Sunday, December 6, 2009

Mitchell and the idol rumor

Good Morning tout le monde. A big “welcome” to everyone this morning, and especially to the boys and girls. I’m looking forward to showing you my new puppet – but you’ll have to be a bit patient for that. First up? A little quiz.

As my kids will tell you, I don’t pay much attention to television but I do know some useless trivia. So I have a television trivia quiz for you this morning – just one question, but three answers: There are only three shows in the history of American television that have been rated number one on the Nielsen Ratings for five seasons in a row. Can anybody tell me what those shows are? One of those shows ran between 1971 and 1979 (All in the Family). The second of those shows ran between 1984 and 1992 (The Cosby Show). And the most recent one is still on the air and began showing in 2002 (American Idol). If you are visiting from another planet, let me explain American Idol. American Idol is a talent contest show that starts with auditions all over the country and ends in a showdown between the two singers that the audience all over the world chooses by phone-in votes. It is a show big on music, and glitz, and a show that has captured the imaginations of a huge number of people.

Well, this morning, I’d like to remind you of a story from the Bible that talks about a different kind of idol – but an idol that also captured the imagination of a huge number of people; an idol that was also big on glitz and music; an idol that every one was talking about. And one of the main characters in this Bible story is a guy named Mitchell. Did you know that there was a guy named Mitchell in the Bible? Well, maybe not exactly Mitchell… something closer to Mishael, actually – but Mitchell is easier to say, so I hope you won’t mind if I call him that this morning.

One day, Mitchell was hanging out with his buddies when they heard the latest buzz. And the buzz wasn’t from the stables or from the barracks or from the taverns, where it could have been dismissed as a rumour. No! This news he was hearing was straight from the palace. People close to the King himself were beginning to talk, and there was something really big going down. You see, Mitchell and his buddies worked for the government and the King apparently had a plan to bring all of the civil servants in the city together for some team building exercises. Now “team building exercises” are sometimes as boring as they sound… but the buzz was that this year the King had outdone himself. Apparently, it wasn’t just an idle rumor.

Finally, Mitchell heard that the time had come, and all the civil servants were being summoned to Dura Field. So Mitch and his buddies left everything in the office, and walked over to the field. As they were walking, they started to overhear bits and pieces from all the other people walking in the same direction. Isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it incredible? Isn’t it wonderful? (Goodness! What are they talking about?) But before Mitchell and his buddies were able to see anything, they were able to hear something -- something special. This amazing band was playing some really trendy tunes somewhere up ahead. As you know, back then they didn’t have amplifiers and loudspeakers; if you wanted big music, you needed to have a lot of people playing at the same time. And all Mitchell’s favorite instruments were playing. Very cool.

But then Mitchell got a glimpse of what people were buzzing about. Oooooh! Aaaaaah! Somebody had made this really impressive, and huge, and flashy, and b-i-g (did I say huge?) a really, really BIG statue. And so flashy – covered in gold would you believe it. “What’s going on?” thought Mitchell. But as he arrived with the last of the civil servants, suddenly the music stopped dead, and a herald – remember: back then, they didn’t have microphones and speakers – so there were there “herald” guys whose job it was to shout really loud so everyone could hear. Anyway, this herald stood up on a platform and read a message from the King, and this is what it said:

“This is what you are commanded to do, [all you civil servants]: As soon as we cue the music to restart, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that [the] King has set up.”

Oh my! Mitchell wasn’t at all sure that he liked this. And he turned to his buddies to make sure that he had heard right. But as they were discussing it, they missed the last part of what the herald said –a firefly something – it couldn’t be that important… Mitchell just knew that bowing down and worshipping an image, whether it was big or small, gold or wood, set up by the King or set up by the village gossip – it didn’t matter, he knew that it wasn’t something that he wanted to be doing. They remembered that in their Sabbath School, they were taught that the second commandment was “don’t make idols or worship them.” And his buddies agreed. But they seemed to be the only ones who were thinking this way! Everybody else was so caught up in this the BIG idol, the glitz, the crowd, and the King’s order – these people knew that their job depended on the King, and if they displeased him, they might be out looking for work – or worse.

And then it happened: the band started playing again. And nearly every single person in this large crowd bowed low to the ground – except for Mitchell… and his friends Hani and Azi. (in case you are wondering, these men have two sets of names in the Bible – you might know them as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego). The three of them just stood there. The people around them might have noticed, and I bet at least one of them said, “Are you crazy? Get down!” But these three friends stood straight and tall!

