WHAT ARE YOUR IDOLS?
(Sermon on the First Commandment for Trinity 1, 6-11-23)
Sermon Text, Exodus 20:3-6; 1 Kings 18:25-29, 36-39. “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image – any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.”
Now Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one bull for yourselves and prepare it first, for you are many; and call on the name of your god, but put no fire under it.” So they took the bull which was given them, and they prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even till noon, saying, “O Baal, hear us!” But there was no voice; no one answered. Then they leaped about the altar which they had made. And so it was, at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, “Cryaloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened.” So they cried aloud, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out on them. And when midday was past, they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice. But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention. … And it came to pass, at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near and said, “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that You are the Lord God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood and the stones and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!”
Lord, this is Your Word and these are Your words. Sanctify us by the truth. Your Word is truth. O Lord my God, You command us to have no other gods. Help us to fear, love, and trust in You above all things. When we are guilty of not doing this, lead us to repent and lift us up by Your word of forgiveness. Amen.
Dear people loved and purchased by God to be His own: Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When we think of the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” it’s natural to think of carved idols like in Far East religions, perhaps a Buddha statue and a shrine; or what Muslims or Hindu people or Mormons do in their religious rituals. Sort of like our reading from 1 Kings where they pray to Baal and do strange things to gain his attention.
On Mt. Sinai, God did speak about this false worship of idols: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image – any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.”
Some Christians in other traditions make this the 2nd Commandment. So they consider it to be false worship of idols or images, to have statues or pictures of Christ in church, or crucifixes with a carved face and body of Jesus, even to make or watch movies of Christ. They say it’s worshipping an image, and thus a sin against what they say is the 2nd commandment. But that’s not so. This statement of God about idols that are carved or crafted is simply a crass example of serving other gods.
So we understand this statement of God about “carved images” to be part of the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” If a person doesn’t have a carved idol or statue it doesn’t mean they’ve avoided what God condemns here. That isn’t the heart of the commandment.
In the Elijah story, the false prophets who served Baal sacrificed and prayed to this false god. But the people were guilty too. Earlier it says: “Elijah came to all the people and said, ‘How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.’ But the people answered him not a word.” These gods in the ancient world were thought to have power over people’s well-being: you had to placate them with sacrifices in order to avoid their wrath, to make it so your crops grew, your wife would give birth, the enemy would not make war. So what hold did these false gods have over people? Security. Prosperity.
This is the heart of the First Commandment. People served those idols because of insecurity and anxiety. If there’s a person or thing who can guarantee that you won’t lack anything, that you’ll always be safe, that you’ll always have love, that you won’t be alone, that you can’t lose your job or source of income, who wouldn’t say “Yes” to it?! That’s idolatry.
We learned this in Covid. We found out that “safety” is our idol. We would give up almost anything, agree to anything, just to “stay safe.” But that isn’t our only idol. We make idols out of almost everything. We make them out of the good things that God gives. But we turn them from God’s gifts to us into something we own and can’t live without.
If you sense there’s someone or something you can’t live without, or you can’t handle losing it, and you’re tempted to break other commandments, you’ll lie or turn your back on others or disregard what they need, just to keep what you have, that’s the sign it’s an idol.
Another sign is: if you feel happy, secure, at peace because of what you have; but when things go the other way you’re depressed – an idol’s got you. We don’t fear, love, and trust God above all. This is serving idols, as much as Baal worship was.
A symptom of this is the fact that suicides are increasing. It’s a sign of an over-anxious world that hooks our happiness to how things are going for us, and these things determine whether life is worth living – so that the absence or loss of good things means life isn’t worth living.
Jesus taught the First Commandment when He said: “Do not worry.” He taught the First Commandment when He told the rich young ruler to sell all His possessions and he couldn’t. He taught the First Commandment when He preached about “counting the cost” of following Him – that family must be loved less than God. He taught the First Commandment when He calmed the storm and asked the disciples where their faith was.
Jesus was always teaching the First Commandment! Which shows what the solution is to these sins of ours, all the ways we serve idols. It’s Jesus! He came down because we have idols. He taught the First Commandment because we serve idols. But most importantly, He came to do what we couldn’t. He kept the First Commandment perfectly, to count for us.
Jesus perfectly feared God – He had childlike fear of a loving Father. Jesus perfectly loved God; His zeal for His Father’s house showed this, even at age 12 when love for His heavenly Father came ahead of love for His earthly parents. And He perfectly trusted Him at all times, as 1 Peter 2 says: “When He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously,” that is, He completely put Himself into the Father’s hands. He did it to count for you. You’re forgiven and saved by Jesus’ faith. It counts as though you’ve done it yourself.
It’s this God, who’s done all this for you, who says: “Don’t fear death. Don’t fear anyone. Fear Me, who could condemn you, who could destroy soul and body, but see, I came to save and redeem you body and soul.”
It’s this God, your Jesus, who says: “Love, because I first loved you.”
It’s this God, your Jesus, who says: “Do not worry. Your very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; I never sleep or slumber.”
It’s this God, your Jesus, who comes to you in His Supper to cast out all your idols, to put a stop to you serving idols, and as He comes into you as you eat His body and drink His blood, He loves you into serving Him and pours strength into you for faith in God and love for neighbor.
As powerful as it was when God answered Elijah’s prayer and fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, what Jesus did in His perfect life, death and resurrection was more powerful. His forgiveness of you, more powerful. To this we say not just, “The Lord, He is God,” but He’s given us the ability to speak to Him directly, trustingly and lovingly – and say: “Lord [Jesus], You are God! My Lord and my God!” Amen!