Monday, January 27, 2014

Becoming Our Idols
It was review time before proceeding with the morning's lesson.  This was my favorite part of teaching four and five year old Sunday School--seeing what was sticking in their young minds and what was still out of their grasp.  Two months later, I was still getting "Ahaz" or "Ahab" as an answer for "the prophet whose name starts with an A" question.  Apparently, those two kings' evil nature (and buzzing zzzzzz sound at the end of one of their names) made them much more memorable than Amos' uneventful watching after mindless sheep.
After quickly reviewing the past few months' progression through the Old Testament wherein Israel fell away from God who then sent prophet after prophet to warn them to repent and return to Him, I asked my group of ten what I thought was a simple question.  

"What is an idol?"

My youngest son blurted out an answer without raising his hand.  "A rock."

My mouth opened to speak before shutting again.  It wasn't the answer I expected.  My co-teacher and I looked at each other, grinned and shrugged our shoulders with a "yeah....that's right.  But...." We then proceeded to explain again how anything could be an idol.

Still, I couldn't fault my son.  Even Google seems to agree.  Plus, I, too, had grown up believing that idols were fashioned with one's hands, such as a metal statue of Budda or an Egyptian goddess carved of stone.  Even as an adult, I still have to fight against such a definition of the word idol as it is easier to pin down than the truth that anything and everything can become an idol if it takes the place of God in my life.

The "anything-ness" of the definition is too nebulous for the black-and-white mind of a four year old to grasp. And in all honesty, it's that vagueness that still bothers this grown up who would just prefer a simple definition that she could easily follow or not follow, but at least she would be certain of which was which.

The Psalmist writes, 

"The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
The work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, but they do not speak;
Eyes they have, but they do not see;
They have ears, but they do not hear;
Nor is there any breath in their mouths.
Those who make them are like them;
So is everyone who trusts in them." (Ps. 135: 15-18).

While the Psalmist does speak of idols made of silver and gold, the broader definition of idolatry as anything that is placed before God--has the same conclusion--"Those who make them are like them.

In the above passage, we can glean two truths about idols: (1) we craft idols in our lives and (2) we become like our idol.  

First, you and I may not bow before idols of silver or gold, but for every idol we do metaphorically bow to each day, it is crafted by us.  That's the reason something like "exercise" or "eating healthily" or even "sports" can become an idol to some yet not to others--we individually craft that idol in our own lives.  Pride?  Self-centeredness? A love of material things?  Whatever is our idol, we develop it as the ultimate end and choose to serve it, putting it first before God.

Secondly, and more frightening, is the knowledge that whatever our idol is, we become like as well.

In short, we become like what we worship. If I idolize my reputation above all else, could that keep me from ministering to someone God puts in my path?  If I worship the pursuit of the American Dream, could that leave me for not enough time for other ministry opportunities God would have me be apart of?

The Psalmist is clear--if I worship and idolize anything other than God, then that is what I will become like.  Instead of becoming a living reflection of Jesus, we will reflect something else--our idol--to the world around us.

Paul reminds us of what we will be if our focus is on Christ alone: "And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18). 

When we rid our lives of idols, and when our worship is of God alone, we will become like Him.  Anything else, and we're transforming into something unGodly.

This week when you think of idols, remember these two things: To idolize something is to worship it.  To worship it is to become it.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Names We Call Ourselves

It was just another day with another child thinking he could lawyer me into changing my mind about some minor decision I don't even remember.  As usual, I had tried the appeal to reason, and just as equally typical, my words were all to no avail. 

In the end, I resorted to that oft used and always hated phrase by both kids and parents: "Because I'm your mother, and God gave you to me to raise.  That's why.  End of discussion."

And there it was--mother, a title I only use for myself when communicating firmness and authority.  It is a title that means no argument, so move along. 

When my children are hurt, I am "mommy."  When I've done something really amazing like transform a closet into a cave for indoor camping, I'm "mom."  But when it's serious time, I'm always "mother."

These self-presented names and titles also differ in my interactions with others beyond my own family.  To someone in a professional setting, I sell myself as "Jennifer Dorhauer" with a handshake.  To my friends, I am just Jennifer.  To the hay customers, I am "Mary and Doug's daughter-in law."  To anyone at my parents' church, I am "John and Karen's daughter."  To my online students, I am "Mrs. Dorhauer."  To my four year olds in Sunday School, I'm "Ms. Jennifer."

In other words, my name changes depending on how I'm trying to present myself to a particular audience.  Interestingly enough, in Scripture, God does the same thing, presenting Himself in different ways throughout different books of the Bible. 

In the book of Isaiah, God presents Himself by one name twenty-seven times--"the Holy One of Israel."  While He most certainly uses this phrase elsewhere in Scripture, He doesn't do so with such great regularity as He does here.

And just like me when I'm referring to myself by different titles, God, too, intends to communicate something through His name choice.  To understand this choice, we first need to understand His audience.  The book of Isaiah is written to His people, Israel, a message to His children who have not heeded His word.  In verse two, He says of the children of Israel that they are "Sons I have reared and brought up, But they have revolted against Me" (Is. 1:2).

Last week's article explored how the Israelites denied both God's authority over them and His providing for them. God further describes how sinful His people have become, saying they are "People weighed down with iniquity, Offspring of evildoers, Sons who act corruptly!  They have abandoned the LORD, They have despised the Holy One of Israel, They have turned away from Him" (Is. 1:4).

