‘Idolatry & Abuse’ – 1 John 5:14-21 – May 5th, 2019

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to 1 John chapter 5, verses 14 through 21.

John says:

Now this is the confidence we have before Him: Whenever we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears whatever we ask, we know that we have what we have asked Him for.

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin that does not bring death, he should ask, and God will give life to him—to those who commit sin that doesn’t bring death. There is sin that brings death. I am not saying he should pray about that. All unrighteousness is sin, and there is sin that does not bring death.

We know that everyone who has been born of God does not sin, but the One who is born of God keeps him, and the evil one does not touch him.

We know that we are of God, and the whole world is under the sway of the evil one.

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know the true One. We are in the true One—that is, in His Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

Little children, guard yourselves from idols.

This is the word of the Lord.

*

Let’s pray.

One time my friend Garrett told me a story about the church his dad used to pastor, and it stuck with me: There was a long-time member, I think he was a deacon, or something, and he decided that abandoning his family was something he wanted to do.

So a few of his friends talked to him and he told them to mind their own business, and a few other deacons talked to him, and he brushed them off, too, and then Garrett’s dad sat down with him and the man said something along the lines of, “I know what the Bible says, and I don’t care.” And Garrett’s dad said something along the lines of, “Then you need to not care somewhere else.”

So they were going to formally remove him from the membership, and the date was set to vote him out, but before they got a chance to send him packing, he died of nothing. The guy literally just died. The coroner said it was like somebody just “switched him off.” This story sounds fake, but I can call material witnesses if you need me to. No “cause of death.” Died of nothing.

In today’s passage, John says that “There is sin that leads to death,” and then he proceeds to not explain that statement at all. Sometimes, like the man at my friend’s church, God literally just kills you.

Like the story in Acts chapter 5, when a man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira sell a plot of land and give part of the money to the church to redistribute to the poor; and instead of saying, “This is part of the money from the land we sold,” they say, “This is all of the money from the land we sold,” and Peter is like, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but God knows everything so you can’t lie to him.” And they both just die. Sometimes you sin and God just delivers your comeuppance right there, on the spot.
But the problem is that there’s no clear line distinguishing why that happens or who it happens to.

My parents and I have some family friends whose life story is kind of like a Charles Dickens novel: My mom’s long-time friend, I’ll call her “Jean,” has a disease that causes your body to start shutting down essentially one-organ-at-a-time, and along with that she increasingly lost her mobility.

Eventually, her husband, I’ll call him Billy, got tired of dealing with the inevitable difficulties that Jean’s disease created, so he wanted out.  But he’s the sort of guy that likes to maintain a certain reputation, so he didn’t want to be known as someone who asked for a divorce. So Billy got the idea that if he put her through enough psychological abuse, eventually she’d ask for a divorce and he wouldn’t have to.

But Jean refused, because she believed that you should do anything within your power to keep your marriage from ending. So Billy stepped up his game: He got rid of the washer/dryer so that she and the kids had to hand wash their clothes and then string them up in the backyard while he took his clothes to the dry cleaner; and he started renting out rooms in the house to strangers; he kept a short leash on how much money she had at any given time, to the point that she couldn’t keep any live-in help as her body shut down, so her oldest son – sixteen, seventeen years old – was having to bathe her every night.

And when she finally broke down and asked for a divorce, he told everyone that she had abandoned him “after all of the time and energy that he had put into caring for her.” He moved to another town and, as I recall, became a deacon at the church he joined.

And yet, at no point did God place him in the way of an oncoming vehicle, or move him to leave the gas on and the oven open while he lights a cigarette, or get a flesh-eating disease from a bad cut of pork – any of these would be satisfactory to me. But none of that has happened. Billy is doing fine. God hasn’t cut Billy down.

Things have gone reasonably well for Billy, which shouldn’t surprise us because that’s how things tend to work on this side of The Fall – to the point that in Psalm 73, Asaph says, “I was envious of the arrogant, because I saw that the wicked prosper.” In the story of Job, after Job has lost everything for no reason, Job complains that the “the tents of the destroyers prosper, and those who provoke God are secure.” In Jeremiah 21:1, he says that “the way of the wicked prospers,” and “the folks who deal in treachery end up living at ease.” One of the most common things you’ll hear throughout the Bible is that the pathway to “success” in this world is taking advantage of other people.

A lot of people put away the Bible because of the fact that Bad Things Happen To Good PeopleTM, and I get that, but the fact that bad things happen to good people is a central part of the story that the Bible tells. Human history is filled with stories of good people getting trampled on by powerful scumbags, and in all likelihood you’ve been trampled on by somebody, at some point, already.

And when that happens, 90% of the time, the thing that God does to change your situation is nothing. God hasn’t killed Billy, he probably hasn’t taken revenge on the people who hurt you – if you’re a history buff, you’ve probably got a handful of folks from recent history that you’d think God might’ve pulled an Ananias on and just “switched off” before they could set us on a course filled with unnecessary suffering. But he didn’t.

