Idolatry, and God’s commitment to us

Sermon preached at St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA

by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, March 7, 2021

The Third Sunday in Lent (year B), Exodus 20:1-17 (John 2:13-22)


Exodus 20:1-17 (NIV): And God spoke all these words: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

Someone once shared with me a strange story about the foundation wall of his house. His two-story house sits on a concrete block wall foundation, buried deep in the ground and set on a concrete footer. You may have seen how this works: hollow concrete blocks are stacked on top of each other like bricks with mortar in between. Then steel rebar is placed in the hollow block cavities and concrete is poured down into those cavities and the wall is filled from the bottom up. The blocks and the concrete that fill them carry the heavy load of the house, and the steel rebar helps hold everything together.

Well, my friend noticed a strange bowing in his wall. The wall didn’t appear on the outside to have any problems, so why was it bowing so much? A structural engineer came to inspect the wall. They discovered that the contractors who built the wall never filled it with concrete. It appeared to be a strong foundation, but really, it was hollow. It was fake. This empty wall was a poor substitute for a real foundation wall. And sooner or later, it would be unable to carry the heavy load, and it would crumble.

So, what does this fake and hollow wall have to do with our readings today? Well, they have a lot to do with the problem of idolatry, of hollow and fake substitutes for God, substitutes that in time crumble and collapse. These readings point us away from idolatry and toward a strong foundation in God. God offers us a strong foundation in him.

Most folks don’t talk much about idolatry. It sounds like an old-fashioned word. We don’t think about the worship of idols in our time—or do we? Idols were the statues of other gods, gods worshipped by the pagan peoples that surrounded God’s people. It was fashionable to carve an image in wood or stone, and admiring its beauty and seeing it representing various gods, to worship this statue and trust in these false gods to provide rain or crops or fertility for flocks and herds, or military prowess against enemies.

But the people of Israel were to be different. God chose them to reveal the true God to the world, and to show these other gods as lifeless statues, pretty things, but empty foundations for our lives. Idolatry is first and foremost the worship of other gods—gods other than the true God—other than the Lord our God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus. Idolatry is more than that, however. Idolatry is the worship of anything other than God. Our riches can become idols, our power, our desires, and most especially, we ourselves can become idols that we worship ahead of the true God.

But these idols are empty, hollow, a false foundation. They might be pretty and attractive, but they are lifeless and do not have the power to save us or give us life. This problem of idolatry and the promise of devotion to God can be seen in most of the Ten Commandments. We have been reciting the Ten Commandments every other Sunday in Lent, and they are in today’s Old Testament reading. Idolatry is the central problem addressed in most of these commandments.

They begin with the positive of what God wants, and then they clarify how to sustain that fidelity to God. God begins: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. Keep this beginning in mind, because it is the most important part, and I’ll come back to it.

Then comes the second commandment, closely linked to the first and more explicit about the problem of idolatry:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Making and worshipping these idols quite obviously gets in the way of a relationship with the true God. This is further reflected in most of the other commandments as well. If we are to put God first in our lives, then we should live our lives with that kind of reverence and respect for God. Speaking of God with contempt and carelessness diminishes God’s stature in our lives, so we are commanded not to make wrongful use of the name of the Lord—not to ‘take the Lord’s name in vain’ as we used to say. We are more likely to respect God if we speak respectfully about God.

The commandment to keep the sabbath day holy is another key hedge against idolatry. We spend so much time worshipping other things, whether it is money or football or politics or politicians. When we set aside time to focus on God with reverence, on God’s terms rather than at our convenience, and when we focus on praying to God, on honoring and praising God and declaring who he is and who we are, and when we remember his commitment to us as we read from scripture and celebrate the sacraments, we form and shape our hearts to worship God and keep God at the center of our lives every day of the week.

The Old Testament assumes that our mothers and fathers will remind us to worship only God and to stay true to what our ancestors have learned the hard way about false gods and the true God.

Adultery is another kind of idolatry: turning away from our commitments to get what we want, idolizing our desires and our pleasures over the hard but life-giving work of a marriage set on a firm foundation. This is closely related to the tenth commandment as well. We make idols out of our own desires. Indeed, these days we claim that our desires are not merely what we feel, but they are our identity—they are who we are. But this is a false identity, a hollow foundation for our self-understanding. When we immerse ourselves in our desires, those things and people and experiences that we desire become idols to us. We passionately pursue our desires, not only making them more important than God, but making ourselves and our desires our new gods. They look pretty from the outside, but they are empty and hollow, and will not hold up the weight of life, and they crumble in time, leaving us picking up the pieces and not knowing how to rebuild.

These are the false foundations of our lives. The addict eventually learns the emptiness of his habit. The mistress is just as human as the wife. The money has less value than you dreamed. The fashionable religion turns out to be just wishful thinking.

What is the solution to all this idolatry in our lives? We turn back to God, of course. We worship only him, we cultivate a reverence for God in regular prayer and worship, and even in how we speak about God. We guard our hearts so that our desires don’t consume us or take us away from fidelity. We live with gratitude for what God has done for us.

And why would we choose to give to God all our devotion and faithfulness? Remember how the first commandment starts? I don’t mean the part about “you will have no other gods before me,” I mean the beginning of that sentence: God says “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

The covenant of the Ten Commandments that God makes with us starts out with God’s commitment to us, God’s fidelity to us. God did not give the law to the Israelites and then wait to see if they earned their way out of slavery. No, God saved them from slavery first, gave them their freedom first, even when they barely knew him. Then he gives them the commandments so that they might know how to respond to his grace and stay in that life-giving relationship. And the first thing he tells them about how to live in relationship with him is his commitment to them. “I am the Lord your God.” God claimed them. God claims us. God opens his arms to those who would come to him.

This is what God wants for us. God wants a firm foundation for our lives. God wants to pour into our hollow lives his strength to help us to stand. He wants to give us his power to stand firm under the heavy loads of our lives. And in the end, he wants a firm foundation for a true home—a thriving new life in Christ that God gives us.

In Lent, when you find those places of idolatry in your heart and actions, return to God who is eager to embrace you. Turn away from the idols of your life—the false foundations that are sure to crumble. Ask for God’s strength and God’s strong foundation in your life. Immersed in his saving grace, embrace the commandments as a way to strengthen that foundation, and to stand strong in a life in Christ.