Saturday, January 24, 2015

Fake Religion

SCRIPTURE: Jeremiah 7:1-8
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date:January 24th, 2015.
1This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2“Stand at the gate of the Lord’s house and there proclaim this message: “ ‘Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah who come through these gates to worship the Lord. 3This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. 4Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!5If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, 6if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, 7then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. 8But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless." (Jeremiah 7:1-8)

Key Question: What looks and feels good but is really not good?

This week, I read about the story of a bank in the Eastern part of China that was just opened a year ago with more than 200 customers. Promising 2% interest rates every week, it attracted many small businesses from ZheJiang province to open accounts at this new bank. Called the “Nanjing Mou Village Economic Cooperation Unit,” this bank has a beautifully designed location with fully uniformed bank tellers. There are official letterheads and deposit envelopes with a logo and all. One customer even deposited 200 million RMB with them. But there was one problem. The bank was fake. After one year, no one suspected the problem until one businessman who had deposited $2 million, saw the interest credited to his account and tried to withdraw the money. He couldn’t. He complained. The bank shut down. Police arrested five persons. In total, more than 32 million dollars were swindled out of ordinary people. This is the first time I read about fake financial institution that looks real on the outside but totally fake on the inside. Five people were arrested, but for the 200 customers, many may never recover their hard earned money.

I have read of fake Gucci-s, fake Lacostes, fake Rolexes, fake DVDs, and even fake milk powder in China. There are fake Apple, Ikea stores too and other imitation shops with electronic products that look real but are absolutely false. If one were to travel to Shenzhen for example, it is quite easy to locate stores that make imitation goods. It is not easy to find real stuff with real names on them. People have told me that anyone wanted to buy the real stuff will need to buy them outside China.

Falsehood and deceptions. They look and feel good on the outside and nothing much more.

A) Looking Good on the Outside

Fake goods have one thing in common. They look good, feel good, but are not necessarily good. Such is the spiritual climate of Judah in the 6th Century BC. With the discovery of the Torah by Hilkiah, the father of Jeremiah, the whole nation was wrapped up in some spiritual renewal where people were excited about religion all over again. In 2 Chronicles 34, it was Hilkiah the priest who found the Book of the Law and got Josiah to trigger activities of spiritual renewal. With heightened interest in the Law all over again, and with King Josiah's blessings and orders to renew the covenant on behalf of the people, people were coming to the temple in droves. Call it a genuine spiritual revival or a religious fad, the number of people entering the temple to worship God rose significantly. Metaphorically, it had become impossible to tell the sheep from the goats. Many people entered the temple with their own agenda. Some entered with intentions and actions that looked and felt good on the outside, but absolutely empty and corrupt on the inside. They can deceive their own mothers and fathers. They can trick their own peers and superiors. They can even mislead their own spouses and family, but not God. With laser-sharp penetration and super X-ray vision, God saw and knew what was happening exactly inside the hearts of these worshipers.

God had already seen the people of Judah from the inside out. He is not deceived by the religious rituals and practices that are done half-heartedly or falsely.  The repetition of the words "Temple of the LORD" in Jer 7:4 sounds like a broken recorder. The way the LORD tells Jeremiah to stand at the very gate of the temple to speak the Word is very telling. Why not ask Jeremiah to go speak from the podium inside the temple? Why not wait until the people are gathered and the prophet can deliver his sermon to worshipers inside? Why stand on the outside at the gates of the temple where even passersby can hear? Is it because the people inside the temple are no longer as different as the people outside the temple? I suspect that the problem has become so bad that Jeremiah has a message essential for all, not just inside the temple.

While the people of Judah openly tells the public that they are pious and religiously declaring their worship to God, the LORD chooses to tell all that such worship is no worship at all. No religion is better than false religion. Jeremiah was given the tough job to do. According to the 19th Century preacher, R. L. Whiteside, Jeremiah is not for the squeamish, the meek, or the fearful. It is for those who have lost all sense of discernment between truth and falsehood. He says in "The Kingdom of Promise and Prophecy" with passion:

"If you become a little squeamish about denouncing false teachers, read Jeremiah. If you think people are so hardened in sin that they hate you for preaching the word, read Jeremiah. A careful study of Jeremiah is good tonic for anyone."

If the message is for the people to hear, imagine how Jeremiah must have felt simply standing there proclaiming the truth of God.