And if your question is “Why didn’t God just ‘switch off’ the people who hurt me before they could hurt me,” I don’t have an answer for you, and the Bible doesn’t either. If you’ve been put through the ringer, and walked on, and used by people who pretended to love you but betrayed you after everything, you already know that there’s nothing in the world that can undo the horrors you’ve been put through.

Nothing “makes up for” your suffering. And there are no religious-sounding slogans I can drop from the pulpit that can cover up the wounds from the suffering that comes with growing up in a world that is “under the sway of the ‘Evil One’.” John says that “all unrighteousness is sin,” and that “there is sin that causes death,” but that doesn’t change the fact that we will all suffer from other people’s sin, and most of the time we will never see the folks who sin against us “get what’s coming to them.” Because that is the way things work when “the whole world is under the sway of the ‘Evil One’.”

*

And for that same reason it’s important to keep very close account of your own heart. Because for people like Billy, his fundamental problem is not that he’s an abuser, it’s that he’s what Paul refers to in First Corinthians chapter 6 as an “idolater.”

“Idolater” is a weird word, but if you’ve ever listened to K-Love, you’ve probably heard a song or two with lyrics like “I will cast down my idols at the cross,” and so on. 

Sometimes “idolatry” means worshipping a pagan god. Like in Romans chapter 1, Paul talks about how after The Fall, humanity “traded the true God” for idols made out of wood and stone, and so forth; that they would carve out images that look like animals or human beings. If you ever do a Google search on “Pagan deities from the Ancient Near East,” you’ll see exactly what Paul is talking about:

Some of the gods look like “scary farm animals,” and some of them look like “scary fish,” and some of them look like “scary birds,” the list goes on. But more common than anything, what you see is gods that look like powerful men. And it’s uncanny. You see gods who look like the quintessential “alpha male,” like warlords – like that guy who keeps picking fights at the bar. Or like your ex-husband.

In Deuteronomy 29:18, Moses tells the Israelites in the wilderness to “Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you whose heart turns away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of the pagan nations.” And so for a long time throughout Israel’s history after they were exiled from the Promised Land, the religious leaders kept everyone on a close watch to make sure nobody was drawn away by the pagan gods around them.

And that’s good, but it’s kind of like putting a band-aid on cancer, because you can be an “idolater” without ever worshipping a pagan god. When Paul says in First Corinthians that no “idolaters” will inherit the Kingdom of God, he’s in the middle of a discussion about sins that don’t have much of anything to do with literally worshipping other gods.

Because most of the time, “idolatry” feels like “wisdom.” Or it looks like what we Americans call “the pursuit of happiness.” Ananias and Sapphira dived hook, line & sinker into the idolatry of “recognition.” They wanted to be known as people who gave generously and sacrificially to the poor, but they were also captive to the idols of “wealth” and “security,” so they didn’t want to submit themselves to the generosity and sacrifice that would actually get them there.

I can relate to that. I want to feel safe. I want to feel like there’s a buffer between my family and everything that seems threatening in the outside world. So there are entire websites that are made for people like me. You know what I’m talking about? There are people sitting in their home, making a killing off of the fact that people like me are looking for things to be nervous about, looking for new things to feel threatened by, and they’ll write incendiary articles trying to stoke my fear and anger at people I have never met because I worship an idol called “security.”

And since I worship an idol called security, the devil has a foothold on my wallet, on the way I spend my money; the devil has a foothold on the instincts that will drive the way I vote, and which politicians can catch my loyalty; the devil has a foothold on who I will evangelize to, who I will approach at a cafe, or on the street, or who I will invite to my house.

But that might not be your idol. Most of the people that I know at Mount Zion Baptist Church are supernaturally generous and more welcoming than I have any capacity to explain. If I wasn’t a believer already, I probably would be after spending a few years with almost any of the families at Mount Zion. But even if you aren’t susceptible to the same idols as I am, you’re susceptible to some idols, somewhere. Just because I don’t know what your idols are doesn’t mean you don’t have them.

Money and sex and security and power, and familiarity and approval and love and so on and so forth are all good things, given to us by God for our enjoyment and for his glory, but all of these things can become idols at the drop of a hat because, Jeremiah 17:9, “the heart is deceitful above all things.”

And when any of the good things God has given to us become the thing that we fixate on to the point that they drive our deepest decisions, they become “counterfeit gods” that we worship in place of the true God. And the “counterfeit gods” that compete for our worship won’t simply “rob us of joy,” like the songs say. Like Billy, our idols will turn us into abusers if we let them.

*

Some of you already know that, because you’ve watched it play out in the person who abused you.

And I want to be as clear as I can possibly be: Things are not going to go well for people who walk in unrepentant sin and abuse. Things are not going to go well for your abuser. A day is going to come when Billy either repents and spends the rest of his life doing whatever he can to right the wrongs that he’s committed against his wife or he’s going to learn the hard way that God isn’t playing around in Jeremiah 22:19 when he says that the abuser “will be buried like a donkey dragged off and thrown outside the gates of Jerusalem.”

