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Getting Closer To God

Targeting Idolatry

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | June 27, 1993

Selected highlights from this sermon

When Moses was on Mount Sinai with God, the Israelites were in the valley forging an idol to represent God. Though the "golden calf" was clearly an idol, the idols many of us have today aren't so clear cut. In this message we'll learn what idols are and how to get rid of them in order to avoid God's judgment. 

Some time ago Leadership Magazine had a cartoon and the caption was The Lite Church (lite). This church has 24% fewer commitments. It’s the home of the 5% tithe, the 15-minute sermon and the 45-miniute worship service. We have only eight commandments (and you get to choose), an 800-year millennium, and only three spiritual laws, everything you’ve always wanted in a church, and less.

Let me ask you a question. If you were to have only eight of the Ten Commandments, which eight would you keep, and which two would you jettison? It’s interesting that in the history of the church the second commandment has particularly often been ignored or reinterpreted so that it could be ignored. The second commandment says that thou shall not make unto thee any image both of things that are of the earth or in the sea, and thou shall not bow down to them, nor shall thou worship them.

But the second commandment has often been broken. As a matter of fact, the irony is that when Moses was on the mount there, on Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments, of all things, the people were in the valley breaking the Ten Commandments. And the story is recorded for us in Exodus, chapter 32.

As you know, we are taking some snapshots in the life of Moses. We did not go into all of the information regarding the Ten Commandments and the Tabernacle. That would be a separate series of messages, but we pick up the story in Exodus 32, because Moses is high on the mountain. And look at what is happening in the valley. “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’”

What is it that leads people into idolatry? The impatience of God, or I should say “our” impatience with God leads us into idolatry. We want some fast results. We want to have it our way. We want God to get on with it, and when He doesn’t, we turn to a god who will. That’s why people go to fortune tellers, even though the Bible strongly speaks against the occult. It’s because they want to have inside knowledge. People look to stars because what they want to do is to be guided by those horoscopes because, after all, to depend on God and to make your decisions in faith seems to be impractical. “Give me something that I can get ahold of independent of God.”

This past week I read of a woman who went to a fortune teller, by the way, if I may insert some humor in the sermon. And she said, “I want you to tell me about my future,” and the fortune teller said, “Prepare for widowhood. Your husband is going to be killed, and he’s going to have a violent death.” And so the client asked a second question: “Would you please look into the future and tell me, will I be acquitted?” (laughter) There are ways to create your own future, you know.

What I’d like to do today since all of us are lovers of idols of idols, and we are… One of the worst things we could do is read the story as if it is a historical story only, and not see ourselves in the portrait. What I’d like to do is to walk us through this scene and take us through the five stages of idol lovers. What’s happening here in the text?

First of all, as idol lovers we make our own idols. We fashion them according to our own wishes. We pick up the story in verse 2: “So Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” (chuckles)

Do you know what I think? I think that Aaron never believed for a moment that the women were going to give up their earrings. When they decided that they wanted to have a calf or some kind of a god, he thought to himself, “I’ll make a golden calf, and I’m going to ask them for the gold, and the women and the men will not give up their jewelry.” He thought that would be the end of it. Much to his shock, they took the earrings off of their ears, and the bracelets from their hands, and they said, “Here it is. Make us a god.”

Now there are different kinds of gods. This happened to be a god that was fashioned by human hands. This was a god that actually represented the true God, Jehovah, or was supposed to. The reason that Aaron made a bull is because Apis was the bull that they had learned about in Egypt. It was an Egyptian god. And do you know that when they fashioned this idol they decided that behind it would be the living and the true God. It was to represent Jehovah.

You say, “Well, how do you know that that is true?” First of all, it is because it is certainly obvious that Aaron would not attribute their deliverance from Egypt to this golden calf that was before them. That was unthinkable. In fact, the Bible even says that the heathens who make these idols actually worship the powers—the demons—that are behind those idols. But secondly, notice what it says in the text.

Verse 5: “When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.’” This calf was supposed to be a worship helper. That’s what the calf was to be. It’s like some of you who grew up in churches that have worship helpers. You’re not really supposed to pray to that statue, but the statue helps you to pray to the power that is behind the statue. And so they decided that this calf would represent God, the Lord.

But what had the Lord said in the second commandment? “Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image, nor bow down to it (of any likeness actually).” You see, there are gods that are made with hands, and then there are also gods that we sometimes construct, idols that we construct in our minds. You see, many of us don’t like the living and the true God, as He is revealed in the Bible, and so we make up our own version of God. We do not abandon God. Idolatry is not abandoning God. It is refashioning God. It is modifying God.

