Sunday, May 16, 2021

Crush the Idols

It was an October day in the year we'd call 539 BC, and the exiled Jews watched with excitement and rejoicing as the Persian invaders swept through the land of their captivity. Daniel in Babylon saw the writing on the wall – literally. Nabonidus – self-proclaimed “great king, strong king, king of the universe, king of Babylon..., worshipper of the great gods” – was terrified.1 He'd been terrified all year. Nabonidus – by now in his later seventies or early eighties – came back the other year, having spent a decade away at an Arabian oasis while his oldest son Belshazzar oversaw the empire. Nabonidus' efforts to shove a religious reform down Babylon's throat hadn't gone well. This past winter, though, as his former Persian allies became a threat, he'd dropped all that, returned to Babylonian tradition. And by February, he'd begun taking the idols from the surrounding towns and bringing these gods all into Babylon. He wanted to protect the idols from falling into Persian hands, of course. But in part, perhaps, he also wanted to protect himself. If he could amass the gods in Babylon, then all the powers of heaven would have 'skin in the game': they'd have a common interest with him in Babylon's defense. Manipulating them might turn the tide of the failing war. Nabonidus wanted their defense.

But it didn't work. The gods of Babylon were nothing. Their idols were nothing. For the sake of his exiled people, the one true and living God had already prophesied Babylon's downfall. Soldiers marched into Babylon on October 12 without a fight, and seventeen days later, the Persian king Cyrus arrived in person, proclaiming liberty and relief. From November through the following March, he sent the idols back where they came from, safe and sound. And soon, Cyrus proclaimed an end to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.2

That true story illustrates how, when the Old and New Testament alike talk about idolatry, they're often being quite literal. Ancient pagans often found or crafted images representative of the gods, the powers, that they believed ruled the universe. Some believed the image was possessed by the god; others, that the image made the god present some other way. But after the inauguration ritual, they'd feed it, bow to it, parade it around. The point was to bring the god, bring the power, close enough to care for – and control.

In his words spoken in flame from the mountaintop, the LORD is incredibly insistent that Israelite religion isn't to work that way. He was quite deliberate that, when he appeared on Sinai, the general population of Israel saw no form of him, only his effects, and therefore had no idea what shape to sculpt (Deuteronomy 4:15-19). He demanded that Israel was to make no attempt to capture any powers in something they could control: “You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 26:1). The psalmists pointed out that debasing ourselves to lifeless things like idols only functions to suck the life right out of us: “They have mouths but don't speak, eyes but don't see, ears but don't hear, noses but don't smell, hands but don't feel, feet but don't walk, and they don't make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them. So do all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:5-8). The prophets went on to ridicule idolatry as insanity: “A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman; they decorate it with silver and gold, they fasten it with hammer and nails so it can't move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field … Don't be afraid of them, for they can't do evil, neither is it in them to do good. … The gods who didn't make the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under the heavens. … They are worthless, a work of delusion. At the time of their punishment, they shall perish” (Jeremiah 10:3-15).

But in spite of all this, Israel again and again kept falling for the doomed gods they could see. Starting from the golden calf, Israel's kings repeatedly provoked God to anger with idols (1 Kings 16:13, 26). After the divide, the northern kingdom “went after false idols and became false,” and that was their end (2 Kings 17:15-18). Yet in the south, the people still didn't learn: King Manasseh of Judah even made an idol and installed it in God's holy temple in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 33:7). It was a besetting sin, because it was all around them.

But what about today? Ours thinks of itself as a post-Christian culture. There are no statues people praise as gods and try to feed. So what does all this matter now? Isn't ours a post-idolatry age? Alas, no. Ezekiel heard a warning from God about people who don't just bow down to the images they make with their hands, but who “have taken their idols into their hearts” (Ezekiel 14:3). Famously, the human mind has been termed a “perpetual factory of idols.”3 The LORD God says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3), but oftentimes, people will do it: they'll pick out some worldly power, some force in the world, and will focus their attention on it, placing it functionally between themselves and the true God. God says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness” (Exodus 20:4), but oftentimes, people will go on to represent that power in some specific and concrete way, to enshrine it in their hearts. God says, “You shall not bow down to them” (Exodus 20:5), but oftentimes, people will lessen their own God-given dignity by lowering themselves in the presence of that power. And God says, “You shall not... serve them” (Exodus 20:5), but oftentimes, people will organize the rhythms of their lives or the patterns of their thinking around their inward image of that worldly power or force. And in that way, idolatry remains a live temptation in the modern Western world no less than the ancient Near Eastern one – because we've taken our idols into our hearts.

