Avoiding Idolatry

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May 22, 2005

John 3:16-18

Do you know what sin is attacked more than any other in the Bible?  I bet if I took a survey today, very few would get it right. It is the sin of idolatry. The very first of the Ten Commandments is “I am the Lord your God, you shall not have false gods (you shall have idols) before me.” It seems that in the long history between Israel and God, Israel was frequently tempted to turn away from the one true God and to begin to worship the pagan gods of their neighbors. When things were going poorly, when the Jewish people could not understand what Yahweh was about, they were always tempted to believe that if they worshipped another god, if they worshipped one of the idols of stone or wood, their lives would be better. Perhaps the idol could provide something which their God could not. Therefore, the Hebrew prophets were always railing against the worship of false gods. The pages of the Bible are filled with oracles that condemn idolatry.

Now, you might think that idolatry has very little to do with us today. After all we are not inclined to worship gods of wood or stone. Yet the temptation to idolatry remains a real threat to our lives, because at its heart, idolatry is accepting as God something that is not God. It is worshipping a false god, rather than the true God. Although we do not tend to worship idols of wood or stone, every time we accept a false idea of who God is, we create a false god and we engage in idolatry. Such a temptation is real. We are always inclined to create God according to our own image. We would like to believe that God thinks the way we think, that God would make the same choices that we would make, that God would view the issues of the world and evaluate them as we would evaluate them. But the truth is, God is different than us and greater than us. God is pure spirit. God is all-powerful. God is eternal. God does not think the way we think or make the choices that we make. God does not evaluate everything in the world the way we would evaluate it. Yet, every time we try to shrink the idea of God down to a size that we can understand or control, we create a false god and engage in idolatry.

The only way to prevent this tendency to create false gods is to constantly remind ourselves that God is transcendent, that God transcends us and the world in which we live. God is greater than anything we can think or imagine. Here is where the Feast that we celebrate today, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, proves so useful. At the heart of our faith, we believe that God is One. There is only one God. Yet at the same time, we believe that God is three divine persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. It is impossible for us to imagine how God is the way that God is. How is God one and three at the same time? I have no idea. What the Doctrine of the Trinity does is remind us that God is different than us, greater than us. In so doing, the Doctrine of the Trinity asserts the transcendence of God.

All this talk about idolatry and Trinity and transcendence can seem rather remote and heady. Yet believing in the transcendence of God has a number of practical and helpful consequences. Let me mention two. Those who believe in the transcendence of God know that they do not need to understand. They also know that there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving.

Those who believe in the transcendence of God know that they do not need to understand. When something tragic happens in our lives, when we have a miscarriage, when we discover we have cancer, when thousands of people are killed in an earthquake, we want to understand. We want to try to explain how these evils are a part of our world. Yet every effort to explain runs the risk of creating a false god. In our efforts to explain, we say, “this happened because God was trying to punish me,” or “God was trying to teach a lesson,” or “God was angry.” All of these explanations do in some sense explain what happened, but they do so at the cost of creating an idol, a god who is different from the way that God is. Those who accept the transcendence of God understand that they do not need to understand. They continue to proclaim a good and saving God even though they do not understand how God can allow these evils to happen in our world. Knowing the transcendence of God, they are more comfortable in saying they do not understand than creating a false god. They accept transcendence over idolatry.

Those who believe in the transcendence of God also know that there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving. God’s love is radically different than human love. We love other people because they are good and because they love us in return. God’s love is not limited to such categories. When people attack us, abuse us, or manipulate us, our love ceases. At times we must place boundaries so that we are not hurt again. But God’s love is different. God’s love does not have the limitations of human love. God can and does love everyone. God loves our enemies. God loves us, even when we are wrong and selfish. God can do this because God is different than us and greater than we are. Those who accept the transcendence of God understand that there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving us.

We believe in a transcendent God, in a God who is greater than any thing we can think or imagine. This is Good News, because we do not, after all, want a God who is just like us. We want a God who is so good and great that we cannot completely understand God. We want a God whose love is so free and powerful that nothing we can do can stop God from loving us. Such a God is beyond our comprehension. Such a God is no idol. Such a God is not the creation of our best intentions. Such a transcendent God is the only true God—the only God worthy of our love and adoration.

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