1 John 5:21Judges 17:21
I picture him as an older, white-haired man, gentle, but with flashes of fire from his eyes. Having been a disciple of Jesus, he’s now the pastoral leader in the great city of Ephesus. In Ephesus, Christians were tempted to chase after shadows, after unreality. In Ephesus, Christians were faced with the worship of the goddess, Diana, whose temple was one of the ancient world’s wonders. In the shadows of this temple were sexual immorality, crime, all sorts of dark things. Magic, sorcery, astrology were big time in Ephesus.
From this city, the Apostle John writes to other Christians. He concludes his powerful first epistle with one final warning. It’s almost like a young person leaving home on a trip. Dad calls out “Hey, drive carefully!” or “Don’t forget to check the oil!” John writes as he closes his epistle: “My dear children, keep yourselves from idols!” Keep yourselves from unreality, from shadows. Keep yourselves from false gods and the junk connected with them. J.B. Phillips paraphrases John: “Be on your guard … against every false god.”
But what’s an idol? What’s an idol today?
Recently, the news reported on a huge furor in India over idols of the monkey god, which appeared to drink milk offered in sacrifice to them. “The gods have come among us,” was the cry of many in India. We may feel superior to that kind of idolatry. We would never worship little images of sometimes grotesque looking creatures, we may say self-righteously. But false gods can be sophisticated, even high-tech. The contemporary American may be as idolatrous as the average Hindu.
St. Augustine wrote back in the 4th century: “Idolatry is worshiping anything that ought to be used or using anything that ought to be worshiped.” With this definition, education can become an idol. Beauty in whatever form can be idolized. Money can become an idol. Technology certainly is a major idol of modern American society. Even the church and religion can be an idol. These are gifts of God, means to an end, but idolatrous when made ends in themselves.
Rebecca Manley Pippert put it this way: “Playing God is not just difficult, it’s impossible.” So “we have to look elsewhere for a backup, a homemade God-substitute. We thus spend our lives swinging between the impossible (playing God) and the inadequate (relying on anything short of God to be God)” (Hope Has its Reasons, p.50)
Idolatry is deceitful; it can put on such an attractive face. Idolatry is devastating, at least in the long-term. Idolatry is destructive to people, to relationships, and to a society. This is why the people of Israel were told in the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol … You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exodus 20:3-4). Down through their long history, no issue more threatened the well-being of the Hebrew people than the idolatry surrounding them. Again and again, the prophets warned them to avoid idolatry. Again and again, God’s messengers were ignored with devastating consequences.
No story in the Bible illustrates the impact of idolatry more graphically than that found in the last chapters of Judges. This was a time, when, as the writer tells us more than once, “everyone did as he or she saw fit.” After the stories of the twelve judges have been told, the last chapters of Judges are an extended illustration of what happens when people do their own thing, including what happens when people worship idols.
These are ghastly chapters, not bedtime reading or great stuff for children’s story books. They contain things difficult to talk about in church. You say, “Why mess with this stuff when you’ve got the Psalms or the wonderfully inspirational material in Philippians?”
For one thing, this is in the Bible and there for a purpose. Furthermore, like it or not, these stories sound remarkably like some dimensions of society today. You can almost see these things happening in 20th century America, though likely with a more sophisticated gloss over the whole, ugly scene.
I recently heard a former Seattle police officer speak of the tremendous pressure and stress in working with what he called “the underside of society.” From his experience, he has come to the conclusion that our society is “coming apart at the seams.”
The Book of Judges, especially this last section, depicts a society coming apart at the seams. These stories are a telling mirror for our society, reflecting to us what happens when people forsake the One True God and worship gods of their own creation, whether those gods be grotesque-looking statues, high-tech idols, or highly sophisticated ideas and organizations, all created by the minds of human beings.
These last chapters of Judges are a drama in two acts. The first act is contained in Acts 17 Judges 18. Act one has four scenes.
Scene 1: Make your own God.
Here’s a man named Micah. His name means “Who is like Yahweh,” or “the Incomparable God.” Great name!
At Izzy’s Pizza last weekend, two other pastors and I were waited on by a young man, whose name tag read Zion. That got the attention of three pastors for sure. “It’s from the Bible” he said to us, as if we didn’t know. Zion is a good, godly, Biblical name, something like Micah.
