Most of you who have been here for the whole series knows that the book of Habakkuk is essentially a prayer conversation between God and one of his priests. Habakkuk’s country is going through some difficult times and as he’s bringing his concerns to God, the Lord inclines to answer him – in surprising ways.
The third and last chapter of Habakkuk is a little different than the first two in that though it is still a prayer, God doesn’t respond. What we see in chapter 3 is the prayer of a man of faith, who has chosen to trust God even though God’s answer to his prayer means that there will be more difficult times ahead.
My intention when I sat down to write the sermon this week was to go through this prayer together, but as I wrote, I realized that I needed back up the conversation a little. So instead of outlining this prayer together, I want to pull back and talk more generally about prayer itself. So, we’re going to take a little break from Habakkuk and do an extended introduction , by looking at a section of scripture in the New Testament where Jesus teaches about prayer.
Why Don’t We Pray More?
Prayer, though practiced around the world, and absolutely vital to the Christian life, doesn’t seem to come easily for people. If you ask any believer about their prayer life – and I would imagine this applies to any of us here today; me included – the most consistent evaluation would probably be “It could be better…”. Right?
It’s a bit of a strange thing though, isn’t it? Prayer seems to be something of a human reflex. When something either good or bad happens, whether it’s sickness and pain or a sudden piece of good news or uplifting experience, there’s something in the human spirit that wants to take that moment and connect it to something greater than ourselves, even if it is only a quick, “Thank God”, or “Oh my God”, or “Good, Lord”. These are often said in an almost instinctual way – not really prayers of the mind, heart or soul, but more of an unthinking impulse to raise the significance of that moment to God.
And yet, as instinctual as prayer seems to be, there’s also something incredibly difficult about fostering and developing what might be called a “deep prayer life”. Humans have been trying and failing at it for millennia!
Which is sort of ironic. The same people that will claim to be such ardent believers in God and the Bible, defending their faith and their right to worship, don’t actually dedicate time to talk to the Person they say they worship and obey. I’m not trying to guilt trip here – at least not yet. I’m lumped in here too. I’m merely stating that it’s a little surprising that we are a people who claim that God is the Source of all there is, the One who gave His Son to save us from eternity in Hell, is the great provider of all good things, performs miracles, knows us better than we know ourselves, and the One whom we are looking to spend eternity with… but most of us struggle to spend even 10 minutes, one-one-hundredth, of our waking hours talking to Him.
It’s not that we don’t need to. If we take a minute to think about it, there are lots of reasons we should be coming to God for help. We have struggles with our faith. We need direction and advice for how to make decisions. We are beset by temptations and keep falling into the same destructive patterns of sin. We lack resources and need help. We have physical sickness and pain. We have worries about the future, and baggage from our past.
Most people, when you get to know them – believers included – are lonely, afraid, confused, angry, bitter, depressed, and worried about a good many things. And if you to talk to them about their concerns for their spouse, parents, children, extended family, friends, church, work, neighbourhood, country and world, their list grows and grows and grows.
We Christians, though we know all of this – most of us pray very little. And worse – this is one of my pet peeves – when we finally do get together to pray and someone asks for prayer requests, a lot of people will say, “I’m good. You don’t need to pray for me.” That boggles my mind! Really? Nothing? Your physical body, spiritual life, finances, personal relationships are all exactly how you want them and there is nothing that you think the Saviour of your Soul, the God of the Universe, could do about any of them? Are you sure?
I know part of it is that people don’t like looking weak, admitting they have needs, or letting others in on their business. I get that. But why should that stop us from getting as many people to bang on the doors of heaven for our sake as we can? If prayer is as universal and important as we believe, or at least the Bible says it is, what is preventing us from doing it?
Reasons Not to Pray
There’s a few answers, I think.
First, some people think God doesn’t care about them. It’s not that God doesn’t carea bout anything – it’s just that they’re assumption is that God doesn’t really get involved in the minutia of their life because He’s only worries about big things like war and plagues, and helping widows, orphans and struggling missionaries. So, they conclude, why bother praying since if my prayers aren’t important enough?
Others think that God is like Mr. Scrooge; a penny-pinching, stingy, miser that doesn’t want to help anyone even though He could. They see God’s preferred method of dealing with His people as making them suffer, so if they want anything good out of life – any help, comfort or peace – then they have to go get it themselves. If they pray, God will just tell them to suck it up or make it worse. You’ve probably heard people say things like, “Don’t ask God not to send you to that country, because He definitely will!” “Don’t ask God for patience, or He’ll make your life worse!” So, they think, why pray if God’s just going to say no anyway?
Others think that getting answers to prayer is more akin to winning the lottery. Sure, some people get answers to prayer, but most people just pray and pray for their whole life and get nothing. So, why waste time praying if the chances of getting an answer are so infinitesimal?
Some believe that there’s no point in praying because they are too sinful to be listened to. They say things like “I don’t pray because I haven’t been much of a pray-er, and God only listens to people that pray, so I can’t pray because I don’t pray.” Or, “My life is too messed up for God to take me seriously. And every time I do pray, I just end up going out and messing up again and proving to God that I don’t deserve whatever I’m praying for. So I just quit because praying just made me feel guilty all the time.” They think, what’s the point in praying if He’s either not listening, or thinks you are a constant disappointment?
Others think that they do it wrong, so God’s not happy with their prayers. They’ve heard other people pray and it sounds so sincere, so intimate, so beautiful – and when they do it, it just sounds weird and fake. They’re not using the right words, they can’t quote the bible, they don’t even know whether to use “God”, or “Jesus”, or “Father”, or “Lord”, or “Sir”, or what! The whole concept of prayer is confusing and overwhelming to them. So, why bother praying if you don’t know how to do it and you just sound like an idiot, right?
I could go on, but you get my point, right? There are a lot of internally generated reasons why we don’t pray. That’s what those all are – internally generated reasons why we don’t pray. Things we’ve come up with to prevent us from praying. They don’t come from outside us. We are blessed to live in a country where we can pray anytime and almost anywhere. No one is stopping us from praying – most of the problem comes from within us. It’s all about the guilt or inadequacy we feel, or the false perception we have of God.
If any of those reasons resonated with you, what I want to do today is challenge you to consider that you are wrong about God and about what God thinks of you? I want you to consider one of the main ways that the Bible describes God: as a Good Father.
Talking to God, the Good Father
Turn with me to Luke 11:1-13 and I want to show you something about how Jesus talks about prayer. Let’s read it together, but we’ll take it apart on the way:
“Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”
Two quick things here: First, notice that Jesus prayed. Our perfect model for life and faith is the Lord Jesus Christ. We want to pattern our lives after His. He prayed quite a lot. If for no other reason than to obey God and follow after our Lord Jesus, we ought to be a praying people.
Second, the disciples asked to learn how to pray because prayer is something that can be taught. The disciples were asking Jesus to teach them how He prays, so they could model it, and could be sure they were getting it right. They saw the power He had and knew it must be because of His close relationship with God, and they wanted a piece of it. That came through prayer.
And so, in response to their desire to learn, Jesus moves from modeling how to pray to teaching them how to pray, and does it in the form of “the Lord’s Prayer” and a couple of teaching stories. His lesson starts in verse 2:
“And he said to them, ‘When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.’”
Now, this prayer isn’t necessarily meant to be the only way to pray, repeated verbatim, word for word – though it is absolutely fine to do that. It’s also not an incantation or magic spell that forces God to do whatever you want. What the Lord’s Prayer is meant to teach us is the pattern for all Christian prayer. It contains the pieces, or the categories, that make a complete prayer. And so, in the interests of learning how to pray, let’s look at them a piece at a time:
Our Hallowed Father
First you have the word “Father”. Notice that this prayer doesn’t start with a list of problems or requests, but with acknowledgment that this is a conversation between a Father and His child. This is hugely important for us to realize today. All of our prayers, indeed our whole experience as a Christian, needs to start here. We must ask ourselves, before we pray: Who is God? Who is God to me? What’s He like? Who does scripture reveal Him to be?
It is crucially important that when we pray, we pray to the right God! What do I mean by that? Remember last week when we talked about idolatry. It is entirely possible for us to be praying to a god of our own design. All those things I listed before that block our prayer life – that God is absent, greedy, random, hard to talk to –come from our understanding of who God is. But, do they line up with who God really is? Or, are those ideas things we’ve made up in our own minds? We have to ask ourselves, where we got those ideas, and whether they line up with reality? Am I praying to the God of the Bible, or a God I made up for myself?
The word that Jesus uses, “Father”, is the Greek word PATER, but would have been spoken as the Aramaic word ABBA. That’s a hugely important word, and is used in other parts of scripture that teach us how to pray (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6), because even the early Greek believers used that Aramaic word to talk to God. The Jewish people would never have used that word– in fact, it was only the pagan nations that called their god’s “father”, so it was even less palatable for them. Yet Jesus introduces God not as YAHWEH, the One you cannot look upon and the Name you must not say, but as ABBA, a special, intimate term only used by family members.
Think of it as the way we use “Dad”. The only people in the world that call me “Dad” are my kids. No one else. That’s what Jesus invited us to call God. Not just “GOD” or “LORD”, but “Dad”. Keep that in mind because Jesus comes back to it.
In the next part of the prayer Jesus moves from our relationship with God to our first request of Him… and what is it? For food, safety, health? No: “Hallowed be Your Name”. Our first request, and the beginning of all Christian prayer, is not for God to meet our needs, but that we would partner with Him to bring Him glory.
We start by asking our Father in Heaven to cause His name to known as holy, special, unique and worshipped as the One, True God. In this request we acknowledging that the chief end of this world is not to fill our bellies or bring us comfort, but to bring glory to our Father.
This is the flip-side of addressing God. We call Him “Dad”, but we also call Him “God Almighty”. It’s sort of the ultimate “My Dad can beat up your Dad”. God Almighty is my Father. He’s perfect and sinless, but loves me anyway. He laid out the plan for the entire universe, and brought everything into existence with the power of His Word, but He also knows my heart and takes time to listen to me. He is in Heaven being worshipped by angels, but He also speaks to me with patience and love. We want everyone to know about this Father God we hallow!
Those thoughts naturally lead into the next part that says, “Your Kingdom Come.” In other words, “We can’t wait until we can be with You! Father, may your Kingdom Come to more people as you grow your Kingdom on earth! May our whole lives be lived sharing Your love and bringing You glory, until you establish your perfect kingdom forever!”
Asking For Our Daily Needs
The whole first section is about getting our hearts in the right place, realizing who God is, who we are, what He’s done, and what we’re here to do. It forces us to lift our eyes off of our problems and gaze upon the splendor of our Father the King. It changes our perspective of our problems and places God in charge of everything. It reorients our priorities. In short – these are words of worship and praise.
Next Jesus turns to teaching us to ask for our needs. Remember, Jesus isn’t teaching us an incantation that gets us whatever we want from God, but showing us the categories of prayer. And the two things we need to pray for most are our physical needs and our spiritual needs:
“Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins… and lead us not into temptation”.
This part of the prayer is an acknowledgement that we are utterly incapable of doing life ourselves. We are the receivers of God’s necessary care. We cannot fulfill our own physical or spiritual needs. We may think we can – which is why a lot of people don’t pray – but we can’t. The body you have, the time you get, every breath you take, your physical strength, your mental capacity, your emotional stability, your ability to talk and move – they are all gifts from God.
In this part of the prayer you are telling God that you believe He is the provider of your physical needs! You are alive because God kept you alive. He gave you what you needed yesterday, and you are coming to God to say “Thank you, Father. May I have what I need for today?” You pray in expectation that your Dad will certainly feed you.
When kids wake up every morning, it likely doesn’t occur to them that I might decide not to feed them that day. Why? Because when my kids are hungry, I am concerned. Their lack causes me to do something, and I want them to have what they need.
Secondarily, we are acknowledging our spiritual needs. We don’t just need “daily bread”, but daily forgiveness for our sins and protection from our spiritual enemies. Again, we are acknowledging that we cannot forgive ourselves or protect ourselves. We cannot excuse our own guilt and we are not strong enough to fight temptation. We cannot make peace with God by ourselves, but need Jesus for that, and we know that we are in a spiritual war and need His help. This part of the prayer is a form of surrender to Him. “God, ultimately, I can’t do anything without you and anything I do myself is pitiful in comparison to what You can do through me.”
Don’t miss this point! As we pray, “forgives us our sins”, we are telling God that we believe we are sinners, people who don’t deserve His grace! We’re not coming to “the big guy in the sky” as equals, marching up and demanding things, or arguing with Him and trying to prove a point. We are simply saying, “I’m wrong. I’ve made mistakes, hurt people, fallen for Satan’s deceptions, stolen Your glory, broken my promises, taken what isn’t mine, abused my body, and neglected to do the good things I was supposed to do. And I’m not worthy of your presence – but here I am anyway, Dad… because you said you’d forgive me and help me.” It’s an admission that we are fallen and need Someone greater than ourselves.
