This sermon is part of the sermon series "American Idols". See series.
I was reading an article from Newsweek recently: "In Search of the Spiritual." Apparently, the religious website Beliefnet sends out more than 8 million daily emails of spiritual wisdom in various flavors to more than 5 million subscribers. Generic inspiration is the most popular 2.4 million emails, followed by inspirations from the Bible with 1.6 million. But there are 460,000 subscribers to the Buddhist thought of the day, 313,000 Torah devotees, 268,000 subscribers to daily Muslim wisdom, and 236,000 who get spiritual weight loss messages.
Even nature worshiping pagans are divided into a mind boggling pan plea of Wicca, Druidism, Pantheism, Animism, Teutonic Platonism, and the God of Spirituality folk. And in case you can't find one to suit you on that list, there's Eclectic Paganism.
If I were to walk through Beliefnet's website, I would draw this conclusion: we are very religious people. In fact, 79% of people in the U.S. under the age of 60 would categorize themselves as spiritual. Not religious, but spiritual. Two-thirds of all Americans claim to pray every day. We don't know to who or what they pray, just that they pray.
I am without question reminded of Acts 17 when I read this information, and that is the text we're going to use to start with here. We're going to take a little time to try and figure out what seems to be the case in America that we are very spiritual people—or are at least interested in spiritual things, however we might choose to define that.
Idols of Athens
Paul's statement is so clear about the kind of world that he lived in, and it is very similar to ours. He's in the Greek city of Athens. Athens was the place of the Acropolis—the home of the Areopagus, or "Mars' Hill," where the philosopher's would gather to sit and discuss philosophical questions of the day. That's where Paul went.
Having walked around the city just a bit, he was a little distressed at all of the spirituality that he saw. There were carved stone gods everywhere. Here's what he says in Acts 17:
Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: "To an unknown God." [This would be an example of Eclectic Paganism.] Now what you worship as unknown I am going to proclaim to you: The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of Heaven and Earth and does not live in temples built by hands. He's not served by human hands as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth. He determined the time set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he's not far from each of us. For in him we live and move and have our being.
As some of your own poets have said, "we are his off-spring"; therefore, since we are God's off-spring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image made by man's design and skill; in the past God overlooked such ignorance. But now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.
Very religious. The Stoics and Epicureans seemed to be the two prominent religions or philosophies in that day—not unlike the thought that governs our culture today. The Stoics were those who believed that you shouldn't get passionate about anything at all. Control the emotions, be logical, make sure that you are simply reasonable about everything. They were totally apathetic to the presence of the gods; the gods didn't make any difference because they couldn't do anything anyway. Humans were able to control their lives if they just would.
Then there were the Epicureans, whose fundamental belief was in pleasure as a virtue. This was not the same as unbridled Hedonism in our world now; Epicureans believed that there was no God, as evidenced by rampant evil in the world, but that you could achieve peace by bringing all of your passions under your own control and gratifying only those things that really mattered.
Like Athens, our world is full of religious people. So Paul determines to make known this unknown god; that is my goal as well. In this series I want to simply see if we can figure out what our idols are. I'm not talking about idols carved in stone. I'm not even talking about what preachers typically describe as idols—your house or your car or your career. I want to talk about the way we think. That's what Paul addresses. In fact, he says in 2 Corinthians that we're to take every thought captive to Christ. Not just every thought, but every way of thinking. We need to begin a process of naming things.
The power of naming
Do you know that there is power in naming? If you can put a name on something, you can begin to understand it and deal with it.
We have ways of thought that control the ways we act. For example, as a culture we've bought into consumerism. I don't just mean that we buy stuff; I mean that we use things. We are users. We don't take the future into account. We don't take consequences into account. Our role in life is to use stuff. And when we're done using it, we throw it away and move on to something else. We've even learned to use people to our own advantage.
We're also guilty of busyness. We think that if we're busy we have meaning. I think we are guilty of affluence. Someone coined the term "affluenza," because our affluence has become like a disease. There are many things that we need to try to name if we're going to be Christians in how we conduct our lives.
How does God address this? In this chapter, Paul says that there was a time that God overlooked ignorance. There was a time when God said: Alright, I understand you may not know about all the idols, you may not understand all that is going on in your world. But that time is over. He now calls every person to repent. All people. Everywhere.
This is a warning: once you become informed, you become responsible. In this series I'm going to do my best to name our idols, and once we've named and talked about them, we're each responsible for dealing with them. And the way we are to deal with them, according to this text, is by repenting. That's the only way—to turn around, walk the other way, and claim a Christian way of thinking. According to verse 31, God is going to hold us accountable for these things. By raising Jesus from the dead, God has established that there is one who is going to hold us accountable for the way we think and, therefore, the way we act. Idolatry is no small matter.
