What does idolatry look like in America? (or Why God is jealous and that is a good thing)

22 Sep

Here in America we have a popular television show called American Idol.  It went off the air, but it is coming back! Did you have any favorite American Idols?

Yesterday I mentioned that we don’t have idols in America like some other countries where Buddhism or Hinduism is prominent.  But do we have other kinds of American idols?  I’m not talking about the contestants on the singing competition.  Instead, I’m wondering if we American Christians have other kinds of idols that we worship?

Moses continues talking about idol worship in Deuteronomy 4, verse 20, but this time he argues from God’s perspective.  He reminds Israel that they have a special connection with God, because he rescued them and made them his people.  Therefore Israel should remember the covenant they have with God.  He is their God, and they are his people.  Therefore, one of the primary stipulations of that covenant is that they are only to worship Him.  God forbids them to worship idols, Moses says, because God is jealous, a consuming fire.

Woah.  That stops me short.  When is the last time you thought of God as jealous?  Or as a consuming fire?  Isn’t God supposed to be a God of love and mercy?  Jealousy is a bad thing, right?  Once again, Moses presents us with a picture of God that seems odd.

Let’s take a deeper look at this jealousy of God.  Maybe we should think of God that way.  I’ve been reading a lot in the Old Testament lately, and not just because I’ve been studying for sermons in Deuteronomy.  On Wednesday evenings in prayer meeting, we’ve read through Joshua, and now we’re in Judges.  My devotional accountability partner (a long-time friend who is also a pastor) and I months ago started in Genesis and are looking at every passage that relates to prayer.  My friend and I have made it to 1st Samuel.  What I have seen is a description of God that is so amazing.  He is relational and emotional.  For Moses to describe him here as jealous makes total sense.  I’m serious.  God’s jealousy is a good thing.  If you’re surprised to hear me say that, let me explain.

In Judges 10 there is a passage that describes Israel as totally rebellious against God for many years. They are worshiping idols and false gods from other nations.  We read that they are oppressed by an enemy nation and they cry out to God for help. You know what God says? “Go and cry out to the other gods you have chosen.  Let them save you when you are in trouble.”  Yikes.  He’s hurt.  Upset. Even sarcastic.  You ever felt like that when a loved one hurts you?

Then in 1 Samuel 8 when the people ask for a king, guess what God says this time?  “They have rejected me as king.  As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt, forsaking me and serving other gods.”  He is emotional, and he is jealous, because he wants to be in relationship with us.  That’s a true lover.  He doesn’t want to share, and he shouldn’t have to, right?  But the people were often giving themselves to worship idols.  Their apostasy is astounding, and that much more hurtful to God, because those idols were dead, while God is alive.  Why would they worship such lesser, empty things?  You can see why Moses calls God a jealous God, and why is right for Moses to do so.  God offers so much more for his people, and yet his people turn away from him.

Moses continues talking about this in Deuteronomy 4, verses 25-28, and he basically says to the people, “You’re going to fail.”  Geez, Moses, why not encourage them?  But before we get too hard on Moses, we need to see this as Moses desiring the people to be faithful.  When you are leading people, they need to hear the honest truth.  I hate telling the brutal truth to people, because I’m afraid it will hurt their feelings, or that they will respond poorly back to me.  It is much easier to be a people-pleaser.  But if I have learned one thing about being a pastor, about being a father, about being a husband, about being a leader, about being a friend, it is that we disciples of Jesus need to be people who speak the truth in love to those God has placed in our lives.  It will hurt.  It is hard, but it is needed.  It is like the surgeon who wields his scalpel.  He cuts us, but to heal.  That is Moses, surgically telling the truth to the people.  Sadly, every single thing he says here happens in Israel’s future.  The idol worship, the corruption, the destruction, the eviction from the land.  It all happens.

Thankfully, that is not the end of the story.  Look at verses 29-31. What a wonderful section about how great our God is.  Moses says, “Seek him with all your heart and you will find him.”  This is a good word for those who would love to have an idol to latch on to.  You can find God, you can be close to him. You can return to the Lord, even if you think you are far from him.

God is merciful, he will not abandon you.  For all the violence we have seen from God in Deuteronomy, this statement is amazingly different and refreshing.  God is merciful!  His love for his people is unconditional.  As other authors have said, “There is nothing you can do to make God love you less!”

Now continue to verses 32-38. Moses is singing praise songs about God.  Songs should be written from these words!  Moses here draws out memories of how amazing God has been for the nation. And from that heart of praise for all God has done, Moses concludes in verses 39-40 by teaching the people the response God desires from his followers.  The response has three parts:

  1. Acknowledge the Lord and that he is God.
  2. Take this truth about God to heart. Don’t just acknowledge it. Don’t just assume you know what that phrase means.  Take it to heart. What does it mean to take something to heart?  The heart is the blood pumper, right?  But that isn’t what Moses means.  He is speaking symbolically here.  It is a figure of speech.  When we think of heart, we think of emotion.  The Hebrews thought of heart more like mind.  When you take something to heart, you believe it, you own it, you follow it through.  Therefore…
  3. Keep his decrees and commands. “If you love me,” Jesus once said, “do what I say.”  To love God is to follow his way.  If you say you believe in him, but you do not do what he says, your declaration of belief doesn’t matter.  Instead you show what you believe by doing what God says.

So how do we do this?  Remove anything in your life that could approximate idol worship. Contemporary idols are much more intangible.  In our country we are not enticed to go to a local temple to worship a statue.  Our American idols are different, harder to pin down.  They could be Peer group acceptance, Sports, Phones, Games, Clothes, Possessions, or the American way of life.

But how do you know when you have crossed the line into idolatry?  It is okay to like something. It is okay to be excited about a sports game or hobby.  Vacations can be so healthy.  But we can take any of those good pursuits too far.

I’ve been confronted in the past for pointing out hobbies or vacations as being potentially idolatrous.  I am not trying to accuse anyone.  I don’t know if your lifestyle choices are idolatrous.  But I do seriously encourage you to take them before the Lord and say, “Lord, I have this hobby, or vacation, or TV show,” or fill in the blank with anything in your life, and ask the Lord, “Is this an idol?  Are you giving too much of your heart and life and money and mind to it?  Ask someone else in your life to evaluate you.  Be willing to be seriously honest and humble and teachable about it. God knows if you are being idolatrous.  Ask him.  He might want you to give it up.  Or focus on it a lot less.  And if he did want you to give up your hobby, wouldn’t you want to know how God felt about it?  What if God is jealous of the time you spend on your hobby?

There is no doubt in my mind that we have American Idols.  Not just famous singers.  Are you willing to face a tough examination of yourself, that maybe you have allowed idolatry in your life?  Let’s talk about  that!  And let’s embrace our merciful, loving, forgiving God who wants us to experience life that is truly life!

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