What Has Your Heart?: Jesus, Herod, and the Temptation toward Idolatry

William Blake, Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf

We become what we worship.

This idea is something we encounter throughout Scripture. What grips our hearts—what holds our attention at the center of our lives—motivates us, moves us, and leads us wherever it desires.

We see this clearly in the sharp contrast between Herod the Great and Jesus, which I preached about this past weekend at Eastbrook. Herod is motivated by power. It grips his life with such ferocity that he willingly executed one of his wives and several of his children to secure his grip upon that power. The slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18) was but one example of Herod’s disturbing use of violence to secure his position at any cost. The scary reality is this: Herod thought he had a hold on power, but it was actually the idol of power that had a grip on him. It motivated him, moved him, and led him wherever it desired.

Sometimes when we see an extreme example of the ruin brought by idolatry, it distances us from the ways that idolatry has a hold on our own lives. We see someone like Herod the Great, or some other renowned ‘sinner’ or ‘evil person’ from our own time, and may think, “Thank God I’m nothing like that!” But the truth is rather different. We all have a proclivity toward idolatry. There are many things that vie for our heart’s affections. There are many passions, aims, people, and objects that seek to set themselves up in our lives in order to motivate us, move us, and lead us wherever they desire. We all become what we worship.

What we see in Herod the Great’s terrifying actions is merely the fruit of a heart that is disordered through idolatry. Jesus said: “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart” (Luke 6:45). For Herod all of this started many years before the events we read about in Matthew 2. The small beginnings of idolatry, if left unchecked, expand over time. This is the way idolatry works within all of our lives. Through small decisions and apparently insignificant actions, we increasingly give our hearts over to the grip of idols. Eventually, numbed to smaller wrong decisions and actions, greater and more distorted words and actions are normalized under the spell of the idol that grips our lives.

As followers of Jesus, we cannot countenance idols. We have one center of our lives—one hold on our heart—and that is the Living God. We do well to take stock of ways that idols have come to grip our lives. I have found four questions helpful for such an inventory as suggested by Tim Keller in his book book Counterfeit Gods (pages 167-170). Consider them with me as we begin this year:

  1. What are we dreaming about or imagining? As William Temple said, “Your religion is what you do with your solitude.”
  2. How are we spending our money? As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also” (Matthew 6:21).
  3. What are we truly living for – what is our functional master? Keller writes: “When you pray and work for something and you don’t get it and you respond with explosive anger or deep despair, then you may have found your real god.”
  4. What are our most uncontrollable emotions? Keller again writes: “Look for your idols at the bottom of your most painful emotions, especially those that never seem to lift and that drive you to do things you know are wrong.”

We become what we worship, so may we worship the Lord our God only. May we shed our idols, tear them down to the ground, and, like Joshua entering the Promised Land, declare, “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

Singing Our Faith into Our Lives in Advent

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Advent is one of the times I remember most clearly from my early years. My parents would gather my older brother and I around the Advent wreath each night to light candles and sing hymns about the coming of Christ. That tradition is one we have continued in our own family, since the time our children were young until today.

When our children were younger, they couldn’t read the words of many hymns, so we always sang the first verse and chorus of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” together. They quickly caught on and, during their earlier years, made up their own hand motions to parts of the chorus. I don’t think they make the hand motions anymore, but we still sing that song regularly in the evenings of Advent as we light the candles before reading Scripture, a devotional, and praying together.

There is something powerful about singing our faith. We experience that when we sing with others in corporate worship, whether in formal worship services or informally with a few friends or family members. Singing engages our minds and our spirits in worship. We both consciously and subconsciously enter into the meaning of the songs with our whole being. This depth of engagement is enhanced when we return to the same songs again and again, year after year. That may be why we find tears in our eyes when we sing a song that brings back memories of dear friends or family members like “How Great Thou Art” or “It Is Well (With My Soul).”

I didn’t think of it this way when my children were younger, but I realize now that we have been singing our faith into our lives for years. Every Advent, we again gather in this simple ceremony of singing, candle-lighting, Scripture, and prayer. There is not much to it at one level, but there is much more happening beyond what we see. The fabric of faith – Jesus has Immanuel – is being woven into our lives one strand at a time. The symphony of God’s story is rising up and we are joining in with it one note at a time.

So, let’s sing our faith during this season of Advent. No matter whether it is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” or some other song, may we be caught up into the symphony of God’s good story with our voice and in our lives.

What Are You Thankful For?

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Giving thanks and showing gratitude to God is an act of worship. This is why we read in Psalm 106:1, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

But it is not just for the material goods or obvious blessings that we are to be thankful for. In fact, the Apostle Paul, writing to a fledgling church in Philippi while he is imprisoned, urges believers toward gratitude in the face of worry. He writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).

Even more strongly, in another letter, Paul calls Christians to give thanks as part of fulfilling the will of God: “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

This year may be a tough one for us to practice gratitude, but there is always something somewhere to be thankful for, even in the most difficult of circumstances. So, as part of your worship this Thanksgiving holiday, what are some things you thankful for?