This morning, I offer you a few examples. One power we're tempted to focus on is Mammon – money, treated as if it were a god. Now, obviously, we need purchasing power to survive in the course of day-to-day life; and we were made to work, made to act on and in the world. But this work we do was never meant to define who we are, and acquiring goods and resources and power was never supposed to be our primary pursuit. Too often, though, we do define ourselves by what we 'do for a living,' or what we've been able to accumulate. At some points in our lives, we become workaholics – we get uncomfortable if we aren't active, if we aren't producing, if we aren't accomplishing. At some points in our lives, our careers overshadow the lives and families that they're meant to support – the means to the end of sustaining a family becomes an end in itself that overshadows that family and that life. And at some points in our lives, our daydreams become captured by all the things we want to surround ourselves with. Our thoughts and feelings are discipled by the workplace. And when that happens, Mammon is the god whom we incarnate in the idol called Career, or in the idol called Household, or in any of the many little idols proposed to our eyes and ears by a relentless barrage of advertising. The trouble is, “You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24). When career is an idol, when your house is an idol, when the stuff you have or wish you had is an idol, then something contrary to serving and loving God has emerged.

A second example: Another power we're tempted to focus on is Leisure or Pleasure. Now, obviously, we need to enjoy ourselves, need to rest, need to take delight in the world. And yet there's a danger here, too, just as in our work. Our hobbies and our vacations can become all-consuming pursuits, to the point that they interpose themselves between us and God, becoming in effect the idols we've introduced into his presence. Maybe we routinely go away on weekend vacations or hunting trips that tear us from the midst of God's people where God summons us. Maybe cooking a holiday dinner for family takes the place of actually celebrating the holy day for and with the holy God. Maybe sports games and music recitals, our own or our grandchildren's or simply what we see on the TV, begin to crowd out worship and service. Then we have started to bow down and serve these leisures and pleasures and enjoyments as idols; and, like seed falling among thorns, we risk being “choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life,” and our fruit may wither and die on the bud (Luke 8:14). The Bible warns us to never be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4) – but these idols appeal.

A third example: Yet another power we're tempted to focus on is Social Esteem. Now, obviously, we all – to some extent or another – want to be liked, honored, and affirmed by an audience of our peers. And in a healthy society, this is a feature, not a bug: it's designed by God to help reinforce pro-social behavior. And yet it can be blown out of proportion. The power of society to affirm or reject can become tyrannical. When treated like a god, it uses our concern for reputation to manipulate us. We strive to appease it by 'being cool' or 'going with the flow' or simply 'being normal.' We carve an image of social esteem, an image called reputation; we bow to peer pressures explicit and implicit; we serve it by organizing our lives the way everybody around us does. And yet we're warned that “whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). We're blessed if our attachment to Jesus leads neighbors to hate us, mock us, shun us (Luke 6:22). And the reason it's blessed is that it means we've ground the idol of reputation to dust, and left its dust at Jesus' feet.

A fourth example: I'm sure you've heard the slogan somewhere in the news this past year: 'Follow the Science.' You'll note that 'Science' here always comes with a capital 'S,' even if just implicitly. Science is good as a tool for discovering and understanding the world, but in this slogan, it's Science as the image we've carved out to represent the worldly powers of Intellect and Mastery. Many segments of our society in recent years have been revealed as obsessive zealots for this idol and these gods. And in the past year, we've seen that because people have taken to praying for the idol of capital-S 'Science' to intercede for them, propitiating another taller idol. And that taller idol is Safety. Now, caution and prudence are virtues, to say nothing of the higher virtue that is love for our neighbors. But what I'm talking about goes beyond that. It can't be denied that for some people today, the prospect of perceived physical risk is so feared that any lengths, any sacrifices, can be justified to protect ourselves, to preserve ourselves. When that happens, then Safety has become an idol. We bow down to Safety when we're willing to sacrifice anything to keep ourselves safe, when we admit no limits to how far we'll go. We serve Safety when we reorganize our lives according to the one goal of self-preservation. And so, in prolonging our life and health intact, balance falls to zeal, and we insulate ourselves indefinitely. Bowing to and serving this idol stifles the Spirit's whisper into our hearts to risk everything for Jesus – knowing that a glimpse of his face is of greater value than health or even life.

But there is a fifth example. Many of our neighbors – many of us – look also to our nation to give us a sense of identity. A lot of us sing that we're proud to be Americans. We're proud of whatever values we associate with that word. Our hearts stir when we see red, white, and blue all together, or when we hear about a rocket's red glare. And, obviously, God bids us love our neighbors, and that frequently begins with our neighbors in our local civic order. And yet – and yet there's a risk here. I recently witnessed a political gathering where people who spoke consistently identified themselves with three words: “I'm a Christian, I'm a Patriot, and I support such-and-such famous politician.” And it wasn't clear which of those sources of identity really came first. As I listened to them, I couldn't help but remember a story I once read, about a pastor who got a little clumsy during Communion and spilled the cup all over a nearby American flag. That pastor later had a church member storm into his office in a rage to yell at him. Now, what do you think the church member was upset about? Was it that the pastor had mistreated the salvation-giving blood of the Almighty God by whom and in whom and for whom all things in the universe exist? Or was it mistreatment of a colored cloth symbolizing one of the many nations that arises in history and is destined to fall and fade in history? See, it should have been the first. But I think we all know that that church member's anger was stoked by the second. Because in that church – and not only there – America was the god; Jesus was the mascot.

