Just a Soupcon, It’s Okay

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

In recent days I’ve been told that I am, perhaps, just a bit too intense about this whole Christianity thing. I’m just a little too serious about obeying Jesus. I make people uncomfortable. Maybe I should just back off a little.

Makes me think of Jeremiah:

Then I said, “I will not make mention of Him,

Nor speak anymore in His name.”

But His word was in my heart like a burning fire

Shut up in my bones;

I was weary of holding it back,

And I could not.

– Jeremiah 20:9 (NKJV)

No, I’m not claiming to be a prophet. Calm down.

I am claiming to understand the temptation to hold back. To bite my tongue. To keep silent. To please people and strive for popularity instead of speaking (writing, really) the truth. I know that my words are often strong. You know it, too. What you may not know, however, is that they come from a cracked heart. You do not know about the hours I spend in prayer, begging God to stir up the fires of repentance and revival in our hearts. I believe He hears. I believe He moves.

We don’t hear. We don’t move.

I look around at my fellow believers and I wonder just what it is that we think we’re doing. In other parts of the world, people die for their faith, while we complain if someone prays for too long.

So let’s just go ahead and talk about idolatry, shall we?

Might as well keep the “you write things that I don’t like” streak alive.

Because I really don’t know how we, the Western Church in general, are escaping the lightning bolts that should justifiably incinerate us.

We, who are supposed to know better, waste time worshiping “Christian celebrities,” rising to their defense any time someone dares to question them. (Yes, I know that some people are trolls and they can’t figure out how to argue intelligently so they go for the personal attacks. This is not what I’m talking about). We pat their heads and say, “Oh, poor you,” whenever a dissenting comment gets posted on their blogs or another Christian leader has the audacity to point out where their theology has gone wild.

We waste time worshiping power. Though the primary purpose of my writing isn’t to engage in politics, only a blind and deaf person could have escaped noticing how so-called evangelical leaders slavishly praise every move of the current administration. Because we think, maybe, we can force our vision of society on the country through the people who occupy congressional seats and the person who works in the Oval Office. It’s not like the Holy Spirit has to indwell a person in order for her to live as Christ commands.

We waste time worshiping offense. We relish calling people “snowflakes.” We scream “microaggression!” and, instead of just not going to listen to a certain person speak, we drive them off of campuses and out of stadiums. We get all hot under the collar when – gasp! – we discover that there are different viewpoints, different experiences, different ways of thinking. (All of this is far cry from working for justice, which much of this butthurtedness masquerades as).

We waste time worshiping “the way things used to be.” Don’t change the time we meet for Sunday service. Don’t step on out toes in a sermon. Don’t change the small group curriculum. Don’t paint the wall that color. Don’t dress in a way that we don’t like. Don’t bring snacks that we think are gross. Don’t ask us to do anything that’s even remotely outside of our comfort zone.

We waste time worshiping “the way things should be.” This church sucks. These people suck. Let’s complain about it, but not actually do anything to bring about positive change. Let’s not pray or study Scripture or you know, repent.

We waste time worshiping position. We want everyone to see our good works. We want to get ahead, climb the ladder. We want to be, as Leo DiCaprio so famously shouted in that one movie, “King[s] of the world.”

On and on it goes. We waste time worshiping family.  We waste time worshiping stuff. We waste time worshiping money.

But it’s all okay, we unconsciously rationalize, because it’s just a little bit of idolatry. Just a soupcon. A little dollop on top of the Jesus soup. It’ll mix in just fine. Add a little flavor, a little spice. Nobody will notice. It doesn’t matter.

Except it does.