Can you imagine this? Julian Huxley, in an interview on television said a number of years ago that the reason why Darwinism was so quickly accepted without any scientific basis is because we did not want God to interfere with our sexual mores, he said. Well, that’s interesting. And there have been studies done in religion in Canada and the United States, and the discovery is that the god that Americans and Canadians worship essentially is a cultural God who has been remade according to the cultural fabric of our time. He is a tame God, a God that we can handle, a God that we can live with.

Most people don’t abandon God. They refashion Him according to their liking. Every time we want to disobey, every time we want to manipulate, every time we want our own way, we reconstruct God to fit what we really want to do. You’re an idol lover, I’m an idol lover, and step number one is to fashion a god according to our liking.

Step number two is we end up worshipping these gods, these idols. Notice it says that Aaron saw this. He built an altar and he made a proclamation. Verse 6: “And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”

Now, constructing this god had already cost them something. It had cost them the gold that they had brought with them from Egypt. But no god is going to be satisfied with an initial down-payment. Every god wants to have more and more. And so they offer burnt offerings and other sacrifices. They are sacrificing these animals because that’s what God demands—a sacrifice.

You must understand today that every single god wants our allegiance. Any god that we construct, any god that we want, wants us to bow down, and eventually to own us. And your god that you have constructed independently of the Lord God Jehovah wants complete total ownership of your life. Now, so does the living and the true God. You and I are individuals who are basically owned. We are owned by some god. We are not our own people. We are owned by whatever god we choose, and we worship at that shrine.
And so the Bible says that they worshipped God (in quotes), this new god, and even though worshipping a false god may be easy at first, it’ll cost you more and more later on.

So what do we do? We fashion a god. We worship the god secondly, and thirdly, we enjoy our god. It says that they rose up to play. Now, please hear me. That does not mean that they simply played games. It really is a euphemism for a sexual orgy. We know that from its interpretation in the New Testament in the book of 1 Corinthians where it talks about the immorality of the people. They said, “We finally have a god that will let us do what we want to do. We don’t want to simply stay within God’s laws, and now we have found a god that will give us the freedom that we think any good god should really give us.”

Isn’t it interesting that the Bible says that when we construct idols we always think that those idols are like unto us. It says in Psalm 50: “You allowed people to commit adultery. You allowed people to live in shame and derision. And you thought (God says) that these idols were like unto me. You thought that this was like the true God.”

Isn’t it interesting that in Romans 1 Paul gives the origin of idolatry? By the way, most people think that religion has evolved, and as it has evolved it has become refined until you have the monotheism of Christianity and Judaism. Actually, religion has always declined. Originally people believed in the true God and were monotheistic, and instead of evolution there has been devolution.

Just listen carefully while I quote portions of Romans 1:
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”

Do you notice that there is a devolution, and what happens in the very next verse? “Therefore, God gave them up in the lust of their hearts to impurity.” Their idolatry had certain results that they could enjoy. Every god, every false god has his payment time. And as far as possible, he will want to make that payment a good payment so that you are hooked. The people here now rose up to play. They enjoyed themselves, and as far as they were concerned they had fashioned a god who now was according to their liking. It’s so much easier to obey than Jehovah.

So what do we do as idol lovers? We construct the god, we worship the god, we enjoy the god, and then, number four, we are judged for those gods, for those idols. Let’s look at the text now. It says in verse 7: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down, for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”’”

And God even says, “Moses, let Me alone and I’ll just vaporize them. I’ll wipe them off the face of the earth, and then I’ll start over with you.” It’s a very intriguing story because what Moses does is to say, “No, don’t do that because your promise, Lord is at stake, and the nations are going to say, ‘Well, the Lord was able to bring them out but He couldn’t bring them in.’ Lord, it is your reputation that is at stake here. You have to keep these people alive.” And God loved Moses’ prayer.

But then in verse 15 it says: “Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written.” The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.

Verse 19: “And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses' anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire.” You must understand that this calf was probably constructed with wood and then overlaid with gold, and Moses burns the thing and then he takes the gold and he grinds it to powder, and then he scatters it over the surface of the water and he makes the sons of Israel drink it.

