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Detestable Things

June 20, 2011, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Ezekiel 8:1-18) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Ezekiel
Preached at a Bilingual (Mandarin-English, Sunday) service

Tags: Ezekiel, 以西结书

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Sermon on Ezekiel 8:1-18

The topic for today is detestable things. What is detestable to you? What stirs up intense dislike or scorn in you? All of us might have different answers to this question. I asked my wife this question and she said spitting is detestable. So I said, then you should not watch Nadal play tennis. I recently watched the French Open, and apparently spitting is part of Nadal’s pre-point routine. Then I asked her if she knew what I found detestable. And she said, “Yes, you detest bullying.” And that’s true. When I hear about bullying, whether it is abused maids or oppressed workers, I feel really angry. I know it sounds like an over-reaction, but that’s the way with detestable things. You see, detestable things are like hot buttons. With most things, you can deal with them like everybody else. But with detestable things, your hot button is triggered. You feel more passionately about these things and therefore you react more strongly. Different people have different hot buttons, and hence it is important to know what they are in a relationship with another person. Whether it is a friend or a spouse, you slowly notice their hot buttons, and learn to avoid them. I feel it is the same with God. Do you know God’s hot buttons? What does God find detestable? Listen well because today, I’m going to share with you one thing that God finds detestable. God detests idolatry.

When we think about idolatry, we think about idols made of wood or stone. We think that God is against worshiping these idol figurines as gods. Based on a cursory reading of today’s passage, that is true. Ezekiel was given a vision of the Israelites’ idolatry. In the vision, four images were shown, each one God describes as more detestable than the previous one. The first image was an idol of jealousy at the entrance of the north gate of the inner court (v.3). Most likely, this idol is a statue of Asherah. Asherah is a Canaanite female goddess, in charge of fertility. In the second image, seventy elders were offering incense to seventy different idols in a secret room. All over the walls were all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel (v.10) In the third image, some women were mourning the God Tammuz. Tammuz is a Sumerian agricultural god. Like the cyclical seasons, Tammuz goes though birth, death and regeneration. The purpose of the ritual of mourning and lament is so that Tammuz will be revived from the Underworld and he will bring agricultural growth once again. The final image is a worship of the sun. Based on all these images, it does seem like God is against worshiping idols, whether they be the sun or Tammuz or Asherah.

On one hand, this is true. In Deuteronomy 29: 16 You yourselves know how we lived in Egypt and how we passed through the countries on the way here. 17 You saw among them their detestable images and idols of wood and stone, of silver and gold. 18 Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison. From this, we can say with certainty that God is against the worship of idols of wood and stone. It is stated equally strongly in Deuteronomy 27: 15 “Cursed is anyone who makes an idol—a thing detestable to the LORD, the work of skilled hands—and sets it up in secret.”

On the other hand, we do have two puzzling issues with these idol worshipers. Firstly, in verse 12, they say, ‘The LORD does not see us; the LORD has forsaken the land.’ Clearly, they do believe in the Lord, though they remark upon his absence. Secondly, all these idol worshiping were done in the Temple. So they believe that the Temple is a holy place. If they believe in the Lord and the sanctity of the Temple, why then do they worship these idols as well? Their true intentions are revealed upon deeper investigation. Firstly, let me introduce the goddess Asherah to you. (show clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=McJX44aeMhM) Here is what I think happened. According to the Canaanite theology, there were El and Asherah, who were the father and mother of all the other little gods. There were 70 of these little gods which include Baal. When the Israelites entered the promised land, they kept their faith in their God, YHWH. However, incorporating Canaanite theology, they gave YHWH a female consort Asherah, and perhaps the seventy children gods as well. So they continued to worship YHWH. But they maintained a theology of polytheism, which means many gods. Asherah is the goddess of fertility and Baal the god of storm. To them, worshiping these gods ensured that they would have good harvest and many children. Well, it does seem like good common sense to have some insurance gods in case YHWH goes absent or is busy. I hope this introduction explains the first two images more clearly to you. It wasn’t that the Israelites didn’t worship YHWH. It was that they worshiped him as part of a Canaanite theological framework, where he was father of the 70 gods and husband to Asherah.

Similarly, in the third image, it wasn’t that the women were worshiping Tammuz. Rather they were using the Tammuz ritual on YHWH. Like the Israelite elders, these women may have felt that God had abandoned his people during the siege. Was he dead? Was he in the Underworld? Maybe a ritual of lament, like the Tammuz lament, would bring him back. The same logic applies for the last image, the worship of the sun. It wasn’t really that they were worshiping the sun god of other nations. They were worshiping YHWH as the sun god. The ancient people perceived all the celestial bodies as gods and the sun was the chief god of all the heavenly gods. In this case, since they acknowledged YHWH as the God of Gods, then perhaps he is the sun god.

Now that we have a deeper understanding of these images, what is it exactly that God finds detestable? On a basic level, he detests the worship of all the idols made by human hands. But on a deeper level, we see that he finds forms of worship that make him into an idol even more detestable. That is idolatry too. It is true that God desires worship. But it must be worship in his own way, and not in the ways of idol worshiping.

