Well, I’m excited to be starting a 3 week series called ‘Everyday Idolatry’ – The Empty Promises of Counterfeit Gods.
Angering Someone We live in a society where it is increasingly difficult to say much of anything without angering someone.
But it is one of the jobs of the pastor to teach you. And to not just teach you whatever pops into my head, or whatever bee I happen to have in my bonnet at that moment in time, but to teach you this book and the way of Jesus that’s found in it. And sometimes it’s encouraging us, and other times it’s instructing us, other times it’s correcting us and other times it’s warning us. Those all happen for us in scripture, so they all happen in the life of a pastor.
And I’m hoping to teach you about what is certainly one of (if not THE) primary sins according to scripture: Idolatry.
Suicides amongst the Ultra-Wealthy
In late 2008, there was a tragic string of suicides amongst the ultra wealthy
- David Kellermann – The CFO of Freddie Mac (which is the federal loan mortgage corporation) hanged himself in his basement.
- Steven L. Good – chief executive of Sheldon Good, a leading U.S. real estate auction firm, shot himself in the head behind the wheel of his red Jaguar.
- Thierry Magon de La Villehuchet – A French money manager who invested the wealth of many of Europe’s royal and leading families, and who had invested $1.4 billion of his clients’ money in Bernard Madoff’s Investment Firm, slit his wrists and died in his Madison Avenue office.
- Christen Schnor – A danish senior executive with HSBC Bank hanged himself in the wardrobe of his $800-a-night suite in London.
- Barry Fox – A Bear Stearns executive, took a drug overdose and leapt from the twenty-ninth floor of his office building.
- and there’s many more.
Now here’s a question. What do you suppose might have happened in 2008 to cause this string of suicides amongst the ultra wealthy? Well, the answer of course is something known as ‘The Great Financial Crisis’. And if you don’t know, that’s when lots of people’s money did this. (chart)
And so you had people with hundreds of millions of dollars, and in a matter of weeks, it’s gone. And for some of the ultra wealthy, that was enough for them to take their own life.
I would think many of you would know this, but the suicide rate amongst the ultra wealthy is much higher than the general population. That’s true at a national level, and it’s also true at an individual level.
In the 19th century, there was a famous french politician named Alexis de Tocqueville (Talk-ville).
He’s best known for his 2 volume book ‘Democracy in America’, which I’m sure some of you read in college. But it’s his observations of America.
And in the book he says this:
“a strange melancholy haunts the inhabitants … in the midst of abundance.”
He talks about how Americans thought that prosperity would bring them ultimate happiness. But it didn’t. He goes on to say:
“the incomplete joys of this world will never satisfy the human heart.”
Now of course, this isn’t at all surprising for the Christ follower. Paul explicitly tells his young protege Timothy this will happen.
Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Timothy 6:9)
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:10)
What he’s talking about, is what the bible calls ‘Idolatry’.
And a brief study of scripture will show that idolatry is the primary sin that separates mankind from God. And to put it mildly, God hates it. I don’t want to bum you out with a bunch of brutal scriptures but I’ll just give you two.
I will destroy your high places, cut down your incense altars and pile your dead bodies on the lifeless forms of your idols, and I will abhor you. (Leviticus 26:30)
(Abhor means hate)
I will turn your cities into ruins and lay waste your sanctuaries, and I will take no delight in the pleasing aroma of your offerings. (Leviticus 26:31)
I myself will lay waste the land, so that your enemies who live there will be appalled. (Leviticus 26:32)
I will scatter you among the nations and will draw out my sword and pursue you. Your land will be laid waste, and your cities will lie in ruins. (Leviticus 26:33)
Your altars will be demolished and your incense altars will be smashed; and I will slay your people in front of your idols. (Ezekiel 6:4)
I will lay the dead bodies of the Israelites in front of their idols, and I will scatter your bones around your altars. (Ezekiel 6:5)
Professor and Theologian Michael Allen famously says in his seminal book Christian Dogmatics:
“The central theological principle of the Bible is the rejection of idolatry.” (Michael Allen, Christian Dogmatics)
Translation: The primary correction the bible offers us is the rejection of idolatry.
For many of us, when we hear or read the word ‘Idolatry’ it makes us think of a statue with people bowing down in front of it in worship. And that is absolutely something that we see in scripture.
