“Salvation comes from the LORD.”
Today’s message continues our series on the topic of idolatry based on Tim Keller’s book, Counterfeit Gods. As we studied, God made human beings with a need to worship. When we do not worship God, our hearts drift towards idols. An idol can be defined as something that replaces God as the ultimate desire of our hearts. Anything can be an idol when we lift it up as an ultimate thing in our lives. The only thing that can remove idols from our hearts is a greater godly affection. Let’s seek a greater affection for God as we study today’s passage.
First, the complexity of cultural idols
So far in our series, we have studied about personal idols – desire, love, wealth, success, and power. God tested Abraham’s ultimate desire to have a son when he called him to sacrifice Isaac. Jacob sought love for beautiful Rachel as the ultimate desire of his heart, but in the morning it was ugly Leah whom he was stuck with. Zaccheus looked for happiness and security in wealth, but he was despised and lonely until he met Jesus and found true joy. Naaman thought his success would provide a way to heal his leprosy, but only humbly obeying the servant’s direction could bring healing. Nebuchadnezzar thought his power was the greatest in the world, but only after he became mentally deranged like an animal could he realize that his life is in God’s hand. All of these idols – desire, love, wealth, success, and power – are personal idols. People were freed from them when they personally repented.
Today we are going to talk about cultural idols. Cultural idols are more complex than personal idols. They also tend to be more hidden because they have become social norms and do not stand out clearly in the culture. Sometimes personal idols are expanded into a cultural worldview. When the idol of love permeates pop culture, immorality becomes the norm. When the idol of wealth permeates the culture, materialism and capitalism become a way of life. When career success is most prominent in society, families fall apart. When power becomes the main goal in a culture, many wars break out. We have come to find many of these cultural idols in our society. The American Dream began with a culture of religious ideals among our founding fathers. They based everything on God, though faith in the Bible was partially mixed with humanistic ideas. During the Industrial Revolution, the American Dream evolved into a culture of nationalism in which the nation itself became the ultimate meaning, and America became seen as a political redeemer for the world. Today the American Dream has become a culture of individualism where individual preferences are the primary concern above both God and nation, and personal idols have extended to cultural proportions. Cultural idols are difficult to identify because of their complexity. Like the layers of an onion, idols combine and multiply in ways that are difficult to entangle. Cultural idols are also more difficult to overcome because they require corporate repentance in addition to personal repentance.
Our Bible passage for today is Jonah chapters 1-2. Jonah was a prophet in the Old Testament from 784 to 772 B.C. God called Jonah to preach a message of judgment to warn the wicked people of Nineveh. Let’s read chapter 1 verses 1-3, “The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me." But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.” Like most preachers, Jonah wanted ministry success, including a receptive and obedient audience who would be greatly thankful for his message. This may have been Jonah’s personal idol. At the same time, Jonah had a cultural idol of nationalism. Jonah had called Israel’s King Jeroboam to expand the nation’s boundaries (2 Kings 14:25). Other prophets, Amos and Hosea, spoke out against corruption in the king’s court, but Jonah appears to have overlooked the king’s wrongdoing in his nationalistic zeal to build up his country’s power and influence. Jonah was shocked by God’s command to go preach a message to warn the people of Nineveh. Nineveh was the most powerful city in the world, and its empire in Assyria threatened to overrun Israel and the surrounding countries. Doing anything to benefit Nineveh could be suicidal for Israel, and most of Jonah’s friends would have agreed. God was reaching out in mercy to the enemy of his people. And God was sending a patriotic Jewish prophet to do this. It sounded like God was being unreasonable. Imagine if God directed us to bring a merciful message to terrorist organizations. It would be difficult to accept and would appear most unpatriotic, even unlawful. In deliberate contradiction to God’s command, instead of going east to Nineveh, Jonah got on a ship bound for Tarshish at the far western rim of the known world. Jonah did the complete opposite of God’s will and traveled to the opposite end of the known world, which was on the far end of the Mediterranean Sea. He became a man on the run. We can understand why Jonah would have been afraid to go to the most powerful city in the world and tell the people to kneel before God and turn away from their wickedness. Jonah could have been killed for doing this. Surely he would have been persecuted. But more than fear, as a patriotic Israelite, Jonah had a cultural idol of nationalism. His foremost concern was to protect his nation. To give a message that could help the enemy was not in the best interests of his country. Finally, Jonah had a religious idol of moral self-righteousness. He felt superior to the wicked pagan Ninevites and didn’t want them to be saved. This complex mix of idols led Jonah to rebel against the God he was so proud of serving. Like Jonah, we confront both personal idols and cultural idols. Our cultural idols may be different than Jonah’s, but nationalism and moralism are still among us today. How will we respond to God’s message of truth and grace?
