Church Worship

Calling All Gods

  • Kyle Idleman teaching pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
  • 2013 2 Apr
Calling All Gods

Kylie Bisutti wanted to be a fashion model, and she succeeded at the highest level. In 2009, Bisutti won a competition against 10,000 rivals in the Victoria's Secret Model Search. Victoria's Secret, of course, is an American lingerie retailer, a $5,000,000,000 business. It's known for its fashion show, catalogues and its angels, who are the models it routinely transforms into fashion icons.

Just before her dreams carne true, Bisutti had gotten married. She and her husband were followers of Christ, and she couldn't help but think about what she was doing and the example she was setting. She realized there was a great deal of difference between modeling clothing and flaunting provocative undergarments.

She came to the conclusion her body was for her husband to see, not for millions of voyeurs on the Internet. She also realized she cared deeply about the legions of young Christian girls who looked up to her. She worried that it would be so much easier for them to begin choosing skimpy, suggestive clothing because of her example. There was something else, too.

"I finally achieved my biggest dream," she said, "the dream I always wanted; but when I finally got it, it wasn't all I thought it would be."

Stop. Go back. Hear that again: "I finally achieved my biggest dream," she said, "the dream I always wanted; but when I finally got it, it wasn't all I thought it would be." How many times have we heard that one? Someone has a dream, yearns for it; they reach for it, giving all they have to attain it; and it doesn't measure up to the expectations.

Bisutti's greatest goal was unmasked to reveal just another idol that couldn't deliver. Her dreams had come true, only for her to come to the conclusion they were the wrong dreams. She knew following Jesus and giving glory to the Lord God meant turning away from the gods to which so many people spend their lives bowing down. So she turned in her wings and stepped down from lingerie modeling.

Have you ever had a moment such as the one she had, when you realized you had to make a choice and that your entire future hinged on the choice you made—that if you took a certain kind of job, made a certain ethical decision, pursued a certain life partner—then the ramifications for your future would be profoundly negative?

Sometimes we stand at that fork in the road, and we know exactly what's at stake with the decision to be made; but so many other times, we just keep walking, wandering down a particular path without really thinking about it. We make many choices without being aware we are choosing. We do things because that's the way our families always have done them; or because that's the way certain other people—people we admire—do them; or because these days, almost everyone does them that way.

Whether we are aware of it, we regularly make choices that declare which gods are winning the war in our lives.

Doors 1, 2 and 3
Moses led the homeless nation of Israel out of Egypt, where the people had been enslaved for several generations. God demon¬strated His power through the 10 plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea and the provision of food from heaven and water from a rock. He also provided a supernatural GPS system and led them via a cloud during the day and pillar of fire at night.

However, the people still didn't have much faith. They constantly whined and complained. It should have been about a month-long hike to the Promised Land, but God caused them to wander in the wilderness for nearly 40 years. Moses and his generation died before entering the land God had promised. Joshua replaced Moses as the leader of God's people and brought them into the Promised Land.

By the time we come to Joshua 24, Joshua is an old man, pushing 110. At this part of the story, Joshua had been a general through many wars. He had seen the walls of Jericho come thundering down in miraculous fashion. He had fought the battles, and he bore the scars—and the wisdom and faith that grows and deepens with the struggle.

Joshua seemed to know he didn't have much time left in this world. He gathered the people of Israel together for what apparently saw as a farewell address. He stood and cleared his throat as the assembly turned toward him expectantly. He no longer was the pow¬erful figure he once was, but still his voice carried power (see Josh. 24:14-15).

Joshua got right to the point and issued a challenge: It's time for the people to make a choice. The people can follow the Lord God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or they can choose a different god. It's time to select a god to follow, to accept a worldview and allow it to remake them.

"It's up to you," Joshua said, "but I can tell you this much: As for me and my house, our decision is made. We know who we will serve; you must make your own choice."

As a preacher, I find it interesting that Joshua gave three other options along with the one true God. When I offer an invitation to salvation, I don't make it multiple-choice. Although Joshua was a commander, a general used to giving orders, he knew a choice must be made. No one can be ordered into the kingdom of God. It's a path individuals must choose.

