Alfred Place Baptist Church

1:21-23 They Exchanged the Glory of God for Idols

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
Romans 1:21-23

The apostle has stated this fact, that the truth of God – that he is, and that he speaks and lives – is evident in the creation around us all, and also that truth is in the conscience that’s within us. The creation is an entity that speaks to us of God’s Godhood – his power and his glory, while our consciences speak to us of God’s righteousness and moral character. All men understand that about God because that is the special way he’s made them and also the creation in which they live, so that they are all without excuse who refuse to cast themselves down before him and cry to him for mercy and express their longing to know him better. “Show me your character! Show me how I can serve and love thee. Forgive all my sins.” That should be the response of every person in God’s world. When such prayers are made from an awakened heart then God will answer and bring them into contact with the Bible and with Christians in various wonderful saving providences.

There was a London Quaker called Robinson who emigrated to New Jersey. One night when he was riding home the moon and the stars seemed to be shining with unusual brightness, and he was quite overcome. “What tremendous glory!” he said to himself, and immediately he’d thought that then another thought came crashing into his mind with the force of lightning, “But what do I know of this God? Have I ever asked him to bless me? Have I ever made him my friend?” and that yearning longing was placed in his heart and never left him until he had taken refuge in Jesus Christ.

  1. GOD-REJECTORS LACK THE TRUE FRUIT OF KNOWING GOD.

If a person knows the true and living God then the apostle tells us that he shows it thus.

i] He glorifies God as God. We often quote the answer to the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, that man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. How do we glorify God? By trusting in him, by acknowledging him before men as our God, by worshipping him particularly on his day with his people, by defending his truth and by showing the fruit of his Spirit in our lives, in other words, to us he’s the tops. We have the highest view of him, the maximal possible, the greatest estimation of God, the strongest confidence in him, the deepest affection for him. We hold back nothing. He is our magnificent obsession. We are not ashamed to speak like that to an individual whom we meet, however great he is, even if he is far superior to us intellectually, or if he is a member of our family. We commend God to them; “He that offers praise glorifies God” (Ps.50:23). We commit all our powers to promoting God’s name and his kingdom and his word and his people. We hear that the words, “Fear God, and give glory to his name” (Rev. 14:7), are spoken by the angels in heaven. Then the apostle tells us that a man also shows he knows the living God in this way . . .

ii] He gives thanks to God. He doesn’t say how lucky he’s been when he’s escaped injury, when his house was not entered by flood waters while his neighbours’ homes were, or when he recovered from serious illness, or when he was left a sum of money by a relative. He says, “Thank you God.” I was sent a three minute Facebook video this week in which a young couple took a video camera and recorded the responses to news they shared with their family and friends. They were going to become parents. Some people they told were uncomprehending at first, thinking it was a game – “Seriously?” Others were hooting with delight, others were jokey, but one older women smiled and gave a little hug and said, “Praise the Lord!” She knew that children are the gift of God; the fruit of the womb is his reward. Imagine a woman who works on her garden year after year helped by the sense of beauty she has from God, and with the strength and health she is given by God. One day a neighbour passes and pauses and looks at her garden and then says to her, “My . . . you’re so lucky.” The gardener merely nods, but thinks of all the work that God’s grace has enabled her to do in the garden for which she has thanked the Lord. Not luck. Luck didn’t make this garden. Strength and help from God did it, the God who designed and made all things bright and beautiful. The Lord! She is grateful to God. The person who looked and said, “Aren’t you lucky?” showed she lived a life untouched by gratitude. I believe that the person who enjoys her life fully has to be someone who is thankful to God for every small thing in life. The fruit of the gospel when it begins to work in our lives is always threefold. Firstly Guilt; we are convinced of our sin; there is no salvation unless we realise we need to be saved from our sin and guilt. Secondly Grace; we always acknowledge that it is by the grace of God through the person and work of the Lord Christ we are and have all things. Thirdly Gratitude; what Paul is speaking of here, glorifying God and being thankful to God. Guilt. Grace. Gratitude. We express it in the smallest things, in saying grace before we eat, and praying together in our little family devotions. God’s giving all things to us richly merits our thanksgiving to him. I think that a home built on that foundation is a happy home. I mean a well-adjusted and self-integrated and sensible home. There daily thanks is given to God for all his mercies to the family. They have a fine structure in which to handle the griefs of life. This is also a cheerful home because God loves and blesses cheerful thanks-givers. So if you know God you will show it in two ways. You will glorify this God and you will be thankful to him, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for all his mercies.

