HARDEST THING, NEXT TO GOD, TO GIVE UP
The author of a recent book on discipleship suggests an interesting exercise. Write down the thing you think would be hardest, next to God, to give up. The other asset or relationship, beside God, which you would hate most to face the future without. Now the surprise. He thinks this thing is probably, in reality, your god. The trouble is when you try to draw up this list, you get defensive. "I am not putting anything ahead of God.” So the author suggests a couple of tests. When you have only a few minutes with a daily newspaper, what specific kinds of articles are you sure to read? Sports? The society page? The stories of violence, sex or war? Finance? The obituary columns? Or, to try another approach, what do you think about again and again when you are alone? You are not occupied with conversation; you are free to choose the topic of your thoughts. Will it be your work? Your wife? Chilthen? Your acceptance by certain people? Money? Sex? Fame? Power over others? The answer to these questions may well be the functioning god in your life. Everything else is sacrificed to have it. The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, my beloved, shun the worship of idols”(I Corinthians 10:14). The apostle John said, Little children, keep yourselves from idols”(I John 5:21). Does not this commandment seem obsolete? A survey at New York University a few years ago requested students to rank the Ten Commandments as to importance. The prohibitions against murder and adultery were listed at the top. The arrestmg fact is that Bible writers mentioned the commandment against idolatry more than any other of the Ten Commandments. Do ministers strain to find violations of this commandment for sermon material today?
Suppose we go outside the ministry. Norman Mailer wrote a very critical article a few weeks after the United States planted a tinfoil flag on the moon's surface. He expressed misgivings about the excitement. He called the largest building in the world—the Vehicle Assembly Building near Cape Kennedy where rockets are put together before flight--"a giant cathedral.” He forced the whole space adventure into a religious mold. He quoted a famous scientist whose speech just prior to the first moonshot said, “I think [the moon landing] is equal in importance to that moment in evolution when aquatic life came crawling up on the land.” Mailer's reaction was that this was quite a remark since it passed without a pause over the birth and dcath of Chrlst. I do not believe human life began through a bit of life crawling out of the sea onto the land. But Mailer's point was that man's ancient failing has been revived: It is the tendency to make idols. Do we worship our scientific achievements? Have we placed something else ahead of God in our l ives? Each of us has an ideal alue system and a real value system. For most of us, the two are not the same. We confess that one goal is most important in our lives, but we live as if another goal were the greatest. An archaeologist, with a minimal number of artifacts, tries to tell us about an ancient culture. He describes their family life, their economic practices, even their relious beliefs. What do you suppose a future archaeologist might decide about the “gods” of our civilization? Suppose his
artifacts are old TV films and magazines. What will the commercials tell him our values really were?
William Temple once complained that our world is like a department store where someone has gone in at night and switched all the price tags. Our values are confused. The mark of a mature person is that he knows what he wants. He is moving toward a real goal. This goal draws together his powers like a magnet's core draws the magnet's lines of force together. Jesus used the great commandments of the law as this central goal for our lives when He said, “. . .you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength... you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30,31). He met people who thought God was first in their lives, but really He was not. He warned, “No one can serve two masters.... You cannot serve God and mammon”(Matthew 6:24). A man in the gospels whom we know as the rich young ruler is a striking case. He told Jesus he had kept all the commandments of God but he stifi asked, “...what must I do to inherit eternal life?”(Mark 10:17) Apparently he wanted an eleventh commandment to give meaning to his life. He felt hollow. He had no inner peace. Jesus challenged him. For once, test your real priorities. Are you ready to give up everything for God? “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
The young man went away sorrowful. Hewas quite wealthy. And while Jesus did not command everyone to sell their possessions and give the money away, he did teach every person to trust God completely. To take him seriously, without reservation. What about your-life?--What is the object of your ultimate attachment? We are all searching for the right thing to do, the good thing, the happy thing. But have we found our happiness in God̓s way of goodness?
