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False Religion

Oct 26, 2014Passage: Jeremiah 7:1-15Keywords: the sovereignty of god, sanctification and growth, life of worship, pursuit of holiness.Preacher: J.D. Shaw

“False Religion,” Jeremiah 7:1-15 (October 26, 2014)

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you men of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’

“For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.

“Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, declares the Lord. 12 Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. 13 And now, because you have done all these things, declares the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, 14 therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. 15 And I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of Ephraim.

PRAY

We are working our way through the book of Jeremiah on Sunday mornings, and this morning we are in chapter seven. This is the famous “temple sermon” preached by Jeremiah the prophet. And in it Jeremiah goes to the temple in Jerusalem, which was one of the wonders of the ancient world – Solomon’s temple was this magnificent complex located on Mt. Moriah where people from all over the known world came to worship or just to see it – Jeremiah goes to the temple and, as the worshippers go into the building, he denounces it. Jeremiah preaches, verse 4, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’”

What was going on? The people of Jerusalem were just a few years away from being attacked by the Babylonian Empire – this was the superpower of the ancient world at that time. And God had sent many prophets, including Jeremiah, to warn the people that unless they changed their ways, the Babylonians would come and bring doom with them.

But the people would not listen. They thought they were safe and that nothing really bad could ever happen to them because they lived in the same city where the temple of the Lord, God’s dwelling place on earth, was. “There is no way God would allow his own house to fall into the hands of the Babylonians,” they thought. “So we must be safe.” Jeremiah points out that what the Israelites were really doing was placing their faith, their trust, in this building, this temple.

Another way to describe this is “false religion.” The Israelites thought they were safe and secure, but in reality they were as far from that as they could possibly get.

False religion – that’s what we’ll look at this morning. This is a heavy topic, so this is a heavy sermon, with two points. First, the nature of false religion. Second, how God deals with false religion. Third, what must we do about it?

First, the nature of false religion. Read verses 5-7: “For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.”

Then, 9-10: “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’—only to go on doing all these abominations?”

Two things about the nature of false religion: false religion does not touch the heart. What’s going on? The people of Israel worshiped regularly, they worshiped religiously, yet it had no effect on their hearts. They were not kind to the poor, they stole, they committed adultery, they worshiped idols. Their worship brought about no change of the heart.

That’s always the result of false worship. In false worship, you go through the motions, you practice the observances, you sit through the services, you may even sing a little, but your heart is not in it. It’s all formal, it’s all sterile, it’s all dead.

False religion is an epidemic in Mississippi, and it has been for a long time. Why do I say that? While we don’t have temples in Oxford to go and worship there. But we do have lots and lots of churches. And we have lots and lots of Bible studies you can go to.

And the tragedy is so many people in our town, state, region are faithful attenders of a local church, faithfully go to this Bible study, faithfully volunteer at this ministry, yet it has made no impact on their hearts. Now, I’m not saying that most people or even some people attending the Bible believing churches in Oxford are doing the things Jeremiah prophesied about: theft, murder, adultery, oppressing the poor. If you are, in the name of the Lord, stop. Repent. But my guess is most aren’t.

And for you, you must know the Bible says that someone who practices true religion will have the Holy Spirit in the, and what will the Holy Spirit produce in you? 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23.

Here’s a test for you – I want us all to take it because this is such a common problem: if you regularly attend church, regularly go to Bible studies, regularly volunteer to serve others, yet you find you are an angry person, you walk around full of anger and resentment toward others because you don’t think others treat you like you deserve or value you like they should, then what’s happened? Your religion hasn’t touched your heart – it’s false religion.

If you regularly go to church or some Bible study, yet all you can do is think about money and the things it will buy, things you’d like to have, ways you’d like to update your house or your wardrobe, if you are constantly worried about no having enough money, and you find it is impossible to be really, sacrificially generous with your money, then your religion, at least as far as it impacts your money, is all formality, all ceremonial, and it hasn’t touched your heart.

Friends, religious, church-going people (which is what so many of us in Mississippi are) need the gospel perhaps more than anyone else, because we think we have the real thing. Look at us – we’re not doing anything really bad. And we’re going to church! But that’s not the test, is it? It’s love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. Religion that doesn’t touch the heart is false.