B) Effects of Looking Good Outside but Not Inside

What's wrong with making things look good on the outside? Jeremiah furnishes more details.
  • Deal with each other justly (v5b)
  • Do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow (v6a)
  • Do not shed innocent blood (v6b)
  • Do not follow other gods (v6c)
  • Do not trust in deceptive words (v8)
  • Do not steal or murder (v9)
  • Do not commit adultery and perjury (v10)
  • Do not follow after other gods 
  • Do not say "we are safe" when in fact, they are not.
These are the consequences of false religion that is full of teachings which parades falsehood over truth. The last warning is perhaps the biggest clue to why God is so angry. The people then were thinking that all their actions and deeds can be neutralized simply because they are in the temple as if the temple has a magical way of cleansing them from their wrongs. Verse 10 reminds us exactly why God is angry.

"Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD." (Jeremiah 7:11)

This phrase was referred to by Jesus when he angrily overturned the merchants' table at the temple courts (Matt 21:13). When the works of man tarnishes the image of God and leads more people to do the same, God will be angry. When the merchants at the temple in Jerusalem prefer to conduct commercial transactions instead of worship and reverence for the Holy Place, something is terribly wrong.

C) Punishment and the Pain

There is but one solution to the spiritual mess. God needs to take action. He declares that He will banish the people of Judah from His Presence (v15). He will pour out His wrath on His own people (v20). He tells Jeremiah to refrain from praying or pleading for the people (v16). As a pastor, I find the order to stop praying for people very difficult. For I believe that one of the best expressions of love in a spiritual family is prayer. The moment one stops praying, one stops relating spiritually. The moment a pastor stops praying, his caring ministry will very much grind to a screeching halt. That is why I feel that this order to stop praying is not only a punishment for the people of Judah, it is also extremely painful for Jeremiah the prophet.

I like to take another angle on this. Rather than to see it as a harsh and insensitive instruction from God to the people, perhaps modern readers ought to see this directive from God as a serious consequence of what falsehood and deceptions lead to. Sin manifests itself in many places and different faces. In this case, the most serious how the people of Judah masquerade their evil desires under the cloak of a Holy God. Betrayal and disloyalty will destroy any relationships. Impersonating evil under the guise of good will make God angry.

Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin were overnight stars after their book, "Three Cups of Tea" were published back in 2006. Their book highlights how they have single handedly built schools for more than 64000 children in the remote mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Taliban territory. The title of the book as taken by a native resident who told Mortensen: "The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family..." The book won many awards and received lots of donations to the organization set up by Mortensen and Relin. All of a sudden, Mortensen and Relin became popular, highly sought after by the press, and very rich. One donor called Jon Krakauer was so impressed that he personally made donations and visited the schools mentioned in the book. Unfortunately, Krakauer uncovered many details which are false and many instances of financial mismanagement. The co-author, David Oliver Relin of "Three Cups of Tea," took his own life when he could not handle the negative press.

"Three Cups of Tea" looked good on the outside but contained many fictitious details on the inside. According to Krakauer who published a book called "Three Cups of Deceit," Mortensen said he was kidnapped by the Taliban even when he was not. The organization Mortensen founded even channeled $1.7 million meant for building schools for the children into promoting his book. Mortensen eventually resigned from the board of CAI.

I think the bigger problem is not Mortensen and Relin masquerading lies in a book that is claimed to be truthful. The bigger problem is the public who willingly took in information lock, stock, and barrel so quickly. I even bought "Three Cups of Tea" at Costco!

In Jeremiah, God knew the problem straightaway. If falsehood and deceptions are not stopped, things are going to get worse.

D) How then can we be real?

For Jeremiah, the best way for him to express his pain is to cry out to God. Even though he cannot intercede for the people, he can still pour himself out before God. Like Jeremiah who stood at the gate of the temple prophesying God's truth, we look to Jesus who declares: "I Am the Gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture." (John 10:9).

The way to truth is via Jesus who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the Gate where we enter through. Destroy the temple and on the third day, God will raise the temple up in Jesus. For Jesus stands in our midst, and shows us what is truth. Jesus may not look good after the lashes inflicted on his flesh. He may not make us feel good with his warnings and hard teachings. But He certainly is good. In fact, he is more than that. He is Holy. He is God. We be real when we let Christ in our hearts and let Christ shines through us.

THOUGHT: The way to self-knowledge is not to see ourselves as the world sees us. Neither do we see solely from our own personal perspectives. The path to true self-knowledge is to see ourselves the way God sees.


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