The Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 3, 2018
Idols We Never Knew We Had—
Are We Idolaters?
“Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: When any Israelite sets up idols in his heart and puts a wicked stumbling block before his face and then goes to a prophet, I the LORD will answer him myself in keeping with his great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’ Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!’”
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
What comes to mind when you hear the word “idolater”? Many of us may automatically think of all the idolatry that we read about in the Bible. Among the Gentiles we read about people who worshipped Baal and Ashtoreth, Molech and Chemosh. We may remember that even as Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Law from the one and only Living God, the people of Israel fashioned a golden calf and bowed down to worship it. (See Exodus 32) We may remember that even wise King Solomon succumbed to idolatry at the urging of his heathen/Gentile wives. (See 1 Kings 11) We may also remember how idolatry infected the northern Kingdom of Israel from its inception and eventually idolatry permeated the southern Kingdom of Judah as well.
Are there people who are still practicing idolatry in our world today? Sadly, there are far more examples of people practicing idolatry today than we have time to mention. I will, however, share with you some the most blatant idolatry I have ever seen with my own two eyes. When Brenda and I went to China to see Jonathan and Horatia few years back, we went to a place that had ancient Chinese artifacts on display. One entire hallway was dedicated to various Buddha statues that once belonged to various emperors. I watched as one elderly Chinese woman slowly made her way down the hallway. She stopped in front of each and every statue to pray to her idol. I thought to myself, “How sad!” When we were touring the emperor’s palace in the Forbidden City we came to the emperor’s private temple. Inside the temple there was a gold covered statue of Buddha that was 15-20 feet tall. As we were leaving the temple area Buddhist priests were arriving to conduct a service. It was still an active temple! Again, I thought to myself, “How sad!”
Idolatry is rampant, my friends. Whether we look at the ancient world or the modern world, whether we look at countries such as China and India or whether we look around right here in our own country, idolatry is not hard to find.
But what about us? Could we also be guilty of the sin of idolatry? That is the question that we are going to explore in a summer sermon series. Over the course of the summer (except for Father’s Day, Fourth of July and the weekend I am on vacation) we are going to focus on a variety of idols that we face in our lives today and ask ourselves the question: Are We Idolaters? Today as we begin this sermon series we need to take a step back and ask ourselves a very basic question. That question is: What is idolatry?
What is idolatry? In his Large Catechism Marin Luther wrote, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God.” (Luther’s explanation to the First Commandment) John Calvin, another reformer, once wrote, “The human heart is an idol factory…Every one of us from our mother’s womb is an expert in inventing idols.” (The Institutes of Religion) For most of us here today the answer to the question “What is idolatry?” is answered most easily by simply remembering the First Commandment along with Luther’s explanation: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). What does this mean? “We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.” Any one or any thing that we place above or before God in our hearts or in our lives is in reality— our idol!
With that let’s turn to our text for today. You may recall that the prophet Ezekiel was taken to Babylon as a prisoner of war. For the first seven years of his ministry in exile in Babylon Ezekiel’s God-given task was to quell the hopes of God’s people for a quick return home to Judah and Jerusalem. Here in our text Ezekiel reveals to us that some of the elders of Israel came to him with the hope that he would “inquire of the LORD” on their behalf. Exactly what they wanted Ezekiel to “inquire” about we are never told. We get the impression, however, that even before these elders had a chance to explain to Ezekiel why they were there, the LORD said to Ezekiel, “Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: When any Israelite sets up idols in his heart and puts a wicked stumbling block before his face and then goes to a prophet, I the LORD will answer him myself in keeping with his great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’”
Even though open idolatry— bowing down to Baal and “worshipping” with temple prostitutes— is what caused the people of Judah to be conquered by the Babylonians and carried away into exile, notice, my friends— that is not what the Lord condemns here! As the one true living God, the Lord knew that these people “have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces.” Did these elders of Israel come to Ezekiel to “inquire of the LORD” as a way of “covering their bases” while they were in exile? Again, we are not told. But while outwardly it may have appeared that they were “looking to the LORD” for guidance or for help or for whatever, the Lord knew that in their hearts they were “looking to” and trusting in their idols— those “wicked stumbling blocks before their faces.” Whatever some “looks to,” whatever someone places “before their face”— that is their “god.” Or as Martin Luther said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God.”
