A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Turning from Idols to the True God

Pentecost +21
Rev. Doug Floyd
Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God[1]

Our readings today invite an extended meditation upon the Sovereignty of God. He is the Creator, and there is no other. He is King, and there is no other. All power will submit to Jesus as Lord. We live in a world of competing powers.

This makes me think of driving through Las Vegas in the early 1970s. My dad was driving us to California but on the way we drove through sin city. I remember the flashing neon signs: a giant cowboy in particular. Every sign was meant to attract money, sex, pleasure. Everything for sale.

We see this kind of image in a variety of movies in everything from the Mask to Moulin Rouge to Blade Runner. Scripture tells us these powers are seductive but not real. Not real power. Not real life. Everywhere we turn in Scripture, we see idols like neon lights in a city making claim to be gods, but they are empty in the end.

In our readings today, Isaiah names King Cyrus, King of Persia. This great and mighty king may look awe-inspiring, but in fact, he is serving the Lord whether he realizes it or not. The Lord works through him to bring his people home. Earlier we read of how the Lord works through King Nebuchadnezzar to send his people into exile. The prophets tell a story that demonstrates God’s ultimate Sovereignty over the nations and over history.

If we jump ahead to our second lesson today, we find Paul writing a relatively young group of Christians in a pagan land. Some scholars believe this letter to the Thessalonians may be the first New Testament book. Before the Gospels, before Acts, before Romans, we have this little letter written to a community in Macedonia, rehearsing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The city had multiple temples to various gods including Dionysus, Sarapis and Isis, Kabiros, Asclepius, Demeter, Cabiri, and Caesar. [2] The Caesar was worshipped alongside these gods as god among gods. The city was a large and prosperous city. Imagine it like the neon lights of Las Vegas or New York or Tokyo.

When Paul and Silas visited Thessalonica, they ended up causing a mob scene. First, they spoke to the Jews. According to Acts 17, we read, “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” And some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.”[3] A group of people made up of Jews and Gentiles believe the message of the Gospel. Then a group of Jews stirred up the city against Paul and Silas, and they had to escape by night to Berea.

The church in Thessalonica begins in conflict and the people face persecution for their new found faith in Christ. Paul writes this little congregation to encourage them. He writes,

“We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”[4]

This congregation becomes a model of faith to people throughout the region. Paul continues,

And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.”[5]

Paul reiterates that they have turned from the seductive powers all around them to the one true God.

“For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. “[6]

In spite of begin persecuted, in spite of being surrounded by seductive voices of the city, these people cling to the hope they have found in Jesus Christ, the promise of Resurrection. In the midst of alien powers, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is taking root and transforming people’s lives.

Finally, we come to our Gospel reading where the Pharisees and the Herodians are potting together to try and trick Jesus into getting himself into trouble. “They ask, Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”[7]

18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”[8]

Here we have a coin with Caesar’s image. In that sense, the coin signifies Caesar’s sovereign rule wherever that coin is used for currency. And yet, the irony is that Jesus is the true image of God standing in their midst. He is the true Sovereign, and eventually, every knee will bow, and tongue will confess that He is Lord.

All the powers we behold in Scripture today from Cyrus to Caesar to the gods in Thessalonica are temporary powers. These temporary powers are fading compared to the Creator God. After the Lord rescues the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, He tells them,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” [9] Why does He tell them that? He knows what they are made of. They will be tempted by other powers that seem to offer immediate satisfaction of a need, but in the end these powers will end of enslaving the people again. The Lord does not want or need any slaves. He created humans in His love. He is the only true father of His people. Pharoah was a godlike father of the Egyptians, but he also enslaved the people. So he was really a slavemaster.

Idolatry ultimately enslaves people and thereby dehumanizes people. It reduces us to less than who God created us to be. In our text today, we see all these ways and places people might be seduced by other gods. Today it might seem less obvious and yet we are surrounded by idols.

Several years ago, Tim Keller wrote a little book called “Counterfeit Gods.” In it he writes about some of the idols we worship in our culture. He lists the following: dreams, love, money, success, politics, culture, doctrinal truth, and others. Think of these as neon lights trying to get our attention. They are not inherently evil but each can displace our trust in God.

Dreams -We seemed to be promised all our dreams in this country. And we are unbelievably blessed. But pursuing our dreams can easily become a form of idolatry by looking for fulfillment in something other than the Lord.

Love – Our culture certainly exalts love. But outside the love of God in Christ, our desire and experience of love can be something that keeps of from the goodness of God. In the “Great Divorce,” a woman’s love for her son is an obsession. This obsession is the very thing she cannot give up to enter into heaven.

Money -Our value can be associated with how much money we make or don’t make. The accumulation of money can turn us away from trusting in the God who created us.

Success – Much like striving for money, the drive for success is not an accurate measure of our worth. Our worth comes from God in Christ.

Politics and political power can easily serve as a substitute god.

Culture – The love of our country and culture can become a religion unto itself. In WWII Hitler, removed the gospel from the German church, and people continued to attend as an emblem of their love for country.

Doctrinal Truth – Battling over every minute truth can lead us down a road that destroys our love and reduces our Gospel to a fight over truth.

Each of these areas can play a role in our lives but they can easily become substitutes gods. Let us keep turning back to the Lord. He is our true king and eventually all the world will acknowledge Him as king. Our response now is to live in the reality of Psalm 96:

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;

sing to the Lord, all the earth!

Sing to the Lord, bless his name;

tell of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations,

his marvelous works among all the peoples!

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;

he is to be feared above all gods.

For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,

but the Lord made the heavens.

Splendor and majesty are before him;

strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,

ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;

bring an offering, and come into his courts!

Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;

tremble before him, all the earth!

10 Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!

Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved;

he will judge the peoples with equity.”

11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

12 let the field exult, and everything in it!

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

13 before the Lord, for he comes,

for he comes to judge the earth.

He will judge the world in righteousness,

and the peoples in his faithfulness. [10]

[1] Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Church in North America Sunday and Red-Letter Day Lectionary (Bellingham, WA: Faithlife, 2016).

[2] Michael S. Guyer, “Thessalonian,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ac 17:1–4.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Th 1:2–3.

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Th 1:6–8.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Th 1:9–10.

[7] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 22:17.

[8] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Mt 22:18–21.

[9] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ex 20:2–3.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ps 96:1–13.


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