Friday, July 30, 2010

When Good Snakes Become Bad Snakes

Shortly after a group of us from North Little Rock First Assembly returned from a trip to Southeast Asia in February 1997, Alton Garrison, our pastor at that time (now Assistant General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God) preached a sermon entitled "When Good Snakes Become Bad Snakes." A couple of months ago, I read the same passages Brother Garrison used in my Bible reading, and decided to write my own messsage, using his title.

This message was delivered on Sunday, June 27, at Centro Cristiano Hispano in Little Rock. It was presented in English and Spanish, but because of technical issues, the MP3 audio did not record properly. My apologies to my Spanish-speaking readers.

Debido a problemos técnicos, el audio de este mensaje no se grabó cuando fue predicado. No he tenido tiempo para escribir la traducción, así que pido disculpas a mis lectores hispano-hablantes.


When Good Snakes Become Bad Snakes

The title of my message this morning is “When Good Snakes Become Bad Snakes.” Now I know what some of you are thinking. You’re saying to yourself, “This brother is crazy. There’s no such thing as a good snake to begin with.” But you must remember, God created all the animals with a purpose, and when He had created them, He saw that they were good. If you talk to a wheat or corn farmer, they’ll tell you there are some snakes they like having around their farm.

You see, farmers have problems with rats and mice trying to eat their corn and wheat they have in the barns. King snakes, corn snakes, and rat snakes help protect the crops by eating the rats and mice. Some snakes, like the speckled king, will even kill other, poisonous snakes, and thus help protect the farmer’s family and other animals. But if these good snakes stop killing rats and mice and start eating the eggs or killing the farmer’s rabbits and chickens, they turn into bad snakes.

Something that started out good and beneficial turns into something bad and damaging.

There’s a story in the Bible about a good snake that became a bad snake. Turn with me to the book of Numbers, chapter 21, verse 4.

4 They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; 5 they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!"

6 Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us." So Moses prayed for the people.

8 The LORD said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

Now turn with me to II Kings 18, verse 1.

1 In the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, Hezekiah son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. 2 He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem twenty-nine years. His mother's name was Abijah daughter of Zechariah. 3 He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father David had done. 4 He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)

Something that had started out as a blessing, as something God had used to set His people free from the venomous serpents, had become an idol, something that enslaved the people of God.

So this morning, I want to talk about the good things God gives us that can become idols. Things that aren’t evil in themselves, but they can turn bad when we make them more important than they should be.

Material possessions

The first area where good snakes can become bad snakes is the most obvious: material possessions. My house, my car, my clothes, my computer, my baseball card collection. Now remember, none of these things are bad in themselves. We all need a house to protect us from the rain, the cold of winter, and the heat of summer. In some larger cities, like New York or Chicago that have massive public transportation systems, a car isn’t that necessary, because the subway or the bus can get you anywhere you need to go. But here in Little Rock, having your own vehicle is a necessity, because public transportation will only get you so far. And everybody needs clothes and shoes, to cover our bodies and protect our feet. A computer is very useful for schoolwork, business, and even recreation. And things like baseball card collections and other hobbies are nice ways to relax in our free time.

But these good things can become idols when we make them more important than God designed them to be. When we spend more time playing computer games or talking to friends on Facebook than we spend thinking about God and praying or reading the Bible, then the computer has become a bad snake. When we have to take a second or third job to make the payments on the new car, and no longer have time to gather with our brothers and sisters to worship the Lord, then that blessing has become a curse.

When we can never be content, when we can never find happiness because we have to have just one more thing, or we have to have the newer model of the iPhone because the one we got just last year is now “old,” or we have to have to get a newer car or a bigger house because our friends now have a better one than ours, then things have become an idol. In fact, in Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5, the Apostle Paul equates greed with idolatry. When we decide that what God has provided for us isn’t enough, but we just have to have a little bit more to be happy, then we are placing things above God, turning our possessions into idols. We have a snake problem.


A second area where good snakes can become bad snakes is the area of people and relationships.

I’ll start off talking to the young people. I know a lot of you want to be in a relationship with someone of the opposite sex. The girls want to have a boyfriend, and the guys want to find a nice girlfriend. But as nice as it is to be in a dating relationship, and as much as God can bless us through that relationship, helping grow as a person in how we deal with others, you have to be careful not to let a good thing become the main thing. If your whole life starts to revolve around the person you’re dating, instead of around God, then you have a snake problem.

Some of the older young people aren’t just looking for someone to date. They’re looking for someone to marry. They’re ready to settle down and start a family. And let me tell you, being married is wonderful. But if you’re looking to marriage to make you happy, watch out. If you say to yourself, “If I can just find the right person and get married, then my life will be complete,” then the idea of marriage has become an idol. You’re expecting another human being to do what only God can do – provide fulfillment and purpose for your life.

Once you finally get married, pretty soon you start feeling the desire to have children. And kids are great. Pardon my bias, but I have the two greatest daughters in the world. I can’t imagine life without them. The Bible says that children are a blessing from the Lord. But even with this tremendous blessing from God, we have to be careful not to let a good gift turn into an idol. We can’t let our children become the center of our universe – that position is reserved for the Almighty God. We can’t take time and resources that should be given to God and spend them on our children.

