“Keep Yourselves From Idols” Deuteronomy 4:15-31 February 14, 2010
SI: We’re studying the book of Deuteronomy.
The name Deuteronomy means a second giving of the law.
The Israelites were standing on the brink of the Promised Land.
They were about to cross the Jordan River
and take possession of the land promised to Abraham.
God told Moses to give them the law a second time.
Why? Not so that they would be saved or stay saved.
He gave them the law because he loved them.
The law is the path to the blessed life.
And the law is a pattern for us to follow to show our gratitude to God
for his great salvation.
Before Moses gives the law, before the he gives Ten Commandments again,
wants to put the law in the right place in their minds.
INTRO: I’ve told you this one before.
There was a young preacher called to a church in Kentucky.
The first sermon he preached was about the evils of drinking.
Afterwards the deacons pulled him aside and said, Young man, No, no, no!
This is Kentucky. We make the smoothest bourbon in the country.
So the next Sunday he preached on the evils of smoking.
After church the deacons confronted him again and said,
Young man, this is Kentucky. We grow the finest tobacco in the country.
So the next Sunday he preached on the evils of gambling.
Once again, they surrounded him after the sermon and said, Young man,
this is Kentucky, and we raise the fastest racehorses in the country.
Well, this young preacher had had it. He said—
If I can’t preach on the evils of drinking, smoking, or gambling
what can I preach on?
One of the deacons said:
Why don’t you preach on the evils of African witch doctors.
There ain’t one of them within 5,000 miles!
That’s what this passage seems like at first.
It seems like a safe sermon about other people.
Moses is preaching about the evils of making images of people or animals
of out of wood and stone and then worshipping those images as idols.
You still see pagan idol worship in some parts of the world.
You can go places in Asia and Africa and see people bowing down to images
of cows and elephants and monkeys and people.
You can see them praying to these statues and giving them offerings.
But you don’t see that in Cullman. We don’t do that.
So this is a safe sermon. It’s not about you. So you can sit back and relax.
Not so fast. This is a sermon about us.
One of the most important themes in the Bible is the struggle between
faith in the true God and the worship of idols.
Idolatry is not just worshipping figurines and statues.
it’s not just something limited to ancient times or distant cultures—
idolatry is the Bible’s way of describing everything that is wrong with us.
Idolatry started in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve
chose to worship and serve created things instead of the Creator.
And that’s what idolatry is—
it is serving, worshipping things besides God.
It is trusting created things to give you what God alone can give.
So when we hear Moses’ sermon to Israel, it’s not a sermon about other people.
It’s not about something ancient and primitive and strange. It’s about us.
Tim Keller wrote a good book last year about idolatry called Counterfeit Gods:
The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters
In the introduction he says:
“The old pagans were not fanciful when they depicted virtually everything as a god. They had sex gods, work gods, war gods, money gods, nation gods—for the simple fact that anything can be a god that rules and serves as a deity in the heart of a person or in the life of a people. For example, physical beauty is a pleasant thing, but if you make it the most important thing in a person’s life or a culture’s life, then you have Aphrodite, the beauty idol. And you have people, and an entire culture, constantly agonizing over appearance, spending inordinate amounts of time and money on it, and foolishly evaluating character on the basis of it. We may not physically kneel before the statue of Aphrodite, but many young women today are driven into depression and eating disorders by an obsessive concern over their body image. If anything becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, then it is an idol.”
Who will I worship? Who will I serve? Where will I find happiness and identity?
Moses knew that the Israelites would ask those questions,
and that the idols of the Canaanites would entice them.
Even after you say, I’m going to follow Jesus Christ, he is my Lord and God—
you still feel the pull of certain idols.
The book of First John ends with an interesting command:
“Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”
John wrote his letter to show what the true Christian life looks like.
Spends most of the letter explaining Jesus’ command, “Love one another”
And then he concludes: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.”
John is saying that keeping yourself from idols is an essential part of Christian life.
It’s part of what it means to live a life of love.
So let’s look at this passage—these words of Moses—under two headings:
1. Identifying your idols
2. Replacing them
Share with you a number of insights from Dr. Keller’s book that
illuminate this passage.
MP#1 Identifying your idols
Great English hymn writer, William Cooper wrote a hymn called:
O, For A Closer Walk With God.
Each stanza, talks about a step Christians need to take
to walk closer with Jesus. One stanza says:
The dearest idol I have known,/What’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,/And worship only Thee.
“The dearest idol I have known . . .” You have to know you dearest idols.
You can’t even start to tear them from the throne of your life
if you don’t know what they are.
Tim Keller says in Counterfeit Gods that our idols are often hard to identify.
We can see them in other people more easily than in ourselves.
One of the first things is to recognize the distinction between what he calls
surface idols and deep idols.
Deep idols are when the deep motivational drives of our hearts become idolatrous.
He says there are four deep idols: Control, Comfort, Power, and Approval
Depending on your personality, your experiences, even your brain,
you are going to be drawn to one or two of these more than others.
If your deep idol is control, then what you want above anything else in life is
certainty, security, standards, and order. That’s your key to happiness.
The greatest nightmare for a person who worships control is uncertainty.
