Babylon, Idolatry And You

Selected highlights from this sermon.

Jeremiah was given the difficult task of speaking against the idolatry of Judah. Judah had rebelled against God by pursuing gods who supported and justified their sexual behavior. Though Jeremiah spoke, no one listened, and God’s judgment came upon the nation. 

God is speaking to us today. Will we give up the idols of sports, business, relationships, and fame and return to God?

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What comes to your mind when I mention the name Babylon? Perhaps occultism would come to your mind. Certainly immorality, violence – all of those things would be true. But the bottom line is one word, and that is idolatry. Babylon is known for idolatry.

That name Babylon occurs in the Scripture about 200 times, mostly about Ancient Babylon, but also about the Babylon of the future. Perhaps in this series eventually we’ll get to that.

Jeremiah, the prophet, was writing during the time when the Neo-Babylonian Empire was beginning. You see Ancient Babylon had passed off the scene as a world power, but now Babylon was being revived and was actually overtaking Assyria as the world empire. And Jeremiah, God bless him, would actually live to see the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, the Kingdom of Judah destroyed, Solomon’s temple in ruins, thoroughly and totally destroyed, and even have to be a witness to it all.

The reason I am preaching this series of messages is, first of all, that we might renew and have a better understanding of God. If you see God as someone who is tolerant, who can put up with any kind of behavior endlessly on our part, your concept of God needs adjustment. We’re going to see, thankfully, that He is a God of mercy, but He is also a God of great justice. We will be overwhelmed by God’s hatred of sin. Just read the book of Jeremiah and you can’t get over it.

So one thing that we’re going to do is expand our knowledge of God. The second thing that we want to do is to ask the question, “What does faithfulness look like in a nation that is under judgment?” because we as a nation undoubtedly are under the judgment of God. And what is it like for God’s people to live in the midst of that kind of an environment?

When I began thinking about this project, this series of messages, initially I was thinking about the time when the Israelites were carried into Babylon, and eventually we’ll get to that. But before we get to that I have a number of messages (I’m not entirely sure of the number.) on this book of Jeremiah.

I hope that you bring your Bibles. It’s so important for you to look at the text. Can we pray that God, by His Spirit, might use this series of messages to invigorate us, because even though the title is The Church in Babylon, remember the subtitle is Unleashing the Power of a Spirit Filled Witness? What we want to do is to be strong, courageous and gracious, but uncompromising witnesses to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a culture that is becoming increasingly hostile to the Christian faith. Let’s pray that it will be transforming for all of us.

Now open your Bibles to Jeremiah 1. You’ll notice that it begins by talking about Josiah the king and then lists other kings in the opening verses. What is most important for us to realize is that Jeremiah had a very long ministry – over forty years. It began during the days of Josiah, the king – the young Josiah who began to rule at the age of eight and was a righteous king, and then it ended with the destruction of Jerusalem, and Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet.

We are going to see him with tears. We’re going to look at the book of Lamentations eventually in this series where Jeremiah is just unable to function. He is so overcome by the tears for his nation. Do you know what he’s going to see? He’s going to see the people of Judah not only carried off, but children starving. He’s going to see destruction. He’s going to see King Zedekiah with his eyes gouged out. And do you know what? Jeremiah never sees the revival for which he prayed and preached, but he was faithful (We will discover that.) whether he saw the revival or not. How relevant can you possibly be when you open the book of Jeremiah? It’s all here.

Now you’ll notice his call. And here I am jumping to Jeremiah 1:4. “Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’” I used to read this, this way. “While you were being formed in the womb I knew you and called you.” And then I looked at it again this week, and I realized God said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” And you know that word know doesn’t just mean know ahead of time. It’s the word for intimate knowledge.

God said, “I already had a relationship with you, Jeremiah, before you were conceived,” and we know that because God is God that’s in eternity past. But you know that that’s true of us as well. We are chosen in Him from before the foundation of the world. If you are a believer today, God also knew you before you were born. (applause)

And so it’s a sovereign call. You know that means that all of the genes, the genetic makeup and the DNA that Jeremiah would need already came together in such a way that he’d have the gifting of the prophet. So it was sovereign. God says, “I am the One who has chosen you, and you are choosing Me only because I chose you in advance.”

