Giving up a free meal
1Corinthians 8: When you hurt your friend, you hurt Christ.
You’d think that today a discussion about eating meat that’s been offered to an idol can be safely skipped. However, to do so is a mistake. While the literal situation is foreign to me, the principle Paul teaches here is invaluable. In Corinth there’s lots of idol worship. Often people share a meal with their god, offering some to the idol and then having a party in the god’s honor with the rest of it. A Christian might receive a friendly invitation to the party. That’s where there’s a problem. Some Christians think it is fine to attend, that meat is meat and an idol is nothing anyway. Other Christians are just coming out of that idol worshiping culture. Not too long ago they were the ones dining with the idols and to them eating the idol’s meat is a step backwards into the old way of life. The church at Corinth has been debating this issue and now Paul weighs in on the subject. He tells them that the issue in play isn’t about meat and idols at all. Rather it’s about one Christians loving one another. Even if the more mature believer knows that idols are nothing but wood or stone he or she has the responsibility to love their fellow believer who’s still working through the issue. The principle, then, is that I’m to be willing to give up some of my “rights” for the good of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Now, I can’t resist adding here that if you know enough about this that you use this principle as a way to control me (“oh, you can’t do that because it’s against my convictions”) then you’re just trying to manipulate me. Thus, you become the one who’s guilty of disregarding this same principle. When all is said and done, I’m still left with the truth that I’m to love you enough to be willing to sacrifice a bit rather than cause you pain. If I fail here, I not only hurt you but I hurt the Lord we both serve.
Take Away: Love is the guiding principle of Christianity.
Jeremiah 10: No matter how fancy the sticks, they’re still sticks.
Jeremiah’s comparing handmade idols with God Almighty. He says they’re like scarecrows in cabbage patches, homemade and lifeless. He says some craftsman might fancy up the wood; carving and sanding and painting. When he’s finished though, a stick is still a stick and a stick is no God. I’ve heard that household idols are making a comeback among some groups even my country. By and large though, such things are considered weird. Of course, that doesn’t let us off the hook here. In the broadest sense an idol is that which comes between me and the Lord, especially that which demands my time and money and loyalty. As I read this passage with that more general definition in mind lots of things begin to fit in. Relationships, possessions, pleasures, and position all can make “god-like” demands on me. The old time prophet reminds me today that those things are also stick gods and mustn’t be allowed to rise above their actual worth in life. If a modern day “Jeremiah” followed me around today, what parts of my life might he condemn as “stick gods?”
Take Away: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”
Trusting when God is silent
Isaiah 57: Because I don’t yell and make a scene do you think I don’t exist?
The Lord states his charge against a people who follow every god who comes along while ignoring the only One who’s real. Through the generations he’s done some awesome things, so it isn’t as though he’s been unseen or absent. Still, if a person wants a god who’ll perform on demand and can be manipulated by some magic incantation, well, to them, the Lord God might seem to be out of the picture. However, just because the Almighty won’t let them call the shots doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what’s going on. Even as they practice their secret sex-oriented religion he’s been watching, and he isn’t amused by it all. Every detail of their absurd, twisted efforts at religion is going to be brought to light as God assumes the role of both Judge and Prosecutor. On that day they can call on their wooden and stone gods all they want. There’ll be no answer because there’s nothing there that can answer. Thankfully, part of this message has nothing to do with me. I’ve no secret religion and no idols are hidden away in the closet. However, it’s to my benefit to take hold of the other point here. Just because God isn’t doing what I think he ought to be doing about some situation and just because he’s silent about some issue in my life doesn’t mean he’s distant or unconcerned. At times like that I simply have to conclude that God is God and that he’s operating at a level beyond my grasp. I may not always like it, but I don’t have to. I do, though, have to keep on trusting him. That’s part of being one of his people.
Take Away: I don’t have to always understand but I do have to always trust.
Talking about God
Isaiah 46: Can you picture me without reducing me?
The topic is handmade idols. God challenges his people to consider their tendency to create idols, not only of pagan gods, but those intended to “assist” them in worship of him, the true God. He tells them that when they whittle an idol of him they insult him, and diminish him in their sight. Now, I haven’t been making any idols, of Nebo or Baal or even of God Almighty, so I’m safe from breaking this commandment on the first level. However, I might come up short here in some other ways. It might be that in trying to understand God that I shrink him down so I can get my mind around him. Or, I might enjoy a good discussion on theology and forget that the One I am talking about is part of the conversation. If I do that, I may come off as less respectful of him than I should. To some extent, even in my finest hour, I struggle to comprehend God. I don’t want to add disrespect or irreverence to my own human limitations.
