Last week we started looking at the book of Ezra in the Hebrew Scriptures. Ezra is about the restoration of God's people after a long exile.
In 587 BC, the Babylonians completely destroyed Jerusalem after a 30-month siege. They razed Jerusalem to the ground, destroyed the Temple, and took the upper crust of the population to exile hundreds of miles away. This is the low point in all of the Old Testament. It was as if God had turned his back on his people.
But then we get to the book of Ezra. We read that a new king took power, and this king allowed the Jews to return home. More than 40,000 did go home. They walked for four months and finally stood in the rubble of Jerusalem.
What is the first thing you would do?
For three months, they did nothing. They just got their bearings. But after three months, on the holiest month of the year, they came together and stood in the rubble of Jerusalem where the Temple once stood, and they worshiped. Read with me what happened. It's found in Ezra 3:
When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled with one accord in Jerusalem. Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices. Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day. After that, they presented the regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed sacred festivals of the Lord, as well as those brought as freewill offerings to the Lord. On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord's temple had not yet been laid.
The rest of the chapter describes what happened later as they re-instituted worship and laid the foundation for the Temple once again.
Let me ask you a question: if you returned home in those circumstances, why would you make the first thing that you did to worship? Is it just that they were primitive and superstitious people who didn't understand, or is there something deeper here that we need to know? Why would they do this? With everything around them lying in rubbles, why would they devote so much energy to restoring corporate worship?
There's a reason, and the reason is this. We're going to worship something, and it's either going to be an idol or God. That's why they moved so quickly to worship God, because they understood that if they didn't that they would end up worshiping idols instead.
We look at that and think, "How primitive!" And it is primitive. For years in exile, Judah was surrounded by hundreds of idols. Everywhere they turned they were confronted with every kind of idol. They saw the only two choices as worship idols, or worship God. It's binary; it's simple.
Today we believe that we are a little more sophisticated, but today I want you to consider that we really aren't all that different. There was a book review in the New York Times in April about a memoir called Easter Everywhere. It's about the spiritual journey of a woman named Darcey Steinke who lives in Brooklyn. The book describes some of the deep longings of her life.
The reviewer captures in his review the heart of the book, the aha! moment for this woman:
But she nails the central question — of her memoir and perhaps of her life — with an extraordinary quote from Simone Weil. "One has only the choice between God and idolatry," Weil wrote. "If one denies God … one is worshiping some things of this world in the belief that one sees them only as such, but in fact, though unknown to oneself imagining the attributes of Divinity in them."
What that quote is saying is that we are wired to find eternal significance in something. We will give every fiber of our being to someone or something, and whatever that thing is we will worship. We will worship, there is no question about this. The only question is whether we will worship God or an idol.
What is an idol? Here's one definition:
An idol is anything we believe we need, apart from Jesus, to make us happy, satisfied, or fulfilled. An idol arises when we desire something more than we desire Jesus; when we fear things rather than God; when we worship ourselves rather than Christ; when we put our trust in anything other than God; when we serve anything other than Jesus….The things we desire are often good in themselves…If if [a good desire] becomes an inordinate desire, it has become a false god. Even good things become idols when they start to rule our lives. (Gospel Transformation)
What can function as idols in our own lives? Richard Keyes wrote:
An idol is something within creation that is inflated to function as God. All sorts of things are potential idols, depending only on our attitudes and actions towards them…idolatry may not involve explicit denials of God's existence or character. It may well come in the form of an over-attachment to something that is, in itself, perfectly good…An idol can be a physical object, a property, a person, an activity, a role, an institution, a hope, an image, an idea, a pleasure, a hero – anything that can substitute for God.
John Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories. Whenever we value something more than God, we are committing the sin of idolatry. An idol is a substitute for God that one loves and worships and serves rather than the one true God. It is anyone or anything you love or serve in place of God. That means that you can think you're a Christian and believe everything that the Bible says, and still be an idolator. As a Christian it is possible to sincerely profess a love for the true and living God while functionally serving a false God.
Martin Luther said something interesting. He talked about sin. We lie, we stretch the truth, we covet, we lust, we fight. Those are all sins, and we focus a lot of attention on these sins. But Martin Luther suggested that there's a sin beneath the sin. He says that all the ten commandments, when you boil them down, are different expressions of the first commandment: "You shall have no other gods before me." Whenever you sin, it's because you have taken something and made it an idol and put it in God's place. All sins are basically sins of having other gods before God, of worshiping something or someone else than God.
