How Idols Take Us Out of the Race

What is the harm in a few idols? As long as you keeping coming back to do “the God thing” from time to time, right? Some church attendance, some Bible reading, some prayer, some sort of religious something. As long as we do that a little idol worship in our lives is not a bad thing, right? In Ezekiel chapter 14 we learn of some idol worshipping leaders who come to Ezekiel to “do the God thing.” We can paraphrase God’s response with one word: “really?” Said with a very sarcastic tone of course. Idolatry  is a ridiculous thing to do and in Ezekiel chapters 14 and 15 we learn of three reasons why God’s people in Ezekiel’s day should commit themselves fully to the Lord. These three reasons still hold true for us today. So what are they?

First, idolatry creates distance in our relationship with God. Consider:

Therefore speak to them, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Any of those of the house of Israel who take their idols into their hearts and place their iniquity as a stumbling block before them, and yet come to the prophet—I the Lord will answer those who come with the multitude of their idols, 5 in order that I may take hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, all of whom are estranged from me through their idols.
6 Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. 7 For any of those of the house of Israel, or of the aliens who reside in Israel, who separate themselves from me, taking their idols into their hearts. . .  (Ezekiel 14:4-7 emphasis mine)

Keep in mind that as Christians we are under a covenant of grace, and so no matter what kind of distance we may put between ourselves and the Lord, we can no more change our child-of-God status any more than a spat with my Dad would make my Dad no longer my father. Through Jesus God has given us the right to become children of God. But estranged children we can surely become through idolatry.

Distance between ourselves and the Lord is most unfortunate. The way many Christians treat their relationship with God is like an athlete, a runner, who goes to a newly assigned coach and says “can you give me money for new running shoes please? That is all I want from you.” We do this when we have an attitude of “Lord, just get me to heaven please, Oh, and make life perfect until then too.” The coach responds with “I have something far greater for you: my time, my attention, my attentiveness to how you are running, my expertise in training and running, my wisdom, indeed I offer you me. I offer you a  relationship with me.” The Lord offers us a relationship and all the while we cry out “just get us the shoes.” Idolatry makes us content with the hope of heaven as we miss the fact that we are missing out on God.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. (John 15:9)

Second, idolatry leads us down a path of evil. Consider:

Mortal, these men have taken their idols into their hearts, and placed their iniquity as a stumbling block before them; shall I let myself be consulted by them? 4 Therefore speak to them, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Any of those of the house of Israel who take their idols into their hearts and place their iniquity as a stumbling block before them, and yet come to the prophet—I the Lord will answer those who come with the multitude of their idols, 5 in order that I may take hold of the hearts of the house of Israel, all of whom are estranged from me through their idols.
6 Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. 7 For any of those of the house of Israel, or of the aliens who reside in Israel, who separate themselves from me, taking their idols into their hearts and placing their iniquity as a stumbling block before them, and yet come to a prophet to inquire of me by him, I the Lord will answer them myself. (Ezekiel 14:3-7 emphasis mine)

Idolatry makes us comfortable with the abominable. It makes what is awfully wrong seem ok, or even good. Like, an athlete that cheats. Cheating through drugs seems ok, good even, if winning is the only thing. But if winning with integrity is important, then that is a different story. Idols kill our perspective on sin. Consider how the idol of Social Darwinism makes the elimination of a particular race seem ok, good even if you are Hitler. People become comfortable with the abominable. Consider how the idolatry of sex makes some comfortable with adultery or even rape. Consider how the idolatry of people can make a person comfortable with stalking. Though we need sensitivity here, consider how the idolatry of personal rights makes people comfortable with terminating life in the womb.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us . . . (Hebrews 12:1)

Third, idolatry makes us useless. Consider:

The word of the Lord came to me:
2 O mortal, how does the wood of the vine surpass all other wood—
the vine branch that is among the trees of the forest?
3 Is wood taken from it to make anything?
Does one take a peg from it on which to hang any object?
4 It is put in the fire for fuel;
when the fire has consumed both ends of it
and the middle of it is charred,
is it useful for anything?
5 When it was whole it was used for nothing;
how much less—when the fire has consumed it,
and it is charred—
can it ever be used for anything! (Ezekiel 15:1-5)

