You turned to God from idols from idols to serve the living and true God. —1 Thessalonians 1:9
Wednesday evening I saw a bank commercial on TV. The catch-line at the end was “The bank for the life you lead.” Good slogan. How about this? “Jesus – the Savior for the life you lead.” That concept of Jesus diminishes him and keeps us in bondage to the lives we’ve been stuck in for too long. Jesus is not the Savior for the life you lead. He is the Savior from the life you lead. Your problem and mine is not that Jesus fails to enhance our lives. Your problem and mine is our lives. We need to see Jesus in a new way so that we can repent of our lives, because in our lives are lurking the idols that hold us back. If we don’t see Jesus in his grace and power so that we turn from our idols, we will become more statistics who turn away from him and say, “I tried it, but it didn’t work for me.” The gospel doesn’t “work for you.” It saves you from you.
Here’s what we’re all about here at Immanuel – Jesus, community, mission – and nothing else. What does Jesus mean to us? Acceptance by the all-holy God. Power changing our hearts. And now today – repentance, turning from our idols to serve the living and true God.
I’m preaching this morning about idolatry, because the word Jesus in “Jesus, community, mission” – can be misunderstood. Here’s how. You and I are not unified, complete persons. You and I both have a committee of selves inside. There’s a boardroom in your heart with a big table and leather chairs and a committee seated around that table. There’s the social you, the private you, the sexual you, the financial you, the work you, the recreation you, the religious you, and so forth. And this committee is constantly arguing and agitated and upset. There is almost never a unanimous, wholehearted decision. We tell ourselves it’s because we’re so busy with so many responsibilities. The truth is, it’s because we’re divided at heart. Now here’s the point. That kind of person can “accept Jesus” in either of two ways. We can “accept Jesus” in the sense that we invite him onto the committee as one more voice, one more vote, which makes him one more complication. Or we can accept Jesus in the sense that we turn to him and say, “Please come in and fire the committee, every last one of them. You take over. You run my self now.” Only Jesus can free us from our frantic, driven, divided, confused, upset selves.
This passage answers the question, Why plant churches in Nashville? This passage shows us why. The Christianity we see in this passage is authentic, apostolic Christianity. Verse 7: “You became an example to all the believers.” The apostle Paul looked at this church in Thessalonica and said to himself, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” This was a model church. Do you see the words Paul uses to describe what God was building in this church? “Your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope.” “Brothers loved by God.” “He has chosen you.” “Our gospel came to you not only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” “You became imitators of us and of the Lord.” “You received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” “The word of the Lord has sounded forth from you.” “Your faith in God has gone forth everywhere.” “You turned from idols to serve the living and true God.” How much of that Christianity do we see today? These Christians turned from their idols to serve the living and true God, and the apostle Paul said, “That’s an example to everyone.” I don’t know of any city anywhere with too much of that apostolic Christianity.
This passage answers another question. Why do I need a gospel-centered church in my life? And the answer is, to help me turn from my idols to serve the living and true God. In other words, to connect with the real Jesus. I don’t see how we can talk about Jesus in Nashville today without also looking frankly at the subject of idols and repentance. If we don’t distinguish Jesus from idols, people will not hear what we’re saying. When we talk about “accepting Jesus,” people will hear us saying, “Invite Jesus onto your committee. He deserves a vote too.” But we can see here in the passage that adding Jesus is only part of it. We must also subtract our idols. I need to subtract my idols – constantly. But if we simply add Jesus to our idol-infested lives, we will then wonder why it isn’t working. Here at Immanuel we are not saying, “You need to become a believer.” We are saying, “You already are a believer. Everyone is a believer. There’s too much belief in the world. We believe in many saviors. We need to become unbelievers in idols and focused believers in Jesus, and we all need refocus constantly. That’s repentance.” Nashville does not just need more churches, and you and I do not need more religion. Nashville needs more churches where we can come together and admit it isn’t working, and drill down into why, and identify the idols defrauding us, and tear them down, and make room in our overcrowded hearts for the real Jesus, because the gospel helps us as we subtract our idols in order to accept more of Jesus. We need more churches everywhere where everyone can turn in repentance to Jesus and get free and clean from the idols they’re suffering under.
What is an idol?
They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator. —Romans 1:25
There’s too much worship in the world today – false worship of idols. Once we know what idolatry is, it jumps out at us everywhere, because it is everywhere. Idol-worship is not just primitive people falling down before statues in temples, it’s also modern people turning to anything but God for what only God can do. That includes us. As you and I walk into church most Sundays, everything in our lives feels bigger than God. That mental environment is idolatry.
So, what is an idol? There are two kinds. One kind of idol is a false god. The other kind of idol is a false concept of the true God. Let’s take the first one – a false god. This kind of idol can be anything or anyone. Here’s how you can sniff out the idols sneaking around in your heart. Ask yourself honestly, What is it here within God’s creation essential to my life? What do I absolutely need for my life to stay livable? What would make me say, if I lost it, “I quit”? What would make me say, “If I lose ___________, I cannot possibly be happy”? Ask yourself questions like that, and answer them honestly. We’re not asking what would be difficult to lose. We’re asking what would make us frantic and anxious and feeling unprotected and unloved and insignificant and angry if we lost it. What is that for you? However you define what you must have for your life to be okay, it’s what you worship, it’s your hope. It’s what you’re turning to and saying, “Save me.” It’s what you really believe in as opposed to what you think you believe in. And all of us have idols in our hearts. Remember the doctrine of original sin. You and I are not able not to sin. It is the most natural thing in the world to turn to something here within the creation for what we need to really live. Our hearts are that committee with all its expectations and desires, all shouting their demands, all telling us that they, if we will serve them, will make our lives okay again. God said to the prophet Ezekiel, “Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their hearts” (Ezekiel 14:3). What is it that your heart feels is essential for you to be happy again?