Imagine that a reporter for Babylon Television was there that day. He would be covering the event, talking to the cameras, describing the statue, and the music and the crowds. Actually, I have something that might help our imagination (one second)…[with reporter puppet]

R: What an event! What a statue! What a wonderful King. Oh dear! There appear to be some in the crowd who don’t seem to get it. Are they deaf? Are they stupid? Are they crazy? Let’s ask them. You! Didn’t you hear the king’s order.
M: We heard it.
R: Well, you don’t seem to be doing much about it.
M: That is true, we aren’t going to follow the order.
R: Why not?
M: Because we don’t believe in this idol.
R: What do you mean, you don’t believe in it? Can’t you see? It is right there in front of you, and surely big enough for you to see. Are you blind?
M: No. We’re not blind. But you don’t understand. We believe that it exists. We just don’t believe it deserves any worship.
R: But it’s huge! And it’s gold! It took the King’s servants weeks and weeks to make it.
M: This means that we can admire it. We can be impressed by it. But we won’t – ever – worship it.
R: The King says you should worship it.
M: That doesn’t matter.
R: And all of your colleagues are worshipping it, too.
M: That doesn’t matter either. Only God – God in heaven – deserves our worship.
R: Ok, ok. Well you don’t have to exactly worship it. You can be looking around on the ground for your lucky quarter.
M: We’re not even going to pretend to be worshipping it.
R: Didn’t you hear the punishment for not following this order?
M: It doesn’t matter what the punishment is. God’s law is clear: we must not worship idols.
R: But the King is going to throw you into the fire!

Ouch. That’s gonna hurt. That’s right! That “firefly something” that Mitchell and his friends didn’t quite hear about was actually a fiery furnace. And anyone who refused to worship the idol was to be thrown into that furnace on the spot. So I want you to keep that story in your heads, and don’t lose it. We’ll come back to it in a second. I want to explain something to the Moms and Dads and teenagers… You see…

When I was a teenager, I was puzzled by the fact that the Bible is full of warnings against idols. After all, when I looked around, I didn’t see too many idols. Have you ever thought about that? We don’t see crowds of people worshipping gold statues anymore, do we? But the Bible seems to be hung up about idols. You know: “thou shalt not make any graven image” and all that. Today, we think that the “two big sins” are murder and adultery. But in fact, there are more references in the Bible to idols and idolatry than there are references to murder and adultery combined. And most of the references to adultery are actually metaphors for idolatry. So what’s up with that? Has society progressed beyond the Bible? Of course not! In fact, the Bible makes it clear that idolatry is not just something that people do with wood or stone. In Ezekiel chapter 14, the Bible talks about people setting up idols in their hearts. You see, whenever we set our hearts on something besides God, we are practicing idolatry.

Deep in the human heart is the need to put our trust in something, or in someone. Deep in the human heart is the desire to associate with something bigger than ourselves. We’re wired to connect with God, folks. But when we rebel against God, as each one of us has done; when we redirect our worship instinct toward something else or someone else, we’re setting up an idol in our hearts. The most tragic example of this is when people turn their worship instinct towards themselves, and start to think that their choices, and their ideas are the most important thing in the world. Those people always end up very lonely.

Now in Bible times, idol worship was often pretty nasty. There were idols that required you to cut yourselves. There were idols that required you to burn your children. Shudder. Really bad stuff. And though there are still modern idols that grab our attention by simply being “bad”. Most idol-worship doesn’t start off looking evil. Very few idols start off scary. But these idols only become scary after it’s too late. That’s right, most modern idols start off looking really very attractive!

For example, we enjoy money and commerce, (we’re reminded this morning that it is almost Christmas, a time when spending a bit more than usual can add to the fun) but money and buying things can so easily become an idol. In fact, the Bible clearly teaches that greed is simply another name for idolatry. We can also enjoy relationships and affection and pleasure. Good things that God has created for our well-being, but they can also become idols. If we put God first, then our finances and relationships and the support we receive from them will all be for our benefit. But if we let them take over God’s role, if we turn our hearts over to them rather than to God, as if the created thing is greater than the Creator, then we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.

You see, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. If we seek first the Kingdom of God, if we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and all our minds, and all our strength, then we will be free from the demands of idols, and God will take care of all of our needs. But if we lose our focus, and offer our hearts to our desires, or to our plans, or to our friends, or to our ambitions, or to our possessions, or to our status… then we are guaranteed to be let down, and even lose what we were wanting in the first place.

Let me read a short passage from a great book by Tim Keller entitled “Counterfeit Gods”:

“…anything in life can serve as an idol, a God-alternative, a counterfeit god.

“I recently heard the account of a field army officer who so … pursued physical and military discipline with his troops that he broke their morale. That led to a communication breakdown during combat that resulted in fatalities. I knew a woman who had experienced periods of poverty as she grew up. As an adult, she was so eager for financial security that she passed over many good prospective relationships in order to marry a wealthy man she did not really love. This led to an early divorce and to all the economic struggles she feared so much. It appears that some major league baseball players, in a quest to play not just well but at a Hall of Fame level, took steroids and other drugs. As a result, their bodies are more broken and their reputations more sullied than if they had been willing to be good rather than great. The very things upon which these people were building all their happiness turned to dust in their hands because they had built all their happiness upon them. In each case, a good thing among many was turned into a supreme thing, so that its demands overrode all competing values. But counterfeit gods always disappoint, and often destructively so.”