While I am enjoying the pre-teen and teen stages my boys are in I must admit to missing certain things from their younger years, like Thomas the Tank Engine. I do not, however, miss the Telletubbies. Thomas was not a fast engine, or a big engine, or even a pretty engine, but he was a useful engine. Practically every episode had some reference to Thomas being or becoming “a very useful engine.” As Christians we are called to be useful, to be fruitful:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4,5)

Idolatry keeps us from fully abiding in the vine, in Christ. Idolatry makes us fruitless, and useless. Idolatry would be like Usain Bolt running his competition in dress shoes, or Michael Phelps competing with water wings. It does not help get the job done.

So what if we find ourselves more like spiritual couch potatoes than spiritual Olympians? Is there any hope for us when idolatry has sidelined us form the race? Yes, there is opportunity to get back on track. God wants us on track:

I the Lord will answer those who come with the multitude of their idols, 5 in order that I may take hold of the hearts of the house of Israel (Ezekiel 14:4-5 emphasis mine)

When we are on the wrong track the opportunity is given to “turn around”, a Hebrew word in the Old Testament often translated as “repent”. Consider:

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: Repent and turn away from your idols; and turn away your faces from all your abominations. (Ezekiel 14:6 emphasis mine)

When some people hear that word “repent” they automatically  respond with something like “how dare you tell me I need to repent! How dare you not accept me as I am!” In fact the call to repentance has nothing to do here with acceptance of who you are. It has to do with you not accepting the horrible situation you are in, not accepting that you are estranged form God, not accepting that idolatry has led you down a path of evil, and not accepting that being useless has become your status quo. Repentance is a very positive opportunity to re-evaluate and make positive changes. Athletes do it all the time as a matter of getting back on track. When idolatry takes hold, perhaps you and I should listen to God’s Holy Spirit and do likewise?

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. (1 Cor 9:24)

All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV

Out of Their Own Imaginations and Out of Their Minds. Foolish Prophets Then and Now.

Spirituality seems to now be what you want it to be. This has many implications, both obvious and subtle. Let me give an example. As a pastor I do not receive as many phone calls from people looking for a wedding officiant anymore and just this summer it dawned on me as to why. Google. I am old enough to remember the days when an unchurched couple looking for a wedding officiant would phone around the churches. Now they just Google it. So I tried Googling “wedding Cobourg” and must admit that it was somewhat of a reality check. There is no lack of officiants in the area willing to marry you, or fulfill some of the other celebrations that we clergy once almost exclusively took care of. What dismayed me most was that in the typical “hire me to marry you” blurb, there were no offers of pre-marriage guidance, no promises of talking with and walking with the couple through what the Bible has to say about love and marriage. Instead there were offers to individualize and personalize the wedding, so that the wedding could be exactly as you want and so that you will be happy at the end of the day. It seems that the means has become the end. The “perfect” wedding ceremony has become the goal when a wedding ceremony ought to point beyond itself, indeed beyond even the happy couple, to God’s gift of, and plan for marriage. It is fascinating and sad that “personalize” and “individualize” are words, but “Godize” isn’t. Many a wedding, not to mention a marriage, needs “Godized.” Many a spiritual or religious leader needs to take a lead in this.

In the prophet Ezekiel’s day there was a tendency for prophets to individualize and personalize their messages, rather than “Godize” them:

1 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are prophesying; say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: “Hear the word of the Lord!” 3 Thus says the Lord God, Alas for the senseless prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! Ezekiel 13:1-3 (NRSV)

The “prophets” were prone to saying what they thought the people wanted to hear rather than what God had to say. So they went about telling people to relax, that there was no danger. Ezekiel on the other hand heard God’s message, and then delivered it. Judgement is coming. Tough times are ahead. Not a message people wanted to hear, but it was true.

