Lamentations, Part 4: Idolatry
Passage: Lamentations 4
LAMENTATIONS 4 – WORSHIPPING THE GIFTS RATHER THAN THE GIVER
If you are just now joining us in this sermon series, we’ve been walking through the book of Lamentations, revisiting Jerusalem’s destruction at the hand of the Babylonians, and we are working at understanding how to lament as a church, and today we will look at two primary issues that surface: idolatry, and the need to repent and turn from our idolatry.
In chapter four, we see some instances of the author becoming vulnerable. This would be expected, as suffering and hardship can have the effect of exposing you – exposing anything you may hold as ultimate, anything you may be treating in your life as if it, or someone, is like God in your life. This is what we can call idolatry.
How do we define idolatry? This is my own definition:
Idolatry is when we make something or someone who is not God, like they are God.
The conflict as we will see in this chapter is that Jerusalem had forgotten who they were, and why they were called Zion, the city of God. Their love and worship over the centuries began the slow aim at the blessings of God, rather than God himself. The result was what we could called wrongly ordered loves – good things turned into god-things, and creating an expectation from those good things now turned into god-things to deliver the joy, happiness, security – and salvation – that only god can deliver.
Idolatry begins with the conversation of worship. Psalm 95:6 describes the basic posture of worship, that shows us what it really us:
“Come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before our maker!”
To bow down before something, to kneel – the verbiage here actually refers to not just bowing down, but laying prostrate. To bow down or be prostrate before God is to be face down before him – it is a physical act that reveals your understanding of God. He is so much higher than you, so much bigger than you, so just more majestic and holy and almighty and all powerful – that you even be in his presence jars you with the urge to simply lie down before him.
We get similar feelings when we stand before something much larger than ourselves. For many years I have attended a leadership conference with a church planting network in Estes Park. There is nothing like seeing the snow capped Rocky Mountains, and to say you feel small before them is an understatement. But something peculiar happens when you stand before them – with a mixture of awe and fear, it feels good to stand before it. Something strange happens, in that there is a part of our humanity that LOVES to be awed. We love to feel small before something so big. The idea of laying prostrate before God would not necessarily be one of fear – but I think of love, and joy, because you would feel the immense pleasure of your smallness, and the vastness of the God of the universe.
Idolatry comes when the love of our hearts grows fond of something so much that we find ourselves laying prostrate before it within. We’ve developed in us a love for something so, so deep that we’re trying to find our ultimate joy in it, and really, we’re trying to find salvation. We know we’re small as humans. We know we are not ultimate. We know that you and I are not sufficient in ourselves. A famous theologian once referred to our hearts as idol factories – we’re always drumming up new idols to worship, something outside of us to bow down before, because we know we are not enough in ourselves. We need something from the outside to save us and to help us.
And what we worship is what shapes us. What we worship is what we become like. What we bow down before shapes us in the image of our idol. David in the Bible speaks of this very clearly, Psalm 115:8,
“Those who make [idols] become like them, so do all who trust in them.”
What you worship has the counter effect of shaping you and changing you. And everything that is not God is simply not enough to actually save you or bring you ultimate joy or happiness. Philosopher and author James K.A. Smith from Calvin College has this to say in his book, “You are What you Love:”
“Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves. Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts.”
As we dive into our text, we will see that Jerusalem had fallen prey to worshipping the creation, rather than the creator, to worshipping God’s blessings to them rather than the God behind the blessings. We are going to talk about:
1) The worship of wealth, success and progress
2) The worship of people and leaders
3) The worship of government
The roadmap ahead of us will be:
- Looking at these three issues in this chapter in the context of Jerusalem
- Looking at some practical today-issues of worship as found in our own nation
- Seeing what all of this means for Immanuel Church
Let’s dive into the first one: the idolatry of wealth, success, and maintaining it all
“How the gold has grown dim, how the pure gold is changed! The holy stones lie scattered at the head of every street.” Lamentations 4:1
With a quick read of the beginnings of 1 Kings, when Solomon builds his Temple of God, the same one that was demolished that our author was looking onto when writing this, we know it was layered in gold inside and on the outside. The ark of the covenant itself was layered in gold. The Temple was beautiful, it stood proud as the symbol of God’s presence and protection in the land. It was ornate, symbolizing the majesty of God and his wonder and his power, and the onlookers to such a Temple should consider just how grand and mighty and transcendent their God is above themselves.
Jerusalem, however, over the centuries, forgot why the Temple stood. They forgot why it was built. They forgot that the Temple was supposed to point Jerusalem to God, and they began seeking for other guarantees from its gold and jewels. Still covered in gold and jewels, they began trusting in the Temple itself. This is what I mean: the Temple became a symbol for Jerusalem’s success over the centuries, its wealth, former and current, and it served as a symbol that God still cared for their city – apart from their own heart’s affections, and apart from how they lived.
