The Big 10: Genie in a Bottle

I’m not terribly good at it, but I love doing magic tricks.magician I love seeing kids’ eyes get big when you do something that utterly amazes them. All over the world, people are fascinated with magic and magicians. From Harry Houdini to Criss Angel, we desire to see them do the impossible.

Why do we love magic so much? Magic brings with it the idea of power and control. Somebody able to do something that nobody else can do. There’s something about magic that delights us because we like seeing people do something that nobody else can do.

The 2nd commandment is about finding that mystical power that controls the universe – that controls our lives. You see-real magic is about power. It’s about controlling the world. It’s about becoming a god. I mean people who really dabble in magic. It’s about controlling the universe.

God starts off by saying, “I am the Lord your God”. Now he continues:

2. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

There’s a lot of debate on what it means to make an image. Some traditions say no statues, no art work, no image of any kind. God says, “No images” and that’s it. Other traditions say, “Jesus on the cross is not an idol!” So what are we really talking about?

It really comes down to power and control. When the ancients made idols they would make it whatever image represented their God. They had an understanding that the idol wasn’t just an object, but that the idol was actually the resting place of that god. When the idol was sitting in the sanctuary the god was literally present in the idol. It became a home for the god.

In the ancient world in times of war, when nation would come against nation, they would go to the enemy’s temple and try to steal their gods. They thought, “If we can capture their god and bring him back to our land then we have their power and control. Their god is under our possession.”

Who controls the universe? Who controls the world? God is saying – don’t act this way with YAHWEH. God will not be contained in a box! You cannot control Me! You cannot build a statue of me and expect that to be my home. I am bigger than anything you puny little people can build! You cannot begin to contain the power that is YAHWEH!

No idols is not saying, “No foreign gods.” He already said that in the 1st commandment. We already got that out of the way. He’s saying, “Do not even think for a minute that you can contain me. I am bigger than you can imagine.”

As humans, we like to put everything in neat little boxes. We like to have control of our universe. We like to know exactly what’s going on, the one behind the wheel. My wife has never been in a wreck when I’ve been driving with her. She’s very cautious. I have no reason to doubt her ability. Even still, I like to be the one behind the wheel whenever we go anywhere. I like to be in control of where I am going.

We like to be in control of our lives, to have the power to say what we are going to do, when we are going to do it, and with whom we will do it. We live control and power. So we look for any edge to give us that control. And we treat God like a genie in a lamp.genie We live our lives independent of God, separate from his control, until we come to a roadblock that we cannot overcome ourselves. Then we pull out our lamp, rub it, and say, “Genie, I need your help…I mean, Lord, God, hear my prayer!”

Practically, we treat God as if he were no more than a genie in a lamp. He’s probably sick and tired of being used. It’s like the movie Aladdin. Genie is asked, “What would you wish for?” He wants freedom. Genie says I’m a slave to the lamp and I get tired of “Poof, what do you need?” Too often that’s how we treat God. We call on him only when we need him. We expect God to come at our beck and call to make life good for us.

But we cannot contain and control Him! He is not at our beck and call. He is God and we are not. One of my favorite stories in the Bible comes from Acts 8:

Now for some time a man named Simon had practiced sorcery in the city and amazed all the people of Samaria. He boasted that he was someone great,  and all the people, both high and low, gave him their attention and exclaimed, “This man is rightly called the Great Power of God.” They followed him because he had amazed them for a long time with his sorcery.  But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.

When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to Samaria. When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

When Simon saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”

Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.”

Peter says, “You and your money can go to Hell” You cannot buy and manage God. You cannot finance your way to heaven. God’s presence is not a commodity that can be bought, traded, or sold. You cannot keep him in a box.

What it really comes down to is, “Who’s will is going to be in control?” Are we going to bend our will to his? Or will we try to bend his will to ours? The 2nd command commandment is about humans trying to bend his will to ours. “God, here is your resting place. When I need you I’m gonna come get you,” and God says, “Uh uh! No way, brother. It don’t work like that.”

God cannot be contained in a little statue. Proverbs 3:5-6 says:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.

Who’s in control of your life? Is He? He’s supposed to be. As you look at your life and the things you do, who do you bend your will to? Or can you admit that you’ve been treating God like a genie in a lamp. I do my thing until I’m in trouble and then pray, “Jesus, save me!”

Poof, what do you need?