But, the question remains for many, will God give us what we need? The answer to that question is what keeps a lot of people from praying. They’re not sure if God will forgive or give them what they need. They don’t want to be disappointed by yet another person who says they will do something and then not follow through. They don’t want to come to God, ask Him to forgive them, ask Him for help, and then be told “No.” It would hurt too much to be rejected by God, too.
What Kind of Father is God?
Jesus knows that’s how a lot of people feel, and He addresses it right away. Look at verses 5-13. The unspoken questions are: “What kind of Father is God, because there are some really terrible fathers out there? Is he the stern kind? The stingy kind? The abusive kind? The angry kind? Is he the kind that lets people get away with anything and everything? Is He the absent kind? What kind of father is He?”
In answer to this, Jesus tells two stories that are meant teach us something about God. The first is from verses 5-9,
“And he said to them, ‘Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.”
What’s the point of this story? Simply this: God is a better friend than we are. In the story, you have a whole bunch of friends. One friend drops by unannounced and wants a midnight snack. Another friend runs out in the middle of the night to ask his friend for bread.
Everyone in the story is annoyed. The first friend is going hungry, the second friend is running around at midnight trying to get a snack together, and the third friend has been woken up by someone who won’t stop knocking on his door asking to eat what was going to be his breakfast.
And yet, what happens? The man gives up the bread and the host gets to feed his guest. The question is this: Do you believe God is a better friend than those guys? The reason that the third friend finally gave up the bread wasn’t even because they were friends, but he was impudent, or persistent, or bold enough, to bang on his door at midnight.
Now keep reading in verse 9:
“And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
The implication of these stories is this: If that’s how it works here on earth, among sinful, selfish people – how do you think it works with God? God doesn’t just provide the basics, but is willing to go all out and even give the presence of His Holy Spirit to live in the hearts of everyone who asks! God Himself, living in each one of us, speaking to us, helping us, convicting us, guiding us – that’s the greatest gift God can give!
These story lessons from Jesus are meant to shake up our understanding of who we think God is and tell us that God loves it when His people are bold enough to come to Him and ask Him for what they need, because they know they are His children and they love their Father in Heaven.
- Moses and the nation of Israel are thirsty and God has him hit a rock with a stick, and BOOM! water.
- Samson completely ruins his life, and yet at the end he prays for strength and God answers it.
- Elijah is hungry and a widow is starving. He prays that the oil and flower never run out, and they don’t.
- Elijah asks God for a public miracle where God would bar-b-cue an entire bull by blasting it with fire from the sky. Before God answers, Elijah douses the whole thing with buckets of water. And God not only answers, but does so in such a fashion that the fire totally consumed the wood, the bull, the rocks and the water!
- Countless people came to Jesus and asked for help with disease, demons, and death and He stopped what He was doing to help them. More than once he saw that people were hungry and fed them before they even asked.
God’s answers to prayer aren’t just bound to scripture! There are lots and lots of accounts of God providing for people throughout history. One of my favourite stories is about a man named George Mueller. He died in 1898, but was a man of great influence during his time. For those who know the names, he worked with DL Moody, preached for Charles Spurgeon, and inspired Hudson Taylor to be a missionary! (source)
He spent most of his life in Bristol, England as a pastor, but this story comes from his time as the patron of a series of orphanages. He refused to go into debt by borrowing any money and truly believed that God would meet the needs of the children if they just prayed. The story goes like this:
One morning the children woke up and came downstairs for their morning meal, but the plates and cups and bowls were all empty. There was no food in the cupboards and no money to buy any. The children were standing and waiting for breakfast, wondering what to do, when Mueller said, “Children, you know that we must all be in time for school.” He then lifted his head and prayed, “Dear Father, we thank you for what you are going to give us to eat.”
As he sat the children down at the empty table there was a knock at the door. There stood the baker who said, “Mr. Mueller, I couldn’t sleep last night. Somehow I felt you didn’t have bread for breakfast and the Lord wanted me to send you some. So I got up at 2am and baked you some fresh bread.” Mueller thanked the man and no sooner had he closed the door than there was another knock. He opened the door and there stood the milk man who announced that his milk cart had broken down right in front of the orphanage and he would be happy to give the kids his fresh cans of milk so he could empty his wagon and repair it.
This was no isolated incident either. This type of thing happened over and over in his life. In his life he claims to have seen over 50,000 answers to His prayers for help. So much so that he became known as “the man who gets things from God!”
God still answers prayers today: I personally know what it’s like to have my prayers answered. I’ve been in ministry for almost 12 years now and I’ve never gotten a job by sending out a resume. He has always brought me to places through mysterious means. I’ve seen God literally provide my family with money out of nowhere when we only had ten cents in the bank and prayed for help. I’ve asked God for guidance on decisions that would alter the course of my family’s life, and then flipped open my Bible and received the exact answer. And I believe that every day, as I read His Word and talk to Him in prayer, that He not only listens to me, but also speaks, and meets my physical and spiritual needs.
Are You Praying About That?
I wish I could get into more scriptures about God and prayer, because I think this is an incredibly important topic, but I’ll close with this: There’s a reason, throughout all of the thousands of years that believers have been around, that there have been faithful men and women who have been repeating the same thing over and over and over to those who come to them with their struggles. Prophets, priests, elders, deacons, and pastors have been asking the same question and giving the same advice forever: “Are you praying about that?”
Why do mature Christians always go back to that question? Because we know that so many troubles come from messed up prayer lives. James 4:1-3 says this:
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
Your fighting and worrying and arguing and desire to sin has got you all messed up… why? Because you aren’t talking to God. Your passions are out of control because you won’t get on your knees and say “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done.” “Not my will, not my name, not my kingdom… Yours.”
You covet and quarrel to get things that you think you need, terrified you won’t have enough, worried to the point of hurting those around you to get it. Why? Because you’re not talking to God and saying “…give us our daily bread. Forgive us our sins. Lead us not into temptation.”
James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly…” In other words, your life is messed up because your prayer life is messed up. You have real needs – but your desires are all wrong. Your Father wants to help you, but you want all the wrong things! God offers forgiveness and daily help, but you won’t humble yourself enough to ask. “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly…”
Let me encourage you to take a very close look at your relationship with God by taking a very close look at your prayer life. Your beliefs about prayer will tell you a lot about your faith in God.
And after you’ve looked at your prayer life, make some changes. Commit that you will pray every day this week, that you will read the Bible, and get to know who God really is – not content to believe who you think He is. I promise you that He will speak to you, meet your needs, and draw you to Himself.
“You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly…”
We’re currently on week 8 of our 3 week series on the Old Testament book of Habakkuk, and this week we’re concluding our study of the five Woes Against the Chaldeans that we find in chapter 2.
If you remember the other sermons in this series you’ll remember that we’ve seen quite a downward spiral over the past series of weeks as we’ve been looking through this chapter. We’ve seen that the Chaldean nation was full of pride, fueled by addiction to alcohol and sex, which had them thinking that the world existed for their pleasure and conquest. Their addiction became a voracious appetite that required them to break out from beyond their borders in order to consuming the people around them – including Israel – eventually becoming one of the greatest empires in history; the Babylonian Empire. (Greatest in size, not in quality!)
As they conquered nation after nation, tallying up victory on victory, God Himself was making his own tally of the sins they were committing. Habakkuk pronounced woes against them, and all those who would follow their pattern. Remember, a “woe” is simply a pronouncement of judgement against people who don’t realize how dangerous their situation is. The Chaldeans, later called Babylonians, thought they were the kings of the world – but their whole nation was built on sin and God was saying that He would exact justice on them soon.
The first woe was against their out of control greed that drove them to take things that weren’t theirs from their neighbours. The second woe was against their sense of self-security, where they believed that conquering the people around them and building piles of wealth would bring them safety. The third woe was against their self-centredness. All that they had was covered in the blood of their neighbours and they didn’t care. And the fourth woe was against their abuse of others – anyone who didn’t join them in their addictions would be either killed or exploited for their pleasure.
For each of these woes we have drawn parallels to our own nation and individual lives. We’ve been confronted by our own greed and selfishness. We’ve been forced to evaluate where we find our security, and in what ways we act self-centredly, using people to feed our own appetites, instead of loving them as God intends us.
The Real Problem is Idolatry
Today we’re going to look at the fifth of the five woes and it is perhaps the most damning of the bunch. It shows the central problem that all people have that drives them to the sins of greed, pride, addiction, self-centredness and exploitation. The real issue is idolatry.
“What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Habakkuk 2:18-20)
What makes people assume that they can do whatever they want and get away with it? What would make the leaders of a nation think that the world exists for their conquest and pleasure, and that it doesn’t matter how they treat their fellow man? What causes someone to think that they can commit criminal acts, covet and steal what others have, harm those around them, commit murder, cause fights, lie, gossip, slander, disrespect authority, insult God, boast in their own accomplishments, invent new ways of committing evil, disobey their parents, and live foolish, faithless, heartless and ruthless lives? Where does that come from? (Based on Romans 1:28-31)
The answer is all over scripture, and the answer is idolatry. For the Chaldeans, they had many god’s and literal idols that they had carved to represent them all over their land. They had gods for the elements, for storms, the sun, the moon, the air, for love and war – all kinds.
As Habakkuk points out, these false gods were merely human inventions. They were shaped by human stories and then carved of wood, metal and stone. They had no real power. They were “speechless idols” who could neither give wisdom nor strength.
God, through the prophet Habakkuk, pronounces woe on these people because they look at a piece of wood that they have carved and tell it to “wake up!” or “get up!”, thinking it might actually work. The woe is against those who have placed their faith in their “own creation” and actually believe that it will be able to “awake” or “arise” at their command. But it’s just a piece of wood with some gold or silver overlaid on it. “There is no breath at all in it.”
The consequences of this woe come from the folly of asking their “own creation” to teach them. “Can this teach?” Habakkuk asks. It’s the foolishness of circular reasoning. “I’m doing this because my god told me to, and I know exactly what my god wants me to do because I’m the person that invented that god, carved the image, and wrote down what it he would say.”
That’s the danger of creating our own idols – that we are merely creating a god for ourselves that will parrot back to us whatever we want it to say. The answer to the question, “Can this teach?” is obviously, “No!”. You cannot gain more wisdom or information from something you have created yourself! If you invent a god and then write your own holy book, there is no way for you to gain any more teaching than you had before. Woe to that fool.
But God is Real
“But”, verse 20 says, “the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Habakkuk says to all these idolaters: Your gods are dead, but the LORD is both alive and awake. He’s not powerless like one of your human creations. He’s powerful and self-existent. He doesn’t require us to command Him to awaken or arise. He has wisdom, knowledge and authority beyond our human capacity, and is therefore able to teach!
Therefore, Habakkuk says, “let all the earth keep silence before him.” That’s Bible talk for “SO SHUT UP AND LISTEN!” That’s another phrase we find a few times in the Bible. In Psalm 46:10 we read one of many Christian’s favourite passages: “Be still and know that I am God.”, but most people don’t know the context. We read it with such sterility and quietness, but that’s not how it was written! Let’s read the context:
“The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!’” (Ps 46:6-10)
The picture is of God, with a word, wiping out every human power we have, shaking the foundations of the planet, melting the very earth with his voice, causing every piece of weaponry to explode into flames before Him as he shouts to the word, “Be Still!… See and witness the truth of who I am… KNOW beyond a shadow of a doubt that I AM GOD. Not you, not your kings, not the idols that you have fashioned – ME. And I alone will be worshipped.”
This is what’s behind the words of Philippians 2:9 that says:“
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” It’s not talking about just Christians – but everyone, from His human enemies to Satan himself –will bow their knee and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. They won’t have a choice. At His voice the earth will melt.
It’s not talking about just Christians – but everyone, from His human enemies to Satan himself –will bow their knee and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. They won’t have a choice. At His voice the earth will melt.
Woe to anyone who has their allegiances in the wrong place when Jesus comes and kindles his wrath against them. (Psalm 2)
Mocking The Folly of Idolatry
There’s an amazing section of scripture that illustrates this and mocks those foolish enough to worship idols. Turn to Isaiah 44:9-20 and let’s take a look at a truly funny passage of scripture, dripping with irony and sarcasm:
“All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? Behold, all his companions shall be put to shame, and the craftsmen are only human. Let them all assemble, let them stand forth. They shall be terrified; they shall be put to shame together.”
This is similar to what we’ve just been talking about – how these idols, in reality, are incapable of helping anyone. But next we see Isaiah show how lost, stupid and utterly blind to their own foolishness these people are. Continue in verse 12:
“The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint.
The carpenter stretches a line; he marks it out with a pencil. He shapes it with planes and marks it with a compass. He shapes it into the figure of a man, with the beauty of a man, to dwell in a house. He cuts down cedars, or he chooses a cypress tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it.
Then it becomes fuel for a man. He takes a part of it and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Also he makes a god and worships it; he makes it an idol and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, ‘Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!’ And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god!’
They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals; I roasted meat and have eaten. And shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’”
Is this not the height of irony and irrationality? Isaiah starts with a picture of an ironsmith, using his own muscles and sweat to make his idol. He gets hungry and tired, looks around and sees no water. He is dying of hunger and thirst as he creates the god that he’s supposed to pray to for his food. How ridiculous!
