The Trouble With Idols

Sermon for Sunday October 12, 2008, Exodus 32:1-8, 19-24 and Romans 8:35-39

The 2006 animated movie Over The Hedge, based on the 13-year-old nationally syndicated comic strip, tells the story of a group of critters who are trying to cope with their woodlands being taken over by suburbia.  The animals try to survive the increasing growth of humanity and technology while becoming enticed by it at the same time:

The irony of the scene—in which RJ the raccoon explains how humans focus their entire lives around food—is that at the time of the movie’s release, the characters were plastered all over Wendy’s Hamburgers Kid’s Meals and General Mills cereal boxes as well as featured in each company’s TV ads!

“For humans,” says RJ the raccoon, “enough is never enough!”

Enough is never enough because we as humans are constantly craving things that will give us comfort and rid us of all the anxiety, doubt and fear we experience on a daily basis.  The things we turn toward, though, are only temporary fixes, so we consume more and more to remain in a state of bliss and satisfaction, albeit a false one.

And when our consumption fails to make us happy and content, usually in hard times, we start to complain like the Israelites did while wandering in the wilderness.

Newly freed from Egyptian enslavement, the Israelites quickly find something new to be dissatisfied about, griping constantly about not having enough water or food, bitterly crying out: “Why didn’t God let us die in comfort in Egypt where we had lamb stew and all the bread we could eat? You’ve brought us out into the wilderness to starve to death!” And every time they complain, God provides enough nourishment to sustain them in their journey to the Promised Land.

But for the Israelites, enough is never enough. Even though God repeatedly answers the Israelites complaints, the people are never satisfied. As we learn in today’s reading from Exodus, the Israelite’s anxiety grows as they wait several days for Moses to return from his meeting with God atop Mt. Sinai.

Believing that Moses is never coming back, the people immediately rally around Aaron, saying, “Do something. Make gods for us who will lead us.” Without hesitating, Aaron tells the people, “Take off the gold rings from the ears of your wives and sons and daughters and bring them to me.” Aaron then uses the gold to make a calf, which was a symbol of fertility in Egypt. The Israelites reply enthusiastically, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from Egypt.” Aaron, marveling in his work and the people’s happiness, announces, “Tomorrow is a feast day to God!” The next morning, the people wake up, burn some offerings and then proceeded to eat, drink and partaaay!

Well, the shouting and loud party music immediately intrudes upon their upstairs neighbor—God—who says angrily to Moses, “Go! Get down there! Your people whom you brought up from the land of Egypt have fallen to pieces. In no time at all they’ve turned away from the way I commanded them: They made a molten calf and worshipped it…I look at these people—oh! What a stubborn, hard-headed people!”

At this point in the story, we might agree that the Israelites are indeed a stubborn headed people. Or we could wonder “How in the world could the Israelites be so ignorant to think they’d get away with worshipping a golden calf right under God’s nose?” And if we wondered a few more minutes, we could come up with a pretty good list of modern-day Israelites, folks like wealthy celebrities and CEOs that put their faith in gold records and golden parachutes.

But it would be hypocritical of us if we failed to extend our list beyond the Israelites and the rich & famous, wouldn’t it?, We’d fail to see that many of us are just as guilty of worshipping idols as they are.

In his book, Losing Moses on the Freeway, veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges, says this about our idols:

“We are burdened by household gods, no longer made of clay, but all promising to fulfill us. Our computer,  our television, our job, our wealth, our social status, along with the brands we wear and the cars we drive, promise us contentment and inform our identity. These household gods seem to offer well-being, health and success. But all these gods create cults. And all these cults circle back to us, to a dangerous self-worship fed by forces who seek to ensnare us in idolatry. We can see the idols others worship. It is hard to see our own.

Household gods and idols come in various forms in our lives. And when we’re confronted with our idols we deny any and all involvement by pulling a page from Aaron’s handbook:  “It’s their idol, not mine. They just gave me the gold and I threw it in the fire, and out came this calf! Crazy, huh?!? ”

If we work at it, we can all think of instances where we have been like Aaron, knowing that we are idolizing something or someone, yet still finding ourselves denying it.  For me, I find that I sometimes get so caught up in my loyalty to a particular sports team, The Auburn Tigers, that I am, in essence, idolizing them.  Now, I know there’s nothing wrong with being a fan of a team or watching a game. It can be a fun fellowship time with friends and family, and a loss doesn’t have to ruin your weekend.

And yet despite that, I still often define myself as an Auburn Tiger.  I have my Tiger logo in a prominent place on my car. I proudly wear my orange and navy blue striped tie on Sundays.  I talk excessively about games with members before and after services. When someone mentions their favorite college team, I quickly point out that I’m an Auburn fan so they know where I stand. I know some of the cheers better than the Apostle’s Creed or The Lord’s Prayer. I cuss loudly at players and coaches when they make a mistake and don’t fulfill my need to be happy and excited. I get very anxious about “my” team losing to a rival. And, worst of all, I sometimes hold prejudices against fans of other teams. Several of you may identify with me no matter if you’re a Dawg, Gator, Seminole, Yellowjacket, Falcon, or Brave.

