Sunday, February 26, 2017

Kill the Idols

Chop. Chop. Chop. And the tree falls. Chop. Chop. This third will be a set of chairs. This third will be firewood. But this last third – it has a special destiny. The lumberjack drops it off at the workshop. For days, weeks, the craftsmen painstakingly draw and sketch and chop and chisel. The axe flies, day after day, until a form takes shape, an almost human form. It moves down the assembly line; another craftsman comes. Sweat on his brow, he melts and hammers gold into sheets, bends them around the wood, nails them into place.

Another craftsman takes his turn. Into the gold, he embeds diamonds and rubies, sapphires and emeralds, and all manner of other jewels over this carved block of wood. Now another craftsman comes, a tailor. He makes his measurements and sews the furs, dyes them with the richest violet dyes of royalty, and comes and places a purple cloak around the statue. It's ready.

The priest and his assistants come next, come to the smoky heat of the workshop. They lay out a red carpet in front of the statue, and a white one next to it for the priest. And the offerings are made, and the priest takes vessels of holy water and washes the statue's mouth, purifying it, so he thinks, of the traces of its man-made origins. And he hails the statue as self-made and born in heaven. And whether with a cart or with people to carry it, the priest and his assistants lead the statue out, out the workshop doors, out to the wilderness.

They come then to the riverbank. There sits the statue on a woven reed mat, its carved and plated face sightlessly facing the setting sun. All around sit little offerings. The priest pours out a beer on the ground to the things he worships. He slaughters the ram he brought with him, cuts it open, and stuffs the craftsmens' tools inside. Stitching up the ram's thigh to hide the evidence, he tosses it into the river. A few incantations, another repeat of the mouth-washing – and it's time to move again through the night.

This time, they go into a garden. And then there sits the statue on a woven reed mat atop a linen cloth, surrounded by little reed huts, its carved and plated face sightlessly facing the rising sun. More pouring out beer. More rows of offerings – this time set out to all the planets and all the constellations, little sacrifices to Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, the moon, Mercury, Mars; to Libra, Andromeda, Virgo, Pisces, Scorpio, Aquarius. The priest spreads out the red carpet, sets up tables at the huts, lays out a feast. He throws herbs and spices on the fire, chants more incantations, sacrifices another ram.

Another priest comes. He anoints the statue's mouth, says it's opened now – says that now a god can enter the statue, bring it to life, so that it will see and hear, eat and drink, smell and speak. The priest whispers into the wood carved to look like a left ear, tells the statue, “You're counted as one of the gods now. From today on, your destiny is divinity.” Now the craftsmen are invited, the ones who carved and decorated the statue – and they swear solemn vows that they did no such thing. The priest chants loudly that the statue is a god born in heaven – and now he stands, not beside the statue, but bends low before and beneath it.

They lead the statue into the city, to the temple, pausing to make offerings here and there, chanting various songs and prayers all the way, until the priest and the statue reach the sanctuary. The statue is put where it'll stay. More cleansing rituals to purify their new 'god,' and after nightfall, the statue is given all “the trappings of divinity.” And so an idol is made.

That's really how the Babylonians made their idols. They left us detailed descriptions on tablets of clay – that's the process, that's the procedure. To them, an idol was a statue, an emblem, made to literally embody the presence of the divine; and by becoming the vessel of a god, it would itself become a god, renouncing its human origins for heavenly ones. The Israelite prophets, of course, would have none of their nonsense. And we, most of us, probably think it's silly – all those feeble and futile rites, full of their deception and degradation. We think it's silly. But... do we really?

We may not cut trees, carve them, cover them in gold and jewels, clothe them, and perform rituals to try and bring them to life. But remember – an idol was an emblem or symbol that served to embody what you most valued, and would itself become valued, trusted in, and receive your devotion. And we still do that, for sure. What is it we really hang our hopes on? What is it we really value? What things do we treat with veneration? What do we dote on? What do we obsess over? If you had to write out your autobiography, if you wrote it with the days of your life, what would be the central motifs? What would point to and embody the main theme of your autobiography? And that story – at the very end, would it be a story worth telling in court?

Maybe, if you really think how you'd tell the story of your life, the central motif would be the land you live on or the house you live in – because the theme is self-sufficiency, the theme is how you provide, the theme is satisfaction with your life. And so that land or that house serves a function for you a lot like that statue did for the Babylonians of old. Or maybe it's a car or something else you own – maybe they symbolize shelter, supply, success, and that's the theme that ties the plot of your life together. Or maybe the theme is productivity, and your central motif is those digits on your pay stub for the number of hours you've worked.

