The Idolatry You Should Forsake: Worship Like You Mean It

An Accusation You May not Like

Most of us would scoff at the idea that we would practice idolatry. We are sophisticated church-goers who live in the twenty-first century! And yet most of us engage in it without even feeling guilty about 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)

Ezra returned to Israel from exile in Persia to rebuild the temple. Upon arriving, he 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 area people worshipped the sun, and local gods who were thought to govern fertility or rain.

Idolatry and Desire

Before you smile and say, “How quaint and ignorant”, consider this: Pagan worship was very connected to carnal desires that all men have. (And yes, in the ancient world, temple-goers/worshippers were men. Women stayed at home.) So at the temples or High Places, all kinds of lustful and sensational activities drew the men deeper into “worship”. Besides sacrifices, temple practices included dancing by temple priestesses and repetitious music which was designed to help men achieve a catatonic state of ecstasy; there were also stimulants and temple prostitutes to add to the local worship experience. (In Greece and Rome, men consorted with young boys and frolicked in bath houses.) Understand this: When a man said, “Honey, I’m going to worship at the temple”, he had more than prayer on his mind…

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. We love our stuff. We covet. Our motives can be selfish. 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? (Hmm, a question much like, “What’s in your wallet?”)

Something to Cry About

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?

Where Do You Spend Time in Worship?

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.”

True Worship = True Emotion

Ezra led the people of Israel by confessing, 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 you 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.

No Shame in His Game

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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