The picture then shifts to an expert carpenter, using his skills to design a beautiful idol for his home. He too uses his mind and strength to plant and harvest the wood he will use… and he gets hungry too. So he gathers his own meat, and makes his own fire so he can roast it himself. But there’s a problem: which part of the tree he has just cut down is is the part that he’s supposed to burn as fuel for him to cook over and which part is the god he’s supposed to say grace to?
By verse 18 you can almost see Isaiah face-palming. These dummies are so blind – in their eyes and their hearts – they don’t even consider what they’re doing. They have no discernment, no knowledge, to even understand of how stupid it is to think that half of the tree is fuel and the other half is god!
He closes by saying, “He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, ‘Is there not a lie in my right hand?’” This guy should be looking down at the idol he just crafted and think, “Hey, maybe I’m wrong here! I’m such a dummy for thinking that this piece of wood has any kind of power! How stupid is it to think this dead thing I just created can somehow bring hope and joy to my life? ” But nope – we keep on fabricating our own idols generation after generation after generation, and we still don’t get it.
So my question to you today is this: Are we any different? Perhaps you’re not sitting in your blacksmiths or carpentry shop carving little wooden and metal images to decorate your home, but are there things in your life that basically have the same function?
I was teaching my class at the Christian School this week and we were talking about “The Christian Ninja’s Source of Power”. The whole point of that class was to get the students to ask themselves one thing: What is the main motivation for what I do?
For a Christian, our “source of power” and reason we do what we do is our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We know that Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” (John 15:5) and we’re ok with that. He’s our source of strength, wisdom, knowledge, help, courage, conviction, and whatever else we need. We turn to Him because He’s our source.
However, there are a lot of people, including Christians, who find their strength in other places. We all have a source of power, a source of strength, or an overarching motivation behind what we do, and we could easily call that our god. Some people have religious motivations, others are driven by more selfish pursuits, but we all have them.
Some people use astrology, Wicca, paganism, deism, and other forms of human religion as their source of strength. They seek help in this world by believing they can use the spiritual realms to manipulate the world around them for their own benefit. It’s all demonic, but they’re also idolaters who are crafting their own rules about the universe and then live by them, often picking and choosing what they want to believe, based on what makes them feel good, or what makes sense to them, sometimes even making it up out of thin air. These people are deceived, not only by their own blindness, but by the demons they turn to.
Other people are less religious terminology, but they still put their faith into things of their own making – their weapons, money, possessions, technology, or medicine. They elevate these dead, man-crafted things to the level of deity, placing their faith in them, sacrificing a lot of their life to them, in the hopes that the idols will ultimately save them.
They stockpile their weapons and make great walls to keep out the bad-guys so they will be safe. They save and invest and purchase more and more believing that the more they have the more secure they will be. A lot of people today worship science and scientists as their gods, believing that the salvation of the world, the gift of eternal life, and a utopian future is just around the corner with the next medical or technological breakthrough.
But they make the same mistake as the blacksmith or carpenter that Isaiah is mocking. They’re doing the same thing that Habakkuk is pronouncing a woe against the Chaldeans for. They’re putting their faith into something man-made. They believe that man can make something that transcends man. That we can think up something that goes beyond human knowledge. That we can create something that has the power of a Creator.
But are they not merely “feeding on ashes”? They shout at their creation to “Awake! Feed me! Clothe me! Keep me safe!”, but it sits there silent – or only repeats back to them what they have commanded it to say. They cry out, “Arise!”, but it can only go as high as it has been built to go.
We know in our heads, when we take a moment to think about it, that “there is no breath at all in” our hand-crafted idols, our horoscope, our pagan rituals, our security systems, money, possessions or technology – so then why do we keep turning to them over and over for hope, joy and salvation?
The Source of Idolatry
Turn with me to Romans 1 and we’ll read the answer together. This is a complex bit of scripture, but taken as a whole it both makes sense and explains why we have such a penchant for crafting our own idols. The reason is simple: We love our sin and sin makes us blind to the truth.
Read Romans 1:16:
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
The Gospel of Jesus Christ states two very important things: first, that we are great sinners condemned to eternal death, and that the only way to be saved from the consequences of our sin is to believe in Jesus, our great Savior. A lot of people are “ashamed of the gospel” because they don’t like one or both of those ideas. They don’t think thinking that they’re sinners, or they want their salvation to come from Jesus alone. The Gospel, as presented in the Bible doesn’t allow for that. To be saved, we must believe we are sinners and come to Jesus alone for Salvation.
But instead of confessing their sins and coming to Jesus, most people embrace their sins and then fashion for themselves another god that tells them what they want to hear.
Keep reading in verse 18:
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”
In other words, every human being knows right and wrong because they have a conscience that condemns them, and they know that God exists because the whole of creation testifies that there must be a Creator. “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.”
But, they hate this truth. The existence of a moral law and a Moral Law Giver that holds them accountable is detestable to them. They hate the idea that they can’t make up their own rules and judge themselves based on their own ideas of right and wrong so they “suppress the truth.” Every time they have a twinge of conscience, they stuff it down deep and pretend that they didn’t feel it. Every time their mind says, “Wow, this is something transcendent about this universe, something beyond my ability to comprehend, maybe there is a God after all”, they crush that thought and refuse to listen to their own minds.
Keep reading in verse 22:
“Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
This is what we’re talking about today. They’ve denied that the real God exists, but they need something in His place. They can’t simply say that they are the creator of their own universe, so they must supplant the true Creator, and find something that will explain why everything exists and how everything is supposed to work.
So they invent a god of their own design and have it say whatever they want it to say. Now they can have their cake and eat it too – they get to worship a god, and call themselves faithful, and claim to have a relationship with a higher power – but don’t actually have to listen to God, the actual Moral Law Giver. They can write their own moral law.
Now look at verse 24 and we see God’s response to this folly:
“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.”
God’s judgment on these idol makers is a simple one: “Ok, have it your way.” Sometimes God does give us what we want, and in this case, He gives those who create their own gods exactly what they wanted. He “gave them up… to impurity”.
There stands the One, True God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and humanity has turned their back on Him to worship a created thing. Why? Because they don’t like the way God does things. God was preventing them from doing what they wanted to do with their bodies, so they preferred the lie to the truth and the created to the Creator. You’ve heard the phrase many times: “My body, my choice. No one can tell me what to do with my own body.” Well, God says that He wants to tell you what to do with your body. The only option is to find a different god.
Now look at verse 28, where you’ll see the words “God gave them up” again, and it shows the outcome of what happens when we worship gods of our own design. We go from a dishonouring of our bodies to a debasement of mind… :
“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”
This is what ultimately happens when we worship creation rather than creator. I asked at the beginning, after we had talked about the ancient sins of the Chaldeans and the Babylonians, “What makes people assume that they can do whatever they want and get away with it? What would make the leaders of a nation think that the world exists for their conquest and pleasure, and that it didn’t matter how they treated their fellow man?” And then I read you this list.
The answer to why we think pornography, abortion, human trafficking, gluttony, rage, hatred, greed, consumerism, gossip, and all the rest are okay, is because we take God off the throne, throw out His Moral law, and put our faith in things that humanity creates for itself. The only trajectory when we do that is the downwards spiral of sin. When we create our own gods to tell us what we want to hear – all that we will hear is: “Do whatever you want.”
Identifying Our Idols
The worst sin that humanity can commit is not drunkenness, covetousness, violence or injustice. The greatest and most dangerous sin, the source of all our other sins and all human suffering, is idolatry – worshiping a created thing instead of the Creator. It’s literally the first commandment. (Exodus 20:3)
Now, in your mind, you might still be thinking of an idolater as a member of a far-flung tribe bowing down to carved, wooden or golden statue. But that’s not right, is it? An idol is, potentially, anything we give our time, energy, resources, attention to. It’s what we put our hope in and turn to in times of desperation or celebration. We may not give blood sacrifices to giant metal statues, and pour incense on altars, but we do worship idols every day.
Here are some questions to help you identify your own idols:
- Where do you turn for comfort when you are feeling lonely, weak or sad? Food, alcohol, shopping, tv, porn, or just going to sleep? That’s your true source of power, your idol, your god.
- What, if it is damaged or taken away from you, makes you feel angry, depressed, anxious, or afraid? Your home, your money, your car, or another possession, or perhaps even a friend or spouse? Think about the last time you blew up at someone, or got really scared – which of your idols was threatened? What couldn’t God supply for you that that false-god provided?
- If you were surprised by a $20 windfall, what’s the first thing you’d want to do with it?
- What man-made idols do you pray for that are meant to stand right by Jesus in your heart?
- “Jesus, I’ll worship you if you keep me and my family healthy.”
- “Jesus, I’ll worship you if you keep me comfortable.”
- “Jesus, I’ll worship you if you pay all my bills.” (source)
- What would cause you to be angry at God if He decided to take it away?
- What do you complain about most?
- What makes you happiest?
- What do you dream and fanaticize about in your private thoughts?
- If you had one wish, what would it be for? Money? Fame? Sex? Popularity? Revenge? A better body? For someone to come back to life?
Conclusion: Consider The Folly of Your Idol
Whatever your answer is, I want you to take time this week to consider the folly of worshipping that idol.
- Why are you giving your time, resources, energy and attention and hope to something that is dead or dying in favour of the God who is alive?
- Why would you bow your knee to someone or something that has less power than Jesus?
- Isn’t it utterly irrational to elevate ourselves so high that we think we can actually create something greater than the One, True God — that we can invent something to overthrow and replace Him!?
Every time we turn away from God, our life begins to dry up. We walk away from the stream of life (Psalm 1), or remove our branch from the Vine, and we plant ourselves somewhere else. We begin to hunger and thirst, physically and spiritually, and our souls cry out for more. It is that moment that we have a choice: Turn back to God, or keep asking the false-god-of-our-own-making to feed us, heal us, bring us joy, and strengthen our spirits.
Think of the damage and devastation that comes to our lives when we seek hope from, and obey the words of, false gods that we have created for ourselves. They only feed us ashes and tell us what we want to hear.
So, which will you turn to? To Jesus Christ who offers the only path to a relationship to the One, True and Living God, or side with the dumb, blind, mute and dead god-of-your-own-making. You cannot save yourself – you need Jesus.
Parable of the Rich Fool
Let’s begin today by reading “The Parable of the Rich Fool”:
“Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’ And he told them a parable, saying, ‘The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:13-34)
This section opens up with someone in the crowd yelling out to Jesus to tell his brother to give him his share of his father’s inheritance. Maybe he’s been ripped off, maybe he’s being greedy – we don’t know. But Jesus’ answer has nothing to do with the inheritance, but instead – as usual – gets to the real problem in verse 15. He says:“Take care, and be on your guard against all
“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
As usual, Jesus flies past the presenting problem and gets to the heart of the issue, which was covetousness. Covetousness is simply a desire to have something for yourself that is currently possessed by someone else – so they won’t have it anymore. It could be something they own, their social status, their financial position, their wife or husband, or anything else that they have and you don’t. You want it so badly that you wish you had it and they didn’t.
Jesus goes past the presenting problem – the issue with the inheritance – straight to the actual problem: this person is breaking the 10th Commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Covet”. His problem wasn’t the lack of inheritance. He had a sin problem which showed a heart problem: He wanted something that someone else had and it was causing trouble for him and everyone else around him. His family was fractured, his relationships were strained, and he was in a state of anger and jealously because he wanted what his brother had. Think of it this way: it had gotten so bad that he was willing to run up to Jesus, interrupt Him right in the middle of His talk, and shout out “TELL MY BROTHER TO DIVIDE THE INHERITANCE WITH ME!” There’s more going on there than a simple dispute over a will – there’s some massive personal, relational, and spiritual problems in that statement.
Tying Them Together
So let’s tie this together. First we have a man running up with the presenting problem of an inheritance squabble, which Jesus quickly diagnoses as a spiritual problem with covetousness. Then Jesus tells the story of a wealthy farmer who reaped a great crop and decided to use the proceeds to buy himself a comfortable, hedonistic life. In that story, Jesus has God Himself confront this man and call him a “Fool”! Why was he foolish?
Both the covetous man and the Rich Fool had the same spiritual problem: greed. Their priorities were out of whack and it was causing them to miss the big picture. They though that life consisted of “the abundance of possessions”, which was foolish. What good would that inheritance or bigger barn do them when they came face to face with God!
That abundance of possessions wouldn’t be a blessing to them, but would actually be used as a testimony against them because it was a symbol of their disconnect from God. The bigger their pile grew, the less they needed to trust God. The more they accumulated, the greedier they became. And finally, as greed took over their heart, they would declare, “Everything is mine and I can do with it as I wish! I choose not to share! I will use it all for my own pleasure!”
And so Jesus warns, through His teaching and His story, that everyone listening needs to be careful about how they view the things of this world. Jesus seems to say, “Don’t be like this fool who interrupted my teaching time, or the fool in the story. Instead of worrying so much about the things you can accumulate during your short time on this planet, make sure you are right with God, so that your eternity is secure!”