That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. I think we learn 2 things from Simon: 1) God cares about what’s going on in the human world. So much so that he is willing to do the miraculous if we just open our eyes and ask him. God wants to work in our lives. He wants to make the sick whole. He wants to repair broken relationships. God wants you to be whole and complete. He cares about us. 2) But he is not a genie in a lamp. He is not at our beck and call when we need him only to be ignored when things are going well. That’s our tendency. It’s my tendency, so I assume it’s yours, too.

We let Jesus alone until trouble is upon us. Then we run to him and cry out, “Teacher! Don’t you care that we’re about to die?” And Jesus asks, “Where is your faith? Don’t you know who is in the boat with you?”

He’s not your genie. He’s the creator of the universe. The one who came, took our form, and calls us “friends.” What other god can say to his creation, “I desire to be in relationship with you”? No other god!

The 2nd commandment helps us understand who we are and who He is. We need God’s presence more than ever before. We struggle with illness. Relationships are broken and are struggling. We feel hurt and lost. We feel like we’re drowning and the waves are sweeping over the boat. The power of God can rescue us. Not because he’s a genie in a lamp, but because he cares about you and me.

Simon had no need for God as long as he had his magic. Let us stop turning to God only when we have needs. Stop treating him like a genie in a lamp. Let us eagerly pursue his presence and power every day, through the good and the bad.

Questions for Reflection

  • What do you hold on to that controls your life?
  • What “magic” do you use to keep order?
  • Is God first? Or is he merely one among many?

Don’t Kill the Kid

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Once upon a time God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey…. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife.

Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “I see the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.”

Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and saw behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son. Abraham called the name of that place The LORD Will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the LORD it will be provided.” Then the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, ” By Myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens and as the sand which is on the seashore….

What a story! It is fantastic and horrific at the same time. Fantastic to hear the unfolding of human faith and obedience and divine provision and promise; horrific to even think that God could make such a request of Abraham and to think that Abraham would even think about carrying it out! Many of the stories from the Bible have characters whom we should imitate; their faith, their actions, their motivations. Not this one! This isn’t a story you want to imitate. Even as bad as your kids may get from time to time you would never do anything like this to them. What if you thought God told you something but you weren’t actually hearing Him?

My wife and I are fans of American Idol. One time we saw a contestant who claimed that her voice was a gift from God and that the Holy Spirit told her that she should audition for the show, that God gave her a voice. When she stood in front of the judges she belted out the worst racket you have ever heard! It was so bad that Simon quipped, “Does He have a return policy?” We must be careful before we assign our behavior to God’s directive.

But we are told that Abraham received a directive. How could a good God, a God of justice, righteousness, and mercy, ask such a barbaric thing from a believer? What makes it even worse is that God seems to be breaking his own promise to Abraham. When Abraham hears from God for the 1st time (Genesis 12) God says:

Get up, leave your homeland and your family behind, and go to the place I show you. I will make your descendants into a great nation.

And now God is “contradicting this promise with a command to kill Isaac before Isaac even had a chance to beget any [children]. …God was not simply testing whether Abraham could love God above all else. The heart of the question was whether he could reconcile the contradiction of God’s word and continue to trust that God would remain faithful to keep his promise. “Not only was Abraham’s faithfulness on trial but so was God’s faithfulness.

But why is Abraham’s faithfulness on trial? Abraham never fully seems to connect with God’s promise. In fact, as Abraham and Sarah are passing through different countries, Abraham tells Sarah to pretend that she is his sister and not his wife so that other men will not kill him to take her. If Sarah had been taken by another man it would have thrown a major wrench in the machine! Fortunately God intervenes and Sarah ends up back with Abraham. Later on, as Abraham and Sarah are getting older, Sarah pushes Hagar on Abraham in order to produce an heir to the estate. Again, we see humans trying to force God’s promise to come to fruition. And what a mess Hagar and her son, Ishmael turned out to be! In fact, the whole life of Abraham could be called “How not to trust the promises of God.” And at every turn God says, “I have promised this – I will accomplish it. Why do you intervene? Why do you try by your own power?”

The sacrifice of Isaac almost seems to be God saying, “This is the last straw! Either you’re in or you’re out. What’s it gonna be?” And so God says, I want you to sacrifice your son. “What Abraham’s trial shows is that the world in which we live is full of spiritual trials behind which God hides himself.” Is Abraham “able to trust in the faithfulness and benevolence of God even when God appeared utterly untrustworthy and even antagonistic toward him.”