Let us go back to God's way of dealing with the ancient Hebrews. The opening three commandments of the Decalogue are, "You shall have no other gods before me... You shall not make for yourself a graven image... You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain..."(Exodus 20:3,4,7). Israel knew many clalmed gods through her contact with other nations. In Egypt, where she spent many years in bondage, there were as many local gods as villages. She was surrounded by people who worshipped Ra, Osiris, Isis, Horns. After the exodus she met people who worshipped Baal, Asherah, Milcah and Dagon in Canaan. Frequently large numbers of Israelites would join the Canaanites in their worship. In a later period the Greeks and Romans identified a hierarchy of gods which they worshipped.
This open idolatry had one advantage. Men were kept aware of a number of things which were competing for their supreme devotion. And what men give this devotion to is their god. At least they recognized their idols for what they were. Modem men have not eliminated idols. We have only lost our advantage in dealing with them. The ancient Greeks had them catalogued; they knew the names, addresses, profiles, fingerprints and habits of their gods. We have changed their dress, so that we may not recognize our idols for what they are. William Jennings Bryan listed several idols in his culture: Gold, Fashion, Fame, Ease, Intelligence, Travel, War, Passion, Chance, Drink. You see, man's choice is not between the true God and no god, but between the true God and false gods.
Let us be more specific. Narcissus was the Greek name for a god who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. Can we honestly say we do not worship Self today? When Self is on the throne, we say, “What's in it for me? Wifi this affect my popularity? Is there room at the top?” Every beautiful thing is sacrificed for personal gain.
The Greeks had several gods who stood for personal pleasure. Bacchus was the god of drink and revelry. Eros was the god of physical attraction and sexual indulgence. Pluto was the god of wealth, a deification of material values above moral and spiritual values. Are we so different from the Greeks? We do not worship idols by these names, but are these not the great goals of our lives?
There are many other modern gods. The state often demands to be worshipped, just as in the days of Caesar worship. Society may become our standard. Public opinion decides what is right. Or we worship at the shrine of humanity. Man's achievements are the only real things. Science receives its share of devotion nowadays. We are all indebted to science, but without the guidance of spiritual values, science only increases the power a primitive man had when he made the first club. There is no end to the list of available gods once the soul turns away from the true God. The gods men make are manageable. They make us feel good without disturbing our consciences. They are modem substitutes for the golden calf. But what will happen when men with the gods they have made stand before the God who made man? Jesus knew that our real values are derived from God. The reason it is wrong to kill is that man is made in God's image. Every sin involves the relationionship of man to God and to His love. So Ivan in the “Brothers Karamazov” commented, “If God is dead, then all is permitted." The acknowledgment of the true God as He is revealed in Jesus Christ; this is the magnet for our lives. To worship God is to have one supreme loyalty. All of our instincts and passions obey Him. He could not be supreme if He must step down periodically while other gods are worshiped. Martin Niemoller, a German Minister, explains in his book, "God is My Fuhrer," why he could not take the easy way out during World War II. He could not make any earthly creature his absolute master because that would be putting a mere man in God's place. Life can have only one Fuhrer . Neimoller could not worship both Hitler and God, so he chose God, which brought him eight years in prison.
Our challenge is different, but not so different. The warning of Jesus to the rich young ruler was that God will not be the icing on the cake of our lives. He demands that we take Him seriously. It is as if Jesus said, “Put everything of value in life on the left side of the scales: your possessions, talents, friendships, your approval from others. Then put the weight God has in your life on the right side of the scales. Which side sinks?” Is God really first? All can begin a new life. God's grace makes this possible. Christ will give direction to our life. But this comes only through our trust, resolution and deep personal faith. The Bible says, “without faith it is impossible to please Him”(Hebrews 11:6). We must make a firm resolution to turn from wrong to right. God commands all men everywhere to repent(Acts 17:30). God commands all men to be baptized into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.(Mark 28:18-20). The word of God says, “Let us draw near with a true heat in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water”(Hebrews 10:22). A beautiful beginning. A new center for our lives–drawing our whole lives together in service to God and man.*
*This message is a reproduction of a sermon preached by Batsell Barret Baxter many years ago on the Herald of Truth Television program. Brother Baxter is now deceased.
Hew was the speaker for many years on the Herald of Truth television program, produced by the Highland Church of Christ, Abilene, Texas.