God established worship: an encounter with his people mediated through the tabernacle. The tabernacle safeguarded the presence of God: the personal, active God was invisible. With the golden calf, there was accessibility to a visible god who was an impersonal object.[vi] In true worship, we encounter the holy, the awesome. In idolatry, we encounter the domesticated, the manageable. There is a stark contrast between true worship and idolatry.
Are you an idolater? I already lost you, didn’t I? Most wouldn’t raise their hand to affirm their idolatry.
Idolatry doesn’t preach well to us 21st-century Westerners. A couple of years ago, I had someone leave the church after I preached on idolatry. “You preached for most of your sermon on the Old Testament, the law against Idolatry, and how might we be guilty of idolatry today,” she reflected. She said that the sermon didn’t connect with her and didn’t offer “spiritual encouragement.”
Oh, friends, the dangers we face when we think that biblical passages on idolatry don’t apply to us! When God calls us, God calls us to leave our idols to follow him.
There is no room in our hearts for idolatry and following the one true God. That is such a significant theme that it has been said that “The central… principle of the [Old Testament is] the rejection of idolatry.”[i]
And yet idolatry seems as though it doesn’t apply to us today. Do you have a golden calf in your home? Do you start your mornings off at the local altar?
But idolatry is no mere ancient practice. It is the default function of the human heart. Our gods have gotten modern make-overs, but they are the same gods they always were: beauty, power, money, achievement, satisfaction, comfort, security, love, independence, happiness, respect. These things are good in and of themselves, but they are not meant to be worshiped. They are gifts from the Giver. And yet we worship them rather than him.
As Bob Dylan famously said, “you’ve got to serve somebody.” We all serve somebody or something. Or, as 16th century pastor John Calvin said, our hearts are “a perpetual factory of idols.”[ii] We are made for worship.
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By Stephane Simonnin — 1 year ago
On the other hand, we should not focus on death when it is close but rather should focus on Christ. This is because a large part of the terror of death comes from the awareness of our sins and our guilt before God. The unbeliever has no alternative but to hope that there is no God on the other side to judge him. The Christian, though, has a different kind of certainty, and he can focus on Christ rather than on his sin.
A few years ago, I received this unexpected request from one of my church members with multiple sclerosis: “When you have time, could you please do a Bible study on how to prepare for death?” This person knew that her condition was incurable and, although death still seemed a fairly long way off, she was anxious to receive advice on how to face it. I was taken aback by that request, but I should not have been. This was a very sensible idea. Why wouldn’t every church member be interested in such a Bible study? Yet, I could not remember the last time I preached or heard a sermon on that topic. The Bible is very upfront about the reality of death but also very clear that it is possible to die well. It is perhaps significant that one of the best-known Hebrew words in the Old Testament, the word shalom, which we associate with peace and well-being, first appears in the context of death (Gen. 15:15). Knowing how we may die “in peace” should be an important concern for us all.
