Well this is the last sermon in our autumn evening series looking at Modern Idols. I hope you've found it interesting.
More than that I hope you've found it personally challenging as we've sought to expose some of the idols that are widespread in our society, and in us.
I hope you've found it helpful as we've tried to show how these idols can enslave our hearts and minds.
I hope too that you've found it encouraging as we've shown how, through Jesus, we have access to much greater blessings than those we seek when we serve these hollow idols.
I hope you've noticed something of the technique we've been using to expose these idols, so that you can keep on examining your own heart in the future for signs of idolatry.
We need to ask what it is that preoccupies us. What do I spend my time thinking about? What do I spend my money on?
We need to ask what it is that functions as our saviour. What can I have that will make everything okay?
And we need to ask what is the controlling factor in our thinking.
What is Lord? What is top priority? It's going to be whatever gives us that saviour.
What preoccupies us?
What is our daily functional saviour?
What takes the top priority as Lord?
And there is one more question we can ask ourselves. When we're starting to suspect that we're idolising something, we can often check by asking, "How would I feel if this thing was taken away?" Or, "How would I feel knowing that I will never have this thing?"
I hope as well that you've noticed that the solution to our problem of idolatry is never just to tone it down a bit. We can't just ease off on our reliance on religion to save us, or ease up on our love of luxury. We can't set our hearts a bit on God and a bit on idols. Idols can only really be addressed by changing them out for something else, making something else our saviour and our Lord.
We're told in Colossians to 'put to death whatever belongs to the earthly nature', and that comes in the context of the command to 'set our hearts and minds on things above', on Christ who is our life. Our lives are tied up with him. He is our Saviour and our Lord, he is the one who satisfies us and fulfils us and restores us. To follow an idol to do satisfy us is to move away from pursuing satisfaction in Jesus.
That by way of recap. Let's talk about equality. I'm going to spend quite a while trying to draw out this idol before we get to the bible to shed its light on the topic.
Is equality really an idol in our society and potentially in us? Let's think through our test questions. Is equality a preoccupation? First-up there's a whole menu of equality flavour options. We've got gender, race, age, sexual orientation, origin, social class, income, religion, convictions, opinions, health or disability and the list goes on.
There are national bodies concerned about equality, like the Equality & Human Rights Commission, which has an annual budget of about £50m, much of which is spent antagonising the Christian Institute, or so it would seem...
Every big company in the country seems to have an Equality and Diversity policy. When I worked in civil engineering, there were clients who made equality a factor in assessing which technical consultants they would work with. That meant you had to have ways of measuring equality and assessing staff views of how fairly they're treated.
Even here at HTG we recently replaced one of our two Henry Hoovers with a Hetty Hoover. Although maybe that's because we didn't like the idea of two Henry Hoovers living together in the cleaning cupboard. Am I even allowed to make that joke in a sermon about equality? Answers on a yellow slip... Equality is a preoccupation.
But what are we trying to achieve with equality? I think it's strongly linked to approval and self-esteem. Perhaps if you missed those sermons you can catch up online. It seems to me that we're desperate to be valued. By valued I mean acknowledged and validated and wanted. Equality is like the outer skin of the idol and the flesh and blood underneath is the desire to be valued.
This idol is Saviour. If only I or my group could be acknowledged and validated and wanted then everything would be okay. When I am not acknowledged and validated and wanted then everything is terrible.
So equality becomes our Lord, our slavemaster. We become slaves to the pursuit of equality because we're desperate to be valued. Let's flesh out some examples.
Women started producing degree-level work at Cambridge University around the 1870s when one lecturer began an event called Lectures for Ladies. Women were allowed into other lectures only at the discretion of the lecturer and examinations were sat by individual arrangement with the examiners. It wasn't until 1948 – about 80 years later – that women were admitted to full membership of the university and it wasn't until the 1980s that the last of the all-male colleges started to admit women.
What about racial equality? John Terry, footballer and married man, had an affair with a team-mate's long-term partner. It came out in the press, everyone was moderately outraged and he was temporarily demoted as England captain. But now that he's alleged to have made racist remarks to an opposition player in a recent match, suddenly the police are involved and just this week they passed details of the case to the Crown Prosecution Service.
Or what about our access to healthcare and education? We hate the so-called 'postcode lotteries' that give us different levels of care and different opportunities depending on where we live. The list goes on.
We see injustice and discrimination and inequality, or we experience these things, and we're desperate to correct them. We want to have a level playing field. We want to be valued and validated and wanted. We want to be counted equal.
The problem is that without any external reference, without God, we're left to fight our own corners. We try to prove our value by our function. I need to be given equal opportunities and allowed to perform the same function because I think my function that determines my value.
So the argument for women's education is that women are just as academically capable as men.
The argument against racial discrimination is that colour makes no difference to talent and ability.