  1. GOD-REJECTERS DO NOT THINK WISELY.

Paul describes these people who are clamping down on the truth of the living God that is all around them and within them that is pointing them to God and preaching to them. “Believe on him!”  “Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (vv.21&22). Paul passes three judgments on them.

i] Their thinking became futile. Do you see how Paul looks at this conflict between following Christ and rejecting him? The man in the street thinks the man in the church is there because religion is his emotional prop, that it gives him pleasant feelings to worship on a Sunday, but the man in the street feels he doesn’t need it. His feelings are not dependent on religious faith, he imagines. But see how Paul is setting out his logic in these verses of the opening chapter of Romans. See how rational he is. You as an atheist must think that the whole universe came about by chance, by luck, an unexplained big bang, and as a result of that unplanned event Aristotle and Julius Caesar and Leonardo de Vinci and Rembrandt and Mozart and Einstein and Jesus, and you and me all came about, purely by luck. That is how atheists have to think, that there is no overall meaning to life, it is all a matter of chance, and at death we are snuffed out and annihilated. From chance to annihilation – that’s what it’s all about. That is how atheists think and Paul considers it all such a futile lifestyle. All of life is being explained to us by luck, and man’s ultimate future is total nothingness. We cease to be. How futile life is for the unbeliever, he is on a meaningless journey into non-existence. He has no one to thank for the sunset and the evening star. He has no one to pray to at times of stress.

Now I am saying that the Christian life has little to do with our emotions. Look at the evidence for design and purpose and high morality and sacrifice and hope that we rely on and admire the most, that enriches the materialism of mere existence. Consider Jesus Christ! Use your mind. Think about him for a moment. No one ever spoke like Jesus Christ. No one ever lived like Jesus Christ. No one ever died like Jesus Christ – praying that God his Father would forgive these men for crucifying his Son. He died promising eternal life with him to a criminal who deserved to be put to death. No one ever rose from the dead like Jesus Christ, meeting with his disciples for six weeks and transforming them from cowardly men, who ran away and deserted their Lord, to men who would die for the fact that he had risen from the grave. No one ever enriched the human race like Jesus Christ. His life and death and teaching are the greatest blessings the world has known. It has brought reconciliation between alienated men, inspired great music and paintings. It has mended broken hearts and destroyed the seemingly impregnable chains that hold men to their guilty pasts. Ask the Christians who sit in a church like ours week after week what do they think of Jesus Christ. Is their thinking futile, or are their answers based on sheer uninventable truth?

ii] Their foolish hearts became darkened. Now he goes to the heart of the matter, and that is our own hearts. He will not concede in first place that men’s real problems stem from the bad system in which we live, from the structures of politics, and economics, and education. The Christian concern is not that recent chemistry, or archaeology, or astronomy, or physics have disproved the existence of God. There is no new evidence from the 20th and 21st centuries that now makes it impossible for scientists to believe in God. The rejection of God has nothing to do with facts out there, but it all has to do with things in here! In our hearts! When the Bible speaks of the heart of man it is not speaking of your feelings alone. It is speaking of what lies at the centre of your personality, the real you, that which is behind the image we create when we are striking our poses, when we go deeper to what lies behind the mask. Certainly the Bible is speaking of our affections when it talks of the heart, but not exclusively our feelings, but also our intellect, and our will. Out of your heart come all the issues of your life, your plans for the future as well as the drive to achieve those plans, your thinking and your values and enthusiasms and humour and grief – they all come from the heart. John Murray famously referred to the heart as the ‘dispositional complex’ at the centre of our beings.

Now when that heart of yours is darkened, when you banish any Christian light and prevent it entering your heart, that is the greatest of all your follies. Jesus Christ said that he was the light of the world, that no one who walked through life with Christ would walk in darkness. In his heart Jesus, the light of life, would shine. But if you say to the Lord, “No entry into my life. This heart is a Jesus-free zone. I won’t give your influence in any place in my life,” then O what folly and O what darkness results. As Jesus said, “If the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness.” What would you think of people who totally refused to read one of the gospels of the New Testament all the way through? “You won’t find me reading the Bible.” There are four gospels and they each take between an hour and a hour and a half to read, and you refuse to consider them – isn’t that folly? “You won’t find me going into a church. No way!” They also won’t walk under ladders, or stay in a room numbered 13 in a hotel, or whistle on a boat, and they like lucky black cats, and they certainly won’t go to hear the word of God explained. It is sheer blind prejudice. It is like racism isn’t it, utterly illogical, that I am somehow superior to another person not because of my intellect or moral character but because my skin is a different colour from his skin! The reason for unbelief is utterly personal, that men’s thinking becomes futile and their foolish hearts become darkened, and then one more comment of Paul . . .

