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"The Hindrance to Worshipping God"

MESSAGE FOR APRIL 26, 2009 ON THE HINDRANCE TO WORSHIPPING GOD

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Ninth in a brief series on corporate worship

          This morning, we continue our series of messages on corporate worship. Over the past several weeks, we have seen many aspects of what the Bible has to say on this topic.  I trust the over-all impact has been by God’s grace, to help us move us closer to the impassioned, heartfelt worship God deserves when his people gather together.  Last week, we saw from the Bible that this impassioned worship also includes a physical dimension because God is worthy of the worship of our entire being.  I trust also that at some point all of us have become convinced that at times—perhaps much of the time—our worship has not honored God.  Many of us are not consistently worshipping God in spirit and truth—we are not living as the kind of worshippers the Father seeks.  Instead of our worship glowing with a radiant love for Jesus, we are often lukewarm and at times, even cold toward God.  At this point in the series, we want to pause and ask the question:  Why do followers of Christ who have been called and equipped for worship by the Holy Spirit, fail to worship in a manner consistent with the Biblical teaching?  There are probably 1000 answers to the question, some of which we have mentioned in the previous messages, but this morning we are looking for the BIG spiritual reason that lies behind all the others.

          The big answer is in Romans chapter one, but before we go there, let’s go back to Romans 12:1 we have looked at many times before.  We have seen that Paul here summarizes the entire Christian life within the context of worship.  For the follower of Christ, all of life is worship—“presenting our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.”  Our corporate worship is only one expression of our worship to God.  Its tempting to think that what we need to do in order to worship better is just work on it—be more intentional about it—try harder—intensify our efforts by getting up earlier on Sundays and things like that.  There is some truth to that, but there’s a problem with that thinking—a big one.  That is—it assumes that when we fail to worship God as we ought, the fundamental issue is one of inattention or carelessness.  Therefore, all we need to do to fix the problem is simply put a bit more spiritual elbow grease into worship and it will get better. 

          There’s always a place for intentionality, but that assumption will never hold water Biblically.  Romans one tells us that when people are not worshipping God as they ought, the root problem is not that they have simply lost their intensity.  It’s far more serious than that.  When we fail to worship God as we ought, it’s because we have exchanged another god or gods for him and have begun worshipping them in some way.  Paul says of fallen humans 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.” Paul’s logic in the chapter, which is not just applicable to lost sinners, goes like this--the unrighteousness in people causes them to suppress the truth about God and therefore suppress God, but just because we suppress the true God that doesn’t destroy our innate human compulsion to worship.  The implication is that God has hard-wired every person to be a worshipper.  We cannot possibly NOT worship or give our loyalty or allegiance or trust to nothing or no one.  To not worship is simply not possible given spiritual programming.  The unrighteousness or indwelling sin within us horribly twists and distorts our internal hard wiring so that instead of worshipping the true God, we worship false gods. 

This week, Tim Keller gave a talk on idolatry at a national conference on the gospel and since I was speaking on this topic, I listened to it on the internet.  He made a fascinating observation that illustrates this inborn compulsion to worship that all humans have and that has never changed, even though we in the west don’t typically bow down to statues.  He said that in the days of the New Testament in Ephesus, making money—being successful had become the god the Ephesians worshipped in the person of their god, Artemis.  He noted that a prominent feature of the worship offered to Artemis, that would supposedly compel Artemis to help you make more money was child sacrifice.  You offer your child to Artemis as a sacrifice; he will help you become rich.  Being a pastor in New York, the finance and business capital of the world, Keller concluded that the main god people in his culture bow down to is the god of making money and the price people pay to this god in his New York culture is still child sacrifice.  He said that if you are going to be successful and make lots of money in New York, you have to sacrifice your kids—you simply cannot be a good parent and work the kind of hours that corporate America requires of you if you want to make lots of money.  The idolatrous human heart hasn’t changed and neither have our idols and neither has what they require of us.  Idolatry is alive and well and living in the United States because people are wired to worship—to give their allegiance and devotion to something.

