The Idolatry You Should Forsake: Worship Like You Mean It

Most of us would scoff at the idea that we would practice idolatry. And yet most of us engage in it. “Now while Ezra was praying, and while he was confessing, weeping, and bowing down before the house of God, a very large assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept very bitterly. “ (Ezra 10:1, NIV)

After returning to Israel from exile in Persia to rebuild the temple, Ezra learned that the people who had remained in Israel had taken up with local women and local gods. They were bowing down to little idols and figurines in supplication and praise. He became utterly convicted because Israel was practicing idolatry and worshipping lesser deities instead of God. In the Jordan River valley, people worshipped the sun as well as local gods who were thought to govern fertility or rain. Pagan worship practices included repetitious music designed to help achieve a catatonic state of ecstasy; there were also stimulants and temple prostitutes to add to the local worship experience.

In our modern world, we may feel a little smug because we don’t bow down to little statues, but trust me—we practice idolatry pretty much every day when we put any other thing or desire in front of our love for God. Be honest now, does anything ever get between you and God? Ever have ANY desires that you want more than Him? Any things you want to do more than you want to worship God? Yep, those things aren’t little statues, but they ARE idols. So, take a little inventory. What do you worship?

Ezra was so stricken with grief over the danger of sin that he confessed and wept openly before the whole assembly. There are a lot of verses from the Bible that we use to express optimism and joy. We rejoice in our salvation. We know that Jesus came that our joy might be full. One of the fruits of the Spirit is joy. But when is the last time that you went to church and had a good cry, and wept openly in front of God and everybody?

Now, I know we feel that we can cry out to God when misfortune strikes, when life seems unfair, or when we are hurting over something that has happened to us or someone we love…That is an appropriate time to cry, but that is not the kind of crying Ezra is talking about here: When was the last time you wept in a worship service because of something YOU have done (or haven’t done) before God? When were you inconsolable in worship, not because of some bad circumstance, but because you realized the magnitude of both YOUR offense to God and the price He paid for your redemption?

I think our worship today often falls short of what it could be in terms of being transparent and repentant before the Lord, particularly in churches where expression is frowned upon, and God’s Spirit is limited to what time the local NFL game starts. Perhaps that’s because many of us are only partly committed to worship, and EACH OF US falls short of being truly repentant and vulnerable when we go to church. Could it be that we worship our own sense of decorum more than we worship the Lord? Do we worship appearances more than transformation? James 5:16 says, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

Ezra led the people of Israel by confessing and weeping, and bowing down before everyone in the house of God. The large assembly that gathered around him expressed their fellowship by weeping bitterly alongside him, by sharing his conviction over how he had fallen short of true commitment to the Lord, and being repentant over his sin. When is the last time you wept bitterly over your sin? When was the last time the whole church bowed before God in genuine emotion to confess and express true repentance?

Here’s the problem: I’m pretty sure that I’m not ready to go blurt out my sins in front of everyone at church, and I’m pretty sure most of them aren’t ready to hear me do that, either; but perhaps I can take some steps in that direction by being more honest in my confession before God, and a little more distraught about the idolatry in my life. I bet if enough of us did that BEFORE church, we’d have a different experience when we got there.

Ezra bowed, and prayed and cried with love that couldn’t be denied–
No pretense here, no foolish pride, just honesty from deep inside.
And all the people wept and prayed, forsook the idols they had made,
Left the coolness they displayed, and bowed in grief and awe, afraid.
Israel joined–no one declined–to leave their idols far behind.
What about YOUR secret mind? If you looked closely, could you find
Some altars of idolatry that none suspect, and none can see?
Confess and weep. Repent and see that if you pray transparently,
Your worship wouldn’t be so lame, your church would never be the same
And You won’t check the time in worship, waiting for the Cowboys game…


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To Misquote Garth Brooks, Maybe You Have Low Friends in High Places

In the ancient Middle East, there were worship centers called “high places”, where all kinds of pagan ritualistic mischief took place. The key word here is “pagan”, and it’s safe to say that it is probably hard for the average person reading this blog to imagine what went on there. (Think: really bad.) Since they revolved around polytheism, sex, and drug use, the one true God of Israel naturally condemned both them and anyone who used them. “In the seventh year of Jehu, Joash became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem forty years. His mother’s name was Zibiah; she was from Beersheba. Joash did what was right in the eyes of the Lord all the years Jehoiada the priest instructed him. The high places, however, were not removed; the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there.” (2 Kings 12:1-3, NIV).