So Joshua laid it out: He showed the people what was behind the other three doors. He broke it down this way:
• Follow the old gods from beyond the river, from the place where you started.
• Follow the gods you met in Egypt, where you were enslaved.
• Follow the local gods, those of the people recently defeated by the one true God.

At first blush, we read that and think, "No problems for me. I don't worship Egyptian or local gods or any from beyond the river. Forget the details for a moment, and notice each category has to do with a time and a place of life. This is highly significant. The gods that compete for our attention come at us based on the circumstances of our everyday existence. They may have made a few costume changes through the years, but the categories are the same.

No Choice but to Choose
It's important to understand the easily missed underlying assumption here: You will make a choice. All of us are worshipers. Worship is hardwired in who we are. It's true of every culture and every civilization. Everyone worships.

Wherever you go, you see that people have chosen. You will, too. It's written into our genetic code. You can go to places where they have old-school idols, rituals and sacrifices; or you can go to the most technologically advanced cities, where folks think they're way past "religious mumbo jumbo."

Upon closer inspection, you find they are sacrificing a great deal on the altars of power, pleasure or finance—it's really all the same: People are choosing their gods and bringing their offerings. At the end of the day, the real offering is one's self.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it this way: "The opposite of theism is not atheism; it's idolatry." In other words, everyone is going to worship a god. We were created to be worshipers. The question for you is: Who or what will be the object of your worship?

Stop and pay attention to the advertising on TV. All the products are being marketed to the worshiper in us. Companies make their products sound suspiciously as if they are saviors. The not-so-subtle message of nearly every advertisement is: If you're unhappy, bored or depressed, buy this product. This product is here to redeem you, to deliver you. Talk to your doctor about this medi-cation. Eat at this restaurant. Drive this car. Take this vacation. Advertisers understand we are made to worship, and they're making use of that.

If we set this scene in a modern context, we would expect a little pushback on this question. Someone would raise a hand and say, "That's all cool and everything, Josh, but we're not really into worship. See, we're just not really the religious types."

Here's where we get confused: In our modern thinking, we associate worship with religion. We think worship has something to do with a lot of robes and rituals and really old music. If someone doesn't have a drawer in the dresser of his or her life labeled "organized religion," then they assume the question of what god they worship doesn't apply to them. You've got drawers labeled "work," "family," "finances" and "hobbies," but not "worship."

The problem is a misunderstanding of what worship is. Worship is the built-in human reflex to put your hope in something or someone and then chase after it. You hold something up and then give your life to pursue it. Sooner or later, you grow some assumptions concerning what your life is all about, what you really should be going after. When you begin to align your life with that pursuit, then whether you realize it, you are worshiping.

That's what human beings do, along with breathing, eating and thinking. We identify things we want—good and bad—then we make sacrifices to get them. The end result is that our lives begin to take the shape of what we care about most. We each make the choice to worship, and then at some point we discover the choice makes us. The object of your worship will determine your future and define your life. It's the one choice by which all other choices are motivated.

So, Joshua was speaking to all of us when he said, "Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve." Make an educated decision about the great goal of your life. Other¬wise, you will flow passively into some choice, a little bit of yourself at a time until you find yourself inside a temple bowing to a god you never recognized having chosen.

Four Points on a Compass
Joshua called the people to choose, and he pointed to four options. Think of these four options as four points on a compass, because whatever you choose is going to lead you in a different direction than the others. The choice you make ultimately will determine your final destination.

Option 1: Gods of Our Fathers (and Mothers)
"The gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River" (Josh. 24:14).

Long before God spoke to Abraham and told him of the future of his people—a people with a special standing before God—the ancestors of Abraham worshiped the gods of that region. There were three cosmic deities, three astral deities, and a whole slew of specialized gods and corresponding demons. Dead people came back as spirits to haunt their children. Hills, rocks and mountains were considered to be alive and have powers.

Abraham came from a society that believed in such gods and held such beliefs. In fact, the Bible specifically tells us Abraham's father was an idol worshiper. Belief in these gods persisted even after the rise of the Hebrew people, up to Joshua's era. Joshua wanted to know if they were going to default to the gods of their forefathers.

It's still a valid question, isn't it? We raise our children in our faith or the lack thereof. We may not do so consciously, but we constantly are erecting idols in our homes and teaching our children about who or what is worthy of our worship.