Second, false religion is incredibly deceptive. Verse 4: “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’” Verse 8: “Behold, you trust in deceptive words to no avail.”

False religion is so deceptive – why? Because look at what you’re doing with your life – you’re going to church! You’re going to Bible studies! You’re volunteering! You’re probably giving some money away! You may really be helping people with your life. Therefore, you must be okay with the Lord. You must have it altogether if that’s going on in your life.

God says, “No – if the religion isn’t touching your heart, isn’t changing the most basic motivational drives of your life, if your religion isn’t constantly challenging your heart attitudes and forcing you to repent, it’s false. Don’t be deceived.”

Do you know how incredibly deceptive false religion is? Several years ago a story came out about a very prominent American pastor. He was gifted on so many levels. This particular pastor was a Harvard graduate, which alone makes him stand separately from a whole lot of pastors in the country – like this one. He pastored a large and influential church in the big urban area, it had at the time 5000 members, and he had ascended as high in his denomination as he possibly could – he had served as the moderator of the denomination’s annual assembly.

But he had been for many years a drug addict. He was addicted to pain killers – percocet, oxycotin. No one knew – you don’t get to be as successful as he was in life and you don’t ascend as high as he did in the church world without knowing how to put on a show when you need to. He was very careful. His wife knew something was wrong, she knew a lot was wrong, but she didn’t know about the extent of his addiction.

But several years into an addiction, he went to a four-day conference at a drug treatment center. The conference just happened to be there; it wasn’t there because of his addiction because, again, no one knew about it. But because he just happened to be at this recovery center he was, of necessity, around experienced drug treatment counselors. One of these counselors started watching him. And at one point during the conference the counselor (who was not a Christian) came up to him and said, “Who is the God whom you serve?” And the pastor gave the Sunday school answer: “I serve the God of the Bible, the triune God who has revealed himself most fully in Jesus Christ.” Remember, by this time the man had been in ministry over thirty years – he knew how to play the game.

But the counselor who had been around a lot of drug addicts saw right through it – he had seen something, so he said, “Oh, no, your god is drugs.” And he said that it was like he had been cut all the way down to his soul. So he pulled his wife aside and said, “I need to stay here.” He did – for seven weeks. And after he sobered up and resigned his church.

Friends, are you safe from false religion? Do you think you’re worshiping the God of the Bible, the triune God who has revealed himself most fully in Jesus Christ, or are you participating in false religion? And here’s the really scary question: the Lord God mightily used that pastor in the lives of so many. Really good things were coming out of that man’s ministry. Yet if he could be so completely deceived for so long about what was really going on in his heart, about what his religion really was, do you think you’re safe?

Here’s the terrifying thing about the deception of false religion: you can be completely wrapped up in it and yet not have a clue. Going through the motions, participating in the rituals, attending church and Bible studies, even doing some really good things – yet totally deceived and possessing a heart completely untouched by the grace of God.

If that’s the case, what do you do? Well, if you are deceived, then by definition you can do nothing. Why? Because you don’t know anything is wrong. You’re deceived – how can you cry out for help?

 

At this point, the question isn’t what you can do: it’s what will God do?

Second, how God deals with false religion. First, he will ruthlessly tear it down. 12 Go now to my place that was in Shiloh, where I made my name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of my people Israel. 13 And now, because you have done all these things, declares the Lord, and when I spoke to you persistently you did not listen, and when I called you, you did not answer, 14 therefore I will do to the house that is called by my name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. 15 And I will cast you out of my sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of Ephraim. Jeremiah 7:12-15.

What was Shiloh? It was the place where the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle of the Lord was housed in the period after the judges, before Saul was king of Israel. But at some point in the period of time between the days of Saul and Jeremiah, Shiloh was reduced to rubble. We don’t know who did it – if it was the Philistines or some other enemy – but by Jeremiah’s day it was gone.

