Overcoming idolatry

St Michael’s 28th January 2018

Readings – Jeremiah 10:1-13; Luke 4:14-30

Just over a fortnight ago a number of us gathered at our first prayer party of the year. It was such a powerful time of praise and worship where we very much sensed the Lord moving among us by His Spirit. All of us who were there were privileged to glimpse something of the Lord’s greatness and majesty and in response our prayers were very much for Him to revive and renew His church.

Now I am sure our prayers that evening were answered. But at the same time I am very aware that ever since then St Barnacles has come under a sustained spiritual attack. After all, whenever the people of God pray boldly for revival, the evil one will do whatever he can to discourage and divide them. And I have seen him at work in a number of ways. Some have seen their lives, or the lives of those they love, disrupted by unforeseen events. Some have been distracted by the sheer busyness of daily life. Some have simply found themselves unable to get to services and events and so become detached from the life of the church.

So what is the remedy? Well, it’s quite simply to do what we are doing now – to gather as the one body of Christ under the word of God. You see, it is in the public reading and preaching of the Bible that we are equipped and strengthened by the Holy Spirit for the battle raging all around us.

Now at first glance our reading from Jeremiah doesn’t seem to have much to say to our situation. No-one here has cut down a tree this week and shaped it into an idol they have worshipped, or bowed down before the totem pole that stands at North Cross Roundabout. In this country we generally don’t go in for gods made out of silver and gold which we carry around for good luck. But the point I want to make this morning is that actually worship of false gods – what the Bible calls idolatry – is something closer to home than we often realise, and that in order to have the spiritual victory we need to recognise and remove these gods.

Consider the following scenarios:

A teenage student is heading for high marks in his A-levels. He is clearly highly intelligent and his teacher thinks he should go to university. But the student says God doesn’t want him to go. The teacher prays and is pretty convinced the student should be applying for university. Yet the student refuses. In the months that follows the teacher sees him walking along the road each day with the girl of his dreams. She turns out to be the real reason for his decision.

A man is a devoted follower of his local football team. Each year he buys a season ticket that gets more and more expensive. He can barely afford to care for his wife and his children but the season ticket comes first. Eventually the football fan dies. His dying wish is for his ashes to be scattered on the pitch, no matter the cost.

A teenage girl falls in love with her favourite popstar. A generation ago, her room would be filled with posters and magazines. Today she spends hours online following all the latest gossip, chatting on forums, keeping up to date with the Twitter feed. Then the popstar falls from grace in some spectacular way. Maybe he dies of an overdose. Her world is shattered and she is inconsolable.

Now of course there is nothing wrong with marrying the girl of your dreams, or following your football team, or even having your own particular heartthrob. Idols in themselves are neither particularly good or bad. Listen to what Jeremiah says about the false gods of his day. Verse 5: Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good. So what is the problem? Quite simply, it is our attitude towards them. We give them a power over our lives so they shape and influence all that we do. That relationship determines whether or not we use our God-given potential. That season ticket affects the family budget week by week. That fascination with the pop idol leaves the girl unable to face reality.

Now I accept there is a very fine line between admiring someone or something, and making an idol. God has given us a world to enjoy, a world of love and pleasure, beauty and grace, and I don’t think He intended Christians to be a bunch of miserable killjoys. You may know the story of the crusty old vicar asked to talk to a bunch of teenagers about sex. “I have three points beginning with D. It’s dirty. It’s dangerous. So don’t!” The life of a believer should be positive and affirm God’s creation. But where does simple enjoyment tip over into idolatry? Let me give you three basic principles that should help to tackle this issue.

Basic principle number 1: Remember what a big God we serve.

