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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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Rule No. 2: Do good. Based on Rueben P. Job’s Three Simple Rules

given on Sunday, September 16, 2012–the third sermon in a 4-sermon series.

Scripture reference:  Matthew 25:31-46

“Do good.”  These two little words seem so rational, so logical; yet these two words have completely propelled John Wesley’s theology to a worldwide movement of caring Christians for over four centuries.  Parents have long used a similar warning to children:  “Be good.”  Yet, the idea that is ‘rule no. 2’ rather gnaws at me.  Why is it the second and not the first rule?

Looking back at rule no. 1: “Do no harm.”  I returned to the Book of Discipline: 2008, paragraph 103Remember the list of what not to do?  The list is rather lengthy and incorporates almost every vice one could possibly have:

  • taking the name of God in vain;
  • profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work. . .or by buying or selling;
  • slaveholding;
  • fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother, returning evil for evil, or railing for railing, the using of many words in buying or selling [does that mean false advertising];
  • buying or selling goods that have not paid the duty [taxes];
  • giving or taking things on usury, i.e., unlawful interest [pawn brokers, pay day loans, etc.];
  • uncharitable or unprofitable conversation. . .;
  • doing to others aw we would not they should do unto us;
  • doing what we know is not for the glory of God, as [and then the next list is listed equal to the above]:
  • putting on of gold and costly apparel;
  • taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus [Does this mean methods of relaxing such as gambling, pornography, etc.—there is no defining explanation provided];
  • singing or reading. . .which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God;
  • softness and needless self-indulgence;
  • laying up treasure upon earth; and
  • borrowing . . . or taking . . . without probability of paying for them.

Such a list leaves very little left to say, doesn’t it?  Yet that is a list of what not to do because it causes harm—according on the standards of the 1700’s culture.  Does it apply to today’s culture, too?

This is where the switch from rule no. 1 to rule no. 2 seems to make the most sense for today’s society.  Many of us can look at that list and confirm that we are not doing harm, yet there are a few entries that I find make me squirm a bit.

For instance, the blue laws long prevented our society from buying on Sunday.  The blue laws kept not just a few items from being purchased, but all the stores were closed on Sunday because it truly was deemed the Lord’s Day.  Then the blue laws were repealed.  Stores began to open, first the grocery stores with all the liquor covered up.  Then the other stores began opening for a few hours, and now—now almost every store for every product is open for business as usual seven days a week.

I squirm because I lived through that change in our society.  I squirm because I shop on Sundays, too.  Am I doing harm?  Am I doing good?

Social standards can certainly challenge us in maintaining our own personal standards.  John Wesley ignored social standards and drove forward doing good.  We can hear his quote echoing in our head when just one phrase is heard:  do all the good you can.

Looking at the second rule’s explanation in the Book of Discipline, Wesley’s standards for his culture still can apply to our standards today:

By doing good; by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men:

The general notes continue outlining the various methods of doing good.  The words echo the scripture in Matthew 25:  . . .by giving food to the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting or helping them that are sick or in prison.  Compare them to the words from Matthew 25:35–

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

Wesley went straight to the words of Jesus to explain exactly what doing good is.  Then he went to the next phase of doing good.  He expanded on meeting the needs of the body to meeting the needs of the souls:  . . . instructing, reproving, or exhorting all we have any intercourse with [or interaction with]; trampling under foot that enthusiastic doctrine that “we are not to do good unless our hearts be free of it.”

Doing good also means teaching about how to do good.  Part of our responsibility is to continue teaching about God and the New Covenant.  We are to find ways of sharing with others how God’s grace is available for everybody.  We are to encourage the spreading of the Word.

I think the troubling phrase is that final clause:  trampling under foot that enthusiastic doctrine that “we are not to do good unless our hearts be free to it.”  I have struggled to understand that clause.  Remember these are words from the 18th century that Wesley wrote himself.  Language evolves continually.  Reading it over and over again, looking for better understanding, I finally caught it:  “we are not to do good unless our hearts be free to it.”

         Suddenly it made sense to me.  Wesley wants us to take self out of the equation.  If we do not feel, in our hearts, that a plea for doing something is not in line with what God taught us, then we are simply not to do it.

Doing good sometimes means not doing something, especially if it is not in God’s teachings.  If we do not find a doctrine to fit into God’s commandment to love one another, then we are to trample it under our feet.  We should speak out against it so others do no harm or are not harmed.

Yet Wesley did not stop.  He wanted us to consider different ways to do good and this is a challenge for us in the 21st global, technological, instant society.  He proposed that we do good by:

  • employing them [the faithful] preferably to others; buying [from the faithful]; and . . . helping each other in business;
  • By all possible diligence and frugality, that the gospel be not blamed.
  • By running with patience. . . ; denying themselves, and taking up their cross daily; submitting to bear the reproach of Christ . . . for the Lord’s sake.

Doing good takes discipline.  Doing good takes a strong set of shoulders to handle all the ridicule and put downs that others may throw at us.  Doing good takes practice until it becomes an automatic response, an internalized lifestyle.

Mother Teresa was certainly a living example of rule no. 2:  Do good.  While sitting at the Cowan Restaurant in Washington, MO, we discovered the words written up on the wall visible to all who entered the door:

“People are often unreasonable and self-centered.

     Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives.

     Be kind anyway.

If you are honest, people may cheat you.

     Be honest anyway.

If you find happiness, people may be jealous.

     Be happy anyway.

The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow.

     Do good anyway.

Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough.

     Give your best anyway.

For you see, in the end, it is between you and God.

It was never between you and them anyway.”

Consider how many individuals can see those words any one day, any one week, any one month, or even any one year.  A few words that demonstrate one’s solid belief system can simply be doing good, instructing others in God’s grace, in the Golden Rule, and in discipleship.

  • Doing good never grows old.
  • Doing good is easy—especially if not doing harm.
  • Doing good is a lifestyle.
  • Doing good is mirroring Christ.
  • Doing good is even a small, tiny task.
  • Doing good is in every hug, every greeting, every morsel we cook for others.
  • Doing good is recycling and caring for the land.
  • Doing good is hosting others in good, clean fun.
  • Doing good is as big as you want to make it or as small as one simple pat on the back.

Last week I shared how our director spoke with our students about how just doing a tiny bit of good somewhere, somehow meant we were doing our part.

In this 21st century society, doing good should be simple.  Doing good in our homes, our communities, our counties, our states, and our country is now doing good anywhere around this globe.  We do not exist in isolation any more.  We exist, shoulder to shoulder, with any one individual anywhere on this globe thanks to our instant communication.

As we depart today, take Jesus’ commission seriously.  Practice Wesley’s methods of doing no harm and doing good.  We must understand that these two rules are critical in every setting there is.  We must consciously practice them in order to transform the world.           The exciting thing is we know that we can do anything with God.  Paul knew it too:  Philippians 4:13—I can do everything through him who gives me strength.  (NRSV)   No matter how small or how seemingly unimportant one act is, with the power of the Holy Spirit, the potential for transformation is infinite.

Dear Omnipotent, All-knowing God,

You know our every action and thought. 

You know each one’s pain and sorrow.

Guide us to do good in any way that we can.

Guide us to see how doing good transforms.

Thank you for your grace, your love, and your forgiveness.

Thank you for sending your son Jesus Christ to show us the way.

Thank you for filling us up with the Holy Spirit so we can do good.

Thank you for your servant John Wesley who opened hearts, minds,

         and hands to do good.

Thank you, too, for Mother Teresa and others in this world today

         who simply do.  –Amen.


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