July 19, 2020

Cause and Cure of Modern Idolatry | Jeremiah 16:16-21 | July 19, 2020

Theme: Know the True God

1. How He is different than false gods

2. What He seeks with total perfection

Jeremiah 16:16-21 "Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the LORD, and they shall catch them. And afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. 17 For my eyes are on all their ways. They are not hidden from me, nor is their iniquity concealed from my eyes. 18 But first I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations." 19 O LORD, my strength and my stronghold, my refuge in the day of trouble, to you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth and say: "Our fathers have inherited nothing but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit. 20 Can man make for himself gods? Such are not gods!" 21 "Therefore, behold, I will make them know, this once I will make them know my power and my might, and they shall know that my name is the LORD." (ESV)

Owning land is one of the most enduring and rewarding investments. There is both a material and immaterial blessing to owning land. Obviously, land is property. The material blessing is having something of value to claim as your own. Perhaps even more important, though, is the immaterial blessing. Land ownership reflects progress and sense of accomplishment. It can lead to empowerment and opportunity in other areas of life.

The content of God’s message today is largely about land ownership. The basic message is that God’s people – the nation of Judah – would lose their land. There were several reasons why. Jeremiah is descriptive is his treatment of Judah’s sins. But, essentially, it all came back to their idolatry.

The judgment of God that would take away Judah’s land certainly had a material and an immaterial impact. The people would be exiled to a foreign land. They would lose their literal homes, possessions, property, and livelihood. The immaterial impact would be that they would be shamed and disgraced. They would feel the just guilt of having forsaken a faithful God for lifeless idols.

But on top of all of this, the most important thought was that there was a spiritual meaning to all of this. God didn’t strip Judah of its homes and property for that sake alone. Rather, that judgment was indicative of the spiritual situation they had made for themselves. This is really where we seek to learn for our lives today. Faith in God is like owning property as an investment that promises to pay off in the future. Spiritually, it gives us a stake in God’s kingdom. Worshipping and following God is like investing in that inheritance. Judah had claimed to know God and to follow God – essentially to have His blessings – but they were investing in idols. They were sending their spiritual goods – praise, thanks, honor, and faithfulness – away from the true God. The same thing happens today – all too often – when people trust in what Jeremiah calls “things that are not gods” and “worthless things without profit.”

May God the Spirit bless our study today and lead us to invest in the spiritual property that God offers through His Word.  

The people of Judah forgot the most basic rule of life – there is only one God and we are not Him. Much of this text deals with the LORD speaking judgment by taking away Judah’s land and property but all that verbiage is really just a picture that serves a greater message. The real truth was that all things are God’s. He is the only Creator – the first cause as some call it today. Everything in this world – whether we own it or not – belongs to God. Job famously echoed this conviction when he responded to his poverty by saying, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD." (Job 1:21). The Apostle Paul also taught “we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world (1 Timothy 6:7).”

Although so much of the LORD’s message was about what would be taken away, he didn’t want Judah to dwell on this point alone. The main lesson was to get them to remember that all things belong to God. Therefore, when we sacrifice our relationship with God through idolatry, all good and profitable things that God offers in His love will soon follow.

The same problem can easily enter our lives which is why we do well to learn from Judah’s mistakes. The idolatry they committed is really described in two ways, which is where the LORD’s promise of double payment comes from. Here’s what Judah had done.

First, God says they “polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols.” We’re familiar with talk about pollution in our day and the basic idea here is not much different. The literal meaning of the word for pollute in Hebrew means “to wound.” Isn’t that really what pollution does in a material sense to the natural world – it ruins it. It damages the world. Spiritually, God says that’s exactly what Judah did in their idolatry. They wounded the land. Not with rising greenhouse gases or destructive chemicals, but by defiling their relationship with God.

There’s a worship aspect to this too. Ritually, the people of Judah were forbidden to come into contact with dead bodies. This was a law given by God to protect them from spreading disease, but there was also a spiritual picture inherently built in. Faith with God purifies a person. It grants holiness and life. Essentially, it separates one from death in a total sense. God intended Judah to consider this about their faith each time they thought about this law of ritual purity. Therefore, when God condemns them in that very way for their idolatry, it would be have made a point about how serious of an offense they had committed. This idolatry made them unclean before God.

Second, the LORD says that Judah “filled my (His) inheritance with their abominations.” Judah’s idolatry also had a devastating effect on the blessings the LORD sought to give them, what the LORD calls His inheritance to them. Blessings from the LORD, specifically of a spiritual nature, come by faith. They are a wonderful result of trusting in God. When faith is discarded by idolatry, it obviously threatens those blessings. Most immediate to Judah, the inheritance of God was that they would dwell safely in their homeland. Looking beyond that, however, was also the promise of eternal life in heaven. Judah’s abominations threatened both blessings.

