Chapter 15 – Imperfect Idols. Perfect God

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Introduction

“Caution, the bridge is out.” The sign said. My wheels shared a different message with the pavement. Water arched as I screamed through the puddled potholes. I laughed with the mini rainbows glistening on my windshield. Heading home on a Friday night never felt so good.

“Caution, the bridge is out.” Another sign splashed past me. A bottle of beer and TV remote waited for me on the other side of the river. A moment of peace, joy in this wretched world. Over here there was nothing but eight hour complaints and 9-5 yelling matches. “Life is a party,” they say… but only on the other side.

“Caution, the bridge is out.” Radio blaring, eyes closed, I didn’t even see the sign, couldn’t hear its message over the sound of my own voice singing praises to a god of my own design.

I didn’t hear the wind until it called my name, barely saw the red stars speckling the darkness in from of me. Tires squealed. Heart raced. The wind screamed my name. Stopped. I jolted forward, blowing off some steam with my horn. The wind echoed my name down the ravine, bouncing from one side to the other, disappearing into the water far below. A large yellow sign glared at me, red lights casting a menacing glow.
“Caution, the bridge is out.”

Sometimes we don’t want to listen until its too late. If you have ever heard, “ if you had only listened to me…” you know what I’m talking about. We all know what it is like to find ourselves in a situation where we feel like our lives are careening our of control, and no matter how much we pump the brakes… the bridge in out. Looking back we can see the signs that we ignored. Caught in that moment between life and death we hear the messages, the warning, and wish we had listened.

We are about to walk through the stories of the prophets. We have seen how the nation, again and again, has gotten out of control, left God, wandered in the desert, found death in the promised land instead of life, experienced slavery at the hand of the king who they thought would save them. In the last chapter of The Story, we witnessed the nation fall apart, splitting into the northern country of Israel, and the southern nation of Judah. Not only did they erect their own kings, split up into their own nations, but they started worshipping their own gods. They looked up from the dark pit where they had fallen and said, “I have messed it all up! I need God to lift me from the mud…” but instead of turning back to the God who was standing waiting for their return, they fashioned new ones out of the mud around them, hardened the clay with the scorching flames of hell.

Something had to be done. The people turned away, again and again, completely disregarding their maker, their lover, their life. Into the darkness of the world God sends prophets to shine a light on the fakes and the failures, to remind the people of the God who has walked with them since the beginning and will do so again if only they stay by his side.

Often when we think of prophets we think of crazy guys who rush in and tell the people everything they’re doing wrong then spout some off the wall judgement. They prove that God in the Old Testament is all about vengeance, judgement, and destruction… or do they? There is no such thing as the “God of the Old Testament.” There is simply God, the One and only true God who created life with his breath, filled it with his love, and sustains it by his grace. This same God that we serve is the one that the prophets spoke of. They came as messengers from the LORD to show the people the frailty of their state without him and draw them back to himself.

We don’t want to listen to a messenger when we feel like life is good. It is sinners who fall of their knees before an almighty and gracious God, not saints. It is the broken that long to be fixed. Because of this, God had to first break his people’s perceived perfection before they could be, once again, filled by him.

The Israelites worshipped idols, served other gods. Primarily they were interested in Baal. They thought he was the one who could provide all of their needs. Baal was thought to hold power over the weather patterns. He makes the sun shine, the rain fall, provides for the crops which feed his people.

God comes along and shows them that this is not Baal. He can no more make the rain fall than they can. He cannot provide for their needs. God sends the prophet Elijah as his messenger not seeking to judge the people but to save them from themselves. He sends Elijah with a simple message, “Baal does not provide the rain. I do.” God sends him to the king of Israel, Ahab, with these words.

1 Kings 17:1
Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

God sends a drought. But, these are God’s chosen people. Doesn’t he love them? Shouldn’t he care for them? If there is one thing that we humans need more than anything else in the world, it is water. So, why does God withhold this blessing from His beloved children? They had raised up the weather and made it into a god in their lives. They fashioned idols, danced around them, worshipped the rain. God is withholding the blessing in the area of their lives that has been elevated to God’s status.

