52. Drowning in Unreality

Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 52. Drowning in Unreality

Ex 20:22,23    Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me

Unreal gods: A problem that constantly seemed to face Israel was that of idol worship, which was forbidden by the Lord – yet all the surrounding nations worshipped idols. So why did God forbid it and why is it relevant here? The answer to both questions is that worshiping idols is worshipping something that is unreal. The truth is that ‘gods’ don’t exist, the gods of Athens or Rome that we learn about in history are figments of human imagination, made in the image of fallen human beings. The gods of the nations surrounding Israel were expressions of superstition, unreal, make-believe. Don’t worship what is unreal is the message from heaven.

Facing Unreality: So what does our heading today mean, this ‘drowning in unreality’? It means there is a way of thinking today that is quite unreal and its very presence undermines the way Christians think and opens them up, if not to giving way to temptation, certainly to tolerating a lifestyle and failing to speak into the folly of the ways of the world. So what is the unreality that I am speaking about? It is that portrayed in films, TV ‘soaps’ and videos. There is also the unreality of ‘computer games’. I have mentioned temptation and toleration as two outworkings of this unreality (and I will go on to explain more in a moment) but within that there are two things to be observed. First, the behaviour is unreal and second, the very culture that we are looking at challenges biblical norms.

Considering ‘Soaps’ & ‘Sitcoms’: I hope you are familiar with the terms. Soaps are defined on the internet as follows, “A soap opera is an ongoing drama serial on television or radio, featuring the lives of many characters and their emotional relationships.”  A Sitcom is simply a ‘situation comedy’ based on a fixed group of characters.  The reason they are so pernicious is that they appear every week on TV. The ‘sitcom’ genre usually has a very much lighter feel to them and although infidelity is dealt with, it is in much more light-hearted way. Perhaps that makes it more acceptable.

Two Case Studies: Historically there have been two leading influential series, clearly aimed at the younger generation. The first was ‘Friends’ which ran from September 1994 to May 2004 (10 series) and the group being followed were described as, “not above sticking their noses into one another’s businesses and swapping romantic partners, which always leads to the kind of hilarity average people will never experience – especially during breakups.” That softening comment does nothing to undermine the culture that is conveyed which I will define in a moment. The second is the Big Bang Theory’, running from September 2007 and currently to series 11 in 2018.

The Culture: There are certain characteristics that are common to both of these long-running series: a) they are very funny, b) sex has a high profile and is portrayed as normal among young people, c) sex is distinct from committed relationship and indeed both series show the horror that is experienced when one member of a couple uses the words, ‘I love you’, being seen as words of commitment for which neither of them are clearly ready, d) both series had an almost cult following, especially among the younger generations. Neither series deals with inconveniences such as STD’s, unwanted pregnancies, abortions etc. Sex is problem free.

The deceptions: I would suggest (at the risk of being called a kill-joy by the younger generation) the following follies of this culture:

i) Sex is reduced to a simple pleasure with no unpalatable outworkings (see my last comment above; these ‘inconveniences’ do in fact have a substantial negative impact on modern society).

ii) As sex is separated from love and a committed lasting relationship, such a relationship has clearly become a difficult thing to acquire and the fruit of this is clearly observed in the trials and tribulations of the younger generations, many of whom now despair of the possibility of any lasting, loving, long-term relationship, especially with the ease of divorce in modern western societies being as it is.

iii) Sex is portrayed as easy, and always enjoyable and instantly on demand, and having no negative impact on the relationship, whereas surveys indicate a) many women confess that very often sexual experience is not pleasurable but they have to do it because that is what is done, and it wins affection from the male (both untruths), and b) the realities of tiredness, monthly periods (often suppressed by the pill), feeling unwell etc. etc. mean that one or other partner, in reality,  aren’t feeling like it.

iv) Sex is designed (by God and many psychologists would agree) to be just one strand of a growing relationship, friendship, growing trust and sense of security being others. Putting sex before the others (or even using it as a one-night stand) means that the likelihood of a long-term relationship developing is reduced, as is the possibility of creating a family.

v) Despite all the talk of ‘prevention’, a surprising number of (therefore) unwanted pregnancies take place, creating either the single parent syndrome (with its negatives), or a forced ‘marriage’, or a cohabiting partnership which, by its very nature, has an unstable foundation and often results in the man leaving and we are back to the single-parent syndrome again. There is also the matter of abortions often taken as the norm in this culture.

