Modern-day idols

Luke 21:5-19

5When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

            We human beings have always been proud of our ability to build great things.  A quick Google search of the Seven Wonders of the World will show you a couple different lists of some of the great accomplishments by human beings throughout history and in nature.  You can find a list of the seven ancient wonders of the world, seven medieval wonders, the seven modern wonders of the world, and the seven natural wonders of the world.  Some of the things on these lists that I find interesting include the Christ the Redeemer statue in Brazil, which opened in 1931.  The Taj Mahal, which was completed in 1648.  Hagias Sophia in Turkey, which was finished in 360 CE.  The Roman Colosseum, which was finished around 80 CE.  The Great Wall of China, the oldest part was built around 400 BC.  And the Great Pyramid of Giza, which was built around the year 2560 BC.  Some of these things were built well before the modern technology that we have today.  And I was thinking this week as I was working on a project at my home, “I don’t know what I ever did before I had a cordless drill.”  Well any drill that these architects and builders had was probably cordless as well!

            These old, established, and beautiful structures all have at least one thing in common.  There will come a time when all of them will come crashing down.  Even though all of these structures are cared for and tended to by highly trained individuals who renovate them and repair them as needed, they will not last for all of eternity.

            Our scripture for this morning begins with some simple adoration of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem.  Some people are standing around just noting how beautiful the temple was.  And from what I hear, it was indeed beautiful.  Precious stones and jewels were a part of the temple itself and the beautiful vestments that hung on the walls.  There would have been valuable bowls, plates, chalices, and lamp stands, made of gold, silver, and other precious metals.  The temple was indeed a sight to behold.  And it wasn’t even finished yet.  That’s right, during Jesus’ day the temple was a work in progress.  Let’s look real quick at the history of the Jewish Temple to gain a little insight.

            David became king of the Israelites around the year 1,000 BC.  He was a powerful ruler who built many great things.  But when he came to the realization that the Ark of the Covenant was in some shabby tent and he was living in a swanky mansion, he decided that he would build a home for the Ark; he would build a temple.  But God wasn’t on board with David’s plan because David was a bit of a war monger.  No, David’s son Solomon would be the one to build the Temple.

            Solomon did just than, and the first Temple was completed around the year 960 BC.  This temple would have been the site of the Jewish religious practices for close to 400 years, when the Babylonians destroyed the temple, along with much of Jerusalem, around the year 586 BC and the Jews were carried away into exile.

            70 years after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, King Cyrus of Persia released the Jews to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.  And around the year 514 the temple was rededicated and once again became the center of Judaism.

            Over the next 500 years the temple went through good times and bad.  It was desecrated a few times and then later rededicated to the Lord.  As the end of the 1st Century BC was approaching (though they didn’t know the date) the temple was showing its age.  So around the year 19 BC King Herod the Great decided to totally renovate the temple.  You may have heard the temple during Jesus’ day referred to as Herod’s Temple.  This really seems to be what Herod was after.  He wanted his name to be associated with something great, so he invested a lot of the Jewish tax dollars and labor in expanding and renovating the temple.  Herod really didn’t seem to care so much about having the temple as a place of reverence for God as he did about being remembered.  I say this because he also built a temple to a pagan goddess in Caesarea during the same time.  For Herod, it wasn’t about God.  For sure it was about glory: Herod’s glory.

            Regardless of Herod’s motives we find that the temple was still being renovated in Jesus’ day.  John 2:20 even says that the temple had been under renovation for 46 years and historians tell us that it wasn’t finished until the year 63 CE.  My friends, this was a fancy, expensive, lavish, opulent building.  The newest technology in architecture was being applied in the building process.  No corner was being cut, no short cuts were being taken.  This temple was going to stand the test of time for all of eternity.  The writings of Josephus tell us that some of the stones used to build the temple were as large as 37 feet long, 18 feet wide, and 12 feet tall.  I have no idea how they moved those stones!  This magnificent building was a symbol of God’s greatness.

            So as these Jews are commenting on how beautiful the temple is, Jesus says that as great as it is, as much effort as had been put into it, it would one day be destroyed.  And when Jesus comes before the council before his crucifixion, one of the charges brought against him was that he claimed that he would tear down the temple (and build it back up in three days).  So even though that is a bit of a stretch from what Jesus actually did say, we can see that the Jews really didn’t like the thought of their big, beautiful temple being torn to the ground.  Unfortunately we know that the temple was destroyed in the year 70 AD during the Jewish Revolt when a would-be messiah led the Jews to war against the Roman army and the Romans destroyed Jerusalem.

            We have all heard sermons about idols and how we are to avoid them.  An idol is usually understood as an image or object that receives adoration or worship, specifically if it competes with our adoration or worship of God.  Sometimes people worship an idol because it represents a deity, or sometimes people worship an idol because they believe the actual idol to be divine.  So our oversimplified working definition of an idol is anything that competes for our allegiance to God.

            In the 10 Commandments, God speaking through Moses, says that we are to have no engraved image and that we are not to worship or bow down to that image.  Doing so is the epitome of idol worship.  Of course the irony of that story is that while Moses is up on the mountain receiving the 10 Commandments Aaron is down with the people making a calf out of gold for the people to bow down to and worship.

            But the Bible also contains stories of people that have stayed strong in their faith and avoided worshipping idols.  In the Book of Daniel we find the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  These three men lived during the Babylonian Exile and lived in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar II.  When Nebuchadnezzar erected a statue and made an official decree that all people had to bow down and worship this idol when a certain musical instrument was played, they refused, even though they knew that the outcome would be that they would be tossed into the fiery furnace and burnt alive.