Have you ever been in a situation where God seems invisible? Or worse, have you been in a place where God seems to be against you? But is God ever really against you? Are you ever really cursed by God to suffer? Does it matter if you can’t see Him or what He has in mind?

And so God says, “Take your son….” You can almost hear Abraham involved in dialogue with God:

God: Take your son
Abraham: I have two sons
God: Your only one
Abraham: This one is the only son to his mother and this one is the only son to his mother
God: The one you love
Abraham: I love them both
God: Isaac!

However the conversation went, Abraham decides that he will listen to God’s direction at this point. And so the journey begins, towards a mountain in Moriah. For 3 days they’re on the road. 3 days Abraham has to wrestle with this decision. As they see the mountain in the distance, Abraham tells his servants to wait while he and Isaac worship God. Note the language that Abraham uses: “We will worship and return….” This has led some to believe that Abraham knew that God would not take Isaac. Or perhaps, even if Isaac did die, God could raise him back to life. But this most certainly cannot be what Abraham was thinking. If Abraham had full certainty that God would intervene then there is no real test, is there? Abraham would just be going through the motions – there is not real faith without the real fear that Abraham will never again see his son, never see Isaac grow, never see Isaac marry, never see grandchildren. No, Abraham thought that this was the end, and that’s what makes this story sickening – the fact that a cruel God would ask for such a sacrifice.

We see echoes of Calvary here in this story. The fathers have to sacrifice the sons, the only sons, the ones they love. Both sons are children of promise; Isaac the promise for future generations and Jesus the promise of salvation. Both sons know that they have a role to play in God’s plan. Jesus was no fool – he knew the call upon His life and knew how it had to play out. Thus He prayed, “Let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will but Yours.”

Similarly, Isaac is no fool. As they make their way up the mountain he asks Abraham, “I see the elements for the sacrifice, but where is the ram?” And Abraham, mustering what faith he could, can only reply, “God himself will provide the ram.” Yet the next thing you know, Isaac is bound hand and foot and is placed on the alter about to be killed. Think about this – Isaac is a young teenager. Abraham is over 100 years old. Is there anyway that Old Father Abe could have subdued, bound, and hoisted Isaac up onto the alter if Isaac was struggling? It appears that Isaac, like Christ, was a willing participant, knowing that following God’s call and will is the highest good.

Think about the feelings of abandonment and agony Jesus faced when he realized that this was the sacrifice God required. Have you ever felt abandoned by God? Have you ever felt that what He is doing isn’t what he should be doing for your best interest? This is what Jesus knew: the power and purpose of God were working through the evil and cruelty of the men who would kill of him. So many times we want God to take away the cruelty, to take away the hardship. Even Jesus wanted this. He prayed, “God, if it’s at all possible, let this pass me by!”

Would Isaac have felt any different as Abraham says, “This is what I need you to do?” When’s the last time you prayed for a difficulty or obstacle to be removed? Often we want all the difficulties and evil to be removed, but sometimes it is the difficulty that reveals God’s power and purpose. So Isaac ends up on the alter…. Sometimes it is necessary to make sacrifices in order to hold onto the promises and purposes to which God has originally called you.

As Abraham lifts the blade to strike the fatal blow, what’s going through his head? “God, you made a promise to me decades ago. We prayed for a child for so long, and just when you’ve given us what you promised, you’re making me sacrifice him!” And he lifts the blade and is stopped. God speaks and says, “Don’t strike. You’ve proved yourself.” And he looks up, and there in the brush is the ram. Abraham had told Isaac, maybe prophetically, maybe in hopeful desperation, “God himself will provide the ram,” and sure enough – there is the ram. In the end, Abraham rightfully decides that withholding from God is not something he can do.

Abraham’s act of obedience does not earn him the reward of the promise, but his wholehearted trust allows the promise to remain in God’s hands and so to be fulfilled by the only One who has the grace and power to bring about its fulfillment. Isaac may have lived if Abraham had disobeyed God, but the security of the promise would most certainly have been undermined. His choice not to try to control his son’s destiny, even while nearly slaying him, ensured Isaac’s place in the history of the promise.

Sometimes it seems that God is absent or even against us. The end result of the testing, of the sacrifice, is a deeper faith and a recommitment to the purpose and promise God 1st gave us. Our faith, like Abraham’s, requires that we let go of whatever we hold most precious, whatever we desire to control or protect, especially the gifts and promises of God.”

What do you need to let go of?

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