Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
What is by far the most frequently discussed problem in the Bible? What is the most serious charge that could be leveled against somebody in the Old Testament? What is the great sin that is beneath every sin? Any guesses?
The answer to all those questions is idolatry. God’s Word consistently declares that the worship of idols is the absolute worst thing humans can do, which at first might make you feel relieved. At least I haven’t done the worst thing! After all, how many people these days run around worshipping idols? Right? Nobody here got up this morning and bowed down to a statue of bronze.
Not so fast. As I hope to show you this morning, idolatry has always been and will always continue to be the great sin beneath all human sin, the biggest problem we face even today, the main thing that keeps us from experiencing the abundant life God has in store for us.
To help us understand how this can be I want us to look at a passage in the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. When it comes to helping us understand the true nature and danger of idolatry, these words are some of the most illuminating in all of scripture.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (Romans 1:18-25, NRSV)
Last weekend I was at Zephyr Point on Lake Tahoe, a place many of you know and love. Several times during the weekend I found myself pausing a moment to look out across the lake simply to take in the majestic beauty of that place. In those moments I found myself wondering how it is possible that there are people in this world who have convinced themselves that all this came from nothing, that it was all a freak accident, that there is no Creator beyond this universe who made all this possible. Truth is, I don’t even have to be at Tahoe to wonder about these things. Everywhere I look I see the fingerprints of God. As Psalm 19 declares, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”
This is Paul’s point in Romans 1. “Ever since the creation of the world,” he writes, “God’s eternal power and divine nature…have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” We are without excuse. Every human being, simply by seeing the creation around us, ought to naturally ascribe all glory, all worship, all honor, all allegiance to our Creator. And yet, as Paul goes on to say, we do not. As he puts it, though we should know God “we do not honor him as God or give thanks to him.”
This creates a problem for human beings were created to worship. God is not only our creator but our sustainer. Life, at least abundant and eternal life, is not possible apart from God. Therefore God, in his love, made us to worship him so that we would turn to him and receive from him all that we need for life. As Blaise Pascal once said, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” If that vacuum is not filled by God it will try to be filled by something else. Again, we were created to worship and if we do not turn our worship towards our Creator we will turn our worship towards something else in creation.
It’s not uncommon these days to hear somebody declare, “I’m not a very religious person.” Don’t believe it. None of us are truly secular. What that person is really saying is, “I’m not a very truthful person.” Every single one of us is religiously worshipping something. We are all looking to someone or something we hope will give us ultimate security, identity, and meaning in this life, the things that only God can give us, and just because we don’t call it worship doesn’t change what it truly is.
As Paul makes clear, we deceive ourselves. We become futile in our thinking. Our senseless minds are darkened. We claim to be wise when we are really fools. The lie consumes us and we trap ourselves. We’ve all watched this happen to people we know and love. It’s the person who chooses a pathway in life which others can clearly see is a destructive dead end but they can’t see it themselves and so they rush headlong down the pathway oblivious to the impending consequences almost as if they are imprisoned from knowing and seeing the truth. You’ve seen this in others. What Paul is saying here is that to some degree this happens to us all. To some extent we’ve all deceived ourselves and exchanged the glory of the immortal God our Creator for images which resemble creation. And this, the worship of the creation rather than its Creator, is, by definition, idolatry, the great sin beneath every other sin.
And God hates it. As Paul says in the opening words of this passage, it is for this reason that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” And all at once some of want to tune out. Right? We don’t want to think about God as a God of wrath. But we must. The scriptures are clear that he is. Exodus 34:14 proclaims, “You shall worship no other god, because the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.”
A theologian named John Stott puts it this way. Jealousy is simply the resentment of rivals and it can be good or it can be evil. Jealousy is evil if it is motivated by somebody who threatens to outshine us in beauty, or brains, or sport. That’s evil because we have no right to claim that we must be superior to others in these areas. You have every right to be smarter, or faster or better looking than me and I suspect in one way or another most of you are. When I’m jealous of you because you are, even to the point of wanting you to fail, that jealousy is evil.