As I reflected on this, I was struck again about how common that theme was in Christian sermons and devotional literature until about two hundred years ago. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, decisive breakthroughs in medical research, such as the discovery of germs and anesthetics, made death and pain feel more distant. For the first time in history, being healthy became the norm and being ill the exception. For most people in history, death was an ever-present companion. John Calvin, for example, gives a vivid description of how precarious life felt in his time:
Innumerable are the ills which beset human life, and present death in as many different forms. Not to go beyond ourselves, since the body is a receptacle, even the nurse, of a thousand diseases, a man cannot move without carrying along with him many forms of destruction. . . . Then, in what direction soever you turn, all surrounding objects not only may do harm, but almost openly threaten and seem to present immediate death. Go on board a ship, you are but a plank’s breadth from death. Mount a horse, the stumbling of a foot endangers your life. Walk along the streets, every tile upon the roofs is a source of danger . . . I say nothing of poison, treachery, robbery, some of which beset us at home, others follow us abroad.1
It is therefore not surprising that Christians felt the need to be trained in the ars moriendi (art of dying). In fact, the idea that the whole of life is a preparation to die was commonplace. As events in the world sometimes bring death considerably closer to us, I believe it is urgent for the church to recover the Christian ars moriendi. What we need in particular is not so much rehearsing general theological truths about death but precisely what that church member asked me: some practical advice on how to prepare ourselves for it. The Protestant Reformers and seventeenth-century Puritans can help us with this because they knew how to face death and how to think about it in concrete terms. They wrote a great deal on the topic but, for the sake of brevity, I will focus on Martin Luther, whose teaching on the matter sums up the Protestant ars moriendi.2
Luther’s view of the Christian life is attractive because of its concrete character. Luther was not simply a theologian of more abstract concepts such as justification but a pastor who preached and wrote to human beings of flesh and blood facing much hardship and who were never far away from death. Luther himself, like his contemporaries, did not expect to live for very long, and he thought he would soon die from illness or martyrdom. It is therefore not surprising that he preached and wrote about death throughout his life. As early as 1519, when he was only thirty-six, he wrote a series of exhortations for his sovereign, Elector Frederick the Wise, who was seriously ill.3 In that same year, he preached a famous sermon on preparing to die, and he no doubt preached many times on the subject. Practical considerations about dying are spread through his writings. We also have fairly precise information about Luther’s last days and his own death that allows us to know that he put into practice what he preached.
Luther can help us because he teaches us how to think properly about death both throughout our lives and when it is near. His insights can be summed up under four headings.
BE CONFIDENT BUT REALISTIC
First, Luther recognizes that death is frightening even for Christians. He is not so foolish as to believe that the fear of death can be neutralized by stoic fortitude, as certain atheists try to convince themselves. This is a conviction that is often found in his writings. For example, in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 15 preached on October 6, 1532, he says: “The heathens have wisely said ‘he is a fool who is afraid of death, for through such fear he loses his own life.’ This would be true if only a man could act on the advice. . . . They advise that nothing is better than simply cast all such fear aside, to rid the mind of it and to think: why worry about it? When we are dead, we are dead. That is certainly disposing of the matter in short order and completely extinguishing God’s wrath, hell and damnation!”4
Or again, in one of his table talks: “I do not like to see people glad to die. . . . Great saints do not like to die. The fear of death is natural, for death is a penalty; therefore, it is something sad. According to the spirit one gladly dies; but according to the flesh, it is said ‘another shall carry you where you would not.’ ”5
Yet, because Christ defeated death, Luther also knows that the death of a Christian is fundamentally different. As he says to Frederick the Wise in one of his fourteen consolations: “The death of a Christian is to be looked upon as the brazen serpent of Moses. It does have the appearance of a serpent; but it is entirely without life, without motion, without poison, without sting. . . . We do resemble those who die, and the outward appearance of our death is not different from that of others. But the thing itself is different nevertheless because for us death is dead.”6
This is why the Christian is able to prepare for death in a meaningful way. However, this preparation should take place throughout the whole of life, and this leads to Luther’s next insight.
THINK OF DEATH AT THE RIGHT TIME
This is perhaps the most insightful piece of advice and the most challenging for us today. The issue is not simply how to think about death but when. Luther’s oft-repeated advice is that we should familiarize ourselves with death while we are still healthy, while death itself still seems far away. Conversely, we should not stare at death when it is near us but rather focus on Christ. Now it is clear that most people today—sadly, including many Christians—do precisely the opposite. They studiously ignore death while healthy and are caught unprepared when it comes.
On the contrary, Luther understood that spiritual growth is a slow process that takes a lifetime and that facing death is something that has to be learned. This is why he encourages us to think often of our own mortality, to reflect on its cause and consequences and on its ultimate outcome for the Christian—the resurrection of the body. One interesting suggestion on how to do that is to meditate on our own death and when we pass cemeteries.