It was also a very specific appointed calling. Notice it says that Jeremiah objects and says, “I’m a youth,” and God says, “Hey, when it comes to My calling, it doesn’t matter whether you are young or old. I am calling you and you are going to command and you are going to speak everything that I tell you to speak,” and it says in verse 8, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the Lord.” Verse 9 and 10 say, “Then the Lord put out His hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me, ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.’”

Notice this. God says there are going to be four words of judgment for every two words of mercy and grace. And when you read the book of Jeremiah you discover chapter after chapter on judgment. That’s why we’re not going to cover every chapter. It is heavy, but you should read the book and you’ll come across all kinds of figures of speech and references that you might not know a lot about, but so much of it is clear as God now unburdens His heart for a people that have left Him. In fact, do you know what I’m going to show you in the next message in this series? I’m going to show you that God actually files for divorce. He said, “I can’t take it anymore. I married you. I’ve been your husband. You’re unfaithful to Me. I’m going to divorce court.” Now I’m not going to tell you in advance whether or not God actually went through with that divorce. I’ll let you know about that next time, but the people were so unfaithful.

I just need to unburden my heart and say to you that if you have come to church this morning because you want a “feel good” message, and you want the pastor to say to you that you can do anything that you like as long as you have lots of self-esteem, this is not the series of messages to check into. Alright? You might have to go to another church, at least for a few weeks, because this is not Jeremiah. But if you want to be here and to deal seriously with sin and repentance and put God on the throne of your life that will permeate all experiences and all of your relationships, this might be exactly the series of messages that God has for you and for me. It’s a hard message but it’s a true message, and God wounds us in order that He might heal us.

Well, what are some of the characteristics of the idolatry that God hates so much? First of all, however, I notice that I have lots of material here today. I may have to finish this message next time.

What about the context in which Jeremiah is ministering? What was that like? It was dark and it was getting darker. It was a time of hopelessness. Let me explain why. Under Josiah the Book of the Law was found. Can you imagine they are cleaning out the Temple and there is so much garbage. There are so many other gods that they brought into the Temple that in the middle of cleaning it out they say, “Here’s part of the Book of the Law,” and they begin to read it, and they have a revival. The problem was, it was too little too late.

It’s just like in our country. We see pockets of reform here and we see a revival over here, but we cannot see a reversal of our situation unless there is a massive in breaking of God in our country. And so Jeremiah had that hope but now it was all hopeless.

Let me also say that it was a day of deaf ears. Oh, the people! Jeremiah is different from all the other prophets. We don’t know much about Isaiah except what he preached. Jeremiah spills out his heart and he’s weeping. I’ll share that with you. He is sobbing. He argues with God. At one point he says, “God, you’ve deceived me because I thought that You were going to give a word of peace, and all that this is, is a word of judgment. He spills out his heart. He is thrown into a pit. False prophets! And by the way, that message is coming up in this series. False prophets stand against him. They condemn him and he has to stand there alone and nobody wants to hear what he has to say. Even at the end the king sends for him, but Jeremiah says, “I’m not coming because no matter what I say, you’re going to go the opposite anyway.” That’s what kind of a life he lived. People didn’t want to hear. They were deaf.

There’s another historical point that I must make. When you read Jeremiah, as I hope you will, will you keep in mind the difference between Israel and Judah? You know, after the time of Solomon the kingdom was split, and you have the Northern Kingdom, which became known as Israel, and the capital was Samaria. That’s where Ahab and others ruled. The Southern Kingdom was Judah, and the capital was Jerusalem.

Now we use Israel for the whole land. And that’s the confusion. So when you come across Israel you know it’s the Northern Kingdom. Do you know what happened to the Northern Kingdom? About 130 years before Jeremiah, the Northern Kingdom was taken and they went off to Assyria. We sometimes call them the Lost Ten Tribes, though some people think that they aren’t lost at all. But the Northern Kingdom was totally destroyed. The Assyrians took, I think if I remember correctly (I didn’t look it up.) about 27,000 people into Assyria. So that kingdom was destroyed. Samaritans came about because there were some Jews left and they were mixed with Assyrians, and they were mixed blood.

So you would think that they would learn. Jeremiah refers to that and says, “You know, your sister Israel – look at what happened to her.” And the people said, “It doesn’t matter. We are joined to our idols. We don’t want to hear what you have to say.”