And in Church? We are often very good at accepting single mothers into the church community but in so-doing we are loath to make negative corrective comments and so our own young people see this as normal for society. It should not be; there are too many negative sides to this for both the mother and certainly the fatherless children. What I observe is an almost casual attitude to these things growing in the church. If we allow this to continue we will be helping the world in undermining the value and benefits of a committed life-long relationship, and of the family unit being a foundation for a safe and secure environment in which children can be raised. Society is very slow to link the growing number of child behavioral problems with family breakdown. If we were honest about these things, our communities would be transformed. We need to talk these things in depth within our church communities, recognizing the unreality ethos we are battling against and carefully revealing the good of God’s design.

Standards generally:   So far, we have talked about the ethos to be countered, and the very folly of the lifestyle, in respect of sex and modern relationships, but I think we should be honestly aware of the impact of various other things coming out of Hollywood. In the US, (not the UK) I have observed many times an inconsistency in believers’ attitudes to certain films. Because C.S.Lewis appears to have such a following in the US, Narnia films and then the Lord of the Rings films and subsequently the Hobbit films are perfectly acceptable. Harry Potter films, by comparison, are abhorred, because ‘witchcraft is bad’. Yes, real witchcraft is, and the manufacturing industry that capitalizes on it, also is, I believe, but no more the industry that exalts in Halloween which certainly has a dark or even ‘black’ background.  But actually, all of these films exalt good over bad and ‘good’ triumphs. (If you want to be really discerning, you will note the difference between the first two HP books and the last ones). And do you watch ‘vampire’ films or TV???? We need to think about this.

But then I found an acceptance in the evangelical community of ‘The Passion’ the worst example of the most extreme, shock-violence possible. Don’t say it happened; so did many other atrocities that you and I (I hope) would abhor if they were on screen. My other horror, on both sides of the water, is of the acceptance of the first of the Hunger Games films  shown to young teenagers. It’s about teenagers murdering other teenagers for public spectacle! I think Paul’s “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things,” (Phil 4:8) would be an overstatement taken out of context if we try to apply it to modern watching, but there is a truth there to be pondered.

An Approach? These days I would never recommend any watching (My own may be wider than some of you, but I would never recommend it). As a young Christian I was wary, having been brought up in my twenties in a strict evangelical mould, of even watching Crocodile Dundee, and I know there are some Christians who never watch any films. Well that is an extreme, but I would prefer it to the ‘watch anything’ extreme. Paul’s advice about not putting stumbling blocks before others (Rom 14:13, 1 Cor 8:9) is worth considering. The balance is, how can I remain aware of the standards being pushed by the world?  A question to be asked is, “If I watch this particular film/TV series, does it fill my mind, give me nightmares, or diminish my steadfast resolve to hold to God’s laws?” i.e. does it undermine my standards?  Accepting the ethos, whether it is to do with sex or the taking of life, is the danger that I believe is undermining the standards of many Christians. Even more, because there is this ‘clash of cultures’, the ‘modern outlook’ of tolerance, I am certain, undermines both the clarity and certainty of the biblical culture, if I may put it like that, in the minds of many. If in doubt, don’t watch.

Personal Guidelines: My own personal guidelines for watching today (while seeking to be an informed commentator) are:

  • Avoid explicit sex on screen which causes images to be retained and thus causes further difficulties of personal management.
  • Avoid constant use of the ‘f’ word or similar for the same reason.
  • Where relationships involve infidelity, remember the folly and the reality, and where there is violence (either don’t watch it or) remember this is manufactured in a studio and unreal. But don’t let it anesthetize you to the horror.
  • If in doubt, don’t watch; there is plenty else to do in life!

Finally, does this aspect of life, diminish the reality of ‘ongoing redemption’ we have been considering? If yes, it’s time for a change.

16. Idols?

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.16.  Idols? You have to be joking!

Isa 40:18    With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?

The subject of idols crops up again and again in the Old Testament. They make us realise that superstition is there lurking in the background of humanity. Solomon wrote of God, He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart,” (Eccles 3:11) yet in a fallen world, that inner searching for something more gets twisted into superstition which was seen again and again in the false religions of the nations that surrounded Israel, and then which found its way into their consciousness and lives. Thus, near the beginning of the book, Isaiah declared, “Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.” (Isa 2:8) Idols (or images) were the tangible expression of idolatry – the worship of idols. The word ‘idols’ occurs 20 times in Isaiah and ‘idol’ 28 times. Now we have moved into this more positive phase of the book, it is used in a derisory manner as the prophet exalts the Lord.

