Read 1 Corinthians 10:1-14 to start.
I remember being in my early to mid twenties, working in a retail environment, and every so often a customer, generally an older man, would call me “Boy” or “Kid” or something along that line. I did not appreciate that, not at all. I did not consider myself a kid at that point in my life, and frankly, 20 years later, I still think that it’s generally rude to call a younger person “kid” or “boy” in that situation. Looking back, though, it’s easy to see that I was in many ways still a kid. Sure, I was old enough to have a full time job, own a car, pay rent, vote in elections, and indeed, I did do all of those things. I thought I had stuff all figured out, and I chafed when someone implied that I was a young whippersnapper, or wet behind the ears, or any other cliché that an older person might trot out to describe a younger person.
However, as a younger person there were a lot of things that I didn’t really understand all that well. No doubt there are still lots of things that I don’t understand, and I’m coming up on my mid-forties now. I imagine a decade or two from now should I consider this topic again, there will be many things I have learned which I do not know now, and I’ll wish that I understood them sooner. But I can’t look back now from the future and speak to myself today, not without a time machine, and that’s a whole other story. Besides, if I had that time machine, I’d tell my past self to buy stock in Amazon in the late 1990s.
Obviously, I can’t do that. I can’t relay a message to myself in the past any more than I can get advice from myself in the future. None of us can. There is something I can do, though. I can share a few things with you that I wish I had understood sooner, because when I look back, and when I stop and think about it, there are a number of concepts and ideas that I didn’t really have a terribly solid grasp on when I was younger.
My message this evening was prepared primarily with the youth in mind. I’m speaking to you now, young people. Odds are that you think you know some things, maybe a lot of things, and that you know there are some things you don’t understand. You may not like to hear this, but there are a lot of things that you’ve probably heard that you don’t actually understand. And that’s okay. You live and hopefully you learn. Maybe this sermon will be some help to you.
Now, those here who are not so young, this is not an invitation to tune out. I don’t know what you understand, so while maybe you know all that I’m going to say, maybe you don’t. And at the very least, a refresher never hurt anyone. We are told many times in scripture to remember what we have learned. This may serve as a reminder.
These are three things that I know now that I wish I understood sooner. These are hardly the only three, but I only have so much time tonight. The passage we read to start might give you a few hints as to the first one. There are a number of behaviours listed in those verses that Paul cautions his audience to avoid, behaviours that God was not happy with, and for which He judged the Israelites. It’s a widely varied mixture, including evil desires, idolatry, immorality, discontentment, and tempting God. Those were all failures that the Israelites were guilty of, specifically while they travelled through the wilderness, although hardly limited to that period of time. Looking at the list, they do seem to be all over the map; apart from the common thread of Israel did all of these. Frankly, I could preach a sermon on any one of these, and it would be a worthwhile subject. There is one, however, that, rises to the top of the heap, and is my first key item today. That is the sin that Paul warns the Corinthians to flee from, as he says at the end of what we read, at verse 14. Flee from idolatry.
Now, you might be thinking that that’s pretty easy to do. In our culture, we do not have a lot of pagan temples and altars around. Yes, there are Buddhists who live and practice around here, and they likely have a certain selection of graven images, and there are no doubt some Hindus who likewise have their own idols, but it’s not like we see temples to false deities on every street corner, tempting us to come in and worship Zeus or Baal.
Even if there were those sort of temples around, I don’t know that many of us would be all that tempted by them. That does not generally appeal to us. Much in the same way that if there were only one country music station on the radio, or if there were twenty of them, my desire to listen to country music would remain at pretty much zero. There is no appeal there. That’s how we generally think about idolatry.
Even in the time when Paul was writing to the Corinthians, and idolatry was in full swing, there were plenty of people who did not really believe in the false gods, but simply kept it up as a social convention. Many of the harsher and more repugnant aspects of idol worship, such as the child sacrifices practiced by the Canaanites and Phoenicians, and their descendants, the Carthaginians, were offense to the Romans, and were held up as evidence of those peoples as being barbaric. In a number of ways, idol worship in Roman times may not have been terribly different from how some people in Christendom practice religion today, with far more concern with tradition and maintaining a certain look than with belief. And certainly in the centuries since then, idol worship, the making of images of false gods and bowing down to them, has all but evaporated. We think of idolatry as something we don’t need to be concerned about. And that would be wrong.
