Idolatry – Living Faithfully in a Fallen World

Jimmy JoChrist and Culture, SermonsLeave a Comment

Last week, we began a new series which I’m entitling:  Living Faithfully in a Fallen World.  To be frank, you can feel free to ignore the title – I’ve always been terrible at titles.  But this series of sermons arises out of the general concerns that I have regarding the changing Canadian cultural context and what it means to live faithfully, as God’s chosen people, within that.  We’ve talked about that a lot, and we’ve tried to address some of those issues and questions out of the context of the biblical narrative.  My hope is, not that we will arrive at definitive answers, but that we can perhaps get a better understanding of what the appropriate questions are.  At any rate, I suspect that this series will likely take us two or three months (with our usual breaks provided by our preaching team), but we’ll see how we do. 

Last week, we set the stage for the conversations to follow by discussing the issue of worldview.  Again, a worldview is essentially a set of assumptions or presuppositions we have, which may or may not be clearly articulated in our own minds, about what the world is, how the world works, our place in that world, and whether or not any of these matter (again, I speak tongue-in-cheek because what actually constitutes a worldview is not universally agreed upon).  But in short, a worldview can be thought of as the lens through which we view the world. 

The presupposition that we hold as Christians is that there is a God.  And as Christians, we believe in a particular type of God (as revealed in scripture).  Without attempting to be comprehensive, we believe that God is personal (not an abstract idea or force), that God is good (we might say ‘holy’), and that God is loving (God has a particular attitude or position towards His creation).  Now of course, a number of other things follow from this basic presupposition of God (which Christians hold as a fundamental truth), but we won’t get into all of that here – incidentally, this is where systematic theology is really useful and interesting. 

At any rate, as we also mentioned, one of the challenges of our current context is that we can no longer assume that people (even within the same society) share a common worldview.  And I should point out at this point that the plurality of worldviews in the current culture in no way diminishes the fact that there is a worldview that is actually true.  Or we might say, there are worldviews which are closer to the truth.  There are many concepts or understandings of reality, but something is really real.  So what I want to do today is start discussing some of the challenges that arise from our culture.  So we’ll start by talking about idolatry and false gods. 

We don’t have to look too far in the bible to find commands, laws, warnings, teachings, and wisdom against idolatry and the worship of false gods.  And we don’t have to look any farther in the bible to find examples of all the times Israel and the early Christians failed at precisely this point.  For reference, however, in Exodus 20, Moses receives the Ten Commandments.  This is our first grounding text.  And we read:

Ex. 20:1 And God spoke all these words:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“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.

Exodus 20:1-6

Now it might be interesting to know that, while we (I assume most or all of us) have grown up referring to these verses as the first two commandments (“No other gods,” and “No idols”), there are some traditions which consider these verses together the first commandment.  We’re not going to get into that here, but it’s hard to ignore that they are intimately related. 

It may also be worth noting that some consider v. 4ff. to be an admonition against making an image of YHWH.  However, the interpretation behind this can be understood as turning God into something under our own control [simplified].  I think that still demonstrates a close relationship between (what for us are) the first two commandments, but let’s leave it at that and carry on. 

So, Exodus 20 states in no uncertain terms that God alone is to be worshiped.  But as we know, it is precisely at this point that Israel failed so often (I say, “Israel” because it is to Israel that the law was given – but it is certainly true of all human beings).  Now obviously there are many, many more passages that we can look at talking about this issue, but I’m going to jump ahead to the New Testament.  So we’ll take our second grounding text from the letter to the Romans in which Paul says: 

Rom. 1:18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Romans 1:18-25

This passage really resonates with me because it speaks to worldview.  From my perspective (and with my particular bias), Paul seems to be saying that the truth of the world, of what it is and how it works – the true worldview – is clear.  But human beings rejected that and pursued something else, or created something else. 

To further explore this point, let’s turn to the creation account in Genesis.  So our third grounding text begins in chapter 2 where we read God’s warning to Adam: 

Gen 2:15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

Genesis 2:15-17

Picking up the story in chapter 3, we see the serpent tempting Eve: 

Gen 3:1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

“You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:1-5, emphasis added.

We refer to this passage quite a lot and I’m sure everyone knows it very well – we can understand that the original sin refers to the human inclination to take the place of God for ourselves.  The temptation lies not in the disobedience – not merely in the breaking of a rule – but in the usurping of God. 

I suspect that many of us have at some point heard a definition of idolatry that says, in short, that an idol is anything that takes the place of God.  And that’s a good definition.  But what I want to suggest – and what’s probably obvious to everyone – is that an idol is more than just a thing.  And false gods are more than those we name Buddha, Shiva, Allah, or the flying spaghetti monster.  Specifically, I want to set the issue of idolatry and false gods in the context of our discussion last week of worldview.  And last week, we said that a Christian worldview is that understanding of the world, that understanding of reality, which requires God at the beginning, God at the end (the telos), and God as the source and sustainer. 

But in our world today, we are not limited in the things we turn to, the things we trust, to make sense of, give meaning to, and set the boundaries for our lives in this world.  Some of those things we can clearly identify as idols – shining images of wealth and materialism, financial prosperity, position and possession.  But some of those things are more subtle and more invasive. 

I’m not going to go on a diatribe on the ills of western society.  But in short, what I’m suggesting is that our understanding of the world – our worldview – can largely be revealed by the gods we worship or follow.  I’m not trying to criticize or condemn, but we can claim to be Christians, but if our understanding of the world and the way we live our lives is more informed by something else, then we have to examine ourselves to see if something else has primacy in our lives. 

