“The human heart is an idol factory” – John Calvin
If you have seen the movie, “The Ten Commandments”, then you probably recall the scene where Moses witnesses the children of Israel worshiping a golden calf. Modern minds like ours can easily dismiss the foolishness of worshiping a cow made from precious metal. We laugh to ourselves and say, “what fools they were!”
Unfortunately, the golden calf is not the only representative of idolatrous behavior in the Bible. In fact, idolatry can take many forms and can be very subtle. What interests me most is the move into idolatry. What are the conditions which make a Christian (yes, even, maybe especially Christians) ripe for idolatry?
Human sinfulness is the beginning of the whole process. It is the rejection of the God who is to be worshiped. It is the ever-present motion of the human heart as it searches for an alternative to worshiping God as He has revealed Himself. Adam and Eve did this when they rejected all of God’s goodness and were tempted by the serpent. The sin included a desire to “be like God” and worship the self.
The second part of the process is finding an object which aligns with the sinful heart of the person. If one cannot be found, one can be made. Gold is a pliable metal which can be formed into many shapes.
An important point must be made here; the children of Israel worshiped the gods of their neighbors. This happened despite their truly special relationship with the saving God, Yahweh (“I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt”). If Israel foreshadows the church, this means that people in the church are also susceptible to worshiping false gods.
What are some forms these false gods take?
1. The self. We look to be greater than God. This could take shape as the belief that we are sinless or can attain a “sinless state” outside of His forgiveness in Jesus Christ (Justification). Internal religious practices that are not sanctioned by Christ or the Scripture exemplify this.
2. Philosophy. Like Adam and Eve, we look for extra knowledge outside of the parameters God has given us (Word and Sacrament) to seek Him. As Luther said, “Reason is the Devil’s Harlot”. Rather than looking at the cross for security, hope and salvation, we look for answers in logic. Our only impediment is the Scripture itself which challenges logic with the Crucified God.
3. Wealth and money. These are fine things to have. In fact, I’ll be the first to say I wish I had more. It would make living here a lot easier. But the “dog-eat-dog” mentality of worshiping money births the hatred of others (The letter of James is a good example)
4. Personality worship. Read 1 Corinthians 3. They were arguing over who they followed. Now, go to your local Christian bookstore. Look around and consider who the authors are. Do people worship them? Do they think these people walk on water? Is this pastor regarded as unique and irreplaceable? Does he regard himself as irreplaceable? Acts 12 states:
21On an appointed day Herod, having put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum and began delivering an address to them. 22The people kept crying out, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” 23And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died.
5. Miracles, signs and wonders. One of the ways that Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had come was by healing people. He even raised people from the dead. But, the miracles were not Jesus, they were meant to point to a greater form of healing, that of salvation from sin, death and the devil. In fact, it may be hard to believe, but salvation in Christ alone is the greatest miracle that happens in this world. It is far more dramatic than even Lazarus being raised up from the dead. We are told, “In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” Luke 15:10. This also means that the the gospel (and its proclamation) is the greatest of the spiritual gifts.
The things that unify idolatry are the rejection of God as He is (the saving, forgiving God, Jesus) and replacement of God with a different thing to worship.
But, you ask, what about the metal on the pole that cured those bitten by snakes in Numbers 21:
8The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.
This process was quite different. The children of Israel complained (sinned), God sent snakes to bite them, and then they appealed for salvation. God provided this through Moses who put a bronze snake on a pole for them to look at and be healed.
Christ claims to be the fulfillment of this in John 3:14-15:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”
He alone is worthy of worship. 2 Corinthians 5:21 states, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him”. It is not our righteousness, but Christ Jesus’ perfect, holy righteousness earned outside of us and given to us because of His death.
And, since Christians continue in sin, God continues to present Christ on the cross to us. This is why Paul says, “We preach Christ and Him crucified”. Luther said that we “begin again”, meaning we go back to our justification in Jesus Christ alone. Otherwise, “moving on” is just another word for idolatry.