Jeremiah shows this in his famous “Temple” sermon. Standing in the gates of the Temple, Jeremiah preached a firery sermon to all who walked through its gates. We find in this sermon that Judah had developed a catch-phrase of sorts that became a mantra of security for them – and contributed to the blindness of their current spiritual condition.
“This is the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord!” they would say, as found in Jeremiah 7:4, when he labeled them as “deceptive words.”
The idea was that Jerusalem thought it was good and safe as long as the Temple stood. It meant Yahweh was with them, and as long as that was the case, they were safe. However, as a nation, nothing could be farther from the truth. They were robbing from the poor, giving a half-hearted love and devotion towards Yahweh God and dividing it up among other false gods, and whenever they felt insecure about their way of life and condition as a city, they’d look across the landscape, see the heights of their Temple, and say “it’s the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD, the Temple of the LORD!” we’re safe!
The gold-laden Temple became a symbol of Jerusalem’s success, and it became a symbol of God’s love and presence and his watchful care over them. But they forgot God himself.
In America, we have our own Temples that stand, that you and I look at for our security and safety. There are many lies that you and I have bought into over the decades in America that says our standard of must always increase, the lack of contentment literally being what drives our economy, and if our kids are to have a good childhood – that they need to have grand, often very expensive experiences and non-stop fun if their childhood is to be memorable and good. There are lies that say you should not be content with your current position at work, and even if you make a decent salary, but there is not much of a chance of promotions, and only a mundane future ahead of you, that you should be seeking something more, and any other attitude means that you might be less of an American/.
In the 1940s, the average American home was 800-1000 square feet, and the average American family had 3-4 children. Today, the average American home is 1800-2200 square feet, and we have 1-2 children. We need to really stop and ask ourselves – why? What is going on here? I do believe that we’ve allowed our hearts to think that we need more money and a nicer house and more luxurious experiences if we are to be happy, if we are feel successful, if we are to feel like things are OK in our lives.
Look, for a quick side note: other pastors have pointed this out before, but I’ll say it: we may look in ancient times and see the paganism that required child sacrifice, and say “how insane is that! I can’t believe people used to do that.” We may draw some lines to the modern day realization of abortion – true - but there are other lines that we are not quick to draw. Is it that America’s always rising standard of living, bigger homes, more money and nicer cars – has come at the expense of having more children? Is it that we’d rather have fewer children for the sake of the advancement of our career, so we can “do more” without the inconvenience and responsibility and expense of children? Is this not just modern forms of ‘child sacrifice,’ but rather than a pagan altar, we just prevent from having kids all together? Who is actually at the center of this scheme – is it you?
Another strange thing about all of this is that our nation is suffering more from diseases of despair than ever before. According to Anne Case and Angus Deaton, in their most recent book “Diseases of Despair,” in 1995, the amount of Americans who died from addictions, alcoholism and self-harm was 63,000. Fast forward to today, where this number has risen to 160,000 a year.
So we’ve become richer, wealthier, with larger homes and more stuff than ever before – but we’re more depressed than ever before and addicted than ever before. Diseases of despair has become so prevalent in our nation that it actually had the effect of decreasing life expectancy in 2018 until present day. Is this you, this morning? Have you shown up here, stressed out beyond your wildest dreams, because you are working around the clock? Are you mounted in debt from things you don’t need, and your credit card is maxed, and you’ve forgotten how it’s even happened? What if your holy stones were to lie scattered like they were in Jerusalem? Do we need to lament this morning of our obsession over wealth and materials and success, forgetting the God who provides these things for us?
The second idol presented in Lamentations 4 is the idolatry of a person, or people, specifically for Jerusalem, their loss of their leaders. Listen to how the author lamented over Jerusalem’s former leaders:
“Her (Jerusalem’s) princes were purer than snow, whiter than milk; their bodies were more ruddy than coral, the beauty of their form was like sapphire. – 4:7
“The breath of our nostrils [i.e. their spirit, ruach], the LORD’s anointed, was captured in their pits, of whom we said ‘under his [that is their leader’s] shadow we shall live among the nations.” - 4:20
Israel was a monarchy, living in an honor/shame culture. To be a King was to be the highest in the land. And once again, if you trace Israel’s kingly roots and their kingly story, their own kings came from 1 Samuel, when they wanted to have kings like “all the nations around them.” God was not pleased with the nature of this request for a king, because, as he said, “they have rejected me from being their king.” They didn’t ask for a King that could help lead them to God, but rather, for a king that would make them “like the other nations.” Big difference.
As we see in this passage, they lamented this loss of their kings, and we see just how much they revered their own kings and leaders. Their loss was carved into their process of lament, as they mourned the empty and destroyed throne, which spurs the question: can you hold people and individuals in such high esteem that it can turn into idolatry?
