Exodus 20:1-6 (ISV)
1 God spoke all these words:
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt— from the house of slavery. 3 You are to have no other gods as a substitute for me.
4 “You are not to craft for yourselves an idol or anything resembling what is in the skies above, or on earth beneath, or in the water sources under the earth. 5 You are not to bow down to them in worship or serve them, because I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the guilt of parents on children, to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing gracious love to the thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we may not place our trust in anything or anyone else but our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
If I asked if you’ve ever made an idol for yourself, most likely you’d say ‘no’.
You’d probably say ‘no’ because most people think an idol is like a little statue of a god, like a little ‘Buddha’ or ‘Golden Calf’. And while some of you may even have little statues or figurines in your gardens or homes, you’ve probably never thought of them as a god or offered sacrifices to them!
For this reason you might figure you don’t worship an idol.
But what if I were to challenge you by saying it’s not just your hands that can make an idol. What if your heart can also make an idol?
An idol could then be anything your heart relies on, desires to get, or trusts in, which isn’t the one true God. Martin Luther agrees, and said, ‘Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.’ (Large Catechism I, 3)
So then, it seems your heart can both trust in the one true God, but it can also make an idol, especially if you understand an idol is anything your heart is clinging to, relying on, or desiring over, which is not God.
In this case, one test to see if you have an idol or not, is to consider anything you might have (or want to have) which you can’t do without. The test becomes real when you consider how you react when something or someone you’re relying on is taken away.
Now, in this case I’m not talking about the essentials of life, such as air or food or water. I’m talking about the things your heart clings to. This could be an object, a person, or even a concept.
For example, let’s say someone smashes into your car. Now, no matter how precious you might think your car is, no-one here would think their car is an idol which they worship. You may also figure if something ever happened to your car, you have insurance to fix or replace it, so there shouldn’t be any problem there.
But what would it mean for you if you couldn’t use your car? Would it be an inconvenience, or a major catastrophe? If you couldn’t use your car to get around in, it might be a big pain in the behind, but most of you would survive. But for some it might be different, and in this case it’s not so much about the car, but what it represents.
What if your car represented your independence, your freedom, your status, or something else? For instance, you might really struggle having to rely on others and be a bother to them. This might upset you a lot. You don’t want to inconvenience anyone, and you don’t want to be inconvenienced. It could be your heart has learnt to rely on yourself and your access to a car.
So, if you couldn’t use your car, for whatever reason, you may grieve the loss of your car more than you first realised. It’s not that your car was so important, or that it was an idol in itself, but your reliance on it in order to maintain your independence, your freedom, or even your identity as a person who is willing to be there for others in order to help out so that you feel valued and appreciated, could become a form of an idol.
Now, of course you’re not relying on your car for salvation, but your dependence and reliance on having your car could result in a very strong reaction if it, or your ability to use it, is taken away.
When you have strong reactions to losing something, it means your heart felt it needed it for some reason. If your heart feels it needs something, then it could be that God isn’t the only good thing you’re relying on. In this case, God becomes jealous because you’re flirting with someone or something else to supply your perceived needs.
Now you may want to argue with me by saying God loves to give us many good things and blesses us with many possessions, and yes, I’d agree. If God didn’t want you to own anything, then there’d be no need for the seventh commandment about stealing, and no need for the ninth and tenth commandments about not coveting, because no one would have anything to steal or covet.
God also created all things for our good. He wants us to enjoy his many wonderful blessings through his gifts to us, but if we start to rely on them so much that our heart grieves terribly if they’re taken away or threatened, then they could represent an idol for us.
It may not be because they themselves are an idol, but they represent something which we’re relying on for our own good. We may be relying on what God creates and gives us, rather than on God himself.
Now, maybe you’re not yet convinced, so let’s consider another example – this time a concept.
Let’s say you desire to have a good sense of self-worth. This is a bit more intangible which doesn’t rely on you having to have any particular object. For this reason, you’ll rarely find a little statuette representing your ‘self-worth’ in your homes, but that doesn’t mean your heart isn’t set on it.