You shall have no other gods before Me. …

…you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God…

“Now see that I, even I, am He,

And there is no God besides Me;

I kill and I make alive;

I wound and I heal;

Nor is there any who can deliver from My hand.” …

“Tell and bring forth your case;
Yes, let them take counsel together.
Who has declared this from ancient time?
Who has told it from that time?
Have not I, the Lord?
And there is no other God besides Me,
A just God and a Savior;
There is none besides Me.
Look to Me, and be saved,
All you ends of the earth!
For I am God, and there is no other.
I have sworn by Myself;
The word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness,
And shall not return,
That to Me every knee shall bow,
Every tongue shall take an oath.” …

Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

– Exodus 20:3; 34:14; Deuteronomy 32:39; Isaiah 45:21-23; 1 Timothy 1:17 (NKJV)

There is no other God and God doesn’t share glory. He’s not okay with some side-worship. He’s not cool with those little idols in our hearts. He ruthlessly digs them out and confronts us with them – for our benefit. For there is no life in idols, only death. Only disconnection from the Lord.

I point no fingers at you, dear reader, that I have not already pointed at myself.

The world is watching. They scrutinize our moves in order to ascertain if we walk what we talk. We cannot sing praises to God for a few hours on Sunday and then live out praise to some other little, gross, vile, vain thing every other moment of our lives. It’s deeply, horrendously hypocritical.

God is watching. He knows the motivations of our hearts. He knows if our worship is pure and true. He will keep picking at the raw place, shining light in the dark corner, pushing us to look at what we don’t want to look at. He will keep whispering words of conviction and tender mercy to our souls.

But we get too choose.

He doesn’t force us to do what’s best, what will set us free and make us healthy.

So what will it be?

Idols or God?

Can’t be both.

Signature

Photo credit: Alexis Brown

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: In the Presence (1:7-11)

The Lord your God in your midst,The Mighty One, will save;He will rejoice over you with gladness,He will quiet you with His love,He will rejoice over you with singing.” (1)

Gentle Reader,

We’re eleven weeks into our study of Zephaniah, and honestly? We might be here forever.

Well, not forever, for all things do come to an end. I’m just in no rush. This has been such a rich experience so far, and I don’t anticipate that changing. As the psalmist wrote,

How sweet are Your words to my taste,
Sweeter than honey to my mouth!

– 119:103 (NKJV)

How I wish I could ring every last drop of Divine goodness from these words! It is impossible, and, despite the longing, fortunate. The fathomless nature of Scripture flowing from the lips of the fathomless God of All draws us in deeper and deeper, like a never-solved mystery. He hooks us. He simply hooks us, and we are lost in the best way possible.

I should pause here and say that I feel a little awkward writing about Zephaniah, as a non-Jewish person. I have a different relationship to these words than a physical child of Abraham. If it weren’t for the Lord burning a desire to know and love this book into my heart, I wouldn’t even attempt it. Know that any gaffs I make or gaps in understanding I communicate are not meant to offend. As always, I am eager to learn.

Be Silent

“Be silent in the presence of the Lord GOD…”

– Zephaniah 1:7a

I can’t even get past the first sentence.

Zephaniah calls for silence.

There’s no room for argument. No comebacks, qualifications or explanations.

We like to think that we’re on the same level with God, that we’re His equals. We are not. Absolutely are not. Nobody gets to stand in His presence (if anyone ever really stands; throughout the Bible we see people hitting the deck as if dead any time they’re given a glimpse of the Divine) and act like they’re the best thing since sliced bread. It’s not going to happen. When the calendar turns to the page determined in ages past when Christ returns with a shout heard ’round the world and splits the Mount of Olives in two with the barest touch of His feet (1 Thessalonians 4:16, Zechariah 14:4), everyone who has ever lived ever will fall down and proclaim Him Lord (Philippians 2:10).

No other options available.

Zephaniah understood who he was in relation to God. He knew that the words he’d been given to speak and to write came from the very mouth that called the universe into being. I have to think that he obeyed his own command and sat in stunned, worshipful silence for at least a few minutes at some point during his ministry. How could he not?

We should do likewise.

Protestant Christians are freaked out by anything that even smells slightly mystic. There’s a lot of good sense in that, but silence doesn’t have to be this weird, emptying of the mind, the colors are speaking kind of thing. We talk to God all the time through prayer and song. In fact, we run our mouths. A lot. While we should go “boldly to the throne” (Hebrews 4:16), part of that going needs to involve sitting as His feet, waiting for Him to speak. Listening attentively. Letting ourselves be overcome with awe and wonder.

If need be, covering our faces in guilt and repentance.

