Following the sad news on Friday morning of Prince Philip’s death (just weeks from his 100th birthday), the weekend TV schedule was almost entirely scrapped and filled instead with some really lovely tributes to him. Those who knew him best seem unanimous in their praise for his humble support to the Queen herself, his support for various charities, and his keen interest in inspiring and enabling young people through the “Duke of Edinburgh” award scheme.
As thoughts now turn to the covid-safe funeral arrangements, and the much debated guest list, it is easy to forget the Queen herself is now a grieving widower. After 73 years of married life, and dutiful support, this must be a very difficult time indeed.
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
1 TIMOTHY 2.1-4
In amongst the various tributes to Prince Philip was the strange story of his deep connection with a tribal community in the Pacific Ocean – a world away from the pomp and circumstance of palace life.
On the Southern Island of Tanna in Vanutua there exists this cult: The Prince Philip Movement, which began somewhere back in the 1950s. There was an ancient legend that the son of a mountain spirit actually travelled to a distant land over the seas. He made a home there, and married a wealthy and powerful woman. They also taught that he would one day return to them.
Somehow, over the years, they identified the Queen as this “powerful woman” and believed Prince Philip to be this son of a mountain spirit. The royal family apparently knew none of this when they planned to visit the island in 1974, but this visit further reinforced the idea that this god has returned to them.
And so – as bizarre as it seems – on a remote island half a world away, the Yaohnanen people actually believe Prince Philip to be divine and worship him at a shrine which includes photographs of him from his visit, and of him posing with a club they donated to him.
Now, of course, to us in the Western world, this all sounds very strange and primitive… something we’d never fall for… right?
In the Book of Acts, Luke recounts the time when the Apostle Paul, and his missionary partner Barnabus were offered similar treatment. In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabus reach Lystra (an ancient city now in modern day Turkey). While preaching to a crowd, Paul speaks healing in Jesus’ Name over a man who had been lame from birth. The man is instantly healed, and in a double miracle, he is also instantly able to walk (a learnt behaviour!).
The crowd are absolutely blown away by this miracle, and the thought occurs to someone in the crowd that “the gods have come down to us in human form!” (Acts 14.11)… this idea becomes a whisper, this whisper becomes a shout, and this shout begins to spread… soon Paul and Barnabus are being seen as Hermes and Zeus(!), and the Priest of Zeus is dragging out bulls and wreaths out of the temple for the people to sacrifice to them.
Of course, Paul and Barnabus do all they can to try and convince this crowd not to worship them!
Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the Living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.
These stories would be comical if they didn’t illustrate the tragic way in which we often direct our worship in the wrong places.
As human beings, we were created to know God’s love and to love Him in return – we are hardwired to worship… it’s something we simply need to do. but without the knowledge of God we give our worship to the wrong things, the wrong places, and even the wrong people. The Bible’s word for this is idolatry.
In Tim Keller’s book, Counterfeit gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters, he defines an idol as:
It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give…
An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, “If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I ‘ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.” There are many ways to describe that kind of relationship to something, but perhaps the best one is worship.
The truth is that, as curious or concerning as we view the Cult of Prince Philip, we all have this tendency to turn our hearts towards ‘counterfeit gods’; to look to things to give us that “meaning… value… significance… and security” that we should only receive from God Himself.
In a day and age when we claim not to be religious – the reality is that the trappings of worship are all around us. We absolutely idolize youth, beauty, charm, wealth, status, choice… You’ve only to read of the actress who recently reported that on the eve of her 40th birthday she stopped getting offered leading lady roles, to see how something as simple as someone’s age can totally change how we perceive that person’s worth and ability.
All that glitters isn’t God…
It’s easy to think that our education, or our faith, can inoculate us from falling prey to idolatry… but that’s just not true. If something came to us and described itself as an idol and demanded our attention, affection and awe, we would run a mile… and so they come in disguise, as something worthy of more attention, affection and awe.
Remember that it was just the other side of the Red Sea, where the Israelites had witnessed firsthand God’s power and sovereignty in the ten plagues, and the parting of the ocean, that at the foot of the mountain they built golden calves and began to worship them.
So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool.
Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
Idolatry… that idea that becomes a whisper that becomes a habit that becomes worship, can spread through any camp… it can happen to anyone. There is still no immunity to Sacred Cow Disease within the church even today.
At a recent church leaders meeting, we were challenged by the speaker whether: “loving the church” might be hidden way in which even ministry itself might become idolized. I find it fascinating that we are never called to love worshipping… but to love god. Worship springs out of our love for Him not our love for whatever form that worship might take.
Jesus Himself once said:
This people honours me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me.
For Jesus, mere lip-service (however eloquent or elaborate) was completely pointless – if our hearts are not in it, our worship is in vain.
John Piper defines worship as:
True worship is a valuing or a treasuring of God above all things…
Or you could use words like treasuring or prizing God or delighting in God or reverencing God or being satisfied with God. All of these inner responses to God reflect His infinite worth and beauty.
That is what worship was designed to do: put the supreme worth of God on display.
JOHN PIPER (DESIRING GOD)
So, how do we spot when things, maybe even good things become ‘god-things’ (idols) in our lives?
Over this past year, many of the forms of worship that we have grown used to have been completely disrupted. As painful as that has been, it perhaps provides us with a unique opportunity to ask: what, or who, do we really worship? Let’s ask ourselves, what am I really missing, what am I not missing… and why?
I remember hearing a prayer used in a covenant renewal service, and finding it deeply challenging:
I am no longer my own, but Yours.
Put me to what You will, rank me with whom You will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for You, or laid aside for You
exalted for You, or brought low for You;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours.
So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.
METHODIST PRAYER BOOK (1999)
Incredible words. Incredible challenge. In offering our lives to God, we perhaps don’t consider the possibility that we might be “employed… or laid aside” for God. The human part of us (that wants that special place, recognition, authority) wars against this, but if we are really serving God’s plan and God’s glory it’s something we should be willing for.
Maybe one place to start in spotting the counterfeit and routing out the hidden idols in our lives is to ask: what couldn’t we lay down if God asked us to? What do we prize more highly than Him?
Is there a prince in our lives who has crept in and rivals God’s place on the throne of our attention, our affection and our awe?
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