I think that this is largely the criticism that Jesus had of the religious leaders we read about in Matthew (it’s also in the other gospels and in many of the letters of Paul).  What Jesus was talking about, and what He accomplished, is a reformation, a redeeming, of the false, misguided worldviews that people had. 

So, for the religious leaders, we might judge that their idol, their false god, was the Law or legalism.  Or perhaps it was power and privilege.  In our culture, perhaps it’s materialism, perhaps it’s personal satisfaction.  We can largely see how the self has become a false god for many. 

And when those – or any other thing – becomes the center of our reality, the controlling paradigm, we can easily turn God into simply another means to accomplish what we truly think matters.  Instead of worshiping God, we use God. 

Now I don’t want to go on about that too much because I think it’s evident to us – we’ve talked about it a lot and we’re aware of the danger.  So what do we do about that?  How do we remain rooted in a world where we allow God to be God, a world the beginning and the end, the meaning and the purpose can only be found in God? 

Well – and I’m not trying to be flippant – we need to ensure that we are firmly rooted in scripture and in prayer.  But one of the practices that is often neglected (I think?) is the practice of sabbath-keeping.  And in the rhythms of the Christian week, sabbath is usually closely intertwined with worship (i.e. Sunday worship), but I want to think a little bit about sabbath, properly speaking. 

We’re not going to do a deep dive into the theology of sabbath, but we want to remember that sabbath is firmly rooted in the creation story, in the creation rhythm.  In the Genesis 1 account, we read that God created the world in six days.  In the first three days he created the form – on the first day light, separating it from the darkness; on the second day, the waters and the sky; on the third day, God created the land, separating it from the seas.  In the second three days, he filled it; the light became sun, moon, and stars; the sky and seas were filled with birds in the air and fish in the seas; the land was filled with all kinds of animals, all kinds of plants, and culminated in the creation of human beings.  In six days, God took the formlessness and emptiness and created all things.  And each day, God saw what He created and saw that it was good.  He saw that it was very good.  And on the seventh day, God rested. 

In Exodus (again, the ten commandments), we get the first commandment to keep the Sabbath.  The reason given in Exodus is as follows: 

20:8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Exodus 20:8-11

As we know, the Ten Commandments are repeated in Deuteronomy, when the Israelites are on the edge of Canaan.  But the reason given for keeping Sabbath is different here.  In Deuteronomy, the commandment reads: 

5:12 “Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Now I’d like to point out that I’m following Eugene Peterson here (that is, these are not my original thoughts) in the consideration of sabbath. And it seems to me that these commands are not that different (or the two rationales for the one command – in Exodus and Deuteronomy).  Though the context has changed for the Israelites, the command remains the same. Because, simplifying considerably, in the Exodus account, what we read is that Sabbath is a reminder and recognition that all of creation is the Lord’s.  And in the Deuteronomy account, we read that Sabbath is a reminder that creation does not belong to Pharaoh. 

Skipping a whole bunch of steps, my point is that Sabbath is fundamentally a reminder, a practice, and a celebration that all the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  We may treat sabbath that way, but I suspect that many don’t, especially in the larger society. 

Now I don’t want to get into the work-centered nature of western society (and I also don’t want to neglect the truth that there is a very biblical way to approach and understand work), but what I want to suggest is that sabbath keeping is an important part of not losing our identity in our work, our productivity, our desire for control, or our need for affirmation.  In the western, post-enlightenment, post-industrial world, human beings have become absolutely convinced of our own ability, our own capacity, and our own potential – and to find our identity in such things.  If you can dream it, you can achieve it.  If you need it, you can attain it.  If there is a problem, we can conquer it.  In the western world, the main reason we have a weekend is so that people don’t die.  It’s no wonder that in the western world, the most commonly worshiped deity is the self. 

I’m being cynical here, but what I want to suggest is that sabbath keeping is an important part of keeping our worldview oriented around, by, and in God instead of oriented around human achievement and potential.  This is why worship is an integral part of sabbath.  And of course, worship should be part of our everyday life, but Sunday worship is or can be paradigmatic.  In worship, we not only remember, but we proclaim that all the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  And when we don’t worship regularly, our worldview can become easily skewed.  Because the idols and false gods are all around us.  The temptations to think and live as if God is secondary, God is subsidiary, that He is occasional (only when we need or want something), or that He is irrelevant are all around us. 

But in sabbath, through worship, we remember and proclaim that God is all in all.  That, in fact, everything else that we care so much about, spend so much time and energy on, worry about and that cause us endless anxiety – these are the things that are actually irrelevant.  We are prone to assigning meaning and giving power to things that actually have neither.  All these are the things that are temporary or illusory and will fade into eternity.  In sabbath, we practice putting God first so that in the other six days, we will know how to remain centered in Him alone. 

Now I don’t want to give you the impression that I do this well.  I don’t – at all.  But I need to.  Maybe there are folks we can each turn to who are good at it and can give guidance to the rest of us.  At any rate, I want to encourage you that sabbath can be – should be – so much more than just stopping; so much more than just resting or recreating.  Sabbath can be that discipline (yes, a discipline) wherein we fully immerse ourselves, in the mist of this fallen world, that God is king.  And in that realization, from that truth, we find can rest and restoration.  There are many things in this world clamoring for our attention and our devotion.  But we remember:  (Psalm 24)

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
    and established it on the waters.

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
    Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
    who does not trust in an idol
    or swear by a false god.

They will receive blessing from the Lord
    and vindication from God their Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
    who seek your face, God of Jacob. Lift up your heads, you gates;
    be lifted up, you ancient doors,
    that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
    The Lord strong and mighty,
    the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, you gates;
    lift them up, you ancient doors,
    that the King of glory may come in.
10 Who is he, this King of glory?
    The Lord Almighty—
    he is the King of glory.

Psalm 24

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