The Slaughter, the Guest

For the day of the LORD is at hand,
For the LORD has prepared a sacrifice;
He has invited His guests.

– 1:7b (NKJV)

Remember: prophecy has layers.

This day is a specific day, unrelated to the culmination of all things. Zephaniah sees that Judah is about the suffer punishment for their sin.

These were people well versed in the language of sacrifice. Day after day they heard the sounds of animals dying in the Temple. They smelled the blood and the burning flesh. They knew exactly how the animals were prepared for slaughter. Even the most ignorant resident of Jerusalem would have been at least somewhat familiar with the dictates laid down in Exodus and Leviticus.

I imagine Zephaniah’s face draining of color as he receives this vision.

They are the sacrifice.

The people stood on the edge of a holy knife blade.

“…for the punishing of presumptuous sinners is a sacrifice to the justice of God, some reparation to [H]is injured honour.” (1)

We like the hippy-god of the not-bible, the one who doesn’t exist. Oh, God would never punish anyone, we insist. He’s all peace and love. He is. He’s also holy. As we discussed before, He had clearly, explicitly laid out the consequences of disobedience. He gave the people chance after chance after chance to turn away from their sin. At any moment He would have forgiven them, welcomed them back.

That is one thing we must remember going forward. God is consistent. He is not merciful here and just there. He is both, always. When the punishment descended upon Jerusalem, He was faithful to respond to any final, gasped or whispered cry for forgiveness. No doubt.

“..God was hosting the sacrifice. His guests were the Babylonians…” (2)

Very quick history: Babylon was a city in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), situated between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. It may or may not have been the site of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), which could have been a ziggurat (an early type of stepped temple). One of its kings was a guy named Hammurabi who wrote the world’s first (debated) law code. There were a couple of different Babylonian empires. The empire of Zephaniah’s time was the second, referred to as “Neo-Babylonian” or “Chaldean.” At its peak:

File:Neo-Babylonian Empire.png

Judah had a run-in with Babylon during the reign of King Hezekiah (2 Kings 20). Berodach-Baladan (there’s a name for you) sent some ambassadors to Jerusalem and Hezekiah thought it was a good idea to show off how wealthy and fabulous he was.

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD: ‘Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and what your fathers have accumulated until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left,’ says the LORD. ‘And they shall take away some of your sons who will descend from you, whom you will beget; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’”

So Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the Lord which you have spoken is good!” For he said, “Will there not be peace and truth at least in my days?”

– 2 Kings 20:16-19 (NKJV)

Hezekiah’s response kills me. Oh, no big deal. It’s not going to happen to me!

So nice of him.

The time had come for Isaiah’s words to come to pass. God was about to remove His protective had from Judah and allow the Babylonians to do as they pleased.

Money Can’t Save You

“And it shall be,
In the day of the LORD’s sacrifice,
That I will punish the princes and the king’s children,
And all such as are clothed with foreign apparel.
In the same day I will punish
All those who leap over the threshold,
Who fill their masters’ houses with violence and deceit.”

– 1:8-9 (NKJV)

Class didn’t matter. Bank accounts didn’t matter. All who defied God would experience the same fate. All were equal before Him.

Think on that for a second. So often people say that God should judge individuals by their actions.

He does.

The reference to “foreign apparel” here has nothing to do with buying jeans made in Italy. These are either “ornaments of the idols,” (3) garments or talismans related to the cult of a false god (sort of like wearing “blessed underwear” or “healing crystals”) or a remark on an obsession with appearance as way of showing off wealth and status; “pride in apparel is displeasing to God, and a symptom of the degeneracy of a people” (4; let that one sink in). Either way, even the way the people were dressing showed just how far from the Lord they had strayed.

Leaping over a threshold was yet another way they gave themselves over to sin. Fascinatingly, this could refer to someone “who follows the customs of the Philistines, who would not step on the threshold of Dagon, as it is stated (I Samuel 5:5).” (5) How paranoid one must have been, to fear stepping on a threshold! As the practice is tied to filling homes with “violence and deceit,” I am more inclined to believe that this points to property disputes and theft, a problem discussed at length throughout Hosea and Amos.