G.K. Chesterton made this point very succinctly.  He said, when we “cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing, we worship anything.[1]  This is true. John Calvin saw this inbred propensity within us to worship idols and his understanding of humanity was defined by that essential trait.  He called the human race, “Man, the idol maker.”  The pathetic state of fallen humanity is seen in that though we are inherently, relentlessly worshippers, the unrighteousness within us works to pull us away from worshipping the one true God as He reveals Himself in the Bible.  We should never think that because a person is a follower of Christ, he/she is therefore immune to idolatry.  Most of the warnings in the Bible about idolatry are directed toward the people of God.  The Tey Commandments were addressed to God’s people and two of the Ten Commandments (and not just any two, the first two) forbid the sin of idolatry. The second commandment is an elaboration of the first.  Luther was right when he said that you cannot break any of the last nine commandments without first breaking the first commandment.[2]  The sin God warned the Israelites about before they went into the Promised Land was idolatry.  The sin against which the Old Testament prophets most frequently railed was idolatry.  In the New Testament, idolatry is a huge issue as well with God’s people.  In Colossians and Ephesians, Paul equates greed with idolatry and John closes his first epistle with, “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” 

An idol is simply “anything on which we rely in place of God or anything to which we give higher loyalty or allegiance than God.”  It may be anything or anyone in our lives including a host of good things that we rely upon, or to which we give loyalty or allegiance in the place of God. God alone is the One we are to rely on to meet our needs and God alone is deserving of our highest allegiance and loyalty.  What that means in this series of messages on corporate worship is this—if we are not impassioned worshippers of God, it’s not because we are not worshippers.  It’s ultimately caused at least in part by the fact that we are worshipping the wrong god(s).  If we are not passionately worshipping God, its not that our passion to worship has diminished.  However we express it, God made us to be impassioned worshippers.  The question is—to what god(s) are we giving our passion?  Lukewarm worship of God frequently means that we are worshipping another god(s). If we are giving our impassioned loyalty or energy to gods other than the God of the Bible, why would we expect to be able to give ourselves fully to the worship of God when we come together for corporate worship?  You can’t worship God with all your heart, if you have given pieces of it away to other gods.  And the Holy Spirit will be of little help to us in worshipping God if we are quenching his ministry by committing idolatry.  In Matthew 6:24, Jesus says this in relation to one very popular idol.  "No one 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.” 

One picture the Bible uses to describe and condemn idolatry is spiritual adultery against God.  The prophets railed against this, especially Ezekiel.  He calls idolaters “whores” who go “whoring” after other gods.  God is a jealous God who very much sees idolatry as his covenant people cheating on him, their husband.  When you understand that, it’s easy to see why some believers aren’t impassioned in their corporate worship of God.  They are spiritually cheating on him.  They are giving themselves to other gods and so when Sunday morning comes along—there’s not much of their heart to give to God.  Can any wife who is cheating on her mate truly give herself up in full devotion to her husband?  The answer is clearly, no. 

I hope we see that in many instances lukewarm corporate worship is caused, not by a church that music that is not fitted to our particular taste, or that the problem is fundamentally related to other external factors.  It is certainly wise to get up early to prepare your hearts for corporate worship, but if you are allowing an idol of this world to drain away your passion for God, the answer is not to set your alarm for 30 minutes earlier.  If you’re wondering if this is the reason for your less than impassioned worship of God, let me give you three other Biblical diagnostic tests that will help you discern the idols in your life.  These tests are necessary because all sin blinds us, but we are especially vulnerable to being blinded by our idols because most of them are very good things that we have, over time, allowed to become an idol.  The first diagnostic test to run is to see if you have—a lack of heartfelt, truth-driven passion in your worship of God.  A second is—An increasing insensitivity to sin and worldliness.  This is seen when behaviors and attitudes that in the past have repulsed you, lately don’t seem to bother you nearly as much.  Like the frog in the kettle, you have acclimated to the gradual change in spiritual climate.  If that is happening, there is almost certainly an idol in your life.  The relationship between this insensitivity to sin and idolatry is spelled out in Greg Beale’s book, “We Become what we Worship.”  In his Biblical theology of idolatry, Beale notices that the Bible teaches a dominant, overarching truth about worship and its profound, life changing impact on God’s people.  He puts it like this: “What we revere, we resemble--either for our ruin or restoration.”[3]   Let’s support and unpack that very compressed statement.