The purpose of verses 18 to 20 might be summarized as ‘don’t compare Him to idols’ and then verses 21 & 22 exalt the Lord, showing how He is so different.

Verse 18: No Comparison! “With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?”  Hey people, Isaiah challenges the people, stop and think about this. Stop and think about what you know about God, and then look at these idols you have around you. Come on now, look at these idols you have, think about how they are made and then stop and think about the Lord. Really, there is no comparison is there!

Verse 19: Idol manufacture: “As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.”  Be honest, you know how an idol is made. You only have to go along to a goldsmith’s workshop and you see how an idol, either wood or cast in metal is made and then overlaid with gold and has silver chains attached to it. Were such chains used to help it down in place in the home, so it couldn’t be easily removed? We don’t know, but the point is that this idol is made by other people.

Verse 20: The process: “A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple.”  Look, he continues, even the very poor who may not be able to afford an image covered in gold or silver, has an idol. Their idol is very basic. They look around for some hardwood that will last and they find someone who can work with wood to shape it and create a basic image for them, something that will last, be stable and not keep falling over. They actually put effort into all these considerations, but they are still very obvious objects, things you can see and things you know exactly how they came about.

This is what Isaiah is pressing in on, the ordinariness of these objects, objects that are man-made and which, therefore, have no life, no power, or ability to change circumstances, change the world. We would never believe such foolish things and yet there are things in twenty-first Western life that may not have the same appearance but to which we give the same credibility. What are the things that we rely upon, what are the things that the world uses as a substitute for God, things we believe can help us survive, things we must hold on to and view as precious, not to be let go of?

A point to ponder. Of what in our lives do we give greater importance than the Lord? Comfort? Pleasure? Success? Appearance? Modern technology? Work? Leisure? These are the modern ‘idols’ that many place first in their lives. These deceive us because there appears no similarity to the things we see ‘pagan peoples’ worship, and we consider ourselves so much more sophisticated, but they are still things that modern Western man puts in front of God. They can be very simple, for even just a person we can exalt and put before God. If we honour and exalt such a figure that they blank out God, they become an idol. I won’t bother to dignify some more scientific atheists by naming them, but they are idols in the minds of some in their ‘followers’.

The worship of ‘self’ or of ‘me’ is an idol, something that replaces God and which we esteem above anything else. Watch the way some journalistic columnists write, above contradiction, claiming the high ground, beyond question, elevating themselves to the position of little gods. Listen to some politicians and you find the same thing.

Now do the same comparison exercise that Isaiah has just done. Does it make sense to make appearance or personal success or pleasure & leisure – or people – the  governing feature of our lives when there is the Lord, the almighty One, standing there with open arms calling us into real relationship? A last thought. You could easily take one of the idols that Isaiah has been talking about and destroy it. What effect would it have had? None, except in the mind of the superstitious idol-worshipper. Now to do a modern comparison, it is probably easier to imagine you are separated off from these possible ‘idols’ we have been thinking about.  Imagine you contract a fatal illness. Suddenly all these things we have listed above become worthless. Success becomes meaningless. Materialism becomes meaningless. Pleasure becomes meaningless. Celebrities and atheistic scientists and politicians become meaningless. The only thing of meaning before you, is life. The threat of its removal suddenly puts everything else in perspective. No our idols may not sit on a shelf, but they are just as insidious if they become substitutes for God – until our life is seriously under threat and then we start thinking sensibly.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please forgive me if I put things or people before you. Please draw my heart. I purpose to make you first before all else.

 

10. Recap 1

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 10. Recap 1

Matt 7:13,14  “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Narrow Road requirement: Jesus’ illustration of the narrow and wide gates reminds us that many people go through the wide gate leading to destruction because the road leading through it is ‘broad’ and unrestricted and people want to do their own thing, ignoring God and running on ‘self’. We observed at the start that going God’s way – the narrow road and narrow gate – requires a dying to self and dying to the old self-centred and godless life, what the majority consider a restricted life, but the more we progressed, the more we saw the reasons why that is necessary.

‘Follow Me’ Requirements: When Jesus called Levi to “Follow Me”, it was a call to trust him, but in following Jesus it was also a call to submit to the sovereignty of God. Why? Very simply because God knows best – and we don’t. In fact it was our failure to think and act rightly that enabled the Holy Spirit to convict us and bring us to repentance. Part of that deal meant us giving up or dying to the old life we had lived.

