American Idols

American Idols – Isaiah 46 – Radio Devotionals

Monday
Who are your favorite idols?  Are you watching the last couple of weeks of American Idol, rooting for your favorite, devastated if they don’t make it?  Do you have sports idols, movie idols, or home improvement idols?

Some time when you have nothing better to do, if you look up the word “idol,” you’ll find it has 2 meanings.  One of the meanings is the one we’re using when we talk about heroes and celebrities – in that sense an idol is “a person or thing that is greatly admired, loved, or revered.”  Nothing wrong with that.  The second meaning is the one we’re going to talk about this week – the meaning that’s more relevant to our faith.  In this sense an idol is “an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship.”

This is what God is talking about in the first of the ten commandments when he says, “I am the Lord your God, …..  You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, (Exodus 20:2-5a)

Most of us don’t perform ceremonial worship rituals to multiple deities on a regular basis, so we assume we don’t worship idols.  But over the centuries I don’t think idolatry has disappeared – it just takes different, perhaps more subtle, forms. It’s not the obvious making of a carved image, setting up a shrine in our homes or visiting a temple to a false god that we read about in the Old Testament. So the language has changed, the form has changed, but idolatry is still there.

Israel, God’s special nation in the Old Testament, kept getting sucked into worshipping the gods and idols of all the nations around them – Baal, Asherah, and Dagon.  These aren’t exactly household names today.  But we still absorb idol worship from the culture around us without even realizing.

So what do we worship?  What are our idols and false gods?  Here’s the thing – I can’t give you a list – “top ten idols to avoid” – we can’t post them on a website or publish them in the local newspaper.  Because idolatry isn’t about the thing, it’s about our attitude towards that thing.  Idolatry is sneaky, subtle.  That’s why we don’t notice it.  It usually starts with something good, something God gives us, something wise, a good idea or a good strategy, or something we enjoy.  But at some point, we cross a line, and instead of that good thing being a gift, it becomes an idol.  It depends what’s going on in us. So one person’s joy may be another person’s idol.

Idols are only idols if we idolize them.

So how do we know if we’re worshipping idols?  What is idolatry?  Idolatry is anything that takes a part of our hearts and lives that rightfully belongs to God.  Idolatry is expecting anything other than God to save us, rescue us, sustain us, provide for us, protect us, or bring us joy and peace.  These are things only God can do for us.  Now He may choose to sustain, provide, protect, bring joy and peace through many every day or even miraculous things.  These things aren’t bad in themselves.  But any time we step over from viewing these things as tools or as gifts from God to viewing them as the source itself, any time we displace God from being all those things, we step over into idolatry.

What do I mean?  Any time we rely on:

  • Our job to provide, rather than relying on God to provide through our job
  • Our insurance or our “good choices” to protect us
  • Our image or reputation or “success” to determine our value
  • Our family or other relationships or our job to give us purpose and meaning
  • Our savings account to give us peace and security
  • Our own strength to give us perseverance
  • Our preferred form of worship or the way we like to do church to bring us close to God.

All of these are idolatry.  We’re depending on the gifts rather than the giver of those gifts.

The problem is that at some point all these things fail us.  We may lose our job, the insurance doesn’t cover everything, our saving account isn’t ever enough, and we’re never quite successful enough to actually feel valuable.  We only really experience what we’re looking for when we worship God and expect him to come through for us.  He always does – not always in the way we want or when we want, but often in unexpected ways.

So what are you idolizing?  What do you depend on to get you through the day or make you feel OK?  Let’s put the idols back where they belong – in Old Testament temples.  And let’s worship the one true God who really deserves our worship.

Tuesday
Good morning and welcome to part 2 of idolatry 101.  Yesterday we said that idolatry is anything that takes a part of our hearts and lives that rightfully belongs to God.