All of us – children, young people, young adults, older adults, and senior citizens – want people to like us. The person who says he doesn’t care if anyone likes him is a liar. God created us with a desire for friendship and being together. But we can’t let a good thing – friendship, respect, and the admiration of our family, neighbors, and coworkers – turn into the main thing in our lives. If we do, we can easily end up compromising our Christian principles to get people to like us. It may be going out for drinks after work to fit in with our coworkers. It may be going to an R-rated movie with friends so they won’t think we’re “religious.” Or it may be failing to witness to a family member because we don’t want to feel rejected. But any time we hold back from doing what God wants so we can please another person, we’ve made that relationship an idol.

When we depend on another person to give meaning to our life, instead of finding our significance in God, everybody loses. We get let down, because no human being can give us what only God can provide. The other person gets hurt, because we’re putting demands on them that they were never meant to fulfill. And God is robbed of the honor that He deserves, because we’re expecting someone else to do what only God can.

Religious experience/activity

A third area where a good snake can turn into a bad snake is the area of our faith. Yes, there are religious snakes. You may even call them “Christian” idols. And these can be the most dangerous, because they start out as not just something good that God gives us, but something that has to do with God Himself. So we have to be really careful.

Let me give you a few examples of “Christian” idols.

It may be a television preacher, a Christian writer, a teacher in the church, or even the pastor. If we wonder what that teacher or preacher says about a certain topic before we ask what God thinks about it, we may be putting that person’s opinion higher than God’s Word on the matter.

If we allow a prophetic word someone gave to substitute for our relationship with Jesus, or we depend on the words of a prophet to tell us what decision to make, rather than seeking God in prayer for ourselves, then we have made that person an idol. If we rely on the pastor, a spiritual mother or father in the congregation, or anyone else to hear God for us, and don’t seek Him directly, we have a snake problem.

It may be a certain style of music, a certain way of praising God, or a certain type of preaching. If we refuse to join in worship because the music isn’t the kind we like, then we have made an idol out of our preference, and we’re worshiping a music style instead of worshiping God. Or if we judge someone else’s relationship with God because they don’t react like we do, because they don’t jump and dance like we do, then we are saying that our way is the only correct way, elevating the way we like things done to the position of God.

I believe we need to do everything in the church with excellence. God deserves the best, and His people deserve our best effort. But we can even let our desire for excellence become an idol. If we’re thinking more about how the musicians missed a note, or about the misspelled words on the screen, or about how the pulpit isn’t in the exact center of the platform, than we are focusing on worshiping God, then excellence has become a bad snake. I like having everything done with excellence, first class. And I have to confess to you and to God that sometimes I find myself thinking about all the little details that aren’t right when I should be focused on how great God is.

I must stop at this point and congratulate this church on not letting the good thing of being comfortable turn into a bad thing. You don’t mind being squeezed in this sanctuary like sardines. The past few weeks, while we’ve been fighting air conditioning problems during this hottest June in over 10 years, you haven’t let the heat cool down your desire to worship God. You’ve pressed on and entered into God’s presence in spite of the heat and discomfort. I’m proud of you.

Another good snake that can become a bad snake may be an experience we had with God in the past. Maybe God revealed Himself in a certain way. It was a marvelous experience in God’s presence. But if we keep waiting for Him to make us feel the same way we did in a previous encounter with His power, we may be worshiping our experience with Jesus rather than Jesus Himself.

If we’re depending on the correctness of our doctrine for our salvation, instead of relying on the grace of God to save us, we have elevated doctrine -- which in itself is a good thing – to the place of God and made it an idol.

For those of us in leadership, there are some especially dangerous areas. We can let good things, like church growth, become idols. If we preach a softer message in order to get more people in the door, then we have made the good objective of growth more important than the truth God has called us to proclaim, and that good thing becomes a bad thing. Or we can let trying to maintain peace keep us from confronting a situation that needs to be dealt with. We can even let tradition, the way we have always done things, become an idol that keeps us from letting God do something new with us.

Destroying our Idols

So how do we fix this problem? First we have to identify our idols. We can identify our idols by looking at how we spend our time, how we spend our money, and how we react to unanswered prayer.

Saint Augustine said that “Idolatry is worshiping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that ought to be worshiped.” If we’re worshiping God’s gifts, or if we’re just using God for what He can give us, then we have an idol problem.

With all these good things I’ve talked that can become bad things when we let them become the main thing, I’m sure all of us have identified at least one area where we have an idol, or where we’re very close to letting a gift become more important than the One who gave us the gift. So now that we’ve identified our idols, what’s next?

First, we have to repent of our idolatry. We have to come to God and confess that we have let something else take His place.

Then we have to tear down the idol. How do we do that? We get our focus back on God. We spend more time and energy thinking about Him and His holiness and majesty, than thinking about what we can get for ourselves by serving God. We worship Him instead of using Him.

Finally, we have to need to fill the place the idol occupied with the love of Christ. If we take out an idol, even pulling out the roots, and don’t replace it with the love of Christ, it will find a way to grow back.

Call to action

Maybe you’re here today, and you haven’t been worshiping God at all. You’ve been living for yourself. Your own desires have been your god. But today you realize that living for yourself is a dead-end street. You’re ready to let God have the place of honor and authority that He deserves. If you want to surrender your life to God and trust in Jesus Christ to save you from your sins and from yourself, raise your hand.

Or maybe you’re here today, and you’re a Christian, but like the ancient Israelites, you’ve started setting up idols in your life beside your devotion to God. You’ve been depending on possessions or people to do what only God can do. You’ve allowed your sense of worth to be based on what you have or on a relationship you’re in, rather than it being based on Christ’s work on the cross to save you. If you’ve allowed something good that God has given you to become more important to you than the God who gave it, lift your hand.

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