Are you an idolater? I already lost you, didn’t I? Most wouldn’t raise their hand to affirm their idolatry.
Idolatry doesn’t preach well to us 21st century Westerners. A couple of years ago, I had someone leave the church after I preached on idolatry. “You preached for most of your sermon on the Old Testament, the law against Idolatry, and how might we be guilty of idolatry today,” she reflected. She said that the sermon didn’t connect with her and didn’t offer “spiritual encouragement.”
Oh, friends, the dangers we face when we think that biblical passages on idolatry don’t apply to us! When God calls us, God calls us to leave our idols to follow him.
There is no room in our hearts for idolatry and following the one true God. That is such a significant theme that it has been said that “The central… principle of the [Old Testament is] the rejection of idolatry.”[i]
And yet idolatry seems as though it doesn’t apply to us today. Any of you have a golden calf in your home? Any of you start your mornings off at the local altar?
But idolatry is no mere ancient practice. It is the default function of the human heart. Our gods have gotten make-overs, but they are the same gods they always were: beauty, power, money, achievement, satisfaction, comfort, security, love, independence, happiness, respect. These things are good in and of themselves, but they are not meant to be worshiped. They are gifts from the Giver. And yet we worship them rather than him.
As Bob Dylan famously said, “you’ve got to serve somebody.” We all serve somebody or something. Or, as 16th century pastor John Calvin said, our hearts are “a perpetual factory of idols.”[ii] We are made for worship. Even the most resolute atheist is a worshiper. Perhaps she is a worshiper of the idol of science or the idol or reason or the idol of certainty, but she is a worshiper just like everyone else. We worship because we’re built for worship. We’re made for awe. We’re made for transcendence. We’re made to be in relationship with God. And yet we struggle with that impulse for worship within us—because we we all too frequently aim our worship toward the gifts and not the Giver.
If we look at the most famous incident of idolatry in the Bible—the golden calf[iii]—with fresh eyes, we see ancient people acting in not strange, but familiar ways.
Mount Sinai is the wedding scene of God and his people. Moses goes up Mount Sinai to meet with God. The wedding contract is being prepared. God is going to invite his people into a new and intimate relationship.
Meanwhile, the bride is impatient. She wants worship on her terms. “Make us gods who shall go before us!” they demand of Aaron. True worship is God’s initiative; idolatry comes from our initiative.
True worship is patient. The fruit of idolatry is impatience.
Aaron demands that they give him their gold. Where God asks for offerings that flow from a grateful heart,[iv] our idols demand more and more.
For the tabernacle, a willing offering was requested, but the golden calf is constructed with offerings that were taken from the people: the text says that Aaron commanded the people to rip out their gold.[v] Bracelets and rings were yanked off, piercings—which were made to be permanent then—were ripped out of ear lobes and noses. This calf literally took his pound of flesh from the worshipers.
For the tabernacle, painstaking preparations were to be made, with a lengthy building process that ensued. The golden calf was made quickly and carelessly.
God established worship: an encounter with his people mediated through the tabernacle. The tabernacle safeguarded the presence of God: the personal, active God was invisible. With the golden calf, there was accessibility to a visible god who was an impersonal object.[vi] In true worship, we encounter the holy, the awesome. In idolatry, we encounter the domesticated, the manageable.
There is a stark contrast between true worship and idolatry. Each form of worship shapes us. Idolatry doesn’t just break God’s rules; it defies how God wants to shape us.
What are your idols demanding of you? How are they misshaping your heart?
In the coming two weeks we will consider how idols come between our commitment to God and how to figure out what our idols are.
[i] Halbertal and Margalit in their book Idolatry, quoted in Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods, 3-4.
[ii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.II.8
[iii] Exodus 32:1-6
[iv] 2 Corinthians 9:7
[v] Walter Kaiser, Expositor’s Commentary, 478.
[vi] Terence Fretheim, Interpretation, 267 lays this parallel out cleanly. Brevard Childs also notes these parallels in his commentary, Childs, The OT Library, 542-3.