The Root of the Problem
If you’re following along in your Bible, there’s probably a chapter division after verse 20 – as though the next section is separate from the one we just read. In my Bible there’s a big space and then the next part is titled “Do Not Be Anxious” and seems to be starting a whole new thought. But I want you to notice the first word that Jesus says next. What is it?
“Therefore”! That means that whatever came before – the interruption by the person with the inheritance problem and the “Parable of the Rich Fool” – are directly tied to that which is going to come after. So let’s read that:
“And he said to his disciples, ‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?
Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!
And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you.
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:22-34)
Jesus says, “Therefore”, and digs deep into the root of the problem. Why was the covetous man so desirous of his inheritance? Why was the Rich Fool so focused on keeping all that wealth for himself and not using it to bless others as God intended? Jesus gives the answer over and over: Anxiety – another word for worry, or simply, fear.
He uses the word “anxious” over and over, then in vs. 29 He uses the word “worry”, and then in 32, he changes it to “fear”. Jesus ties anxiety, worry and fear, directly to the problems of greed and covetousness. Why did the man want his inheritance and the Rich Fool build bigger barns? They was worried they wouldn’t have enough.
The man’s anxiety over money, caused him to be covetous of his brother who had more, and that anxiety drove him to argue with his brother and make a public scene in front of Jesus and His followers.
Woe to the Self Secure
Now, turn with me to Habakkuk 2:9-11 and let’s get into the second of our Woes to the Chaldeans. Listen to how similar this woe sounds to what Jesus has just been talking about.
“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm! You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.”
The first woe, which we talked about last week, was against Chaldea’s greed. This second woe is against their sense of Self-Security.
Let’s take this apart a bit and see how it ties into what Jesus has been saying:
“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house…” That could be restated: Woe to him who gathers an “abundance of possessions” without regard toward being “rich towards God”. Evil gain is merely possessions that are gained in a way that God doesn’t authorize.
The next part is “to set his nest on high”. The word “to” tells us the reason that they went after their “evil gain” was to take their “nest” (or their home or nation) and “set it on high” where they would be “safe from the reach of harm.”
Do you want to learn something neat?
The Greek word for “worry” that Jesus uses in Luke 12 is the word METEORIZOMAI, the root of which is where we get our word “meteor”. It’s a compound word from META meaning “beyond” and AER which means… “air” – Meteor: “Beyond the air”. It simply means something “lifted high in the air” or simply “a thing high up”.
Jesus says, “do not worry”, and the word picture is that of a person who feels they are high up in the air, holding on to nothing, no ground to stand on, freefalling.
What phrase does Habakkuk use to describe what the Chaldeans are trying to do “set their nest on high”, which could be literally translated “place their nest in the heavens”.
In their pride they wanted to get their nest, their home, their nation, as high as possible – set it in the heavens, where it would be above everyone and safe forever. But the consequences were dire.
These people were driven by not only greed, but anxiety, worry and fear. They wanted to pile up their abundance of possessions so they could be safe. Their anxiety and desire for self-security drove them outside of their borders to take, by force, the wealth of other nations – so they could be safe, high up in the air, beyond anyone’s reach.
But remember what a woe is! It is a pronouncement of judgement and warning against a self-satisfied person who doesn’t realize their dangerous condition. They think they’re doing just fine, and yet their fate has been sealed. Habakkuk pronounces woe to them because “you have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life.”
In their worry and desperation for self-sufficiency and security, they – like the man who wanted his inheritance – have actually hurt themselves. Instead of gaining more security, they are in a free-fall of worry and are cutting themselves off from other people. Their covetous and greedy hearts told them not to trust God’s provision or be a good neighbour who builds security through friendship and cooperation. No instead, they told God to get lost and then coveted, pillaged, robbed and overthrew their neighbours, driving away anyone who would be their friends, because they felt they would be safer that way. They weren’t secure in the heavens above everyone – they were in a free-fall of anxiety: their life securely affixed to nothing but air.
The man that addressed Jesus had, almost without a doubt, ruined his relationship with his brother, family, and his friends and neighbours too. As covetousness and greed took over his heart, his relationship with God declined, and all he could think about was getting his money. Then, to seal the deal, Satan played the fear card: “What if you don’t get your fair share? What if you don’t have enough? What if something happens? Where’s your security, your nest egg? What’s going to keep you safe? You could starve! You could be out in the street, cold and naked! You need to get that inheritance!”
But, ironically, as Habakkuk’s woe says, all of their hoarding of the abundance of possessions at the cost of the people around them didn’t bring them safety. In fact, he says, in doing so, “You have forfeited your life”. That’s the woe. They thought they were safe – but they weren’t. All of their security was merely an illusion.
And worse, in the same way as we read in Jesus story, their possessions actually worked against them to become the very thing that God uses as a testimony against them because it was a symbol of their disconnect from God. “For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.” It’s the same! The woe against the Chaldean’s self-security is the same message that Jesus gives in the Gospel of Luke: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions…. Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God…. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
So, what does this mean for us today? It occurred to me this week that this series of messages on the Woes to the Chaldeans come at a very appropriate time of the Christian calendar. These woes revolve around pride, greed, addiction and covetousness – which are all summed up in Jesus’ warning about getting our hearts right in regards to wealth and possession – is coming during the season of Lent, the historical season where Christians purposefully remove worldly things from their life so they can concentrate on spiritual ones.
This problem with being possessed by our possessions is a common one. The church fathers knew that, which is why they created the season of Lent – a time of forty days of fasting before Easter – so we could takes some time to evaluate the things in our life that are pulling us away from God. Jesus talked more about wealth, money and possessions than anything else, because He knew that it was going to be a problem for us.
We just sang Amazing Grace a couple days ago at Jennifer’s memorial, and in that song it says, “Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come…”. This world is full of “dangers, toils and snares” and it is so tempting for us to take our eyes off of God and start to believe that we need to build our own security. It’s easy to start to think that the best thing to do in this world is to accumulate an abundance of possessions, get what we can, and keep it to ourselves so that we will be secure. Sure, we’ll share a little of the extra – but not at the expense of our security. That’s just crazy talk! Lent forces us to re-evaluate our relationships with our wealth and possessions.
Go back to Jesus words in Luke 12 and see how he takes apart every single one of our anxieties over security.
Worried About “The Economy”
In verse 22 he addresses our anxiety about our basic needs, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on.” Safety, food, and clothing. Jesus says, don’t spend so much effort worrying about this for two good reasons: First, because life is more than food and second, because God knows what you need.
We still get worried though right? And so we gather more money, more clothes, more retirement savings, seek more wage increases, more pension payments.
What’s the biggest concern when we’re voting in a new government? The economy: Let the government kill the babies, murder the sick, teach our kids to be sexual deviants, ignore the staggering suicide and addiction rates, kill the environment, attack marriage, and outlaw religion – All I care about is “How much money am I going to get and will I still have a job next year.”
Jesus implores us to realize that life is so much more than the economy!
Worried about “Death”
Next in 25 he addresses all the anxieties we give ourselves about trying to cheat death. “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” All of your fussing and complaining and fighting and worry – is that actually going to add an hour to your life? Do you know when and how you’re going to die? Nope! You could have an aneurysm right now and drop dead. You could be hit by a bus crossing the street. You have NO IDEA.
It doesn’t stop us from worrying though, does it? We need more vitamins, more diets, more fads, more trips to the doctor, the chiropractor, the naturopath, more locks on the doors, more security systems, more borders, more police, more military – anything so we can feel like we have taken control and can ward off the spectre of death for a little more time.
Anxiety destroys our soul! It drives us to do things that destroy our relationships with God and others. We turn into covetous people that want what others have because we think they are safer than us. Why should they have it and not us? Bitterness and jealousy set in. We become the Chaldeans who, instead of partnering with others in sacrificial friendships where we meet each other’s needs, we see others as competitors that need to be vanquished – or better, eliminated so we can take what they have. Have you ever hated someone simply because they had something you felt you needed or deserved? Have you ever wished someone to be gone, dead or fired so you can have what they possess? That’s anxiety and greed driving you to sin.
The Real Problem is Faithlessness
But Jesus goes even deeper. The man showed up with an inheritance problem and Jesus answered him by pointing out his covetousness – and then turns to the crowd and goes one step deeper. The real issue isn’t covetousness. It’s not even anxiety. The real issue is faith.
Coupled with His statements about anxiety is a question of faith. Jesus says, “Don’t be anxious about life, food or clothing” and then says, “Consider the ravens… consider the lilies… of how much more value are you than the birds… or grass?” That’s a question.
Do you believe that God finds you more valuable than a bird or a flower?
If the answer is “No, God cares more about birds and flowers than He does me.”, then you’d better get to work making your nest and getting it full of stuff. You’d better make big piles of fertilizer so you can have lots to eat, because God won’t do it for you!
But, if the answer is, “Yes, God cares way more about me than the birds.”, then I guess you’d better show it by living His way. The birds just do what they’re told and God arranges the world to care for them. The flowers simply open their leaves and accept God’s rain and sun as He deems fit to give it to them. Do you believe that God can do the same for you? Do you believe that God is caring enough to give you what you need, when you need it? That’s a faith question. Your anxiety dissipates as your faith in God’s care for you grows. If God doesn’t care about you, then you’re in trouble. If God does care, then you need not fear.
Jesus says in verse 32: “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That’s pretty great. Jesus calls them – and us – His “little flock” and then reminds us that God’s plan isn’t just to help us with living in this world, but plans to give us the entirety of His Kingdom to enjoy! Does that not remind you of Psalm 23?
“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want… He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul…. [He] prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies. [He] anoints my head with oil…” It’s His house in which I will dwell forever.
I guess the question is: Are you part of Jesus “little flock”, and if so, do you trust the Shepherd?
A Lot of Questions
Let me close with this: Woe to those who find their security in themselves, seeking evil gain for their house, trying to set their nest on high where they can be safe – because in doing so you have forfeited your life and your soul. If you believe that you can remove your anxiety through the abundance of your possessions, then you are in real trouble. God calls you a “fool”.
And so, my encouragement to you today, and the application for this sermon, is found in verse 33-34: “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
“Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
No, this doesn’t mean that you need to sell everything you have. Jesus isn’t asking you to sell everything you have and live in a cardboard box. He’s telling you to hold what you have in loose hands, not tied to earthly things. He’s saying that we need to evaluate what we have to see if we are being greedy or covetous, or if we have our security in our possessions rather than God. What this means is that you need to evaluate your heart for the things in your life that are separating you from God.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What do I have that is simply there to give me a false sense of security?
- What do I currently possess that I got using resources that God gave me to care for someone else? (Is someone hurting because I decided I wanted something else in my big barn?)
- Do I know someone who is legitimately needy, but chose not to help because I was afraid that God wouldn’t provide enough for me if I did?
- Does God have access to everything I have?
- Where is my treasure?
- Where is my heart?
- Would I choose Jesus if it meant living in poverty?
Confronting people’s sin isn’t very popular these days. More and more the world is handing out excuses rather than judgements and punishments. It’s not that I’m advocating for the return of the Salem Witch trials or the Spanish Inquisition, but I do believe that we have lost something incredibly important to human society when we are no longer able (or allowed) to call out evil and declare something a sin.
Even our movies have changed. It used to be that we knew the bad guy because he had the black hat and twirly mustache. He didn’t need much of a back-story – he was the bad guy. “Once upon a time there was a witch who hated everyone…” or “Once upon a time a young girl was sent to visit her grandmother’s house, but when she got there her grandmother was replaced by a wolf…” was plenty enough information for us to know that the witch and the wolf were bad guys.
Not anymore. Now the witch and the wolf have backstories that explain why they went bad. The witch was hurt by an untrustworthy boy she liked, and the wolf came from a broken home in a bad neighbourhood. Implicit in these backstories is that everyone has an excuse for why they do what they do – nothing is their fault. They are merely a product of a broken system. If they had grown up in a different place, with good education and the right meds, then they would be just fine.
Words and stories are very powerful things because they shape our worldview. And if we get rid of words like right and wrong, good and evil, sin and righteousness, then we end up rewriting our understanding of the greatest problem in this world and losing sight of what must be done to change it. If our greatest problem is sin, and the solution is Jesus, then we need to be able to declare that sin exists. But what happens when we stop using the word sin? How can we get to the solution, when we’ve changed what we think the problem is?
Consider the fact that we’ve all but lost the categories for sin today. Last week I read a passage from Galatians 5 which outlined a whole list of sins that God says we need to take seriously, because when we commit these sins we show that we are out of step with Him and are working against His Spirit. The passage went like this:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal 5:19-21)
Now that sounds bad when you use those words, right? “Not inheriting the Kingdom of God” is a big deal, right? This is a problem that needs solving! We need Jesus to fix this!
Well, let’s modernize them and see what happens.
- First, let’s turn “sexual immorality, impurity and sensuality” into “expressing your feelings for someone in a natural way”, “a healthy expression of one’s inner desires”, “dating” and the ever-popular, “safe sex.” That way we can turn something like “adultery” into “a love affair” (that sounds nice, doesn’t it) or “finding my soul mate during a troubled marriage”.
