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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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What do you mean Holy Ghost? Who is the Holy Spirit?

given on Sunday, July 8, 2012

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make noise?  This is just one of those questions people ask in fun; but also this is a question to ponder and to argue with deep-seeded thinkers.  Questions like this are used in schools to develop higher order thinking skills, to create inquisitive minds, or to stimulate a conversation.  The same type of questions creates long, evenings of debate at social gatherings.

Abstract ideas easily frustrate a person who lives in a concrete world and struggles to understand non-materialistic concepts.  Is it any wonder when someone mentions the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit that debates spring up around it, too?  Even the name creates confusion—Holy Ghost to some while others comfortably use Holy Spirit.  How does one explain this third element of the triune?

The answers to these questions are particularly difficult in a society that is more materialistic, more secular, and more skeptical than it was 100, 200, or even 400 years ago.  Americans celebrated another 4th of July this week, but the society we live in today is vastly different than in 1776.

As Christians, we need to be able to put into words exactly what Christianity is, what the triune God is, and what the Holy Spirit/Ghost is.  Skeptics demand physical proof as clear evidence of Christianity, yet faith is an abstract concept itself.  The evidence is in the outcomes of living a Christian life.  The evidence is in the relationships of Christians to their family, their friends, their co-workers, and their enemies.  The evidence is an intangible quality that draws others to them.

The Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, synonyms or interchangeable names, is visible in the relationships as well as in the actions of Christians.  The Holy Ghost is God’s presence within us; it is the tool that we use to act.  Holy Ghost is a tangible being that is proven over and over by the acts of Christians everywhere.

Evidence:  the outpouring of people racing to Joplin, the firefighters working around the clock right now trying to control forest fires, the neighbors pouring out to locate missing children, neighbors, aging seniors or complete strangers, the first responders to accidents, the sole individual who hears the cry of a lost child in a store.  The list of Christians who respond is evidence of the Holy Ghost in action.  It is the tool that we use to do the seemingly impossible as well as the simplest action of a hug.

Remember that looking at the world through God’s eyes allows us to apply that simple law of loving one another whether we know someone personally or whether someone is a complete stranger.  The Holy Spirit exists to provide us the ability, the resources, and the action to serve.  God’s dream of a world of humans who live harmoniously in his garden is our dream, too.

Back to the questions, though:  What is the Holy Ghost?  Who is the Holy Spirit?  Why do we need the Holy Ghost?  As Christians, we know that with the Holy Spirit, we can continue to demonstrate God’s love.  We can do whatever we can for all those we can in as many ways as we can—if we allow the Holy Ghost to work through us.

The Apostles and the earliest disciples had a man, Jesus Christ, to teach them how to live out the New Covenant.  God provided a concrete means of teaching the earliest believers how to live under the New Covenant, under one simple law rather than the volumes of law the Israelites created.  When the society surrounding the first converts felt challenged, the physical being of God was destroyed—Jesus was crucified.

At Pentecost, which was a traditional harvest celebration in the Jewish culture, the Holy Spirit baptized the Apostles and early disciples so that they were equipped to continue Jesus’ work.  The Holy Spirit replaces the second element of God, the human being Jesus Christ.  This third being may not be tangible, but is evidenced by the work of Christians then and now.

According to the Apologetics Study Bible article, “Who is the Holy Spirit?” by Dave Sterrett, there are five answers to that question:

  1. the Holy Spirit is fully God,
  2. the Holy Spirit is a person, not an impersonal force,
  3. the Holy Spirit is distinct from the Son and the Father
  4. the Holy Spirit indwells Christians; and
  5. we learn that God gives the Holy Spirit to anyone who believes in Jesus.

Wow!  Not just one answer, but five answers to the question of  “Who is the Holy Spirit?”  Sterrett also references Bible verses from both the Old and the New Testaments to demonstrate that the Holy Ghost has and continues to be part of the triune God.  The Holy Spirit is God.  The Holy Spirit is just as mysterious and complex as God because they are one in the same.

Beginning with just the second verse in Genesis, Sterrett points out the Holy Spirit was included:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.  (the NIV)

He continues with references from Job and Psalms.  Even a review a concordance shows even more references to the Spirit.  Of course, one can expand the research by looking for additional terms:  Holy Spirit, Holy Ghost, Counselor, Friend, Tongues of Fire, Breath, Wind, and so on.