People Problems:  As we looked further at this, we recognised that our ‘not getting it right before’ also meant not getting it right with people. In fact, if it wasn’t for people, this life would be easy, but the trouble is their ways and wants are different to mine, which can mean conflict, so if I am to walk the Jesus way of peace and harmony, it will mean I have to die to my desires and learn to understand others and have care and compassion for them. If I am to achieve that, I will truly have to die to my wishes.

Facets of Forgiveness: But that led us on to consider the difficult question of forgiveness, both our need for it when we have wronged others and to give it when others seek it of us. Perhaps this is one of the hardest areas where we need to die to self if we are to be like Jesus.

Modern Idols: But then we looked more widely at life and recognised that in our old life, although we would perhaps never countenance wooden images of eastern religions, we did, never the less, exalt people and we did rely upon methods, and both of these to the exclusion of God. Oh yes, idols are still very much alive in our modern society and wherever we put our trust in them, it means we will not be putting our trust in God, and therefore we cease to come to the fountain of all wisdom and understanding. We do indeed need to die to the alternative supports where they exclude God.

Aware of Anxiety: While we were looking at the world more widely, we recognised that living life on our own, so often meant that we were full of anxiety which, if we accept as the norm, will settle to become what I called angst, a more deep-seated anxiety which comes from not living in harmony and receiving the resources of The Lord of all. The attitude of self-reign leads so often to a short-fall of ability and that in turn leads to anxiety. The way to overcome that anxiety is to lay down the old life, lay down the self-reign and submit to the Lord of Glory.

‘Less’ or ‘Ish’: From there we considered the conflicting lives of the selfless versus the selfish, the godly versus the godless. We noted that the latter in each case was how we used to live but those lives brought us to failure. We noted how rejecting the selfish or self-centred life requires an application in every area of our lives and that in turn required a discipline and effort, often helped by others. The starting place is death to self and the continuing process requires the effort of me with help from the Holy Spirit. It is a continual challenge to die to self in every new situation or confrontation.

Pleasure: This brought us to the last one, a consideration of the wonder of pleasure that God has given us, while at the same time confronting the very real danger that is rife in our day, of making pleasure the beginning and end of all things. When we do that we are making it a substitute for God, but fortunately or unfortunately it soon creates a jaded feeling in us, together with a need for more and more. Satisfaction is illusory and flits away like a butterfly on a warm summer’s day. It is this recognition that we see results in a need to die to the old life that was pleasure and experience orientated and to the pleasure-seeking attitude that prevails so much today. Pleasure in its right place is a gift from God. When we make pleasure all-important, we stumble, feel jaded and become vulnerable.

Versus God: I want to finish this Part with something about which I have increasingly become aware in recent days. Where we fail to get to grips with these things, as I believe many Christians do, it means that we create both an anger and a yearning in God’s heart that desires to bring His people back to Himself. As the world increasingly (in the West at least) turns its back on God, it opens itself up to the leading of the enemy and so we see ever more strange, weird and, without doubt, ungodly and unrighteous behaviours, an increase in blatant unrighteousness as people reject God’s design and totter down the wide road towards self-destruction.

“Hands Off” Discipline: Romans 1 leads us to believe that this is God’s judgment on the Western world where He has “given them over” to more and more destructive behaviours. For the world, and especially for the Christians who may be drifting alongside this cultural collapse, His desire is for these things to act in a disciplinary manner, i.e. they act as agents to drive people back from the abyss and back to God. Now in the midst, the Lord allows Satan to act as a disciplining agent and we see it when Christians make themselves vulnerable by not dealing with the issues we have been considering throughout this first Part and failing to put them to death. I believe the strength of his activities has been increasing in recent years and I have watched Christians becoming more and more vulnerable to illnesses, problems, difficulties, stresses, anxieties and many other things that should not be in our lives.

Responses/Effects: Now a problem with this assessment is that most of us, the good, the bad, the indifferent, in the kingdom of God, often seem prey to these things. Now there are two responses to this. First, like Jeremiah being carried away to Egypt in the remnant, so we too can suffer the things of the age. Second, I believe it has been like the tide has been turning and so there is greater effort needed to stand and resist these things.

Answers?  So what is the answer? It is twofold. First, it is to do the thing we have been emphasising throughout this first Part – put to death all these things we have considered, that belong to the old life and should not be in the new life. Second, we are to live out the Christian life as it is portrayed in the New Testament, a resurrected life, empowered by God and living differently to the rest of the world, and that is what we will consider in the next Part.