iii] Claiming to be wise they became fools. By pretending to be wise they actually  became fools. Let me tell you an incident in the life of a preacher in London a century ago around the time of the boyhood of Archibald Brown. This is absolutely true. These were the days when tradesmen would walk down a street or drive a horse and cart calling out their trade, “Umbrellas to mend. . . any rags and bones . . old chairs to repair!” This preacher saw a fishmonger on a bitterly cold day with snow in the air. He had a basket of fish on his head and he was on the opposite side of the street and shouting out as he walked: ‘Herrings, three a penny! Red herrings, good and cheap, three a penny!’ He passed along the street, crossed to its end, and came back to where the pastor stood on the corner.

‘Governor, what do you think of these herrings? Don’t you think they’re good?’ The local minister said that they were indeed good and cheap. ‘Then, look you, why can’t I sell them? I’ve walked a mile and a half along this dismal place, offering these good and cheap fish and nobody’s bought a single one! Tell us, why not, governor.’ The preacher said, ‘The people have no work. There are plenty of houses round here that don’t have a single penny in them.’

‘Well there’s nothing for me to do but to carry them back, and try and sell them somewhere else.’ The preacher said to him, ‘How much will you take for the lot?’ He looked at the minister, made a rapid calculation and said, ‘I’ll take four shillings and be glad to give them to you.’ The preacher put his hand in his pocket took out 4 shillings and handed it to him. ‘Right! Governer. Thank you kindly. Now what are you going to do with them?’ The preacher said, ‘I want you to go round this corner into the middle of the road, and shout with all your might: “Herrings for nothing” and give three to every man, woman, or child that comes to you, till the basket is emptied.’

‘All right governor I’ll do as you say. Here goes!’ and he went into the middle of the adjoining street, shouting aloud: ‘Herrings for nothing! Good red herrings for nothing!’ The preacher leaned against a wall and watched him. He got near a house where a tall woman was looking out of a first floor window. ‘Here you are, missus,’ he bawled, ‘fresh fish for nothing! A fine chance if you come and take some!’ The woman shook her head and left the window. ‘What a fool!’ said he; ‘but they won’t all be like her. Herrings for nothing!’ A little child came out to look at him, and be called to her, ‘Here, my dear, take these into your mother, tell her how cheap they are – all for nothing.’ But the child was afraid and ran indoors. So down the street, in the snowy slush and mud, went the basket of free fish, the vendor crying loudly as he went, ‘Herrings for nothing!’ and then adding savagely under his breath, ‘Oh, you fools!’ So he reached the very end; and turning to retrace his steps, he continued his double cry as he came, ‘Herrings for nothing!’ and then, muttering in a lower key, ‘Oh, you fools!’

‘Well!’ the preacher said to him calmly, as he reached him at the corner. ‘Well?’ he replied, ‘if you think so! When you gave me money for herrings that you didn’t want, I thought you were a fool! Now I think all the people round here are fit company for you. But what’ll I do with these herrings, if you don’t want them, and they won’t have them?’

The preacher said, ‘We’ll try once again but together. I’ll come with you, and we’ll both shout.’ Into the road they both went; and he shouted: ‘Herrings for nothing!’ and then the preacher called out also, ‘Will any one have some herrings for tea?’ The people heard his voice, and many knew it; and then they came out, in twos and threes and sixes, men and women and children; all striving eagerly to reach the welcome food. As fast as he could take them from the basket, he handed three to each eager person, until all were speedily gone. When the basket was empty, the hungry crowd who’d had none, was far greater than those who had been supplied; but they were too late; there were no more herrings. Foremost amongst the disappointed was the tall woman, who, with a bitter tongue, began vehemently, ‘Why haven’t I got any? Aren’t I as good as they? Aren’t my children as hungry as theirs?’ Before he had time to reply, the fishmonger stretched out his arm pointing at her and saying to the preacher ‘Why, governor, that’s the very woman as I offered them to first of all, and she turned up her nose.’ ‘I didn’t,’ she rejoined; ‘I didn’t believe you meant it!’ ‘Then you just goes without, then, for your unbelief.’ he replied. ‘Good night, and thank you, governor!’