Now I expect most of us have some kind of faith in God who is the maker of all things. I expect most of us have a story of how we became a Christian, and discovered Jesus to be our Lord and Saviour. And in our minds we know that the Lord is the one true God. It’s just that what we know about God rarely captures our heart or our imagination. We don’t generally live each day with that sense of wonder and awe which comes from knowing and being known by God. What really grabs our attention is the plotline of our favourite TV series, or how well Argyle doing, or the latest recipe we want to try out. Now, again, none of these things are wrong in themselves. But the danger is, we don’t give the Lord the space in our hearts that He deserves. He is crowded out by other passions and desires, so that our praise and worship is just something we do on Sundays or in the privacy of our bedroom.

And then we wonder why our faith doesn’t seem to make much difference or why the church today seems so weak and ineffective. Well, if we ignore the one who made us, the one who loves us so much He gave us His Son, why should we be surprised that our little prayers seem to have so little effect, and we see so little evidence of God working in power? Today I want to challenge you to gain a big vision of God. I want to challenge you to let your heart and your imagination be captured by the beauty, the wonder, and the majesty of the Lord. Because, as Jesus says, where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.

Listen carefully to Jeremiah says in verses 6 and 7: No-one is like you, O Lord; you are great, and your name is mighty in power. Who should not revere you, O King of the nations? This is your due. Among all the wise men of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is no-one like you. Because the God Jeremiah describes is our God. He is the one who is the creator of all things. He is the one who has no equal in majesty and greatness. He is the one who rules over the nations.

Now in theory we may know this, but let me ask you, when was the last time you meditated on the greatness of God? I suspect that all too often we want to stress this God wants a personal relationship with us, which is perfectly right. But we must not lose sight of the majesty and awe and power of the Lord. Spend time looking at the beauty and order of creation. Find out what He is doing in a country like Iran where the church despite incredible persecution is one of the fastest growing in the world. Above all, encounter Him through the pages of the Bible and grasp something of His amazing plan to save the world through His Son Jesus Christ. Because when you are thrilled and delighted with all that the Lord is, suddenly all the false gods we hold so dear will be seen in their perspective.

Verse 11: These gods, who did not make the heavens and the earth, will perish from the earth and from under the heavens. Or as John Newton so memorably puts it: Fading is the worldling’s pleasure, all his boasted pomp and show, solid joys and lasting treasure, none but Zion’s children know.

The fact I am quoting from a hymn at this point is quite deliberate. You see, it is hard, really hard, to keep a big perspective of God when we are on our own. It’s one of the many good reasons why we need to gather in worship with our fellow believers. It is as we come together to praise and to pray, to hear and receive God’s holy word that the Lord moves among us by His Holy Spirit and reveals who He truly is. Yes, in theory we can have a purely private andpersonal faith, but without our fellow believers our vision of God will inevitably shrink, if not wither altogether.

So principle number 1: Remember what a big God we serve.

Principle number 2: See all that you have as gifts of God.

Now Lynda will tell you I have many, many eccentric habits. One of them is that when something important in our house breaks or comes to the end of its useful life, I give thanks to the Lord for all the enjoyment I received from it. So, for example, when we recently bought a new car, I consciously acknowledged how much of a blessing the old car had been. I’m not saying this to draw attention to myself, but to make the point I believe we all need to learn to see our family, our friends, our possessions as gifts from a loving God.

So to the student besotted by his beloved I would say, you may worship the ground she walks on, but she is in reality only another human being, with flaws and weaknesses like everyone else. If God has given her to you, then praise Him for His generous gift. Ask Him how you can love and treasure her as a child of the living God. Allow Him to shape the plans you are making for your life together.

To the man spending all He has on a season ticket, I would say don’t forget the Lord’s command to love your wife and children as yourself. You may enjoy the fellowship of the football crowd, and the big match atmosphere, but it is nothing compared to the worship in heaven. Consider what really matters in the Lord’s eyes, and how best you can honour Him with the money you earn.

To the teenager besotted by her pop idol, I would say thank God for the gift of music He has given him. Pray for him facing all the temptations of fame and fortune. And when you chat with other fans, make sure what you post honours God. Too many words are thoughtlessly posted which only hate or hurt or harm.

