Text: Psalm 135:15-18
What comes to mind when you hear the term idolatry? Primitive ‘natives’ bowing before a wooden image? Perhaps this might seem faintly ridiculous (though in a post-modern world we are quick to affirm indigenous knowing). I want to encourage us, as the people of God, to think about current issues from a theological and biblical perspective. I will argue that it helps to return to biblical concepts such as idolatry and to see a contemporary relevance. In the next three sermons that I preach, I will look at the natural human attribute of overvaluing (youth), attempts at personal salvation (romantic love) and making leaders divine (politics). Each will reveal a different dynamic, which I think can subvert mature spiritual understanding.
Rather than idolatry, you might prefer a different term. Scott Cormode in his book The Innovative Church talks about the “big lies” which prevent people hearing the gospel. This might be another way of talking about idolatry.
Back to idolatry:
The law forbade worshipping idols “Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves; I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:4)
The psalmist observed, “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, they are the work of human hands. They have mouths, but they do not speak, they have eyes but they do not see, they have ears, but they do not hear, and there is no breath in them. Those who make them and all who trust them shall become like them.” (Psalm 135:15-18). The last point, that in trusting idols, those who pay homage ‘shall become like them’. This is a profound insight.
The prophets mocked the attitude of the pagan nations to idols, for example: Isaiah speaking with God’s voice:
“To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, as though we were alike? Those who lavish gold from the purse and weigh out silver by the scales, they hire a goldsmith who makes it into a god they fall down and worship! They lift it to their shoulders and they carry it. They set it in its place, and stands there, but it cannot move from its place. If one cries to it, it cannot answer or save anyone from trouble.” (Isaiah 46:5-7)
There is a strong Biblical tradition of seeing idols and questioning allegiance to them. What exactly defines idolatry? Clearly it is something that is over-valued.
The Biblical Perspective values Old Age
Usually, to preach a sermon on the Idolatry of Youth is a safe topic in the Uniting Church where congregations routinely have an average age of over 70! However, GUC is different with a figure closer to 40 and youth are well represented. But the theme of youth in our culture is important to people of all ages.
The aged are respected and valued in the Bible. Job 12:12 “Is wisdom with the aged, and understanding in length of days?” Yes! is the assumption. The aged deserve honour and respect, Leviticus 19:32 “You shall rise before the aged and defer to the old; and you shall fear your God.” Even our grey hair is something to be valued Proverbs 20:29 “The glory of the young is their strength; but the beauty of the aged is a grey hair.” There is an African proverb, “The death of an old person is like the loss of the library”. In contrast, the views of the young are somewhat lightweight and not taken with the respect due to the aged. Of course, the young have strength and beauty, for example the strength of the young David before Goliath or the beautiful maiden in the Song of Songs. However, our early years can be a time of bad choices and foolish actions, “Do not remember the sins of my youth and my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness, O Lord!” (Ps 25:7).
The Bible represents a traditional culture with very different values to our Hollywood driven ideals. It is interesting to think about our fast-changing contemporary culture in terms of false gods. One of my favourite novels is Neil Gaimon’s American Gods (2001) where the author gets inside a pagan world view. The old Norse and Egyptian gods have become weak because almost no one worships them anymore. Osiris is reduced to eating road-kill because no one offers him sacrifices. The new gods are technology, media and modern transport. They are powerful [riding around in limousines] through almost universal worship in modern America (and elsewhere!). We become like what we idealise, as the psalmist noted.
Our values have been shaped by overvaluing youth and beauty. Think about who models our finest clothes. Who are photographed and placed on the cover of Vogue magazine? With rare exceptions our celebrities, another idol if you will, are the young and beautiful. The world was interested in Princess Diana? (for a time) More recently Paris Hilton and the Kardashians? But they are out of date. I do not pretend to keep up with celebrity culture. Now it might surprise you that I’m not upset about this. I expect our modern, largely secular culture, to get the balance wrong. After all it has long since stopped valuing or listening to the elderly and has no particular interest in the biblical worldview.
There are however to implications I like to draw your attention to.
- The Dynamic of Idolatry
When we overvalue something, we idealise it and give it divine status. It becomes a god to us. That is one of Neil Gaimon’s points. This is an inescapable dynamic which distorts our values and ideals. There is a power which we are reluctant to acknowledge and this can impoverish our lives to the point of losing any spiritual depth. That is the risk.
Plastic surgeons are among the highest paid of the medical fraternity. I think about the desperation to look young or remain sexy, that drives people to plastic surgery. Why can’t we be a little bit more like Rembrandt who had endless a fascination with the faces of older people captured on his canvases. This of course included his own self-portraits which charted a journey from a cocky youth, with a feather in his cap, to a dignified old man. He painted over 50 self-portraits and which are the most interesting? I think it the character etched in his aged self and other portraits.