- Next let’s turn “idolatry” into “consumerism”, “a beautiful expression of culture.” and “personal religious constructs”.
- We’ll turn “sorcery” into “silly superstitions”, “using pharmaceuticals to improve life”, “being in touch with mother nature” or “living a naturalistic lifestyle”.
- We’ll change “enmity”, “strife”, “jealousy”, “fits of anger” and “rivalries”, “dissensions” and “divisions” into “having a competitive spirit”, “wanting to be the best you can be”, “winning at all costs”, “survival of the fittest” or simply “being passionate about excellence”.
- We’ll turn “envy” into “looking up to someone more successful than you”, “wanting to get what you deserve.”
- And finally “drunkenness” and “orgies” can become “getting a little carried away at a fun party”.
Ok, so let’s summarize, and we’ll use the modern translation that we’ve just come up with:
“Now, the works of the flesh are… expressing your natural feelings for someone, sharing in the beauty of your culture, living a natural lifestyle, being passionate about excellence, looking up to people more successful than you, and having fun at parties… those who do such things (?) will not inherit the kingdom of God…”
Now, that sounds a little harsh doesn’t it? How can God be against people expressing our feelings, sharing beauty, living naturally, pursuing excellence, and having fun?! Do you see why words are important and how dangerous it is that we are living in a culture that won’t call sin sin?
What we’re about to study today is a passage known as the “Woe to the Chaldeans” and it’s all about calling out sin. We talked a bit about this last week, but I want you to remember the context. This intense section of scripture is full of hard language and threats, but is there for a reason. It’s pointing out how much God hates sin – which is what we talked about last week – but also how He intends to deal with it. Some people are going to be disciplined, others punished. No one will get away with anything.
Christians love to sing “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound”, but in order to understand the first part, we need to understand the “that saved a wretch like me” part. In order to understand forgiveness we need to see what we’ve been forgiven for. In order to understand mercy, we need to see the wrath from which we were spared. In order to comprehend the amazing love of God for His people, and the sacrifice of His Son on our behalf, we have to come face to face with the depth of our sin and depravity, and the weight of judgement that faces each person that doesn’t know Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. It’s awesome to talk about amazing grace, but it only makes sense in the light of knowing we are wretches first.
So, as we look at this, let’s keep the context in mind. Habakkuk, a priest in God’s temple, was living in a nation that was almost totally corrupt. Suffering, injustice, violence and sin were everywhere. His heart is breaking and he starts to pray, asking God why He’s not doing anything about it. God sends Habakkuk a vision that explains to him and us how he plans to deal with the sin of His people and, by extension, the sins of the world. God says his plan is to discipline his people by sending their enemy, the Chaldeans (later called the Babylonians), to wipe out Jerusalem and drag the people off into captivity for 70 years.
Habakkuk, a priest in God’s temple, was living in a nation that was almost totally corrupt. Suffering, injustice, violence and sin were everywhere. His heart is breaking and he starts to pray, asking God why He’s not doing anything about it. God sends Habakkuk a vision that explains to him and us how he plans to deal with the sin of His people and, by extension, the sins of the world. God says his plan is to discipline his people by sending their enemy, the Chaldeans (later called the Babylonians), to wipe out Jerusalem and drag the people off into captivity for 70 years.
Habakkuk asks a follow-up question, wondering how God could justify using a greater evil to punish a lesser one: “Why would he use the pagan Chaldeans to punish the lesser wrongs of Israel? Why should the Chaldeans get away with being evil when Israel won’t?”
God’s answer is that He is a God of justice and that no one will be getting away with anything! He’s going to use the Chaldeans as a rod of discipline against His children, and then make sure that the Chaldeans receive their judgement for their sin too. God isn’t slow to act, nor has He forgotten. He’s been patiently waiting for His people to repent, but they won’t. And while they’ve been rejecting Him and His prophets, He’s been preparing the world for a change of empires – the rise of the Babylonians – who though they don’t even believe in Him, God intends to use bring Himself glory and bring salvation to His people.
Last week we talked about the inner workings, the heart, of the Chaldeans – their pride, addiction and greed – and now this week we’re going to get in the specifics of God’s problem with them.
What I want to do over the next few weeks is look at the passage in context and then extrapolate out what those sins would look like today because God’s standards haven’t changed.
The big take-away from this sermon, I hope, is that God is very serious about sin, and we need to be serious about it too. And, perhaps the second take-away is that even when the world seems very dark, God isn’t being idle – He’s being patient – and He’s preparing the world for something even greater. Let’s turn to Habakkuk 2:6-20 and let’s read the passage together and then take it apart piece by piece.
“Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him, and say, ‘Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—for how long?—and loads himself with pledges!’ Will not your debtors suddenly arise, and those awake who will make you tremble? Then you will be spoil for them. Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.
‘Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm! You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.
‘Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
‘Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness! You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the LORD’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory! The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.
‘What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.’” (Habakkuk 2:6-20)
What are Woes
There are five woes and I want to look at each of them, but first, let’s answer the question: What is a “Woe”?
A “Woe” is a declaration of judgement for the miserable, deplorable condition of the one being addressed. It is not a good thing to receive a “woe”. Someone receiving a “woe” is most often living in a fantasy world, thinking they are doing well, when in fact they are utterly wretched and blind to the truth. They are self-satisfied, and don’t realize their spiritual condition, or the future that awaits them.
A “woe” is a pronouncement of judgement and a warning to someone who thinks they’re doing just fine, and they are found throughout scripture. In Matthew 23 Jesus pronounced woes on the Scribes and Pharisees who thought themselves to be so great and holy, but were in fact under the terrible judgement of God, destined for hell. It’s an expression of grief at the terrible condition of the sinner – people that are so utterly lost, they don’t even know it.
I want today’s message to serve as a sort of woe to each one of us, and perhaps to our friends and neighbours too. I hope that as we read this passage, we will have a realization of the depths of our sin problem and God’s hatred of it. We are far too comfortable with our sin, and it gets us into great trouble. We make excuses for it, play with it, think it no big deal, and start to think that God doesn’t care about it either. We desperately need the conviction of God and the knowledge of our sin, or we won’t come to Jesus. As long as we think ourselves righteous and good – perhaps only needing a little divine help here or there – we will not be on our face asking God for daily forgiveness and crying out in need for His love and presence.
I believe that desire starts with the acknowledgement that we are sinners and that there are serious consequences for our sins: for the believer and the unbeliever! Woe to any of us who do not listen to these words and not feel the weight of conviction on our souls and desire to come before God in repentance. If you can read these words and not feel some kind of conviction, then there is something wrong with your soul.
Ok, so let’s get into them:
The First Woe: Greed
“Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—for how long?—and loads himself with pledges!’”
The first woe is against this nation’s greed. We talked about this last week. Their pride, fueled by drunkenness led to addiction which gave birth to an unquenchable greed. Woe to the one who keeps hoarding things they cannot pay for. Notice that these things aren’t theirs!
The first woe is against this nation’s greed. We talked about this last week. Their pride, fueled by drunkenness led to addiction which gave birth to an unquenchable greed. Woe to the one who keeps hoarding things they cannot pay for. Notice that these things aren’t theirs!
This isn’t a woe against materialism, ownership, or having nice things. This woe is specifically against those who take things from others that aren’t theirs. They didn’t work for what they had, they took it from others. They weren’t spending their own money, they were spending other people’s money.
The term “loaded himself with pledges” is a figurative term meaning that these conquering Chaldeans (or Babylonians) weren’t the owners of what they had, but were merely borrowing it. They were extorting money from people, seizing their land by force, and using military might to make their victims into slaves. Woe to them, God says, because that loan is going to be paid back!
What goes around comes around and all of the borrowing you’ve done is going to be taken back. A larger nation will take it from you and give it back – which is exactly what happened when the Persians conquered the Babylonians.
Their sin was greed. They wanted someone else to do the work for them so they could come and take it. They stole other nation’s homes, lands, cities, walls, cattle, money, and people. Instead of building, they plundered. Instead of working, they conquered.
The Chaldeans were doing this on a national level, but we do this on a personal level all the time. Consider the explosion of Credit Card debt we have today. According to a few news articles I read this week, consumer debt is at an all-time high. We might be in a recession, but that hasn’t stopped us from filling up our credit cards and getting new loans from the bank. And it’s not for food and shelter. The big costs, according to the Globe and Mail, are Restaurants, Cars, Home Improvement, and New Furniture. According to the CBC, the debt-to-income ratio for Canadian households is 163.3 percent. That means that for every dollar we earn, we owe $1.64 in debt. If that’s not greed, I don’t know what is. It’s the same thing!
The thievery and conquering of the Chaldean armies is phrased in the language of loans and pledges because they didn’t own any of it! It was merely borrowed from other nations, and ultimately borrowed from God. Their short-sighted thinking had them believing that this world was about the accumulation of good for pleasure, no matter how they got it. And their decision was to take what they wanted from others.
The Gospel Consequences of Greed
Our society runs on the back of this kind of greed. Credit cards, high-interest pay-day loans, tax fraud and evasion, and more, are crippling our society today – and the church. Let’s take a minute to consider the terrible consequences to living a lifestyle of greed, consumerism and debt. Being greedy and seeking to accumulate things you aren’t willing to work for has some huge consequences to your life, family and ministry.
Let me ask you a few questions:
Are you making decisions with your money, or is your debt making decision for you? Proverbs 22:7 says, “… the borrower is the slave of the lender.” What that means is that once you are in debt, you lose a lot of your ability to make decisions.
If God were to call you to give generously to help someone who needs your help today, could you? Or is your money tied up in paying off the debts you have after buying things you don’t need?
If God asked you to pick up stakes and serve Him somewhere else, could you? Or have the decisions you’ve made with your money got you pinned down and unable to be flexible with your future. You have to say, “No God, don’t ask me to do that, I just can’t.”
Do you feel the pull to volunteer more of your time or give more of your energies to your church or your community, but can’t because you need to spend more time at work?
Has it ever crossed your mind that you are doing your family a disservice by working so much – that you need to either pull back the hours, get a different job, or quit altogether – but you can’t because you have too many debts to pay? You feel the pull to be a better parent, grandparent, grandchild, uncle, aunt, brother or sister – and know that you need to make a change, but you can’t because you decided to buy something you didn’t really need.
You’ve made yourself a “slave to the lender”. Your greed has caused you to take something that wasn’t yours. You, like the Chaldeans, have used money that isn’t yours to accumulate things for yourself you weren’t intended to have. You didn’t work and save for them, but instead got someone else to do the work for you.
God is no longer making decisions in your life, and neither are you. The Bank is deciding how many hours you work. Master Card is deciding how great a priority your family is to you. The loan company is your master now, and they get to tell you where you can live and what you can do with your time.
Debt makes you a slave! God’s woe to the Chaldeans was that the ones that they have borrowed from would rise up and destroy them. They thought that their conquering and accumulation would bring them happiness, but all it did was create the opportunity for their enemies to destroy them. It made them gluttonous and weak. It’s the same thing today.
Satan loves it when God’s people are greedy and in debt. It paralyzes them. As long as they are spending their money on themselves and digging themselves into financial ruin, then they aren’t spending their money on acts of mercy, giving generously, sharing with others, or spreading the gospel. He loves it when we’re being greedy and in debt.
So that was the first of the five woes, and that’s all we’re going to cover today. Let me close with the words of Jesus regarding the importance of being faithful with our money. This is found in Luke 16:10-13 and comes after the parable of the dishonest manager. Jesus says:
“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:10-13)
Being greedy and living in constant debt isn’t just a money issue – it declares a spiritual truth. It shows God that He’s not our Master or our God, someone else is. It shows that our priorities are out of whack. It shows that we care more for the things in this world than the people in it.
As a church, we cry out to God to use us for His glory and ask Him why He won’t give us more and more opportunities to obey Him. Is it possible that His answer is, “I gave you a few little things to take care of – a little pile of money, a little house, a little family – and you used it dishonestly and unfaithfully. Why would I entrust you with true riches?
I gave you everything you needed, but you didn’t think it was enough, so you borrowed more from pagans and non-believers. You felt that they were better providers than Me. And now, because of your debt to them, you serve them… and cannot wholly serve me.”
I encourage you to pray about this. Are there any changes you need to make financially? Is there anything you need to take back to the store or sell because you couldn’t afford it? Do you need to ask God’s forgiveness for seeking things He didn’t want to give you? Have you been greedy? Are you being faithful with your finances?
We’re currently in the middle of a mini-series-within-a-series called “What is a Good Church?” – which is inside the “Burning Questions Series”. Now you know what happens when I give myself a few bumper-weeks in my sermon planning – we get series-within-series. I hope that isn’t confusing, because my intention is neither to confuse you nor bore you, but to teach you what the Bible says and point you to Jesus – and it would be a great crime for me to make that either boring or confusing for you.
Two weeks ago I did an extended introduction to the topic of “What is a Good Church?” where we discussed “Christian consumerism”, and we followed that up last week by talking about two mistakes that Christian Consumers make. The first being “using human standards to judge whether God’s church is good or not” and the second mistake being “crafting God’s church into our image.”