The argument against postcode lotteries is that I deserve just as much of a chance to be successful or healthy as anyone else.
And those arguments are essentially all true and right. And so we're big into equal opportunities. And that's not wrong, but linking value to function is.
Some people take it further. Arguing that one group is just as capable of fulfilling a function as another, they want positive discrimination to redress any imbalance in representation, inequality their way to correct inequality the other way.
Back in 2001 the Police Service of Northern Ireland was made up of 8% Roman Catholic and 92% Protestant or other. There followed a ten year policy that ended in March of this year of recruiting 50% Roman Catholics and 50% Protestant or other, in order to redress the imbalance.
Then there's socialism, which essentially attempts to create and enforce equality in every aspect, and if I'd been preaching this sermon forty years ago I'd have spent more time on this, no doubt quoting extensively from George Orwell, but let's move on.
The basic idea of equality is that I can't have equal value unless I can perform the same function and receive equal recognition. But there are problems with this. Here are two.
1) We're not the same and we can't necessarily perform the same function. That's just a fact. We're different ages and genders and abilities and so on.
Some of us will never be able to do the same things as others. Someone who is blind will probably never become an airline pilot, someone over 50 is never going to win the 100m Olympic Gold medal, and someone who is male will never be pregnant, although it wouldn't surprise me if someone somewhere was working on that. We're not the same and we can't necessarily perform the same function.
2) We're not fair with equality. We don't want to be on the wrong end of a postcode lottery but we're happy to live in a wealthy, opportunity-rich country like Britain. We're rightly shocked and disgusted by the treatment of one unwanted child, Baby P, but we're not so worried about the 180,000 abortions of unwanted children in the UK every year.
You can probably think of more problems than just those two. So when the desperation to be valued, to be acknowledged and validated and wanted, is based on our function, we're in diffs. In fact we're enslaved to fighting our corner or trying to level out the playing field. And this pursuit of equality robs us of something much better. Let's get into the bible, Genesis 1, p3. Let me make three brief points by way of addressing this idol.
We are equally valuable because we're made in God's image.
The fact of equality of value is being restored through Jesus.
Equality of value frees us to embrace distinctiveness.
1 – We are equally valuable because we're made in God's image
Read Genesis 1.26-28
26Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." 27So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."
Five things to notice from theses verses.
First, in v26, we see that God consults. This is pretty strange, not just to our ears, but in the chapter. All the way along we've had "Let there be, let there be," and now, "Let us make". We don't not know with whom he is consulting. But this is a deliberate break with the pattern of creation as we reach the climax, something unlike everything else he has created because it will be like him.
Second we notice that humans are made, created, manufactured, albeit individually. We are objects, made by a greater being. That means two things. First, we are owned and so we're answerable to God. This is generally offensive to people. But secondly, it means that we have meaning, something which most people crave. An object has meaning in fulfilling the function for which it was created. Humans are made.
Third, man is made in our image, in our likeness. This is unique in all creation – no other animal, mineral or vegetable can claim likeness to God. It means that communication between God and us is possible. It means we can think and talk about him meaningfully. Especially it meant that God could become human and still be God, because humanity is like God. The key thing is that the uniqueness and purpose and meaning of human life come from the connection, the relationship with our creator. Our imaging of God doesn't result from our function or our capability, individually or collectively. We are not God – we are creatures. It's not because we can talk or reason, or make fire or tame other animals or because we've got opposing thumbs or a vertical gait or because we write worship songs – we haven't made ourselves like God by our development. We're like God because he made us like him. God appointed us to be like him.
Fourth, God appoints humankind to rule. We are created and commissioned to rule creation. This is another point of imaging God. Like him we are to rule, that is to nurture and steward creation for our prosperity and under his overarching authority.
Fifth, God created man, or humanity, male and female. Both are included in likeness to God. Both together, and only together, comprise humanity. God didn't make two humanities, or two creations, or two appointments, but one humanity comprising different parts, male and female, together ruling the earth, together defining humanity, together reflecting the likeness of God, and only together.
What is all this driving towards? Here's the key: I am not more or less human or more or less equal with other humans because of my function or capabilities or characteristics. I am equally human with you and you with me because we share the likeness of God and because we share in the appointment from God to rule over his creation.
Our value is not from our function. We are not valued more because we are male, or because we are female, or because we are useful or because we are able-bodied or talented or old or young or black or white or whatever. Our value is in our appointment to carry the image of God and to rule, like him and under him, as the only creature to share his likeness. It is an appointment of tremendous privilege and inherent dignity, value and worth, and an appointment we share equally as created beings. We are equally valuable because we are made in God's image.
