(Posted with permission from Kevin Looper, who preached this sermon at Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater Michigan on May 14 and 15.)
From time to time the Scripture writers will take a step back, look at the big picture, and give us a critical appraisal of mankind as a whole. Before the flood, God looked down from heaven and “saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5). King David reflects sadly in Psalm 14 that, even in his time, “All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is not one who does good, not even one.” Sometime later the prophet Micah cried out to God, “The faithful have been swept from the land; not one upright person remains. Everyone lies in wait to shed blood; they hunt each other with nets. Both hands are skilled in doing evil…” (Micah 7:2-3).
St. Paul noticed that, as time flows on, the corruption of the human soul has only increased and deepened, if that is possible. At the end of the first chapter of Romans, Paul says that people have become “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity” (Romans 1:29). And, as if that were not enough, “they invent [new] ways of doing evil” (Romans 1:30) Now, in these last days, mankind has reached the very bottom of the pit. “They have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy…” (Romans 1:31).
What could bring humanity to such a dark place? Created in the image of God, provided with both natural and divine revelation to guide us toward what is right—yet still we have fallen from the truth. We are more than just corrupt. We are broken. We do not work right anymore. Humans, who were made as the crowing achievement of God’s creation, to rule and subdue all things under the authority of God, have devolved into people who “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful” (Romans 1:29b, 30a).
So how did we get to this point? Paul traces all the wickedness, sinfulness and brokenness of humanity to a single issue: Idolatry. “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25).
Kyle Idleman gives an illustration of a man who goes to see a doctor because of a bad cough that is keeping him up at night. The doctor runs some tests and, sure enough, the man has lung cancer. But rather than telling him the root cause of his cough, the doctor prescribes him strong cough medicine and sends him home. Soon the man’s cough is under control, but the real problem is still left. The cough will return, along with even worse things.
Idolatry is the root cause of all of the symptoms of sin. The envy, the deceit, the lust, the anger, the gossip—they all have their source in “the one great sin that all others come from”—idolatry (Idleman). That is why the very first of the Ten Commandments is “you shall not have any other gods before me.” As Martin Luther says, “We never break the other commandments without breaking the first one.” This is why we are in such a woeful condition. Humans have removed God and set up idols in their hearts—the results have been disastrous.
But if this is true of humanity as a whole, would it not also be true for families? The family is the foundation of society, but the structure of the family has been crumbling and breaking apart for years now. Divorce numbers continue to climb, and more and more couples are choosing to cohabitate rather than marry. More than half of children in America are not raised in a household with both biological parents. But this is simply the fallout from the fissures and cracks that have been tearing families apart through the centuries. The disrespect, contempt and lovelessness between husband and wife. The lack of affection of parents and the disobedience of their children. Yelling, greediness, workaholism, rebellion, unfaithfulness, selfishness, bitterness, resentment and unforgiveness has come to define normal family life. Do you ever wonder why it is so hard for families to get along? So hard to live with the people that you care about the most? All the problems of the family have a root cause: idolatry. Whatever people might actually say or think about the primacy of God in their families, the problems and sins in our family relationships will always reveal if we have replaced God with an idol.
In the ancient world, images of the gods were made out of wood and stone and given names like Baal and Asherah and Molek. The gods were divided into classes: there were cosmic deities of sun and sky and water, national gods that ruled over countries, and smaller family gods that protected and watched over the home. There were gods that specialized in money, work, sex, family planning, war, and future success. Really, the idols of these gods were a means to an end—they were a means to making life go as people wanted it to go. A means to getting what you desired, securing your well-being and protecting you from your fears. Though the names of these ancient deities have been forgotten, the same gods continue to be worshiped all across the world and their images are now on TV and billboards instead of etched in stone.
An idol is anything that people value more highly, trust more deeply or desire more passionately than God. Tim Keller talks about it like this: “An idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure’.” People often get the mistaken idea that idols are usually bad things—bad habits or addictions. Actually, idols are usually good things in life—good things that have been raised to the level of ultimate things. Something becomes an idol when you can’t be happy or fulfilled without it. People can take even the best things and make idols out of them. Our careers can take God’s place of primacy in our lives. Ministry can become an idol. Even our families and spouses and children can be given the place of ultimate importance. Often, the higher and more noble the idol is, the more powerful and destructive it will become.