Read through 2 Kings sometime. It describes a society full of treachery and deceit, with murder and betrayal on almost every page. The Kings of Israel and Judah were a dangerous bunch, and the good ones were few and far between. Joash became King over Judah at age seven, and actually had godly counsel around him. He did right in the sight of the Lord during all of his 40 year reign, but did not, however, remove the high places.

“High Places” is a somewhat euphemistic title given to the pagan worship centers out in the mountains and countryside in Israel. Idolatry, pagan rituals, illicit sacrifices, prostitution, and all kinds of carnal activity took place there in the name of “worship”. The high places were sort of secret men’s clubs, somewhat hidden and off the beaten paths–but every man in Israel knew what went on there. Pagan rituals encouraged men to substitute a spiritual walk with sexual ecstasy as they worshipped the goddess of fertility (known variously as Ashtoreth, Ishtar, Astarte, or Asherah).

The High Places were holdovers from the nations and cultures Israel defeated to take the Promise Land, and the reason they weren’t torn down is because guys liked to go and sin there. Funny how so little really changes with men over all these years… Men don’t necessarily call it worship, but they still go to particular places where the allure of feminine sexuality is powerful and seductive. Even church-going men will check their Bibles at the door to enjoy the atmosphere, just like the pagans did at the high places.

When Gideon tore down his father’s Asherah pole, “The people of the town demanded of Joash, “Bring out your son [Gideon]. He must die, because he has broken down Baal’s altar and cut down the Asherah pole beside it.” (Judges 6:30) Hebrew men were so involved with pagan worship that they were willing to kill to preserve it. In later times, a couple of the good Kings brought reform to Israel and helped turn people back to God; but that was the exception rather than the rule; all too often the high places remained. They were a secret, “pet” sin that men kept in reserve, so they could go there to “worship”.

At first glance it may seem hard to believe that any form of spiritual revival could take place when such sinful sanctuaries remained. How could Israel outwardly worship the Lord but then keep on sneaking around to wallow in such dirty sins? How could they love God but hold on to some carnal pleasure in reserve? Upon reflection, it’s pretty easy to see, isn’t it? It’s not just them, but US. We love God outwardly but secretly worship other, carnal, false gods. (And before you women feel too smug about men’s obvious weaknesses, remember that lusting for material things, status, or control are just as much of a carnal sin as sitting in the men’s club…) We may sometimes feel moved to have revival but fail to remove some of our “high places”.

What are your pet sins, your secret sanctuaries? Do you ever live outwardly as a Christian even while you are at the same time judgmental, greedy, lustful, selfish, hateful, critical, anxious, bitter, covetous or proud? The concern that crosses our minds over Israel’s idolatry is the same concern we should have about ourselves. Do you have any high places? Take an inventory of the secret sanctuaries you harbor, and consider tearing. Them. Down.

High upon the mountain, or way back among the hills
There were pagan temples where a man could get some thrills.
Temple priestesses would stimulate the men's virility
Calling them to worship with the goddess of fertility.
Participants who worshipped there were very normal men
Who visited high places and then just went home again.
Improbable, you say? These hypocrites could not be saved,
When claiming to love God while they are secretly depraved!
And yet that is my story. I love God, and want to win,
But there are idols in my life. I harbor secret sin.
Lord, when there are idols in my heart that make you frown,
Help me feel your love, and Jesus, help me Tear. Them. Down.

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