Jealousy, however, can also be good when it is directed at somebody or something that has no right to be in the place it has claimed. If somebody tries to become a husband to my wife, for example, or tries to become a father to my children, they would have no right to be in those places and it would, in fact, be appropriate, even natural for me to be jealous and to jealously protect my place as husband or father.
Isaiah 42:8, a verse we used for our call to worship this morning, declares, “I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.” Nobody or no thing has the right to sit in the place of God. The Creator has the right to claim exclusive allegiance from his creation and therefore is naturally and rightfully full of righteous anger when the very lives of his beloved creation are threatened because that allegiance is transferred to something other than himself. We like to hear that God loves, and he does love, beyond what we will ever imagine. But one who truly loves will also hate anything and everything which threatens that which they love.
This is what idols do, and they do so by claiming a place that rightfully belongs only to God by trying in vain to fill a vacuum in the human soul that is shaped only to be filled by Christ. Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and character. They set themselves up as judge over us. They promise to deliver us. They claim to offer blessing, even forgiveness. They promise that they are trustworthy, that they will never fail us. They assure us they know what is best for us. But all these promises are false promises. Nobody but God can promise us ultimate security, and blessing, and salvation, and forgiveness, and provision, and life and, in the end, deliver on these promises.
This is why God hates idolatry. It is the sin beneath every sin which destroys his beloved creation. As writer Frederick Buechner put it, “Idolatry is the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth.” Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, “Idolatry is when something essentially finite is given infinite significance.” And John Calvin, the great reformer, showed that he agreed with Paul that idolatry is the great problem we all face when he wrote, “The human heart is an idol factory…Every one of us from our mother’s womb is an expert at inventing idols.” My heart is an idol factory, and so is yours.
But hold a second, you say. I don’t worship idols. I know that was popular back then but I assure you I have never bowed down to a bronze statue and I don’t plan to start any time soon.
You’re right. Back in Paul’s day people did what we don’t do any more, they literally bowed down to idols made of wood or stone. There’s a great story in Acts 7 where Paul goes to Athens to meet his friends Silas and Timothy. While he is waiting there he becomes incredibly distressed because the city was literally smothered in idols. In the Pantheon there stood a huge gold and ivory statue of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Elsewhere there were images of Venus the god of love, Bacchus the god of wine, Nike the god of victory, Plutus the god of wealth. Everywhere there were innumerable temples, shrines, statues and altars, all established for the worship of idols.
Now it’s true, I’ve been in a lot of your homes and never once I have seen a little shrine in the corner of the living room with a little statue of Venus or Athena to which you bow each day to pray. Anybody here have one these at home? I didn’t think so. That does not mean, however, that we don’t worship idols. Even back in biblical times it wasn’t really the stone or wood idol that people adored but the thing they believed the idol could deliver. We may not worship Athena, but many of us do worship wisdom and knowledge, believing them to be the keys to a successful life. You may be hard pressed to find a stature of Venus around these days but that doesn’t mean there aren’t countless people worship romantic love and are giving their whole lives to finding it. I doubt any of us even know what Plutus looks like but that doesn’t mean that we haven’t convinced ourselves that our security and identity are rooted in our money and possessions. Our world, just like Pauls’ world, is smothered with idols. We may never have named them as such but that is exactly what they are.
I recently read the story of single woman named Anna who wanted more than anything else in life to have children. She eventually married, and contrary to the expectations of her doctors, was able to give birth to two healthy children in spite of her age. She imagined that now life would be complete. It wasn’t. Nothing in life was more precious to Anna than her children and she had such an overpowering desire to give them a perfect life that she never was able to simply enjoy them. She was ridiculously overprotective, always afraid and anxious, and constantly trying to control every detail of her children’s lives. As a result, her kids were miserable. Her oldest child did poorly in school and showed signs of serious emotional trouble. Her younger child became filled with anger and resentment.