In the midst of all that I’ve been talking about four was that God, according to the Bible, defines a “good church”. A “good church” according to God’s Word is one with Biblical Discipleship, Loving Fellowship, Inspired Worship and Spirit-Led Evangelism. You’ll recall that I added those adjectives last week in hopes of helping the conversation, knowing they aren’t perfectly chosen and are open to interpretation.
Last week we talked about the first two, Biblical Discipleship and Loving Fellowship, and so this week I want to discuss the next one, Inspired Worship.
For those who are new this morning, I apologize. You’re sort of jumping in in the middle of a multi-part sermon. I made the case over the last couple weeks, and now I’m just going to jump into the next part. If you did miss the last couple sermons, you can go to my website and read and listen to them to catch up.
Please open up to our key-text in Acts 2:42-47 and let’s read it one more time so we can have it fresh in our minds. Remember, this is the description of the first, Christian church that developed after Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost. God convicted thousands of people of their sin, the repented, got saved, and came under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and His Apostles.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Awe Upon Every Soul
Let’s talk first about God’s Biblical qualification that a “good church” is a “Worshipping” church. You’ll notice in this first church that “awe came upon every soul”, that they “attended the temple together”, and that they “praised God”. These are the marks of a worshipping church.
Look at that phrase used in verse 43: their “souls” were full of “awe”. That word “awe” is an interesting one. It’s the word PHOBOS, from where we get the term “Phobia”. It mostly translated as the word fear, but it also means terror, and panic! It’s the term for respect and reverence.
It is the word used in Luke 5:26 to describe after people heard Jesus claim to be God, forgive a lame man’s sin, and then command him to stand up and walk. “And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen extraordinary things today.’” This describes more than surprise, more than interest, more than being impressed – it’s the feeling we get in the presence of something that truly shakes us to the core.
The other night I gave a talk to a group of kids about sharing their faith. As an illustration I used a bunch of things that people are afraid of – their phobias – spiders, heights, snakes, loud noises, needles, etc. We all know what happens when we bump up against one of our phobias. We tense up, we lose control of our bodies, our heart races, our fight-or-flight response is activated, adrenaline floods into our blood stream, we say and do things that we wouldn’t have done a moment ago. I once jumped out of a moving vehicle because a scary bug landed in the back seat. There have been multiple times when I have used my children as shields from bees. I’m not proud of it, but I was scared.
That’s the word we’re talking about here when we say that “awe came upon every soul.” This is where we talk about “Fearing the Lord”. Psalm 33:8, “Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!”
After Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died on the cross, taking the fullness of the wrath of the Father against Him, making the final payment for all who would believe in Him, it says,
“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:51-54)
This is the heart of worship that the church is to have. Certainly speak of God’s love, faithfulness, miracles, closeness, intimacy and the peace that is made between us and God through Jesus Christ. It is good that we give thanks to Him for all of these things – but the mark of a “good church” isn’t merely thanksgiving for all the gifts God has given us, but a sense of awe, fear, reverence, and deep respect for God, His Son, His Spirit and His Word.
For those who are saved, and have the Holy Spirit within is, the presence of God in our world, church, lives, and hearts, fills us we AWE and we are “inspired” – literally inspired by the Spirit of God and inspired by all of the Truth we know about Him (John 4:24) – to bring Him worship.
A Jealous God and a Consuming Fire
To emphasize this point about having awe in our hearts, I want to read a passage from Hebrews. Remember, the author is here writing to a group of people who wanted to turn away from following Jesus because it was causing them suffering and would soon force them to choose between life or death. They wanted to go back to the Jewish way, or the Roman way, and he reminds them that turning away from God is a terribly foolish thing to do.
He starts by speaking about the terrifying events of the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai – how Moses shuddered with fear, the thunder and clouds, and punishment of death that came to anyone who even set foot on the mountain, and says,
“See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’ This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:25-29)
It’s almost like the author of Hebrews is saying, “This isn’t a game. You don’t get to pick and choose who you worship or how you worship. The worship that is due to God because of who He is and what He’s done, is not optional. You ought not to be thinking of going to lesser gods or empty religion. You ought to be grateful because you have been given a greater gift than the Romans or even the Jews at Sinai. Your response to this God should be worship, reverence and awe. Why? Not because God is love – he doesn’t go there – because “our God is a consuming fire!”
Some of you may have Joshua 24:15 at home written on something. It records the words of Joshua to Israel telling them to choose between the idols of the nations around them or the One, True God. It says,
“Choose this day whom you will serve… as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
Part of me wishes that this wasn’t written on so many cute things, because they are not cute words. Joshua didn’t give this option lightly. We must continue to read the next verses. Turn to Joshua 24 where the bible records this conversation between Israel and Joshua. Look how many times Joshua warns them to take their pledge seriously:
“Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.’
But Joshua said to the people, ‘You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.’ And the people said to Joshua, ‘No, but we will serve the LORD.’ Then Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the LORD, to serve him.’ And they said, ‘We are witnesses.’ He said, ‘Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the LORD, the God of Israel.’ And the people said to Joshua, ‘The LORD our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.’
So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the LORD. And Joshua said to all the people, ‘Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the LORD that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.’ So Joshua sent the people away, every man to his inheritance.” (Joshua 24:15-28)
In the Bible, God reminds His people that He is a “jealous God” who doesn’t share worship with ANYONE. In the 10 Commandments, the Moral Law of God that stands for all people for all time, God says,
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image…You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:4-6)
Yes, God is where we put our hope, and where we find our strength. He is full of love, compassion and mercy – but we must not forget another side of His character: He is to be feared because he has wrath against sin. He does not take idolatry lightly and jealously pursues His people as a husband pursues his wife. In Hebrews 10:26-27 he said that those who would forsake their faith, or would continue to sin after being told about Jesus, should live in “fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”
Our church must remember this aspect of God – that He desires our full, uncompromised worship.
Fear and Repentance
Go back now to Acts 2:43 where “awe came upon every soul”.
Where did that awe come from? Back up a few verses to verse 36 and read the crescendo of Peter’s sermon,
“’Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’ And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’” (Acts 2:36-41)
Their awe and fear of God was a result of coming face to face with their sin. Jesus, the Son of God, died because of their sin. They were the cause of the death of the God’s only begotten Son. And Jesus, the one who died, was “both Lord and Christ”. He was their king and their saviour, and they killed him.
Their response was not to shed a single tear and walk up the aisle while “Just as I Am” played softly in the background. They were terrified. The Holy Spirit entered their hearts and they saw why Jesus died – it was their fault. They saw their sin and rebellion against God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, and they were utterly afraid of what God would do. “Brothers… what shall we do?” was an acknowledgement of this. “Oh no! We are in serious trouble. We are doomed! God is right to be angry with us. We deserve Hell. We scorned His Son! Whatever can be done to save us?!”
Then, after telling them the bad news, Peter tells them what they must do: He demands that they “Repent”. That word means change your mind, change your priorities, change your ways, change your heart, change your allegiance, and come to the Son. Perhaps Psalm 2:10-12 jumped into their minds:
“Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him.”
Repent! Change your allegiance. How do you show your change of allegiance? By being “being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ”. Make it public. Make it known to all. And do it soon.
It is by your repentance and confession that you are saved. Later, Paul would write in Romans 10:9-10, “…if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” Not just in your heart, but with your mouth. Show it to all that you’ve repented from your sin and come under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Why? Once you have repented and confessed your sin, you will receive “the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is the amazing grace of God! He hates sin, but offers forgiveness. He brings wrath, but also mercy upon those who would repent. He is a consuming fire for all his adversaries, but He put His Son through Hell and then offered Him as payment for our sins.
Then it gets better. We don’t just get forgiveness, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God in our hearts, reminding us of all He has said and leading us every step of this life! We have access to the very voice of God every day. We are adopted into God’s family. And as Romans 8:17 says,
“Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.”
Who He Is and What He’s Done
“If you will not worship God seven days a week, you do not worship Him one day a week. There is no such thing know in in heaven as Sunday worship unless it is accompanied by Monday worhsp and Tuesday worship and so on.” (AW Tozer)
Part of the reason for my emphasis this morning is that we sometimes don’t take God seriously enough, which is why we don’t worship Him enough.
As I said, God loves you and has given you every reason to worship Him. He is God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, the One who formed you in your mother’s womb and gives you every breath you take. He is the most powerful force in existence, able to manifest universes with a word, sustaining all of existence by His power. He is worthy of our reverence and fear. As Jesus said, “…do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) God’s very nature, what He is, should draw us into awe-inspired worship. We should worship God for who He is.
And we should worship Him for what He’s done. He is also the friend of sinners, the one who traded His Son’s life for yours so you could be with Him. He is Love incarnate. He is the source of joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentles, and faithfulness. It is only in a relationship with Him that we have an abundant life.
He is always worthy of worship because of who He is and what He’s done.
A Good Church Worships
And so we come back to our question about “a good church”. What is a Good Church? One which has Inspired Worship. Not inspiring worship! This isn’t about whether the music, the song or the people inspire us – it’s about whether or not the church is inspired to worship because they have a holy reverence and thanksgiving for who God is and what He’s done.
This is the question I ask of myself and of this church. Is my life, and the lives of the Christians in this church lived, every day, as an act of worship? Is there a palpable fear, respect and spirit of thankfulness when we meet together? Do we speak often of who God is and what He’s done, or do we think we have something better to talk about?
Another important question: Are there any idols in our church? Is there anything that stands above the Word of God as our guiding light? Is there anything we hold as more important than giving worship to God?
Another question: Is there anything in this church that is keeping people from worshipping God? Are there disagreements, unforgiveness, slander, or sin among us that prevents us from being able to worship God?
A “good church” worships God, and that starts with every believer in the church committing themselves to a lifestyle of worship. The words of Romans 12:1 must convict us today:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship.”
Let’s go back to that Tozer quote: “If you will not worship God seven days a week, you do not worship Him one day a week”. Showing up and singing a few songs and trying to stay awake for a sermon is not worship. Worship is a lifestyle, every day. Remember, God is a jealous God. He doesn’t want to share you or your worship with anyone else. We must take worshipping God as seriously as we take the right reading of His Word because He takes His worship very seriously.
A good church knows this, and encourages everyone in the church to worship every day, because God is worthy. So let is speak, and sing, and read, and serve, and pray, and honour God in the way that people have, and should, be praising Him for all time, and into Eternity.
“Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.” (Psalm 145:3)
“For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.” (Psalm 96:4)
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:11)
Let us be a worshipping church.
Let’s talk about Nehemiah 8. But before we do, let me give you a quick background to what’s going on. After the peaceful reign of King Solomon, the son of David, was over, the kingdom of Israel split in two. Israel to the North where 10 tribes were living, and Judah to the South which were the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi.
Not long after the split, the Assyrians came in and took over the Northern kingdom, conquered them, scattered or enslaved the people living there, and basically wiped out the northern kingdom. The Southern kingdom of Judah remained, so some of the people from Israel fled south and it grew. Many of them moved to Jerusalem and it became a very large city. To defend themselves they built huge walls around the city.
Meanwhile the kings of Judah are going back and forth between trusting God to protect them and allying themselves with pagan nations. King Hezekiah does the right thing and trusts God, but when his son Manasseh takes the throne he stopped worshipping God, put up idols all over the place, allied himself with the Assyrians, started performing child sacrifices and killed off many of the prophets of God. His son, Josiah, took over the throne at age 16 and stumbled across a copy of the first 5 books of the Bible, the Torah, and was convicted by God to clean things up. It was hard because his father kept working against him, but He did all he could.
The kingdom of Babylon is on the rise and they take over the Assyrians. Because the people of Judah had rejected God, built idols and rebelled against His law, God prophesied through Isaiah and Jeremiah that the king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, would attack Judah, the walls of Jerusalem would be destroyed, the city would be ruined, and all the people would be exiled to Babylon. There they would live as outcasts and slaves for 70 years. After that time they would be allowed to come home again.
Rebuilding The People
What we are about to read here is the story of the Jewish people who had come back from exile to Jerusalem to find it absolutely ruined. The first seven chapters of Nehemiah are all about the rebuilding of the walls so the city will be defensible once again. But then, in chapter 8, the story turns from the rebuilding of the city, to the rebuilding of the people within the city.
Nehemiah was a Jewish man and a trusted official – a cupbearer – under the king of the Persian Empire (who, by this time, had taken over the Babylonians). Nehemiah had heard about how bad things were in Jerusalem and was heartbroken for his people and his city. He talked to God about it and then asked the king if he could leave and help rebuild Jerusalem.
Ezra also worked for the king of Persia, but was a teacher of the Law, a descendant of the High Priest. In an amazing miracle, he was given a mission by the king to lead a group of Jewish people back to and teach them about the laws of God. When he arrived he saw a lot of the same sins that got them in trouble in the first place, and it broke his heart.
So there are your two leaders, Nehemiah and Ezra, tag-teaming the rebuilding of the city and its people by teaching them to how rebuild their homes, their lives, and their hearts. What we read in chapter 8 is the story of Ezra, as he finally takes all of the people, gathers them together behind the city wall, appoints small group leaders, and then reads the entirety of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – , the Book of the Law, the Torah.