Great Mourning

“And there shall be on that day,” says the LORD,
“The sound of a mournful cry from the Fish Gate,
A wailing from the Second Quarter,
And a loud crashing from the hills.
Wail, you inhabitants of Maktesh!
For all the merchant people are cut down;
All those who handle money are cut off.”

– Zephaniah 1:10-11 (NKJV)

These verses revealed how familiar Zephaniah was with the city of Jerusalem. So familiar, it was probably his hometown. The tragedy becomes deeper, sharper when you think that he might have played on those streets as a boy or gone to the market to fetch something for dinner, as a kindness to his wife.

“The Fish Gate was where the fisherman had their markets; the ‘second quarter’ was where the rich people lived in the fashionable houses, built from the wages owed to poor laborers. ‘Maktesh’ was the market and business district of the city where the merchants and bankers were located.” (6)

Food supply would be cut off. Trading would cease. All of Jerusalem would be overcome.

Reflection

  1. Is God’s word sweet to you? Do you love it? Why or why not?
  2. Read Daniel 7:9-10, Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 1:12-18. Sit in silence. Contemplate the picture these passages paint.
  3. Moses is a great example of someone who both understood his place before God and loved God with all that he was. Read Exodus 33:12-34:9. What did Moses refuse to do? Why? What did He ask God to do? What does this reveal? What was most important to Moses?
  4. Some of us have to learn the hard way. The consequences of idolatry are a dominate theme throughout Zephaniah. Last week we asked God to show us the things that we are prone to worship. Take some time now and think about the fallout you’ve experienced from worshiping anything other that God. How has this brought you closer to God?
  5. Read Zephaniah 1:7-11. What stands out to you?

My journey to faith. (15)

Sources

(1) Sacrifice

(2) Warren Weirsbe. Be Concerned: Minor Prophets. (David C. Cook: Colorado Springs, 1996), 148

Image

(3) Foreign Apparel Option #1

(4) Foreign Apparel Option #2

(5) Threshold Leaping

(6) Weirsbe, 148.

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.

The LORD Your God in Your Midst: Cut off Every Trace (1:4-6)

The Lord your God in your midst,The Mighty One, will save;He will rejoice over you with gladness,He will quiet you with His love,He will rejoice over you with singing.” (1)

Gentle Reader,

“I will stretch out My hand against Judah,
And against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem.
I will cut off every trace of Baal from this place,
The names of the idolatrous priests with the pagan priests—
Those who worship the host of heaven on the housetops;
Those who worship and swear oaths by the LORD,
But who also swear by Milcom;
Those who have turned back from following the LORD,
And have not sought the LORD, nor inquired of Him.”

– 1:4-6 (NKJV)

It’s Personal

God doesn’t tolerate idolatry. Period.

We like to think that there are many ways to God. We like to think that He’ll let anyone and everyone into Heaven because we’re “good people,” except for, you know, Hitler and Stalin. We like to think that all religions are equal and really teach the same things and if everyone would just hold hands and sing a little Kumbaya we’d all be fine.

Wrong.

Couldn’t be more wrong.

Idolatry is simply defined as the worship of idols. It took (and continues to take) three common forms:

Fetishism, or the worship of trees, rivers, hills, stones, etc.

Nature worship, the worship of the sun, moon, and stars, as the supposed powers of nature.

Hero worship, the worship of deceased ancestors, or of heroes. (1)

Paul writes in Romans 1:28 that idolatry happens because men turn away from God and sink into ignorance and moral decay. Despite the claims of atheism, we do not have the ability to eradicate our need to worship. Turning away from God simply means that we turn to something or someone else. In ancient times this often looked like altars under trees or carved images shrouded in dark, incense-filled temples or philosophical debates in city squares. Today this often looks like workaholism, materialism or self-centeredness.

Six verses into the book of Zephaniah and we’ve seen the covenant Name of God five times. This announcement of judgment is personal. This is the God making His displeasure known. The people of Judah are facing a bleak future because they assumed that they could do whatever they wanted, worship whomever and whatever they wanted. They thought that perhaps God was merely part of a pantheon. They could love Him and love another.