Have you ever experienced a drought in your life? Perhaps you are in an emotional drought. Maybe the funds in your bank account have dried up. Maybe you lost your job. That strong relationship you once had with your spouse, parents, or children… it’s gone with the wind leaving your heart like a dried up riverbed.

Why is it that we experience times of drought right when we think everything is going well. Why is it that God withholds his blessing in the areas we think are most integral to our lives? Perhaps we have elevated these things in our lives to the level of God, finding hope in our job, faith in our bank account, love in our friends, joy in our car, or peace in the television.

Idolatry seems so foreign to us. Almost primitive. We read these stories from Ancient times and think, “how ridiculous! Don’t they get it? Why make a golden calf when God is with them? Why worship the rain when God has provided it?” We almost put on a “holier than thou” attitude when looking at these stories and think, “well, maybe that was a problem for them back then… but we have matured beyond that. I know the rain isn’t a god!” But, don’t we still fashion our wn gods in our hearts?

I heard a story of an Indian missionary who came back to his home church to share about his work. He spoke of the incredible amount of idolatry there. Pictures scrolled across the screen of common living rooms. Every one of them had a little golden figurine of some sort up on the mantle, and all the chairs were situated to face the figure so that the people could pray to it. We may hear this or see the pictures and think, “how primitive! There are still cultures that do things like that today?” But, how different are we?

When you move into a new house and decide where things should go, how do you make those decisions? If we took pictures of various different living rooms around this country what would we find? Chairs all facing the mantle with a large flat screen idol on top. We come home from a long day of work and think, “I need to relax. I need some peace in my life. I need some joy from my favourite comedy show. I need to feel love as I live vicariously through the drama of my favourite soap. I need to feel like I can make it through the darkness of this life as I watch those superheros and action heroes rise above the evil and conquer it. And so we sit and worship in our homemade temple. Is idolatry really such a foreign concept to us?

If you don’t know what your idols are, there is a quick test. As I ask these questions, I want us to search our own hearts for the idols that God wants to reveal. How we answer these questions will define our own idols.

  1. What are you most disappointed with?
    Disappointment points to something that we put our hope in.
  2. What do you sacrifice your time and money for?
    Matthew 6:21 – “Where your treasure lies, that is where your heart is.”
  3. What do you worry about? What scares you?
    1 Peter 5:7 – “Cast all your anxieties on me, because I care for you!”
    When we worry about something it shows that we are more concerned about that than we are about trusting that God will provide our needs, whether that thing happens or not that we are so worried about.
  4. Where do you go when you get hurt? Where do you find comfort?
    Comfort food? TV? Alcohol? Porn? (I NEED A FIX!)
    Where we go for comfort reveals where we put our hope.
    When a child gets hurt, they run to the open arms of their loving parents.
    Do we do the same with our Loving Father, or is it somewhere else we run?
  5. What brings you the most joy?
    Do we allow these gifts of joy to draw us closer to God, or do we worship the gift instead of the giver?
    Life rain was an idol for the Isralites, perhaps we raise different gifts of God above him in our lives. (Spouse, kids, possessions, house, car, job)
  6. Whose applause do you long for?
    Who are you living for? An audiance of many, or an audiance of one.

Idolatry is not as foreign as we may think, and neither is drought. When Elijah sends a message to wake up the people from their place of idolatry, he does so by attacking the rain—the gift from God which they worshiped. See, idols are God’s primary competition in our lives, whatever they might be. An idol is anything and anyone other than God that take the passion, value, hope, and commitment of our lives. And it shouldn’t be a surprise when there is a drought in our life that matches up with something that has become equal to God in our hearts.

God will not bless his primary competition. We pray, “God, would you bless me! Give me this thing I feel I need!” That is not how God’s blessings work. God doesn’t withhold blessing because he is mean. He wants to get our attention, and draw us back to himself, because he loves us (and he is the fullness of our sufficiency). Only once we release our idols will the rain start to fall again. But aren’t always willing to release our idols. We want to have our cake and eat it too.