How does this relate to our lives? Well, whenever we speak of idolatry in the Bible we need to translate that idea into our age. The false gods of the Bible – Baal, Dagan, Molech, Asherah, and others are hardly around today. Certainly, none of us are bowing down to them. But, sadly, we are still just as guilty as Judah, and what makes that even worse is that we rarely consider it. There’s a clue in our text that helps us make the transition from Bible times to our present age. Jeremiah adds this note in verse 20: Can man make for himself gods? Such are not gods!

Whether Judah’s idol worship was to a statute or not isn’t the point. God makes the declaration – “Such are not gods!” Whatever man fashions in his mind, or with his hands, as a source of spiritual direction and hope is not real when compared to the true God. It can have a name, or it can be something personal – that distinction doesn’t matter. The better question is, what can your god do when called upon? When you are in need, when the rubber meets the road, when you’re caught between a rock and a hard place – what does your god do?

Few people consider those questions because their lives are often comfortable. We live in a time of abundant gods that aren’t really gods – things we fashioned to give us meaning, hope, and consolation when we meet obstacles in life. Things that we trust and put our confidence in. These false gods beckon us to invest our soul care in this earth – to seek the homeland that is right in front of us today. They either deny or block out any thought of life after the here and now. They are suited only the address problems that lie before us in time and in the temporal realm.

Martin Luther, someone who was keenly experienced in idolatry, hit the nail on the head with this definition of idolatry. He said in the Large Catechism, “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. I say, that whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.” Here we see how easily we can stumble into the fault of Judah. It’s not about the name or image of the god, it’s about the position of your heart. Where are you investing your spiritual property? Who promises you an inheritance? Every object of trust, whether given the title of “idol” or not will answer those two questions in some form.

The most common idols today are: money, power, possessions, popularity, political entities and ideologies, and the self. Stop for a moment and think of how many examples you have seen in the past week or month of people trusting in money, power, or possessions. Humans go to great lengths, even being willing to kill and harm others, to grow their money, power, and possessions. It’s a popular trend in our culture to trust in political philosophies and doctrines to fix the problems of our world. We argue and fight over dogma and ideology, forgetting the littered past of historical figures who thought they had the cure to societies’ ills figured out too. How desperately we all long to be popular. We allow that desire to shape our beliefs and to deny God’s clear teachings. We tell ourselves that the majority must be right, even though there are numerous examples of the past that show the exact opposite. And on top of this all, we each have our own self-image and sinful nature. This is the beast within our hearts that knows no master and that cannot be tamed by effort or goodwill. We are programmed through the fall to answer to no person or deity. We struggle and fight for the final word – to be the sole arbiters of justice and truth and to have no other person tell us differently. When you get down to it, we are a lot like Judah. We have just as much of a tendency, if not more, to make gods out of what are not gods.

One way you can test yourself, to see where your trust is, is to consider what captures your time and attention in life? When you are confronted with a problem, do you consult God’s Word? When you’re angry, do you follow God’s instructions on how to handle that problem? Does the way you speak to, and about others, reflect God’s standards? When you parse out your time each day, how much do you devote to prayer and Bible study? These questions can help you see where you’ve set your heart and what you’ve put your trust in, as Luther described. But they’re not foolproof either.

Our text teaches us to ask, what can your god do for you? As fulfilling as money, power, political thoughts, and self-realization of my own agenda sounds, they will all leave you wanting. Only the true God – the God who is above all others – can do all for you. Our verses speak of that in the omniscience of God – as He depicts His wisdom and sight as the hunter and the fisher. There is nothing you can hide from the true God. That feels daunting and it should because we know He sees our sins and our unfaithfulness.

But, there’s a message of hope behind that image also, because God seeks you, with perfect vision and sight, for more than judgment. He seeks you so that you may know He loves and cares for you in perfection too. The word for “repay” in verse 18, the result of God’s hunting and fishing, is Shalom – peace. God is just so that you may have peace. He enacted that payment for sin in the only way that it could bring forth peace for you – by putting it on His only Son, Jesus. So, yes, knowing the true God will mean dispelling all false idolatry – calling out your iniquities and unfaithfulness in the full light of His Word. But God’s desire is your salvation – that you may know His name once again. He must judge in order to forgive. And through His forgiveness, He gently leads you back to reinvest in His Word and will; to hope for a home and property not of this earth, but in heaven. Amen. 

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