Counterfeit Gods

Series: Counterfeit Gods

The teaching series that we’re beginning today is probably a topic that many of us haven’t thought about in a long time. It sounds and even feels a bit old fashioned, because the concept of our series really isn’t something that is talked about in our culture anymore. Many parts of the Bible are relevant on a daily basis... how we treat each other, what to ask God for in prayer, how Jesus responded to situations that we face every day, how to manage our resources, what sort of activities and behaviours to flee from.

But the concept that we’re going to talk about may not feel very relevant. In fact, you might even think that this topic is unnecessary... that as a society and as a faith group, we’ve moved past this sort of thing. Maybe you think that it’s no longer an issue.

The topic for this series is idolatry. Now, when I think about idolatry, the first thing that comes to my mind is idols... which probably makes sense, because the most basic definition of idolatry is the worship of idols. The second thing that comes to my mind is the Bible. And you know why? Because I can think of stories in the Bible that involve idols... BUT, I can’t really put my finger on stories in my life or stories in other people’s lives that involve idols.

I think of Bible stories... like Jacob and Rachel and how Rachel stole her father Laban’s household idols before they left his house and then hid them and lied about it later. I think of the number of judges and kings who worshipped idols and the way that they kept disobeying God.

I think too of the Second Commandment that God gave, “Do not make for yourself an idol 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” (Ex 20:4).

I remember lots of these stories, but I can’t think of any one time in my life when I have encountered an actual, physical idol the way that people in the Bible did on many occasions.

And... I’m guessing that most of you here today can probably identify with the same sort of reaction to the topic of idolatry. You probably think about idols, you might think about the Bible, but I’m guessing that you don’t think about the existence of idols in your own life.

Which is intriguing because of how much idolatry is spoken about in the Bible. It’s not just a few stories... it’s hundreds of references. Idol worship plagues the Israelites from the very beginning... kings keep falling into the same sin, prophet upon prophet upon prophet warn against idolatry – over and over again, God speaks to prophets and tells them to turn from their idol worship and return to Him. Idolatry is spoken against in the New Testament... it tripped up the people in the church... and idolatry is not written about as if it’s simply a cultural problem... as if only the churches in Ephesus and Corinth and Thyatira were struggling with this... the warning against idolatry is written as instruction to all Christ-followers for all time.

Which again bears the question, why don’t we think about it and what does it mean for us?

Do we have a misperception of what idolatry in the Bible is all about or is idolatry something that just isn’t that difficult for us today?

Because the stakes on huge on this. I mean, I personally don’t want to continue on in life thinking that I’m not guilty of idolatry and find out one day that I’ve been living in ignorance. The warnings against idolatry and the tone that God speaks against it is frightening. We’re told to flee from idolatry. We’re told that idolaters will not inherit the kingdom of God.

So what exactly is idolatry and how do we run away from it?

Because today’s message is an introduction to the next several weeks, I think it will be most helpful to center our study on a story in the Bible that really serves as the first and probably most revealing story about idolatry in the Bible. The story is found in the book of Exodus.

Now Exodus is a strange book. It’s odd for several reasons and one of them is how the book is organized. Many books in the Old Testament aren’t necessarily written in chronological order. Now this is difficult for us to understand, especially when a number of these books refer to historical events, but it wasn’t a big deal to Jewish writers and listeners during that time. In fact, writers would quite regularly abandon their chronological timeline in order to elevate something else… usually a comparison between events or to emphasize symbolism in some way.

And that’s what happens in Exodus. If a movie were made of this book going from chapter 1 to chapter 40, the editor would create a lot of deleted scenes because there isn’t any action in a lot of these chapters. There’s a lot of dialogue between God and Moses about laws, social ceremonies, and construction plans for the Tabernacle.

So this is what happens in the middle chapters:

The Israelites are fed manna and quail during their travels, and they make it to Mt. Sinai. At Mt. Sinai, God calls Moses up the mountain and He gives him the Ten Commandments and a whole bunch of other laws. Through the next few chapters... 20-31 – the covenant is established, plans for the Tabernacle are explained, priests are given their duties, and so on.

But then in chapter 32, there is a massive break in the story... this is the story of Israel’s great sin... the episode of the golden calf – we’re going to get to this story is just a minute.

