************ Sermon on Hosea 4:13 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 9, 2003
"The Comfortable Pew"
The people of Hosea's time certainly were religious! There was hardly a hill in the land without an altar on it. There was hardly a clump of oak, poplar, and terebinth trees that was not used as a holy place. The blood of animal sacrifice flowed every day and not just once a week.
By way of contrast, America tries to remove Christian religion from public life and public schools and practices freedom from religion instead of freedom of religion. Also by way of contrast, the nations of Europe destroy its altars and tear down its churches to turn them into bank buildings or movie theaters and build entire cities without churches. But Israel was not like America or the European Community. Religion was their national past-time. The number of places where sacrifices were offered and worship services were held grew day by day. The smell of religion and incense was everywhere.
The Israelites of Hosea's day considered themselves to be true sons of Abraham. Like Abraham, their life was marked by altars. Abraham's exact path could later be traced because he erected altars everywhere. That was the mark of Abraham's religious devotion – erecting altars wherever he went: by the great tree of Moreh at Shechem (Gen 12:7); near Bethel and Ai (Gen 12:8); by the great trees of Mamre (Gen 15); on Mount Moriah (Gen 22). The sons of Israel were doing the same thing as Abraham: "They sacrifice on the mountaintops and burn offerings on the hills, under oak, poplar and terebinth ..." (Hosea 4:13).
Hosea does not praise Israel for this. Instead, he criticized their altars. He shook his head and prayed instead of applauded. Why? Shouldn't these people be praised? Aren't they following in the footsteps of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who made altars wherever they went? Aren't they being good and religious?
I Right Practice, Wrong Reason
A We have to make sure we understand Hosea's reasons for criticizing Israel's altars. Nowhere does Hosea indicate that Israel's altars were dedicated to idols. Hosea does not say that Israel's holy places were devoted to Baal. Nowhere does Hosea blame idolatry. On the contrary, it was only the name of the LORD that was being mentioned. It was His praise that was on the lips of the people. Idolatry wasn't the problem; no, not at all.
B We can't even say that the religious services conducted on every hill and under every green tree were unlawful. Though Jerusalem was the site of the Temple, the people were expected to go there for worship only once a year. The rest of the year – like Abraham, Joshua, and Elijah – they were expected to worship at local holy places.
C Hosea had no problems with the altars themselves. He could not fault their religious practices. What he could not agree with was their reason for sacrificing upon hills and under bushes.
Why did Israel burn incense and sacrifice offerings on the mountaintops and under oak, poplar, and terebinth? Was it to serve God? Was it to bow down in adoration before the Maker of heaven and earth? Was it gratitude to the Most High God that led these Israelites to lay down their gifts on the altars? Did they sacrifice because of the guilt of their sin? No, they had quite a different reason, sad to say.
What does Hosea tell us? They sacrifice on the mountaintops and burn offerings on the hills, under oak, poplar and terebinth, "where the shade is pleasant" (Hosea 4:13). Their religion was self-centered. What counted was not God but their comfort zone. What mattered was their own welfare. They worshiped God alright, but only "where the shade is pleasant." They worshiped God alright, just so long as it wasn't inconvenient, uncomfortable, and costly. They worshiped God alright, but only from a comfortable pew.
Israel's worship and Israel's burnt offerings took place "where the shade is pleasant." This tells us all we need to know about the state of Israel's religion. Israel wanted religion without commitment, they wanted sacrifice without dedication, they wanted worship that made no real demands. Theirs was a faith that required no hardship, no personal sacrifice, no cross-bearing. Theirs was a faith that was pleasant and easy. Theirs was a comfortable pew. In a sarcastic poem Wilbur Reese describes the attitude we find in Israel:
Topic: LoveHow much of God do you want?
Subtopic: To God Commanded
Title: $3 Worth of God
I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine.
I don't want enough of him to make me love a black man or pick beets with a migrant.
I want ecstasy, not transformation.
I want the warmth of the womb not a new birth.
I want about a pound of the eternal in a paper sack.
I'd like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
D By way of a few strong statements the prophet Hosea shows us how worldly and self-centered the Israelites' worship had become.
(Hos 4:11-12) "They have deserted the LORD to give themselves to prostitution, to old wine and new, which take away the understanding of my people."In short, their lives are dominated by the pleasures of the flesh. Worship and religious observances have not been abandoned, but before, during, and after the services all their thoughts are focused on the pleasures that await them.
Even worse, the prophet complains: "They consult a wooden idol and are answered by a stick of wood" (Hosea 4:12). Hosea refers to a practice of the heathen Canaanites here. A piece of wood or a stick standing upright is allowed to fall. Some decision about the future would then be made on the basis of the direction in which the stick pointed. The direction of the stick is a clear indication of what should be done. Instead of praying to God and looking to Him and His Word for direction, the Israelites look to a falling stick. If they were alive today, they would look to a psychic, astrologer, or new age channeler for direction on the future.
According to Hosea, a people that is so self-indulgent and self-centered in worship have daughters and daughters-in-law that engage in prostitution and adultery (cf vs 13 & 14). The young are not being worse than their parents; they are simply being more open and more honest about their sin. Unlike their parents, they are not hiding their sin behind religion and sacrifice and worship.
Hosea sums up the whole tragedy by saying: "A people without understanding will come to ruin" (vs 14)! Hosea is not talking about intellect, learning, and rational thought. Rather, he is talking about an understanding of God's Word. In spite of all their worship, the Israelites have no concept of dedication, commitment, or service. Theirs is a comfortable pew.
