“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.”  So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron.  He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”  When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.”  So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry (Exodus 32:1-6). 

I know American Idolatry is not the name of the TV show but, symbolically, maybe it should be. For our American culture is filled with idols. They may not look like the golden calf that the Hebrews erected and worshipped in Exodus 32 but they are real, very real. Although worshipping other gods is prohibited in the 10 commandments (see Exodus 20:3-5 for the broader implications of desiring something above the sovereign creator of the universe, God) and is the first of God’s commands, mankind has consistently violated this decree ever since it was first proclaimed. Claiming that even an attitude of covetousness qualifies, the New Testament is not silent on the danger of idolatry: “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5). Therefore, we must beware – I believe idolatry is probably more subtly pervasive in America than any other culture that has ever risen. How so?  

Tom Steller aptly explains what idolatry is: “Idolatry is valuing any thing or any person more than the one true God. An idol is any thing or any person that takes center stage in our affections. God is a jealous God. He deserves center stage in our lives. Anything that usurps that place becomes an idol, whether it be a spouse, a child, a humanitarian project, or pornography, or drugs, or power over the poor, or religion. An idol is a god-substitute. Archeology limits idols to stone statues; biblical theology teaches that idols are any things that take the place of God in our lives. When understood this way, we can realize that idolatry is not ancient history but is alive and flourishing in America as we rush toward the twenty-first century”. Martin Luther captures the idea this way: “Whatever man loves, that is his god. For he carries it in his heart; he goes about with it night and day; he sleeps and wakes with it, be it what it may – wealth or self, pleasure or renown”.  And in America that could include TV, politics, careers, clothes, self-indulgent and consumptive pleasure, technology gadgets, entertainment, cars, hobbies, houses, sex, power, material possessions, popularity, and money, just to name a few. 

The Apostle John earlier shared his motivation for writing this letter: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” He wanted us to know!!! That’s why I believe John concludes his first letter in the most perplexing way (see 1 John 5:21). He knew the subtle and insidious nature of idol worship. He knew his reader’s eternal destinies were at stake. So let’s be discerning – our culture woos us with false gods and idol worship at every turn. The lure is so fast, furious, and stealth-like it’s easy to miss before it has overcome us. And let us gaze inwardly with objective honesty and question what thrills us the most and what we seek after to fill and satisfy us, what we love the most in this world. We dare not presume that we, too, aren’t involved in some form of idol worship. 

The penultimate verse (1 John 5:20) of this letter describes the understood purpose and priority of those who prize and worship Jesus above all other things. “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, to know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life”. Why then do we put nothing before God? Because He is God, the only true God as revealed in Christ Jesus, and true eternal life. Anything else we love, pursue, exalt, honor, or find more pleasure in than Him is just the opposite – a false god. And they keep us from Him and eternal life. That’s why John signs off with, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols”.

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