Again, wrong.

Baal

The most significant male deity of the Canaanites and his consort Asherah were the most alluring deities confronting Israel in the promised land following the conquest. The numerous references to Baal in the Old Testament indicate his attractiveness and influence on the Israelites. …

Baal’s name derives from the Semitic word ba’lu, meaning “lord.” He was assumed to fulfill several significant roles by the peoples who worshiped him. As god of the storm the roar of his voice in the heavens was the thunder of the sky. He was the god who both created and granted fertility. … He was the god of justice, feared by evildoers. …

The cult of Baal involved the offering of many animal sacrifices. Priests would officiate on behalf of the persons presenting sacrificial animals to the god. Some of the northern kingdom rulers even “made their sons pass through fire”offering their own sons as sacrifices to Baal. “Holy prostitutes” both male and female were available to worshipers, encouraging the fertility of both land and people. (2)

Israel had a long history with Baal. One generation after the Conquest (outlined in Joshua), the people turned away from God. (One generation. Think on that). They decided it would be better to align themselves with Baal. Judges 2:14 says that “the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel” because of this. By Zephaniah’s time, it’s a case of “that same ol’ sin.”

One of the funniest Old Testament stories involves the worship of Baal. In 1 Kings 18:16-45, the prophet Elijah confronts the priests of Baal at Mt. Carmel. It’s basically a throw-down designed to reveal who the true Lord really is. Elijah says,

Therefore let them give us two bulls; and let them choose one bull for themselves, cut it in pieces, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it; and I will prepare the other bull, and lay it on the wood, but put no fire under it. Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD; and the God who answers by fire, He is God.”

– 1 Kings 18:23-24a (NKJV)

He stands there watching as the priests of Baal do their thing. They call out to their god. They weep. They dance around the altar. They even cut themselves. Elijah mocks them the whole time:

“Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened.”

– vs. 27b

I can just see him there, rocking his long righteous beard and some sweet robes. “Oh, is he napping? Should we check back later? Oh, wait – maybe he went on a trip and didn’t tell you!”

Love it.

Take some time to read the rest of the story, for God clearly reveals Himself to be the only deity present that day.

Host of Heaven

Sun, moon, stars.

One of the most famous examples of this type of worship comes to us from Egypt:

During the reign of Akhenaten The Aten was installed as the principle god of ancient Egypt, and the worship of many of the traditional gods of ancient Egypt was rejected. The Aten was not a new god but an obscure aspect of the sun god worshipped as early as the Old Kingdom. “Aten” was the traditional name for the sun-disk itself. (3)

Pharaoh Akhenaten turned Egypt on its head by insisting, at first, that The Aten was chief among the ginormous pantheon, then later impressing upon his people that The Aten was the only god they should worship. (To be fair, some scholars believe that Akehenaten understood The Aten not as a god, but as a manifestation of the god).

Then as now, astrology was an important and popular practice. Attempting to ascertain life patterns or future events based on the positions of stars and planets at certain points in time made about as much sense in ancient Judah as it does now. Ever notice how horoscopes are vague? How they can be interpreted to mean a myriad of things?

Yeah. That’s because Mercury being in retrograde or whatever has nothing to do with anything. Astrology is about as useful for directing your life as fortune cookies are.

Milcom

Milcom, called the “abomination” of the Ammonites, was apparently the chief deity of the Ammonites or Moabites. The “abomination” label seems to convey both the detestable aspect of origin and of the worship of Lot’s descendants. Solomon built a worship facility for this foreign deity (see 1 Kings 11:51 Kings 11:71 Kings 11:33 ). Milcom is sometimes identified with Molech, but this is incorrect since the two gods were worshiped individually. (4)

The Ammonites, descendants of Lot’s incestuous union with one of his daughters (true story – Genesis 19), were related to the people of Israel. This didn’t mean that they had a warm and cozy relationship, though. The Ammonites constantly pestered the people of Israel, despite this kinship. King David seems to have subdued them after a nasty diplomatic incident (2 Samuel 10), but a spirit of bitterness and resentment remained.