But for the modern man, or modern woman, it’s less about physically bowing down in front of a statue, and more about who or what truly has your heart.
In fact, this is our first fill-in:
Modern Idolatry : taking a good thing (in most cases), and making it an ultimate thing.
And I want to make a special request to you during this series. I’m hoping you’ll agree to act like adults. To be thoughtful and intelligent. Because this series is going to require adult thinking. Just because something can be an idol, doesn’t mean it’s automatically bad. In fact, the best idols are things that are good. They just need to be in the right place.
So I’m gonna be going through all kinds of different things that could potentially be an idol in our lives, and if you take any of this to mean “Pastor David said my thing is bad”, well then you would be a careless listener.
Can you agree that a good thing in the wrong place, can be a bad thing? So I’m not insulting your THING, I’m just saying your THING needs to be in the right place.
Ok so this is week 1, and as an intro to this series, what I want to do is establish 4 fundamental truths to get us all on the same page. And then I’ve got a bible story to tell, and then we’ll get out of here and you can go eat your chicken wings and all that.
1. Everybody Worships
Some of you may be familiar with the novelist David Foster Wallace. He wrote a novel called ‘Infinite Jest’, which many consider to be one the top 50 english novels of all-time. Hanged himself, coincidentally, in 2008. Had nothing to do with the great financial crisis.
Did not have any sort of faith that anybody knows about. At least not a public faith.
Not long before his suicide, he spoke these words to the graduating class of Kenyon College:
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
- If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough.
- Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.
- Worship power and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.
- Worship your intellect, being seen as smart and you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is… they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”
He’s right of course. Everybody worships. You included. So the question is not ‘if’ you worship, the question is ‘what’ you worship. There is something or some things that are ultimate to you. That have your ultimate allegiance. The question is ‘what’.And what you worship isn’t determined by the songs that you sing in church, it’s determined by what’s in the center seat of your heart.
2. We are surrounded by gods
Like I said, for many of us, when we hear or read the word ‘Idol’ it makes us think of a statue with people bowing down in front of it in worship.
And that is absolutely something that we see in scripture.
In the book of Acts for example, we read about idol worship in the ancient world. Where each city had it’s favorites dieties and built shrines of what they imagined that deity may look like.
In Acts 17, Paul goes to Athens and look what it says:
While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. (Acts 17:16)
And so in this case, that’s exactly what it sounds like. That there were physical statues placed all over the city for you to worship.
Now the predominant deity of Athens would of course be the deity that ‘Athens’ got it’s name from: Athena – The goddess of wisdom
But also in the greek pantheon
- Zeus – King of the gods; god of law, order and justice.
- Hera – Queen of the gods and the goddess of marriage, childbirth and family.
- Poseidon – God of the seas.
- Demeter – Goddess of the harvest and fertility.
- Apollo – God of light, philosophy, truth.
- Artemis – Goddess of the hunt, the wilderness.
- Plutus – God of Wealth
- Ares – God of war, violence, bloodshed and manly virtues.
- Aphrodite – Goddess of love, pleasure, passion, beauty and desire.
- Hermes – God of travel, commerce.
- Dionysus – God of wine, festivity, and ecstasy.
And so it’s stands to reason that there were idols for all of these deities there.
And you might be thinking “Oh how primitive!” But I’ll tell you, our modern culture isn’t that much different.
- Athena We don’t have statues of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, but we have universities teaching that knowledge is the ultimate thing.
- Hera – We don’t have statues of Hera, the goddess of marriage, childbirth and family, but we have plenty of parents who worship their children as the ultimate thing.
- Aphrodite We don’t have statues of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, but we have many young people today driven into depression and eating disorders by an obsessive concern over how their body looks.
- Plutus We don’t have statues of Plutus, the god of wealth, but we have many parents who serve money and career and perform a kind of child sacrifice, neglecting even their own family to achieve more wealth and prestige.
- Zeus – And we don’t have statues of Zeus – The King of the gods, but there are many people, even professing Christians that have sacrificed everything to the God of success. Whatever that looks like for them.
3. Anything Can Be Worshipped
Most Christians understand that money can become an idol.
But the truth is this: Anything can be an idol.