(As we are in the period of Lent, we will pause up this present series four weeks while we do short meditations on the Cross and the crucifixion)

6. Images and Idols

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 6. Images and Idols

Rev 9:20  they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood–idols that cannot see or hear or walk

Idols? We are, in this Part, considering the things from our past life that need putting to death, things that can so easily be transported into our new Christian lives if we are not careful, and if we do, they stunt growth. Now I am sure that most of us only associate idols with eastern countries or Old Testament pagan countries. Unfortunately that description often applied to Israel, despite the fat that they had had warning after warning not to have anything to do with the religions of other people.

Definitions:  Now if you look up the definition of ‘idol’ you find, ‘an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship,’ but then there is a secondary definition: ‘a person or thing that is greatly admired, loved or revered’. I would also add, ‘any substitute for God that we rely upon’.  The simple truth is that so often we look to other people, things or systems to give us encouragement, direction or help. Look in any good bookstore and there are shelves upon shelves of self-help books. I confess to feeling horrified a couple of years ago when the ‘Mindfulness’ fad appeared and was even being heralded by some Christian ‘celebrities’.  Many of these things in themselves are quite harmless and may even, in a small measure help, but the bigger challenge is that when you and I came to Christ, he and he alone was to be our Saviour and Lord, our resource, our provider.

Modern Society: There is an emptiness in much modern life in the West that arises in societies that have abandoned God. Just recently I have again seen in the media, warnings and concerns about the over-use of social media in whatever form it is and words like addiction and teenage depression are bandied around.  What appears to be a relationship-building technology, turns out to be a fear inducing and relational-inhibiting technology, especially among the younger generations. The older generation is increasing causing concern as there is a recognition that loneliness is the norm for many. Our societies have many problems.  But what has this got to do with idols?

There are in our modern western societies, four groups of people, I suggest. There are i) Christians who rely on the Lord, ii) other religious groups who rely upon their particular culture as much as their God i.e. religion as a substitute, iii) those who look to people, things, experiences, culture, education, work achievement, maybe even politics, and technology, to provide meaning and purpose and even a sense of fulfilment in life, and iv) those who have none of these things and who live in the twilight, immersed in loneliness and on the edge of depression, and for whom drugs or suicide are contemplated. Now I realise that this is a somewhat damning critique of modern society but I suggest it is fairly realistic. The last group is the smallest but it by no mean small. The third group in our Western societies are clearly the largest groups and all the things I have listed there are in reality their ‘gods’, the things they rely upon, their substitutes for God. The second group, we might suggest, are also using God-substitutes (man-made religion and culture).

But isn’t that fairly obvious, so why should we be considering this in this Part that looks at things which should have died when we came to Christ? It can be boiled down to who or what do we put our trust in? I will consider this more fully in the next study when we consider anxiety but so much of modern life is about covering up the emptiness and the anxiety that exists in the absence of God.  But surely that is not us, you say? I would like to think that was so, but when I watch and listen to many modern Christians I wonder.

Shallow Lives that need Props? Now I should add that most of those things I listed above – for example,  people, things, experiences, culture, education, work achievement, maybe even politics, and technology – are not bad or wrong in themselves, and many of us who are Christians encounter or use these things or are involved with them, and that is not wrong. Where it falls apart is if our relationship with the Lord is shallow, we may be propping up our lives with all these other things. If our non-Christian neighbours look at us, what do they see?

The Example of Israel: Moses, on the plains of Moab, before he left Israel taught them: See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the LORD my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” (Deut 4:5-7) The way that Israel lived, with the Lord, was to be a testimony to the rest of the world – this is how life is to work! This is how God has designed it. This is how it should also be for us today.

The Modern Church? I have asked this sort of question before but it worth repeating, when the world looks at the Church – and maybe your local church in particular – what do they see? Do they see people who are full of peace and harmony, a people who are fulfilled in life without the materialistic props of the modern age (but who use them as well for pleasure in addition), people where families are without strife, families where divorce is absent, young people not on drugs or drink because they are full of the Spirit? Do they find people who are loving, kind, caring and compassionate? Do they go into homes where the technology is only in the background but the foreground is filled with love and laughter, testimony and witness to the goodness of the Lord? Do they find a people who pray for one another and offer to pray over them when they share their ailments and stresses? Do they find testimonies of deliverance and healings? But more than anything in this present context, do they find a people who can use modern technology and culture only as an add-on, but not the necessity for happiness and joy?