The Bible persistently teaches this truth and as Beale indicates, this spiritual truth can be a very good thing or a very bad thing.  As we have referenced several times lately, Paul says in Second Corinthians 3:18, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another…  It’s as we behold the glory of the Lord in his Word, in prayer, in our interactions with other saints that we are transformed into the same image by the Holy Spirit.  As we gaze upon or fixate upon God, we become increasingly like him.  Psalm 34:5 says, “Those who look to him are radiant and their faces are never ashamed.”  There we see again that what we revere, we resemble and in this case, its not for our ruin, its for our restoration—as we look to him, we become radiant as we are transformed more and more into his image. 

But the Bible teaches that it also works in the other direction.  That is—if we are bowing down before idols, giving ourselves to them, we become like the gods we worship.  The Psalmist is speaking of idolaters in Psalm 115 and says, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.  They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.  They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.  Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.  The person who relies on an idol for something only God alone can give him, or gives himself to an idol in some other way, actually begins to spiritually resemble the idol.  The Psalmist ridicules idols made by human hands and says that although they have sensory organs carved into them, they have no sensitivity.  Likewise, those who elevate modern-day idols above God—things like property, reputation, clout, talent, hobbies, leisure, money, religion, spouses, kids and family members, pets, careers and possessions become less and less sensitive to the things of God. 

God asks the Jews through the prophet Jeremiah, “What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless? If you go after worthlessness, you become worthless.  If you pursue an empty god, you will become empty.  There’s the Romans one pattern, isn’t it?  First, they went away from God—suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.  Then they did what their internal programming compelled them to do—they worshipped, going after worthless idols and finally, they became worthless like the idols they worship.  What we revere, we resemble either for ruin or restoration.”[4]  It’s the same dynamic we read in Romans 12:1-2.  “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…”   

Without using the word “idolatry” explicitly, Paul is telling us to worship God with our lives instead of worshipping the idols of this world because what you worship you resemble.  Or, to use his words, you become conformed to them—you allow them to squeeze you into their worldly mold.  Instead of doing that, he calls us to be transformed.  And how do we do that?  By renewing our minds--beholding the glory of God primarily seen in the pages of Scripture.  One way we know we have been caught up in idolatry is if we are increasingly insensitive to sin and worldliness.  And the reason is because when we worship the idols of this world, we become like them--spiritually insensitive, spiritually worthless and looking more like the world than God.  If things that deeply trouble other sincere, fruit-bearing believers, don’t bother you, or if you are not troubled by things that once troubled you, that may be a symptom of idolatry in your life.

Another sure fire indicator of an idol is: “A loyalty to anything or anyone that causes you to disobey God.”[5]  This is just the next step down the slippery slope away from God into the arms of our idols.  First, we become insensitive to sin and worldliness and then we begin to consistently elevate our idols above God in a way that causes us to disobey the clear commands of Scripture.  Let’s give some examples to see this more clearly.  The Bible calls us to not bear false witness—don’t lie.  But let’s say you have fallen into a habit of misrepresenting your income or your deductions on your tax returns—you are lying to the federal government and you are not submitting to the God-given authority of the government.  There’s an idol there that has caused you to place your desire to not pay taxes over your desire to obey God’s command to tell the truth and submit to the governing authorities.  Maybe the idol is the love of money itself—maybe it’s your business which needs more capital—maybe it’s your kids who wants to go to college.  Maybe it’s your wife who wants a new kitchen—it can be any number of things, but there’s an idol that you love more than God because you’re willing to disobey God in order to get it. 

          The Bible says that we are not to neglect “to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another…”  If your job or a hobby or something else is increasingly causing you to not be regular in your church attendance or small group meetings or wherever else the opportunity is made to meet with the church, then you may have an idol.  It may be your job itself or it may be some reward you get from your job—it may be that you are afraid of telling your boss you can’t work on Sundays, but in many cases, there’s an idol because you are sacrificing your obedience to God on the altar of your job. If it’s a consistent pattern, look for an idol because there is one.  We could go on, but you get the point.  If there is a pattern of sin in your life, there is an idol that you are loving more than God.  If you loved God more than the idol, you would be worshipping him through your obedience rather than worshipping your idol by laying your obedience to God on its altar.