Looking at the references in John:14-16, I found the arguments for the Holy Spirit parallels those in Luke’s writings:

John 14:14-18:  15 “If you love me, you will obey what I command. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[c] in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.

John 14:25-26:  25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.

John 15:26-27:  26 “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me. 27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.

John 16:5-15:  “Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt[g] in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; 10 in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.

The arguments are all there, in the Bible, so why the questions:  Who is the Holy Spirit?  What does the Holy Ghost mean?  How do we know there is a Holy Spirit?  What evidence is there that the Holy Ghost is a presence among us even today?

We may live in the 21st century, in a society filled with skeptics and non-believers, but the evidence exists all around us.  The Holy Spirit is present.  Take courage in this understanding and step out knowing you are equipped to do God’s work.

In Eugene Peterson’s The Message Remix:  Solo—an uncommon devotional, on day 246 he refers to Acts 4:24-31.

This excerpt primarily is a prayer that we can still use today.  In verse 23 he begins with the connection to the Old Testament, “By the Holy Spirit you spoke through the mouth of your servant and our father, David . . .” Then at the end of the prayer in verse 31, Luke describes the arrival of the Holy Spirit and how it equipped the Apostles and earliest disciples:

While they were praying, the place where they were meeting trembled and shook.  They were filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak God’s Words with fearless confidence.

Today we may not feel the church tremble and shake, but I know the Holy Spirit is present and working through us.  I know what fearless confidence is.

Dear Heavenly Father,

Thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

We know you have commissioned us

to continue making disciples of Christ,

to transform this world through the New Covenant.

We hesitate all too often thinking we cannot do it.

We fear that we do not have what it takes to do the work.

Thank you, too, for the gift of the Bible.

With these tools and prayer, we know that we can

Fulfill our callings with fearless confidence.  –Amen


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Dreaming through God’s Eyes

given on Sunday, July 1, 2012

Hot summer days are traditionally times when we fall into daydreams.  The thoughts of cool vacation spots in the mountains, sitting on a boat in the early morning cool, or lounging on a beach with a book may be the ideal getaway.  Daydreaming lets our minds escape and even gives us some mental relief from the harsh realities existing around us.

Why right now I am daydreaming about one of those summer rainy days when the great big, white, boiling clouds show up and the grey on the bottom intensifies until the bolts of lightening strike out.  The lightening and thunder usher in the rain that tapers into gentle, cooling showers that soaks into the dry-sponge-like ground.

A rainy day filled with relief from the reality of our drought conditions is a not a daydream but a necessity for us watching the crops and gardens struggling to remain productive.  Our daydream must turn into prayers of supplication.  We have no means of managing the weather, we have no control and that makes the reality even feel more demoralizing.  But, we have faith, we have hope, and we have God.  What we forget is to use the tools we have.

Looking at today’s circumstances around the nation, I am reminded of the dreams of the earliest settlers.  The land on which we live and farm were here before we were.  We must remember that others inhabited this land before the European explorers began their journeys into the unknown.  Still, if explorers had not dreamed, would we be living in our homes right now?

Dreaming is a tool.  Dreaming led the Puritans to sail to new shores.  Dreaming led revolutionaries to begin a new country.  Dreaming lead John Wesley to identify methods for developing and growing one’s faith.  Dreaming caused Methodism to grow into an active Christian denomination serving one another in love.

Dreaming is not a dangerous activity especially if we dream through God’s eyes.   As we read Genesis’s creation story, we can perceive God’s dream to have a universe, to have the flora and the fauna, and to have humanity.  As we read through the Old Testament stories, we see how God continually works to preserve the dream.

Imagine the frustration and disappointment even God experiences over and over.  His dream is endangered and he sends Jesus to demonstrate the tools needed to preserve the dream—the universe.  Jesus, God in human form, is love.  Over and over his actions demonstrate how loving one another is the one simple law all people really ever need.  God’s dreams, even our dreams, can be achieved by always maintaining that one commandment:  Love one another.

Dreaming through God’s eyes ideally leads us to repeatedly implement that law.  Loving one another may begin with loving God, loving self, loving family, and loving our neighbors, but it grows.  The very law of loving one another becomes a lifestyle; it becomes the driving force behind our daily activities, our jobs, and even our leisure.