Take Away: We’re wise to be careful and respectful in how to talk about the Almighty.
Who it is that America should be worshiping
Isaiah 2: Quit scraping and fawning over mere humans…can’t you see there’s nothing to them?
“American Idol” is a TV show that gets a lot of attention. I haven’t been a fan of the show. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an entire episode. Honestly, now that I know more what it is about my attitude toward it has softened a bit. It’s basically a modern version of Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour (you can look it up if it’s a strange name to you!). Do you want to know why I never started watching “American Idol”? It’s the name of the show! As soon as I saw it the Commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image” sprang to mind. Really! As anyone would, I guessed the premise of the show, but the name left a sour taste in my mouth so I never bothered checking it out. Of course, Isaiah isn’t thinking about entertainers when he warns his fellow countrymen to stop “idolizing” people but if he had had access to 140 channels of TV I think he would have been pretty specific in warning us about our attitude concerning everyone from sports stars to singers to actors to politicians. I’m not against people being impressed by a golfer who can drop the ball within two feet of the hole from 150 yards out, but really, he or she is nothing to get excited about. The same people who will rise before daylight to get a prime spot for watching some golf star tee off don’t even bother to attend a worship service in hopes that the King of Kings will make an appearance. Now that’s having mixed up priorities.
Take Away: The warnings about idols should cause us to do a priority check.
What to do when you face a giant
2Kings 19: Maybe God, your God, won’t let him get by with such talk.
Even though Hezekiah has tried to mend relations with Sennacherib king of Assyria it’s too late. Having whipped into shape several other countries that attempted to break away, Sennacherib returns his attention to Judah. A representative is sent, not to broker a deal, but to call for complete surrender. That representative is named Rabshaketh and, in an attempt to frighten the people of Jerusalem into rebellion against Hezekiah he not only insults Hezekiah and his small army, but he insults the God Hezekiah serves. This situation is filled with military, political, and historical elements but we read the story from a spiritual viewpoint. Earlier Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, yielded to Assyria and even installed a new altar at the Temple modeled on one used for idol worship in Damascus. When Hezekiah comes to power he not only refuses to pay tribute, but he gets rid of that altar and all the shrines and altars to the pagan gods. Even when he agrees to resume paying tribute to Sennacherib, his removal of the pagan altar is seen as a refusal to be the lap dog to Sennacherib. Because of that, the insults by Rabshaketh focus on God Jehovah. Now, Hezekiah faces absolute destruction from the giant Assyrian army. He turns to the man of God, Isaiah, asking for prayer and direction. He thinks that perhaps God will take up his cause, especially in light of the way Rabshaketh has insulted the Almighty. Facing the impossible, he turns to the One who specializes in doing the impossible. And, he isn’t disappointed.
Take Away: We don’t want to make enemies but to, instead, live in peace with all people. However, if we have to make enemies, let’s make them for the right reasons.
Crushing the serpent
2Kings 18: He pulverized the ancient bronze serpent that Moses had made.
It’s such a pleasure to meet Hezekiah, king of Judah. After reading the pitiful record of most of the kings of Israel and Judah it’s a breath of fresh air to read, “In God’s opinion he was a good king.” It’s good to know that it’s possible to do that which is pleasing to the Lord and see that the he isn’t setting impossibly high standards just to make us jump a little higher as we try in vain to reach something that’s forever out of reach. Hezekiah proves that God’s standard is within our grasp and that it’s made possible by the help of none other than the Lord, Himself. From the beginning Hezekiah gets off on the right foot. For centuries kings of Judah have tolerated the fertility shrines that the people want. Even when there’s a revival of the Jehovah worship these shrines remain. Not so under Hezekiah. He gets rid of them all. Then we see that he gets rid of something else. Generations earlier, during an infestation of poisonous snakes, the Lord directs Moses to make a bronze snake. That snake becomes their salvation, a symbol of the mercy of God. These days, though, that old bronze snake has become just another idol. People are actually making sacrifices to it! Hezekiah does the unthinkable: he destroys this important historical artifact, grinding it to nothing. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the old bronze serpent. It’s just a statue with historical significance. It’s their use of it that’s objectionable. Better to destroy a bit of their history and serve God in the here and now. I wonder what the “bronze serpents” are in my nation, in my church, and in my life. Whatever they are, and no matter what value they were in the past, it’s better to “pulverize” them than let them come between God and me.