You smile at the story, and I say it’s strictly true. Here was a tall woman who thought she was wise to reject a wonderful offer. She thought what she heard was a lie, but in fact it was true. Aren’t there people ten thousand times worse than her? Her unbelief only cost her a hungry stomach; but what may unbelief of the gospel of God cost you? There were people who saw the great signs of Jesus and they decided he did them by the devil – feeding people and giving sight to the blind and teaching people what real living was all about. Or they thought he was a conjurer. They decided he was a blasphemer, and they shouted out “Crucify him!” They voted for Barabbas and prided themselves in their wisdom. It was the worse decision they’d ever made, to have Jesus killed and a murderer set free and all the time thinking they were so clever. They were not going to be hoodwinked by some deceiver. Have you turned away in scornful unbelief like the woman? God says, “I have called, and you refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded” (Provs. 1:24). They thought they were smart in refusing. God says, “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price” (Isa. 55:11). Paul says the sight of God’s glory and power was continually all around and within them continually challenging them to believe and repent, but this was their response, “Their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (vv.21&22). But their folly grew even greater . . .

  1. GOD-REJECTERS BUILD IDOLS AND WORSHIP THEM.

This is the next step down on their way to the pit. They are surrounded by the glory of God in the creation he has made, and Jesus Christ is the express image of God and the brightness of his glory, but now they “exchange the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” (v.23).  Every man has a conscious knowledge of the true God, but it is held in captivity in his unconsciousness. It is repressed but it is not annihilated. It is there. Conor Cruise O”Brian, the famous Dublin journalist and editor, an avowed atheist, who took his wife to the hospital for a major operation the next morning, and finally he had to leave her in the ward and go home. He stood in the car-park looking back at the hospital and found himself praying, He had never prayed for years. He had avowed the non-existence of God for years but at that moment of anguish and fear his sub-conscious kicked in and he prayed to the God whom he knew. The God of the Roman Catholic church had been unacceptable to him for decades. He did his best to blot the thought of God out or at least to camouflage it in such a way that its authority over him would be concealed or dulled, but it cannot be extracted from us because we are made in God’s image. It remains intact though deeply submerged in our consciousness. So men disguise it. They turn it to a form that is less threatening – an idol. They camouflage it or veil it and adapt it. In any case they exchange the truth of God for a lie.

Rome was the greatest city in the world challenged only by Athens, both cities of culture and philosophy and education, and yet those two cities were filled with temples and idols. Greek and Roman philosophy was such that it easily came to terms with the grossest forms of superstition and idolatry. And you consider Hinduism today with some of its lofty ethical insights and yet it has no protest against the vilest and most degrading practices that are in India. But what idols we have in Wales of wealth and fame and power. The people of the Principality can hardly criticise the Hindus when Welsh idolatry is just as destructive to joy and peace and the knowledge of God.

We must turn to Isaiah chapter 44 and read there the greatest denunciation of idolatry and the wittiest portrayal of its folly in all of literature. Listen to the Word of God. “The blacksmith takes a tool and works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm. He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint. The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in the form of man, of man in all his glory, that it may dwell in a shrine.  He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. It is man’s fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.’ From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, ‘Save me; you are my god.’ They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so that they cannot see, and their minds closed so that they cannot understand. No-one stops to think, no-one has the knowledge or understanding to say, ‘Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?” (Isa. 44:12-20). The grass withers and the flower fades away, but the Word of the Lord endures for ever.

A missionary in India, actually my namesake Thomas, saw a crowd of people gathering around a temple and he joined them and he entered it. He courageously walked to the front of the congregation and stood between them and the hideous idol with its eight arms and he beckoned for silence. Then he put his fingers over his eyes and said to them, “It has eyes but it cannot see; it has ears but it cannot hear; a nose but it cannot smell; hands but it cannot handle, a mouth but it cannot speak; neither is there any breath in it.’ The people were hushed, and one Brahmin was quite convicted and he cried out, “It has feet but it cannot run away.” The people shouted in agreement and they walked away quietly beginning to feel shame at their foolishness.

A generation ago, we saw little evidence of physical idols in Wales, or most Western countries. But as goddess-worship and earth-worship have come back into vogue more and more signs of physical idols appear around us. As, for example, a million Hindus came to live in the U.K. and their temples and idols have been erected in each large city. Even Welsh language schools in Cardiff have been known to have a morning assembly to honour a Hindu idol. Even here in our town, whenever I walked to church from the promenade where I’ve parked my car, I pass some shops selling statues of Buddha, Quetzalcoatl (the Aztec winged serpent), several Hindu and Egyptian gods, and plenty of cats, snakes, fetishes and books of spells and rituals. Such New Age shops are all over Europe. For example, four of the great-grandchildren of my late teacher, Dr. Ed Clowney, live in East Berlin. Their parents work there as church-planters. In the park where Ed’s granddaughter takes the children to play stands a huge statue of Baal. Such idols will become more evident around us as more of the people of Wales reject the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and begin to do what Paul describes here, exchange the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Such idols are erected in defiance of the fact that in our world God has provided a physical and three-dimensional image of himself that entirely satisfies man’s quest for some tangible representation of God. The image of God is his Son Jesus Christ. That is also the answer to the other trend toward spirit guides which can involve what are called ‘familiars’, the voice of spirit guides to those who use them. Some deep-relaxation techniques, even in elementary schools, encourage children to choose spirit guides to aid them and counsel them. No! God speaks to us day by day in the Bible, a book we can carry with us and feel its weight and read and consider. God spoke to the three disciples on the hill of transfiguration as they saw the Lord Jesus transfigured before them, and God said to them, “This is my Son whom I love. Listen to him!”

