Playing God With Tin Idols

Heritage Presbyterian Church

January 31, 2021
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
Scripture readings: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20, 1st 
Corinthians 8: 1-13, Mark 1: 21-28

One of the things that I appreciate about the Bible is the way that patterns appear.  As a Christian and as someone who loves the Bible, I always appreciate anything that helps me get deeper into any type of writing, and the Bible has LOTS of things that do that.  One of them is the use of patterns.  

Let me give you an example:

In the Old Testament, you don’t have to look very far to find the following pattern: “__________________ was king of _____________.  He reigned _______ years.  He __________ in the sight of God.”  Then there is usually a brief description of his deeds.  Then this is followed by his death, burial, and his replacement, and the pattern begins again.  

These various kings of Israel and Judah were described in many different ways, but the basic pattern remains for every single one of them.  And the one item that came up more than any other was their attention to other gods.  

It is no mistake or quirk of composition that in the Ten Commandments, the first one is most likely the most important: “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Breaking this commandment is just about the most certain way to lead to the phrase that often completes that pattern I just described: “And the anger of the Lord burned against the people.”

So it should be abundantly clear that worshipping any type of god other than the God of Israel, our God, our Lord is a very bad thing to do.  

Don’t do it, people!

But you might say to me, “But Pastor…I don’t worship any other god than our God.  This is not a problem for me.  In fact, I don’t know a single person that worships any other god than our God.  No bowing before statues, no burning offerings before some picture, no praying before tin idols.  Nothing.  There may be some who don’t worship God, but they don’t exactly worship little tin gods either.”

That’s a very good thing.  If we worship those little tin gods, like I already said, it will certainly lead to trouble!

In the second reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, Paul was so concerned about this whole “other gods” problem that he even addressed the members of the early church who were eating meat that had been offered to other gods.

These beginning Christians were living with folks who believed strongly in their various tin idols.  They did all sorts of things to try to better their lives, and their Christian neighbors had to live in proximity to them.  Paul explained why idols were useless, but he also explained very clearly why we could not participate even in eating the sacrifices.  Food could be forbidden, people can be weak, so Paul made sure he counseled those Corinthians not to even do that.  ANY type of worship of ANY other god was bad!  

But not to worry…we don’t do that!

And yet, there is something that has been bothering me lately.  And as I read these Scriptures, I get an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach that causes me to ask myself some tough questions.

Questions like:

  • Are you preaching to praise the Lord – or are you preaching to entertain the people?
  • Are your lessons to teach the people – or are your lessons to make people see what a good teacher you are?

If I do these things for ANY other reason than the true reason, then I could be worshipping nothing more than my own tin idols.

Other questions that bother me:

  • Are we seeking to build our new church home in order to give glory to God – or are we building our new church so that we will have our own lovely new church to replace the one we had to sell many years ago?
  • Do we worry about church attendance because we are concerned about the people in the area – or do we worry about church attendance because we want to see more butts in the seats?

Good questions.   The answers make my head hurt.  And the thought that the wrong answers could be my own tin idols scares me to death!

If you look carefully at the work and ministry of Jesus our Lord, you might also see that his good work suffered from those who were seeking him as their new tin idol.  It has been popularly theorized that Judas Iscariot wanted to force Jesus’ hand when the Jewish authorities arrested Jesus; Judas may have dreamed of becoming an influential, powerful leader in this new kingdom here on earth with Jesus as its head.  If this is true, Judas set up Jesus as his own tin idol.  

But he was not the only one to do it!

What sort of work do we know that Jesus did?  He cast out demons, as we heard in the Gospel reading from Mark.  But many who were amazed and have worshipped Jesus may have done so because they saw him having power over evil spirits, NOT because they believed he was the Son of God.  

Jesus fed 5000 men, plus who knows how many women and children on that wonderful day of the loaves and fishes story.   But many in that crowd saw him as the champion of the poor, not as the Messiah.  

Jesus healed the sick and even raised at least two people from the dead; yet many only saw him as a great healer, NOT as the One Promised From Ancient Times.  

Peter, James, and John saw a glimpse of Jesus in his true form standing and talking with Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration.   Yet as soon as Peter heard Jesus accurately predicting and describing his own death by betrayal and crucifixion, Peter attempted to rebuke Jesus to shut him up.   Peter had his own tin idol version of Jesus too!  

And think what Peter had already seen by this time!  

Even Peter did this.  Even…us too?

If we keep going to our own culture today, it is pretty easy to find some tin idols that look uncomfortably like what I have described:

  • Jesus being hailed as the hero to the political right or the political left;
  • Jesus the champion of the common people and not the Savior of the rich people;
  • Jesus who looks just like me, not the Middle Eastern Jesus who actually lived there; 
  • Jesus the one who believes just like I do – and I know this because I found it in my Bible with my own two eyes and my finger!
  • Jesus who springs up at the darnedest places in Scriptures – like maybe that “new prophet” that was described to us in the reading from Deuteronomy we heard today.  If you think that reference was about Jesus, I won’t argue with you; it very well could be what was written about there.  However, if you believe that – and you think everyone else is wrong who disagrees, there’s your tin idol!

And that happens OFTEN with our wonderful, beautiful Bible…

By now, perhaps you have noticed that I haven’t mentioned those things in our culture that sometimes interfere with the actual Sunday worship.  Today is a perfect example.  Are we all focused on worship – or are we perhaps thinking of an upcoming big football game – the Super Bowl itself – with all the commercials, the guests who will be joining you for your party?  I’m NOT condemning those who will be watching the game – I’ll be watching the game and enjoying my wife’s cooking and texting my relatives and friends about the game and the commercials and the whole thing.  

But it is NOT my tin idol.  Because in my heart of hearts, I am not putting any of that before the Lord.  

And I doubt you are either.

I’m just asking questions.  That’s part of what I’m called to do as your pastor and your friend.  We look at the various stories from the Bible about the people of God and how they kept straying again and again and AGAIN from God and worshipping those tin idols.  As I read those foolish stories, I shake my head and say, “At least I don’t do that!  I don’t worship any tin idol.”

Do I, Lord?  I worship you first, Lord.  Right?

A very quiet “amen” goes right here…