Ezekiel chapter 13 has much to teach a prophet, one who would presume to speak on God’s behalf. Let us consider some points. You may want a Bible handy (or click on the link above):

  • In verse 2 Ezekiel is to say to the prophets “Hear the word of the Lord.” This is not something you would normally say to a fellow prophet, who should be dependable in speaking the word of the Lord. We would hope that all teachers of religion are hearing and understanding the Word of God before teaching it.
  • In verse 4 the foolish prophets are likened to “jackals among the ruins”. In other words they are opportunistic just like the wild animals that would enter a city once it has been destroyed by an enemy. We would hope that religious teachers are leading from a place of servanthood rather than opportunism.
  • In verse 5 the foolish prophets are said to have left breaks in the walls. That is, they do not help people defend against evil. We would hope that religious teachers are part of how God answers the prayers of the people “deliver us from evil.”
  • In verses 6 and 7 the prophets are straight-up called liars. We would hope that religious teachers are honest and seeking, speaking truth.
  • In verse 8 God tells the prophets “I am against you”. We would hope that all who are religious teachers never get into such a sorry place of having God against them. Therefore they should avoid being against Him like the plague.
  • In verses 10 and following the prophets are said to be using “whitewash” to hide problems with the walls. I have come to learn that you can hide a multitude of renovation sins under a “whitewash” of drywall mud. However, a solid frame underneath is far more important than a good looking wall. We would hope that religious teachers are involved in some solid framing work.
  • In verse 18 the prophetesses are spoken of as magicians and they are likened to those hunting for birds with nets. They trap people. We would hope that religious teachers are in the ministry of freedom, not entrapment.
  • In verse 19 the prophetesses are spoken of as acting purely out of self interest, and worse they pervert the justice of God. We would hope that religious teachers are not in it for themselves, and point to the wonderful justice of God.
  • In verse s22 and 23 the prophetesses accomplish the opposite of what God wants. We would hope that religious teachers are serving the will of God.
  • In verse 23 it is assured that false prophecy and divination will come to an end. We would hope that religious teachers understand that anything false will not last, but the Word of God will stand forever.
  • Also in verse 23, people need saved from the prophets. We would hope that people do not need to be rescued from religious teachers.

As we contemplate the above let us keep in mind that anyone who speaks their mind on spirituality and religion in effect becomes a “religious teacher” no matter their claimed religion or lack thereof. So this includes me, but probably also you. However, Ezekiel 13 pertains especially to prophets who claim to speak on behalf of the God of Israel. God has spoken in Christ and the Christian Church is called to a prophetic role in speaking on His behalf to the world. We want to be sure we are being consistent with what God has said, not what we might want God to say, or what people might want to hear. We run the risk of becoming foolish prophets when we try to make Christianity palatable. I forget who said it, but we are called to be salt, not sugar. We are called to shine a light, when people who have something to hide would prefer the dark. Light is not welcome everywhere by everyone.

But as we consider the trap of making Christianity palatable, let us remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is beyond palatable. God’s expression of love, justice and grace through Jesus is a most wonderful truth. It is the admission of sin that is the unpalatable part. No amount of whitewash, drywall mud, sugar, or darkness can make that part go away. And thankfully, in God’s faithfulness, nothing can make His grace in Christ go away either. With the wonderful truth of God’s love we would be out of our minds to speak out of our own imaginations.

The Judgement of God.

If you have been reading along in Ezekiel during our series you may have noticed something about chapters 5 through 7. God seems, well . . . how shall we put this, . . . quite judgemental. Some would say the judgement of God is quite brutal. Some would say unfair even. Many look at God’s judgement to come at Christ’s return in much the same way. Should we ignore Bible passages about the judgement of God? Should the judgement of God give us reason to disbelieve? Quite the opposite, by looking more deeply into the judgement of God we gain some clarity about God and humanity. Let us consider what we can learn from Ezekiel 5-7.

The judgement of God is an expression of the faithfulness of God. The language of Ezekiel chapters 5-7 reflects the language found in the covenant promises of Deuteronomy chapter 28 and Leviticus chapter 26. There we find promises of things going well for the people if they keep the covenant and of things going rather poorly if not. God’s people ought not to have been surprised that they stood under judgement, for God is faithful to His promises. Looking ahead to the judgement to come, God will be faithful to His promises, all of them, even the ones we may not like.