Having children is a good thing, just like gaining wisdom, or finding romantic love, or possessing wealth. But when you take a good thing and make it an ultimate thing, the very source of your meaning, security and identity, that good thing has now taken over a place in your soul that only God was meant to fill. To make anything other than God the thing to which you look to justify your life and save your soul is sheer folly. No idol can deliver. Every idol will eventually fail. And we may not worship idols of wood or stone but make no mistake, every single one of us is captivated by one idol or another. As somebody once said, we are idol-makers, idol-buyers and idol-sellers wandering through a world full of idol-makers, idol-buyers and idol-sellers. This is the biggest problem in our lives. This is the most serious charge heaven could level against us. This is the great sin beneath every other sin.
And so here’s the question I hope you’re asking with me right about now. What are the idols I am worshipping and what can I do about it? We’re going to spend the next eight weeks asking those questions as we look at what I think are eight of the most popular idols on the market these days. In each case it will be very helpful for us to understand how it is that a good thing in our life can be made, how it has been made, into an ultimate thing. In other words, how does a person know if something in his or her life has been elevated to the place that only God should hold?
If you are willing to seek the truth here and identify the idols that are being manufactured in the idol factory of your heart, then you can begin by asking these three questions.
First ask yourself, “What do I dream about?” When you have time to let your mind wander, where does it wander off to? Thomas à Kempis once wrote, “Where my thoughts come to rest, there am I, and my thoughts are most frequently with the things I love.” When Anna lay in bed at night what do you think it was that dominated her thoughts and likely kept her from sleep? No doubt it was the success of her children. Even if she tried, I imagine that she couldn’t keep her mind away from this all-consuming goal of her life.
What about you? If, for example, you find yourself constantly day-dreaming about how you can succeed in your career so that you can earn the esteem of your peers or your parents, then you have likely just identified your idol. If you are constantly worried and stressed that you and your family will not have enough to get by, then it’s likely that financial wealth, instead of God, has become your ultimate security. Ask yourself, what is the focus of my imagination or preoccupation? The answer to that question will help reveal the idols you have set up in your heart.
A second question to ask that will help you discern your heart’s true affection is this: “Where do I spend my money?” Jesus himself said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” What if a quick review of your checkbook revealed that you have spent many dollars this past year on buying things that you imagine will impress others and enhance your image? Having the latest fashion is extremely important to you, as is inviting friends over to a home that is beautifully furnished and driving a car that enhances your status. Nothing inherently wrong with nice clothes, or nice furniture, or a nice car, but if these things are always the focus of your spending in an effort to enhance your image than you need to admit that you are seeking ultimate approval others instead of seeking it from God. You also have just identified one of your idols.
Here’s a final question to ask yourself: “What would cause me to despair? What is the one thing in my life that, if I were to lose this thing, I would be devastated?” Remember, an idol is something you have made into your ultimate source of meaning, identity and security. So naturally, if that idol is threatened you will become desperate or even enraged. If that idol is taken away, you will find yourself in a hopeless place.
Pastor and author Tim Keller writes, “There is a difference between sorrow and despair. Sorrow is pain for which there are sources of consolation. Sorrow comes from losing one good thing among others, so that, if you experience a career reversal, you can find comfort in your family to get you through it. Despair, however, is inconsolable, because it comes from losing an ultimate thing. When you lose the ultimate source of your meaning or hope, there are no alternative sources to turn to. It breaks your spirit.”
There are some of you sitting here this morning who have endured great loss in your life – a lost career, lost health, a lost child, a lost husband or wife – and yet these losses have not crushed you. They have caused great sorrow, as they should, but they have not left you forever in despair because you did not allow these good things in life to become ultimate things. What may be true for some of us, however, is not true of all of us. So ask yourself, is there something in my life that I have elevated to such a high place of esteem and value that my life would be forever devastated if I lost that thing? If so, then that thing, as good as it may be, has become for you an idol.