“And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” (Nehemiah 8:1-8)
So that’s the picture. Ezra reading the Bible to the people, in full, and then a group of appointed bible teachers explaining it to anyone who didn’t understand it. And as the understanding of what God had written sank in, people started to change.
Sin Sinks In
“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.” (Nehemiah 8:9)
Their spirits were stirred and their emotions were gripped when they began to understand what the Bible was saying to them. They began to understand the depth of their rebellion against God, and the enormous grace God had shown them even though they didn’t deserve it. They read of the creation of the world, and the perfect place God had created for them… and how that was marred by sin. They read of the jealousy of Cain towards his brother Abel and felt it prick their hearts as they realized they had done the same thing their own brothers.
They listened to the story of the Exodus from Egypt and realized how much God loved them and would go to any lengths to redeem them and save them. And they listened to the story of the people who refused to even go into the Promised Land… the land they were currently standing on… and how they instead of trusting God, they would wander the desert for 40 years.
And they looked up around them, at the city they had been working so had to rebuild – the capital city of their Promised Land – and realized that they sat on holy ground because it was a gift from God, and God dwelled in a special way in this place. Then they remembered why they had been sent into exile, how they had rejected this God, His law, His prophets, His warnings, and began to see how even though they had returned from their exile, that they were still doing the very same thing. They were face to face with their sin, and they couldn’t escape it.
Then Ezra began to read the 10 Commandments and the people realized that they had broken every one of them, and they stood guilty before God. And they wept.
They read of the blood sacrifices, the lamb that was slaughtered after the High Priest placed the sins of the people on its, this one symbolic act that was required to cleanse the people from their sin. The read of the scapegoat that would be ceremonially driven from the city to show the people how God was driving away their sin. And the bull that would be slaughtered before their eyes, its blood spilled, because that’s how serious God takes sin.
And it sinks that it had been a long time since they had repented. A long time since they had been obedient to fulfill the law. It had been years and years since most of them had celebrated the Day of Atonement. Decades of sin – years and years of guilt – was piled up against them. God had a right to be angry.
If you are a Christian, or if you’re not but God’s been working on your heart, then you know what this feels like. God starts to get hold of our hearts, and we begin to understand what the Bible says about us. It is absolutely appropriate, when we come face to face with our sin, fr it to bring an emotional response. In this case, we’d call it conviction, guilt, shame, and fear. They saw themselves through the eyes of God – contrasted their lives against his perfect, moral law – and it’s something they hadn’t thought about before, or hadn’t thought about for a long time. They weren’t “good people in a bad situation”. They were depraved, broken, lost, sinners. Under the wrath of God, surrounded by evidence of His righteous judgment, and their hearts broke.
There is power in the public reading of the scriptures. The Bible contains the best news, and the worst news, in history! The world is condemned, sin has separated us from our Creator, all hope was lost, and we are all destined for hell because of the perfect and necessary judgment of God. And we can’t argue with it. We cannot stand before Holy God and argue that we’re good people – our consciences testify against us and what we read in the Bible won’t allow it. That’s the bad news. But it is absolutely necessary to hear and understand the message of the total depravity of our hearts before we can grasp the amazing grace of salvation through Jesus Christ.
We don’t really like to talk about sin – at least not our own. Our society, in general, prefers to deflect blame onto someone or something else. It’s never our fault, and therefore none of us ever really sin. It’s not a new thing. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the snake.
Adulterous men and women blame their spouse for driving them into the arms of someone else. Corrupt business leaders say it’s the economy that made them steal from so many people. Thieves blame the security system saying that if they didn’t want it stolen, they should have protected it better. People with addictions blame the substance, the manufacturers, the pushers, or the peer pressure. Gossips blame the tabloids and the people who listen to them. Slanderers blame the object of their scorn. Jealous and envious people blame the advertisers. Pornographers blame the consumers. Perverts blame the objects of their lust. Parents blame schools, schools blame parents. Everybody blames the government, and the government parties blame each other. Nothing is ever anyone’s fault.
But one of the core messages of the gospel is that we are sinners and that when we stand before God one day, He is going to pull out our rap-sheet, all of the excuses in the world are going to melt away and all that will be left with be us, our guilt, and perfect judgment of the all-knowing God of the universe.
The Importance of Guilt
Christians, those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord, know that the first step to freedom in Christ and being saved from sin, is to admit guilt. Admit we are sinners. Admit fault. To say, I am a sinner who has willingly, and willfully broken the law of God over and over. I wanted to, I chose to, I meant to, and I did it again and again.
I worshipped things that weren’t God. I stole things that weren’t mine. I lusted after people that weren’t married to me. I lied. I promised things to others and didn’t follow through. I promised things to God and didn’t follow through. I used God’s name as a curse word. I worked for my own glory, and my own fame, as much as I wanted, not giving glory to the One who created me but taking it for myself. And often as I worked, I did it at the expense of others. In my anger I’ve wanted people to be dead, and I’ve done things to hurt them. I did it. No one made me. I am without excuse. If I were put on trial for everything I’ve ever done or thought… I would be guilty a million times over.
And when we come face to face with that sin, it will either harden our hearts to God – causing us to tell God to get lost because He just makes us feel bad – or it will break us, causing us to fall on our face before Him in sadness, fear and repentance.
My prayer is that our sin breaks each one of us. That come face to face with our sin destroys the pride that makes us think we are our own highest authority. That it destroys the image in our mind of how good we are, how lucky God is that we call ourselves one of His people, how blessed people should be to be around us. That it obliterates that false theology of believing that we are good enough to be in the presence of Holy God in Heaven, because we know in our very soul, that we’re not.
Coming face to face with the reality of our sin is supposed to breaks our hearts, just as it breaks God’s. There’s a reason God chose blood to represent sin. Because it’s disgusting, scary, horrible, repulsive and permanent. Sin kills. And when we figure out that we are sinners… not just people who make mistakes and have good excuses, or just need to try to do better, or deserve a second chance because deep down we’re good people … when we start to see our sin, and revile it – it becomes disgusting to us – and we learn the consequences of our sin, it should break us. And it’s right that it does.
That’s exactly what the people who were listening to Ezra read the law felt. They wept because they felt guilty, they felt ashamed, they felt the conviction of God weighing heavy on them.
I hope you have felt that. I hope that you haven’t been sold some kind of garbage that God is going to let everyone into heaven because He loves everybody so much. I hope you don’t believe the nonsense that says that you people are basically good on the inside. We’re not. Without Jesus, I’m not, and neither are you. Without Jesus, we are dead in sin, absolutely selfish, lovers of idols, and children of hell. We are people in rebellion against God, on the path of destruction. It is only because of His common grace to this world that most people can draw their next breath, because if He called in their chips today… they would be condemned.
Anyone who has not dealt with their sin will be exposed and judged. That is why these people wept. And why anyone who has not dealt with their sin, who harbors unrepentant sin, who hasn’t come to God for forgiveness, should weep.
The Good News!
But that’s the bad news! And Nehemiah and Ezra, after they had read the law, looked out to see the people’s hearts breaking, and their weeping, and realized that even though their conviction and guilt is right – that they haven’t grasped the whole truth of what was just read in the scriptures. They didn’t understand the whole story!
“Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.’ So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’” (Nehemiah 8:10-11)
They were saying, “Listen everyone! I know you’re heart is broken because you have seen your sin… but you need to remember… this day is holy to God. It is set-apart and special to Him. This is the day where the hearts of His people broke before Him. Where, after such a long time, His people finally figured out how far they were away from Him, and wanted to be different. The children of God finally looked around and saw that they were living in sin and slime and rebellion… and they got up and wanted to come home. And they humbled themselves before Him, and repented, and God is absolutely pleased today!”
I can almost see Ezra rolling back the scroll of the book of Exodus 34:6-7 and saying, “Everyone, remember!
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin….”
…God’s got it all in perfect balance! Your fathers were the ones who rebelled. But you are the thousands who have turned their hearts back to Him and He will forgive you. To you He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and will always be faithful to you. Do not grieve today, but give thanks! ‘The Joy of the Lord is your strength!’ He has joy because of you, and will share that joy with you!
You can’t have God’s joy when you are still in your sin. It’s impossible. That kind of radical freedom, absolute peace, and powerful, overflowing love is only possible when God gets a hold of your heart, forgives your sins, cleanses you from your unrighteousness, and sets you on the straight path that leads to life and eternity with Him! Do not let grief be the end of this day! No, know that because of your repentance, your hearts are right with God, and there is great joy and rejoicing in Heaven because of you.”
I hope you know both sides of this today. I hope you have felt the conviction of your sin, and have turned to God for salvation.
Jesus was the final sacrifice of the old system of the Law. He was the perfect Passover lamb. His blood was shed for your sin and mine. His perfection completed the entirety of the Law of God, and He offers to exchange His righteousness for our guilt and sin. I hope you’ve felt conviction and guilt and shame – and that you know what it’s like to be forgiven and purified and made new in the name of Jesus Christ.
I hope you have wept over your sin – and now know that the Joy of the Lord is your strength!
A Real Thanksgiving
And now we come to the even better news. What is the proper response when you finally realize all of this is true? What should happen when you finally figure out that the burden of your sins, your condemnation to hell, has been lifted from you, atonement has been made by Jesus for your soul, God is your Father once again, and you are His forever and no one can take that away? What’s the right response?
The right response is to have Thanksgiving Dinner! Verse 12, “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”
That word “because” is the most important word in that sentence. When these people sat down to eat that day, they had a real thanksgiving dinner. They didn’t do it out of tradition. It wasn’t because it was on the calendar. They didn’t just get the good wine, order a turkey, and invite everyone over because they wanted to be with their family. They did it “because they had understood the words that were declared to them”.
Words of life. Words of hope. Words that changed the way they saw themselves, the world, and their God forever. Words that drew them into a brand new relationship with their Father in Heaven that they hadn’t had for years.
We need to do the same thing. Did you know that the original act of parliament from January 31, 1957, which created the Thanksgiving holiday in Canada says this:
“A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed … to be observed on the 2nd Monday in October.”
It was started as a day to thank God for His abundant blessings to us.
So let me encourage you that when you come into the Thanksgiving season, that you do it with a mind towards the grace God has shown us in Jesus Christ. He loved the world so much that He sent His one and only son, that whoever would believe in Him wouldn’t have to die in their sins… but would be able to have eternal life with Him forever. And He walks with us throughout our entire life, and promises to never leave us nor forsake us, no matter what.
Praise God that it’s not about how good we are, but how good He is. It’s not about how much we punish ourselves, it’s about the punishment He took for us on the cross. It’s not about how religious we are, because religion without Jesus only leads to death. Those who understand this have the most reason to give thanksgiving because they have experienced the resurrection of their souls – they have gone from death to life.
I hope that’s true for you. I hope you have admitted your sin and turned to Jesus. Today is the day of salvation. And a day to begin giving real thanks.
Do you know what this is? It’s quite famous and has been around for over 100 years. Millions and millions of people have seen this, probably including yourself. Now can you identify it? Of course you can. Interesting isn’t it? When people go to the Louvre in Paris, not too many even see the frame, do they?
Brad Paisley has a song called “Mona Lisa” which is all about a man who knows that when him and his girl walk into a room, no one is looking at him – and he’s ok with that. In fact, he’s not just ok with it, he’s thankful. The chorus goes, “I feel like the frame that gets to hold the Mona Lisa and I don’t care if that’s all I ever do.”
John the Baptist could have written that. He’s willing to be the frame that few people remember, so that people can see Jesus. And in his life is a message for all of us.
We live in a world consumed with a lust for fame. We have “Reality TV” shows that turn regular people (not really that regular, actually) into celebrities. Almost everyone has a camera phone and can immediately upload any moment of their life so their “followers” can see and immediately comment on what they are doing or eating. People on YouTube are all looking for how they can become the next viral sensation by doing something funny or dangerous. We have dozens of magazines dedicated to following celebrities – what they wear, where they vacation, what their family is doing, who they are dating. We are a society of fame junkies willing to do almost anything – even lewd, offensive or idiotic things – trading pieces of their soul so they can get the attention of strangers for only moments. And when the fame starts to slip, they do even more lewd, even more offensive, more damaging and more idiotic things to keep it.
But living to pursue fame – wanting to be the Mona Lisa so much that you won’t accept being the frame – destroys people. It destroys relationships and lives.
Yes, You Have a Pride Problem Too
Some might be tuning out thinking that you don’t have “a desire to be famous”, but we all struggle with the root problem – which is pride.
- There are some who have a messiah complex, wanting to help and fix everyone and everything around you, feeling guilty when you can’t help – and that’s a pride problem because your trying to do Jesus’ job.
- Some want to be known as the completely self-reliant, able to stand on your own, even able to dole out your riches to the less fortunate –you are the one who feeds people, you sustain the world by your own power and might – and that’s a pride problem because you’re trying to be God.
