Apocrypha lesson: Don’t Be Idle About Idolatry

given on Sunday, April 14, 2013 (The second of the April Apocrypha series.)

The Letter of Jeremiah or Baruch 6:1-6, 36-40, and 70-73 of the Apocrypha the NRSV,ACE

(italics added for emphasis only)

A copy of a letter that Jeremiah sent to those who were to be taken to Babylon as exiles by the king of the Babylonians, to give them the message that God had commanded him.

The People Face a Long Captivity

Because of the sins that you have committed before God, you will be taken to Babylon as exiles by Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Babylonians. Therefore, when you have come to Babylon you will remain there for many years, for a long time, up to seven generations; after that I will bring you away from there in peace. Now in Babylon you will see gods made of silver and gold and wood, which people carry on their shoulders, and which cause the heathen to fear. So beware of becoming at all like the foreigners or of letting fear for these gods[b] possess you when you see the multitude before and behind them worshipping them. But say in your heart, ‘It is you, O Lord, whom we must worship.’

. . . 36 They cannot save anyone from death or rescue the weak from the strong. 37 They cannot restore sight to the blind; they cannot rescue one who is in distress. 38 They cannot take pity on a widow or do good to an orphan. 39 These things that are made of wood and overlaid with gold and silver are like stones from the mountain, and those who serve them will be put to shame. 40 Why then must anyone think that they are gods, or call them gods?

The Foolishness of Worshiping Idols

Besides, even the Chaldeans themselves dishonour them; for when they see someone who cannot speak, they bring Bel and pray that the mute may speak, as though Bel[a] were able to understand!

. . . 70 Like a scarecrow in a cucumber bed, which guards nothing, so are their gods of wood, overlaid with gold and silver. 71 In the same way, their gods of wood, overlaid with gold and silver, are like a thornbush in a garden on which every bird perches; or like a corpse thrown out in the darkness. 72 From the purple and linen[a] that rot upon them you will know that they are not gods; and they will finally be consumed themselves, and be a reproach in the land. 73 Better, therefore, is someone upright who has no idols; such a person will be far above reproach.

The Sermon

Did you realize that we have entered Tornado Season?  The weather forecasters are certainly busy reminding us that we need to be prepared.  I drove past one house a few blocks away who received a “family chest” to be installed in their house.  Then I opened up the Methodist Reporter to see Joplin’s rebuilt UMC church was used on Easter Sunday for the first time since the tornado in May 2011.

What connection could all this make with writings in the apocrypha?  I connected back to the apocrypha’s Letter of Jeremiah, sometimes referred to as Baruch.  On the first read through, I struggled to find any sense of value in the book.  Then I visualized the destroyed Joplin of two years ago and thought just how quickly all those people lost their most prized possessions.  How do they lose everything and keep their faith?

Jeremiah may not be a weather forecaster nor did he live through a tornado.  What Jeremiah was predicting was just as devastating as Joplin’s tornado.  His people needed to listen to his prediction because their lives were about to be dramatically changed.  The Israelites were being relocated to a different country, Babylon, which was a pagan culture.

As a Jewish prophet, Jeremiah warned against fighting Nebuchadnezzar, but in the apocryphal letter, his warning is against idolatry.  As the Israelites are being forced to move to Babylon, they were going to be in direct contact with the gentiles’ worship of idols.  Such influences would challenge the Jewish faithful and risk leading them into idolatry, too.

The body of the letter is focused on the description of idols and how they are made, worshiped and used.  The verses, which end each section, are key to Jeremiah’s arguments:

  • Verse 5:  So beware of becoming at all like the foreigners or of letting fear for these gods[b] possess you when you see the multitude before and behind them worshipping them. But say in your heart, ‘It is you, O Lord, whom we must worship.’
  • Verse 40:  Why then must anyone think that they are gods, or call them gods?
  • Verse 73:  Better, therefore, is someone upright who has no idols; such a person will be far above reproach.

Granted, the Letter of Jeremiah or the book Baruch is not a matching writing style to the Book of Jeremiah that is included in the Old Testament.  Yet the work of a prophet is not always as polished as one might expect.  The incident, the forced move or exile of the Israelites into Babylon, called for immediate and dramatic attention, similar to the weather alerts that appear on our televisions today:  hence, the correlation of the apocrypha’s letter of warning to today’s public broadcast of impending severe weather.  Do we take cover or do we just sit back and wait?  Are we prepared to ‘weather the storm’ (pardon the cliché)?  Is our faith God-centered or filled with idols?