John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, 1.17.10. ↩︎
Throughout this article I refer to the Weimar edition of Martin Luther’s complete works (Weimar Ausgabe or WA). The “Fourteen Consolations” and the famous sermon on preparing to die referred to below are also available in the American edition of Luther’s Works (Concordia Publishing House), vol. 42. ↩︎
“Fourteen Consolations for Them That Are Laboured and Laden” (1519). ↩︎
WA 36, 539. ↩︎
WA 408. ↩︎
WA 118. ↩︎
By Craig Thompson — 1 year ago
Analog requires effort. You have to put some effort into it, but you can expect the outcome to be proportional. Do you invest love, time, and joy? Guess what you will get?
I built a fire with my eight-year-old son this week. He helped me gather the firewood. We stacked it together. He lit the fat lighter and watched it slowly ignite. An hour later, as we prepared dinner, the fire died because we had not tended it. I helped him place another piece of fat lighter among the hot coals and rearrange some wood and told him to wait.
He reached for the lighter, but I took it from him and told him to wait. He complained. “But, nothing is happening.” I told him to wait.
He sat close to the fire on the hearth and watched, exasperated. It was obvious to him that I was dumb and had sent him on a fool’s errand. Until, from the kitchen I heard, “It started again!”
My eight year old is all boy and he learns primarily through experience (a trait that terrifies me, most of the time). If I had turned on the TV for Sloan, I could have built a fire in peace and quiet. He would have appreciated the warmth, but he would have paid little notice to the process. But, when he participated in gathering wood and building the fire, this particular fire became his fire. He learned that a small spark can grow into a warm fire. He learned that hot coals can be brought back to life. He learned (I hope) that daddy knows what he’s talking about when he says “wait.” He learned because he experienced.
Increasingly as a parent (and pastor), I am convinced that families need to emphasize analog experiences. In the digital age, our kids need to feel hugs, experience personal connections, eat real food, take their own photographs, get splinters, skin their knees, and feel the pages of a Bible or book as they read it to themself or out loud. They need to stand with their parents and marvel at God’s glory in a sunset or even hold hands and cry at a funeral.
By Campbell Markham — 7 months ago
Are you standing on the firm and dry ground, the rock of salvation Jesus Christ? Jesus rescues us from disobedience and death, to obedience and life—abundant life! When he made vintage wedding wine he made a lot of it! (John 2:6). When he fed the five thousand with loaves and fishes, there were twelve baskets of leftovers (John 6:13). “He satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things!” (Ps. 107:9). And look at the home that Jesus is preparing for us. The New Heaven and Earth, a place of unceasing abundance and life.
Have you ever noticed how sad people look in cafés? There we are with our hot coffee and a table heaving with Eggs Benedict, warm croissants, and smashed avocado on toast. And though we feast on foods that most will only ever see in a picture, we seem unhappy. Why so?
We are unhappy because though our stomachs are full of delicacies, our hearts are empty and our spirits are parched. We don’t know our Creator. We don’t know why we exist. God pours out love-gifts of sun and breath, food and family, and we don’t see him. We are dying, and we don’t want our lives to end. We don’t know where we are going, nor how to get there.
This must have been how the first readers of Genesis felt: Israel was enslaved and dying in Egypt at the hand of cruel and genocidal Pharaoh. The six days of Genesis 1 showed them God, who he is, and what he is about to do for them—and for all his people in the millennia ahead.
Creation began as a lightless, lifeless, formless, and watery chaos (Gen. 1:1-2). Then we see God laboring on this raw material over six days to make it habitable for humankind. Humanity needs light, and so on Day One God floodlit the blackness. Humanity needs air, and so on Day Two he created the sky—a “vault” where humanity could breathe and live.
But human beings cannot live on water alone.
Even to travel across it, or to build above or on it, we need the hard materials that only dry land can provide. And when you read about the sailors of centuries past, after six months at sea even the most hardened sea dogs crave to see vegetation and to feel the coarse sand between their toes. We need the land and all that it produces for us. Our feet crave terra firma. And this is what God does on Day Three:
And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. (Gen. 1:9-13)
Note again the sheer power of God. God speaks, the waters gather, dry ground appears. By naming the ground and gathered waters he proves ownership and determines purpose.