Which brings us back to the question: Are we idolaters? Our automatic answer to that question is: No! Of course not! We worship the one true God— God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit! We believe in Jesus as our only Savior from sin! For that I say, To God be the glory! At the same time, however, are there times when the thoughts of our minds and the attitudes of our hearts and the priorities of our lives contradict our clear confession of faith?
Look at it this way. As I was preparing this sermon I read this quote: “Some of the greatest minds in the history of the Christian faith have suggested that idolatry is the reason for all the wrong we ever do. Every sin, then, is first and foremost a violation of the First Commandment— the one overarching command of God. And the last of the commandments bookends this idea. In other words, the first of the commands tell us not to have other gods and the last of the commands tell us not to desire anything as though it were God (that is, ‘covet’).”
How might this play out in our hearts and in our lives? Consider this: If money is the thing I desire, if that is what I “place before my face,” if I give money a higher place in my heart than God, then I may end up breaking the Seventh Commandment through dishonest business practices, cheating on my taxes, lying about my work hours, or just flat out stealing something.
If pleasure is the thing I desire, if that is what I “place before my face,” if I give pleasure a higher priority in my life than God then I may end up breaking the Third Commandment by skipping church on a far too regular basis or breaking the Sixth Commandment through an improper use of God’s gift of sex.
If social approval is the thing I desire, if that is what I “place before my face,” if I my relationship with my friends if more important to me than my relationship with my Savior, then I may end up breaking the Eighth Commandment by lying about other people or by putting other people down in order to make myself look better.
If we bring a request to the Lord our God in prayer, but in our heart we have already made plans on how to get what we want; if we “inquire of the LORD” about what we should do in a certain situation, but in our heart we already know what I plan on doing, are we not like the elders of Israel who came to Ezekiel here in our text?
What do we do when we realize that we too are predisposed to idolatry, or as John Calvin said, “The human heart is an idol factory…Every one of us from our mother’s womb is an expert in inventing idols”? The most important answer to that question is found in the closing verse of our text, “Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!’”
As Martin Luther reminds us in the first of his 95 Theses, our entire life is to be a life of daily repentance. As we kneel beside our bed in the evening, as we say our morning prayers to our God we need to humbly ask Him to forgive us for all of our sins— including our sin of idolatry. As we lift up our eyes to the cross on Calvary’s hill we not only trust that Jesus suffered and died to completely pay for all of our sins— including our sin of idolatry— but we also confidently ask Him to help us and to guide us and to strengthen us so that He can daily “recapture (our) hearts” as He says here in our text.
Once we have repented of our sins and turned to Jesus for the assurance that our sins are forgiven, then we would do well to ask the Lord to help us follow the direction He gave to the Colossians through His servant Paul. In Colossians 3:1-4 we read, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your hearts on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
Since idolatry is essentially fearing, loving or trusting in some thing or some one more than God, we need to consciously keep our hearts and our lives focused on now only what Christ has done for us (Pointing to the cross) but also what Christ has waiting for us in heaven. Always, remember, my friends, that there is nothing here on this earth that can even begin to compare to what we have been given in Him. (Pointing to the cross)
We may not be bowing down to Baal or cavorting with temple prostitutes or praying to a piece of wood or stone covered in gold, but as Luther said, “Whatever your heart clings to and confides in, that is really your God.” My prayer is that this sermon series Idols We Never Knew We Had will indeed lead us to see some of the things that Satan wants us to make our “god” so that we can recognize them for what they are, avoid them and turn to Him (Pointing to the cross) for help— and , when necessary, forgiveness.
Next week we will look at the idol of “Success.”
To God be the glory!