II Our Comfortable Pew
A On this Lord's Supper Sunday I want to warn you, my brothers and sisters, against religion without commitment, the giving of offerings without dedication, worship that makes no real demands. I want to warn you about a faith that requires no hardship, no personal sacrifice, no cross-bearing. I want to warn you against a faith that is pleasant and easy. I want to warn you about the comfortable pew.
Everyone sitting in front of me looks so nice and religious. You sing songs, you give gifts, you listen to the sermon, you offer prayers, but do you mean it? Is it from the heart? Is it real? Are you here for the Lord or are you here for some other reason? Is your body here while your mind is miles away? Is faith and religion something you do because it leaves you feeling good and warm inside? Has it become something you wrap yourself in like a garment – old and comfortable and traditional? Is it merely part of your routine?
Many Christians today want a comfortable religion that requires no commitments, calls for no self sacrifices, and makes no demands. They want a religion that does not intrude upon the business of life. They want pastors who preach love, joy, peace; pastors who never step on their toes in sermons; pastors who don't condemn their sins too loudly; pastors who leave them feeling good and NOT feeling guilty. They want a religion that lets them sit back in a comfortable pew. Like the Israelites, these Christians don't want the whole thing – they only want $3 worth of God; they want just enough so they can say they have religion in their life.
Modern theologians have identified lots of weaknesses in the American church:
-Interest in missions? Only casual.
-A spirit of sacrifice? Not much.
-A willingness to serve? Only if convenient. In fact, when it comes to churches and other organizations we have what is known as the 80/20 rule: 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people.
-A burden for a lost world? Not really.
They may not use the phrase, but they are saying American religion has become a comfortable pew.
B What does Jesus say? Listen to these passages from the New Testament:
(Mk 8:34) Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
(Lk 14:26-27) "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters--yes, even his own life--he cannot be my disciple. (27) And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
(Lk 21:12,17) "But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name ... (17) All men will hate you because of me.
Jesus never told us that the Christian life is a comfortable pew. He never told us it is a walk through the park. He never told us it is the shade of big oak trees on a hot summer day. Rather, He told us it is like a football game or a roller-derby. You can expect to be knocked down. You have to fight and struggle. You can expect trouble and persecution. I don't know who is the author, but someone once wrote that "Faith that costs nothing, accomplishes nothing." A comfortable pew is a whitewashed tomb – a place for dead saints.
C On this Lord's Supper Sunday God tells us He does not want us to have a faith that looks for a shade tree or a comfortable pew. He tells us to have a faith that challenges us, that costs us, that requires sacrifice and dedication and commitment. What does this faith look like? What does religion that is real and pure and faultless look like?
Topic: CommitmentLivingstone didn't want those who looked for the comfortable pew.
Title: Livingstone on Commitment
There is a story to the effect that a certain society in South Africa once wrote to David Livingstone, "Have you found a good road to where you are? If so, we want to send other men to join you."
Livingstone replied, "If you have men who will come ONLY if they know there is a good road, I don't want them."
Those with true religion have one holy passion – God. Those with true religion live for God – regardless of the cost. The cost might be family, friends, job, career, or even life. I received a letter from The Bible League a number of years ago. It told the story of a Pastor Li in China:
Pastor Li stood in front of the chopping block, a Communist guard on each side of him. He trembled as they placed his right hand on the block and spread his fingers wide. Pastor Li, I hope you realize, does not have a comfortable pew.
The officer in front of him ran his finger along the blade of the cleaver he was holding. Without lifting his eyes from it, he asked Pastor Li, "Will you stop preaching the name of Jesus?"
"No, I will not," answered Li. And he closed his eyes. The cleaver flashed down and he lost his right thumb.
Five times he was asked to deny Christ. Five times he refused. Five times the cleaver flashed down. Left with nothing but a bleeding stump of a palm and no fingers, he was set free. Today he is still preaching the Gospel. Conservative estimates say he has led thousands of people to Christ.
Those with true religion are sacrificial givers. They don't ask, "How much am I going to give to the church?" Rather, they ask, "How much am I going to keep for myself?"
Those with true religion are filled with a burning desire to tell others about the Lord.
Topic: Apostleship of PaulCan you say something like that: "I am a witness for Jesus Christ, but I teach, farm, dairy, work in a factory, nurse in a hospital, drive truck to pay expenses"?
A generation ago there was a wealthy man in the midwest who was an outstanding Christian. People used to ask him what he did for a living. He would reply, "I am a witness for Jesus Christ, but I pack pork to pay expenses."
Those with true religion are active in the work of the church and kingdom. They don't sit back and let others do all the work. This gets us back to the 80/20 rule – it should be a 100/100 rule in which 100% of the work is done by 100% of the people.
Those with true religion go out of their way to show love and compassion.
A hospital visitor saw a nurse tending to the sores of a leprosy patient, and said, "I'd never do that for a million dollars!" The nurse answered, "Neither would I. But for Jesus I do it for nothing."
Those with true religion don't sit on a comfortable pew and vegetate. Theirs is not a religion that requires no commitment, no dedication, no sacrifice.
On this Lord's Supper Sunday I want to ask you: do you sit on a comfortable pew? Are you satisfied with $3 worth of God, or do you have the real thing?
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