Friends, God and country are not equals, and the cross and the flag are not equals. We may generally admit that truth, if pressed. But we need to examine ourselves to make sure we aren't just giving lip-service. See, it's very easy for us to deify our country, America as a god. And we do the same with our personal political leanings. And then the flag becomes an idol, the Constitution becomes an idol, Liberty becomes an idol, our political philosophy becomes an idol. And that has become one of the great modern American expressions of idolatry.

Maybe we let conservatism or libertarianism or liberalism or progressivism call the shots and dictate our views. Maybe we think that 'un-American' or 'undemocratic' is a word that's in and of itself enough to end all debate. Maybe we obsess over the political news and can't stop fuming about what the fox or the peacock told us about what the donkey and the elephant are up to. Maybe we find ourselves arguing so passionately that it divides us from our neighbors, or even from brothers and sisters in Christ. Maybe we let pundits disciple us in how to scorn and how to scoff. Maybe we invest civic symbols with holy power. Maybe we think that God needs America or even loves America more than other nations. Maybe we're quicker to defend the honor of our country or our politics than to defend the sanctity of the sacred. Or maybe we can't even tell the difference any more. But if any of these come true of us, then we've found something to bow down to that isn't God. We've begun to serve our politics, or patriotism, or our mental picture of our rights. We've turned from God to an idol.

These are five examples. There could be many more. These are idols – ways of trying to get the powers within our reach, ways of distracting ourselves from God. None of them bring health. The powers themselves might be neutral or even good things, healthy parts of creation, when kept in their proper place. But in singling them out, the position we put them in is unhealthy. In carving their images and likenesses within our grasp, the idols we take into our hearts are unhealthy. Sacrificing to them, lessening our dignity in their presence, bowing down to them – that's unhealthy. And organizing our patterns of thought and life around them, serving them – that's unhealthy. “As for... idolaters,” the scripture says, “their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8). “Idolaters... will not inherit the kingdom of God,” we read (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Why not? It's like Jonah reminds us: “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love” (Jonah 2:8). God hates our idols because they're unhealthy for us, and his heart breaks to see us abandon the hope of his love! His love for us is so zealous, so determined, that, while he never let idolatrous dynasties in Israel last more than three or four generations, his “steadfast love” will embrace thousands of generations of “those who love [him] and keep [his] commandments” (Exodus 20:5-6).

The good news, the great news, is found in the promise of prophets: “You will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images; you will scatter them as unclean things; you will say to them, 'Be gone!'” (Isaiah 30:22). “I will cut off the carved image and the metal image” (Nahum 1:14). “I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more” (Zechariah 13:2). “I will destroy the idols and put an end to the images” (Ezekiel 30:13). “All her carved images shall be beaten to pieces... and all her idols I will lay waste” (Micah 1:7). “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you,” says the Lord (Ezekiel 36:25).

The good news is that our hearts don't have to be a perpetual factory of idols. The assembly line can shut down. For God already has an image. Jesus Christ is “the Image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4): “He is the Image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus is himself God made visible, God made audible, God made tangible – God become present in our lives. We have no need to focus our gaze on worldly powers when we can fix our eyes on him as our finish line in the race of life. We have no need to carve idols when we entrust ourselves to his nail-scarred hands. We have no need to bow to idols when to bow the knee to Jesus makes us even taller than to stand on our own two feet. We have no need to serve idols when to love and serve Jesus is joy enough for a lifetime. For his indomitable life is richer than all money, more fruitful than all careers, more delightful than all hobbies, more refreshing than all vacations, more welcoming than all esteem, wiser than all science, more secure than all safety, more lordly than all politics, and more everlasting than all nations.

And while Jesus is the Image of God, each and every human person is made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26). Sometimes we image God well. Sometimes we image God poorly. But our liveliness images God all the same. “Being God's offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man” (Acts 17:29). And together, we are meant to be gathered together into the perfect Image of the Image: the Church. If Christ is like the Sun, the Church is the moon reflecting Christ's light – although for now our surface is still cratered and we do not shine so brightly, yet we come more and more to shine with a radiance not our own. The Church extends the Image of God to all the cosmos. And as the Church does that, the perceived need for idols crumbles to dust. For only we, the Church living the human calling in Christ, can adequately image God's life and dignity, so we must surrender ourselves to no dead thing, to no worldly power, to no carving meant to keep the cosmos under control.

Defile your idols. Give them up. Grind them down, crush them. Hear John: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21). Hear Paul: “My beloved ones, flee from idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14). Jesus is better, now and forever! Amen.

1  For these epithets, see “The Sippar Cylinder of Nabonidus,” item 2.123A in William W. Hallo, ed., The Context of Scripture, 3 vols. (Brill, 2003), 2:310-311; and “Nabonidus' Rebuilding of E-lugal-galga-sisa, the Ziggurat of Ur,” item 2.123 B in idem., 2:314.

2  Details of the fall of Babylon from the “Chronicle of Nabonidus,” item 26 in Jean-Jacques Glassner and Benjamin R. Foster, ed., Mesopotamian Chronicles, Writings from the Ancient World 19 (Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 232-239 (especially 237, 239); and the “Cyrus Cylinder,” item 2.124 in William W. Hallo, ed., The Context of Scripture, 3 vols. (Brill, 2003), 2:315.

3  John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion 1.11.8

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