After this story, the narrative follows its previous pattern... God gives Moses further instructions and then the story turns to the Israelites putting all of this information into action... craftsmen work on the Tabernacle, priestly garments are woven, and then at the end of the book, chapter 40, the presence of the LORD God fills the Tabernacle. 

You might not think that this overview of Exodus is important, but we’re going to see why it is in just a few more minutes. Just remember... laws, Tabernacle instructions... golden calf story... and then right back to more instructions and the completion of the Tabernacle. There’s a reason why the author chooses to order the book in this way.

Moses has been up on the mountain for awhile. So the story begins with a complaint of the people. Chapter 32, verse 1:

 1 When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.” 

In the time that Moses has been long, he has changed from their unquestioned leader to some fellow who’s literally doing lord knows what. They feel an absence of leadership... they’re insecure, unknowing, perhaps a bit scared, probably apprehensive. So they turn to Aaron, the next-in-line, and tell him to make some gods who will lead them.

This is not a good situation. We already know that idol making and idol worship are actions that specifically go against God’s commandments. And sadly, Aaron does not take their request as a teachable moment. Instead, he says this:

 2 So Aaron said, “Take the gold rings from the ears of your wives and sons and daughters, and bring them to me.”

 3 All the people took the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 Then Aaron took the gold, melted it down, and molded it into the shape of a calf. When the people saw it, they exclaimed, “O Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”

Can you believe this? These are the same people who walked through dry land as God parted the Red Sea to their right and their left. These are the same people who saw miracle upon miracle performed while in Egypt. These are the same people who eat manna... bread that God rained down from heaven... earlier that morning. How could they attribute something that was hanging on their ears with Yahweh, the God of Heaven?

Aaron doesn’t redeem himself either. This is what’s written in verse 5:

 5 Aaron saw how excited the people were, so he built an altar in front of the calf. Then he announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!”  6 The people got up early the next morning to sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings. After this, they celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry.

There’s something very peculiar about Aaron’s response... you might have caught it. Aaron doesn’t issue a festival for the golden calf... he doesn’t decree a new festival for a new god... he says, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the LORD.” And whenever you see LORD in all caps in the Bible, it refers to the name of Israel’s God: YAHWAH.

So in essence, Aaron points to the idol, but refers to the LORD... and in some odd way (at least in our minds), the two are connected. The physical image of the golden calf and their knowledge of the LORD God who saved them from Egypt are connected.

The question is how? What went wrong... how did they get there?

Remember now the context of the story. This story begins with a problem. The people are restless. They don’t know where Moses is. They don’t know what has happened to him. They’re looking for some sort of physical assurance that things are going to be okay. What they’re looking for is hope.

Aaron felt it too or else he wouldn’t have responding in the way that he did. And the result was a good thing gone back. They wanted a physical representation of God... the problem is that this demand became their ultimate goal.

The irony in the story is that the restlessness of the people occurs during the same time that the Lord is speaking to Moses about the plans for the Tabernacle... remember the context of our story. The golden calf story is imbedded within the two stories of the Tabernacle... the instructions and the physical construction. The people want the very thing that God is just about to give them.

Moses was the middleman between God and the people. When he disappeared, the people were left with a spiritual void. And in their pursuit of finding physical reassurance that they had not been abandoned, they turned to the only thing that they had known before... the image of an idol to serve as a representative of the God who had saved them.

Many scholars suggest that Aaron and the Israelites were not worshiping the calf as if it were a Deity – the calf functioned as the pedestal for the LORD God.

Regardless, the people still committed the sin of idolatry... an idol was made, no matter what their intentions for it were. But I think it’s an important part of the story that has significant relevance for us today.

Because this story expands and deepens our understanding of idolatry. The Israelites did not simply make up a god, create a random image for it, and begin worshipping it. They created a substitute god to fill the void of their unseen god. They took a good thing... the Presence of God... and they elevated it to the point of making it an ultimate thing.

Here’s a good definition of idolatry: idolatry is turning good things into ultimate things.

Israel wanted reassurance that God was with them... that’s a good thing. But when they turned this desire into an ultimate need, they became idolatrous.