I can also say seeking to have a good sense of self-worth isn’t a bad thing in itself, in fact you might agree God wants you to have a good sense of self-worth and doesn’t want you to feel worthless or stupid or inferior or foolish.
But what do you do if you don’t feel worthy enough for God, or for those around you? How do you react when you feel your own sense of self-worth is being challenged because of health issues, a change in circumstances, or because of something you, or someone else, has done which threatens your feelings of self-worth?
For example, do you ‘beat yourself up’? Do you criticise, judge, or want to punish others for suggesting you’re not as good as you thought you were? Do you experience bouts of hopelessness or depression? Do you wonder how people could possibly love you? In response to your doubts of self-worth, do you try to do things, such as lie or cheat or manipulate others through emotional outbursts so that they might consider you worthy of their attention? Do you doubt God’s love for you and so, in order to feel worthy of his love, you promise to do things for him, hoping you could make up or earn his love?
Could it be that your need for a feeling of self-worth has become so important that you no longer look to God in order to feel complete and worthy? Could it be what others think or say about you, or even what you think about yourself, has become more important to you than what God says about you? Could it be Christ’s covering of his holy, innocent, and perfect blood, which makes you worthy and righteous and pure in God’s eyes, is no longer enough for you? Could it be your status as a holy and precious child of God isn’t sufficient or adequate for you?
When our heart clings to anything else than God himself and what he supplies through the words and work of Jesus Christ, it’s most likely making an idol, even if there’s no little golden ornament to prove it. Our jealous, selfish, and self-centred actions and reactions alone prove our hearts are trusting idols!
Our hearts are idol factories which not only love to crave what God has forbidden for us, but our hearts also love to turn the good things of God (which he loves to give us by grace), into essential things we have to have in order to feel whole and complete and happy and fulfilled.
Even our desire to be good little Christians who figure God loves us because of our goodness and faithfulness can become an idol because our heart often wants to cling to self-righteousness rather than the objective righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is given as a free and undeserved gift through faith alone.
In this way our hearts learn to rely on the gifts more than the Giver. The created things become more essential than the One who created them. Our words and works become more holy and virtuous than the words and work of Jesus Christ. Our hearts become clogged with worthless idols, and it shows in the way we treat each other and the way we relate to God.
For this reason, Jesus wants to come to the temples of our hearts and clean them out. He’s rightly angry about the idols we gather and cling to in our hearts. The more idols our hearts make and rely on, the less room there is for the words and work of Christ alone.
In this case the answer for our idol-making hearts is repentance and faith.
We repent of everything we’ve learnt to rely on or desire which isn’t God himself.
We repent of the way we treat each other because they didn’t give us our hearts desires.
We repent of the way we didn’t fear, love or trust God above all things.
But the other part of the answer is looking to God in faith.
We trust Jesus is able to cleanse our hearts from the idols which lead us to sin, and so he can create pure and clean hearts which look to him alone to satisfy all our deepest needs.
We trust Jesus’ work of obedience is all-sufficient to make up for all the times we fail to keep God’s commands, because only Jesus alone is truly able to love God and keep his commands for us.
We trust Jesus took the guilt of all our idolatry and paid the full punishment for our sins.
We trust his suffering and death on the cross paid for the full propitiation for all the ways we hurt God and those around us because they got in the way of what we desired.
We trust in the forgiveness of God who shows his gracious love to thousands of those who, because they’ve received the righteousness of Christ through faith, love him and keep his commands.
We trust God alone is our hope, our joy, our strength, our shelter, our solitude, our redeemer, our defender, our comforter, and the One who promises us wholeness, completeness, and health, especially in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, our hearts are idol factories which don’t want to fear, love and trust God above all things, but the antidote for our idolatrous hearts is repentance and faith in our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who supplies everything we need for our forgiveness, life and salvation through his Word and Holy Sacraments.
As we fear, love and trust God above all things, may…
…the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.