Whatever your idol is – and it’s constantly changing – it’s what you serve. Tertullian, the leader in the early church, was approached by a man whose business interests and his Christianity were in conflict. He said to Tertullian, “What can I do? I must live!” And Tertullian replied, “Must you?” You and I do not have needs; we have masters disguising themselves as needs. But that demanding impulse is our idolatrous heart exchanging the truth about God for a lie, keeping us slaving away on some plantation of emotional bondage. It’s repentance flipped inside out – when we repent of Jesus and fall at the feet of anything else.
What is the truth about God we exchange for a lie? The truth is, Jesus alone is all we need. I’ve been asking myself, What is it in my universe that’s less than God but I still consider it essential to my life-scenario? And part of the answer for me is human approval, being liked, being spoken well of, being inside whatever community of inclusion will help me feel better about myself. And that idol has broken my heart along the way, because that idolatry makes people’s opinions my salvation. But human approval doesn’t satisfy me. It’s the photographic negative of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone apart from all my works. It is works-salvation. It is me justifying my existence as I earn approval from other people by my performance. It’s a false god. There is no salvation there. It doesn’t exist. It’s why Isaiah wrote to idol-worshipers, “There is no one to save you” (Isaiah 47:15). C. S. Lewis wrote to a friend,
I think one may be quite rid of the old haunting suspicion, which raises its head in every temptation, that there is something other than God, some other country into which he forbids us to trespass, some kind of delight which he doesn’t appreciate or just chooses to forbid but which would be real delight if only we were allowed to get it. The thing just isn’t there. Whatever we desire is either what God is trying to give us as quickly as he can, or else a false picture of what he is trying to give us. He knows what we want, even in our vilest acts. He is longing to give it to us.
What we’re groping for, in our vilest acts, is Jesus. He alone ever told us truthfully, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Right now every one of us believes in false gods, but they do not make us lie down in green pastures and beside still waters. There is One who does. We are inviting him in, so that he begins showing us where our idols are lurking. Then we can turn from them, to serve the living and true God, who alone saves us from all our nothingness.
That’s one kind of idol – a false god. The other kind of idol is a false concept of the true God. The Bible says, “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). How does that happen in us? How do we become captive to thoughts of Jesus that are unworthy of him and don’t help us? Through unclear, unformed, under-developed thoughts about Jesus. A. W. Tozer wrote, “The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of him.” All we need to get stuck in this second idolatry is to float along with the vague concepts of Christ we’ve picked up along the way, the unexamined ideas that we kinda sorta think are somewhere in the Bible but we’ve never examined them. Unclear, unformed, under-developed thoughts about Jesus are the dense undergrowth in our minds where idols take cover, as they rob us of joy. For example, do you feel forgiven? Do you feel loved? Do you feel defended? Do you feel Jesus at those points of pain where for you everything is on the line? If not, the problem is not Jesus. The problem is your Jesus. You need to repent of your Jesus and discover the mighty Savior who loves you more than you know. The real Jesus, better than your whole internal committee together, is waiting for you to enter into him through the clear teachings of the Bible. But your own vague Jesus cannot save you. And some of us wonder whether we should have a daily quiet time?
We need a clear and glorious vision of Jesus from the Bible every day. We need to ask, Why do I need __________? Why am I driven? Why am I lugging around unnecessary emotional burdens? There is only one true crisis – not trusting Jesus. But not trusting my idol – that’s liberation.
How can we turn from our idols to serve the living and true God?
Repent, and believe the gospel. Here is what God says: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth, for I am God and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22). The Bible says, “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man” (Psalm 118:8). “I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you’” (Psalm 16:2). Will you say that to the Lord today? “I have no good apart from you. And if you’re calling me to live with unmet needs, I trust you. I repent of my needs. Even if they’re legitimate, they don’t come first in my heart because you alone are my Savior. I will say to everything within the creation, ‘You are not my peace,’ and I will turn to you, Lord, and say, ‘You are all my peace.’” That’s repentance and faith.
When your heart is fearful, turn to Christ your mighty defender. When your heart is lustful, turn to Christ your endless pleasure. When your heart is lonely, turn to Christ your faithful friend. When your heart is demanding, turn to Christ your only justice. When your heart is sinful, turn to Christ your complete sacrifice. The devil doesn’t want you to see that you’re at a fork in the road. He wants you to keep stumbling on in the rut you’ve been in. But Jesus your only Savior has come to you. Turn to him, moment by moment, and he will save you.
The message of Immanuel Church is not, Why not add Jesus to your life? The message of this church is, Will you risk everything on Jesus Christ? He will not fail you. He will forgive you when you fail him. And he will so love you that your heart will grow in freedom.