But the man with the pious name turns out to be a rascal. In fact, he steals money from his mother. What kind of a guy would do that? He steals a small fortune from her, something like 28 pounds of silver, probably her life savings. Frightened, however, by the huge curse his mother calls down on the thief, Micah confesses to his evil deed. “I did it, Mom,” confesses Micah. “Now, please withdraw your awful curse.” Now, however, Mom says this money is to be earmarked for God. In fact, she wants Micah to take the silver and make an idol out of it. So Micah takes part of his mother’s treasure to a silversmith, who fashions it into a molten image of a bull, often used in this part of the world to represent deity.
Maybe Micah and his Mom thought they were worshiping the One True God, Yahweh, in the form of an animal. But Canaanites, whose debased practices God absolutely condemned, worshiped a bull as the symbol of fertility. The God of Israel had absolutely condemned any visual depiction of Him.
So Micah, this guy with the name which means “There’s nobody like God,” makes an image of God and sets it up in his house. He makes his own god. He tries to domesticate God, to gain control of God for his own benefit. That’s what idolatry really is. “Make your own god” is scene #1. Make a god you can control, manipulate, and use for your own purposes.
Scene 2 is: Set up your own worship center.
Micah lived in a time when, theoretically at least, Hebrews were supposed to worship at a central location, at Shiloh, where the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant were kept. There, Hebrew worship was to be carried out.
But it was inconvenient to go to Shiloh for worship. I mean, after a long week of work, you have to get up early on Sunday, get yourself and the kids dressed, and drive some distance to the church building. How much easier to have church at home. You know, relax with the morning paper, do some inspirational reading, spend quality time with the family. If you want, you can watch one of the “TV pastors.” Often, they’re more animated than the one at the church. Maybe you like the Christian music better on TV. And, after all, if you don’t like what the preacher is saying, you can channel surf or just switch to ESPN. And besides, you don’t have to deal with all the difficult people you see at church.
So Micah sets up an idol in his own house, making a worship center to his own liking, and invites his neighbors to join him. They have church on their terms, convenient for them, worshiping a god they have made.
Micah was ignoring the fact that the God of Israel was not the product of human creativity, was not to be defined according to human ideas, but defined Himself, and was to be worshiped in a manner fitting for who He is and what He has done. The worship of the One True God was not to be merely subjective — how we feel and what we want. Micah’s was cotton candy worship — sweet, pleasant, junk-food, not solid, health-giving, truth-based food.
The third scene in Act 1 could be entitled: Employ your own priest.
Micah first set up his own son as priest. That was convenient, for in that culture, what Dad wanted Dad usually got. Micah could effectively control his worship leaders.
But one day, along the road past Micah’s house, comes a fellow in a rundown, beat-up old car. Judges calls him a young Levite. We’ll call him a recent seminary grad. I see his car running out of gas in front of Micah’s place. He stopped in and inquired about any preaching jobs open in the area. Micah thought, “Having a seminary grad as my preacher might add respectability to the whole deal.” So he said: “Be my preacher, lead my worship, and I’ll feed, clothe, house you and give you a salary on top of that.” Excitedly the young seminary grad closed the deal right away and became Micah’s preacher/priest.
When we want a god of our own making, and when we conduct worship that is to our own liking and convenience, we also want the mouthpiece of God to be under our own control.
One of the many things I appreciate about this congregation is that though you give me feedback and good advice, which I need, you have not told me what to say from the pulpit. You have not tried to control what is said in God’s name. Now, if I go hay-wire and preach things God does not say in His Word, you have every reason to question me. But that’s different than trying to control and manipulate how the Word of God is preached.
One more scene in this first act: Ensure your own future.
The last verse of Judges 17 captures the essence of idolatry’s appeal. “Then Micah said, ‘Now I know that the Lord will be good to me, since I have a Levite as priest.'” We may think that when we define God the way we want to, and worship God the way we find convenient, and try to control the spokes-people for God, we somehow have God under our control and that God owes us a bright and good future. You see, the attraction of an idol is that I can control it and that I make it work for me, using it to ensure good things for me. Like magic. Like a computer.