Think about how this is true for you and the family in which you were reared. Is it possible the gods at war in your life today are the same gods your parents or grandparents worshiped when you were younger?

I recently saw a blurb on the cover of a magazine: "My DNA Made Me Do It." The article was mostly about the fact that we can thank our parents for all our problems. A mother and father contribute to one's 23,000 chromosomes. You've got your dad's nose and your mom's thighs, but that's not all you picked up from them. Offspring often end up worship¬ing whatever god their parents worshiped.

Psychology affirms the likelihood of this transference, called the "law of exposure." The basic premise is that our lives are determined by our thoughts, and our thoughts are determined by that to which we are exposed. Our minds absorb and our lives reflect that to which we are most frequently exposed. It shouldn't surprise us that we tend to worship the gods of our fathers and mothers.

Perhaps nothing was more important to your dad than a successful career. His life revolved around his job. He was willing to sacrifice days off and family vacations to work his way up the ladder. His mood was determined by what kind of day he had at work. His temple was his office, and he worshiped there a good 60 hours a week. Is it possible that you now worship the gods of success and achievement? Instead of finding your identity and worth in Christ, do you find it in your career?

Did your dad worship sports? Sex? Money? Status? Beer?

Did your mom worship shopping? Career? Children? Entertainment?

Don't dismiss those examples. Think about what was held up for you in your childhood home. The most natural path in the world is to adopt the gods of our parents.

Option 2: Gods of Your Past
"The gods your ancestors Egypt" (Josh. 24:14).

Joshua specifically mentioned the gods from Egypt. These were the gods of the previous generation, gods from the past that never went away.

As did the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians had a diverse and highly developed pantheon of deities. The Egyptians had their popular gods, but they actually worshiped almost everything, including the sun, moon and stars. Smorgasbord worship was their thing.

The Hebrews were slaves in Egypt longer than the United States has been a nation. There was no way they were going to endure that period without absorbing some of the culture around them. When Moses led his people out of that land, the gods weren't about to give up without a fight. Old habits, including old worship patterns, die hard.

Do you ever find yourself struggling with things from the past that you thought you had left behind a long time ago? When I was in high school, I once went to pick up a girl for a date and had to walk through her front yard. It was a minefield of doggie-doo; being nervous about the date, I wasn't watching where my big feet took me.

As I sat on the family sofa next to my date, I noticed a certain unpleasant aroma. I had no clue about its source. I sniffed my date, which in retrospect wasn't a good move for a new relationship. I leaned toward her parents; no, they were in the clear. The source of the smell was me—I was ground zero! I looked down at my Doc Martins and realized I really had stepped in it this time, quite literally. In horror, I looked behind me and realized I had tracked animal excrement through the entryway, across the carpet and into the parlor.

Here's my point: A lot of people become Christians. They invite Jesus Christ to come into their lives, to take the thrones of their hearts. Everything is great until they catch a strange whiff of something and realize they've brought stuff with them, stuff that is embarrassing, fragrant (and not in a good way, stuff that should have been destroyed a long time ago but managed to come along for the ride.

It's hard to understand because they know their sins are forgiven. If they've been thoroughly cleaned, why is this stuff still clinging to them? In many ways, they haven't changed since conversion; they still have the old desires, the old habits. They've invited one Lord into their lives, but they're still paying attention to the old gods. That is the challenge for many of us: The problem isn't that we need to choose to follow Jesus; the problem is that we have tried to follow Him without leaving something behind.

In our narrative, Joshua knew there was a bit of Egypt still clinging to the sandals of his people. Old gods die hard. They hold on, creep in and quietly clutch at us. Perhaps when we meet Christ, the old gods fall silent for a while; but they regroup, wait for their time and aim as high as ever. They want to rule our hearts again.
So even if you've chosen the Lord God in the past, the challenge of Joshua is to choose this day who you will serve.

Option 3: Gods of Our Culture
"Or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living" (Josh. 24:15).

Behind the third door were the newcomers to this cosmic clash. These were the people groups of the land the Israelites had just fought so hard to conquer. They were pushed back, overcome, and yet would continue to be a thorn in Israel's side for the rest of the Old Testament. Their weapon was proximity; these were the gods who hid in plain sight.