- Some want to be the Creator, the one who is so clever and smart and wonderful and creative. You want them to come to have your cooking, your art, your writing, your poetry, your garden, your lawn. You want people to look to you to as the fount beauty and joy. You want to be Jesus.
- Some want to be the final authority. You want to have control, know everything that’s going on, have a say on everything that happens, and it all must run through you. And when someone doesn’t ask what you want you get mad because you’re not getting your say. God help anyone who would disagree with you. You want authority over people, telling them what is best – and that’s Jesus’ job.
- Some want to be worshipped and adored, so you perform, and dress up, and put on your signature scent, place yourself at the centre of attention. You want what belongs to Jesus alone.
- Some want to be the fount of all wisdom and knowledge, above all in their intelligence and opinion. You know you’re smarter, more educated and wiser than anyone else, and so everyone should come to you with their questions. In other words, you want to be prayed to, and you want to answer those prayers with your own mind. You want to be Jesus.
And every one of those things are ways that we live life trying to be the Mona Lisa and not the frame. And we can learn a lot about that from John the Baptist about how important it is that we learn to accept life as the frame.
A Life Set Apart
John had known his role since birth. His father Zechariah had been told by an angel, while standing in the temple of God, that John would be set aside for a great work. The angel said,
“And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:14-17)
For his entire life, by God’s decree, John was to be limited. From birth there would be things that he wasn’t allowed to do. His life would be different, and the way he lived it would reflect that. He wouldn’t be allowed to do the things that others could do. He wouldn’t live the way others lived. He would be powerfully used by God, filled with the Holy Spirit, great in word and deed, but only when he submitted himself to God. He committed himself to never drinking wine, and as an adult, went even further to committing himself to living as an Essene – a Jewish sect with strict rules about living simply and following God wholeheartedly. They lived in the deserts, made oaths of loyalty to God and one another, to hate wickedness and love truth, obey the elders, be honest with each other and be fiercely loyal to the exact words of scriptures. A new follower wasn’t even allowed to eat until he took the oaths.
They would sell what they had and give it to a common storehouse, spend their days working and studying the scriptures and other important books, and most didn’t have a family. If you broke with the laws, you were expelled from the group which usually meant you would starve to death in the desert.
John chose to live with this group not because he was an extremist or a fanatic, but so that he could concentrate on God and the mission God gave him. He gave up everything for the sake of the call.
Submitting To the Word of God
And it wasn’t just in His life that John the Baptist submitted himself to God. He also limited his message to only speaking what God wanted him to say. When he confronted Herod, it wasn’t by his own words, but by the words of God. He was a powerful, influential preacher, with a strong message, but the message wasn’t his – it was given to him.
He placed himself under the Word of God, and that gave him the strength and conviction to proclaim such a hard message to so many different groups. He knew the words of scripture, and knew God’s requirements of His people. And therefore, not in his own voice, and not by his own wisdom, and not in his own anger, but with God’s, he stood before the Pharisees and Sadducees – the religious elite of his day – and call them a “brood of vipers” who needed to repent of their sin. He stood before the crowds and commanded them to give up their comfort to care for one another. He stood before the powerful tax collectors and commanded them to be honest in their work. He stood before armed Roman Soldiers and told them not to steal and lie, and to be content with their wages. Knowing his message was not his own, but was from God, was why he could stand before King Herod and say, “You were married to one woman, lusted after another man’s wife, divorced your own, and took his. That’s sin and you need to repent!”
They weren’t his words, but were the words of God. Not because he was a prophet, but simply because he had studied the scriptures and was willing to open his mouth against sin.
We are sorely lacking in both those categories today. We lack people who understand the scriptures well enough to actually know what they say, and we lack people with the courage and conviction to actually stand up and tell people what it says. We care too much for our own opinions and our own comfort. We worry too much about what people will think, and not enough about what God thinks. And so many believers, and many churches, are quiet, weak, afraid and defeated.
Let’s talk application. There are of similarities between how John the Baptist lived, and how we are meant to live. We talked about this last week, so I’m not going to rehash it, but let’s remember that we too have a high calling and are meant to live differently.
Listen to what Peter writes to the church in 1 Peter 2:9-12:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”
He uses very specific language to describe who Christians are and how Christians should live. We are “chosen”, “royal”, and “holy”. That means we are like John the Baptist — set apart, different than the world. God picked us, you and me, to be His own people – a special group of His own choosing. Just like John the Baptist, before we were born, we were set apart to be His. (Rom 8:29)
The Apostle Peter then tells us why we have been set apart – “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you”. Same mission, same message, as John the Baptist. Not our words, His words. Our mission isn’t to promote ourselves and share our message, but to promote Jesus and share His message. We are not to “proclaim the excellencies” of our way of life, our church, or even our faith – but to proclaim the glory and excellencies of God.
- We are the medium, He is the message.
- We’re the envelope, He’s the letter.
- We’re the radio, He’s the signal.
- We’re the web-browser, He’s the internet.
- We’re the frame, He’s the Mona Lisa.
If people are seeing only us, then we’re not doing it right.
This hits home to me as I watch more and more ministry and secular leaders flame out around us. We all know about the people who are disqualifying themselves though sexual sin by having affairs, getting caught with porn, or doing foolish things like taking digital-pictures of themselves in compromising positions and hoping it never gets seen. And we know about the ones who are disqualifying themselves because of their love for money and they get caught with their hands in the cookie jar. We’re seeing that in industry, government and in the church. But one sin that seems to fly under the radar, and is just as disqualifying as money or sex for the Christian minister….
Some of you know who Mark Driscoll is and others of you don’t. He is mega-church pastor from Seattle Washington who has had a very dramatic effect on my life. I’ve been listening to his sermons for my entire career, subscribe to his blog, follow him on facebook, listen to his conferences, have bought almost all his books, and listen to his podcasts. I’ve jokingly called him my “patron saint” because of the effect he’s had on my life and ministry.
He’s known for his strong, straightforward, biblical leadership and preaching style. He’s edgy, media savvy, incredibly intelligent, has a near-photographic memory and can recall large portions of books and scripture at will, is evangelistically minded, biblically driven, and totally sold out to Jesus. A sermon that would take me 20 hours to prepare only takes him 2 hours.
But in the past 2 months, I’ve watched as Driscoll’s ministry has latterly fallen apart in front of him and the rest of the world. He and his church were rebuked and then removed from the church network that he started. He had to cancel the conference he started. His books have been pulled from shelves. He’s been accused and brought up on official charges by dozens of pastors that he’s worked with in the past, and who currently work for him. And just in the past week, he’s been asked to step down as pastor of the church for an indefinite period of time.
Now, I’m not going to stand up here and claim that I know what’s going on in a church 4500 kilometers away. I only know the details that I’ve seen in the news and from statements released by Driscoll and the church. But what seems very clear is that his fall didn’t come because of sexual or financial sin, but because of pride.
The accusations that have been leveled at Driscoll are all about him getting too big in his own mind and then harming those around who challenged him.. I have no doubt that he places himself under the authority of Jesus, but what caused such huge controversy and destruction in his ministry, is his huge ego. He wasn’t held accountable enough by the people around him, his pride inflated, and he started to believe he was the whole show. He lashed out verbally against his elders, fellow pastors, and other people online. He used his amazing intellect and speaking ability to crush the spirits of people around him with insults. He plagiarized people’s work calling it his own, misappropriated church funds, and consolidated power so he couldn’t be questioned. His conduct has been called “ungodly and disqualifying” and “spiritually abusive” – but it wasn’t sex or money that got him – it was his prideful character. (Sources: 1 2 3 4)
Over and over and over God says in scripture that “pride goes before destruction.” (Prov 16:8; 16:5; Jeremiah 20:23; James 4:6). On the list in proverbs of things that God hates, number one is “haughty [prideful] eyes.” (Prov 16:16) And right now, because of his unchecked pride, Driscoll is sitting at home, his church in agony, his ministry crumbling, the people around him broken hearted, and his church, his followers, and people like me are bewildered and depressed.
Yes, I Have a Pride Problem Too
And this hits me extra hard because pride is a daily struggle for me too. I fear that one day I too will be disqualified – not because I’m going to cheat on my wife or steal from the offering plate, but because of my character. That list I gave you of ways that you can be prideful are all problems for me. I struggle with all of those.
I fight against accountability too much. I spend too much time thinking about what others think of me. I am drawn to puff myself up through social media. I like it far too much when people “like” and “share” the things that I post online. I think too much about who will hear me, how far my voice will carry, how cool and creative I’m being, and not nearly enough about what God thinks of what I’m saying and doing. I spend way too much time thinking about success and not even close to enough time considering whether I am being obedient in the moment.
And, if left unchecked, if left unaccountable, if not brought under the Lordship of Jesus, if not held accountable by the elders, the church and my wife, and without God’s daily provision of grace, humility and self-control, I will one day lose my ministry. I will lose my voice. I will lose my testimony. I will be like so many of the kings in the bible who start out ok, but don’t finish well. I know that. And it scares me all the time.
But it’s not just ministers that run this risk, is it? It’s everybody. You’ve heard it before – “Character is king.” This is a mistake we all make – to care too much about what we are like on the outside, and not enough about who we are on the inside. This isn’t a new message, but it is an important one – character is king and pride kills our character.
He Must Increase But I Must Decrease
At one point John’s disciples came to him concerned that Jesus was making more disciples and baptizing more people than he was. This is when many people would panic. John’s ministry was shrinking! Someone else was getting the glory! John’s fame was decreasing! There’s a new guy down the street and everyone’s going to Him! John, John, what are we going to do? You’ll be out of a job!
“And they came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.’ John answered, ‘A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.’” (John 3:26-30)
If there is one line that summarizes the life and ministry of John the Baptist, that’s it: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” And it was the reason that he was so mightily used. That’s why he could live simply and stay committed to God’s will.
He lived to bring glory to the Son of God. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” He was sent to “prepare the way” for Jesus, and He lived that way. He knew he wasn’t the main show – he was the opening act. He wasn’t the movie he was the trailer. He wasn’t the meal, he was the appetizer.
The Gospels all introduce John as the forerunner, the one who “prepared the way”. He is there to gather a crowd, get them warmed up, introduce Jesus, kick off His full-time ministry, pass along some of His followers, and then get out of the way. His job wasn’t to be on stage – it was to prepare the stage for someone else. That’s what we’re here for too.
And when people started to think he was the Christ, he made absolutely sure they knew he wasn’t. In Luke 3:15-16 it says,
“As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ, John answered them all, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.'”
When people started to admire him for being such a great frame, he always pointed them back to the picture. “Don’t look at me – look at Him! If you’re looking at me, you’re going to miss everything!”
Imagine flying a friend to Paris, getting a cab to the Louvre, standing in line, fighting the huge crowd to get to front, finally getting to the viewing spot, and only being allowed your 15 second glance before you are shuffled off so others can see. – And then you go outside for some fresh air and ask your friend, “So, what did you think of the Mona Lisa?”. How hard would you smack them if their answer was, “Oh, I have no idea! I didn’t even see it. I was too busy looking at the pretty frame around it.”?
Now let’s get even more ridiculous. Imagine taking your friend, flying to Paris, getting your cab to the Louvre, fighting the crowd and getting to the front only to find that the curator has decided to take down the Mona Lisa and leave the frame. Would you be upset? Of course you would! No one comes to see the frame!
And here’s the unpopular message that you need to be told: Your life will be better if you realize that you are the frame and Jesus is the picture. If you get that confused, and try to live to be the Mona Lisa, you are going to be miserable.
There are too many people living today who refuse to be the frame – they want the glory that only God deserves. They want to be the Saviour, they want to be the Word, they want to be the Creator, they want to be the final authority, they want to be worshipped, they want to be the one that sustains the world with their own might, they want to be the fount of knowledge. They want to be Jesus. But living and trying to be Jesus is not only a miserable way to live – it’s foolish! You’ll never outshine God. He will always be the greatest! One day, the scriptures promise that every knee will bow – yours included! And worse, it’s demonic. It’s pride! It’s the path to destruction!
If you ever feel indispensable, remember John the Baptist. Our lives will be infinitely better if we figure out that it’s not about me, or you, or our church, or our plans – it’s about Jesus. We exist to follow Him, worship Him, obey Him, serve Him, and bring glory to Him. He’s the only one worthy of it. I’m not, you’re not, no one is.
And if that bugs you, then you have a pride problem. If it bugs you that you’re not the centre, you’re not getting your way, you’re not getting what you want, you’re not who everyone turns to, you’re not in charge, you’re not the focus – then you’ve got a pride problem – and it’s going to lead to your destruction.
In John 1:19-23 it says,
“…when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, “I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.’”
That’s our answer too. John was content with his role. “No, don’t think I’m something special – I’m not Elijah. No, I’m not the Messiah. I’m not some great prophet. You know what I am? I’m just a voice yelling a message – Jesus is coming. That’s what I am. Don’t concentrate on me, you should be worried about Jesus.”
That’s what our lives should say too, in everything we do – whether that’s at work, or at home, at school, playing with our kids or grandkids, it should all point to Jesus. That’s why Paul can say in Colossians 3:7,
“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”