The first thing that I wish I understood sooner is that idolatry is relevant to us today. You might be jumping ahead and thinking, okay, sure, anything that we put before God is an idol, we’ve all heard this before, how is this something that you didn’t understand? Well, it’s one thing to hear something, to know a concept, but it’s another to witness it, to experience it, to live it. I’ve heard it said many times that anything put in the place of God is an idol, but that long fell on my ears as an abstract concept, not really something to be concerned about, a warning that did not cause concern.
When my wife and I got married, we travelled to the Magdalen Islands for our honeymoon. While we were there, of course we did the tourist thing and saw the sights. There are some half decently tall cliffs in the Islands, and some of those had a warning sign that at the time I found terribly amusing. It was one of those black and yellow pictogram type signs with a person falling into the ocean, and the outcropping of land he was standing on is falling in with him. I took a picture of the sign, and I’ve actually used it as an icon. The warning sign obviously did not scare me. I don’t like heights all that much, so there was no chance that I was going to go anywhere near the edge of the cliff. It was not something I had to be concerned with or take seriously.
The warning to avoid idolatry is something to take seriously, because it happens all around us, all the time. We may point at other cultures, we may point at other religious groups, in particular one that is headquartered in Rome, and accuse them of a form of idol worship because of the great number of statues and images they like to keep around. That’s a convenient narrative for those of us who are not remotely into graven images, because it allows us to look elsewhere and say “See how they are doing this so wrong.” But the fact that someone else is wrong does nothing to make your actions right.
Scripture has myriad warnings against idolatry. I don’t know how many. It’s not just a couple dozen, but frankly, I was unable to get a count. Checking concordances found more than 100 verses with the word idol, or idols, or idolatry, and that wouldn’t count other words such as false god or specific names such as Baal or Molech. I tried to find an answer from Google, and came up with various lists such as 41 verses about idols, 100 verses about idolatry, and 15 verses about the dangers of idols. It’s not something that’s easy to put a specific number on, but it’s a lot. God warned the people of Israel many times about worshipping false gods in the OT, and in the NT the church is likewise cautioned time and time again. Clearly God is serious about this. You don’t issue repeated warnings without reason. The fact that we see so many warnings in the Bible indicates two things. First, idolatry can cause serious harm. You don’t warn against things that are harmless or insignificant. There isn’t a warning on a ream of paper that it may cause paper cuts. Second, idolatry is something that we will be tempted with, and that we are susceptible to.
In verse 13 which we read earlier, it speaks of temptation. There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man. The temptation to idolatry is every bit as common as the other sins we read about, the other sins that Israel was guilty of. We just don’t see it that way, because we get stuck on the idea of worshipping a golden calf. Frankly, I think we’d be a lot better off if there were some literal golden calves around, because they would serve as a visible warning and a reminder.
There is nothing specifically evil about calves, golden or otherwise. The idols that king Jeroboam installed at Bethel and Dan, and the golden calf that Israel worshipped in the wilderness while Moses was up on the mountain talking with God, these were not intended to incite the people to commit murder or other evil deeds, but rather to redirect their worship. The people who made them didn’t say “Let’s stop worshipping Jehovah.” They made these images to be a physical representation of God, when He had specifically told them never to do such a thing. And very quickly, the object became the point of focus and attention, and their sight was turned away from God.
That’s what an idol does, it distracts from the Creator. So often we think of the adjacent wickedness that goes along with idol worship, horrible things such as human sacrifice, mutilation, and perversion, and we might think that is why God hates idols. And sure, those things are terrible. But they are not the problem, merely the side effect. The issue is that an idol, any idol, turns us away from God.
Idolatry is every bit as relevant today as it was to the Corinthian church, and as it was to the people of Israel. We might not call it that, but it has never gone away. And each and every one of us is continually tempted to go after idols, not because we want to disobey God, but because we are pulled in many directions by all the shiny and exciting things, or all the needful and demanding things this life throws at us, and we do not notice how easily we are drawn away. God warns us of idolatry, He put the warning to have no other gods before Him as the first of the Ten Commandments, because He knew that it was the first place we were likely to fail.
We all have idols, or the potential to have idols. Most of them are not specifically bad things. But anything that takes up your time, attention, and affection, and distracts and reduces your relationship with God, that is an idol. Sure, it can be something evil and sinful, but it can also be something innocuous, such as sports and games, or reading and music. It can be something beneficial, such as exercise and fitness. It can be your work. It can be your hobby. It can be your education, or your entertainment. Frankly, good works can be an idol. It can be your relationships, your friends, your family. Another person can be an idol to you, if that person soaks up your attention and time and leads you away from God.
