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Idolatry and the Battle for the Heart

My Lenten series in 1995 was designed to expose the nature of idolatry ("having or inventing something in which one trusts in place of or alongside of the only true God," Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 95). Despite the prophets' persistent exposure, many of us lightly dismiss the possibility that we have divided, idolatrous hearts. An excellent resource for such a series is No God but God, edited by Os Guinness.

We used the quotes and teasers that begin the sections below in the newspaper ad we ran before each Sunday.

ASH WEDNESDAY

Most of us have found some source of comfort besides the Lord to anesthetize ourselves to the pain of life. I asked people to write down on paper what they turn to besides God when they are afraid, lonely, or sad. We then gathered our "idols" and burnt them as an offering to God. The ashes were mixed with other ashes and used for the sign of the cross placed on people's foreheads.

LENT 1

Jeremiah 10:1-16

"Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk" (Jer. 10:5).

We would sooner trust the gods we control than be controlled by the only God who can be trusted.

This passage introduces the basics of idolatry:

verse 3: "A craftsman shapes it with his chisel." Idols allow us to shape God into what we want. Are there things you don't like about God? Whack them off with a chisel and make a god suited to your tastes.

verse 4: "They adom it with silver and gold."` We don't skimp with our idols; they get our very best. "They fasten their idol with hammer and nails so it will not totter." Idols are a high-maintenance proposition. We must keep investing in the "lie" lest it totter, and we have to face God.

verse 14: "The goldsmith's images are a fraud, they have no breath in them." Idols have no life except the life we give to them instead of to God.

LENT 2

Jeremiah 23:23-24; Acts 17:16-34

"When we cease to worship God, we do not worship nothing; we worship anything" (G. K. Chesterton). It's time to turn back to God instead of making idols for ourselves to fill the vacuum left by God's exclusion.

The Lord asks, "Am I only a God nearby and not a God far away?" (Jer. 23:23). In our effort to supplant God, we generally create two kinds of gods for ourselvesógods nearby and gods far away. Nearby gods counterfeit God's imminence; faraway gods counterfeit God's transcendence. Nearby gods provide control (immaculate house, computer expertise, 12 percent body fat). But often these gods don't offer a big enough context for life, so we also create faraway gods to provide meaning (love, peace of mind, the "good life," self-esteem, authority, the universal mind).

According to Acts 17:30, our idolatry will be judged by the only one fit to save us from it. Jesus is both imminent (our nearby God) and transcendent (our faraway, not-under-our-control God.) "The hands that flung stars into space, to cruel nails surrendered" (Graham Kendrick).

LENT 3

Jeremiah 2:9-13, 19

"The idols of our age, things like success, progress, self-sufficiency, personal relationships, and so on, are not bad things in themselves; they just make lousy substitutes for God."

"Has a nation ever changed its gods?" Qer. 2:11). No. All our pagan neighbors keep their gods; the names and attendant rituals may change, but nations don't really change their gods.

The Lord is appalled at Israel's apostasy. He comes to the Israelites not as just one more god in the pantheon but as the sovereign God. He is not just a part of the universe but Lord over the universe.

Idolatry is even more offensive than adultery. Taking our love away from God and giving ourselves to idols (which are not gods at all, v. 11) is like a man leaving his wife to shack up with a mannequin.

LENT 4

Jeremiah 2:20-28

"There is one God. There is no God but God. There is no rest for any people who rely on any God but God" (Os Guinness).

verse 20: "Long ago you broke off your yoke and tore off your bonds. You said, 'I will not serve you.'"

Idolatry always involves breaking the Lord's yoke in order to wear a yoke of slavery. We willingly do it because serving our idols, at least at first, feels like gratifying our own needs. Idols work much the same way as McDonald's marketing strategy for children: The child insists on going to the shrine of the golden arches for a Happy Meal. Why? It can't be the food. No, they want the dinosaur stamp. They want McHappiness.

But as with every form of idolatry, the happiness wears off before the food is digested. Or the car is paid for. Or the next round of applause comes. But when the day of trouble comes, "Where then are the gods you made for yourselves? Let them come if they can save you" (v. 28).

LENT 5

Isaiah 57:1-13

Sometimes real hope only comes when you break your teeth on the hopelessness of your current strategy for living. Come hear the hope which is ours in Jesus.

Eventually our false gods fail. When we expect a relationship to meet the needs only God can meet, when we look to pornography or a runner's high to relieve the pain of our emptiness, we are ultimately disappointed. We repeat self-defeating patterns because, though they wear us out, we will not give up hope in them (v. 10). "In what or whom do you trust?" is the perfect complement to the question, "What do you fear most?" (v. 11) There we will find our idols.

PALM SUNDAY

Isaiah 46

Is God an unbearable burden on your back, or are you upheld in the hollow of his hand?

One of these choices is good news. The question comes down to this: Who carries whom?

On Palm Sunday we asked the question, "To whom shall we shout 'Hosanna!' 'Save us!'?" In the text the Lord compares himself to two lunky Babylonian deities, Bel and Nebo. Strapped on the backs of beasts of burden, these gods don't relieve the burden; they are the burden. The Lord says in contrast, "I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you, and I will rescue you" (v. 4).

In Jesus' day, the stones would have had the sense to shout his praise if the people hadn't. Sometimes our idols make us more stupid than stones. But God will be God.