10 Commandments The most famous moral code in the world is the Decalogue (DEK-UH-LOG), the Ten Commandments.
Doesn’t anyone remember how that thing starts? Let’s read it:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Exodus 20:2)
“You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:3)
Which begs the question—_“What do you mean, ‘other gods’?”_
God knew you were gonna ask that question, so he answered it in the very next sentence.
“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. (Exodus 20:4)
You shall not bow down to them or worship them; (Exodus 20:5a)
Ok so anything in heaven above, the earth beneath, or the waters below. So that’s everything in the universe.
Most people know you can make a god out of money. Most know you can make god out of sex. But, any thing in life can become an idol, a God-alternative, a counterfeit god.
- I’ve met people that came from poverty growing up. And the pain of that was so great, that they become obsessed with financial security. They worship it.
- I’ve met young athletes so determined to turn pro, that they laid anything and everything down at the altar of becoming great at their sport.
- I’ve met young men who want a wife, and that desire is so consuming, it takes the place of God.
- I’ve met young women who desire to be mothers. And that desire is so strong, that becomes God to them.
- I’ve met pastors and preachers that think they’re worshipping God, but they’re really worshipping success in ministry.
In every case, a good thing becomes an ultimate thing. And brings destruction.
Is it wrong to want financial security, or athletic skill, or to be married, or to be a mother, or to have a successful ministry? Of course not.
And see, that’s what’s tricky. Like I said, idols are not usually bad things. In fact, the greater the good, the more likely we are to idolize. The more likely we are to think that that thing can satisfy.
4. Most Idols Live in Your Heart
Now you might be thinking “I hear you David, maybe I obsess about certain things a little too much, but it’s not idolatry. I don’t worship that stuff.” Well, according to scripture, you do.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)
Isn’t that interesting? Paul says being greedy is idolatry. He’s saying that money can be a God. Money can possess divine attributes in your life. And your relationship with it resembles worship.
“… these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? (Ezekiel 14:3)
God’s saying “You have an idol. But it’s not out here (outside you), it’s in here (inside you)”
Heart can Lie To You
You know, the world teaches that your heart is only good. “What does your heart tell you?” Scripture doesn’t make this mistake. Scripture talks about your heart as being capable of both good and incredible evil.
The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick;. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9)
Counseling Sometimes I’ll be counseling with somebody and I’ll tell them “Yeah you’re gonna want to stop that.” And they’ll say “I don’t feel a check in my heart about it.” SO?! Neither does Vladimir Putin. Your heart can lie to you. You can have idols in there and feel great about it.
So the human heart can take good things like a successful career, love, possessions, even family and turn them into ultimate things.
Lord of the Rings
I don’t know how many of you are fans of the Lord of the Rings. My wife is NOT. First date I ever took her on. Adorable little 17 year old, I took her to see the Fellowship of the Ring (the first movie), at the dollar theater. I picked her up late and the theater was packed so we had to sit in the front row. 3 hours with our heads cranked all the way back. I’m surprised she agreed to a second date. Thank God I’m funny!!!
Anyways, the books and movies are of course about the Ring of Power.
Which corrupts anyone who tries to use it, however good his or her intentions.
I’m sure many of you know Tolkien was a devout roman catholic, and he called the Lord of the Rings series a “fundamentally religious work”. So it’s a work of fiction that is discussing spiritual realities. And it’s, in my opinion, at least partially about idolatry.
So think logically about this for a minute: it’s a golden ring that they obsess about that takes over their life. You know, in the book of Exodus, the Israelites take off their golden jewelry an melt it all together and make a golden calf to serve as an idol.
But it’s that thing that consumes you. That you can’t live without.
When I look at my own life
So when I look at my own life, I can see clearly that things that could potentially becomes idols to me.
- My Wife and My Daughter God has blessed me with an incredible family. Two girls that I love to the moon and back. And because of that, I can see how to temptation might be to say that I’m living for God, but I’m really just living for them. Serving them.
- Ministry I have a ministry, what I believe to be a calling of God on my life to pastor people and to teach people. And so it’s pretty obvious to me, how I could say I’m serving God in what I do here, but really, I’m just trying to be successful like every other doofus in the world.
- Physical Fitness I love working out, I love weight training. I love drinking my little protein shakes and flexing in the mirror. And I can see how that could be a good thing that becomes an ultimate thing.