This brings us to the second thing that I wish I understood sooner. Those who will do you the most harm are not your enemies. Not intentionally your enemies, or not blatantly at least. We think of having enemies, and we imagine them as villains and monsters, just oozing evil from every pore. Certainly there are people like that, people who are unabashedly wicked, and who delight in causing trouble, pain, and strife. Most times, though, you can spot someone like that, and you can avoid them. It is uncommon in this life that you will have to associate for the long term with someone who is actually out to get you. When there is a clash between people because of a disagreement or conflict of personality, it’s usually only a matter of time until one of them leaves the situation.
In the Bible, we read much about enemies, and about interacting with them. The people of Israel had lots of enemies, and David wrote about his various enemies extensively in the Psalms. In the NT, we are given different instructions on how to deal with our enemies. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount Christ told His listeners to love their enemies, which is certainly not our natural and typical course of action.
It’s one thing to be prepared to deal with enemies. It’s another to be prepared to deal with your friends.
Now, you might be thinking about friends who betray you, in one manner or another. And certainly, that can happen, on any number of levels. After all, who was it that killed Julius Caesar, but his friend, Brutus? Who was it that betrayed our Lord, but His disciple Judas Iscariot? David was likewise betrayed by someone close him, I’ll read few verses from Psalm 55. This is a Psalm where David complains of the wickedness around him. Reading from verse 1 Give ear to my prayer, O God; and hide not thyself from my supplication. 2 Attend unto me, and hear me: I mourn in my complaint, and make a noise; 3 Because of the voice of the enemy, because of the oppression of the wicked: for they cast iniquity upon me, and in wrath they hate me. 4 My heart is sore pained within me: and the terrors of death are fallen upon me. 5 Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me, and horror hath overwhelmed me. 6 And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest. 7 Lo, then would I wander far off, and remain in the wilderness. Selah. 8 I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and tempest. 9 Destroy, O Lord, and divide their tongues: for I have seen violence and strife in the city. 10 Day and night they go about it upon the walls thereof: mischief also and sorrow are in the midst of it. 11 Wickedness is in the midst thereof: deceit and guile depart not from her streets. 12 For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: 13 But it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance. 14 We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company.
We don’t know who exactly the Psalmist is speaking of, but his complaint is real. David had many enemies, to be sure, but this one in particular was someone who had been a dear friend. What exactly happened we are not clear on, but whatever took place, it was a deep betrayal. It cuts to the bone when a friend turns against you, because, as David said, if it had been one of his enemies, he could have handled it. You expect your enemies to hurt you. You don’t expect that from your friends.
When I was younger, it’s not that I expected to have a great number of enemies, but I imagined that I might have some. However, while there are people I disagree with, and whom I dislike, and who are no doubt strongly opposed to my beliefs, I don’t have many people I can point to and say that he or she is my enemy. There is no one I’m specifically afraid of that may show up at my front door looking to do me harm. I’m thankful for that, it’s nice not to live in fear. There are many people in this world who do not enjoy that luxury, and the day may come that I do not either, or that followers of Christ in this country in general do not. In the mean time, harm comes from elsewhere.
Harm comes from those we spend our time with. If we look at the very first Psalm, we are warned of evil associations. Psalm 1, verse 1 reads 1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
There is much to be learned from this verse. If one is blessed who does not hang around with those who are ungodly, sinful, or scornful, then what of the person who does walk, stand, or sit with these bad influences? It seems that the opposite will be true.
It’s not that the ungodly went out recruiting; looking for good people to corrupt, but rather that someone who willingly goes and takes counsel from those who do not love God will likely be welcomed there. The world is always willing to take new people, just so long as they fit in well enough.
At work we have had new people who did not really fit in very well. We’ve had new hires that don’t seem to mesh with the rest of the team, and they generally don’t last all that long. They move on after a few weeks or a few months in most cases, and it’s typically better for everyone involved. When someone fits in, however, they’ll likely work with us for years.
The hypothetical man in Psalm 1:1, he does fit in, he progresses from walking, to standing, to sitting. He is comfortable with the world, and the world is comfortable with him. And he does not bring the world up to his level, the psalm does not say that the ungodly will somehow be blessed by a good man’s presence. Rather, the godly man would be blessed by being separate from them.