And Us? Before we came to Christ, we relied on things, on people, celebrities, self-help techniques. Coming to Christ, have we found that he is the source of provision for our peace, our source of fulfillment, purpose and meaning? We should have. Please, be honest, ask for revelation if necessary, How much do we, the modern people of God trust in these things to compensate for shallow spiritual lives? To the church in Laodicea Jesus said, “You say, `I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” (Rev 3:17) I am not saying that this is how it is; I leave that to you to consider, but is there even an element of truth in that description that fits so much of life in the modern church in the West?  This is about salvation versus substitutes. As advertising has sometimes said, accept no substitutes!

67. Idols?

Meditations in 1 John : 67 : Idols?worship, 

1 John  5:21    Dear children, keep yourselves from idols

Of all the apparently strange ways to conclude a letter, this appears the most strange. It is short, abrupt and apparently right out of the blue – no warning of it at all! So why should John finish with such a command?

The answer is given by a quote from a Christian historian I recently came across when he wrote about the early church: “Though the Christianity of the first several centuries was merely one among many mystery religions — it differed from all other devotions in requiring of its adherents a loyalty not only devout but exclusive. The votaries of Dionysus, Cybele and Attis, Isis and Osiris, Sabazius, Mithras, or any of the other pagan savior deities were not obliged to derogate or deny the power or holiness of other gods, or to remain totally aloof from their rites or temples; they merely acquired a new, perhaps dominant, but in no sense solitary, god or goddess to adore. Only the Christian mystery demanded of the convert an absolute commitment to one God and a denial of all others.”

Within that quote he names a number of ‘gods’ or objects of worship that were commonly worshipped in the world of the early centuries of the Christian Church, through ‘religions’ that competed in the superstitious mind of the day. The writer of that quote was conveying the fact that all these religions and gods existed and happily existed alongside each other and were quite happy if you worshipped a whole variety of them. That was until you came to Christianity which stood out in the world’s ‘faiths’ as demanding allegiance to it and to the One True God alone.

This takes its roots right back into the early history of Israel when the Lord gave them the Ten Commandments (never rescinded or replaced) which included: You shall have no other gods besides me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (Ex 20:3-5). For a simple answer to the question, “Why were these commands included?” we need only look at the verses we’ve just previously considered which included, “that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true–even in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God.” (1 Jn 5:20). In other words, only the One we find revealed in the Bible is God and there are no others. Idols are merely man-made false representations of ‘gods’ that don’t exist.

Often the writings of the prophets focused on this. Isaiah wrote: “Bring in your idols to tell us what is going to happen. Tell us what the former things were, so that we may consider them and know their final outcome. Or declare to us the things to come, tell us what the future holds, so we may know that you are gods. Do something, whether good or bad, so that we will be dismayed and filled with fear. But you are less than nothing.” (Isa 41:22-24). That is just one of a number of instances in the prophetic writings that derides idols and gods. They don’t exist except as a figment of your imagination, is the message of the prophets, so stop wasting your time making idols and worshipping things that don’t exist. Instead worship the One True God.

But still, in the world of John’s day they worshipped idols and superstition ran rife. The thing about an idol was that you could see it and it acted as a focus of your worship and was thus a great temptation. “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols,”  was John’s last call to his scattered flock.

Does such a call have any relevance to us today?  Well if we consider ‘an idol’ in more general terms, the answer has got to be yes. An idol is anything or anyone we esteem and lift up in our estimation and which has influence on us and which we allow to direct us (and that we ultimately ‘worship’.). Thus materialistic affluence and the pursuit thereof is clearly an idol of many. Ambition, the desire to achieve great things for oneself regardless of what it takes, is another. Superstars or ‘celebrities’ may be genuine idols for the more gullible. An idol thus becomes anything which detracts from God, and that competes with God for His lordship. It is anything that you put before the Lord and in that sense there may be many things in the modern world that compete.  Thus John’s call is still valid today.

To slightly change the words of the last line of that quote I used earlier, Only the Christian faith demands of the convert an absolute commitment to one God and a denial of all others.  That is just as true today as it was two thousand years ago. And the reason? It’s what John has been talking about throughout his letter: we have knowledge of One who is supreme and unique and He has revealed Himself to us through His Son, Jesus Christ, and through him we have a salvation which can be gained through no other means, so don’t look elsewhere. As the psalmist wrote for his day, Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” (Psa 20:7) THAT is wisdom and it is the wisdom that comes through John’s letter again and again. May we hold firmly to it!  Amen?  Amen!