You know the term that is used for idolatry most often in the Old Testament? Do you know the metaphor that God uses constantly to talk about idolatrous people? The King James word for this means whoredom, prostitution, adultery. In polite society we simple call it "unfaithfulness." God does not take unfaithfulness lightly. He calls, quite simply, for loyalty and allegiance—for a turning of our backs to the gods of the world.
The problem that we face is that we live in a culture in which there are so many things going on around us that we simply stop noticing them. Trying to name our idols is like asking fish to describe water. They don't know what water is; they're just in it. It's the environment in which they live, so they don't stop and think, I wonder if there's oxygen in this. They simply live in it. That's what we do, too. We grow up in a culture, we grow up in our world, we grow up with the values around us; we just live in it. But at some point along the way, somebody has to say, "Wait a minute! Is this OK?"
I don't know who is going to do that if it's not the Church. I don't know who is going to ask us to stop long enough to think about our world and name some things about it, if it's not us. We must start asking questions about what this world is like, because we are so easily fooled.
Made by men's hands
Did you hear the Apostle Paul? These idols are things that men created. I've been in Athens; I've walked where he walked when he was addressing this, and there are literally idols everywhere. They are so prolific; they're actually used to decorate subway stations. They must have been available by the thousands in Paul's day. And Paul says they're not real. If your hands can make them, they're not real. If you want to know about a real God, Paul says, look at the God who made the Heavens and the Earth. He doesn't live in temples made by hands, he doesn't need anything. He's the one who set the world in order; he is the one who put men where they belong; he is the one who does these things. The God who is really God doesn't need to be captured in a wooden box or a stone idol.
And yet, man has a penchant for wanting to do just that. We like things we can define, things we can see and touch. But listen to this passage in Isaiah:
To whom will you compare God? What image would you compare him to? As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fastens silver chains for it. A man too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for skilled craftsmen to set up an idol that will not topple (40:18-20).
Does that sound like a God in whose hands you want to place your life? One who rots? One who topples? I looked out my window last week after a windstorm, and this nice little tree that the city kindly put in the parking strip in front of my house was lying in the middle of the street. I didn't even remember the wind blowing that hard. But over it went.
Every idol ultimately topples—every one of them. How do we identify the weakness of the idols that surround us—the weakness of these ingrained thought processes?
Here is a really simple place to start: ask questions. Just stop long enough to ask questions. Try this one: Will this way of thinking—this idol—sustain your life over the long haul? I know that it may give you a sense of purpose or meaning or fulfillment now, but will this last? If you have adopted a busy lifestyle because a busy lifestyle makes you feel like you're really meaningful and important, will you still feel that way when your busyness has driven the people in your life away from you because you don't have time for them? In the long haul, will being busy really satisfy you?
How about this question: Can this thought process—this god—sustain you through the hard times? Will this way of thinking that you've adopted, by which you judge your whole life, carry you when life goes south? You spend your time and money getting stuff, and then a little more stuff, and a little more stuff. You don't have to be Einstein to figure this out. You cannot buy health. Will this commitment that you make with your life sustain you when life gets hard?
Here, I think, is the ultimate question that you need to ask: What's the end result if I pursue this path long enough? If I choose this direction in my life, if I choose to govern my life by thinking this way, where am I ultimately going to end up? Can you separate yourself from the immediate long enough to look ahead a bit?
Have you heard of upside-down mortgages? Or you may know it by the fancy name: negative equity. Having a mortgage like this means that you can owe 125% of your house's value in the hopes that property values keep going up. Do you know where that ultimately ends up for most people? Bankruptcy. I'm not primarily talking to you about finances, but ask the bigger questions here. If you choose to go this direction with your life, where will you ultimately end up?
In this series, we are going to go to the Book of Proverbs to try to address American cultural issues. Proverbs is where God's wisdom is housed. We're going to start with and return repeatedly to this one: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will set you on straight paths (3:5-6).
That's the commitment I want us to ask—a collective agreement that we're going to do our best to not be absorbed into the world and its way of thinking, but to literally trust in God's wisdom and acknowledge God's place. My hope is that we will turn so strongly to God that we will hunger for him more than we hunger for anything else in this life.
Chuck Sackett preaches at Madison Park Christian Church in Quincy, Illinois, and teaches Ministry and Bible at Lincoln Christian College and Seminary in Lincoln, Illinois.