Deuteronomy 12: 1 These are the decrees and laws you must be careful to follow in the land that the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has given you to possess—as long as you live in the land. 2 Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. 3 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.  4 You must not worship the LORD your God in their way.
Verses 5-28 then give the specific instructions on how they are to worship God.
29 The LORD your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, 30 and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” 31 You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.  32 See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it.

So brothers and sisters, idolatry goes beyond worshipping other idols. It also means worshipping God in an idolatrous way. These two concepts are expressed in the first two commandments. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. (Exodus 20:3-4) God does not want to be represented in a physical figurine made by human hands. From Deuteronomy, we understand that God also does not require extreme sacrifices. He cannot be commanded or coerced in this way. Instead, in John 4: 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” Why Spirit and Truth? This means that worship must be reflective of God’s true nature. It must be based on God’s revelation and not our human speculation. Ultimately, it is God who allows us to worship him and not based on our human efforts.

Perhaps, we might grumble. Why is God so particular about worship? Isn’t it enough that he knows we intend the worship to be for him? Shouldn’t we have the freedom to express worship in our own way? Brothers and sisters, herein lies the danger. When we worship, it must be God-centric. We worship because of who he is, he is worthy of worship. However, when we stress on our expressions and our feelings, our worship becomes man-centric. We worship only what we want God to be. That is idol-making. That is idolatry.

In some ways, I can sympathize with what the Israelites were doing. It is human to work with what we are familiar with. They lived in a world with a polytheistic worldview. For them, it was natural to assume that there was a diety in charge of every domain, rather than to conceptualize a God of the entire universe. It is also human to prefer a god we can see and touch. It is easier to relate to something physical. It is easier to trust in something you can experience everyday, like the heat and light of the sun. This was the reason why the Israelites made the golden calf in the desert to symbolize the God who rescued them out of Egypt. But such actions are idolatrous to God. On one hand, it is a false representation of who God is. It is insulting to reduce the creator to an object of our creation. On the other hand, it is a reflection of our human pride. By reducing God to an idol, we turn him into something we can manipulate. He is something we can influence, something we can contain and compartmentalize as a part of our lives. We turn to him only when we need his services. But God would not allow that. He is not an idol. God wants to transform every part of our lives. He want us to be a part of his plan and not him as a part of our plan.

Today, we express our idolatry in different ways. We must be careful because idolatry is detestable to God. Because of our materialism, we may equate prosperity with God. Because of our pragmatism, we may equate numerical growth and signs and wonders with God. Because of our individualism, we may equate personal spiritual experiences with God. In our worship, we yearn for miracles, spiritual manifestations and physical blessings. But let us understand that all these are poor substitutes for a true relationship with God. Instead, worship means a deeper understanding of who God is and a closer walk with him in our daily lives. Our Sunday services should be a corporate testimony and not an individual enjoyment of worship. Relationship building takes time and commitment. But such worship is genuine and respectful of who we are dealing with. God detests idolatry. Let our worship be molded by who God has revealed himself to be.

Ezekiel 8 (Listen)

8:1 In the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I sat in my house, with the elders of Judah sitting before me, the hand of the Lord GOD fell upon me there. Then I looked, and behold, a form that had the appearance of a man. Below what appeared to be his waist was fire, and above his waist was something like the appearance of brightness, like gleaming metal. He put out the form of a hand and took me by a lock of my head, and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the gateway of the inner court that faces north, where was the seat of the image of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy. And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was there, like the vision that I saw in the valley.

Then he said to me, “Son of man, lift up your eyes now toward the north.” So I lifted up my eyes toward the north, and behold, north of the altar gate, in the entrance, was this image of jealousy. And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see still greater abominations.”

And he brought me to the entrance of the court, and when I looked, behold, there was a hole in the wall. Then he said to me, “Son of man, dig in the wall.” So I dug in the wall, and behold, there was an entrance. And he said to me, “Go in, and see the vile abominations that they are committing here.” 10 So I went in and saw. And there, engraved on the wall all around, was every form of creeping things and loathsome beasts, and all the idols of the house of Israel. 11 And before them stood seventy men of the elders of the house of Israel, with Jaazaniah the son of Shaphan standing among them. Each had his censer in his hand, and the smoke of the cloud of incense went up. 12 Then he said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of pictures? For they say, ‘The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land.’” 13 He said also to me, “You will see still greater abominations that they commit.”

14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the LORD, and behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz. 15 Then he said to me, “Have you seen this, O son of man? You will see still greater abominations than these.”

16 And he brought me into the inner court of the house of the LORD. And behold, at the entrance of the temple of the LORD, between the porch and the altar, were about twenty-five men, with their backs to the temple of the LORD, and their faces toward the east, worshiping the sun toward the east. 17 Then he said to me, “Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations that they commit here, that they should fill the land with violence and provoke me still further to anger? Behold, they put the branch to their nose. 18 Therefore I will act in wrath. My eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. And though they cry in my ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them.”

(ESV)