“Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”
Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.”
But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the LORD!”
— Joshua 24:15-21
In 1980, my wife and I saw The Idolmaker at the Royal Rocking Chair Theatre. It was a wonderful movie, based on the life of rock promoter Bob Marcucci, who discovered Frankie Avalon and Fabian. The title and movie together showed the term “Idolmaker” to be a bad thing. The agent launched talent as hollow a ceramic statue, and the movie ended with the agent abandoning his idolmaking ways and settling in to be a simple musician in his own right.
I suspect that movie was ringing in the ears of producers when they launched “American Idol” on Fox in 2002. They may also have remembered the line from David Bowie’s “Young Americans”: “Have you been the un-American, just you and your idol singing falsetto.” But this time, it was different. On the elaborate talent show, being an “idol” was a good thing, and to win the contest was to become the “American Idol.” Not long after that, “Survivor” introduces “idols” to be won in competition that granted immunity or some other advantage. Now it’s idols, idols everywhere, and I seem a prude for cringing at the word.
But, I still do. I was raised to resist idols, to flee from them. I have always tried to draw a careful line between idols and good luck charms or works of art. I have tossed amulets and medallions when I thought they were becoming my idols.
In the book of Numbers, we read that when Moses was leading the children of Israel through the desert, God once sent poisonous snakes to punish them for grumbling. (!) Moses made a brass serpent and lifted it on a pole in the camp, as a cure for snakebite. If they were bitten, they could gaze on the brass serpent and survive. In 2 Kings, Hezekiah destroyed the serpent of Moses because people had begun to worship it as a god.
But the word has lost its evil connotation. Our society uses the word “idol” to describe some meaningless work of art, more like a trophy, or a person, elevated due to great talent or influence.
When Jesus said, “Whoever loves mother and father more than me is not worthy of me,” he was speaking as God, not as the Son of Man. If mother or father are elevated to the place of God, they become our idols. Paul and Silas were treated as gods following a miracle, so they tore their cloaks and declared themselves to be mere human, lest they become someone’s Idol.
So people can be idols. I can be an idol. If you are here to listen to me rather than to hear the word of God, then I might be an idol. Most pastors don’t want to be idols. The word of God comes from whomever preaches here on Sunday morning. I do know that some people love me so much that they stay home when I’ not preaching. That isn’t right. When we stay home, we miss the chance to hear a word from God meant specifically for our church.
When I think of idols as people, I think of the movie, “Fatal Attraction.” I didn’t see it, but I’ve heard the plot: A man has an affair, and the woman “loves” him so much that she she won’t let it go. She stalks him and makes his life miserable. He was her idol, but that wasn’t a pleasant experience. That sounds like a cautionary tale for those tempted to have an affair! But it also illustrates that being an idol is not all fun and games. Most people don’t want to be anybody’s idol.
You might think you have no idols. Don’t be so sure. “Those who love TV more than me are not worthy of me. Those who love guitars or cars more than me are not worthy of me. Those who love their guns and drugs more than me are not worthy of me.” It doesn’t matter how you fill in the blank; God won’t settle for second place in your life. God is a jealous god and will not take second place to any idol. It is not only good to worship God; it is destructive to worship anything else. Idolize no one. No one wants it. Only God can fill that God-shaped hole in all of us, and any Idol that distracts from that is therefore blasphemous, an abomination, as sure as was the Golden Calf.
We think we are too sophisticated to worship idols, but we put the name in a weekly TV series and actually watch it. Everyone knows murder, theft, false witness, adultery, and other such sins when we see them. Idolatry used to be a major sin, but it was focused on literal statues as objects of worship. Modern idolatry was hard to identify, because anything and anyone can be an idol. Now it’s right up front. American Idol. Immunity Idol. Idol is a four-letter word that should never have become so accepted in our society. More to the point, Idolatry has been granted status as a minor sin, even though it utterly destroys our loyalty to God.
We are not more sophisticated than the people in the Bible. Not at all. As a society, we still lust, murder, steal, cheat and lie with as much zeal and gusto as ever. We need God’s mercy and forgiveness, but first we need to make sure that nothing is blocking our vision of God. The Bible never really refers to the sexual sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, but it condemns them for idolatry.
Cast our your idols. Start by putting Christ first in your life, in your thoughts, in your priorities. Don’t let anyone or anything keep you from worshipping the living God above all else.