I am ever so thankful to have long had a number of friends who are believers, who were willing and often eager to come to Bible studies and to discuss spiritual matters. There was a time, however, while I was in school when I spent a lot of time hanging out with other friends, none of whom was remotely interested in things of God. At the same time I worked odd hours, was busy with school, and I did not go to church regularly. I thought I was doing fine, but I was drifting away, for I was walking in the counsel of the ungodly. At the time, though, I did not see it.
I’ve seen that happen to many, many, other people though. People who have heard the truth, and seemed to follow Christ for a while, but who drifted away over time. There are many folks that I grew up with, perhaps went to youth group or Bible studies with, who have departed and gone after the ways of the world. How much were they led astray by associating with people who had no desire to follow God, and how much was due to the slow, casual, but ever-present idolatry that permeates this world, I do not know. I do know that I have seen far more people taken down a wrong path by their supposed friends than I ever have seen destroyed by their blatant enemies.
When you are opposed by foes, you have an opportunity to resist, to fight back. When your friends lead you astray, when they direct you toward harm’s way, you don’t see it coming, and you don’t see a problem until it is far too late, if you ever even notice it at all.
This brings me to the next thing that I wish I had understood sooner. That is don’t trust your own judgement. In the verses we read to start, it says at verse 12 Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. It is one thing to think you are doing just fine, but it’s quite another to actually be on solid ground. It is so easy to go astray, to think that you are doing well, that you are safe and sound and have nothing to worry about. Your judgement, my judgement, however, is inherently flawed. Look at the sins the people of Israel were guilty of as Paul cautioned the Corinthians. Those are all things that they used their own judgement to decide to do, and each one lead to destruction. They were not forced to worship idols, or engage in immoral behaviour, or to murmur and complain, but they did. No doubt they thought these were all acceptable choices given the situation at the time. These things did not seem wrong, but they absolutely were.
There is a way that seems right unto a man, but the ends thereof are the ways of death. We read those words more than once in the book of Proverbs. What you think is right, or is acceptable, may well be wrong. Maybe not wildly wrong, but off the mark. If you are lost in the forest or the dessert or somewhere else where there is no trail to follow, it’s easy to get turned around in a circle. Studies have found that it’s a natural and common result of being lost with no way to navigate. At no point would you consciously plan to walk in a circle, but try as you might to walk in a straight line, sooner or later your course will drift and you will turn, slowly and imperceptibly, and so not travel in the way you had intended.
There is a way that seems right, but the ends thereof are the ways of death. In the book of Judges we can read how in those days there was no king in Israel, every man did that which was right in his own eyes. The rest of the book of Judges reveals just how wrong things went when people did that which they thought was right. The result was chaos, strife, and tremendous suffering.
If you can’t trust you own judgement, where do you turn? To God’s word and to godly counsel. As it says in Psalm 119, verse 9, wherewithal shall a young man cleanse his way? by taking heed thereto according to thy word. That is certainly not limited to the young, or to men, for that matter. The word of God points us and steers us in the way we should go. It will not lead us astray.
If your judgement does not take into account what the Bible teaches, is not shaped by God’s truth, then it inevitably will be flawed. Your way may seem right, but without an accurate and true measurement, you will not know when you have chosen wrong, even when you are trying to do your best. Only by comparing your choices to the scriptures will you be able to make wise decisions, will you be able to know if you have done right or wrong.
The three things that I have said are only a few of the items that I wish I would have understood sooner. There are certainly more, and they have as much value as do these three. But recognizing that idolatry is relevant to us today, that greater harm is not done to us by our enemies, but rather by our friends and those we choose spent our time with, and that we cannot trust our own judgement, those three principles will serve you well indeed. On the other hand, if you ignore them, as I have at times in my life, then you have no right to be surprised when things go poorly. One of my coworkers recently got a speeding ticket. He was driving 130 in an 80 zone. He didn’t expect to encounter the RCMP on the road that day, but he wasn’t exactly surprised when he got the ticket.
Recognizing the dangers of idolatry, false friends, and poor judgement, if you see and remember those, if you are wary of the pitfalls that they bring, I will not say that you will be safe from all trouble, certainly not, but you will avoid much pain, suffering, and regret. I hope you will understand these things sooner than I did.