Second Sunday in Lent

March 20, 2011

“Idolatry and True Righteousness”

Isaiah 45:20-25


"Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you who have escaped from the nations. They have no knowledge, who carry the wood of their carved image, and pray to a god that cannot save.  Tell and bring forth your case; yes, let them take counsel together. Who has declared this from ancient time? Who has told it from that time? Have not I, the LORD? And there is no other God besides Me, a just God and a Savior; there is none besides Me. Look to Me, and be saved, all you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.  I have sworn by Myself; the word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, that to Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath. He shall say, 'Surely in the LORD I have righteousness and strength. To Him men shall come, and all shall be ashamed who are incensed against Him. In the LORD all the descendants of Israel shall be justified, and shall glory.'" Isaiah 45:20-25



Idolatry is false worship.  Literally it means serving idols.  At first glance it may seem that an Old Testament text like the one before us has little relevance to us today.  It is not a common practice these days for people to bow down to and pray to a piece of carved wood.  At least this isn’t customary around here.  But these words apply directly to us today.  I cannot think of a more idolatrous age than the one in which we are now living.


Idolatry is worshipping the creation instead of the Creator.  When God controls our worship, our worship is God-pleasing.  When man controls his own worship, it always ends up in idolatry.  When man is in charge, he makes himself into his own god.  That’s really all idolatry is.  It is self-worship.  Who is it who fashioned statues out of wood?  Idolatrous men!  Who is it who established the form of worship in which people bowed down before those statues?  Idolatrous men!  Who is the false god who is worshipped by every idolatrous religion?  Sinful, rebellious, fallen, idolatrous men!


And so it is today.  Idolatrous men invent a new doctrine while claiming that God has taught it.  Idolatrous men set aside the worship that God has ordained in favor of their own.  The idolatrous heart of men is the source of all idolatry.


The reason the Old Testament texts that most clearly condemn idolatry appear to be irrelevant to modern ears is because modern hearts have become persuaded that idolatry is just another form of the true worship.  Perhaps you have heard the argument that everyone really worships the same God while simply calling him different names?  This is a very popular opinion.  People claim that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and adherents of other religions all worship God as they conceive of him, and differ only on the details.  They then argue that all these different religions teach essentially the same thing.  From this argument they proceed to make the case that it is religious bigotry and intolerance to claim that one way of praying or believing is superior to another.  Whether one follows Jesus, Buddha, or Muhammad (so the argument goes) makes no difference as long as we all sincerely attempt to be faithful to the basic dictates of our religion.  After all, religion is religion.


That might be true if religion were something that originated in us.  That is, if man were the author of faith and worship one could make the case for all religions being essentially the same.  After all, one man is much like another.  But man is not the author of faith.  God is.  Man did not invent worship.  God did.  The truth didn’t originate in man.  It was and is revealed by God.


Listen again to the words of God through the prophet.  “Who has declared this from ancient time? Who has told it from that time? Have not I, the LORD?”  God has spoken!  He says, “For I am God, and there is no other.  I have sworn by Myself; the word has gone out of My mouth in righteousness, and shall not return.”  God speaks and so it is.  God speaks with authority.  He swears by himself because there is no one and nothing greater than he by which he could swear.  He says what is so and so it is. 


We live here on earth, on the good earth that God has given us to enjoy.  Idolatry is the worship of the gift over the Giver.  And this is precisely what the ancient Israelites did.  They went along with the worship of Baal, who was a god associated with the seasonal rains that caused the crops to grow.  Baal worship was not simply worshipping the LORD God under a different name.  Baal was a god who supposedly promised fertile crops but he was not the Creator of heaven and earth.  They did not worship their Creator.  Participating in sexual immorality was part of Baal worship.  People naturally enjoy pleasing their own appetites.  They find it even more appealing to gain some kind of religious benefit as well.  So, Baal worship competed with the true worship of the LORD God, the Creator, who had redeemed Israel through the water of the Red Sea.


The Canaanite women whose daughter was demon possessed came to Jesus for help.  The false gods and goddesses of her native religion were powerless to help her.  The Canaanite religion, like all heathen religions, projected human desires on its gods and goddesses and fashioned them in their own image.  Its gods and goddesses promoted sexual sins as a positive good – much like our own popular culture does today.  This woman rejected the religion of her own people – a religion of the flesh – and trusted in the God of Israel, the Holy Trinity, the one and only true God.  She looked to Jesus whose love raises us above mere service to self.


