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September 3, 2016

Do Not Fall for Idols

Speaker: John McLarty

Audio Recording:


Sermon manuscript (preliminary) for Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists

For Sabbath, September 3, 2016.
Texts: Deuteronomy 4:20-29, Acts 17:22-29
A few years ago I received a phone call. “John, can you lend me a thousand dollars. I need to fly to Dubai to meet someone who wants to donate to my ministry.”
Freddy needed the money. He had been a minister and lost his job. Since then he had been eking out a very meager existence. He had set up a non-profit and raised a few dollars to support his work, but he was hungry and needed money.
Now, in answer to his prayer, he had gotten connected with someone through the internet who wanted to donate to his ministry. This mystery donor was a very wealthy man whose headquarters was in Dubai. He was prepared to make a contribution of upwards of $20,000, but he wanted Freddy to meet him in Dubai to talk over the details.
So, Freddy begged, was there any way I could spot him the thousand dollars for a plane ticket?
I still laugh at myself for how long it took me to say, No. I liked Freddy so much and I so wanted good things for him that I entertained the idea for a while. Fortunately, my wife was more clear-minded. As soon as she heard about it, she indignantly said, “Thou shalt not bow down to any idol!” Well, she didn’t say exactly those words. But it meant the same thing.
Wealthy Middle Eastern donors do not seek out poor preachers in Florida as avenues for their charity.
Freddy was participating in his own deception. He wanted it to be true, so even though it was patently bogus to anyone with a grain of sense, he was prepared to believe—and to be scammed.
It is not just poor people who are seduced by the idol of fabulous wealth. A friend who was quite comfortable financially lost everything he had chasing the promise of an income in the billions of dollars. From some distance away, the illegitimacy of the investment scheme was crystal clear. But up close, staring the promise of Bill Gates-sized wealth in the face—my friend could not resist. He bowed and in bowing lost everything.
Against this kind of allure, we need the sturdy, uncompromising, emphatic word of the command: Do not worship idols.
The value of this command is not that it brings some new information. The problem with idols is not that they are so tricky. The problem with idols is our hunger to be deceived. The command simply distills what we already know. And what our brothers and sisters know. And our friends know. And our parents know. In regard to money, Do not worship idols is an ancient way of expressing our modern proverb, If it’s too good to be true, it’s too good to be true. Sometimes even after doing due diligence fraud happens. People lose money. And all investing carries some measure of risk.
But when easy money is dangled in front of us, beware. Do not bow. Don’t fall for an idol.
There are all kinds of other metaphorical idols, seductive promises of well-being and happiness. In working on this sermon, I made lists of idols. I imagined clever ways to illuminate our tendencies toward idolatry. Then I turned to the story of Jesus and his test against the allure of idolatry. And I deleted my list. Because we cannot cure idolatry in the long run by labeling idols.
In the Gospel, Jesus ministry begins with a three-part test. Three great temptations, three invitations to idolatry. In the first the devil invites Jesus to turn stones into bread. “Use your magic. I dare you!”
Jesus refuses.
In the second test, the devil invites Jesus to leap from a some high place on the temple down into the courtyard, counting on angels to cushion his fall, and thus proving his specialness. Jesus refused. Of course.
Then there came the straight-forward idolatry test. The devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promised, “Bow to me and I will give you all of this.”
Jesus answered, “It is written, Worship God and God only.”
Note, Jesus did not quote the negative version of the commandment: Do not fall for idols. He quoted a positive version: Worship God and God only.
Sometimes we need the cold, hard slap of the negative commandment to wake us up, to shake us free from the seductive allure of an idol at a moment of crisis. But the command doesn’t tell us which way to go. It does not provide much guidance. Don’t go there . . . okay. Which direction shall I go? The command, Do not fall for idols, doesn’t say.
But the version of the command Jesus quoted does give direction.
Worship God. Give your attention to God. Admire God. Adore God. Contemplate God. Meditate on God. Let the bright glory of God’s goodness and generosity, God’s benevolence and affection, hold your vision and shape your soul.