Now, perhaps sports teams are not your idol. I imagine, however, that there is one particular idol that most of us have fallen under the spell of lately, something a bit more colorful—like reds and blues. Over the past 20 months, it seems clear that a lot of folks in this country define themselves very strongly as reds or blues, Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, Elephants or Donkeys. Each side is banking on one particular presidential candidate to usher in change and hope by single-handedly cleaning up all the messes on Main Street, Wall Street and Haifa Street.

The jury is still out on whether the harbinger of change will be—

the son of a poor goat herder who rose from poverty to become the first ever African-American presidential nominee.


the Navy veteran and long-time law-maker who rose from brutal suffering as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam to become the oldest person to ever be picked to run for the oval office.

And the uncertainty of who will win is making a bunch of folks so anxious and intense that it seems as if their lives were dependent on whether or not their party and candidate wins.  Chris Hedges tells us:

We depend on our idols to give us order and meaning. We depend on our idols to define our place in the world. Idols give us a world that appears logical and coherent. Idols free us from moral choice. Idols determine right and wrong. Idols render judgment. We follow. We conform…The idols of nation, race, religion, ethnicity, gender and class are all idols that demand exclusive and false covenants.”

The idols of nation, race, ethnicity, gender and class vie for our allegiance during this presidential race through sleek, shiny, alluring TV & Internet ads—commercials that promise to fulfill America’s need for more money, more oil, more energy, more power, more security and more control.  Commercials that attempt to separate us from God.

Through the video medium of the TV and Internet, the idol of nation in particular, convinces many citizens and faithful Christians that God’s kingdom is an American-Christian kingdom, “a special holy force in the world.”  Christian activist Shane Claiborne, the author of Jesus For President, observes:

We in the church are schizophrenic: we want to be good Christians, but deep down we trust that only the power of the state and its militaries and markets can really make a difference in the world. And so we’re hardly able to distinguish between what’s American and what’s Christian. As a result, power corrupts the church and its goals and practices…Or as Tony Campolo puts it, ‘Mixing the church and state is like mixing ice cream with cow manure. It may not do much to the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream.’”

Consider these following statements that refer to America as the sacred, that fuel the country’s allegiance in the idol of nation over God:

“The ideal of America is the hope of all mankind. … That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

(George W. Bush, Ellis Island, 2002)

“It is that American spirit – that American promise – that pushes us forward even when the path is uncertain; that binds us together in spite of our differences; that makes us fix our eye not on what is seen, but what is unseen, that better place around the bend.”

(Barak Obama, DNC speech, 2008)

“I take the office of President as my most sacred responsibility to keep America free, safe, and strong – an abiding beacon of freedom and hope to the world.”

(John McCain, on his website, 2008)

These statements, made by well-intentioned Christian men, unfortunately point to the existence of a new   nationalistic religion, that author and pastor Dr. Gregory A. Boyd refers to in his book The Myth of a Christian Nation, as “the religion of American democracy”:

“It has its own distinctive message of salvation (political freedom), its own ‘set apart’ people group (America and its allies) …  its own distinctive symbol (the flag) and its own distinctive god (the national deity we are ‘under’ who favors our causes and helps us win our battles).”

That’s a lot of manure messing up the ice cream. But the fertilizing doesn’t stop with the politicians. This religion of American democracy, this idol of nation, reared its head loudly at both the Democratic and Republic National Conventions, where crowds held up signs that read “Country First” and shouted, “USA! USA! USA!”  Jim Wallis, the editor of Sojourners Magazine, shared his feelings toward this display of nationalism in a recent column:

“Should country be put ahead of faith, too? I kept wanting to yell back at the people yelling at me about putting the country first and say, ‘No, not me, I’m a Christian.’ Because we as Christians simply can’t put our country first, ahead of God, ahead of Jesus Christ, ahead of the body of Christ.”

It’s during hard times, that so many Christians, including myself, put country first, ahead of God. We see in America’s symbols, ideals, and leaders something tangible that we believe will cure every ill.  When God or God’s messenger is atop a mountain and beyond our sight, we clamor for something else we can see, touch, taste and smell to fulfill our needs. We reach out to the idol that we hope will give us the most satisfaction in goods and services.

We tell ourselves, as Aaron and the Israelites did, that believing in the idol will ease our anxiety and fears. We tell ourselves that putting all of our trust into one nation or one party or one presidential candidate will fix all of our problems and grant us more comfort and prosperity. We tell ourselves that America’s community, America’s spirit, America’s symbols, America’s ideals, America’s power, America’s economy or America’s leaders will bring more than enough hope into our lives.

The reality, though, is that the idols never fulfill their promises for hope and change. But rather it is God and God’s love—God’s kingdom, God’s inspiration, God’s cross, God’s commandments, God’s power, God’s abundance and God in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—that fulfills the hope of all things seen and unseen in our lives.

It is God and God’s hope alone that establishes a kingdom where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the blind are given sight, and the prisoners are freed.

It is God and God’s hope alone that compels the prophet Moses to smash the golden calf with his bear hands, freeing the people from slavery to the idol that entrapped them.

It is God and God’s hope alone that dwells among humanity as Jesus who smashes sin and death with his bear hands, feet and body nailed to a cross, freeing all people from slavery to the idols that entrapped them.

It is God and God’s hope alone that assures us that neither idols “nor hardship, nor distress, nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril, nor sword … nor powers nor… anything in else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

That is the only kind of hope and change we can forever believe in.  That is the only kind of hope and change that is always enough.



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