A Prayer inspired by Hebrews 13:1-25

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Throughout our series “The Final Word: Knowing Christ through Hebrews,” I am writing prayers related to the text on which we are preaching each week. Today’s prayer is the final one in this series and is drawn from Hebrews 13:1-25. The complete list of prayers inspired by Hebrews is included at the bottom of this post. You can also view my message, “Worship and the Final Word,” drawn from this passage here.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—
we worship You
and want our lives to overflow
with living worship of You, the Triune God.

May our life as a church community,
our friendships and marriages,
our relationship with money,
and our care for the least of these bring You glory.

Thank You, Father, for offering Your Son
as the Mediator of the new covenant
through His sacrificial death upon the Cross
and His resurrection glory at Your right hand.

May our lives now be living sacrifices,
not to earn Your favor,
but as a grateful response
to Your unending grace and sovereign plan.

Equip us with everything good
for doing Your will, our God,
so that with holy and loving lives
we might bring You both joy and glory.

All this we pray through You, Father,
who with Jesus the Eternal Son
and the indwelling Holy Spirit,
are One God, both now and forever.
Amen.


Prayers from Hebrews:

The Weekend Wanderer: 8 August 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


Last week I took a break from “The Weekend Wanderer,” as I was at Fort Wilderness speaking for one of their summer family camps in the beautiful north woods of Wisconsin. Here are a couple of photos of the beauty.

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Beirut explosion“16 Beirut Ministries Respond to Lebanon Explosion” – Tuesday’s explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, directly affected people within our church and partners in that part of the world. We are praying for the country and the believers as the recover and talking with church partners as they fashion a response (support our efforts by giving financially here). Here are some examples of ministries responding on the ground in Beirut in an article at Christianity Today. You may also benefit from reading about the way this reflects deeper problems in Lebanon (“Beirut Explosion Looks Like An Accident — And A Sign Of The Country’s Collapse”), the impact on humanitarian aid for refugees (“More than $600,000 in humanitarian aid for refugees destroyed in Beirut explosion”) and one journalist’s attempt to explain this disaster to his children as they live in Beirut (“How I Explained Beirut’s Explosion to My Kids” ).


CT bodily worship“Preserving Our Body and Bodies for Worship” – One of the most important aspects for worship and discipleship is our bodies. Those who serve an incarnate Lord serve Him incarnationally, following Him by offering our bodies as living sacrifices and living together as the redeemed community. Here is Hannah King reflecting on the importance of this in relation to the body of Christ, our bodily life, and the church at worship. “Corporate worship demonstrates this reality weekly. We gather as bodies, presenting our whole selves to God in praise and thanksgiving. We sing and lift our hands, we kneel to confess and to pray, we take the bread in our hands and eat. But we also gather as a body of bodies, embedding our individual faith within a larger, corporate reality. Christianity is never merely personal and private, but interpersonal and familial. Our communion with God is the fellowship of a family.”


51MxgeRI+ML._SL250_“Barbara Peacock – Soul Care in African American Practice – Review – In The Englewood Review of BooksOpe Bukola reviews a book I hope to read soon: “Though I was drawn to contemplative practice, the little I knew of it made me doubt it was ‘for me’ as a 30-something Protestant black woman. I know my share of prayer warriors, so praying intentionally resonates strongly as part of black Christian practice. But contemplation? Not so much. I’ve since learned of the African roots of Christian contemplative practices, from church fathers like Augustine and Tertullian, to 20th century giants like Howard Thurman. So when I first heard of Dr. Barbara Peacock’s book, Soul Care in African American Practice, I was immediately drawn to the term ‘soul care.’ In the book, Peacock highlights the spiritual practices that have sustained generations of African American Christians and urges black Christians to prioritize intentional soul care.”


Science_poetry_98603463“What Poetry Means for Doctors and Patients During a Pandemic” – As a lover of poetry and limping writer of poetry, I found this article in Wired fascinating. What is it about poetry that helps us in times of difficulty? “When Rafael Campo took over as poetry editor at The Journal of the American Medical Association a little over a year ago, he wasn’t expecting to field quite so many submissions….At first, Campo says, he got about 20 or 30 poems each week. Some are from patients or family caregivers. Most come from doctors and nurses. But as the pandemic got underway, more and more poems arrived. Now, his inbox is bursting with over a hundred weekly submissions. ”


White fragility“White Fragility: Why this Book is Important for Evangelicals” – Ed Stetzer invites Allison Ash to be the first in a series of interactions with Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. She writes: “I think this book is important for evangelical Christians, particularly white evangelical Christians (both people who would identify as progressive, conservative or a combination of the two), because it speaks a language that has been almost completely missing within the white evangelical church throughout its history.” For another perspective you may want to look at an article I posted in July by George Yancey, “Not White Fragility, Mutual Responsibility.” 


Flannery O'Connor“The ‘Cancelling’ of Flannery O’Connor?:  It Never Should Have Happened” – Flannery O’Connor is a twentieth-century southern novelist whose Christian faith weaves in and out of her work with a mesmerizing and sometimes ghastly force. If you’re not familiar with her work, I’d encourage you to start with her short stories in A Good Man Is Hard to Find. O’Connor, however, has recently come under scrutiny for some of her views, leading Loyola University of Maryland to remove her name from a building because “some of her personal writings reflected a racist perspective.” In Commonweal, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell takes the university to task for this decision.


Music: Bon Iver, “AUATC.”

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]