The people felt emptiness and they took action to fill the void with something that they knew and trusted. For them in this story, it was a physical representation of God.

But how often do we do the same thing? How often do we take an empty filling in our lives and fill it with something that we know and trust? Do we take good things and turn them into ultimate things?

This is how our understanding of idolatry can change from bowing down to stones or objects and balloon into anything and everything that keeps us from God. Whenever we turn good things into ultimate things, we commit idolatry.

The story of the golden calf is really the Bible’s first introduction to us about idolatry. But the Bible then goes on to speak of idolatry in much broader terms than just golden objects and stone carvings. The prophets speak of people setting up idols in their hearts (Ez 14:2); they equate idolatry with those who depend on their own strength as if it were a god (Hab 1:11); in one story, arrogance is named as a comparable type of idolatry.

In the NT, the apostle Paul is even more blunt. He says that greed is idolatry (Col 3:5).

Now, I’ve never seen someone collect jewellery, forge the metals into a structure, and then worship it as a deity. I’ve never seen this type of idolatry. I know that it exists in some parts of our world, but idolatry is much more hidden than this in our culture. And I’ll argue that hidden idols are even more dangerous and more persuasive in our lives because so often we can’t name them and don’t even know how they bring us down.

And the tough part about it is that idolatry begins innocently enough... it’s simply turning good things into ultimate things. And good things are good, right? But when they substitute for our ultimate call as Christ followers... to love the Lord our God will all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, then we fall into the trap of idolatry. We substitute the Lord God for a counterfeit god.

Tim Keller, the author of the book Counterfeit Gods which we’ll follow closely throughout this series, suggests that our hearts are idols factories. Anything can be an idol and everything has been an idol. The prophet Jeremiah once said to Israel, “You have as many gods as there are towns in Judah” (2:28)!

Idolatry is turning good things into ultimate things:

- Perfectionism can be a form of idolatry... I know that I’ve fallen for this idol before. When we turn perfectionism into an ultimate thing, we worship a god other than the Lord God.

- The persistent pursuit of knowledge can become a form of idol worship

- Idolatry can trip us up in the form of success. If we make success into an ultimate thing (regardless of how we define success), we commit idolatry.

- Idolatry can sometimes been seen in patriotism for a person’s country... putting an unhealthy amount of faith and confidence into a people system can easily turn our hearts away from God. 

- An unhealthy approach to family can be idolatrous. If our children or siblings or spouses become ultimate things for us, we have gone astray.

Idolatry is turning good things into ultimate things.

Over the next 5 weeks, we’ll be looking at specific idols that plague our lives… good things that many of us celebrate in our lives, but things that can sometimes move into the category of being ultimate. Things that if lost, might severely dampen our will to live.

But before we can turn away from the idols in our lives, we must first name these counterfeit gods. And the God of Heaven is the only one who can do this for us.

I want you to ask God to show you the idols that exist in your life. What things in your life have shifted from good to ultimate? Where are you putting your trust and confidence? What have you substituted into the place of God?

Friedrich Nietzsche, a highly influential philosopher who lived in the 19th century was once, “There are more idols in this world than there are realities.”

Idols come in all shapes and sizes. Anything can be an idol and everything has been an idol. The question for you is what is your idol? What are the things in your life that have shifted from good to ultimate?

As you ask yourselves these questions, we’re also going to participate in the Lord’s Supper. It’s an appropriate response for us this morning, because part of communion is looking at our lives and asking God to reveal the sin that we have not yet confessed. We’re told to examine ourselves and as God shows us the disobedience in our lives, to then confess our wrong doing.

As you reflect upon Jesus’ great sacrifice for your sins and as you examine your life during this time, ask God to show you the things in your life that have turned from good to ultimate.

Let’s pray:

What do you think of when someone says "idolatry?" Primitive people bowing down to statues? The next music superstar? In our Advent series introduction, Pastor Keith takes us through the golden calf incident in Exodus 32 to demonstrate that idolatry has more to do with taking a good thing and turning it into an ultimate thing than little icons or statues. You might be surprised to discover what can have idolatrous potential in your life...

Speaker: Keith Reed

November 14, 2010
Exodus 32:1-6

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