Take Away: Remember the great movements of the Lord in years gone by but don’t worship them. God is the God of the present.
Are you a troublemaker?
1Kings 18: So it’s you, old troublemaker!
Ahab has looked everywhere he can for Elijah but without success. Elijah had appeared out of nowhere, announced God’s judgment, and then disappeared for three years. Now he’s back and Ahab’s first words to him are, “So it’s you, old troublemaker.” Elijah responds with the truth. He’s no troublemaker. Instead, it’s Ahab and his Baal-worshipping, God-insulting leadership of Israel that’s the source of all the trouble. Of course, that’s how it always is. We always want to blame others for our failures. Sometimes failure is blatant, as was Ahab’s. Other times it’s unintentional, the result of human misunderstanding. Either way, the first thing we do at times like that is to look around for someone to blame. Ahab could have allowed the three years of drought and hardship to soften his heart. He could have realized that the idol Baal he worshiped couldn’t make it rain and therefore wasn’t worthy of his faithfulness. It’s his sin that brought about the famine and it’s his repentance that could end it. Instead, he becomes angry with Elijah for standing up to him. On one hand, I don’t want mirror Ahab’s refusal to see the truth when it’s right in front of me. On the other hand, I need to remember that sometimes I may be called upon by God to serve in Elijah’s position; to be the one who’s used to accomplish his purpose in the world. In that case, being called an “old troublemaker” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Take Away: It may be that not everyone will cheer when we are used by the Lord.
How far is too far?
1Kings 12: It’s too much trouble for you to go to Jerusalem to worship.
Jeroboam is now king of Israel with Rehoboam left with only the loyal tribe of Judah. Jeroboam immediately realizes that Rehoboam holds one powerful trump card. He has the Temple. Even though the people have made him king, his subjects will still go to Jerusalem to worship. Once they’re in Jerusalem they’ll be reminded of David and Solomon. When that happens, they’ll remember that Rehoboam sits on the throne of these two great men. He solves this problem by turning his back on God and the Temple. How does he convince these worshipers of Jehovah to abandon worship at the Temple built in his Name? He does so by telling them that it’s too much trouble to travel to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. By keeping them away from the Temple he keeps them out of Judah, and by doing that, he keeps them away from Rehoboam’s influence. Of course it’s a blatant sin. The people, though, go along with his suggestion. I understand the temptation because, like them, I like convenience. I like having a remote control for my TV, a microwave oven, a garage door opener. I even like having my church less than a mile from my house. Still, there are some things that are worth inconvenience. I’ll drive extra distance to see the doctor in whom I have confidence and I will go out of my way to spend some time with my grandchildren. Am I willing to be inconvenienced to worship God? Do I want a worship experience that isn’t too much trouble, or do I want to really connect with God Almighty? What value do I place on having a genuine worship experience? Thanks, but no thanks, Jeroboam. I think I’ll just go on making that trip to Jerusalem!
Take Away: If we have to choose between convenience and God, well, the choice is obvious.
1Kings 11: King Solomon was obsessed with women.
It’s too bad that Solomon’s story can’t end with chapter 10. That whole chapter is about his achievements and fame. I read it and can’t help but be impressed by all he does. Then, I turn the page and here’s “King Solomon was obsessed with women.” Even as he’s over the top in his achievements he’s also over the top with his obsession. He collects women in the same way he collected wealth and fame. This will lead to his downfall. The Bible is always up front with us when it comes to the failures of its heroes, and that’s the case here. Even as I read of Solomon’s making silver as common as rocks in Israel, I read that he sins against God by marrying women from the surrounding pagan nations and allowing them to influence him away from God. His willingness to be “unequally yoked” brings about his great failure. No doubt infatuation with the opposite sex has been the downfall of many throughout history but the larger issue here is that God requires my first allegiance. Anything that comes between God and me becomes my god. To obsess over anything is to deny his Lordship in my life.
Take Away: We’re never too smart or successful or, yes, even too wise to mess up. The key is to live close to the Lord and follow his directions for living.