I am using all these examples to illustrate the point the apostle makes in 1 Tim 4:4. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. You see, it is the awareness that what we enjoy comes from God which prevents us from making idols out of them. We see the goodness and the beauty of the world around us and we praise not what we enjoy, but the Lord who made them. And if our lives were shaped more by a sense of deep, deep thankfulness, then I believe others would see more clearly the difference that our faith makes. On the other hand, if we are worshipping the same idols as everyone else, such family or money, then those around us may well wonder what is the point of following Jesus.

Principles 1 and 2: Remember what a big God we serve. See all that you have as gifts of God.

Principle 3: Shape your life according to the Lord’s priorities.

In our gospel reading this morning we hear how Jesus boldly announces the good news He has come to proclaim. Luke 4:18-19: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. And of course he isn’t just talking about the literal freedom of prisoners, or the physical recovery of sight for the blind. No, His mission is to set people free from wrong desires and wrong addictions, to open spiritual eyes to the love and goodness of the Lord and above all, through the cross, to remove the burden of all our sin and wrongdoing.

Now the question I want to ask, is how does Jesus carry out His mission today? The short answer it is through us, His church. Often in the Bible the church is called the body of Christ. What that means in essence is that we are to be the physical representation of Jesus in the world. So what Jesus did in person two thousand years ago, we as His people are to do through word and deed right here in Stoke and Devonport this morning. And let me be clear when I say us, as His people, that doesn’t mean us as individuals, each one of us seeking to follow Him in our own particular way. That means us as His church, with each one of us working together in His service, using our own particular gifts and ministries. We are together called to proclaim freedom to the captives, bring sight to the blind, and tell of a Saviour who forgives us our sins.

The trouble is, so often our priorities in life lie elsewhere. You know, one thing the Bible teaches us consistently about our worship is that it is so easy to go through the motions. The people in Jeremiah’s day faithfully attended services and they knew exactly what the Lord was calling them to do. But they weren’t listening. Why not? Because their hearts were set on other things and serving false gods.

And I believe there is a warning for us here. I guess we know in theory that Jesus’ mission is to be our mission, that our calling is to carry out the work that Jesus has given us to do. But the problem is, that all too often our hearts aren’t really set on the Lord. Yes, we may say all the right words and we may be very faithful in attending services. But the blunt reality is that, if we are honest with ourselves and with the Lord, then this relationship or that football team or that popstar is more important to us than worshipping the living God. We worship the Lord with our lips, but deep down our hearts are filled with almost anything other than the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps this is why sometimes the evil one seems so successful from time to time in undermining the life of the church. He knows what idols we secretly worship and he uses them to distract us or detach us from the fellowship we need as believers. You see, the last thing he wants is the people of God to be united in praise and worship of the Lord, genuinely seeking more of His Holy Spirit, and wanting to bring the good news of Jesus to this broken and needy world. He would rather that the world around us remain in spiritual darkness and under the oppression of sin, because that state of affairs suits him just fine.

But I don’t want to end this sermon on a negative note. Because what Jeremiah does is remind us that actually there is no spiritual force that can compare with the living God, that He is the one with all power and authority, who come what may reigns over all creation for all time.

So to finish, listen again to what he says in verses 12 and 13: But God made the earth by his power; he founded the world by his wisdom and stretched out the heavens by his understanding. When he thunders, the waters in the heavens roar; he makes clouds rise from the ends of the earth. He sends lightning with the rain and brings out the wind from his storehouses.

Aren’t those wonderful words? So today remember what a big God we serve. See all that you have as gifts from Him and shape your life according to His priorities. Get rid of whatever false gods are living in your heart and stand up to the devil. And together let us stand united as the people of God to live out the mission Jesus has given us, filled with the Holy Spirit to bring good news to the poor. For His name’s sake. Amen.

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