Or maybe the theme is health and fitness and beauty, and so the central motif is exercise equipment or a bicycle or the very musculature of your body, treated as an object to be revered and obsessed over. Or maybe the theme is the pursuit of excellence in a hobby or a sport, and so the central motif might be a trophy you keep shiny and prominent, or a hunting rifle and a mounted twelve-point buck, or a football or basketball, or a fast car or motorcycle, or any number of things.

Or maybe the theme is patriotism, your love for and reverence for this country, or for values like honor and self-sacrifice in its cause – and so the central motif, the idol, if you will, is the Pledge of Allegiance or the American flag itself. Make no mistake, those can function for us the way that statue did in Babylon. Or maybe the themes are the ideas you hold dear, and the emblem that symbolizes them is a political slogan, telling you whom to fear and what to fight for, making the great mysteries of life simple enough to catch in a catchphrase.

The truth is, there are plenty of things we're prone to idolize. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6, you might remember how Jesus called out three big ones we tend to worship: Praise, Wealth, and Security. And just last week, we explored boasting. If you were here, you might remember some of the things people boast in – they boast in strength, they boast in skills, they boast in success, they boast in wealth or possessions, they boast in being members of some group, they boast in having connections to important people or things, they boast in the experiences they've had, they boast in what they know, they boast in being right, they boast in being good. All those boasts can become the themes of our lives – if we let them. And when they do, we eventually have to find ways to embody that theme in more concrete ways to show our devotion to it. And when we do that, we're making and enthroning idols, no less than any carpenter, goldsmith, or priest in all Babylon.

For the Jews of Jeremiah's day, the Jews who were on the verge of, or already, being sent into exile near Babylon, it was awfully tempting to go with the crowd – to give up, to let the Babylonians dictate the themes of their lives, to let them write the story. It was tempting to think that there must be something to all these big beautiful statues, that the Babylonians must know something they don't. Jeremiah has a different take on things. Throughout this morning's passage, Jeremiah offers us five reasons to skip this big charade.

First, idolatry is pointless because the idols are beneath us. Those rituals where the craftsmen say they didn't make the statue – that's an obvious falsehood, it's a blatant lie! That's exactly what they did. The statue is nothing more than a hunk of wood, gussied up with all the finery they could find, but still something made. It gets cut down, carved up, decorated, handled (Jeremiah 10:3-4). And it doesn't matter if “beaten silver is brought from Tarshish and gold from Uphaz,” because at the end of the day, the truth is that the statues remain just “the work of the craftsman and the hands of the goldsmith … all the work of skilled men” (Jeremiah 10:9). And nothing more.

And the same is true of our idols. Land, trophies, praise? We assign those meaning. They have no real reference outside the human community; they're posturing for other people, defining ourselves relative to them. They're entirely man-made. The same goes for rifles and motorcycles and autographed baseballs and golf clubs and framed photos and all the rest. The flag? We made it and everything it stands for. Political slogans? We invented those; we crafted the ideas they represent. Our idols are beneath us. We made them, not the other way around. They didn't make us. We make them.

Second, idolatry is pointless because the idols are inert. They can't really do anything. In the ritual, the Babylonians thought that, after they anointed and 'opened' the mouth of the statue, it would come to life and be able to see and hear, eat and drink, smell and speak. Jeremiah says that's a big bushel of road apples. Take away all the priestly gimmicks, strip off the theatrics, and you'll find the truth – it isn't alive; it's still nothing but wood and decorations. It can't see you, it can't hear you, it can't eat or talk or move. “Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Don't be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil; neither is it in them to do good” (Jeremiah 10:5). These “images are false, and there is no breath in them” (Jeremiah 10:14). They're inert – totally passive, never active; mere objects, never subjects, never agents. And the same is true of all our idols. Land, houses, cars, boats, trophies, banners, slogans – they aren't alive, they don't interact with the world of their own accord, they'll never come to our rescue. People might – but idols are beneath us.

Third, idolatry is pointless because the idols can't teach you anything. You can sit at the pretty statue's feet for months and listen carefully to every word it doesn't say, and how much will you have learned? The statue contributes nothing to your life. It doesn't instruct you, doesn't edify you. It offers you nothing that wasn't already yours to begin with. The great philosophers and sages of the nations, those grand ritual experts who learn from these statues everything they know? “They are both stupid and foolish; the instruction of idols is only wood” (Jeremiah 10:8). “Every man is stupid and without knowledge; every goldsmith is put to shame by his idols” (Jeremiah 10:14). Learn all you can from the idols, and that's the shameful condition you'll end up in. There's no wisdom in something as inherently idiotic as idolatry.

