Most Worthy of Praise (Psalm 96)

What do we pursue with all our strength? What is of such great relevance to our lives that we invest heavily into it? Crime gives us an indication of what people pursue. The three big pursuits of crime are money, sex, and power. People go to great lengths for the sake of these three things. That might not describe us, but these three may point to things we invest heavily into, such as wealth and security, relationships and intimacy, validation and influence.

Of the roughly 19,000 people in our town of Cobourg, how many are pursuing wealth, relationships and influence? Of the roughly 19,000 people in Cobourg, how many are pursuing God? How many see such a great relevance of God to their lives that they are investing in a relationship with Him?

Perhaps those who are pursuing other things are right? Perhaps wealth is more effective, human relationships are more important, and influence is more useful to daily life? Maybe security feels more necessary, intimacy more satisfying, and validation more important than figuring out the God question? As we consider Psalm 96, we quickly discover that the Psalmist could not agree:

Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise!
He is to be feared above all gods. Psalms 96:4 (NLT)

We might not think we have gods, but things like wealth, relationships, and influence become gods when they sit at the centre of our lives. The Psalmist would have us know that nothing we invest our lives in can compare to God.

The gods of other nations are mere idols,
but the Lord made the heavens! Psalms 96:5

The Lord is the Creator. How can anything compare with that?! We are often made to feel that churches cannot compete with sports and entertainment for the attention of people. Maybe so, however, nothing can compare with God for importance to people. God is most worthy of praise! The Psalmist goes on:

Honor and majesty surround him;
strength and beauty fill his sanctuary.
7 O nations of the world, recognize the Lord;
recognize that the Lord is glorious and strong.
8 Give to the Lord the glory he deserves!
Bring your offering and come into his courts.
9 Worship the Lord in all his holy splendor.
Let all the earth tremble before him. Psalms 96:6-9

God is most worthy of praise! Some would translate verse 9 with “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” While there are ugly sides to money, sex, and power, there is nothing ugly about God or His holiness.

The Psalmist continues,

Tell all the nations, “The Lord reigns!”
The world stands firm and cannot be shaken.
He will judge all peoples fairly.
11 Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice!
Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise!
12 Let the fields and their crops burst out with joy!
Let the trees of the forest sing for joy
13 before the Lord, for he is coming!
He is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with justice,
and the nations with his truth. Psalms 96:10-13

God is the ruler who judges “all peoples fairly.” We can take note of the great joy evident in Creation at the thought of the coming king. God is a good king, the kind of king you long for. He is not the kind of king that causes you to run for hiding. God is not the kind of king whose presence you can’t stand the thought of. God is the kind of king you celebrate! God is most worthy of praise!

Thinking of the judgement of the coming king, those of us who are Christians might immediately jump to thinking of the final judgement at the arrival of Christ. The earlier singers of the Psalm would not have thought in those terms. They would have been thinking of freedom for their tiny nation from all their big oppressive enemies. God will judge their enemies “with his truth”. God is most worthy of praise!

If the earlier readers of this Psalm could see how much better the Creator was than all other gods they might worship, then in our day we can see even more clearly that God is most worthy of praise. We have an even better picture of God. We have even more reason to celebrate his presence. We have the benefit of God revealing himself in Jesus. We have the presence of the Holy Spirit. We celebrate the once for all work of Christ in breaking the penalty of sin. We celebrate the ongoing work of the Spirit in breaking the power of sin. While rescue from oppression as spoken about in Psalm 96 is important, God goes further to rescue us from the worst oppressor there has ever been; the evil one himself.

We pursue so many things, investing in them with vigour and even excitement. They are not all bad things. However, we may not pursue God with as great a passion as we pursue these other things in life. I forget the exact words, but Timothy Keller tweeted something like “the things you daydream about, can become the things you worship.” It can be very subtle, but God slips from the centre, and good things take His place. However, the good things, no matter how good, are are never a substitute for God. Our Lord is “most worthy of praise!”