Often times other people can become your safety and your security in life. I have six children, my oldest is ten, and my youngest is one. I have the most beautiful, kind, loving and amazing wife, who is the best mother for my kids that I could ever conjure up with my imagination. In those quiet moments when the kids are playing, and my wife and I are reading a book and talking, and all is well – I sometimes think of what would happen if God decided to take one of these from me. I hear stories in other families where this actually happens – car accidents taking young children from families, spouses dying from cancer. And I know that, if I were honest about my own idolatry, if this happened to me, you would see your pastor completely crumble and be crushed beneath despair.
This might be the most difficult area for you and I, for we can love people so dearly. Other people can give us the feeling of meaning, and relationships can fill that empty void in our lives. God’s design for humanity is that we are not to be alone – friendship and relationships and marriage are God’s design.
But Christianity makes the claim that God is sufficient for you and I. It makes the claim that every relationship in our own lives that are brought to us are intended to remind us of the never ending love of God, but we often exchange the love of others for the love of God – Romans chapter 1 reveals this in its entirety. In our age of social media, Tristan Harris and others who were some of the architects of social media know that we have a never ending hunger and thirst for attention from other people. They knew that creating platforms in which all peoples of the world can connect, combined with ideas of revealing to you how many people follow you online, how many clicks your posts get, how many views your video receives, and how many people comment on it and how many likes you get dominates your attention, because it feels good when we see it. A silly example is on a social media page that publishes submitted jokes and memes about classical Greece and Rome (yes, I just showed my ultimate nerdom there), one time I made a comment beneath a joke that was just another joke about that joke and my comment had almost two thousand likes. Yes, your pastor’s joke in the Facebook section of a classical Greece and Rome meme page went viral for like 2 hours to other nerds like me, and I thought I was cool stuff for those two hours. I hope you are now impressed with me.
Jerusalem found much pride in their leaders. They forgot why God wanted to give them a leader – for that leader to be their shepherd and their guide to himself, to care for the nation like a shepherd cares for its sheep – the prophets continually brought this to Israel’s attention – Jeremiah repeats this continually throughout his prophetic book in chapters 2, 6, 12, 17 and the like - yet they “wanted a king like the other nations” because they thought, just maybe, they could compete with them and be better than them and their leaders, and be like them. And here they were, centuries later, mourning the loss of their ruddy princes, their empty throne.
Do you believe that your life is more than your relationships? Do you believe that this church is more than its leader? If you live for the affection of others, if you live for the attention of others, if you treat them in your life as if they are ultimate – that it gives you ultimate purpose and meaning, wholeness – you’ll never have enough attention, because you’ll never be whole.
Let’s talk about this church for a moment: Please don’t hold me in too high esteem. Because I will fail you, Immanuel. Give me enough time and I’ll fail you more than once. A church built on a personality collapses when that personality collapses. I’ve witnessed in my own lifetime a church of 15 thousand vanish literally overnight when their larger than life charismatic leader was exposed for a multitude of sins. That Church had no future without their leader, and that is not a false story, but one in which I was relatively close to.
Don’t idolize your leaders, or your pastor. It’s not healthy for the pastor at all, it’ll get to their head and make them think of themselves more than they ought – and its not healthy for the Church. Jesus is the Chief Shepherd. We must learn to make him the center of Immanuel Church – more to come on that in the coming weeks.
The final idol surfaced in Jerusalem’s lament was the idol of government, and that a nation could save it from its woes. Let’s look at this:
Lamentations 4:17  Our eyes failed, ever watching vainly for help; in our watching we watched for a nation which could not save. (ESV)
Throughout various tumultuous times in Israel’s history, when sin grew and their nation became fragile, rather than humbly prostrating themselves before God in worship, pleading for his help, they often looked to other nations for help. Isaiah had this to say,
Isaiah 31:1  Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD! (ESV)
Israel would seek other nation’s help in times of need because those nations had bigger guns – or in those days, more horses and chariots, more strength – and Israel thought wrongly that if only they had more power and strength, they would be saved. So they looked to the nation that had more power and strength.
If there is an area where we must lament as a nation right now, I believe it is here. Somehow many have come to think in our nation that if the wrong person sits in office, that it means almost certain destruction. In recent days I’ve seen Christian leaders literally use apocalyptic language in saying that if a certain leader were to take office, it means the world is almost assuredly going to end.
I’m going to try to call this for what it is: this is idolatry of the state. Just as Israel in desperate times looked to other nations and governments and their strength for salvation, you and I must not make the same error with our American nation, and look to the White House for salvation. When I hear Christian leaders talk like this, it reminds me of a map that I had in my classroom when I was teaching for a while. It was a map of the world. I used to use it as an illustration often, as guess what continent, and what nation, lied at the very center of the map: North America, and specifically the USA. When you glanced your eyes on the map, the center of it is where your eyes would naturally gather. Even the scale of the land masses were off, and America looked the same size as Russia, which we are actually only half as large.