2. Wrong Settling

Meditations in the life of Abraham : 2. Settling in the wrong place

Gen 11:31,32  Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there. Terah lived 205 years, and he died in Haran.

There are mysteries in life, things we’ll never know this side of heaven. It’s like that in the Bible as well. There are times when the Bible seems frustratingly sketchy and we want to ask lots of questions. Why did Terah leave Ur? Why did he settle in Haran? We simply aren’t told, so this tends to be a little speculative. All we can do is look at what we are told and speculate in the light of what we know about life.

There are two areas where the Bible gives us information about Terah. The first is about his family. As we noted yesterday, when his first son came along, he seems to have high hopes of the family name being carried on through this son for he names him ‘exalted father’. Yet as the years pass that doesn’t happen. Obviously it would be a number of years before Abram grew up and took a wife, and then some more years before they concluded she was barren. In the meantime Haran is married and has a son, Lot, but then some unspecified time later, dies.

Now it may just be possible that Terah takes the family and leaves Ur because he wants to escape the unhappy memory of losing Haran. That is one possibility. It may also be possible that, being a superstitious man, he wonders if Ur is an ‘unlucky’ place and further wonders that if they go somewhere else, Sarai may be able to conceive and have a child to carry the family name through the eldest son. There is a faint possibility that Terah heard from God because their departure was with the express intent of ending up in Canaan, which is where, we find, the Lord told Abram to go. The truth is we just don’t know, but life decisions are so often made through a combination of such things. There is a further probability that we’ll consider later.

Now there is a second area of information about Terah that we only get later in the Bible. Presumably the story of Terah was handed down by word of mouth and that in more detail than we find recorded in Genesis 11. We have to wait to some way through Joshua that we find this prophetic word coming from the Lord through Joshua:Joshua said to all the people, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: `Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River (Euphrates) and worshipped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the River and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants (Josh 24:2,3). Ah, Terah worshipped idols!  It is said that the moon-god was worshiped at both Ur and Haran so it is likely that Terah worshipped the moon at least. Now there is an interesting thing about people who worship the elements or idols; they indicate a need to reverence some other Being or force.

They recognize a spiritual existence but may be completely misled in their understanding of it, for understanding of reality can only come from God. But their hearts are inclined more in His direction than in no direction, such as the atheist would claim.  So Terah sets out from Ur and intends to go to Canaan. As we’ve said previously, we are not told why he left and even more we’re not told (here) why he was aiming for Canaan. As we wondered previously, is it coincidence that Abram ends up in Canaan? (Yes, as we read on we’ll get answers but in these early verses these are legitimate questions). However he’s got his leading, and we said it may be through a variety of feelings or circumstances, he’s had this sense that he wants to take his family to Canaan. When we consider all that subsequently took place in Abram’s life, we can only conclude that that initial sense was a good one. So he sets out from the place of hurt towards a place of hope. (We will come to more definite conclusions later in the series).

On the way he passes through Haran, which in the Hebrew, I’m told, is spelt differently from his son’s name, but was it sufficient to trigger the memories all over again of the son he has lost?  We read,when they came to Haran, they settled there.” To settle means to stop moving on. If Canaan was Terah’s destiny, he stopped short of it, he stopped moving towards it and never arrived. We read that he died there in Haran.

Terah is the picture of a man who caught a sense of something new but stopped along the way and settled, so that he never reached it.  How many of us mirror in our lives what happened to Terah? We started off well, clear about where we were going with our lives, but somehow, somewhere along the way, we settled. Is it too late to get under way again? No, but we’ll probably need the Lord’s help to get out of our rut. When you settle, it’s difficult to get under way again, but not impossible.

Did you give up going to church some way along the path? Did you stop reading your Bible, stop praying, stop attending the mid-week meeting, stop giving, stop whatever it was that became your ‘stopping off point’?  If you stay in Haran you’ll die there. It’s not the place of your destiny. There’s a land out there for you to reach, a land filled with milk and honey, a place of plenty of goodness, a place of God’s calling. Please don’t settle, don’t remain at Haran, don’t accept second best. A lot of people are. There are a lot of people who are Christians who stopped along the way and settled. Your calling is to be a man or woman of God, a person of faith. The first step is to get under way again. If you remain in Haran it will kill you. Move on!