So God, speaking through Jeremiah, says, “You see what happened to Shiloh? I will do all that and more to Jerusalem. You are so wrapped up in the false religion of the temple worship that I will send the Babylonians here and they will tear down this temple until there is nothing left. You want to trust this building instead of me? Fine – I’ll bring it down myself.” And we know that’s exactly what God did – 20 or 30 years after Jeremiah spoke these words, the temple of the Lord was completely destroyed.

But you know that’s not all – God’s people came back and later built another temple on this same site, except more glorious, more beautiful than the first one was. And the same thing happened – the people of God became deceived by false religion. Outwardly, observing all the religious practices, fasting, tithing, praying, reading the scriptures. Inwardly, like dead men’s bones. Whitewashed tombs. All formality, no vitality, no life.

This time another Jeremiah, the one to whom Jeremiah pointed, came to the temple, and said, “And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Mark 13:1-2. And that’s exactly what happened.

Here’s what you need to know: when God’s people are deceived by false religion, God is absolutely ruthless with whatever is keeping his people from him. If it’s a building – even if it’s his own temple, that he commanded his people to build – whatever it is, God will be absolutely ruthless. He will not tolerate anything luring his people away from true worship into false religion.

What can we learn from this? Does this mean that God might come and say, “Do you see this building where Grace Bible Church meets? I know it doesn’t look like a church building. In fact, it looks more like a Mexican restaurant than a church. But do you see that building? I will not leave one stone on top of another.”

No, because a church building today is not the same thing as the temple was back then. God’s presence on earth was located in the temple. The temple was his dwelling place. Grace Bible Church, as great as it is, is not the dwelling place of God on earth. You know what is? You are – if you are a Christian, if you have trusted in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ to save you from your sins, you are God’s dwelling place on earth. As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:4-5.

And he will work in his people to make sure that He is set up at the center of their hearts. Now, here’s the question: what are your Shilohs? What is the false religion that’s deceiving you and keeping you from having God at the center of your life? I don’t know, obviously. I have some idea of what mine is like. But we can’t know for sure, can we, because it’s so deceptive? That’s the frustrating part about it.

But look back at Israel – what was their mistake? They thought that as long as the temple of the Lord was standing in Jerusalem, nothing really bad could happen to them, and they could continue to live as they pleased, without really giving any thought to the Lord. In other words, they trusted in their circumstances. They thought, “Hey, the temple of the Lord is here, the Babylonians haven’t gotten here yet, so we must be safe and we can continue to do whatever we want.” They looked at their circumstances and judged their lives based on them.

OK, Christians, here’s probably what’s keeping you from having the Lord at the center of your heart: your life circumstances. When things are going well for us, Christians can be the friendliest people around. “Yes, God’s been so good to me. I’m doing well in school, job’s going well, my marriage is great, my kids are all doing well in school, my football team is winning, and I’m just praising the Lord.” But, when things aren’t going so well, we Christians can be the moodiest people you’ve ever met. Things aren’t going well in our life – so we start to think nobody loves us, nobody cares about us, God must be punishing me. We look at our spouses and say, “You can’t love me, because you’re not doing this for me.” And we start grumping around the house, and we yell at the kids because they’re being too loud. Does any of this sound familiar to you?

Now, does having those good circumstances in your life necessarily mean you’re practicing true religion? No – “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:45.

And when things are going badly, does that mean that God’s mad at you? No – Jesus Christ was the only truly righteous person who ever lived, and he had horrible circumstances in his life.

Friends, you are tempted to judge your relationship with God – you’re tempted to judge God’s love for you – based on the circumstances in your life. You use them as a barometer to measure your relationship with God. And he will not have it. That’s false religion.

Elisabeth Elliot, wrote a book called No Graven Image detailing the life of female missionary, Margaret Sparhawk. Margaret had dedicated her life to translating the Bible for an indigenous people group in Ecuador. Now you can’t get someone with a more sacrificial life than that. She’s not chasing the American dream. She wants to take the gospel to the nations! She must be practicing true religion, right?

The work of documenting this language took years and years of hard work. God gave Margaret the gift of a man who helped her understand the unwritten dialect and move the translation work forward. Pedro, was essential to Margaret’s life work. And, Margaret was so grateful that God blessed her with his help.

