Spirit. It’s the result of looking to some idol. Satan is messing with your mind. What you need to do is to trace those feelings of false guilt back to the idol that is causing it. Once its discovered there needs to be some repentance but it’s repenting of listening to that idol instead of listening to Jesus. Repentance here includes ignoring that idol. It will be difficult, but it can be done by the power of the Spirit. You really can be free of your idols.

If this is going to be practical, I need to talk about some specific idols. So, I’ll talk about the idols that I know best, my own. For me, achievement has been a necessity, something I have needed to make life work. And the reason is obvious. Throughout my life achievement has led to approval and approval has made me feel good about myself. It was good to get A’s on my report card. That brought lots of approval. Lack of approval did the opposite. It made me feel bad about myself. And this lust for approval, this worship at the idol of achievement, started when I was young. Let me tell you about what happened in kindergarten. My teacher told the class that the principal would come to our classroom the next day. She was going to ask us for the other name for the fall season. We were all to go home, ask our parents for the answer and come back ready to give the answer. So, the next day arrived and in the middle of whatever was going on the principal showed up. She was smiling and pleasant and ready to see what we had learned. So, she asked who knew the other name for the fall season. And all these little hands shot up. But I had forgotten to ask. I didn’t know the answer! My hand also went up, but not to give the answer. I was appealing to my teacher. She had to rescue me from this catastrophe. I didn’t know the answer! So, my hand was up there with all the others, but I was looking at my teacher, hoping that she would come over to save me. But she assumed that I was just eager to tell the principal the answer. And the principal, seeing my hand up, came over to me. And as she had done with my classmates, she leaned over so that I could whisper the answer into her ear. Crisis moment. What did I do? I lied. I whispered, ‘I forgot.’ I could not tell her that I had not learned the right answer. I could not fail. I was six years old.

I wish that I could say that this idol of achievement is gone from my life, but it is not. I have been taking piano lessons. I have taken lessons on other musical instruments. And I was pretty good on a baritone saxophone in high school. There was a lot of achievement and approval and feeling good about myself when it came to the sax. I started piano lessons about five or six years ago, originally thinking that I would renew my abilities on the saxophone. But lessons on the sax were not offered, so I took piano. Several months into my lessons, showing up at the music studio became stressful. Very stressful. And the reason? It wasn’t my piano teacher. She has been consistently encouraging, pointing out were I am doing well and making progress. But she is no match for my idol. Its little voice would whisper in my ear, ‘You had better do well. You need to achieve. That’s the only way that you’ll gain approval so that you can feel good about yourself.’ Playing well meant playing at least as well as I did on the saxophone. But, instead, I would play like a beginning piano student, which is what I was. But my idol would not accept that. I failed. And when you fail your idol will condemn you. Mine does.

One more of my idols. For me, pursuing a college education was an idol. I wanted me to do well in life. And that’s a good goal. But what should the means to that goal be? For me that was a no-brainer. I was a bright kid. I was going to college. The piece of paper that I would get at the end of four years would be the means to a good life. Now, is college some evil thing to be avoided at any cost? Well, ask yourself, was the fruit that Adam and Eve ate inherently evil? Of course not. But do you remember when Israel was in the desert on their way to the Promised Land and Jesus sent poisonous snakes to discipline them? Moses interceded, and he was told to make a bronze snake. All who looked to the snake would be healed. It was a symbol of the Cross. It was something good. Do you know what happened to that bronze snake? One of the kings of Israel had to destroy it because the people were worshiping it. Something very good became something that was very bad – an idol. Is college evil? Of course not – unless it becomes something that takes the place that only Jesus is supposed to fill.

Jesus is all about having a good life. But He defines what that is and how you get there. There are lots of idols who also talk about having a good life. They also offer salvation. But they define things differently. The question that I did not ask way back when was, ‘What is Jesus’ plan for me? How does He define a good life in my situation and how does He want me to get there?’ I listened to the popular idols of the day. And so, I didn’t ask, ‘Is going to college the path that Jesus wants me to take so that I can enjoy a good life?’ My point is not about whether I should have gone to college. I’ll never, in this life, know the answer to that question. My point is about how I made that decision. And it is clear that the way I made that decision was idolatrous.

I have two questions and then a closing thought. First, why is idolatry so bad? It’s easy to say that it’s a sin and sin is always bad so just don’t. But that sound so sterile. Let me offer something different. Choosing the ways of an idol is like a husband telling his wife that he would rather watch some internet porn instead of making love to her. It’s like a wife telling her husband that she would rather be in the arms of the men that she reads about in her romance novels instead of his. That’s what choosing an idol instead of Jesus is all about.

Second question. What do you do about these idols? And that gets up back to verse 7. ‘For in that day everyone shall cast away his idols of silver and his idols of gold, which your hands have sinfully made for you.’ Jesus knows about your sinful idols. But instead of getting really mad at you, He promises you that the days of your idols are numbered. Jesus has come to save you from your idols. And that is incredibly good news! There is hope. The Spirit is busily at work in your soul so that you can be freed from your idols. And one day you will be. Completely. But there are things for you to move this work of the Spirit on. Get to know your Bible. Pray. Work at understanding your own heart. I know that I’ve said these things before. But there is a reason why I repeat myself. Some of you don’t spend the time pursuing the Spiritual disciplines that I have mentioned. And there are reasons for this. Some of you are too busy doing the bidding of your idols. You’ll make it easier for the Spirit to do His awesome work in your soul if you invest the time. The place to begin is prayer. Ask Jesus to show you your idols. And let me say to those of you who are working on these things, keep at it. It will bear good fruit.

Here’s my last thought. My life is not yet free of its idols. But Jesus is making progress. My piano lessons were an important tool in the hands of the Spirit. As I found myself getting so stressed out by it all, I asked myself why. What was going on in my soul that resulted in such agitation and anxiety? Things opened up for me as I got to know my soul – and one of the idols at work there. Another tool that the Spirit has used was a sermon. It was preached by C. J. Mahaney to a group of preachers. One point CJ made was that he and his audience are all ordinary pastors; faithful and hard-working, but ordinary. I was very surprised to find my soul fighting that thought. As I traced that back I came to see that I had been groomed to become someone who would be exceptional. I’m supposed to stand out from the crowd. I’m supposed to be among the elite. A word like ‘ordinary’ was to be applied to other people but not to me. And here is CJ applying that word to me. And he was, of course, correct. And one Scripture that the Spirit used was this. ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.’ I am a plain jar made of clay. That’s just a fact. I need to accept that as true but not just because it’s true. My attempts to appear as something more than an ordinary pastor boil down to different ways to draw attention to myself and away from the Savior I say I serve. My accepting the label of an ordinary pastor makes it easier for people to see that ‘the surpassing power belongs to God’ and not to me. I exist to make Jesus look good. And the best way that I can do that is by being who I really am. I am not some exceptional person. I am not among the elite. I am just like most other folk. I am an everyday person. I am ordinary.

I am going to guess that I am not the only one in this room who has issues with this idol. I am going to guess that I’m not the only one who has been groomed to be exceptional. And I will go a little further and pose this question. Could it be that some of you are unwittingly grooming your children to be exceptional, to see themselves as anything but ordinary? That’s what it means to be a good parent – or so they say. Are they right? There are untold issues and questions tied up in all of this, questions that I cannot answer now. But I will say this. I am working at getting used to the label ‘ordinary’. I think it fits. It is the path that Jesus wants me to take. And I think that it will lead me into a greater enjoyment of a good life, one without the need of approval and the fear of failure. At the core of this good life is the ability to be a clay jar that makes Jesus look really good. And I think that I’m going to enjoy that.

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