The Israelites lived in a place where diversity prevailed, similar to our society. There were many people groups and many different gods. The dominant deity was Baal, whose name meant "owner, master or lord" (sound familiar?).

There was also a mother goddess, Ashtoreth. The sacrifices, temples, sexual rituals—these things enticed the Israelites; and the prophets of the Old Testament despised them above all other gods. Why? Because these gods had the home field advan¬tage; they were right there.

Two of the most significant factors that consistently determine which gods win the war are time and place. We struggle with the gods of our culture every day. We live immersed in what is known as the spirit of the age that is so prevalent as to be invisible to us. Could it be that we have our own idols that are hiding in plain sight that we don't recognize simply because they're so common?

Paul said, "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind" (Romans 12:2). "The pattern of this world" is his way of describing the spirit or gods of this age. To go with the flow is to conform to the pattern of this world. J.B. Phillips paraphrased that verse, "Don't let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold."

The Bible advises us to renew our minds by plugging into the eternal, unchanging truth of God.

God Himself
"But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD" (Josh. 24:15).

This brings us to Joshua's fourth option: the Lord God. The final option really has been the only option all along. After all, none of the other options are real. They may look promising, but they do nothing to satisfy our thirst.

Before Joshua gave the people these four options, he stacked the deck a bit by describing all the things God has done for His people through the years. The Lord God had been active and worked powerfully among them redeeming, protecting, guiding and providing. So in making a choice, the obvious question for the people to ask of these other gods was: What have you ever done for us?

In making your own choice, I would recommend you ask yourself the same. What enduring value has the god of wealth really bought anyone? Did the gods of pleasure ever once deliver true and lasting happiness? What about the gods of sex? Can they provide a joy that is more than that of a passing moment?

What have these gods done for us? If anything, they have enslaved us. They have robbed us. They have disappointed us.

Tom Brady was asked that question. As the quarterback for the New England Patriots, a superstar with three Super Bowl rings, he holds pages of passing records and has dated a succession of supermodels, eventually marrying one of them. By every standard of this world, he has it going on and is successful.
That's why we're so surprised to hear his interview on "60 Minutes." He asked Steve Kroft, the interviewer, "Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there's something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what [it's all about].' I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me? I think, ‘It's got to be more than this.' I mean this isn't…this can't be all it's cracked up to be."

When Kroft asked him what the answer might possibly be, Brady replied, "What's the answer? I wish I knew...I love playing football, and I love being quarterback for this team; but at the same time, I think there are a lot of other parts about me that I'm trying to find."

Brady is honest and wise. He knows a great chunk of the world admires him. He also knows wealth, fame, power, pleasure and accomplishment don't provide the ultimate prize in life. He has asked himself: What have those gods done for me? He has to answer with courageous frankness, "Not enough."

Yet I know people—and you do, too—who point to invisible, intangible things when they discuss the meaning of life. They are followers of Jesus Christ, and if you ask them what He has done for them, you'll hear words such as forgiveness, fulfillment, hope, joy and peace. Psalms 86:8 says, "Among the gods there is none like You, Lord; no deeds can compare with Yours."

Back to Joshua. How did the people respond to his great four-way challenge?

They said exactly the right words (see Josh. 24:16-18).

We would expect Joshua to say, "That's what I'm talking about!" or perhaps something more formal: "You have chosen well!" Oddly, he didn't let them off the hook so easily. Joshua began to talk about the jealousy of God, the holiness of God. He described the disaster that would come upon them if they didn't live up to the words they were speaking.

Joshua was an old man. He watched these people all his life. He knew how fickle their hearts were, how quickly their attention wandered. He knew how easily they said the right things only to turn around and make the wrong choices. It's so simple to produce the right platitudes on cue as they did here, but it's so hard to keep living the truth. So a warning was issued.

This story has a cautionary ending. It comes only two chapters after the one we've been reading (see Judges 2:8-10).

We've said it more than once: The gods never surrender. They may lose a generation; but even then, they say, "We'll get the next one." They may lose you for a day, but they'll be back tomorrow.

Taken from Gods at War by Kyle Idleman. Copyright © 2013 Kyle Idleman. Used by permission of Zondervan.