This was no different for the Israelites. They desperately needed to be woken up from their belief that they could worship Baal and serve God at the same time. And So, God sends Elijah in a cage match against this god of rain and the prophets who serve him.

1 Kings 18:20-24
20So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. 21Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
But the people said nothing.
They said nothing because they wanted both. It’s not that we don’t want God in our lives, we want God plus our idol. God plus, whatever it is that we think we need to survive.
22Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”

Elijah says, “whoever has the power to do what we say he can and will do for us, he is the True God.” When we think a bottle will give us peace, our bank account will give us hope, sex will grant us joy, God sends a messenger saying, “let’s put that to the test. How do you really feel after gorging on comfort food? How happy are you, really, after sleeping around? How hopeful are you when you check your bank account?” Of these things we always need more. It is fleeting comfort, temporary joy, and momentary hope.

To the woman at the well God gave this test. I John 4 Jesus said, “you have had five husbands, and the man you’re with now is not your husband. You have been searching for love in all the wrong places. You have made men your idol, yet still feel your well is dry. Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.”

God gives us a drought to put our idols to the test. The question is, will they pass the test?

1 Kings 18:25-28
25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.

Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

27At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.

Again, we read this story as so primitive. People dancing around and cutting themselves!But don’t we do the same when our idols won’t answer? Do we bleed for our gods? When one drink won’t do, we have two. Perhaps we have almost bled out on this alter. We have sacricied our marriage on the alter of our career. We cut our relationships down so that we can spend more time with the TV. If may look different, but we do bleed for our idols. But despite all this bleeding, dancing about, sacrificing of things that we should hold dear… still we need more. Still the drought continues in the deepest parts of our lives. Still our gods do not answer.

Finally the prophets of Baal gave up. They realized that their god wasn’t answering, so comes Elijah’s turn.

1 Kings 18:36-39
36At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. 37Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
38Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
39When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”

Hallelujah! When God pits our idols against him, there is no competition. He is like a river rushing with perfect love and unending grace. He fills our dry hearts with streams of mercy, springs of hope, and showers of joy. Once we realize the frailty of our idols, then the strength of the LORD is a song on our lips. Sometimes God brings a drought our way so that he can show us what it truly means to never thirst again.

Verse 37 is the heartbeat of this story. “Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” You are turning the hearts of the wayward back to you. The God whom we serve is not one of vengeance but of grace, not of judgment but of love, not of destruction but of life. But sometimes he must send an Elijah into our lives to help us realize the imperfection of the idols we erect in our lives.

Conclusion

God isn’t just offended when we put someone or something else on the throne of our hearts. He is hurt. Hurting for himself, but also for us. He sees the devastation of our own choices on our faces, hears the tearing of our heart-strings and calls out, “stop serving the god of Alcohol. He can’t give you what you need to deal with your loneliness. I can. Stop serving the god of TV. He will only help you forget your pain for a time, but I will take it away. Stop putting your hope in the treasures of this earth, serving the god of over-working so that one day you can rest. I am your hope and came to give you rest on every side.

God is real, personal, and has emotions just like us. When we take him off the throne it is like we are cheating on him, would rather get our needs met by someone or something else than the one who desperately longs for a relationship with us. He bled on an alter of his choosing for that relationship. He sacrificed himself because of that love. And while he is still bleeding out, we are too busy to notice. We stand with the mockers, making fun of him saying, “Is God sleeping! Why isn’t he saving you from the cross! Is God busy? Why isn’t he saving me from my financial bondage. God must not be real because he is not bringing the rain when I ask for it.”

Even while we are yet speaking, Jesus opens his mouth and says, “forgive them, Father, for they know not what they are doing.” They don’t see the damage they are doing to themselves by worship these idols. They don’t see what blending in with the culture around them is doing to their families. And in those final breaths, God isn’t interested in slapping us on the wrist because he is a vengeful and hateful ruler. He is more interested in forgiveness. God wants us to know how far he is willing to go to bring us back to him, the One who can and will provide for all our needs consistently, continually, and completely!

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