In our daily crisis, we fail to maintain that one law.  We become so filled with anxiety that looking at the problem through God’s eyes is far from our first thought.  We find ourselves panicking as we sense the loss of a dream.  We fail to use the tools of our faith to stabilize the crisis.  We fail to keep in touch with God.  We fail to pray.  We fail to read the Bible.  We fail to work in community.  And, we lose the dream.

As we begin this week, we will take time on Wednesday to celebrate the dreams of our American forefathers.  They dreamed.  They prayed.  And they acted.  We value dreams as Americans, we honor dreams of the past.  Are we ready to continue dreaming through God’s eyes to continue working to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world?

Maybe I perceive the world through a “Pollyanna” mindset, but I dream.  I do not think I could manage the various crisis’s life hands me without my faith.  I do not think I could wake up to another 100 degree day without the hope that rain will cool us down—sooner or later.  I hope I do see the world through God’s eyes.  My dreams, I believe, are ones God’s eyes see.

Yet, I know, too, that I fail.  I fail to use the tools.  I fail to keep my eyes open.  I even fail to dream.  Today begins a new year of service to the church; and the dreams of four years ago seem faded.  Yet, I refuse to quit dreaming.

Dreaming led me to Acts.  Struggling to find a way to renew my dreams, I needed to find the tools to sharpen them.  Acts is a book about transition.  Luke may have been shaken by the crucifixion, but his faith did not quit.  He continued telling Jesus’ story and helped bridge the gap between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.

Luke knew the old dreams and even used Joel’s prophecy to reach across the generations:

17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.  (the NIV)

Even though Pentecost 2012 was celebrated over a month ago, the Pentecost initiated or baptized the Apostles with the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit.  The Holy Ghost is God’s personal tool that exists within us to carry out the dream of a transformed world, a world of believers working in unity.

Dreaming through God’s eyes leads us to use the tools he gave us, especially prayer and the Holy Ghost, to act in making the dream a reality.  The wonderful thing about God’s tools is that they never wear out, never need purchasing, never need redesigning, or anything.           Prayer is always available.  We can talk to God anytime, anywhere, for any reason.  We can cry, laugh, ask, thank, share whatever we have with God.  We also can hear God—if we listen in our prayers.  We can hear God, when we read the Bible or sing a hymn.  We can see God if we watch others who demonstrate loving one another.  Prayer is a tool we have 24/7; it is available in an instant, it never leaves us.  If we dream, we pray.

Dreaming creates the goal.  Prayer is the tool to keep it in touch with God.  But what is next?  Next comes the action.  What tool is there to put the dream into action?  The answer is the Holy Ghost.

Even the earliest Christians did not understand how they were going to continue.  They asked Peter what they should do.  In Acts 2:38, Peter makes one statement concerning how we know the Holy Ghost is with us:  Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”  (the NIV)

Understanding the importance of the Holy Spirit—or Ghost—may still be a reason Christians do not know what to do.  Every individual has unique gifts, talents to use.  We may be carpenters, seamstresses, artists, farmers, bankers, or businessmen.  Our success is connected to the gifts we have been given.  When we combine all our talents, any dream developed through God’s eyes, can be achieved.  The Holy Ghost will provide the inspiration, the skills, the strength, and the pieces needed to accomplish a God-driven dream.

Look at what happens in the face of a natural disaster.  When the tornado tore through Joplin, or any community, can we doubt the power of the Holy Ghost?  People immediately join in and do what might be considered impossible were it not for God’s role in the work.  God—in three people, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost—can work miracles.  We, his children, are able to perform the miracles needed to put the broken world back together again.

Today, dream.  But remember to dream through God’s eyes.  When you see something that needs work, dream a little and then pray.  Talk to God about the dream you have and ask him for his help.  Listen for him, and then act.  The Holy Ghost is with you, and you are equipped. Now you just need to act with all the confidence in the world because you are working to make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.  This is what God has commissioned you to do, so do it.

Dear God,

May your dream for a transformed world be my dream, too.

Give me the vision that you see through your eyes.

Talk to me so I know what you ask me to do.

Help me to use the gifts you have given me to do my share.

Thank you for the gift of your son so we know how to love one another.

Thank you for the gift of the Holy Ghost so we can act in your behalf.

Today we dream, we pray, and now must act.

Guide us as we work to follow your dream.




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