(All Scripture referees are taken from the NLT)

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

A Funny Thing Did Not Happen on the Way to Worship an Idol

14446762625_2a4916da1c_nAll religions are equal, right? Some say that they are equally bad, but many claim that they are all equally good. They all lead to the same morals. They all deserve respect. To say otherwise you will risk being labelled as intolerant. The prevailing mood of accommodation of all religions indiscriminately is a far cry from what God called his people to in Deuteronomy 12:

When the Lord your God has cut off before you the nations whom you are about to enter to dispossess them, when you have dispossessed them and live in their land, take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, “How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.” Deuteronomy 12:29-30

For those who think all religions promote the same moral values, the next verse is very important:

You must not do the same for the Lord your God, because every abhorrent thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. Deuteronomy 12:31

As God’s people prepare to enter the Promised Land they are warned that messing around with Canaan’s god’s would make a real mess of things. God had given the law to His people as a gift of grace, as a set of ethics that would lead the obedient to be a light in a dark world. Idolatry would cause God’s people to plunge into darkness themselves. Our twenty-first century living blinds us to some of the atrocious things that happened in the name of religion in the ancient world including child sacrifice. The Law given to God’s people pointed to a better way. In leading God’s people away from God, idolatry would lead people away from God’s best for them; the godly, good, and wise way of life. Clearly, not all religions are equal and we should be grateful that many immoral religions have faded into obscurity.

Idolatry still leads people away from God’s best. Remembering that idolatry is loving anyone or anything more than God, consider the idolatry of Adolf Hitler who loved Social Darwinism more than God. Social Darwinism is what happens when you apply the principles of Darwinism, namely the survival of, or “natural selection” of, the strong to a society. Evolution demands that the “weak”, like the Jews according to some, really ought to be eliminated. Hitler was not a crazy man, but a quite intelligent man who was unfortunately informed more by his idolatry than by God’s way. Had Hitler been influenced by the very people he sought to destroy he would have realized the implications of all humanity created in the image of God and history books would now tell a very different story.

Another example of idolatry leading people away from God’s best for them can be readily seen in ISIS. ISIS has a morality problem. ISIS seeks to build a religious state, a caliphate, through violence. Islam has a fundamentalist problem. When people who call themselves Christian turn to violence in the name of Christianity, we point them back to Jesus and the call to emulate him in the way of the cross. When people turn to a violent expression of Islam, the moderate Muslim has trouble calling them to emulate Mohammed. They are convinced they already are. When a Christian wants to create a Christian state, we point them to the teaching of Jesus who said “Go therefore and make disciples,” and not “Go therefore and make a Christian nation.” When a militant Muslim wants to support the creation of a religious state, a caliphate, the moderate Muslim has trouble sending them back to the teaching and example of Mohammed. They are convinced they have already gone there. Islam is idolatry that is keeping people away from God’s best for them. As a Christian I am called to love the Muslim. I am not called to like Islam.

But someone may object that the very passage from Deuteronomy we began with has God’s people creating a religious state though violence. That is a very good objection and one which demands a response. First, consider that God was establishing a nation for the purpose of keeping his promise of blessings for all nations (Genesis 12:1-13). Second, consider that those times and places were very different from our own, being more like the tribalism that we have seen in places like Rwanda, than like the nation states we are comfortably used to. Third, consider that the inhabitants of Canaan were ripe for God’s judgement. They were no better than the people who experienced the flood in Noah’s day. Fourth, consider that this was a one time event. The command to take Canaan was not a command to be dusted off whenever God’s people feel like taking territory. Yes, we do have in Deuteronomy a people called to create a religious state and yes, violence was to be involved. But this was one step, a necessary step, on the journey to the cross where God Himself would suffer violence to bring salvation to sinful people. This was one step on a long road to blessing.

So which should we be following today? The prevailing mood validating all religions as equal, or the Biblical call to religious purity and evangelism of people we see as lost? In leading people away from God, idolatry leads people away from God’s best for them. That includes the godly ethics he longs for people to enjoy. But there is more; idolatry leads people away from God’s very best for them in leading them away from his salvation. Idols can never rescue us from the effects of sin. Jesus does. Atheism does not rescue us from sin. Jesus does. Islam can not rescue us from sin. Jesus does. Hinduism, Buddhism, and everyotherism cannot rescue us from sin. Jesus does. Even the Christian religion, when it is just religion for the sake of religiosity does not rescue us from sin. Jesus does. Jesus said  “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6

We can and should affirm religious pluralism in our nation, to a point. A religion that demands something like child sacrifice would be clearly very far from Canadian values. So religious freedom does have its limits. But as Jesus followers we are called to religious purity. Are we not to respect the religions and world-views of other people then? As followers of Jesus we recognize these views for what they are: idolatry which leads people away from God’s best. How can we respect that? But as for the people who hold these views, who follow these idols, we are to go far beyond respect, to love. And if we love them, we will want them to know Jesus, His way of life, His way of salvation. We will want want them to experience the very best He has for them.

All scripture references are from the NRSV
photo credit: Sacrifice via photopin (license)