First Sunday after Trinity June 6, 1999
Hear the word which the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: “Do not learn the way of the Gentiles; do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the Gentiles are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are futile; for one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. They are upright, like a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot go by themselves. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor can they do any good.” Inasmuch as there is none like You, O LORD (You are great, and Your name is great in might), who would not fear You, O King of the nations? For this is Your rightful due. For among all the wise men of the nations, and in all their kingdoms, there is none like You. But they are altogether dull-hearted and foolish; a wooden idol is a worthless doctrine. Silver is beaten into plates; it is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz, the work of the craftsman and of the hands of the metalsmith; blue and purple are their clothing; they are all the work of skillful men. But the LORD is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. At His wrath the earth will tremble, and the nations will not be able to endure His indignation. Thus you shall say to them: “The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth shall perish from the earth and from under these heavens.” He has made the earth by His power, He has established the world by His wisdom, and has stretched out the heavens at His discretion. When He utters His voice, there is a multitude of waters in the heavens. “And He causes the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth. He makes lightning for the rain, He brings the wind out of His treasuries.” Everyone is dull-hearted, without knowledge; every metalsmith is put to shame by an image; for his molded image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them. They are futile, a work of errors; in the time of their punishment they shall perish. The Portion of Jacob is not like them, for He is the Maker of all things, and Israel is the tribe of His inheritance; the LORD of hosts is His name.
In the name of the only God, the God who is three-in-one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dear fellow believers in Him, dear fellow redeemed.
We have a way of replacing the things that don’t satisfy us. We make substitutions, interchanging one thing for another. Let’s say you have an electric can opener at home. It breaks. You don’t want the trouble of trying to fix it. So you buy another just like it. If you’re not satisfied with a certain product, you buy the same kind of product from a different manufacturer, this time hoping for better quality or maybe a better bargain. In the interest of saving money, we substitute generic for the brand name. For the sake of our health, we might substitute skim milk instead of whole milk, low-fat instead of regular. At the grocery store we have plenty of substitutes on the shelf at our disposal.
But we should realize: substitutes have their limits. Who could ever find a replacement for water, oxygen, certain vital organs in your body? You could never find a substitute for the Bible, the one and only Word that God has given us. Let’s take the point one step further. You could never find a qualified, acceptable replacement for God Himself, even though many people have tried. What Jeremiah said to the Jews rings out to all of us. God wants you to know and He wants you to remember:
How often do people think of the word “idol” in the religious sense? They might talk about a sports idol—Michael Jordan comes to mind. Or a teen idol, some Hollywood heart-throb. But in the name of “tolerance,” you dare not call certain religions the pagan worship of idols, even though that is what they are. The practice of idolatry is just as common today as ever. It’s the constant problem of human nature. People know, without being told, that there is a God. This natural knowledge of God is built right into them. But it’s not enough to show them who the real God is. Paul lays out the problem in the book of Romans. “Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man.” (Rom. 1:21-23)
People all over the world are getting the thing backwards. They don’t leave God at the level where He belongs. They try to pull God down to their level. They remake God in their image, so that He acts and speaks and thinks like they do. As Paul goes on to say, they “exchange the truth of God for the lie, and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator.” (Rom. 1:25)
If we stick with the facts, we have to conclude: idolatry is a foolish waste of time. Idols get you nowhere, because the idol gods in this world are nothing. God had to say it to the Jews when they were tempted to follow the pagan gods of their Gentile neighbors. You can almost hear the Lord chuckling to Himself. He speaks with a bit of humor when He talks about the idols as “the work of the hands of the workman, with the ax. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers so that it will not topple. They are upright, like a palm tree, and they cannot speak; they must be carried, because they cannot go by themselves.” The idols of the past were nothing more than statues. They couldn’t move or speak. They certainly had no power to judge or forgive or bless anyone. They were absolute worthless imitations. They could never replace the real thing. Does anyone worship Baal anymore? Why do you think that is? People have learned the hard way that Baal does not exist.
Sadly, the lesson is quickly forgotten. People have plenty of imitations to replace God. 3000 years ago a popular god was Ashteroth; today it’s Allah or the virgin Mary. 2000 years ago they worshipped the same gods for which the planets are named—Venus, Jupiter, Mars. Today they worship the idols of the New Age movement, or they become Buddhist or followers of the Hindu religion. The idols of today have different names and different rituals. They may have dropped the idea of a statue or visual image. But the problem is still there—no power, no substance. The religions of modern man are taking people nowhere except straight into hell, because the gods that they worship do not exist.
We’re all agreed that this is true, and it doesn’t seem to be a problem as far as we are concerned. You don’t worship Allah. You’re not Muslim or Hindu or the member of a cult. Should we then assume that, because we are Christians, we are safe from idolatry? Let’s remember this. Though we go through the process of learning Christianity, that alone does not guarantee that we won’t get caught up in the delusions of a cult or a false religion. I’ve heard the stories in our own church body—members letting go of Christian doctrine and joining up with a non-Christian religion of one kind or another. It can happen. So God gives us warning, not only through the prophet Jeremiah, but also the apostle John who said, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:21)
Let’s also remember that idolatry comes in different forms. Even if we continue to be orthodox Lutheran Christians all of our lives, we still have to face the idols of the heart. Whatever we love or trust the most, that thing or that person becomes our god. Do we trust in money to keep us secure? Do we live to please ourselves, “looking out for #1,” as they say? That’s a form of idolatry. Do we seek the approval of others more than the approval of God? That’s a form of idolatry too that rises up in the hearts of Christians as much as anyone.