            These are clear cases of idol worship.  And we look at these situations and we think how silly it is to bow down to those metal statues.  How could a person give their allegiance to something that they made with their own hands? 

I came across this video the other day http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPil9Br-5lE .  On Saturdays and Sundays millions of people gather around their television sets or gather in person to watch modern day gladiators battle it out on a 100 yard field.  Football is their idol.  Football competes for their allegiance to God.  We know that things of our world can become idols just as easily as those built of gold or wood.  Some people gather together in high-rise buildings, wearing suits and ties, skirts and heels, to worship the almighty job.  Their work is their idol because it competes for their allegiance to God.  Their time, energy, and devotion are dedicated to getting ahead.  Other people make frequent deposits and balance inquiries at a building filled with lead safes, metal detectors, and video cameras.  Their idol is money. 

We know that these things can be idols.  They compete with God for our allegiance, or in some cases they become a god to us.  But these things will not last forever; they are not eternal.  And we are called to give our allegiance and undivided devotion to the eternal creator.

As we read through our scripture for today and the text immediately following our scripture, we find Jesus talking about not only the up-coming destruction of the temple, but he moves on to talk about the destruction of Jerusalem and eventually the world.  And I wonder if in the destruction of these things God isn’t calling us back to him from idolatry.

We don’t read anywhere in the Bible that the Jews worshiped the temple, but I don’t think that it is a stretch at all to think that the temple itself could become an idol with all of the precious metal and jewels and really, really big stones.  I also believe that we can see this today as well.  We have seen these fancy places of worship with fountains, high ceilings, golden altars, and million dollar budgets where the church building itself can become an idol.  And I know that some of these things can help people enter into a time of worship, but when church members fight about the color of the new carpet, the building has become an idol.  If a building project is dividing the congregation, it is an idol.  We are putting building a house of worship before building up God’s kingdom.  Anytime church becomes more about the building, or the pastor, or the music than it is about God, then church can become an idol, competing for our allegiance to God.

But it isn’t just the temple in our scripture that Jesus talks about being destroyed.  He moves on to talk about the destruction of Jerusalem.  I can’t help but wonder if Jesus believed that Jerusalem itself had become an idol to the people. 

We know that the Israelites had a strong connection to Jerusalem, believing that it was given to them by God.  And when they were taken away in exile they believed that they were not able to worship God in the same way.  Psalm 137 is a pretty well known Psalm about the Israelites being in exile and revealing their desire to be back in Zion, which is short for Jerusalem.  Verses 1-7:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? 5 If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. 6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.

The Psalmist is so connected to the land, the city of Jerusalem, that he is refusing to sing to the Lord.  May my hand forget its skill, my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth.  Jerusalem is my highest joy.  That is idolatry.  That is putting the gift before the giver.  That city and their national identity has become an idol for the people of Jerusalem.

            I am thankful to have been born in a country where I am free to worship God openly.  I am thankful for an economic system that rewards hard work, even if it does promote greed.  I don’t have a problem with people saying “God bless America.”  But I would prefer to hear them say “God bless the whole world.”

            When we look at a map or a globe, we often see these different colored puzzle pieces that are outlined by lines.  And these lines represent borders which separate one country from another.  But I believe that when God looks at the earth, all he sees is his creation.  When God looks at the world all he sees is a world that he so loved that he sent his one and only Son.  There is no place that we can go that God is not.  There isn’t a God of the United States and a God of Canada or Mexico.  There is one true God, even if not everyone has come to know him.  And that God is the sovereign God of all of the world.

            Jesus tells us in John 18 that his kingdom is not of this world.  There are some kingdoms or nations of this world that are better than others and there are some that are worse than others.  But no kingdom of this world is perfect and there will come a time when all nations of this earth fall.  All great super powers have fallen before.  The Romans, the Greeks, the Babylonians, the Persians.  And there may one day be a time when the US is not the super power that it is today because all nations fall.  But the kingdom of God will exist for eternity.  Nationalism can be an idol when it competes for our allegiance with God, when we spend more time preserving America than building the kingdom of God.

The final thing that Jesus talks about falling away is the earth.  I love nature.  I plan to go hiking this afternoon and enjoy the beautiful fall colors and weather.  I believe that every person should do their part to care for creation.  I believe in recycling and reducing our waste.  I believe in driving less and walking more.  But one day there will be a new heaven and a new earth, when Jesus comes back to restore all things.  We can make environmentalism into an idol if it competes with our allegiance to God.

            Does this mean that we are not to appreciate these fine things?  Absolutely not!  There is a difference between worshipping something and appreciating it.  Just two chapters earlier in Luke Jesus defends the temple.  He chases out the money changers and vendors, casting them out of the temple.  His reason for doing so is because they have made God’s house into a den of robbers.  Jesus respects the temple.  He loves the temple.  He spends time there frequently teaching and worshipping.  But he keeps it all in order.  The temple is there to help him worship God.  He isn’t there to worship the temple.  Jerusalem is a great city, but it should never receive his worship.  Jesus frequently went out into a garden, a mountain, or the wilderness to pray and rest, but he never worshiped these places of nature.  All of these things are terminal; they are all passing away.  There will come a time when they no longer exist.  The one worthy of our true praise, worship, and allegiance, however, is eternal.

            The temple, Jerusalem, the earth itself.  Jesus says that these things are all passing away, yet sometimes we find ourselves falling into idolatry of religious buildings, nationalism, and environmentalism.  These things are not to be worshiped, but appreciated for what they are: a gift from God.  May our focus remain on the giver of all things that are good as we enjoy the gifts we have received.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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