These are hard questions. Sadly, some of you may choose not to honestly ask them to yourselves because you are afraid of the answers. I hope that won’t happen. In the coming weeks I hope and pray that you will keep asking these questions as, one by one, we hold up some of the most attractive and common idols of our day. It is essential that we identify these idols in our lives so that with God’s help we can be delivered from the futile thinking and darkened minds Paul says are a consequence of our misplaced devotion.
It is also essential that we recognize that idolatry is the great sin beneath all sins because idolatry is ultimately the sin of failing to place our faith in God above all. Idolatry is allowing something or someone else besides Jesus Christ to take title to our heart’s trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear and delight. And idolatry is something we all, to a greater extent than we would like to admit, have embraced. In fact, our thinking can become so futile and our minds so darkened, we have exchanged so much of the truth about God for a lie, it is now only by God’s grace that we can ever hope to be set free.
Two weeks ago I preached about the baptism of Christ and declared to you that the words spoken to the Son from the Father that day are, by God’s grace through Christ, spoken to all who would have faith. You are God’s beloved sons and daughters and the delight our Father has for Christ is the delight he now has for you. I told you that morning that this is a message I could preach just about every Sunday morning. I meant it.
The only way for us to ever be set free from our slavery to the idols which will all ultimately betray us to destruction is for us to come to see the depth of love and grace and delight that God has for us in Christ. We have no power within ourselves to tear down the idols we have erected in our hearts. Only Christ can do such a thing and he has. By his death and resurrection he has unleashed upon the world the power to dismantle every idol in every heart and if you let him he will begin to do so for you.
Let me end with a quote from the great 19th century Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers. In a famous sermon on idolatry he once said,
“The best way of casting out an impure affection is to admit a pure one…It is only when, as in the gospel, acceptance is bestowed as a present, without money and without price, that the security which man feels in God is placed beyond the reach of disturbance. Only then can he rest in him as one friend rests in another…The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.”
The person who comes to know even the beginning hints of the depth of love and grace God has for us in Jesus Christ is the person who will eventually find themselves no longer lured again by idols which in the end can never, and will never deliver.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Romans 1:18-25. Paul is saying a lot here. What stands out to you?
Can you summarize what Paul says here is wrong with our world?
Why are human beings so prone to worship the creation rather than the Creator? Why would somebody worship wealth, for example, instead of the One who created all wealth?
How do you explain God’s jealous wrath, especially to those who believe that people are basically good? Why does God hate idolatry so much?
What is your definition of idolatry? Has it changed after hearing this message?
Do you recognize yourself as somebody who is prone to worshipping idols?
To some extent everybody embraces idolatry by making good things into ultimate things. Can you name one idol that you are especially fond of in your life? Use these questions to help you name your idol(s):
What do I dream about? What is the focus of my preoccupation?
Where do I spend my money? Where do I invest my treasure?
What would cause me irreparable despair if I lost it?
In speaking about idolatry, Thomas Chalmers stated, “”The best way of casting out an impure affection is to admit a pure one…The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive [i.e. to banish something] power of a new one.” What does he mean by this? How can a person do this?
 Psalm 119:1
 This insight comes from R.C. Sproul Jr. in his article “American Idols”, Tabletalk, January 2005).
 John Stott, The Message of Acts, (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity, 1990), 278-279.
 I’m paraphrasing David Powlison here in his excellent article “Idols of the Heart and ‘Vanity Fair’”, The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Volume 13, Number 2, Winter 1995.
 Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 40.
 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 1:16.
 Stott, 277.
 Told by Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, (New York: Riverhead, 2009), 1-2.
 I’m paraphrasing some of the questions Timothy Keller writes in Counterfeit Gods, 168-169.
Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, (New York: Barnes & Nobel, 1993), 158.
 Matthew 6:21, NRSV
 Keller, Counterfeit Gods, xii-xiii.
 Cited by Keller, Counterfeit Gods, 45-46.