We know how to manufacture idols out of anything: success, career, our hobbies or friends, our children, the American dream. Given half a chance, our flesh will kick God out and replace Him with something or someone that God has made. We forget what the Bible tells us: there are no substitutes for the triune God. Let’s use the example of money. It’s a very useful tool in your daily life, but aren’t there limits? Money cannot keep you safe. Money cannot heal your body or stop the coming of death or bring you back from the grave. Money can’t do what God can do. Nor can anyone or anything else.
Besides, there’s a much bigger issue than the foolishness of trusting money or becoming Muslim. Idolatry is not only useless to yourself. It’s a terrible insult to God. Just think how you would feel if you were suddenly replaced as parent of your children or the spouse in your marriage. That’s how God feels when people commit idolatry. The Lord has the rightful claim to the #1 spot in your life. He should get your undivided attention. He should be the target of all your love and devotion. God should be the one you turn to in every crisis. Jeremiah said it best: “Inasmuch as there is none like You, O LORD (You are great, and Your name is great in might), Who would not fear You, O King of the nations? For this is Your rightful due….” In other words, the real God deserves to be your only God.
However, if we become attached to an idol, if we love or trust something more than Him, aren’t we stealing? Sure! We steal from God the honor, love, and trust that He deserves. We practice substitution where substitution does not belong. Every idol is a worthless imitation that should not and cannot replace God.
I am so thankful that God does not treat us the way we treat Him. He does not replace us as His children. He helps us to see the light. He leads you to see that there are no substitutes for the triune God. Only in the Trinity do we have the genuine God who truly blesses His people.
God has quite a resume, if only we take the time to look. He has demonstrated His good qualities more than once. Based on that, we agree with Jeremiah: “The LORD is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King.” Let’s imagine a competition: God vs. the idols. Who do you think is going to win? It’s really no contest. The idols are false; God is true. The idols are dead; God is alive. The idols are nothing; but God is permanently real. He is so unique from all the creatures, because God is the one who made the creatures.
Jeremiah directs our attention to the power of God at creation: “He has made the earth by His power, He has established the world by His wisdom, and has stretched out the heavens at His discretion.” From Genesis 1 we know the details. God started out with nothing and made everything there is. He spoke a command, and from that command came sunlight, energy, planets, trees, animals, mountains, oceans. He made a perfect world by simply saying, “Let there be…” You and I can’t do that. We can’t make something out of nothing. God is the only one with that kind of power.
Creation will show you what kind of God you have. It takes a very strong God to make the Rocky Mountains. It takes a very smart God to make the human body. Well, that Creator God did not retire from His work. He’s still active, controlling and preserving the things that He made. Jeremiah points out: “He causes the vapors to ascend from the ends of the earth. He makes lightning for the rain, He brings the wind out of His treasuries.” When you see the weather change or feel the wind blow or watch the rain fall, that’s more than nature. Your God is busy, ever in control of the world that He made.
It’s so good to know: He controls this world for the benefit of you and me. Of all His creatures, you’re His favorite. He made your life and brought you into this world for a purpose—that you might live with Him and belong to Him. He has given what you need and so much more. He has blessed you with things that not only make your life on earth tolerable, but even comfortable, enjoyable. So let’s give Him the credit He deserves. Thank Him for your life and your health. Thank Him for your daily bread. Stick up for God when people want to say that this world is the product of evolution. Don’t let them steal His glory like that. Put the spotlight back where it belongs, on the true God, the only God who creates all things.
In the category of creation, God beats the idols hands down. In the category of salvation, it’s the same outcome. The religions of man will leave you in a desperate place. They tell you that you have to do something to save yourself. Only in the Bible do you find a God who does the work of saving us. Only in the Bible do you see a God who bends over backwards and makes the ultimate sacrifice. Even though we have made the wrong substitutions for God, God has made the right kind of substitution for us. He sent His Son to take our place, live up to the high standard of perfection, and establish that perfect record that we need. God sent His Son to take responsibility for our debt and pay the price of our sins.
If you look closely at the cross of Jesus, you will see the God of grace. You will see the God who loves you dearly. In the blood sacrifice of Christ, you will see the God who takes all your guilt and wipes it all away. In the reality of Christ crucified and risen from the grave, you will find the God who conquers death and gives us the victory of life.
Let’s also remember the work of the Holy Spirit. He’s the one who makes your faith. He’s the one who causes you to believe what Jesus did. We can think of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—working together as a team. Working to make your body, preserve your life, save your soul, and give you faith. Could we ever afford to live even a minute without that kind of God?
God is not asking you to choose Him instead of the idols. He’s flat out telling you: there are no substitutes for the triune God. The idols of man and the idols of the heart will surely fail. They will let us down. Only the triune God can be your Creator, your Provider, your Savior, your connection into heaven. Only in the Trinity do we have the genuine God who truly blesses His people. When you stick with the “real thing,” the Real Thing will never let you down. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.