I believe that it is easier for Welshmen today to understand Isaiah’s contempt for idols than it was thirty years ago because our culture had been highly influenced by Christianity, and Welshmen personally had seen no blatant evidence of physical idolatry. Even the standing stones in the Principality do not seem to be stones that men worshiped, but no one is sure of their purpose. The latest theory about Stonehenge in Wiltshire is that that ring of stones and the surrounding area would have been a kind of hospital where people came for healing. But Stonehenge was never taken over by Christians and made into a church. It was not allowed to become a place for the worship of the living God. The second commandment wouldn’t let even the medieval church do that. That would not have enhanced their worship; it would have impoverished it. Remember a bronze snake was put up on a pole by the order of God for the people to look to and be healed of the serpents’ bites, but as the years went by the people began to revere and worship that brass serpent. What is legitimate in one context can become a distraction and even a snare in another. We have to be on our guard against idols. You remember the six words with which John finished his first letter. These are his last words to them in case they lowered their guard and start to think that they’d never have problems with idolatry. He writes, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (I Jn. 5:21). So Paul is saying to us that making a representation of God in the form of a created image degrades God. God is so awesome that nothing in all creation resembles him. An idol reduces our understanding of God. An idol takes away the mystery of godliness. “Ah, we know God” idol makers and idol worshippers think, but what they have done is to reduce God to something less than he really is

Men and women, brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ who is the express image of God, some of you have been Christians for many years and you know that the further you walk along the road to Christian maturity, the more you realise how desperate your own sin is. I am urging you to go on worshiping the one true and living God, even when you may feel discouraged. You are thinking, “How can I ever truly worship God and annihilate the idolatry of my own heart?” Let me encourage you to realise that because you’re in Christ, you’re also worshiping God in him. As you’re in the Holy Spirit, your worship is acceptable in God’s sight. We come before the throne not for judgment, but for blessing. In Christ, God can accept your worship as perfectly pure and without idolatry. God knows our struggle and failure in worship.

Think of Naaman the healed leper, the general in supreme command of all Syria’s army, the newly cleansed disciple of the Lord. He considered the future, the great annual feast days when he would be constrained to enter the temple of Rimmon their national god, to bow down, and the Emperor himself would be leaning on his arm. What could he do? He said to Elisha, “I bow there also – when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this” (2 Kings 5:18). What a dilemma! You remember that this was a baby Christian and that that is how he was seeing his future response to idolatry. He had never challenged it ever before in his entire life, and Elisha understood. In fact Elisha sympathised. He saw a young disciple in a place of great authority and wondering could he respond like that in the temple of Rimmon, and yet he was aware of the dilemma and telling the preacher about it. He was asking the Lord for forgiveness, and the reply of Elisha was, “Go in peace!” In other words, Elisha heard the uncertainty in Naaman’s voice and he knew that Naaman would get more light and discernment and wisdom on how the only Christian in Syria should live, especially the most envied and well-known man in the country. God had begun a good work in his life and washed and cleansed him. If grace was shown to a believer entering the temple of Rimmon then how much more is mercy granted to us who fear the power of idols, and long to worship the Lord alone in the power of the Holy Spirit and yet are torn by old loyalties and fear the consequences of making too severe and final a break in our early days of worshipping the Lord. Not all have great faith at first. Please let’s be patient with those whom we wish were more separate from the world. Let us listen to them. Let us encourage them to talk to us. None of us worships the living God perfectly, but Jesus Christ de-idolizes our poor thought-wandering and selfish worship and he makes even that extraordinarily acceptable to God. Do not hesitate to offer your Father in heaven the worship that is in your heart. Through Christ, his perfect image, it is purified, is made perfect, and is a pleasing aroma to God. It does what it should do. Glorifies him as God and gives thanks to him. So . . .

The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be
Help me to tear it from the throne and worship only Thee

 

5th January 2014.   GEOFF THOMAS