Second, seeing God’s grace and salvation
Jonah got on a boat as he fled from God. But God sent a ferocious storm that threatened to sink the boat. The sailors cast lost to see who brought this calamity upon them, and the lot fell on Jonah. Afraid for their lives, the sailors cast Jonah into the sea, and God saved Jonah’s life by sending a big fish to swallow him. It gave Jonah a chance to recover and repent. Inside the fish, Jonah prayed to God. Let’s read chapter 2 verses 7-9, "When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, LORD, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the LORD." Inside the fish, Jonah came to several realizations. First, Jonah realized that idolatry blocks God’s grace. His disobedience had disabled him from having friendship with God and led to fear and despair. Jonah had despised the Ninevites who worshipped idols, but now Jonah could see that his own idols had blocked God’s grace from coming into his life. His personal fear of failure, his pride in religion, and his fierce love for country had become a complex mixture of idols that had blinded him from seeing the grace of God. Next, Jonah realized that salvation comes from the Lord. It does not come from any quality or merit in ourselves. Jonah’s pedigree as a descendant of Abraham and his understanding of the Law of Moses could not earn God’s salvation. Physically and spiritually, we are completely helpless without God’s hand of protection and salvation. In spite of our pride in our nation or heritage, we are all sinners who need God’s grace. Romans 3:23 says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”
The cultural pride of nationalism cannot coexist with the grace of God. One forces the other out. It is natural to see one’s own culture as superior to everyone else’s. Author Richard Loveless said, “The culture is put on as though it were armor against self-doubt, but it becomes a mental strait-jacket ...” (The Dynamics of Spiritual Life, p.212). As individuals, we are weak and have many doubts in ourselves. The corporate strength of the culture around us seems to provide a sense of stability, identity, and value. It seems like an armor that can protect us from our insecurities. Its values provide a standard to cling to and measure ourselves by. However, all human cultures fall short of God’s will. Each culture of the world has its own forms of corporate idolatry. When we are locked within the values of our own culture and insensitive to other cultures, we become blinded by cultural idols and fall short of seeing God’s grace. John Stott, an English pastor, said that all Christians must be sensitive to at least three different cultures - the culture that the Bible was written in, which was a mix of Hebrew and Roman, the culture in which we interpret the Bible, which in our case is contemporary American, and the culture to which we witness the Bible, which may be different in each person’s case. In Galatians chapter 2 of the New Testament, the Apostle Peter refused to eat with Gentile Christians. It was his cultural custom not to associate with the Gentiles. The Apostle Paul confronted Peter about his racism. But Paul did not say that he was breaking the rule against racism, rather Paul said that Peter was not acting in line with the Gospel (Galatians 2:14). Racial prejudice is a denial of the principle of salvation by grace. If we are saved by grace, how can we feel superior to anyone? Peter knew the gospel, but at a deeper level his life was not fully shaped by it. This is good example of a cultural idol, and it is also a preview to our Galatians Bible study series that we will begin in two weeks, so stay tuned for that.
Jonah had been had been called to go and preach the message of grace to the greatest city in the world, but he hadn’t understood that grace himself. Humbled by adversity, Jonah began to see the truth. Salvation didn’t come from the things that he felt superior about. It comes from the Lord. Salvation is by God’s grace alone, and therefore it is equally available for wicked Ninevites as much as it is for self-righteous and culturally superior people like Jonah. Jonah’s idols seemed to have been removed as he made this realization. The adverse situation of the stormy sea helped Jonah to repent. Jonah thanked God for saving him and forgiving him of his rebelliousness. Jonah accepted the mission that God gave him. Then at that point, the fish spit Jonah out on the shore, and he was able to continue his mission.
Third, Jesus the true messenger of God’s grace
There are a number of parallels between Jonah and Jesus. In fact, in some ways, Jonah is a symbol of Jesus the Messiah. But in other ways, Jesus is far superior to Jonah. Jonah wasn’t willing to go to bring God’s message to the Ninevites, and he finally went reluctantly when God pressured him, but Jesus came willingly to bring the message of God’s grace to sinful people. Jesus left his comfort zone in heaven to minister not just to people who might harm him, but to people who did. To save them, he would have to do more than just preach; he would have to die for them. While Jonah was merely thought to be dead, Jesus really died and rose again. Jesus himself made this comparison when he said in Matthew 12:40, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” This refers to the fact that Jesus was in the tomb for three days between his crucifixion and his resurrection. Those three days for Jonah were a chance to repent of his own sins, but the three days for Jesus were the time that he bore the sins of others. Jonah’s message was for one city, but Jesus’ message is for the whole world. Because of our sins, we would have received God’s wrath and destruction, but Jesus died on the cross for our sins and through his word in the Bible, he gives us the message of his grace and forgiveness. Where Jonah failed, Jesus succeeded. And where Jonah lacked mercy, Jesus showed mercy.
Like Jonah, God calls us to share the message of his grace with the world. Do we have cultural idols like Jonah did that cause us to feel superior to other people or to not care about those who are in a different culture? God’s calling for all Christians to bring his message of grace to the world is difficult because it challenges our idols. But when we accept Jesus’ grace of forgiveness in our hearts, we can understand God’s mercy for others and can be empowered to be messengers and witnesses of his grace.
Today we thought about the complexity of cultural idols. Cultural idols are more difficult to identify and remove because they have become part of the cultural norm around us. Sometimes a personal idol such as wealth or power expands to cultural proportions. Jonah could not accept God’s calling to preach to the Ninevites because the cultural idols of his nationalism and self-righteousness closed his heart toward the enemies of his country. Jonah was completely blind to the idols in his heart until a stormy sea and being swallowed by a big fish forced him to reflect on what was in his heart and he could repent before God. Jonah confessed that idols block a person from receiving God’s grace. Jonah also confessed that salvation comes from the Lord. It does not come from a person’s national heritage, social pedigree, or human accomplishment. God’s message of salvation is for people of all nations, even for people that we might think of as our enemies. God transcends cultural differences. Where Jonah failed as a messenger of God’s grace, Jesus succeeded. Jesus willingly left his comfort zone in heaven to come to earth and proclaim the message of God’s forgiveness. While we were God’s enemies, Jesus died on the cross to provide our salvation, and he rose again to give us the blessing of eternal life. Let’s turn to God for the salvation that only he can give, and may his grace enable us to overcome our cultural idols.