Their hostility to both kingdoms, Judah and Israel, was often manifested. In the days of Jehoshaphat they joined with the Moabites in an attack upon him, but met with disaster (2 Chronicles 20). … Their hostility to Judah is shown in their joining the Chaldeans to destroy it (2 Kings 24:2). Their cruelty is denounced by the prophet Amos 1:13, and their destruction by Jeremiah 49:1-6, Ezekiel 21:28-32, Zephaniah 2:8, 9. … Tobiah the Ammonites united with Sanballat to oppose Ne[hemiah] (Nehemiah 4), and their opposition to the Jews did not cease with the establishment of the latter in Judea. (5)

It makes little sense why the people living in Jerusalem would give themselves over to worshiping the chief deity of people who absolutely despised them. Perhaps they did so in an effort to undermine their enemies; to get this god on “their side.” Nobody knows for sure. Some argue that, though Milcom and Molech are distinct, this passage could be referring to the latter instead of the former. If so,

Molech or Moloch was another “abomination” of the Ammonites. Solomon also built a high place for this god in Jerusalem. The worship of this god was particularly odious, as it required human sacrifice. (6)

Reflection

  1. Read Romans 1:18-32. Where does idolatry lead us? To life or to destruction?
  2. Read James 3:13-18. What is the evidence of human wisdom? Of heavenly wisdom?
  3. In the New Testament, idolatry can sometimes be understood as referring to covetousness, or the strong desire to have what someone else has. How are these concepts related? There’s no right or wrong answer.
  4. Read Zephaniah 1:1-6. Meditate on it. (Christian meditation is not the emptying of the mind, but rather focused thinking on God’s word). What stands out to you? How are you moved to worship the Lord?
  5. Every single person struggles with idolatry. It’s easy to put all of our attention and affection on something or someone other than God. What is the thing or person in your life? Spend some time in prayer over this. Confess and repent, assured that He will forgive you. Ask God to make you aware of when you’re turning from Him. Ask Him to give you an undivided heart.

My journey to faith. (15)

Sources

(1) Idolatry

(2) Baal

(3) The Aten

(4) Milcom

(5) Ammonites

(6) Molech

For all entries in The LORD Your God in Your Midst series, go here.

31 Days of Brave: Connection #3

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Please know that the words I’m choosing to highlight in this post are not the only words that can be translated as “fear” or “afraid,” but they are the common terms. Also know that I am not using every word found in each definition; that would take up a lot of space and you might get bored. If you want to pursue this further (and I hope you do!) check out the “original language tools” at StudyLight).

Gentle Reader,

Do you ever have moments when you learn something about yourself and it just makes you angry?

Today is one of those days.

I decided to examine the words for “fear” and “afraid” in the Hebrew and Greek. What I found is startling:

Morah: reverence, terror

Yare: revere, afraid, in awe of, respect

Yirah: awesome or terrifying, dreadful

Phobos: fear, dread, terror, reverence

Phobeo: put to flight, scare away, flee, startle, amaze, reverence, deference

Did you catch the thread running through each of those definitions?

A feeling of profound awe and respect and often love.

Reverence.

And that just makes me so mad. Profound awe? Respect? Love? Those emotions, in that combination, are to be felt toward the Lord alone. They are elements of worship, folks. Worship.

Before you object, I am with you in agreeing that certain types of fear are good. We shouldn’t take walks down the middle of the freeway. We shouldn’t pick up rattlesnakes. We shouldn’t play Russian Roulette. Our lives quite literally depend upon us recognizing dangerous situations and proceeding with common sense and caution. But none of us can escape the connection the inspired authors of Scripture made between fear and worship.

It’s a perverse thing, this worship. When using caution in driving pushes us to drive as little as possible, or not at all. When an encounter with a mean dog pushes us to avoid all dogs. When a bad grade pushes us to drop out of college. When a panicked moment in a mall pushes us to never leave the house.

We hold that thing in awe.

We put that thing up on a pedestal and we bow down to its power.

Bravery pushes the pedestal over.

My journey to faith. (15)

  For all of the posts in the 31 Days: Brave series, go here.