As an act of worship to our true gods, we will always make sacrifices. Those who make an idol out of money and career will sacrifice their time, their health, and even their families for its sake. Those who idolize romance or sensual pleasure will sacrifice their integrity or responsibilities. Parents who make an idol out of their own children and families usually end up devastating their families by their unrealistic expectations and unforgiving attitudes. People will be willing to lie, cheat, abuse, slander, and steal in the name of their gods. How could they do these things? Because their idol is of ultimate importance and all things in their lives are used to support and protect it. Do you see how dangerous it is to put anything in the place of the Creator—even good things? We become slaves to the things we worship—but God is the only good Master.
In the ancient world, families passed their gods down to the next generation. The gods of your father became your gods—it becomes your responsibility to sacrifice to the idol and provide for its needs. And even today, idols become a family affair. People often speak of “generational sins” – that rage, or marital unfaithfulness, or drug use gets passed down from one generation to the next. But the same generational sins come from the same generational idols. When the parents worship the gods of money or pleasure, the children are dragged into the same values and mindset. These are the only gods they have ever known—whatever their official “religion” might be. Until we throw away our idols and serve the Living God, our families will most likely continue down the wrong path. The symptomatic sins of our idolatry will haunt our children and grandchildren for generations to come.
The difficulty with a sermon like this is that it is extremely hard to discover if we have any personal idols that we have put in the place of God. We may know that we care about something too much or spend too much time focused on a certain thing, but the “god” behind those things is usually veiled from us. Idolatry darkens the understanding. Paul says that, “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). Tim Keller says that, as a pastor, he has had people come up to him and confess that they struggle with almost every kind of sin. But he cannot recall a single person ever coming up to him and saying, “I think my greedy lust for money is harming my family, my soul, and people around me.” His conclusion is that “greed hides itself from the victim. The money god’s modus operandi includes blindness to your own heart.” The same is true with other idols as well. The sins that follow from them are obvious. The idols themselves are usually hidden deep within the recesses of our hearts.
There are a few signs that we have cherished idols in our hearts, even if it is difficult to see what they might be clearly. First, our thoughts will effortlessly go toward our true god when nothing else is demanding our attention. What fills your daydreams and fantasies about the future? Where your god is, there your thoughts will be also. Second, where does your money go? We will never think it a waste to overspend on our idols. If you need to constantly exercise self-control to not overspend on something, that is an indication that there is something other than God that has become of ultimate importance to you. Third, what circumstance or loss would fill you with despair and disappointment? Or what brings forth anxiety and worry in you? That may be an indication that you are attempting to secure an idol. Fourth, what fills you with explosive or overwhelming emotion? Out of control rage, fear, discouragement or depression is a tell-tale sign that you are clinging to something that is not God to bring about your personal well-being. And lastly, remember that willful sins are always done in the service of false gods.
Interestingly enough, as we peel back the layers of idolatry, we see the how deep it really goes. It may seem to you that a dream home has become an idol in your heart, but really, the deeper desire is not the house, but the status or comfort it will provide. And status we seek might really be about obtaining the love and respect we never received as children. But no matter what the surface idol may be, underneath it all, at the bedrock of every idol, we find the worship of self. Idolatry is nothing more than selfishness and pride!
It is no wonder that families fall apart when idols are at the center! When everyone in the family is really worshiping themselves and laboring to protect their own interests, what other result could there be? Even parents who make an idol of their own children do it for themselves, not for their children. But they are so blinded and buried under their idolatry that they could never see it. The only way to ensure that you love your family well and do what is best for them is to make God first in your own life. When you put God above your wife or your husband, you love them even better than you would have if you idolized them. When you prioritize God over your children, you bring them up in an environment where they can thrive in the soil of true, agape love.
The story of Jacob in Genesis illustrates this well. He had lived in the land of Harran with his wives, children and extended family for many years. Their life was filled with idols and family gods. It was normal life. The family was full of deception, greed, back-biting and jealousy. When Jacob brought his family back into the Promised Land, they brought their gods with them—the physical idols of wood and stone as well as the idols that controlled their hearts. In Genesis 35 they make it back to Bethel—the place where Jacob had had a vision of God on the stairway to heaven. In the vision, God had promised to bring Jacob back safely to this place, and now Jacob had finally come back. He had left Bethel with nothing and he came back with family and wealth and he knew that the God of Bethel had made it happen.