And so everything built on it is foolish. “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are vanity” (Jeremiah 10:2-3). 'Vanity' – yes, it's the same word you remember from Ecclesiastes. That's what idolatry is. In a world characterized by shadows and smoke, wispy vapors here today and gone tomorrow, broken and impermanent, impossible to grasp, full of illusion – idolatry gives you no way out. Devotion to idols, to man-made symbols of man-made values, can never get you out of the fog. The same is true of all of our idols. Whatever technical skill you can get from a trophy, a race car, a flag, a slogan, or the rest – it's not wisdom for living. You can sit in front of a trophy shelf for days and not learn a thing. It isn't going to pipe up and give you lessons. And it definitely isn't going to lead you to solid ground in times of trouble.

Fourth, idolatry is pointless because it deforms you. When we really value something, when we really devote ourselves to it, we come to resemble it, reflect it. That's just human nature – we become more like whatever it is we worship. We grow toward it. But if we're giving our devotion to something that's fundamentally beneath us, if we're taking our instruction from something mindless, well, what do you think is going to come of that? The Israelites in the desert worshipped a cow statue... and became stiff-necked like a cow statue (Exodus 32:7-9). The so-called wise men of the nations listened to Professor Woodblock and became, go figure, a bunch of blockheads.

Devotion to idols doesn't just fail to help you; it actively harms you. It stunts and twists your growth. That goes for our idols as much as the statues in Babylon. When we give ourselves over to these mere things, we come to reflect them, be like them. Maybe that doesn't look like much now, maybe it's subtle now, but take that pattern and extend the trajectory, stretch it over the next billion years. What does a billion-year-old idolater look like? Stunted. Shriveled. Subhuman. An idolater truly given over to his or her idols will barter away humanity like Esau's birthright for a mere mess of pottage. An idolater, in the end, is endlessly multiplying him- or herself by a fraction – dwindling further and further from wholeness with each iteration. And there's a word for that kind of existence. The word is “hell.”

Fifth, idolatry is pointless because idols are doomed. Those wooden statues the Babylonians carved – where are they now? Gone – burned in fire, crumbled to dust. They're no-shows on the world stage. The stone statues of the Greeks and Romans have fared a little better – a few survive in museums today (maybe missing a head or a limb), but an insignificant little portion of the ones they built. They're wearing down. Give it more time, a few disasters here and there, and they'll be gone, too.

Wake up a Babylonian from his tomb today, tell him to go find the idol he trusted in – and will he ever find it? His dead idol is now dead and gone. And if by some chance he could find it now, how about on judgment day, when the earth has been cleansed by fire? “The gods who didn't make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens” (Jeremiah 10:11). “They are worthless, a work of delusion; at the time of their punishment, they shall perish” (Jeremiah 10:15). The idols of Babylon are doomed, and so are our idols – our trophies, our hobbies, our wealth, our banners and slogans and all our other manufactured ideals will one day die off. And when we face the court, they will not be available to testify in our favor – and it's questionable if they even would if they could.

No, the idols are beneath us, they're inert, they've got nothing to teach us, they deform us, and they're doomed, anyway. Tell that to a Babylonian of old, or one of his modern kinsmen, and you might incite a panic: “How can we live without something sturdy, visible, and flashy to distant truths and make them near?”

But Jeremiah has more to say. There's one option left, One who offers himself as the main theme of our autobiographies, if we'll take his cues and let him dictate our plot points. “There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is great in might” (Jeremiah 10:6). He is everything our idols aren't. They're products of our manufacture – mere creations of human skill and enterprise – but he isn't. (Feuerbach was wrong.) “It is he who made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens” (Jeremiah 10:12). He isn't beneath us; he's above us, high above us. We don't assign meaning to him; he gives meaning and purpose to us.

Our idols are inert, ineffective – mere passive objects, never active agents. By definition, they're weak – there's nothing weaker or deader. “But the LORD is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. At his wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure his indignation” (Jeremiah 10:10). “When he utters his voice, there is a tumult of the waters in the heavens, and he makes the mist rise from the ends of the earth. He brings lightning for rain, and he brings forth the wind from his storehouses” (Jeremiah 10:13) – we sure got a taste of that last night, a year and a day since an abundance of winds swirled in a tornado around this very temple. The idols are dead and breathless; they have no breath, no wind, but the LORD has storehouses full of living breath. He isn't inert; he's very vital. There's none more active.