Worry is the problem emotion for people who worship control.
Worry that things aren’t right, worry that things are out of order,
worry that discipline is breaking down, worry that bad things are going to happen.
All idols demand sacrifices
and the sacrifice that control demands is loneliness and lack of spontaneity.
Because when you worship control, other people often feel condemned by you,
and you are fearful of doing anything unplanned or unknown.
Another deep idol is comfort. The comfort idol promises ease and pleasure.
A life free of stress. For some people that means privacy, freedom.
The person who worships comfort wants to avoid stress and demands at all cost.
Boredom and discontent are often problem emotions.
And the comfort idol opens people up to temptations—
especially temptations of the flesh.
The deep idol power promises success.
It promises winning, influence, moving up the ladder, being top dog.
The greatest fear for a person who worships power is failure and humiliation
and anger is often their problem emotion.
This idol drives you to take on burdens and responsibilities.
The deep idol approval promises affirmation, praise, a sense of worth.
Approval worshippers dread rejection.
They pay the price of lack of freedom around people,
because always concerned about what people think of them.
They sometimes are overwhelmed by a sense of rejection or worthlessness.
Deep idols are hard to see, but they are always connected to surface idols.
Surface idols are visible and concrete things.
Surface idols can literally be anything: your children, money, your appearance,
your health, a political party, a romantic relationship.
As Moses puts it—An idol of any shape, like any creature.
And surface idols actually serve your deep idols.
Money is the clearest example of a surface idol.
People worship money for very different reasons, depending on their deep idols.
Some people want money in order to have control.
If I have enough money, my future can be planned and secure.
If I have enough money, I can control my life and destiny.
Other people want money because their idol is approval.
Money can buy the things that make them acceptable
in the eyes of the people who matter.
Money can be spent to make them more beautiful and attractive.
Other people want money for comfort and pleasure.
Other people worship money because it gives them power over people.
It’s easy to see how other people use money wrongly, hard to see in yourself.
Keller tells the story of a couple in their church who were having severe conflicts
over money. The wife thought her husband was a miser.
And he was complaining bitterly about what a spendthrift she was.
“She’s so selfish, spending so much on her clothes and appearance.”
He could see clearly how her need to look attractive influenced her use of money.
But then someone in their church challenged this man.
Said: Don’t you see that by not spending and giving,
and by hoarding every penny you being just as selfish?
You are “spending” everything on your need to feel secure and in control.
By God’s grace this man got a clear view at his deep idol for the first time,
and it lead to some real changes.
Do you see how idolatry works? Money is just one example.
You can use any created thing as a near idol—
marriage, children, career, religion, food, drink—
Anything can be a near idol to get what you really want deep down—
control, comfort, power, or approval.
But idols never fully deliver on their promises—they always fail.
We crush them with our expectations that they give us things only God can give.
Parents who want perfect, successful children to satisfy own needs crush children.
When you feel your heart in the grip of some uncontrollable emotion,
it’s because there is something that you are trusting besides Jesus.
You’re trusting it to give you what he alone can give, and it’s not delivering.
Don’t ignore those troubling emotions. Don’t let them go to waste.
Identify them. Name them. Anger? Anxiety? Despondency? Discontent?
Then, Keller says: Pull them up by the roots and you will often find your
idols clinging to them.
What do you worry about the most?
What do you rely on or comfort yourself with when things go bad or get difficult?
What makes you feel the most self-worth? What are you proudest of?
What do you really want and expect out of life?
What would really make you happy?
These questions or similar ones tease out whether we are serving God or idols.
Whether looking for salvation from Christ or false saviors.
Has something or someone besides Jesus Christ taken your heart’s
trust, preoccupation, loyalty, service, fear, or delight?
This is the basic question the Lord asks each heart.
It’s the question Moses challenged the Israelites with.
Who are you trusting? These idols, or the Lord who brought you out of the
iron-smelting furnace of Egypt?
Identify your idols.
MP#2 Replacing your idols
That bring us to the second point—replacing your idols.
That’s crucial to understand. They can’t just be torn down. Have to be replaced.
Idolatry is not just a failure to obey God,
it is a setting of your whole heart on something besides God.
You can’t fix that by just repenting or by trying to live a different life.
The human heart is made to worship.
If you uproot the idol and don’t plant something in its place,
then another idol will grow back.
That something is the worship of God and the love of Jesus Christ.
That’s the key to getting rid of your idols—replacing them with the worship of God.
That means appreciating, rejoicing, and resting in what Jesus has done for you.
Jesus Christ has to become more beautiful to your imagination,
and more attractive to your heart than your idol.
Let’s look at how Moses described this to the Israelites,
and then how the Apostle Paul describes it,
and then a story of someone doing this—replacing an idol with the love of Christ.
First, Moses. We had an interesting discussion in our Covenant Group this past
week about grace in the Old Testament. Agreed that Old Testament does
teach salvation by grace, but sometimes it’s harder to see.
Because one thing the Old Testament does very well is describe sin
and it’s consequences and God’s hatred of sin and his determination to judge it.
Those hard words are often so overwhelming that it’s harder to see the grace.