Now I should acknowledge: Not all old people are wise and not all young people are impulsive or foolish. Some older people have learnt almost nothing over the years and remain foolish in relationships, with their money, with their responsibilities perhaps we can think of people in this category. We also find youth who might be described as ‘wise beyond their years’. Nothing is absolute, but I believe that we have unexamined attitudes in our culture which are bigger than anyone of us. And I think the concept of idolatry is a very useful in understanding this dynamic.
- A Word to the Aged
So far in this sermon I have quoted with some approval a pagan novel. I will now examine the ideas of Daniel Klein who wrote Travels with Epicurus (2012) about why we should listen to Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher. Klein draws on distinction which has been made in literature on ageing, a distinction between the old and the old-old. The first are old, maybe 70 and older, the old-old can be almost any age but need a significant amount of care. Klein talks about maximising life when people are retired but not needing care. He travelled to the Greek island of Hydra with a suitcase full of philosophy books and wrote his bestseller.
Klein actually makes a good point: many people overvalue the ideal of youth and try to remain as young as possible into their old age. It is a kind of hyperactivity which misses the advantages of a relaxed appreciation of all life can bring you when you slowdown, enjoy the slower pace of an idyllic Greek island and “smell the flowers”. It is a good book when you recognise you self and your friends. On Saturday mornings at 7AM I am part of a walking group climbing what passes for mountains around Canberra: Mount Ainslie, Black Mountain, Isaac Ridge, et cetera. I take Truff who pulls me in every direction. My friends are generally in the 70s and early 80s, and most are fitter than me. Perhaps some would be described by Klein as the “forever young”. I am not suggesting that this time would be better spent in contemplation at a Buddhist monastery or singing Taise hymns, after all fitness is of lasting value and we know were in trouble when we lose it. But when we are older, we may have more time to balance our lives with spiritual pursuits and of course this has value in gaining spiritual depth.
I am trying to make a point. I think we should think about how much our life is spent worshipping false gods such as youth-at-all costs, overvaluing the idea of beauty and uncritically accepting our celebrity culture? What do we think when there is a news report of someone who is 90 years old and climbed Mount Everest or ran a triple marathon?
- A Word to the Young
Some level, of course, I am saying that we should value older people. Equally we should value children, younger people, and adults. If you are younger than say 60, then I would like to say something to you.
You can embrace the opportunity of having much of your life ahead of you. This will include emotional, educational, and vocational formation. I have heard it said that ‘youth is wasted on the young’, and perhaps for some it is true. It is harder than ever to be focussed. There are so many distractions with social media, gaming and other entertainment, maybe watching and not playing sport. None of these activities are bad, but there are risks. The answer is found in some kind of balance – which will need to be achieved.
Sometimes my iphone informs me of how much screen time I have had in the previous week. I suppose it keeps count. I recommend doing a time audit of what you spend your time doing. Once you have a good estimate, ask yourself if your investment of time reflects your values. For example, time spent with family? In physical activity? Or volunteering?
The idea of idolatry as over valuing is helpful when it comes to letting things go. This is a challenge throughout life, for example the person in their 20’s can no longer lead an adolescent life. The life of a 30+ year old, if he were she has a stable relationship and children is different from a single twenty-year old. And so on. It is tempting to cling to what we valued in previous periods of our life.
In the last 10 years or so I have had a number of retirements. At the end of 2020 I retired as a full-time academic. A year later I stopped my counselling practice as a clinical psychologist. At the end of this year I will stop writing legal reports as a forensic psychologist. At the University of Canberra I convened the clinical psychology graduate program and I loved helping to train the next generation of psychologists. I know without a shadow of doubt that I can retire as a psychologist and the profession is in excellent hands. I anticipate continuing to serve in ministry for a few years yet, but I know at some point I will have to let go to this as well.
NOTE: If you try to make a change and it becomes harder than you think, then consider whether you might be in the grip of an idol.
If you consider yourself young, make sure you look forward and welcome the future. You can dream and there is time to achieve what you desire. You might, for example, want to be Prime Minister of Australia. Don’t let anyone talk you out of that. Or having a mechanic’s workshop. Or raising a healthy family. Value what you find in your heart.
TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, said in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom: “All men (and women) dream; but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men (and women), for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”
Idolatry is a biblical lens to look through. We can examine what we value. When something becomes of ultimate value we can ask whether it is a god in our lives. Small g and compare it to the place God might properly occupy.
The Rev’d Dr Bruce A Stevens is a supply minister at GUC.