- Pleasure I love good food, I love great desserts, I love sitting in my lazy-boy chair and watching a movie. And yeah, I could see how those pleasures could be the thing that i pursue in life instead of God.
In the few minutes we have left, I want to talk to you about Abraham. Most of you are familiar with Abraham in the bible.
For those of you who aren’t, let me give you the cliff notes.
There’s a man named Abraham and one day God comes to Abraham and tells him that he will be the father of many nations and all the world will be blessed through him.
The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)
“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. (Genesis 12:2)
I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3)
So this is a tremendous calling on his life. And it requires that he leave everything he has. But it also requires another thing: That he have children.
The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” (Genesis 12:7a)
This turns out to be somewhat of an issue, because Abraham’s wife Sarah had been unable to conceive.
But God continues in his promises to Abraham, and promises that they will have a son.
God also said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. (Genesis 17:15)
I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” (Genesis 17:16)
Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” (Genesis 17:17)
Biologically speaking, they were past the age of childbearing. But still that was God’s promise.
Well, the weeks turned into months and turned into years and there was still no baby. Finally, the miracle happened, Sarah became pregnant, and gave birth to their son Isaac.
And anyone in the room who has struggled with infertility who finally has a baby can tell you, that baby can be very precious to them.
And it was this great miracle for Abraham. The birth of Isaac shows that God’s promise may ultimately come to pass. This is a promise that they had given everything for. They left everything they had ever known to pursue this.
And now he finally has it! His beautiful baby boy and all is right in the world.
You know, if you didn’t already know where this story was going, you might read this and assume that the birth of Isaac was the climax of the story. Abraham had faith in God and he was victorious. Now he can enjoy parenting and die a happy man.
But here’s the question: Was Abraham worshipping God or was Abraham worshipping the boy? To whom had Abraham truly given his heart?
The Second Call of Abraham
But then, we read a twist in the story, Abraham gets a second call from God.
Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2)
Now that was not supposed to happen. “God, wasn’t this boy from you? Wasn’t this boy what you had promised us? Doesn’t YOUR plan rest on this boy NOT being killed?”
And if you know the story, you know what happens. Abraham agrees. And sets out, and lays his son on top of the wood, and gets out a knife and a character referred to as ‘The Angel of the Lord’ which is an angel that God speaks directly through, comes and he says this:
> “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” (Genesis 22:12)
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. (Genesis 22:13)
Some people find this story hard to tolerate until they understand that the boy was always perfectly safe. God was never going to allow the boy to be hurt, and God’s not prone to accidents the way we are.
And this was a culture of sacrificing to the Gods, and God was saying to Abraham (in a way that he would understand) “You can love your child, but you can’t worship him. It’s possible to turn a loved one into a counterfeit God.”
So what’s happening here? Two things. One thing Abraham could understand and a second thing that Abraham couldn’t understand.
1. A Test of Devotion
The first thing (that Abraham was able to understand) was that this was a test about loving God ultimately.
At the end of the test, God says to him, “Now I know you fear God.”
In the Bible, “fearing God” doesn’t mean being “afraid” of God so much as ‘reverence’. Recognizing the supremacy of God.
God didn’t test Abraham so he could find out if Abraham loved him. God is Omniscient, so he knows everything. It’s my opinion that God tested Abraham with sacrificing his son, because if the idolatry issue wasn’t handled in Abraham’s heart, Abraham would not have been able to accomplish his purpose.
So what might look like rough treatment of Abraham was actually mercy. To deal with his idolatry before Abraham hit the main stage.
The three great monotheistic faiths of the world today, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, name Abraham as founder.
Over one half the people in the human race consider him their spiritual father. That would have never happened unless God had dealt with the idol of Abraham’s heart.
2. A foreshadow of Christ’s death
This famous scene was also about something that Abraham could not see. Or at least couldn’t see very well in his time.
Like we read, God doesn’t just stop Abraham from sacrificing his son, but he provides a substitute. He provides a ram to be sacrificed in his place.
And that’s our story as well. That we are Isaac on the altar to be killed, but God provides a substitute in his OWN SON.
“He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all— how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
And just like Abraham proves his devotion to God, God proves his devotion to us.
In the story, God saw Abraham’s sacrifice and said “Now I know that you love me, because you did not withhold your only son from me.” And how much more can we say that to God? How much more confident can WE be that he loves us because he sacrificed his own son.