What he says is, “I want you to feel now the bad effects, the negative effects, the backwash of your idolatry.” And just in the same way, God is continually doing this in people’s lives. Whatever idol we hang on to eventually disappoints us and we find that bitter taste in our mouths and in our lives because we have hung on to it so dearly. And so what happens in people’s experience, that marriage that they decided they would have no matter what God said about it? They knew better than God and they would go up ahead without consulting Him. They would not be too particular in submitting to His guidance because they had an idea as to what God maybe wanted to do in their lives. And they said no, and eventually the very thing that they craved has a bitter taste.

And then there’s that promotion that the person sought, who was overwhelmingly overcome by the desire to be promoted and to have this position, and along with it come all kinds of compromises, all kinds of difficulties, all kinds of torn relationships because God begins to take the zing out of our idols.

And then there is that real estate that people buy so that they might be able to have a wise investment, and they discover that soon the price begins to drop. And all of their hopes and dreams that have been wrapped up in that business investment come tumbling down, and God is constantly stripping the idols away from us, and pruning our lives so that we will not be caught up in that horrible sin that He hates so much—idolatry.

And so the people were judged for their idolatry. Notice what happens because the fifth point is that we must repent of our idolatry. We must repent of it. That’s step number five. If we are wise, we will repent.

Here’s an interesting sidelight into human nature. Verse 21: “And Moses said to Aaron, ‘What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?’ And Aaron said, ‘Well, do not let the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, “Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So I said to them (You know, what are you going to do? You live in a democratic society.), “Let any who have gold take it off.” So they gave it to me, and I… Well, really Moses, believe this. I threw it into the fire, and (whistles) out came this calf. Really! Wasn’t that neat?”

“Moses, you need to understand it’s the kind of furnaces we have out here that’s really the problem. You have to understand it’s the people’s problem, and then if they didn’t make these kinds of furnaces, well, this would not have happened. But what are you going to do? What a furnace this is! It’s the furnace’s fault.”

Yes, I know. We all think it’s rather funny, but I want you to know today that Satan has a good excuse for any sin that you and I want to commit. He’s got a good excuse for it. And somehow it will turn out that it will not be our fault. It will be somebody else’s fault, and it will be the circumstance’s fault, and it will be the other person’s fault. But one thing is sure. We will not be at fault. The desire to protect ourselves, the desire to make sure that somebody else is to blame is so overwhelming that we will arm ourselves with a pack of excuses, and a pack of lies, and we’ll even blame the furnace for something that we ourselves have done.

Moses, of course, is not pleased. He doesn’t say, “Well, you know, come to think of it, Aaron, you’ve got a good point there. You know, these furnaces are rather miraculous. No, what he does is he asks all those who were on the side of righteousness to come to him.

Verses 25 through 28: “And when Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to the derision of their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, ‘Who is on the Lord's side? Come to me.’ And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. And he said to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God of Israel, “Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.”’ And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell.” And Moses says, “Dedicate yourselves to God.”

You read it in this 21st century and you say, “I can’t believe that three thousand people…” But you see, what God was saying is, “I hate idolatry, and I take it seriously. And in Old Testament times when you had a theocracy and God intervened directly into the lives of people, He was very angry. The anger of Moses burned, and the anger of God burned, and God said, “This I will not put up with,” and He wanted to give a lesson as to what He thought of idolatry.
You see, this is the problem. This is the source of conflict within the human soul. We are idol lovers and God is an idol hater, and He deals severely and drastically with our idols.

Turn to 1 Corinthians 10 where we can see here a New Testament commentary on this event. And also it will help us to understand where we fit into this picture. 1 Corinthians 10! Paul is saying that these stories in the Old Testament aren’t given just simply as ancient history. They have lessons that they need to teach us. Pick it up in verse 5: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” Most of the people died—almost all of them except Caleb and Joshua and Moses, who even died before he got to the land.

“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. (That, incidentally, is referring to another incident in the book of Numbers.) We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.”

What are all the things that are being referred to here? What are those idols of the heart that you and I protect and crave and bow down to and build our secret shrines to?
First, immorality certainly. Yes, immorality! Secondly, gluttony! Did you know that that is why they grumbled? It is because they didn’t like the food that God prepared for them in the desert, and that’s why He sent those fiery serpents among them. That is being referred to here.

And you say, “Well, certainly over-eating couldn’t be an idol.” If you think that, you’ve never talked to somebody who struggles with gluttony. There is alcoholism and drugs and pride and money, and all those things, you see, that compete for the allegiance of the Almighty God. And what I am saying to you today is first of all, we need God even to help us identify those idols, don’t we? And they are quite easily identified.