Wasn’t it Woody Allen who said that history has to repeat itself because we never learn the lessons of history the first time? And history does repeat itself. These people did not learn, and they didn’t want to. They were joined to idols. Who wants to hear that? You know, “That preacher of judgment! We want the false prophets.” When I speak about the false prophets I’ll tell you what they were saying.

Well, what are some of these characteristics of idolatry? First of all, idolatry is (and it was a day of divine judgment)…- You know this is so difficult to preach. Do you realize that there are passages that I’ll point out in a future message where God even says, “Don’t pray for the people?” He says, “Even if Noah were to pray, I’m not going to relent because judgment is inevitable.” He says, “It’s like a boat caught in a mighty Niagara River (in our imagery), and you are going over the falls. It’s too late now to turn back.”

I don’t think America is at that point. I pray for America, but do you realize, folks, that considering what has happened in the last months and weeks and years, who knows whether we can turn it back? You say, “Well, where’s the optimism?” Well, hang in. There’s lots of optimism. I just can’t say everything in the introduction to the series.

Alright! Now, what are some of the characteristics of idolatry? It’s an exchange of gods. You know, it says in Jeremiah 2:5, “What wrong did your fathers find in Me that they went from Me and went after worthless things, and became worthless? What fault was there in Me?” It says in Jeremiah 2:11-13, “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of  living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”

Have you ever drunk from a fresh fountain that is bubbling up with some good water? Why would you then build a cistern to catch rainwater? Your cistern leaks. It’s got cracks. The water is there for weeks on end and becomes brackish. I think that is the only time I have ever used this word brackish, but it fits here. You begin to drink it and you gag (coughs). Why would people do that? I mean, you know, you are abandoning the fresh water of God. Why go for a stream that has such a bad aftertaste?

Well, we are going to hurry on and go to a second characteristic of idolatry that will answer that question. You must recognize that idolatry basically is to have a vision of God based upon desire, specifically sexual desire. Have you ever thought about why Israel always has this attraction to idols? You know, they are always running off with some other god, whether it’s Hosea or all these other prophets talking about the fact that on the mountains and the hills they had these shrines. What is attractive about that, may I ask? It’s because the pagan gods were very tolerant when it came to sexuality.

You know you read this, for example, in chapter two. It says in verse 20, “For long ago I broke your yoke and burst your bonds, but you said, ‘I will not serve.’ Yes, on every high hill and under every green tree you bow down like a whore.” He says the very same thing in chapter three. You can read it there yourself in verse 2 and following.

You see, it was not only spiritual adultery that the people were committing and turning from the living water to the broken cisterns – the brackish water, but they were sexually immoral. And these pagan gods were very tolerant of whatever sexuality you wanted. And the problem with that tolerance, which offers so much and which promises freedom, is that it brought so much baggage. And when you drink from that fountain you gag because of the guilt, and because of the broken relationships, and because of the emptiness, and because of the sense of destruction of who you are and the self-respect that you should have as a person. All of those consequences are huge, but the problem is you are bonded to these idols. So you keep drinking from the bitter fountains that can hold no water. But you keep going back again and again and again.

That is the problem with different views of God. I have books in my library where people have totally redefined God in accordance with human desire. In fact, there was a book written, that just comes to mind as I am preaching, entitled Conversations with God. By the way, did you know that a demonic spirit wrote that book? I read it maybe about ten years ago but the author said that as he was writing a spirit came along and basically dictated it. And basically what God said is, “I am whoever you want Me to be.” Well, isn’t that ever great?

Do you know that it was Huxley who said that the reason we accepted evolution without a lot of proof is because we didn’t want a god to interfere with our sexual mores? That was Huxley. In other words, “Get God off our back so that we can be free,” but ah, the freedom comes with a huge price of bondage and you end up choking on those fountains. Hmm, it’s a hard lesson to learn, isn’t it?

Now do you remember the story that I told maybe ten years ago? When you’ve been here as long as I have you sometimes lose track of time. The story was about a man who was driving through a farmyard and he noticed that on the barn there were a bunch of targets. And right smack in the middle of each target there was an arrow. So he stopped to commend the farmer for being such an expert marksman. The farmer said, “What you saw out there wasn’t done by me. A village boy who is somewhat mentally challenged did it. He comes out here. He shoots arrows into my barn and then he paints the targets around them.” (laughter) That’s what society does. “I want to do what I want to do. I want to live the way in which I want to live and God will come along and make it all right and agree with me.”

