I’ve never worshiped an idol. I’ve never bowed down to a statue or offered sacrifices to a foreign god. I’ve never set up a shrine to anyone or anything. I’ve never carved or chiseled an image to represent a deity.
But I’m an idolater.
And so are you, probably.
I’m starting a new series on Wednesday nights with our teens called “No More Idols.” Over the next couple of months we’re going to be rethinking idolatry, reevaluating our lives, and purging any idol worship we may find.
This seems like a weird topic for 2018. Idolatry is such a churchy word, and idol worship seems so foreign or even primitive to our sophisticated, Western, enlightened minds.
They worshiped their idols, which became a snare to them. (Psalm 106:36)
If you’ve ever seen the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, you are practically an expert in snares. A snare is a trap. For a trap to work, there has to be some bait – something that is appealing, alluring, desirable. The animal is lured into the trap by the bait, and when the moment is right the trap springs, catching the animal inside the cage or in its grip. Sure, the animal gets what it wants, but at the cost of its life.
Idolatry is a trap.
Do you know how to catch a monkey? This real life metaphor, popularized by Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, has been spread widely over the last few decades. It’s called the South Indian Monkey Trap. We think monkeys are cute and would make great pets. But in some parts of the world, monkeys are pests. They are a nuisance to have around. So they must be trapped and removed. But how?
The trap is incredibly simple – just a hollowed out coconut or gourd with a small prize inside, like rice, fruit, or something shiny. A small hole in the side allows the monkey to slip its hand inside and grab hold of the object. But once the hand is in a fist shape, it cannot be pulled back out the hole. The monkey must either let go of its treasure or remain trapped.
Idolatry is a trap.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we must all understand what we’re talking about and why it matters.
So what is an idol?
At its most basic, an idol is “an image or representation of a god used as an object of worship.” We find idols in nearly every ancient culture and civilization – from the Egyptians to the Greeks to the Mayans. We find them today among the Hindus, the Buddhists (although Buddha is not a god who is worshiped), the Sikhs (their holy book is revered to nearly divine status), and a few others.
An idol is a statue, carving, engraving, painting, etc. that is revered and worshiped as a representation of the divine.
What’s the big deal, though?
Let’s take a quick refresher course on the first two of the Ten Commandments:
And God spoke all these words:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:1-6)
The first two commandments are 1) You shall have no other gods before me, and 2) You shall not make for yourself an image to bow down to and worship.
Remember that God is giving these commands to a newly freed Hebrew people. They have been living as slaves in Egypt for the past several generations. The only religion they have known and practiced would have involved the Egyptian pantheon. The ancient Egyptians had dozens, if not hundreds of gods. They had major temples built to Osiris, Isis, Horus, Thot, Hathor, Set, and more. The Hebrews would have been all too familiar with idol worship and polytheism (the worship of multiple gods).
Then YHWH shows up, sends Moses to deliver them, and brings them to the base of this mountain to set the record straight. YHWH is your God, your only God, and YHWH will not be depicted by any image of a created thing. This would have been completely revolutionary to them. One God? No idols? Okay, we’ll give it a try… (they would soon fail at all of that, but we’ll get to that later).
God begins his story with his people by prohibiting idol worship. And the New Testament ends with the same instruction!
Among the latest writings of the New Testament are the letters from John. First John ends abruptly with this instruction:
Dear children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21)
Why? Because idolatry is a trap.
An idol is…
- anything that takes the place of God.
- that which promises greatly, takes everything, and gives nothing.
- anything apart from God to which we cry out, “save me!”
- how might this idol pull you away from God?
- what do people sacrifice in worship to this idol?
- what does this idol promise that it can’t actually deliver?