The sin introduced in Genesis 3 sees us distort the way we think about God and each other. We reject God and with him we reject the idea that he created us, and so we lose our meaning. We lose our equality of value and need to find ways to prove that we're valuable. So we grasp at equality through our function, our usefulness, our capability and fight for acknowledgement and validation. But all is not lost – let's move on.
2 – The fact of equality of value is being restored through Jesus
I apologise for the wordiness. But notice that I'm not saying that equality of value is being restored through gospel. Equality of value before God exists for all people, everywhere, over all time. Rather the fact of it, the promotion of it, the understanding of it, is being restored through the gospel. Let me very briefly cover three ways this works out.
First, in Jesus himself: Jesus is God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, fully God, fully man, the image of invisible God. Yet his role in God is unique and distinct from that of God the Father and God the Spirit. And Philippians says that Jesus, though he was in nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant, obedient even to death on a cross. Different functions within the Godhead, even to the point where Jesus submits in obedience to the Father, and yet there is no oppression or abuse or desire for self-promotion within the three.
Second, in Jesus' kingdom the earthly dividing lines don't apply because there is equality of value before God. Flip over in your bibles to p833 and Col 3. Let's read verses 9-11.
9Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. 11Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
These boundaries just don't apply in the kingdom of God. Forgiveness and new life and transformation and renewal are offered freely to all regardless of any earthly marker and in spite of the total sinfulness of every one of us.
Third, in Jesus' kingdom there will be a multitude of people from every nation, tribe, people and language praising Jesus with what we assume is going to be an infinitely more awesome version of Salvation Belongs to Our God. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela did amazing work for racial equality and race relations, but they've got nothing on Jesus. That's where we're headed.
The fact of equality of value is being restored through Jesus. Last point…
3 – Equality of value frees us to embrace distinctiveness
Jesus' kingdom is made up of people of equal value before God. Equal value, but diverse functions and roles. So down in Colossians 3.18ff wives and husbands take complementary roles, each with accompanying responsibilities. We see the same for parents and children and even for masters and slaves.
We're not to look on our roles with dissatisfaction and demand that we play whatever role we choose.
If my son comes to me and says that today I have to do what he says, that's not going to wash. And that's not because I'm power-hungry. It's because it's my privilege and responsibility to be his dad. That doesn't mean I get to swap roles with my father either. We don't take it in turns with our children as to who is going to exercise parental authority.
Tomorrow morning when the church staff come here, we aren't going to draw straws to see who gets to be the boss for the day.
1 Corinthians 7 says that each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. We're called to be content.
Why is this important? It's important because these differing roles reflect the nature of what Christianity is all about.
At the heart of being Christian is service, in imitation of the selfless service of Christ for us. We are to be like Jesus, the one who selflessly loved us and gave himself for us, even to death. Husbands are to love their wives in the same sacrificial way that Christ loved us.
At the heart of being Christian is also submission—submission to God. Wives are to submit to their husbands as the church does to Christ. It is the profound mystery of the marriage of Christ to his church that we are to imitate in our marriages. Being Christian is the opposite of demanding rights or position, or abusing our authority, for being Christian is being like Christ.
As Christians we are freed to serve in imitation of, and submission to, Jesus, seeking to count others better than ourselves. And we can embrace that calling because we are all equal—valued not for ourselves or what we can do, but first by our creation appointment and then by the infinite worth of Jesus, who died to purchase us for God.
I think there are two main implications for us.
(i) We can truly celebrate diversity because our distinctives don't alter our value.
(ii) The strong have a responsibility to defend the weak. God is concerned, throughout the bible, to defend the weak. The demand for God's people to promote justice is a constant in the Old Testament, and the radical acceptance of the outsider by Jesus is consistent with that. That doesn't mean we want so-called 'positive' discrimination. It means we love our neighbour. We help the vulnerable. We stand up for those who are ignored and downtrodden and exploited.
Some next steps then before we come to questions.
Perhaps you're not a Christian, in which case you're hopefully thinking that some of this all makes sense. Something rings true about you or the world. Maybe most of it seemed like nonsense. Well, stick with us. Grab a free book and come back to our carol services for a clear summary of what Jesus is all about.
It may be that you're a Christian and you feel a long way from comfortable with some of the things I've said and that the Bible says about this and related subjects. It happens that the bible squares up to some of the things we hold dear and true, and it's tremendously unsettling. No-one said that being renewed in knowledge in the image of the Creator was easy. If that's you, let's try to get to the bottom of the problem. Speak to me or to another Christian friend, and pray for wisdom and understanding. But pray too for willingness to submit to the bible once you've got to the bottom of what it says, because the infinite, loving creator God knows best.
Perhaps as we've thought about this topic you've realised that to some extent you've been linking value with function and not with the creation work of God and redemption work of Jesus. Pray for God's help to be renewed into right thinking and into deeper trust of God's goodness.
And let's all ask God to strengthen our resolve to love our neighbour and defend the weak.