But that’s not the God revealed in Scripture and in Jesus. We do not control God. We do not manipulate God. We do not manage God on our terms. God is God. “Beware of idols” is the cry from this First Act of the drama.
But there’s a second act in the drama, with which the book of Judges closes its sad stories. Let me entitle it: Sex, Violence and Other Crimes.
This second act in the drama is about some of the consequences of worshiping idols. Here the story gets really ugly. But there’s a cause and effect relationship between idolatry and the societal ugliness. Society was ugly because it was a society in which people were doing their own thing and because they were worshiping idols.
Here’s another Levite, who’s supposed to be a priest, but isn’t very priestly. From a back country place north of Jerusalem, he gets himself a woman from Bethlehem. They weren’t married, just lived together. However, his woman has an affair with another guy. She ends up going home to dear old Dad.
Her lover/partner/sort of husband misses her and sets out to try to persuade her to kiss and make up and come back to him. The girl’s Dad is extremely glad to see him. I think his daughter is a handful and he doesn’t really want her living at his house. So he makes the Levite very welcome, wining him and dining him for a few days. Finally, by mid-afternoon one day, the Levite says: “We’re outa’ here. See you later, Dad.” And they start on the long trek to his house. At dusk, they try to find shelter in the seemingly safe Hebrew city of Gibeah. After sitting around in the city square for a while, hoping someone would fulfill the ancient obligation to offer hospitality to strangers, they are finally invited home by an old man.
But after dinner, there is a ruckus outside and a pounding on the door. Men from the city have gathered at the door, demanding that the stranger within be given to them so they may rape him. Without going into the ugly details, the bottom line is that they give them the man’s woman instead. They abuse her, leaving her dead on the doorstep the next morning. This was a Hebrew city, a city where people ought to feel safe!
It sounds like what we read about in the newspapers and hear on the evening news in our cities today. Sounds like something on “NYPD” or “Law and Order.” Idolatry has bred gross sexual immorality, people behaving like animals, no respect for women, homosexual and heterosexual rape, no valuing of human life and dignity.
So, what does our “hero” do? He packs the dead woman home with him, cuts her into pieces, and sends a piece of her to all the tribal areas of Israel with a cover letter: “This happened. What are we going to do about it?” 400,000 armed soldiers respond to the grizzly message. They assemble and say: “We are going to get those guys for what they did. We’re going to punish them for this awful deed.” In fact, they believe God is calling them to avenge the death of this woman. What results is civil war — one tribe, the Benjamites, against the rest. Tens of thousands of Hebrews are slaughtered by fellow Hebrews.
Doesn’t it sound contemporary? Sex, violence, and other crimes. Sexual immorality, sexual violence against women, one segment of the society pitted against the others. Add modern issues of drugs, pornography, and a media preoccupied with sex and violence and you have a society coming apart at the seams. And it’s linked with people’s view of God.
The health of a people and the health of a society depends upon who and what they worship. Do we believe that? Furthermore, the solution to the ill health of a people, and of a society coming apart at the seams is not just governmental or political, not just monetary or social, though these factors may be part of a solution. The key factor in healing a sick society is theological. What do we worship? Who is our God?
So, you say, “Pastor, shall we go out of here and compel people to become Christian so that American society can regain its health?” God forbid! There are other more godly and more effective ways to influence society for good.
Approximately four out of ten Americans attend church or synagogue with some regularity these days. Many more have some affiliation with a church and even more say they believe in God. If this sizeable segment of the US population would abstain from idols, and would, in fact, worship only the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus, we would impact the direction of society.
I see some promising signs. 711,000 men attended Promise Keepers rallies in 1995. Among the seven things they committed themselves to was to honor Jesus Christ through worship, prayer and obedience to God’s Word. That’s just the opposite of idolatry! And if they meant and continue to mean that promise, that’s got to have an impact on our troubled society. That’s just one illustration of promising things happening. You may think of others.
Take a moment and look at any idols we are cherishing. Are we worshiping anything that ought to be used? Are we using anything that ought to be worshiped?
Dear friends, let us keep ourselves from idols. Let us be a life-giving, health-communicating people in a society coming apart at the seams.