So, Jacob told his family to bring him all of their idols and the jewelry that showed their devotion to those gods. He took it all—the idols that defined who they were and what they were about. He took them and he buried them under a great oak tree at Bethel. It was a powerfully symbolic act. By burying the family idols at Bethel, Jacob was declaring that God was now the only God they would serve and worship. He was putting their family’s old life and old ways to death and making a fresh start as the people of God.
Sometimes we need to do exactly what Jacob did for the sake of our families. We need to take those things that have defined us and our family through the generations—the preoccupation with money, the obsession with appearance or reputation, the hunger for success, the addiction to pleasure—we need to take those idols and bury them in the sight of our whole family. When Joshua led the Israelites back into the Promised Land, they were instructed to break down the altars of the Canaanites and burn all their Asherah poles. What are the altars and idols that you need to break down and burn so that you no longer make sacrifices to them?
But it is important to know that idols cannot just be removed. They must be replaced. In order to successfully root out an idol from your heart and from the center of your family, it must be dethroned by a higher power, a more captivating vision, a more precious treasure. Usually the reason people make good things into ultimate things is not because they love and appreciate those good things too much. The real issue is that they love and appreciate God too little. He is not big enough in their eyes. If we really knew God as he is—his power, his beauty, his love, his riches and kingdom—we would not be caught up in the worship of lesser things.
I read once that if the distance between the sun and the earth (93 million miles) were the thickness of one sheet of paper, then the distance between earth and the next closest star would be a stack of paper 70 feet high, and the distance across our galaxy would be a stack of paper 310 miles high. And our galaxy is but a speck of dust among the billions of galaxies that make up the universe! Yet God spoke it all into existence with a word. He’s a God whose size you literally cannot exaggerate!”
But that is not the most impressive thing about God. God is not only big in his abilities and power, but he is big in love. God has created billions of people throughout history for the express purpose of loving them. He knows each of our names. The Bible says that God knows every hair on our head and thought of our mind. His love is so great that Jesus—the person for whom and through whom everything in the universe exists—let himself be humiliated and murdered on a cross so that you would come to know God and live life with him. This God is really the only thing big enough to be the center of our lives. He is big enough and loving enough to contain everything that we are and everything that we long for.
Worship, then, is the key to replacing our idols. We must first break them down and bury them, then we must replace them by worshiping the true God. Singing and praise is an important part of worship, but it is only one part. In both Hebrew and Greek there are two words for worship. One has the meaning of bowing down and humbling oneself before God and the other has to do with performing acts of service to him. “Worship is to engage ourselves with, dwell upon, and express the greatness, beauty, and goodness of God through thought and the use of words, rituals, and symbols” (Willard).
So how can you make your home a place of worship so that God becomes central in our own lives and in our family? We will need to make some practical changes in the way we live.
- The Scriptures often talk about giving your first fruits to God—the first and best part of your crops. We can put God first in our lives by willingly giving him the first fruits of our time. Devote the best part of your day (whatever that might be) to prayer, Bible reading and worship. The first fruits of your money. Before you spend on your wants and even on your needs, set aside money for the poor and for the work of the Kingdom and do not change your mind to use it for yourself. If at all possible, give in secret. And the first fruits of your energy. The older we get, the less energy we have. But we can devote the best part of what energy we have to doing what is good and serving others. We can use the rest of our energy for the other things we enjoy doing or have to do.
- Find ways to display God’s goodness and beauty in your home. What will draw him to your mind? Paintings, verses on the wall, music playing from the radio, a garden for prayer and meditation?
- We cannot forget about prayer and personal Bible reading. Prayer re-centers the mind upon God and Bible reading reminds of who God is, what he has done, and what he requires of us. Try reading a small Gospel story every night at family dinner or praying before bed with your spouse.
If idolatry ruins the humanity and the family, what might the worship of the true God do to heal and restore it? When we worship God and serve him rather than our idols, the light of the Master is shone in our faces and we reflect his beauty and glory like the moon reflects the sun. The beautiful secret is that God is not found idols of wood and stone, but of flesh and bone. We are made in God’s image—in other words, we are his idols! We reflect the glory back to the only God when we are worship the Creator rather than created things.