Here, God refers to Himself  as "the Holy One of Israel," the first of twenty-seven times in this book.

The first half of the title--"the Holy One"--is seeking to highlight just how unholy and detestable Israel is in God's sight.  God is choosing this name to hold up their sin next to His holy light, an action that makes their sin appear as dark as it truly is.

In the above passage, God uses the inflammatory words like iniquity, evildoers, corruptly, and despised to describe Israel's sin; notice He doesn't use words like mistake or indiscretion or even life choice.  Instead, His word choice highlights the true nature of sin.

Consider how different this is compared to how we treat sin.  When it is our sin, we try to excuse it away as "not that bad."  Before we know it, our sin is no longer black but merely dark grey.  And if we hold up our sin beside someone else's sin, we might even decide ours is really only off-white or beige.  But in truth, our attempts to rationalize the blackness of our sin away into fifty shades of grey is a lie we tell ourselves. 

All we have to do is hold up the paint chip with our sin on it next to the one depicting God's Holiness, and the black becomes its blackest.

In this way, God continuously gets in the reader's face with just how holy, Holy, HOLY He is until our sin appears as dark as it actually is to God, until we perceive just how abhorrent our sin is to this Holy, pure, spotless God we serve.

A few verses later, God expounds upon the details of Israel's sin: "How the faithful city has become a harlot, She who was full of justice...But now murderers....Your rulers are rebels And companions of thieves; Everyone loves a bribe And chases after rewards. They do not defend the orphan, Nor does the widow's plea come before them" (Is. 1:21-23).

Consider these details in relation to the second half of God's title "of Israel."  Using this reference, God is reminding the children of Israel that they still belong to Him.  Although those in the "faithful city" of Jerusalem mentioned above have now become a "harlot" serving all nature of false gods, God is still the God of Israel.

Even though they have "revolted" against God and refused to acknowledge Him as their provider in verse 2, He is still their God.  Even though He must turn His back on them as He doles out judgment as only a Holy God must do, He is still their God.

It is as if He is begging them to return, reminding them that no matter how dark their sin is before Him, He is still their God who will forgive any who repent and return to Him.

Such is a good lesson for us all to remember. 

Our sin is dark as the darkest night to God.  It is detestable and abhorrent in His sight.  BUT, for those who are His children, He will always be their God, waiting with open arms for them to turn away from the darkness of their sin in repentance and claim the inheritance waiting for them as Sons of the Holy One of Israel.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Are You Smarter than a Donkey?

No, I wasn't buying the stuffed bird for her with my money, no matter how cute, how fluffy, and how female it was.  And no, she didn't have any money left, so this wasn't up for discussion.  Period.

My five year old daughter's face screwed up in a serious pout when I pulled from her grasp the disputed red sphere (complete with yellow bow and dark black eyelashes) and stuffed it back on the shelf.  As if on cue, out popped the lower lip, down, down, DOWN went the corners of her mouth, and those large brown eyes glistened with confirmation of how upset she was.

Unlike the boys who continued to be indecisive in their spending of what monies they earned from the selling of a few unused toys before Christmas, my daughter had already spent every last cent of her earnings, all within two weeks' time.  Granted, what she wanted cost more (a "pony house" for her Oma & Opa-gifted American Girl doll and horse), but still, she was flat broke and finding it was hard to watch her brothers shop without being able to buy anything, herself.

This mother, though, wasn't having having it.  Fresh off an extraordinarily blessed Christmas full of much more than my daughter either needed or deserved, I demanded she tuck that lip back in and better not cry.   Right in the middle of Walgreens, I explained how her attitude showed how ungrateful her heart was.

Ingratitude.  It's one of the things that grates most on this parent's nerves.  Perhaps that's because it is something I find myself fighting against with ever fiber of my being.  In our "more, more" culture, I strive to be content with what is and not what could be.

What's more, I have learned how offensive ingratitude is to the Lord.

The Lord says of Israel: "Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master's crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand....They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged" (Is. 1:2-3, 4b).

The ox and the donkey are not the smartest of animals.  In fact, they're just plain dumb.

As Matthew Henry says, they are "not only brute creatures, but of the dullest sort; yet the ox has such a sense of duty as to know his owner and to serve him, to submit to his yoke and to draw in it; the ass has such a sense of interest as to know has master’s crib, or manger, where he is fed, and to abide by it; he will go to that of himself if he be turned loose."*

In short, these two dumb creatures know (1) how to submit to their Creator and (2) Who provides for them.

Yet, in the above verses, the nation of Israel is condemned because of its failure to do what comes naturally to God's most base creatures--(1) submit to God as Master of them as their Creator and (2) give thanks to God for His constant provisions.

Insubordination and Ingratitude. 

We don't like to take on any yoke, even if God says, "For My yoke is easy and My burden is light" (Matt. 11:30).  We want to live like children in a fantasy world of freedom where we're not subordinate to anyone, where we are always free to do as we wish, not owing anyone for anything because everything we have is ours from our own labors.

Such fantasies are just that--make-believe fairy tales.  No matter how we try to deny it, we are forever indebted to God as our Creator.  If we choose to not serve Him, that just means we're serving someone/something else.  Total freedom is simply not an option.  And no matter how much we must labor for our provisions, He is still the ultimate provider of all.

Submission, gratitude, and thankfulness don't come naturally; they must be an intentional daily pursuit.  Yet, as with most habits, the more we practice, the more second nature it becomes.

What better time to start developing those good habits than today.

*Matthew Henry Complete Commentary