Through contemplation of the divine glory holiness will become natural to us. Truth and courtesy will be our normal way of speaking. Generosity and kindness will be our instinctive way of being. Forgiveness will be habitual. The more we give our attention to the glory of God, the more our own characters will be radiant with divine goodness.
And this is our ambition. We want to be a holy people, a people like God.
Worship—private, personal contemplation and our gathering here at church—turns our eyes toward God and that habitual vision shapes our souls.
Last Sunday, about 6 p.m. at the end of a long run, I stepped out of the woods onto the shoulder of Highway 410 only to find my way blocked by six or seven bicycles sprawled on the ground between the trailhead and my car. Among the bicycles sat a woman and a guy. The woman’s legs were dirt splattered. The guy’s shirt was wet with sweat and grime.
We fell into easy conversation. They had gone up the Palisades Trail and then down the Ranger Creek Trail, about fifteen miles with 3500 feet of elevation gain.
Which is crazy. I’ve hiked the Palisades Trail dozens of times. It is no place to ride a bicycle. It has rocky places where the trail drops two or three feet over the boulders. It is crisscrossed with roots. At one point the trail climbs a hundred feet up a stairway built on top of a massive log. What were these people thinking, peddling bicycles up a trail like that? Even the bikers themselves agree this was a pretty crazy trail. Here is the description of the trail from the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance web site:
“Palisades is fairly technical single-track with exposure. The upper section features breathtaking views off a sheer cliff face, and the middle section is somewhat similar to Tiger Mountain’s Preston trail – fast, flowing descent with lots of roots. The lower section is an extreme switchback-laden, rock-garden-riddled, and steep wooden staircase hike-a-bike (some describe it as a bit of a buzz-kill). Well drained throughout, buff and smooth up top, rugged and rooty in the middle, and rocky and loose on the bottom.”
“Ranger Creek is a great trail to ride. Fairly technical single-track with exposure, beautiful forests, good climbing, fun descents, technical sections and crazy switchbacks that will challenge the most advanced riders.” Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance web site.
Why would anyone drive from Seattle all the way to out here to ride a bicycle on a crazy trial like this? A couple of reasons come to mind. These people hang out with other people who dream of riding their bicycles in crazy places. They hear stories about crazy rides. They watch YouTube videos about sick bicycle rides. They tell their own stories of crashes and triumphs. They show off their scars. And they cherish the exhilaration of that bombing down a trail and making a two foot drop without crashing.
The bikers I was talking to had done the Palisades Ranger Creek loop and it wasn’t enough. So they had loaded their bikes in the truck and driven up Corral Pass Road to the trail head there. Then they rode the Dalles Ridge Trail to the top of Ranger Creek for another fast, scary ride down.
These two were guarding the bikes while others in the group were driving back up to Corral Pass to retrieve their truck.
When I expressed amazement that these people would ride these trails, I was merely pretending. I’m not really amazed. It is what I expect. If you know people in the mountain biking community you know these kinds of exploits are common. This is what they live for.
They “worship” mountain biking mastery. That is, they give it attention, frequent, admiring attention. Failure, crashes, bonking—that is collapsing from complete exhaustion—are accepted as simply necessary costs for pursuing their grand ambition.
This is how it is for us.
Our ambition is holiness. We want to peddle the bicycles of our lives the way God peddles his bicycle. We aim to love our enemies the way God loves his enemies.
We aspire to forgive as God forgives.
We want to be as generous as God, as creative as God.
We tells stories of integrity and honesty, of altruism and compassion, of brilliant creativity and faithful service.
Of course, in any endeavor this bold, this exalted, there will be crashes and failures. When that happens we pick each other up and help each other to get back on our bicycles and start peddling again.
We worship. We give admiring, adoring, envious attention to the glory and goodness of God. We aim our lives at divine love. We build our resistance to the allure of idols by devoting ourselves to worship.
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