Sexual immorality is supreme selfishness.  It is not giving.  It is taking.  It is self-worship.  It is incompatible with the Christian faith and life.  It is not sin because God is opposed to pleasure.  God rejoices in giving his children pleasure.  It is sin because it is idolatry.  Idolatry is planted deep in the human heart.  It’s vicious.  It is self-deluded self-love that trusts in itself.  Flesh trusts in flesh even as it sees the mortality of all men, the vanity of all human merit, and the sinfulness of all human righteousness. 


Idolatry makes self-gratification the greatest good, as if we, rather than God, are to be served.  Idolatry shuts out the voice of the living God who spoke through the prophets.  The reason the people stoned the prophets is because they didn’t want to be reminded of their idolatry.  They knew perfectly well that the voice of God was from God and that is exactly why they wanted it silenced.


And so it is today.  Those who say that all religions are basically the same (with the Christian faith simply one road among many heading to the same place) are promoting a lie.  The Christian faith does not come from man; it comes from God.  The Christian truth has not been invented by man; God has revealed it.  The Christian worship is not bowing down before the demands of sinful people to be gratified; it is bowing down before the Creator who alone can save us from the damning consequences of our idolatrous worship of self.


The Eighth Century BC, the First Century AD, and our own century have this in common.  The cult of self-gratification is as powerful a religious force as can be found.  In each case people have sought to silence the clear word of God as they have promoted a love for self.  This then expresses itself in sexual immorality of every description.  This leads to the destruction of marriage, the family, civil order, and finally the nation itself.  Worse, it leads to the destruction of the soul.  And that is where the Christian faith reveals itself to be the only truth on which we can rest secure. 


Listen once more to God’s words recorded by Isaiah in our text.


To Me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall take an oath. He shall say, “Surely in the LORD I have righteousness and strength. To Him men shall come, and all shall be ashamed who are incensed against Him. In the LORD all the descendants of Israel shall be justified, and shall glory.”


What does this mean: “Surely in the LORD I have righteousness and strength”?  What does this mean: “In the LORD all the descendants of Israel shall be justified, and shall glory”? 


To have righteousness in the LORD is simply another way of saying that you have forgiveness of all your sins in Jesus.  The Bible teaches from cover to cover that Jesus Christ is our righteousness.  Jesus did the righteous requirements of God’s law.  Jesus suffered the righteous demands of God’s retribution against all sinners.  In the LORD means in Jesus, for Jesus is the LORD God of Israel become flesh.  It was as our brother that he worshipped the LORD his God and served him only.  His life of holy worship and faithful obedience is the life with which our lives are now covered.  In the LORD, that is, in Jesus we are righteous.  We really are.  We receive Christ’s righteousness through faith in Christ.  This righteousness covers us so that we stand before God as righteous saints without any sin, fault, or blame.  This righteousness is real.  It is not pretend.  It is what Jesus really did.  God reckons it to us.  He forgives us so that no sin stands against us.  This is our strength.


It never ceases to amaze me how people will simply dismiss the teaching of justification by faith alone as if it is unimportant.  How could anyone hope to stand before God without first knowing that all his sins are forgiven?  This precious truth – that God imputed our sin to Jesus and that he imputes Jesus’ righteousness to us – is the foundation of our confidence before God.  When I know that for Jesus’ sake I am righteous, I also know that God is my friend.  He holds nothing against me.  He finds no fault in me.  He is not angry with me.  He sees me as his beloved, just as Jesus is his beloved Son in whom he is well pleased.  If I did not know for sure that in the Lord Jesus I have righteousness, what could I know for sure?  That a holy and righteous God must surely punish a sinner like me.


But when I know that my sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, that I am really and truly righteous before God, not with my own righteousness, but clothed by my baptism in Christ’s righteousness, why then there is no power in heaven or on earth or in hell below that can take away from me my joy and my glory.  Let the world mock my religion.  Let the religiously correct crowd call me a bigot because I condemn every other way to heaven than the way of Christ’s blood and righteousness.  Let my own conscience accuse me and try to take away my joy.  Let the devil howl and hiss and threaten.  No power can rob me of the glory that I have in Jesus, because his righteousness shines as pure, holy, and spotless before the judgment seat of God, and as surely as God is my Judge, Jesus is my righteousness.  Let Judgment Day come.  I am ready.


Idolatry is false worship.  It seeks to find God on its own terms.  It hates the truth.  It persecutes those who preach and confess it.  The worst kind of idolatry is trying to work your own way to God and ignoring Christ Jesus the only Savior of sinners who alone is our righteousness before God.  The prophet Isaiah was a preacher of righteousness.  He preaches it even today.  “Look to me and be saved!”  That is the invitation Jesus shouts to the whole world.  Look to him who was lifted up on the cross.  There alone is your righteousness.  Nowhere else.  Amen