Beware of theology that places America at the center of world history, and biblical theology. I wouldn’t trust those teachers in full. Chances are almost certain that America is not in our Bibles. Chances are, one day America will not be, and God will be. Your faith is to be separate from political parties. Our Christian faith is intended to be “in the world but not of the world,” separate from worldly entities, while being among them.
We don’t know the day or the hour, and be weary of the ones who talk like they do. The most important thing we can do in this election season is, even while we vote which seems only responsible to do, is to look at the American flag and say “As a Christian, my life and salvation is not dependent on you. My hope for life is not found in you being raised high on a flag pole, flying high above all the world’s powers. The ultimate hope for the ills of our nation is not ultimately found in the red, white and blue and its strength, and who leads us, but in the closeness of its people to Jesus Christ.” Do not bow down to our American flag, or give your ultimate allegiance to it.
Don’t forget that you and I hold the highest office in the land – we are the ones doing the voting. Our leaders only mirror our voting. And if we really want to see our land healed, go and love God with ALL YOUR HEART, MIGHT, SOUL AND STRENGTH, and your neighbors as yourself. For if we all did so, love, grace and truth would rule the day in our nation, as God is love and is filled with grace and truth, and America would be on a rapid path of healing and renewal. The Gospel message is in fact one of LOVE – it is a call to self-sacrifice, a call to hold God as our Savior, and to love others as Jesus has loved us.
As we close, I want to recall where we’ve been thus far: the idols that have surfaced in this chapter were 1) the idols of wealth, success and riches; 2) the idols of people and leadership, and 3) the idols of government and nations. We opened up by talking about how you and I are shaped by the what we worship, that worship itself is the gymnasium that trains us and molds us into the image of what we lie prostrate before. Like Jerusalem did, we must lament our idolatry. We must seek repentance for it, seek forgiveness from God.
We must look to the Gospel. We must see that Jesus, who was rich in the heavenly places with glory, became poor in taking on flesh, becoming as the lowliest of us all, so that in him we might be rich in God. We must look to Jesus, who was willing to die for people who didn’t even love him – who hung naked and alone on a cross for his own enemies, holding his love for God as the greatest, and becoming a servant of all through his death, and the Savior of all through his resurrection.
We must look to the City of God, knowing that Jesus Christ with his crown of thorns and his royal robe filled with his own blood reveals to us that HE is our King, and that all other kings in this world will only bow down to the one and true King. His resurrection and ascension back into heaven is his ultimate enthronement, and he who sits on the throne of David will indeed reign forever and ever.
Listen, all false idols and all false worship have at its core has someone at center: you. We worship things we want, or think we need. Ultimately all idolatry has you at its center, and whenever you recognize something you lack, you look somewhere else to fulfill it, rather than God. When Christians speak of being “saved” – this is what we mean. All of us are always continually seeking salvation in something or someone else that is not Jesus. This is the true nature of SIN – and it’s what Jesus DIED for in our place.
The Church is intended to be the ‘City of God’ on earth that has Jesus as our King, the City within a city that reveals to the world in the things we love and in the way we live that we have ANOTHER King, that we have access to God through Jesus Christ – and that he is the one whom has saved us, and that everything we are given in life is only pointing our hearts towards him, and it is HIS self-giving love for us that is our guide in our love for others.
Saint Augustine, one of the most brilliant thinkers in all of Church history who lived in the fourth century AD and witnesses the fall of Rome, had this to say in his magisterial book, “The City of God:”
Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, "You are my glory, and the lifter up of mine head." In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all. … For they were either leaders or followers of the people in adoring images, "and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever." But in the other city there is no human wisdom, but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saints, of holy angels as well as holy men, "that God may be all in all."
Immanuel, may we be quick to lament where our hearts have gone wayward in desiring wealth and success before God, loving people and others more than him, and trusting in America’s chariots and horses rather than God’s. May we be quick as a church to lament where we have held other people as ultimate in our lives, when we’ve sought fulfillment in other people rather than God, when we’ve held pastors and leaders in too high of an esteem, and may we desire leaders to lead us to Jesus, and not to their own personalities, charisma or gift set. May we be a church who always sees more hope in the Good News of Jesus Christ, in the true City of God that is to come, than any voting booth, than any flag that is waving, or any political entity. May we repent and turn where we have not done so. Let’s pray.
More in Lamentations (Seven Weeks of Lament)
November 8, 2020Lamentations, Part 5: Remember
October 25, 2020Lamentations, Part 3: Hope in God's Faithfulness
October 18, 2020Lamentations, Part 2: God's Relationship to Good and Evil