Today I want to talk about one of the ways that we can know if we’re worshipping God and trusting Him to meet our needs or if we’ve actually started to idolize other things instead of God.  I’m going to call this the “who’s carrying who?” test.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah talks about idols.  It’s not the easiest part of the Bible to read, But it’s important, so let’s try to understand it.  Isaiah talks about idols in chapter 46. Before I start reading, it will probably help to understand a little history.  God’s special nation, Israel had been conquered by the Babylonian empire and most of the population had been taken into captivity in Babylon.  Bel and Nebo were two key Babylonian gods. Nebo was Bel’s son.  So this passage is talking about Babylon’s key father-son god duo. The Persian Empire was soon to conquer the Babylonian Empire and these verses look ahead and talk about how the Babylonian gods will soon be dethroned.

So let me read the first 2 verses of Isaiah 46.

Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts.  They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity.

You see, the the false idols we lean and depend on basically turn around and start to weigh us down.  Instead of using them as tools and gifts from God, we start to expect them to carry us, and to be dependable and trustworthy.  But instead of them carrying us, we find that we carry them and they become heavy and burdensome.  Because they are not worthy of the trust we put in them.

For example: our image – personal image, work image, Facebook image.  There’s a subtle shift from wanting to really be a great person, to simply wanting to create an image of being a great person.  And then that image becomes something we take pride in and honestly it becomes a heavy burden – it’s hard work to maintain it and protect it, and correct it if something happens that isn’t consistent with the image we want to project.  Gradually we become a slave to that image.

Another example is technology – technology can make our work and home lives a whole lot easier.  And it’s a great tool to stay connected and maintain relationships.  But keeping up on several work and personal email accounts, texts, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and whatever else you like to keep up on can start to feel way too heavy.

Even our houses – a house is a place to live, to feel safe, to be hospitable.  But if we have too big of a house, it can become a burden to pay for and maintain.  And we can feel like a slave to it.  We knew a family who realized they had idolized a certain lifestyle – they had bought their dream house, but were working ridiculous hours to afford it.  They decided to downsize, to let go of the idol, and they felt so much freer!

Another example is our job.  Of course financial provision is good, hopefully you find the work meaningful and satisfying.  But even a good job can become a heavy burden if we become desperate to maintain it, keep it, climb the ladder, and compete with our coworkers. We can easily find that instead of enjoying the job and trusting God to give us the skill we need, we’re anxiously relying on our own strength and losing sleep and gaining an ulcer in the process.

Fortunately Isaiah has more to say. Listen to verses 3 and 4

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.

This is God’s reversal of the burden of idolatry! God always finds a way to rescue us, even from burdens that seem impossible to lift.  He carries us!  From conception to grave he carries us and saves us.  He made us and he takes responsibility for what/who he has made.

What feels heavy to you in life? What do you find yourself trying to juggle, balance, maintain, and support that just feels like cement around your feet?

Do you have a sense that you’re carrying heavy burdens or that you’re being carried by God on a daily basis?

I’ve experienced both.  I’ve had days when I’m overwhelmed, stressed, and trying to keep it all together, there’s too much to do, and there are problems I can’t solve.  But then there are days when I bring it all to God and say, “this is too much for me – I don’t have enough time – I don’t have the resources – I need you Lord.  And I find that on those days I have a sense of being carried through the day.  There’s often no difference between the 2 days in terms of how they go – even when I ask God to carry me, things aren’t always perfect.  But there’s a huge difference in how I feel!

When I’m trying to maintain all my idols, I feel stress and exhaustion, I feel alone and scared.  When I let God carry the burden and trust him to do so I feel peaceful, content, secure, calm, even joyful.

He carries us and saves us – We just have to let him.  Will you let God carry you and your burdens today?  Will you set down your idols and trust him, the one true God?

Wednesday
We’re talking about idol worship this week.  You know – it’s spring, we’re seeing the first signs of things turning green, the temperatures are warming up.  Isn’t that when everyone starts thinking about idols?  Perhaps not.  I guess there isn’t really a season for thinking about idolatry.  In fact, we really don’t think about idols at all.  Or if we do, we think about them in the context of ancient history or tribal rituals.  But as we are discovering, idolatry is alive and well, even in 21
st Century America.