The judgement of God demonstrates the patience of God. Some Bible scholars see in the instruction to Ezekiel to lie down for 430 days in chapter 4 an allusion to the 400 or so years that God had put up with His people since Solomon built the temple. Reading about that era in the Bible you do get the impression that they were less than impressive in their loyalty and commitment to God. In bringing judgement in Ezekiel’s day, and not before, we must be impressed at the patience of God. He is still patient:

The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9

The judgement of God reflects the reality in the hearts of people, and not some arbitrary punishment in the mind of God. The judgement we read about in Ezekiel chapters 5 through 7 reflects the situation on the ground. It is entirely fitting:

According to their way I will deal with them; according to their own judgments I will judge them. Ezekiel 7:27

Let us take as an example one of the most striking and brutal verses about what the people in Ezekiel’s day will experience in the judgement:

Surely, parents shall eat their children in your midst, and children shall eat their parents; I will execute judgments on you, and any of you who survive I will scatter to every wind. Ezekiel 5:10

The thought of cannibalism is horrid enough, but one’s children, or parents?! To understand this, please realize that we do not have a command of God, such as “as punishment parents must eat their children and children must eat their parents.” Rather, this is what the Lord knows will happen when He judges the people through the siege of the Babylonians. When the food becomes scarce, as happens for an extended time in siege warfare, the strong will eat the weak to survive. The strong, adult parents, will prey on the weak, their young children. The strong, adult children, will prey on the weak, their senior parents. In doing this the people have sunk very low and have wandered very far from God and from His law which was given to protect the weak and vulnerable from the strong, which was given to nurture love within families and society, which was given to provide proper guidance on morality including evil practices like cannibalism. In experiencing judgement, the people harm themselves by their own will having wandered far from the will of God. This is not God’s idea, this is what is in the hearts of the people.

When we think of the judgement to come, people will sometimes say things like “the punishment of hell does not fit the crime of disbelief.” However, here again we see that the judgement reflects what is in the hearts of people and not some arbitrary punishment in the mind of God. While the language of hell throughout the Scriptures paints a vivid picture of an experience no one would ever want, there is something approaching a clear definition of it in 2 Thessalonians 1:9:

9 These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 2 Thessalonians 1:9

The experience of hell is an experience of separation from God. When someone experiences separation from God at the coming judgement, they will be experiencing something they have not yet experienced, but have been ‘living towards’. When people have been rejecting God in their lives, in their minds, in their hearts, then will come a day the Lord will allow them to actually experience what they have wanted all along. The coming judgement will reflect what is in the hearts of people, and not some arbitrary punishment in the mind of God.

The judgement of God shines a light on the grace of God in Christ. The brutality we find in the language of judgement in a passage like Ezekiel 5-7 really impresses upon us how contrary to God’s nature sin really is. Sinful people and a Holy God necessarily mix like oil and water. Actually worse, because at least oil will sit on water. When we speak of Jesus dying on the cross for us, we often put it in a way that could be summed up like “Jesus took a bullet for us.” This is not deep enough. He did not just die. He bore our sin. He experienced the full weight of the judgement of God upon sin.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:21

Let us be reminded of the coming judgement:

Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. 13 And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:11-15 (emphasis mine)

That should be us! But in receiving Christ, we experience grace, the judgement having been experienced by Jesus at the cross, our names having been written into the “book of life”. The judgement of God shines a light on just how astonishing the grace of God in Christ really is.

The judgement of God sets the record straight. Chapters 5 through 7 conclude with words we find throughout the passage, indeed throughout the whole prophecy of Ezekiel:

And they shall know that I am the Lord. Ezekiel 7:27

If there was any doubt before, through judgement the record has been set straight. People may hear of the judgement of God, whether in Ezekiel, or in passages that speak of the judgement to come and say “God’s judgement is unfair,” or “God’s judgement is brutal”. On the coming day of judgement the record will be set straight and we will all be able to say “Your judgement, Lord, is excellent.”