Idolatry (7/17/2011 Sermon)


Text: Isaiah 44:6-17

I think Isaiah’s description of the idol-maker is intentionally comical.   It’s hard not to laugh as he describes the god-making process in hilarious detail:

One day, this guy feels a big god-shaped hole in his heart.  He’s really missing something.  Well, given this feeling and all the hours he has to kill, he decides to make himself a god.

This guy goes out into the woods, picks the most divine looking tree he can find and…cuts it down. He uses half of the tree as fuel to warm himself, maybe burn his sensitive mail and to and cook his lentil stew.  Recharged after the hot, delicious stew, our lumberjack friend begins to carve a god.

But what sort? A bird?  A walrus body with the head of a sea lion?  In the end he goes with the image of a man, and uses his buddy Steve as a model.  He spends hours forming and molding his god before, exhausted, he likes what he sees. He passes it on to the Ironsmith who has to beat the snot out of the thing, trying to form the metal around the wood.  Finally, the god is finished. Mom, dad and the kids bow down to it before they polish off the rest of the stew….that was cooked on the other half of the tree which became a god.

Isaiah’s point is obvious: How comically ridiculous, how patently foolish is the very idea of idolatry – of bowing down and worshiping a thing human hands have made. Isaiah almost laughs.  But he doesn’t laugh. Because, as foolish as it is, even the people of God are constantly on the verge of idolatry.

Now we’ll all protest. We’ve never made a walrus statue.  Certainly never bowed down to one. The closest I ever came to idolatry was watching Michael Jordan play basketball for the Chicago Bulls, but then I met the guy and he didn’t sign my basketball card after I waited outside his restauraunt for hours. Stopped watching NBA basketball after that.  So…surely the modern world has moved beyond idolatry, right?” Wrong. If only. If only idolatry was as obvious as bowing down to a statue.

Idolatry can be very subtle.  And idol can sneak in, unannounced and unwelcome.  Idolatry is much in force today.  Here’s a workign definition: Idolatry is forming god according to our own image or standards or preferences. In other words, idolatry is the very popular idea that we get to make God up. And God hates idolatry.

The ancient Israelites did it when they made a golden calf statue and worshiped it as the god who led them out of Egypt.

Thomas Jefferson did it when he cut every passage and verse out of his bible that didn’t conform to his Enlightenment Deist standardsfor How a God ought to behave and what a God ought and ought not say.

The German national church did it when they reinvented the God of Jesus to be the the God who who was underwriting their particular country’s politics and policies.

We do it in so many ways:

When we base what we do and do not think about God on the sole criteria of what warms our hearts, makes us happy or makes us comfortable.

When we imagine that God is just like us – my ways are his ways, my thoughts are his thoughts. I vote Republican? God votes Republican. I would never let this happen? God would never let this happen. I’m an American? Jesus is an American.

We cast God after our own image all the time. Reminds me of a bible study I led while I was on vicarage. I printed off around ten portraits I found on the internet. Who’s this? Jesus. Who’s this? Jesus. Who’s this? Jesus. Finally, I pulled out a very different portrait. Who’s this? There was hesitation. No immediate answers. I filled in the blank: This is getting close to what Jesus looks like.

A medical artist from the UK had put together a composite based on a series of first century skulls of Jewish men around the same age as Jesus during his public ministry.  This is what he came up with. It’s not Jesus in our image, but it’s getting closer to what he may actually look like.  What?  No blonde hair or blue eyes? (Click here to read the article.)

Let’s face it: We are natural born idol-makers. We want a God we can form to suit our will; a God who looks and thinks like us.

But here’s the problem with idolatry: Like the man who used half a tree to warm his lunch and half to make a god, deep down, you know you’re making it up. That it’s a lie. A lie you tell yourself to make life easier, or to justify yourself, or to make yourself feel good. Every idolater knows deep down, he’s making it up. And something made up cannot rescue or deliver.

Here’s a paradoxical point that I’m absolutely convinced of: I find great comfort in a God who makes me uncomfortable – a God nobody in the world would or could make up, a God who doesn’t look like me or think my thoughts. Because as much and as often as he yanks me out of my comfort zone, I know he has a decent shot at being the true and Living God.

An idol will never make you uncomfortable. An idol cannot confuse you, because it will only tell you what you already know and never tell you anything new.  An idol will never ask you to believe what you don’t want to believe because it’s your voice in its mouth.  It will never ask you to do what you’d rather not do…because it is you. Only a Living God would do such things.  And only a Living God can save.

I’ll say it again: I find comfort in the God who makes me uncomfortable, because I know he is real and is mighty to save.  He is the God who told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, called Israel out of Egypt with plagues and death, descended on Sinai in smoke and lightning, who bellowed through the prophets and called kings to account, who sent his Son 2,000 years ago to a dusty town in the middle of nowhere to rescue the world by being executed by the government. You can’t make this stuff up, or at least it seems to us, you shouldn’t.  Yet, there it is.

The gospel is not that this Living God is an idol after all – tame, predictable, malleable, just like me. The Gospel is that there is a God, he has made himself known in Jesus Christ, and has bound himself to me in love through his death and my baptism. That, as free as He may be, as different from me as He is, as uncomfortable as He might make me or as unfathomable His works and ways might appear, He has promised good to me in baptism, loved me in all he has provided, forgives me in absolution and Lord’s Supper and holds my future.  But He is God, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.”  (Job 13:15)

Interesting: Idolatry is pervasive.  Pandemic.  Only one thing can make a person lose their iron grip on false gods. Only when the Living God has come to us and reconciled us to Himself do we begin to let our idols go. Only when the Living God meets us in forgiveness and love, do we have the power to admit to ourselves that we had been worshiping an image we had made.

God hates idolatry. But today, God calls you. Forgives you. Loves you. Brothers and sisters, prepare to come to his table and to feel his grip on you.  Prepare to feel your grip on idols slacken and to leave them all behind. In the name of the Living Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.


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