A very famous pornographer, whose name I will not mention, was interviewed, and I remember reading the interview in which he said, “My god doesn’t have a problem with what I do.” You see, it used to be when I was younger, that the bumper sticker said, “If it feels good, do it.” Now the bumper sticker should say, “If it feels good, believe it.” So what we have is a god who comes along and justifies everything that we want to do.

The third characteristic of idolatry is willful self-deception. Now here in the text in Jeremiah 2:22-23 it says, for example, as they are trying to justify themselves, “Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before Me.” How do you think they are washing themselves? They are washing themselves with self-justification. They are talking among their friends and they are saying, “Well, everybody does it. How could this be wrong?” And so they are trying to cleanse their consciences, but it’s not working very well. “How can you say, ‘I am not unclean? I’ve not gone after the Baals. Look at your way in the valley and know what you have done, restless like a young camel running here and there, a wild donkey used in the wilderness in her heat sniffing the wind!”

And do you know what the prophet goes on to say? “You go out looking for sin. It’s not just that sin comes to you but you go cruising trying to find it, running toward the sin and not away from it. That’s where your heart really is.” That’s what the prophet happens to be saying. Wow!

And then he says in verse 26, “As a thief is shamed when caught, so the house of Israel shall be shamed: they, their kings,” and so forth. I’ll tell you what he’s saying there, and think about this. Anything that you and I are doing, which if it were exposed would be shameful, is something that we already know intuitively is wrong. You know, a boy might be sleeping with his girlfriend, totally justified, you know, because two can live more cheaply than one, and yada yada yada, and on and on it goes. But when he is exposed, there is embarrassment and there is shame. Why? It’s because intuitively you know that it’s wrong. And these people going to the hills and to the mountains and saying that “We are worshipping these other gods,” knew down deep that they were not able to wash their souls from the stain of guilt.

Where does this leave us? Let me make a couple of observations quickly. First of all, would you remember that all idols demand worship and allegiance? All idols demand it. These pagan gods demanded worship. They demanded allegiance. The people tried to get away from them. It just occurs to me now. Do you remember that old story about Tar Baby trying to get away, but it always kept sticking, and they always kept coming back? They couldn’t overcome their addictions.

Do you know what they ended up doing? They ended up sacrificing their children to the god, Molech. That’s how bad it became, because you see once you say, “We are free from God (the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all of His laws and traditions, and all those things) and now we’re free to be our own gods,” you never know where it’s going to end up. But every god demands allegiance.

And actually idolatry is not, first of all, things that we normally think of. It’s certainly not the idols out on the fields because we don’t have that today, but we do have sports, and we do have business idols, and we do have people whose whole identity is wrapped up with relationships. We have women, for example, who feel that they are totally worthless unless there is a man on their arm. That also can be an idol. And as a result of that, you see, whether or not it’s money or fame or adulation or being well thought of…. You know, Calvin, the great theologian, said that the human mind is an idol factory. It’s always just generating one idol after another, and God has to come along and show those idols to us.

I may have idols in my life that I am even unaware of, but when we are serious with God, He begins to show us because He also demands allegiance. And the first commandment is, “Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself.” Anything that we love more than God, anything that satisfies us more than God, is an idol. It could be our family. It could be something good, totally justified, but is God first? All gods demand allegiance, and certainly these gods did.

Second, the answer is to return to the Lord. Now I’m going to jump to Jeremiah 3, and obviously in this series we are not going to be going verse by verse, but Jeremiah 3:12-14 for example says, “Return, faithless Israel, declares the Lord. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful declares the Lord; I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the Lord your God and scattered your favors among the foreigners under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice, declares the Lord. Return, oh faithless children, declares the Lord; for I am your Master.”

God says to you and to me today, “Return; return even with your idols because they are too strong for you to deal with,” but the Bible says in Thessalonians that we turn to God from idols. In other words God doesn’t say, “Leave your idols behind and come to me.” How do you tell somebody addicted to an idol to leave it behind and come to Him? No, you come with your idol, but you come to God to know that He’s the one to forgive you and to deliver you and bring you hope and bring you back to the satisfying fountain. But you come to God seriously with your idols.