18. Claiming Wisdom

Meditations in Romans : 18:  Claiming Wisdom

Rom 1:22,23.   Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

We started off the previous meditation by noting that so often we think our thinking is right and good, i.e. we think we are wise.  Yet we went on to note that Paul said that our thinking (without God) is futile or hopeless, and those descriptions surely cannot stand alongside wisdom! Yet part of the deception is that we think we are wise; we think we know about life and the world and so we feel confident but, sadly, it is a false confidence.  As I listen to or read the modern crusading atheists, there comes over a confidence. When I wrote an appraisal of one of these men, I found myself writing, “He gives himself the position of almost divine authority. You wonder can he possibly be wrong!” This is a man who seriously ‘claims to be wise’, and certainly wiser than those of us who hold a biblical faith!

But Paul says that these people who failed to see God in His Creation, having become futile in their thinking, have also become fools. Now my dictionary describes a fool as a person with little or no judgment, common sense, wisdom, etc.” That is what a fool is. In the Old Testament we find, “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” (Psa 14:1, 53:1). A fool, says the psalmist, is one who makes out there is no God. I also note that there is a footnote in my Bible that tells us that, “The Hebrew words rendered ‘fool’ in Psalms denote one who is morally deficient.” So, a fool is one who is lacking judgment, is godless and is morally deficient. What a condemnation of one who thinks they are wise!

But this is exactly what deception is all about. The Bible speaks again and again of Eve being ‘deceived’ by Satan in the Garden of Eden (e.g. Gen 3:13, 2 Cor 11:3, 1 Tim 2:14).  When we are deceived it simply means that we have been led into a position where we believe something false. That is what Paul is saying in these verses. People who abandon God are being deceived so that they end up with futile, hopeless thinking and yet they still think they are wise! That is classic deception!

But is it obvious, Paul goes on, you only have to see what they do. They reject the wonder and the glory of God who is eternal and they replace that with man-made idols. How stupid can you get!  Yes, if you travel around the world you will still see, in a number of countries, idols that have been made in the form of human beings or animals.  The prophets of the Old Testament were particularly good at deriding the folly of worshipping idols – wood or metal made at the hands of men – idols that are utterly powerless!

Perhaps today we may think we are more sophisticated here in the West and would never dream of making such models and bowing down before them, but the truth is an idol is anything we worship other that God, any substitute we make for God, and there are many such things in modern life. Rather than me put forward my list of such things, you think about modern life and see what things modern man considers more important than God.

If we take anything and make and use it as a substitute for God, we are being a fool. These substitutes do not bring genuine, lasting meaning to our lives. They become a temporary focus but in old age we realise they were empty and hollow and meaningless and we are left destitute when it comes to purpose and direction into eternity. These substitutes could not speak to us, guide us and help us and work good in us, for they were all the outworkings of the endeavours of man. Fame and fortune may appear alluring but at the end of life when we come face to face with God, we will realise that they were simply a means to enhance our self-centredness and godlessness and they do not last and cannot be taken with us as we pass through the doorway of death.

How bizarre and crazy is the outworking of sin sometimes! Here is almighty, wonderful, beautiful, glorious God, who offers friendship and salvation to us, offers us meaning and purpose and a wonderful life that stretches into eternity – and some of us turn down these offers and settle for temporary and transient things that do nothing more than bolster the deception that we are someone of substance who thinks well of themselves – who thinks they are wise while, in fact, their thinking is futile and foolish.

Jesus spoke of God’s work of dealing with the ungodly: He has blinded their eyes and deadened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts.” (Jn 12:40, quoting Isa 6;10) But how does God do this? He allows Satan to do it: And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor 4:3,4) Yes, it is Satan who blinds people’s eyes. He simply plays on their already godless and self-centred inclinations, that are the expression of sin, and speaks into their minds what is acceptable to them – “It’s all right, there is no God; you do what you want to do. You know best,” and they follow along until a crisis in life ploughs their lives and the Holy Spirit speaks seeds of conviction to them, to turn them to God. But until then, they are deceived and foolish in their thinking and their godless behaviour just testifies to that foolishness. May that not be true of us!  I find possibly one of the saddest expressions of this deception is seen at funerals when deceived mourners extol the virtues of their deceived loved one by playing them out to Frank Sinatra’s, “I did it my way.” THAT is deception and folly!