There is a life principle here, and C. S. Lewis puts it very clearly: “every [time we prefer] a small good to a great [good], [or we prefer] a partial good to a total good, [we lose] the small or partial good for which [we made] the sacrifice.” You see, if you discard God in favor of the good things that God wants to provide, don’t be surprised if you end up with less of the thing that you were wanting in the first place. Don’t make the mistake of selling your soul for small or partial goods. Instead, “seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.”

All these things – all these good things: friendship, health, security, family, progress, pleasure, science, family, fun, success, even wealth… God knows just how much we need them (sometimes less than we might think that we need them). God knows that they are all good and worthwhile. But don’t set them up as idols in your life – as they will certainly let you down. For the longer idols have a grip on your heart, the more they reveal themselves for what they are. At first, it is all so alluring. Then it is no big deal. But soon it can turn into a habit, or an obsession, or even an addiction. Then idols start to eat away at you. Expecting more, demanding more, until you can only see the trouble that you are in when it is too late.

Recall how God starts off the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other Gods before me. You must not bow down to an idol or worship it.” Note that these commands are not there to put artificial limits on our behavior. No! He says “you shall have no other Gods before me” to keep us from harm. He says “you must not bow down to an idol or worship it” to explain the kind of life that will give us the most happiness.

So when confronted with a crazy King who ordered that they bow down and worship his golden statue, our three friends Mitchell, Azi and Hani believed God, and they knew that the last thing that they wanted to do was to destroy their souls with idol-worship.

Let’s go back to that story, ok? You remember, right? Mitchell, Hani and Azi refused to bow down in the presence of the idol. And, as always happens in the “civil” service, one of the other officials went to the King and snitched on the three friends. The King couldn’t believe it. Like the reporter, he was certain that the three friends didn’t hear or didn’t understand. So he had them brought before him. And he wasn’t too happy.

“Perhaps you didn’t hear the instructions precisely…” he said to them, “when the music plays, you bow down. If you don’t bow down and worship, you’ll get thrown into a blazing furnace.” Gulp. But check out the answer that Mitchell and his friends give the King. “O King. No need to cue the orchestra up again. We won’t even make excuses. If you throw us into the furnace, the God who we serve is able to save us from it. But even if he does not, we want you to know that we will never worship the golden idol.”

Well, if he wasn’t too happy before, the King now had steam coming out of his ears now. The Bible says that he heated the furnace seven times hotter than usual and had Mitchell, Hani and Azi tied up and thrown in. He was expecting to see them writhe in agony. He was expecting to see them fried to a crisp. He was expecting to see any opposition to his will vanish in a puff of smoke. He was expecting any number of things except what he actually did see. He looked. He rubbed his eyes. He looked again. And he didn’t believe it. He saw the three friends walking around inside the furnace, apparently unharmed. Now that was enough to freak him out, but there was one other thing that he saw that gave him goose-bumps and made tingles go up his back. There, in the furnace, he didn’t just see three men walking around. He saw four. And the fourth one looked really special. The Bible says that the King thought he looked like “the son of a god.”

Jesus says in the Bible, “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will acknowledge before the angels of God. And whoever disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God.” “…disowned before the angels of God.” Ouch. We really don’t want that. Our three heroes this morning stood up for God before the King, and as a result God came and stood with them when things started to get hot. And this is a strong illustration for us this morning: when Jesus is in our lives, when he is walking among us, when we are in the habit of talking to him, when we are not ashamed to associate with him, then he will be there when we need him the most – we will be able to walk through the fire in our own lives without any harm.

The King was so impressed that he ordered Mitchell and his friends out of the furnace and he gave them all promotions! How do you like that? Honoring God, instead of being a career-limiting move, gave our three heroes both earthly success and fellowship with the Son of God. And that is the testimony of thousands and thousands of God’s children throughout history. Don’t just buy into the herd mentality of the crowd around you. Keep your heart toward God, and His Son, Jesus, will become your best friend.

In 1 John chapter 5, we read a description of what our three heroes experienced: “…God's own Son protects [His children], and the devil cannot harm them. We know that Jesus Christ the Son of God has come and has shown us the true God. And because of Jesus, we now belong to the true God who gives eternal life.” Yes, we know that when we belong to the Almighty God that we can rest in Him and nothing can snatch us out of His powerful hand. And we know that Jesus is the source of this comfort and this security and this peace. But even after this triumphant conclusion to his letter, the Apostle John adds a tiny little post-script: six important words (verse 21):

“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”

Be aware of potential idols in your lives, my friends. Don’t give your heart to them this morning. Don’t let it be said of you what was said of God’s people in Jeremiah’s time: in Jeremiah chapter 2, God says about them:

“…my people have exchanged my Glory for worthless idols. My people have committed two sins: [first] They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and [second, they] have dug their own cisterns, broken [and dirty] cisterns that cannot hold water [at all].”

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.