One of the reasons that we tend to make a subtle shift from worshipping God himself, depending on him and trusting him, to worshipping idols, which means depending on or trusting pretty much anything or anyone else – has to do with control.  Let’s admit it.  We have control issues.

We’ve been reading from Isaiah 46 – today let’s continue with verses 5 to 7.  This is God speaking:

“To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? Those who lavish gold from the purse, and weigh out silver in the scales, hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; then they fall down and worship! They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it, they set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble.

God asks us to do a comparison.  He asks us to compare God (uppercase G) versus the gods (lowercase g).  Who is really in control?  He asks whether there’s anything they could create with their riches and talent that can give them answers and help when they need it.

We all have things we hope will protect us and save us, don’t we?  We have this sense of fairness and justice, that the good things we have created in our lives should help us and be there for us – things like government, savings or social security, our education, or our “good choices” in life.  But verse 7 says:

If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble.

These things are all good, and God may use them to help us, but they themselves are powerless. We certainly can’t rely on them.

There are no substitutes for God himself. Manmade things can be really good and helpful, but ultimately we cannot depend on them.  Because the things we create are not greater than us – systems; structures and organziation charts; all the protocols and plans we set in place – they are good expressions of all the gifts and talents God has given us, but ultimately, because they are made by us, they are less than us – they aren’t fully reliable and trustworthy. We like them because we made them and we feel like we’re in control of them.  In reality there are always factors outside our control.  But we prefer the illusion of control to acknowledging that God is the only one who’s really in control.

You may have read the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the book of Daniel.  (Or you may have seen the Veggie Tales version of the story about Rack, Shack, and Benny.)  The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had set up statue of himself and required all the people to worship it (in the real story the statue was made of gold, not chocolate as in Veggie Tales).  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship anyone or anything other than God himself, so they risked their lives by refusing to bow down to the statue.  When the king threated to throw them into the furnace (the death penalty of choice in this story), they said

If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)

What they said here is amazing.  They had absolute confidence that God would deliver them.  But they knew that even if he didn’t, worshipping God was still better than bowing down to the gold idol – they trusted God with their eternal life even beyond trusting him with their life on earth.  They were absolutely clear on who is best, who is in first place, who is in control.

We fall prey to idol worship in places where God isn’t best in our minds and hearts.  We may believe and know all sorts of stuff in our heads.  Like God is trustworthy, God has a plan, God is good, God is loving, God is strong and powerful, God is dependable, God is in control ….

But we don’t necessarily trust and put our absolute faith in God being these things.

  • Yes I know God is good, but ….
  • Yes I know this is how God says I should live, but ….
  • I believe God has a plan, but I don’t want to wait that long so I’ll just go with my plan
  • Yes, I know I can trust God, but I’d still like to work 70 hours a week and stay in control of building my savings account.

It would have been easy for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to say, “hey we should just pretend to worship the idol to save our lives, surely God doesn’t want us to die – that wouldn’t make any sense – he loves us!” – but that’s man’s wisdom

Instead, they were ruthless in trusting and following God – and they got to live a miracle.  God did save them.  They were thrown into the furnace, but they didn’t burn – when the king had them pulled out, their clothes didn’t even smell of smoke!

Do you find yourself feeling angry or disappointed when something or someone you were depending on lets you down?  Where are you missing out on a miracle because it feels easier to take control yourself and do things your way rather than God’s way?  God is in control – and that’s a good thing. Will you trust him and worship him and see how he answers you and helps you when you cry out to him today?

Thursday
This week we’re talking about all the people and things that we depend on and worship, rather than depending on and worshipping God himself.  The Bible calls this idolatry.  And as I’ve been thinking about idolatry, I’m beginning to realize how easily I start to worship idols instead of God and I don’t think I’m the only one who does this. 