          Another indicator of an idol I was reminded of this week by Tim Keller is—A sense that your life loses its meaning and value if the idol were to be removed.  This is a tricky one because our idols are often good things—kids, spouse, job, relationships and if we lose any of those we will feel a healthy sense of loss.  It hurts to not be able to work.  It hurts to lose a loved one.  The difference here is—if what you lose is your god—your life takes on a sense of meaninglessness when it disappears.  If you get in a car accident and become disabled and unable to continue in your career, would you be able to grieve the loss and move on, or would your life be over?  The same is true for your family members.  There’s a difference between being devastated by the loss of a loved one and totally cashing in your chips.  There are many cases in which a man or wife loses their spouse and they are dead in three months and often that is because when their spouse died, their ultimate reason for living was over.  That’s idolatry because you aren’t ultimately living for God, but for your spouse so when they die, your life becomes meaningless. 

When Job lost everything he had, he responded by worshipping God because he wasn’t worshipping or relying on his fortune or his kids or his health to give him ultimate joy and satisfaction.  After all he had lost; Job still had the most satisfying thing in his life, God.  And he responded by saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.  The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Job was God-centered.  He saw virtually everything in his life in relationship to God—God gave it all to him and God took it all away—everything revolved around God and God hadn’t gone anywhere.  To put it in business terms, Job as a business man looked at his life and said, “There is no net loss here,” because after everything was taken away, he had everything that he came into this world with.  Everything else belonged to God and he took what was his—bless God.  There was no discernible idol in Job’s life here. 

We can be worshipping an idol(s) if we are lukewarm in our worship to God.   We may be giving ourselves to an idol if we have an increasing insensitivity to sin because the Bible teaches that we become as spiritually insensitive as what we are worshipping.  Idols are also generated by a loyalty to anyone or anything else that causes us to disobey God.  Finally, we have an idol if our life becomes meaningless if we lose something or someone we treasure because we have placed ultimate value on it or them instead of God.  So what do we do?  How do we tear down the idols from our lives?  Let’s go back to Romans 12:1.  Remember, Paul tells us we are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices in worship to God and that the way of transformation is to renew our mind—to gaze upon the glory of God through his word.  And what is the ultimate expression of the glory of God?  Hebrews 1:3 tells us that Jesus “…is the radiance of the glory of God…”  And Jesus says—this is how you must remember me—with my body broken and my blood shed for you.  The gospel! 

We see this in Romans 12:1.  What does Paul say will compel us to worship God as living sacrifices?  He says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God” or, as the NIV says, “In view of God’s mercy.”  What mercy is that?  The mercy he has just spent 11 chapters expositing—the mercies of God found in the gospel.  It’s as we immerse ourselves in the glory of God seen most clearly in the gospel, that we are transformed into the image of Christ instead of becoming like some idol. Tim Keller says it’s as we “see, know, give, preach, worship, pray and think the gospel” that the idols are purged from our hearts.[6]

Os Guiness and John Seel say the same thing, but they say it this way, “It takes a covenant love for God to root out idolatry”[7]  That is, as we immerse ourselves in what God has done for us in the gospel through the atoning death of Jesus, we come to see more and more the matchless worth of God and how much greater he is than any idol—however good it may be in itself. That liberates us to tear down the idols in our souls and worship God.  As that happens, what happens to our corporate worship? It becomes more and more impassioned and heartfelt.  We become more sensitive to sin and worldliness because we see what sin did to our Lord—it killed him and also because we see that we have been set free from the controlling power of sin.  As our sense of identity is more shaped by the gospel and what Jesus has done for us, sin will become more repugnant to us and by God’s grace we will kill it.  Out of love for God who has done so much for us, we will want to obey God’s commands in things like being with God’s people when they gather and telling the truth even if it costs us.  Finally, if we love God in response to the gospel as we should, if we lose everything this world has to offer, we still have the greatest treasure—God, who sent his only Son to suffer and die for us and all that means to us and he’s enough.  He is what gives our life its ultimate meaning.  We can have absolutely dynamic, impassioned corporate worship here, but it will never be what it should be until we rid ourselves of the idols that drain away our passion for God and ultimately can condemn us.  May God grant us the grace to passionately worship Him alone above all the competing gods of this world.

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