A little girl, maybe 2 or 3 years old, was in a coffee shop feasting on one of those huge lollipops. The father got into one of these conversations with her. "Which do you love more, this dollar or the lollipop?" "The lollipop." He went through a whole list of things. "Which do you love more, the dog or the lollipop?" "Which do you love more, mommy or the lollipop?" "The lollipop!" She didn't even hesitate.
She knew that her mother was the one who really loved her. The lollipop could not feed her, change her, put her to bed. But the beauty of the lollipop was greater than the beauty of her mother at that moment.
We're probably the same. All of us know that God is better than any person in our lives, any relationship, any possession, any achievement. But the beauty of all that surrounds us is greater than the beauty of God at that moment. Without knowing it, we become worshipers of other things besides God. It's dangerous because you can be a "good Christian" and go to church every week and still be an idolator.
The bottom line is that we are all worshipers. We are all either worshiping God or worshiping something or someone else. And whatever we worship defines us. You can worship almost anything – a clean house, a promotion at work, a comfortable life, recognition in our careers, a relationship, a bigger house, more kids, sleep, happiness, gadgets, parents, kids, an iPod, a degree. But ultimately we'll be defined by whatever we worship. If I worship success in a career, I will get all of my identity from my work. If my job goes well, I'll be happy. If I lose my job, I'll lose my identity and be absolutely crushed. If I get my identity from my kids, I'll be happy as long as my kids think I'm a good dad. But the minute my kids don't like one of my decisions, I'll be crushed and defeated. I'll have to find my identity somewhere else instead.
So what do we do about this? We do exactly what they did. We worship. Let me explain.
Tim Keller tells the story of a woman who always had to have a man in her life. She was devastated whenever she didn't have a man, and she was just fine when she had a man.
Eventually she realized that she was making an idol out of men. She began to deal with this, and she went for counseling which did help her. But the counselor suggested that she get a job and build a career for herself. The woman agreed, she needed a job. She didn't argue with that for a minute. But she said, "I think the counselor is getting it wrong. She is asking me to give up men as my idol and instead take up work as my idol. I don't need either men or work as my idol. I need God."
What she realized is that if she was going to have freedom from her need for men to be in her life, giving her approval, she would have to get her identity somewhere else. And it's no use exchanging one type of idolatry for another. The only true place to get our identity is from God. It's only when we truly value God over all other things that we find the freedom that we've been looking for.
Dallas Willard writes, "There is no substitute for simple satisfaction in the Word of God, in the presence of God. That affects all of your actions….The surest guarantee against failure [sin] is to be so at peace and satisfied with God that when wrongdoing presents itself it isn't even interesting. That is how we stay out of temptation."
The only way for the people of Jerusalem to change from serving the idols of the gods around them was to be caught up in true worship of Yahweh and be satisfied in him. The only way for us to be freed from the idols all around us – idols of relationships, achievements, possessions, pleasures – is to be so satisfied in God in our worship that we wouldn't think of finding our satisfaction anywhere else.
That's why Jonathan Wilson is exactly right when he says, "The activity of worship – glorifying and enjoying God – is the central practice of the church…It is this practice that most clearly sets the church apart, that most clearly displays our calling and constitutes the church as a community."
The only antidote to idolatry is worship of the one true God.
And that's why we're coming to the Table this morning. Because we can't do this on our own. The only way we can worship like this is if we get our identity from the one who died for us. It comes from recognizing that we have been saved by sheer grace. We didn't earn it.
And therefore even though we have many good things in our lives, we don't worship them. None of these good things are ultimate things. Instead, we worship the one who loved us while we were still sinners, and has restored us and given us everything including a love that can't be taken away. When we really understand what Jesus has done for us, we'll understand who we are in him and we'll never get our sense of identity from anything else.
So do you want to be restored? Here's the way back. It's not through trying harder or being more moral or religious. It's none of that. You and I will be changed as we turn away from idols and worship the one who gave his life for us. When we worship him we'll be set free from everything that enslaves us and we'll get our identity from the only thing that can never be taken away from us – what Christ has done for us through the gospel.
Lord, we want so desperately to be restored. We really do. We often think that the way to be restored is to try harder or to be more religious or whatever. But thank you that it's none of that.
The way to be changed is to flee from idolatry, and instead to worship the only one who can give us the self-worth and identity we've always longed for. We come to worship you because in you we find everything that we need.
So I pray that you would restore worship of the true God within our hearts. Help us to identify, really identify our idols. We're all worshipers. May we worship you, and you alone. In the name of the one who calls us his own we pray. Amen.