Our idols can't teach us anything. They offer no wisdom. But it's by wisdom that the LORD established the world (Jeremiah 10:12). He's the source of all wisdom! “Among all the wise ones of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is none like you” (Jeremiah 10:7). Sit at an idol's feet, and you'll never learn a valuable lesson from it. But kneel before the LORD, and there's nothing he can't teach you. The idols are only pretend teachers. They're only pretend kings, draped in their violet and purple clothing. But the LORD rules. He's the everlasting King (Jeremiah 10:10). He's the King of the nations (Jeremiah 10:7). He has all wisdom and all authority. The idols can't raise us beyond a world of smoke and mirrors; their solution to our illusion is delusion and confusion. But the LORD is the true God, beyond all our mist and fog; he's truth and light and life.

Our idols deform us. As we devote ourselves to them, we grow into their stunted image and become curved in on ourselves, because they're beneath us. But not the LORD. When we worship him, we come to reflect his beauty. We become more of what we were meant to be. We grow upright, into a dignified stature; we shine more and more, resembling his truth, reflecting his light, sharing his life. And if a billion years of idolatry can produce only a shriveled subhuman wreck, endlessly multiplying himself by a fraction, and if the word for that is “hell,” imagine a billion years of worship in spirit and in truth – what would that produce in and around you, a billion years of growing in grace and glory to better reflect the living God? Isn't that paradise, isn't that heaven? If idolatry does nothing but harm, true devotion to the LORD does everything but harm – it heals beyond our wildest dreams.

Our idols are, finally, doomed. They won't last. They burn up or crumble apart. They won't survive the final trial. But the LORD is “the everlasting King” (Jeremiah 10:7). He comes with no expiration date. The idols are doomed and useless, so there's no need to fear them; but “who would not fear [the] King of the nations,” forever and ever (Jeremiah 10:6)? “He is the One who formed all things” and will outlast them all. He's “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13); and beside him there is no god (Isaiah 44:6). He was and is and is to come (Revelation 4:8). He's God from everlasting to everlasting (Psalm 90:2).

And where idols were built in an effort to bring distant nothings close, the LORD is loftier than highest heaven but comes close. He's not distant. He's “the portion of Jacob,” he chose Israel as “the tribe of his inheritance; the LORD of Hosts is his name” (Jeremiah 10:16). And we know that firsthand, because he came near in the person of Jesus Christ, the one and only God, the one and only and Savior. From heaven he came and sought us, the people of his inheritance, gathered from every tribe and tongue. And although he was the Creator, he knelt to walk among his creation. In a world of speechless idols, he taught the words of life (John 6:68).

Forgoing heaven's finery, he marched toward a piece of wood – not to make an idol of it, but to sanctify it with his blood, the blood that purges our sins away. And so, decorated not with silver nor gold nor with fine robes, but draped in grubby faded cloth and crowned with thorns, he was fastened to the cross with hammer and nails (cf. Jeremiah 10:4), even though he's the One who fastened the heavens and the earth in place.

But that wasn't the end of the story. Hammer and nails couldn't hold him. Neither could the grave, the doom of all idols. Because he is still the living God; his unconquerable life destroyed death's power. He is still the everlasting King of the nations (cf. Jeremiah 10:10). When he utters his voice, there's a tumult in heaven and earth, as the grip of sin and death are shaken. He makes our mist-like lives rise away from mere earthly preoccupations toward a heavenly hope. He brings the Holy Spirit, like the mightiest rushing wind, from his heavenly storehouse (cf. Jeremiah 10:13), and fills our deadened clay with his life-giving breath (cf. Genesis 2:7).

And with the same wisdom that made the earth and established the world, he's making a new creation even now, and by his understanding is stretching out his church “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13; cf. Jeremiah 10:12). And there's just no one like him: the Lord Jesus Christ is his name, who with his Father and his Spirit reigns eternally as one God, glorified forever (cf. Jeremiah 10:6-7, 16).

So why cling to idols any longer? Don't be like the idolaters – don't imitate their devotion, don't fear what they fear, don't get caught up in their crazes (Jeremiah 10:2). Don't use your days to write an autobiography with a lesser theme than the living God. Get rid of the idols. Kill the idols. In your own life, with the power the living God offers you in his grace, hasten the day when “the gods who did not make the heavens and the earth shall perish” from your life (Jeremiah 10:11). Kill the idols. Write a new idol-free chapter – a chapter worth telling on the day when Jesus stands as your Judge. May he then be your Advocate and Defender – and he will, if you place your faith in him now and hear and obey his words of life. Listen to, live by, those words. But kill the idols. Amen.

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