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Worship At Two Altars

Over the next few minutes, I want to challenge you to think about what you truly worship. In the book of Exodus, we find the familiar story of Moses going up Mount Sinai and receiving two tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments. As powerful as that story is, what’s even more intriguing is the scene down in the valley.

In Exodus 32 we read that Moses was delayed in his return trip from the mountain, so the people of Israel went to his brother, Aaron, for a little chat: “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him” (v. 1).

When the cats away, the mice do play.

Aaron instructed the people to take off their gold jewelry, from which he crafted a golden calf, and the people said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (v. 4).

Now, don’t miss the significance of the very next verse: “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it” (v. 5a). And then he announced, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord” (v. 5b).

I’ve read this passage numerous times, and I’ve even preached from it by emphasizing the application of the sin of idolatry and Aaron’s compromise during Moses’ absence. But not until reading Chuck Colson’s book, My Final Word, did I see the impact of Aaron building an altar for the Lord right in front of the golden calf. Colson pointed out that Theologian Cornelius Plantinga called this, “idolatry alongside” (My Final Word, 20).

We tend to think of idolatry as worshiping something or someone other than God, and it is. But in Exodus 32, the sin of the people is not just worshiping a false deity but attempting to worship God alongside something else. The people had their pick: one day they could worship the golden calf, the next day they could worship God. Maybe the people were trying to play it safe. By worshiping both, they could have their cake and eat it, too.

“Idolatry alongside” is not unique to the people of Israel. All of us are tempted to worship God and our job, our money, our house, our reputation, our dreams for our kids’ future. The “and” will get us every time.

John Calvin wrote that people are incorrigibly religious—that is, we were created in such a way that we cannot avoid worshiping someone or something. God created us with this innate expression of putting something on the throne of our lives, whether that something is self, mammon (which is still a reflection of self-worship), or God.

My concern is not just with people “out there” who may commit “idolatry alongside”; my concern is with Christians “in here”—those of us who profess faith in Jesus Christ but continue to worship at two altars. Even inside the Church, we worship God and our music; God and our programs; God and our pastor. Don’t believe me? Just ask yourself why people change churches like they’re changing cable television services. Is it because of God or is it because of the “and.” Which altar is more important?

The point is that we all have a choice to make between two altars. What will you worship? Who will you worship? Your marriage or God? Your children or God? Your church or God? When we prioritize God above all else, we discover that “all else” begins to fall into place. The ordering of our lives begins with God at the top of the list, and everything else flows from our worship of Him. How did Jesus put it? “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

Take some time today to look at the altars of your life. Are you prioritizing God above all else, or are you a living example of “idolatry alongside”?

Blessed Are The Poor…But Why?

Have you ever wondered why it seems God favors the poor and the disadvantaged? Catholic scholars call this, “God’s preferential option for the poor.” Are the poor more virtuous than the wealthy? No, but they are less likely to pretend to be virtuous.

Many of you reading this are probably not classified as poor. You have food, shelter, clothing, transportation, and then some. And some of you might even be a notch up on the scale of net worth.

But here’s the tragedy: Wealth can be an inhibitor to acknowledge spiritual poverty. Jesus said “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:24). In Matthew 19, Jesus tells a religious man to sell his possessions and give to the poor, and the man walks away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus turns to His disciples and says, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24).

I read the other day that Hamilton County, the wealthiest in Indiana, has incurred a 45% increase in heroin-overdose deaths. Is the increase due to a surge in homelessness or a population boom of lower-income households? No, the biggest increase of overdose is among middle-aged women living in expensive homes who feel empty in life and become addicted to prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin.

Qualities such as dependence, simplicity, humility, cooperation, and a sense of abandon are highly valued in the spiritual life, but they can be elusive for those who live a relative life of ease. Philip Yancey reflects, “In the Great Reversal of God’s kingdom, prosperous saints are very rare” (The Jesus I Never Knew, 116).

So, what do we do with all of this? First, learn to be content in whatever your circumstances (Philippians 4:11). Second, don’t put your hope in wealth, “which is so uncertain, but put [your] hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). And, finally, become desperate for God. Don’t look to your physical comforts as a means to satisfy your soul. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

“Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Why are they blessed? Not because of their misery, but because they have an innate advantage over those more self-sufficient and comfortable. “People who are rich, successful, and beautiful may well go through life relying on their natural gifts. People who lack such natural advantages, hence underqualified for success in the kingdom of this world, just might turn to God in their time of need. Human beings do not readily admit desperation. When they do, the kingdom of heaven draws near” (ibid. 116-117).

I pray you will admit your desperation for God, and let Him fill the longing of your soul.

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