If you leave here today and say, “Pastor Lutzer, I don’t know. There’s something wrong in my life, but I don’t know what it is. I must have some idol, but I don’t know what it is,” I have a good suggestion for you. Get on your knees and guess at it. Just guess at it. You might be right.

It’s easy to find out what your idol is. Number one, what is it you think about most of the time when you have free time to think? And secondly, what or who do you desire most to please? That’s your idol. That’s my idol. C. S. Lewis refers to our idol as (quote) our overwhelming first. I love that expression, so ask yourself as I ask myself (I ask you as I ask myself.). What is our overwhelming first, that driving passion? It may well be that that is the idol of our heart that God needs to pluck from us.

So first of all, we should identify our idols. Secondly, we should repent of our idols. Repentance is the idol smasher. Repentance, you see, is the way in which we acknowledge our sin to God and we allow the truth to come to the surface so that we can deal with these things. And may I say that Martin Luther was absolutely right when he said, “The Christian lives the life of repentance every single day,” because this past week there were idols in our hearts?

It’s like trying to weed a garden. At first those little weeds seem to be so insignificant, and they do not seem to sap energy and some life from the produce that you want to grow. But eventually they become stronger, and after you pluck them out, even from the roots it has to be done again and again and again and again, because we are by nature idolaters. We want some god to worship that is made after our own likeness, and it’s that god that we pursue.

And then, of course, we must really replace the idol with the true God. You replace the idol with the true God. Now, let me be very frank and say that there are some of you who are hooked on some idols that you cannot get rid of. You have bowed before these idols. You have paid them homage. You have worshipped at their shrine. You have enjoyed those idols, but you also know what it is to be ensnared with those idols. And you don’t even have the strength to turn from them.

If I said today, “I want you to turn from those idols,” you know right well that even if you attempted to, it would have to be done insincerely because you’ve tried before, and your idol is stronger than you are. That’s why the Bible, that is so precise theologically, says in 1 Thessalonians… Paul commends the people. He says, “You turned to God from idols.” He didn’t say, “You turned away from idols and then you turned to God.” No, there are many people who do not have the power to do that. In fact, not a one of us is capable of that. The idols are too strong, so rather than emphasizing the turning away from idols, we turn to God in our helplessness and seek Him in repentance and faith. We come to a God who is stronger than the idols. We come to the true and the living God who has trampled on all idols, and we come to a Savior who has been raised and taken to heaven as proof of His absolute total triumph.
That’s where we ask you to come today. That’s the bottom line. Being number two in life is the essence of life, but knowing who to put number one is really the most fundamental issue of life, and it’s to be Christ. It’s to be Christ! And you’ve heard me quote it from this pulpit before.

The dearest idols I have known,
Whate’er those idols be,
Help me to tear them from the throne
And worship only Thee.

And we can’t tear them from the throne without divine aid. At this moment our helplessness becomes very apparent, and God’s grace appears to be so wonderful.

I urge you today to come to a Savior who can purify your life, who can take away the curse of idolatry, and who can enable us to meet, then, the first commandment: “Thou shall have no other gods before me.” I love idols. God hates idols. I come helplessly to be delivered.

Join me as we pray.

Father, if we were honest, we would admit that this week we bowed before some idols. We made some choices. We made some decisions that we knew were wrong, but the heart wants what it wants. The furnace just seems to create what we want. Would You, Father, graciously show us those idols? And then, Lord, we turn to You. We do not turn from them because they are too strong, but we turn to You, asking You, oh Lord, to rid us of them.

For some the idol is a relationship that needs desperately to be broken. For some it is an unholy ambition that needs desperately to be extinguished. For some, Father, it is a lifelong career and goal that needs to be laid at Your feet, but Father, we are helpless because we are no better than the people in Exodus 32. We have the very same heart, and unless Your grace and mercy invades us, we’ll leave today the same idolaters as we came in, so help us, Lord.

And for those who are struggling who know right well what your will is, and have made excuses for not doing it, Father, they need help because their situations aren’t easy, and all the promises of the false gods are before their eyes even now. And so help us, Lord.

And before I close this prayer, would you pray now? Would you look to God and name your idol and say, “Father, in the presence of this idol I am helpless, and help me for Your name’s sake. Deliver me from idols. You tell Him that because He’s waiting.

Thank You, Lord Jesus, for hearing our prayer, and begin a work in us, and then pursue it relentlessly even when we forget about it, until You get Your will and Your way and achieve Your goals and not ours. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen

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