One of the reasons we don’t fully trust and depend on God alone is that we don’t know him very well.  In a relationship, trust is built over time as we develop a history together.  When I see that someone is trustworthy in lots of little ways, I gradually start to trust them with bigger and bigger things.  If someone shows up on time when we meet for coffee, I’m more likely to trust them to pick up my kid on time when I when I have to work late.  Or if someone returns my rake when they’re done with it, I’m more likely to be willing to lend them my cordless drill.

This week we’ve been hearing what God said about idolatry through the prophet Isaiah in the book of Isaiah chapter 46.  Today we’re going to read verses 8 through 11.

“Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

God didn’t just make the world, fling it into space, and stand back to see what would happen.  He isn’t wringing his hands, anxiously wondering what will happen.  God has an eternal purpose – ultimately he wants each one of us to have a relationship with him and be part of his family.  That’s why he sent his son Jesus – to satisfy the penalty for all the sin that stands between us and God, so that nothing would get in the way of us having a relationship with God if we choose to accept his forgiveness.

Everything he does is working towards that big eternal purpose.  And everything he says in the Bible helps us understand that purpose.  God has no empty words – anything he says he will do is either done already, being done, or will be done. Verse 10 says ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’

So we need to know God and his purpose.  If we are confident of who God is and what he’s about, we’ll find it easier to trust him and depend on him, rather than manufacturing our own “idols” to help us feel safe and give us a sense of purpose.

So how can we know God?  How can we know what he’s spoken about who he is and his plans and purpose? 

The best way to find out is to read the Bible.  Sometimes we find that thought a bit overwhelming, especially if you’re used to a leather-bound King James version written in ye olde English.  You might want to pick up a newer version that takes the same Hebrew the Old Testament was written in and Greek the New Testament was written in, but translates them into current language.  There are lots of good translations like the New International Version or the English Standard Version or some that are even easier to read like The Message Bible.  You can download an app on your phone or tablet or even get software that will read the Bible out loud to you if you’re not so much of a reader.  The important thing is to read it.  A great place to start is with the gospels at the beginning of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – that tell the story of Jesus’ life.  Often it helps to join a church or a Bible study group to help us when we reach passages that are hard to understand.

Sometimes we think we know what God’s like, but as we read His Word, the Bible, we find out he’s very different from what we assumed or thought we knew.  I’ve been reading the Bible for years and I’m still discovering new things about who God is and the way he works in our lives.  As you read, ask God to show you who he is, what he’s like, and what his purpose is in the world?  What counsel does he want to give you?  What is God doing here on earth and how is he inviting you to participate with him?

As we read the stories of what God did in the Bible, we begin to develop a basis for trusting him.  He came through for the Israelites time and time again when they had serious problems.  He surprised them with his amazing ways of helping them and protecting them.  And then we can begin to develop our own history with God.  As we read and get to know him and his ways we begin to experience God being there for us when we trust him with our life.  And as we trust him with more and more areas of our life, we discover more about how totally trustworthy he is. 

If I’m weaving a web of lies to try to protect myself, I’m not going to experience God’s help, and if he did help me, I probably wouldn’t even notice.  But if I commit to following the ways he tells me to live in the Bible by being totally honest, even when it’s scary or difficult, I open the door for him to help me and protect me.

If I’m mean to people who are mean to me, things are likely to go from bad to worse.  But if I choose to live God’s way, and respond to unkindness with gentleness, I’m are likely to see God turn the situation around. 

These are just examples.  The point is that the more we know God, the more we are likely to trust him.  And the more we trust him, the more we find he truly is trustworthy.  He is who he says he is and he will do what he has said he will do.  May you know and trust God more and more and more, starting today.