Idolatry was a continual concern of the faithful.  References to idols, graven images, and inappropriate behaviors are found throughout the Old and New Testament; therefore, it should be no surprise that it is in the apocrypha, too.  There should be no surprise that the concern over idols is also in the New Testament, either.  Paul refers to concerns about idolatry in several of his letters to the early churches:

  • Colossians 3:5-8  Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.[b] These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.[c] But now you must get rid of all such things
  • Ephesians 5:5  Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

Maybe today, the 21st century, while we listen to forecasters warning us to take cover in severe weather, maybe we should hear Jeremiah’s warnings.  Think how lives are changed, how your life can be changed, in the flash of the moment a tornado touches down and destroys all you have held dear and neatly gathered in your house.  Could you let go?

In the Bible, idols refer primarily statues, often made of wood and dressed up in gold or silver.  The objects were transported with the people.  They kept them in places of honor; in fact, temples were built for them.  Even the Jewish temples could become a form of idolatry.  For these reasons, Jeremiah prophesized against idolatry.

In a resource, What Does the Bible Say About . . ., the idolatry of ancient time is discussed in contemporary terms:

Perhaps you tend to think of an idol as a figure made from wood or stone to which primitive people pray and offer sacrifices.  But the Lord defined what an idol is when he told Ezekiel that it is something that a person puts before him in a way that causes him to stumble into iniquity (Ezek. 14:4).  Idols are not just the cared objects that sit in pagan temples; they are the godless cravings and commitments that rule in our hearts.  (p. 213)

As the resource continues the discussion about idolatry, a clear shift from the ancient times when Jeremiah issued verbal warnings to the Israelites to today’s world when forecasts are made via various media. The concept or definition of idolatry is modified:

Today’s increasingly secular society may seem to have little in common with the world of Jeremiah’s day.  . . . [Today] An idol is anything that is sacred to a person, in that it defines self-worth, becomes controlling center of life, and takes priority over all other loyalties.  (p.214)

Today’s world is different, true, but the commandment said, “Have no other god before Me.”  An honest evaluation may reveal how seriously that commandment is broken.

Stop and consider exactly what you value.  The weather forecasters have predicted a highly active tornado season for the Midwest.  Tornado survivors probably have an answer for what they center their lives.  Are we ready to have our lives ripped apart and refocused?  Or can we refocus our lives without damaging the things we own?

Today, as we continue to wait for the warm, sunny days of Spring, find the time to refocus your lives.  Ask yourself whether or not you are practicing idolatry in one form or another.  Ask yourself how your faith would survive a tornado.  Ask yourself what defines your life.  The resource, What Does the Bible Say About . . . , asks:

What would be an idol for you?  What do you hold “sacred” in the sense that it defines who you are, controls your life, and is the last thing that you would ever let go?  (Ibid.)

Maybe your answers are not idol-centered; maybe they are God-centered.  You probably see the world as temporary, as home for now.  You may love your family and value them before anything else on the earth.  You may worry about the business, the machinery in the barn, the lives of your cattle, even the form and shape of the trees around your home.  You may value the pictures hanging on the walls, the videos of kids and grandkids, the antiques passed down through the generations.  But, are they idols or are they just the stuff that accents your lives?

If a life-altering experience occurs today, tomorrow, or a year from now, is your life God-centered?  What do you need to do to be more faithful?  What idols do you need to get rid of?  How can you redefine your faith so when the forecast becomes a reality, you can let go and let God?

Jeremiah sent warnings.  He used every different way he could imagine to refocus the Jewish people’s thinking for the difficulties living in a pagan society.  Some listened, some did not.

Fortunately we do not perceive ourselves living in a culture that teems with idols—or do we?  Do we idolize our professional sports teams, the actors and actresses winning Academy Awards, the houses we must have, the latest devices, the cars we drive?

The list can go on and on, but if we remain God-centered, we are prepared to let go and let God be in charge.  We do not have to worry about the tornadoes forecasted for the spring season.  We do not have to worry if floods destroy our homes.  We can prepare, but we do not have to let our world control our lives.

Last week, we praised the Lord for our lives.  Today, we evaluate what we focus on in our daily lives.  We review how well we live God-centered lives.  We prepare to defend ourselves from the secular world as well as the natural disasters.  We look toward God and his promise of eternal life.

The words of advice are around us, whether in the Old Testament, the Apocrypha, or the New Testament.  Advice is available through all the ancient means and now through the 21st century media, too.  But, when all else fails there is that key communication tool that supersedes all those humans have created—prayer.

Dear God,

Each week we struggle to remain focused on your power.

We witness the destruction of natural forces,

But we also witness the power of faith in those who suffer.

Prepare each of us here to manage the challenges

To our daily lives, to our property, and to our faith.

Guide us through the words of scripture,

Of prophets, of Jesus, of apostles, and of Paul.

Help us heed the warnings from the prophets of old

But also the forecasters and sages of today.

Let each of us serve one another in love, too,

So others may learn of Your grace

And the promise of eternal life.  –Amen





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