The same God who forbids us from taking revenge on anyone, ever, also says in Romans 12:19 that “vengeance belongs to him,” and that “he will repay” your abusers. God tells us in Psalm 11:5 that “his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” And he promises in Psalm 10:17-18 that he will “do justice to the fatherless and the abused, so that the abuser may strike terror no more.”

If you think you might have abusive tendencies, I’d work on “nailing them to the cross.” I’d confess it to a group of people who’ll take it seriously, I’d find counselor who specializes in rehabilitating abusers – I’d do whatever I needed to put myself on the pathway to genuine repentance, because even if your sin doesn’t cause God to “switch you off” like we’ve sometimes seen happen to other abusers, God will take vengeance on you for every crooked thing you’ve ever done. I promise you that God will repay you every black eye, every subtle threat – God will repay you every wrong you’ve done against the person you’ve mistreated.

So if you recognize yourself in the man that I have called Billy throughout this sermon, if you’re somebody who’s given yourself over so deeply to your idols that it’s slowly turned you into somebody who’ll put the people around you through whatever sort of abuse it takes to satisfy you, you should take encouragement over the fact that you are still alive. God hasn’t switched you off. And you are currently sitting through the reason why.

In verse 20 John says that the “Son of God has come and given us understanding so that we may know the “True One.” That the whole world is under the sway of the “Evil One,” but the but Jesus Christ has come and gotten us to bring us back to the True One. That can be “bad news,” or it can be “good news.”

However much time stands between this moment and the moment you permanently stop breathing, this period of time is your chance to repent and surrender to the gospel. I’m not talking about saying the sinner’s prayer again. You can recite that prayer every night before you go to bed, but God knows your heart better than you know your heart; he knows fully well whether you’re hiding behind a prayer you’ve recited, or an altar call you’ve responded to as a means of convincing yourself that God won’t punish you for the abuse you’ve put your spouse, or kids, or your co-workers, or your elderly parents, or your classmate, or anyone, through. You can’t fool God.

I am talking about nailing your idols up to the cross; killing your sin; turning over the keys to whoever it is you’ve grievously wronged to the point that there’s no good reason why your sin hasn’t caused God to put you out of their misery by switching you off.

You should take encouragement over the fact that you are alive right now and that you were unlucky enough to have sit through another one of my painfully-boring sermons. Because this is your chance to repent.

If you are someone who has allowed your idolatry to turn you into an abuser, your takeaway from this message should not simply be that God is going to kill you dead for what you’ve done; it should be that you can stop.

You can kill your idols and crucify your sin. You can throw yourself at the feet of Jesus – you cannot be let off the hook, but you can be forgiven. I’m serious. Jesus will not tolerate your sin, which is probably what you’ve been banking on, but he will forgive you if you throw yourself on his mercy in genuine faith and repentance.

You can be reconciled to God. You can be welcomed back into the arms of the Father like the Prodigal Son. You can be genuinely forgiven for everything you’ve done.

I’m not just stringing a bunch of religious-sounding phrases together to bait you into outing yourself as an abuser. Your sin will bring death, either because God switches you off like he switched off Ananias, or because God plunges you into a death that is deader than death in the Final Judgment. Or, John says that you can be reconciled to God instead. So I’m begging you to. Stop hiding.

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that everyone who has thrown themselves onto the mercy of Jesus, who has repented of their sin and turned over the keys, who has thrown off their old idols, will “behold the glory of the Lord,” and be “transformed into the same image” of Jesus, “from one degree of glory to another” by the Holy Spirit who lives inside us and purges us of every remaining unswept dark corner from now until we die. You can be good again, or good for the first time.

At Mount Zion, we are praying for you, that God would “give life to you,” like John says in verse 16; that you would be “born of God,” and that, as someone “born of God,” you would put away your sin. Allow God to set you free from the monstrousness you’ve allowed to consume you.

This is an understandably sensitive subject, so if there is anything you need to talk to somebody about, or if there is anything you need to confess, you can flag myself or one of the deacons down, or you can email me at the email that is in the bulletin; We’d love to walk you through the process, either of escaping whatever abusive situation you’re stuck in, or of rectifying whatever situation you’ve been the abuser in.

We are also praying for everybody else. Sitting through this sermon might have been kind of unusual, because my guess is that most of you are not abusive toward the people around you. Our idols will turn us into abusers if we let them, but most folks never get to that point. But the same principle applies. The idols that surround us and entice us in a world under the sway of the Evil One might not turn you into Ike Turner, but if they can turn you away from the great mercy that God has shown you in Jesus Christ, they will.

If they can draw you out of the Promised Land and into the wilderness – if they can cause you to worship the good things God has given to us rather than worshipping the good God who has given them to us, they will. All of us are in different places, but we need the same thing: to repent and believe the gospel. So as we begin to sing, the altar will be open, and I’ll be available to talk to.

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