Moses says, I call heaven and earth as witness against you.
If you worship idols in the Promised Land,
then the Lord your God will be provoked to anger.
He will scatter you among the nations and destroy many of you.
Those are hard words.
But after that very blunt and frightening message of God’s hatred of idolatry—
look at the next words from Moses—they are full of grace.
“But if from there (if from the hard place your idolatry has taken you), you seek the Lord your
God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.
Moses says: He’s still your God. No matter how far. Seek him. Will find him.
Then he says:
“When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you (once again, he’s talking
about the distress that idolatry brings into our lives—the emptiness and disappointments, the
problem emotions), then in latter days you will return to the Lord your God and obey him.”
There it is again. He’s still your God. Even though you’ve worshipped idols.
Moses finishes this by saying:
“For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon you or destroy you or forget the
covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath.”
And here we have the amazing grace of God shining through.
He says: I will destroy and scatter if you worship idols. And then he says,
No, I will not abandon or destroy you, because I’m your God,
and I am faithful to my covenant promises.
That’s the Gospel. God must destroy idolaters but he won’t destroy us because
of his faithfulness to the promise. That promise is fulfilled in Christ.
So where does Moses point the Israelites in order to crush idolatry in their hearts?
To the love and mercy of God, which leads us to worship and love him.
When that happens, your idols are weakened.
The Apostle Paul followed this same pattern.
In our reading earlier in the service, in Philippians—Paul says Rejoice in the Lord.
And then he goes right into dealing with what? Anxiety, worry.
What is anxiety always caused by? The control idol.
Trusting that something I do or something I have
will give me control over my life and environment.
But that thing you look to for control—whether it is money or your own expertise
or whatever, it doesn’t deliver. It can’t. And that leads to worry.
So what’s Paul’s answer? Does he say just repent? Just quit worrying?
No, Paul says that the answer is to rejoice in the Lord.
Even though you don’t deserve to have anything go right in your life—
because of God’s grace, his love for you in Christ—
he is working all things for good.
And because all of your punishment fell on Jesus when he was crucified,
the bad things God allows are not his judgment,
they are only for your growth, for loving and wise purposes.
And because the Lord says that he has counted every hair on your head,
and has recorded every tear on your cheek—
he loves you and cares for you better than you could ever care for yourself.
And he has said over and over that he is preparing a place for you.
So you can rejoice and relax—because your security in life
is not based on your planning and hard work,
or that one thing you think you must have to make it all hold together—
but on the Lord’s gracious love for you.
You have to take these truths, meditate them, pray them, wrestle with them—
until they sink in and you can truly rejoice.
When you do, glory of Jesus outshines your idols.
Tim Keller has a lovely story of someone doing this—
replacing her idols with the love of Christ.
It was a woman he knew named Sally. She was very beautiful.
When she was a young woman, she used her beauty to manipulate men.
But then men began to use her beauty to manipulate her.
She began to feel worthless and invisible unless a man was in love with her.
She couldn’t bear to be alone. So became involved in a lifestyle of abusive
relationships. She was enslaved to the approval idol.
So she went to a counselor. This counselor rightly pointed out that was
looking to men for her identity. So the counselor proposed that she should
focus on getting a career and becoming financially independent.
That way she could find her identity and self-esteem apart from these relationships.
Sally realized that was good advice. Something she needed to do.
But she knew that something was missing.
Insightful enough to realize that she would just be trading one idol for another.
She said that she realized she didn’t want to have her self-worth dependent
on career success any more than on men. She wanted to be free.
Way that started to happened was when she came across a verse in Colossians 3
that says: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God . . . and when Christ who is
your life appears, you will appear with him in glory.”
Realized that neither men nor career or anything else could be her life.
What really mattered was not what men thought of her, or career success.
but what Jesus Christ had done for her and how he loved her.
Tim Keller says that Sally told him that as the love of Christ started to sink in,
she changed. When she met a man who was interested in her,
she would silently say in her heart:
“You may turn out to be a great guy, and maybe even my husband,
but you cannot ever be my life. Only Christ is my life.”
And as she began to do this, she got her life back. Not all at once.
But over time the worship of God and the love of Christ
enabled her to set boundaries,
and make good choices, and eventually love a man for himself,
not simply to use him to build her self-image.
All of you here believe in the grace of God and the love of Jesus Christ.
But the reason you are cast down and in turmoil,
the reason you are struggling with anger or bitterness or worry
or despondency or whatever—is because that grace and love has not
captured your heart and imagination.
Other things matter more to you and carry more weight.
Get rid of those idols. Fill your vision with Jesus Christ.
How do you do it? Through worship. It’s all about worship.
Whether it is your private prayer and Bible reading,
or listening to Christian music or coming to church on the Lord’s day—
it’s all different ways to worship Christ, see his perfections,
so that he becomes more important to you than anything else.
Sometimes that happens dramatically, in moving moments—
but mostly it happens over a lifetime. Commit yourself to it.
Idols are worthless, they are nothing. As Moses says,
they cannot see or hear or eat or smell.
But the Lord our God is real.
And if you seek him, as Moses says, you will find him,
if you look for him with all your heart and soul.