One day Margaret visited Pedro’s home to find he had a terrible infection in his leg. She did what rural missionaries often did, she gave him a penicillin shot. Almost immediately, Pedro went into anaphylaxis shock and began convulsing uncontrollably.

Crying out to God, Margaret begged God to heal Pedro. If you don’t save him, Lord, what will become of the translation project? So she prayed, and prayed, and with Pedro’s family looking over her shoulder, Pedro died. Margaret’s life work was over. All the other people in that tribe ignored her from then on – regarded her as accursed.

And at the end of the book Sparhawk says, “I don’t write prayer letters anymore [that’s almost heretical for a missionary], for I have nothing to say about my work …”

“I find that I can no longer arrange my life in an orderly succession of projects with realizable goals and demonstrable effects. I cannot designate this activity as ‘useful’ and that one as ‘useless,’ for often the categories are reversed and even more often I am at a loss to apply either label, for the work, in the end, as well as the labeling, is God’s.”

What’s she saying? She’s saying she’s tired of playing the game of false religion, judging her life and God’s love by the circumstances around her as she sees them. She finally realizes that true religion loves and trust God for his own sake, and a loving God will do whatever it takes to tear our Shiloh’s down.

“God, if He was merely my accomplice, had betrayed me. If, on the other hand, He was God, He had freed me.” Freed her from a life dependent on her circumstances; freed now to trust God.

Friends, if you are God’s child, God will not rest until we rest in him and him alone. Not false conceptions of himself, not our ideas of what his will must be on earth, but Him and Him alone. He will not rest.  

Third, what do we do to get there? First of all, know Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

Friends, know that you can’t trust your heart. Don’t sit there and wonder, “Do I have any Shilohs in my life? Am I deceived?” Don’t wonder – you are deceived. I am deceived. We just don’t know how! Your heart is deceitful and sick by nature, so every day, and many times each day, you must pray along with the Psalmist: “23 Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! 24 And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” Psalm 139:23-24. You don’t know how you are deceived, but you can know that you are deceived by some Shiloh in your life, and you can ask God to reveal it to you and to remove it from you.

I can imagine someone now fearfully thinking: does that mean that God will take away from me whatever is keeping me from him? I mean, what if my children’s happiness is what’s keeping me from him? That’s my Shiloh: I know I want more than anything else for my children to be happy and successful. I know I allow how they are doing to determine whether I’m up or down. Will God take them away from me?

No, or God would have to take away just about everyone’s children. God is not a bully. He’s not cruel. Believe me, if God were cruel, we’d know it. We wouldn’t have sit around wondering. But God has away of tearing down even the Shiloh’s that are most precious to us without destroying them. Remember, Shilohs aren’t always bad things. Shiloh in Israel wasn’t a bad place; it was where God put his ark.

Yet God is so wise, God is so powerful, God is so good, that he can change you so that you can love the Shilohs in your life without needing them anymore. That’s freedom.

 

Second, trust the Lord. How? How can we trust God like that? Because God gave us the most precious thing he possibly could in order to strip us of our false religion. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Romans 8:31-32.

                

When we talk about the cross of Jesus Christ, we typically talk about it in terms of God’s love. And of course, that’s true – it is the ultimate demonstration of God’s love. But I think we also need to think of the cross like this: we all, the human race, were in such bad shape, so sinful, so rebellious against God, that only by crucifying his own son could God save us. Jesus actually prays in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, is there any other way?” And God says, “No.”

Friends, no one will, looking back on history from the vantage point of heaven, say: “That’s wasn’t fair – God that wasn’t right! You didn’t have to do that in order to free me from my sin to love you.” No, we will only say, “Thank you – now I see. Now I see what you had to do to free me from false religion, Lord. The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Like I said, this is a heavy topic. But I’ll close with this. C.S. Lewis put it this way, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – the Pevensie children are asking Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about Aslan, the Christ-figure in the stories. They find out that Aslan is a lion, not a man, and then Lucy, the youngest girl says, “Then is he safe?” said Lucy. And Mr. Beaver says, “Safe? … Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good.” Friends, no one is more committed to your happiness that the Lord Jesus Christ but it will only come on the other side of your holiness. Will you follow him there? PRAY