Friday
Good morning and welcome to day 5 of talking about worshipping idols.  We all do it, whether we’re aware of it or not – we all admire and praise or idolize various forms of “right living,” “right choices,” or “socially acceptable behavior.”  It’s not that these are necessarily bad – most of them are very good.  But they are simply tools – good things God gives us – we’re supposed to worship him, the giver of the tools, not the tools themselves. 

I have found that one of the best ways to avoid worshipping idols is simply to worship God.  When I’m not purposeful in my worship of God, I find myself getting caught up in the rat race, running around pursuing all the things our world tells us we “should” pursue – which may be various forms of wealth, power, and prestige.  Worshipping God reminds me to keep perspective on what’s really important.  When I worship God first, I feel freer to focus on important things like relationships with other people, my character and my attitudes.

Now worshipping God may not sound very simple, or perhaps not very pleasant.  Depending on your background, you may be thinking organs and choirs and liturgies or guitars and drums, amps and mics.  And depending on your musical preferences, any of these may seem good or bad.  But worship is more than music and all of our traditions, many of them very reverent and lovely, are simply expressions of worship.  Music is often a preferred way of expressing worship, because it engages us on a pretty deep level.  But worship itself means showing reverence, adoration, and honor for God.  True worship is acknowledging who God is and pausing to experience awe in his presence.

Worship for God in general can feel a bit nebulous and heady.  Personally I need handles for my worship to be genuine and focused.  I’m not necessarily a huge fan of alliteration, but funnily enough many of the areas of focus that I’ve found to help me remember to worship God all begin with P.

  • The first P is Purpose.  God has plans for my life and good work for me to do that have eternal value.  When I ask him to show me the purpose he has for me, my perspective changes and things that seemed so urgent often become less demanding.  I worship him for having a good purpose for me.
  • The second P is Provider.  God provides for me.  He knows my needs better than I do.  He cares about my desires.  He doesn’t always provide what I want when I want it, but if I’m paying attention, I see him provide in amazing ways.  That’s worthy of my worship.
  • The third P is Portion.  God is enough.  Sometimes I feel like I may run out – run out of time, run out of money, run out of patience.  But God’s resources are unlimited.  I worship him for always having large enough portions to share.
  • The fourth P is Prince or President (depending on your preferred form of government).  God is in charge, God is in control, God has ultimate power and he is the only one who wields his power without corruption.  I worship him as my supreme and trustworthy ruler.
  • The fifth P is Peace.  God is my peace.  Because I can trust him, I can let go of my anxiety and fears and worries and worship him for the peace he brings to my soul.

It makes sense that the answer to idolatry is to worship God, doesn’t it?  What aspects of his character does he want you to worship?  You may find it helpful to focus on different aspects of who God other than the ones I listed.  That’s OK (even if they don’t begin with the letter P).

When I worship Him, the idols become just things – gifts from God, tools he gives me.  They lose their idol status.  And they lose their weight.  Instead of being heavy burdens that I’m lugging around, they become light and easy.

This week we’ve been reading from Isaiah chapter 46.  The last two verses (vv13 and 14) of the chapter say:

“Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from righteousness: I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory.”

This is the really cool thing about God: however far we are from him, however far we have wandered into idolatry, we can always choose to listen to him and come back to him.  If we turn around, we find he’s right behind us.  We may have wandered away, but his time and space continuums are different from ours, and when we turn around, we find he’s right there.  Ephesians 2:13 says:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

We may feel far off, but it’s because we’re looking in the wrong direction.  God seems far away, but that’s only because we’re busy looking at our idols.  If we turn around to look at him, he’s right there.  Right behind us, just waiting for us to turn around.  However far we’ve wandered and however many idols we’ve chased, however long our journey away from him has been, the journey back is always short.  Just turn around!  He’s right there.

We don’t have to change in order to be forgiven, when we confess and ask God to forgive us, he does, right away.  And then he helps us to change.  We ask God to forgive us our idols and he does.  And then he helps us learn to worship him and trust him in all those areas where we’ve been worshipping and trusting idols.  Have a great weekend and enjoy worshipping God!

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