You know this past Friday night Rebecca and I were at a banquet (Some of you perhaps were there.) where Dr. Ben Carson spoke. He is one of the most famous surgeons in America. Can you imagine that at the age of 33 he actually was the head of the neurosurgical unit at Johns Hopkins University? He’s the first man to take two twins joined at the head and successfully separate them. What a remarkable man! He actually has the gift of eye-hand coordination that is unusual. He also can think in three dimensions. I have no idea what that is to think in three dimensions. I think for most of us, one is about all we can handle. (laughter)

But as a teenager growing up in poverty he was angry. You know he actually said that he took a hammer to hit his mother and his brother grabbed the hammer as it was held up at the back of Ben. And then he was going to take a knife and put it into one of his friends, but the knife hit the friend’s belt. And as he began to think about it he said, “Anger is going to destroy me.” He said he went into the bathroom and was there for three hours reading the Scripture, confessing to God, seeking God regarding anger, and according to his testimony, and if you were there you heard him, when he left the bathroom that was the end of his anger. God did it up right (applause), which is very important if you are a surgeon working on somebody for 18 hours as he has done. It’s also important because he is getting a lot of criticism now because he said some things that were politically incorrect.

And one of the things that Saul Alinsky, who wrote that book Radicals to help community organizers, said is that you have to demonize your opposition because then (when you demonize them) they’ll say something that looks very stupid and you’ll get them.

And according to Ben Carson, that actually is what he was talking about (He referenced Saul Alinsky.) when he said, “When all of this criticism comes (The Boston Globe said that he was speaking to a hate group, for example), I don’t even have to reply.” He’s totally at peace because anger has been taken away.

Anger can become an idol. Getting even with somebody can mean more to us than God. I know somebody who said, “I’ll never get right with God until these Christians make things right with me.” That is idolatry. Yes, Christians should make things right, but even if they don’t, are you telling me that your justification is more important to you than your relationship with God, and you are blowing God off until somebody comes and apologizes? Clearly God has second place.

Idolatry is deep. It is abiding. It has many, many different idols, and God says, “I want that there be an altar in your heart and that you bow before that altar, and the only altar you bow before is Me, the Lord your God, your Redeemer.” That’s what God is after in our lives. (applause)

I want to conclude with a word of hope here. You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, you are painting such a dismal picture. I mean, you know, Judah going downhill looks a lot like America,” but we don’t want to overplay the relationship. What about Jeremiah, a young man called by God? Listen, God calls you and me for this moment of history too but you’re back to chapter 1. I want to show you something.

This is what God said in Jeremiah 1:17 to this young prophet who was objecting to his call. And thank you for turning to it. The rustling of biblical pages makes me very happy up here. I hope I hear them often. “But you, dress yourself for work. Arise. Say to them everything that I command you. Don’t be dismayed by them lest I dismay you before them.” Wow! You’d better respond to the call. “And behold I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar and bronze walls against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land. They will fight against you but they will not prevail against you because I am with you, declares the Lord.”

I read this and I say, “Oh, when did God make Jeremiah a fortified city, an iron pillar and bronze walls?” He made him that before he went to work that day. He said, “Get ready. Put on your clothes. You’re going to go to work. You are going to represent me but I’m not saying now, ‘Jeremiah, go out there and be a fortified city; be a bronze pillar, be whatever.’” No, excuse me! God says, “I have already made you that. I prequalified you to walk in victory.” The God who calls you to this moment of history is the God who supplies what you need at this moment of history.

The God who calls you for this moment and calls me for this moment gives to us all we need to walk in victory. He doesn’t abandon us. He is with us. (applause) And one of the ways in which he strengthens us is by God’s people, because when Jesus died on the cross His death was so sufficient He said, “Not only is it proof that I love you, but I forgive you, I receive you. You are Mine. Come unto Me all ye who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. You come to Me, the true Fountain. Come to Me and drink. Be done with the bitter streams that make you choke in the end. You come to Me.”

And I invite you to do that if you have never received Christ as your Savior. I invite you to do that if you are a believer and you’re not walking with God. Finally get rid of those idols, and bow before the sovereign Lord and say, “I shall serve Him only, no matter the cost.”

Father, we ask that even as we will be participating, in a moment, in Your table as a reminder that Jesus died for us, help us to realize that in light of the fact that He did all that for us, oh Lord God, we give ourselves to You today without reservation. Expose the idols that we might with one heart and one mind serve You. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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