Naming the Problem: 3rd in a Series

It was the great psychologist Karl Jung who said that “most people are hopelessly unconscious of evil.” The authors of the Bible are not “most people.” Over and over again the Bible warns us against evil in many forms.

The Bible warns against the evil of human sin, which, in the final analysis, is anything we do or fail to do by which we hurt ourselves or another.

The Bible also warns against the evil of the principalities and powers. According to Colossians 1 the principalities and powers are created in Christ and have potential for great good. However, they exist in the matrix of sin which is this world, and they have an equal potential for great evil. Thus the author of Ephesians warns against, “the principalities and powers, the world rulers of this present darkness, the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Let me give you just one example from the New Testament itself as to how the powers can be good or bad. God created the idea of governments so that people can live together and work for the common good; but because these governments exist in a fallen world, they can also be the source of great evil. Thus the Jews looked for the coming of a Messiah who would establish an everlasting kingdom that was so splendiferous that Jerusalem would become a city set on a hill that cast its warm light and prosperity upon the nations. By contrast, St. John the Divine, the author of Revelation, called the Rome of Nero and Trajan , “the great harlot who is seated upon many waters,” and “the mother of all harlots and earth’s abominations.”

The Bible warns against the principalities and powers, and the Bible warns against the evil of Satan, also known as the devil, who is called, “the prince of the powers of the air, the spirit now at work in the sons of disobedience.” Emil Brunner says to believe in the devil is to believe that the possibilities of evil are not exhausted by purely human evil. By that definition I certainly believe in the devil. However, I do not think of Satan as a person in the way that God is a Person. God exists whether the world exists or not. Satan exists only as a parasite in God’s world. I believe that Satan rises up as a result of human evil, yet transcends, and outlasts that evil Thus you can kill Hitler, and Stalin, but you cannot kill Hitlerism or Stalinism.

The Bible warns against two other forms of evil which are sometimes linked, idols and demons. Thus in Psalm 106 we read how the people of Israel, “mingled with the nations, and learned their practices, and served their idols, which became a snare to them, so that they even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons.”

In the Old Testament idols are described as the work of man’s hands. Isaiah 44 says that human beings are foolish to worship idols. The prophet describes how a craftsman cuts down a tree, drags it back to his home, and uses part of it to cook his food and warm himself, and the other part he fashions into an idol, to which he prays. Jeremiah says that idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field. They cannot talk, and they cannot walk, and they have to be carried everywhere they go. Jeremiah says that idols cannot do us harm, and they certainly cannot do us good. In the New Testament, in 1st Corinthians 8:4, St. Paul writes how Christians know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” Yet, St. Paul never, ever makes light of idols.

Indeed, in Romans 1:18-28, Paul makes idolatry the basic sin of humankind. He writes:

Rom. 1:18   For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; 21 for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.

This text or Romans :18-28 makes several key points that concern us.

  1. It teaches that the wrath of God is not just something that is just stored up for the future. “It is (present tense/right now) revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth.”
  2. It teaches that, from the beginning of creation, humankind suppressed the truth about God, namely God’s invisible nature, his eternal power and deity, which is, or ought to be, clearly perceived in the things that God has made.
  3. It teaches that the way that human beings suppress the truth is by not honoring God and by not giving thanks to God, but by worshiping idols.
  4. It teaches that it is because humankind has forsaken God and turned to idols, that God has revealed God’s wrath against us, and that this wrath consists of God giving us up to our own folly. Three times in Romans 1 St. Paul says that “God gave them up.” It is us that Paul is talking about. Then the apostle names a whole catalog of things that God gave us up to. One of those things is homosexual attraction. At the very least this means that homosexual attraction is not just a personal choice on the part of individuals, but a result all humankind’s turning from God to idols. Unfortunately, it is human nature that we make some individuals pay more dearly than others for something that affects us all. Romans 1 raises as many issues about homosexuality as it settles. It is about “natural revelation,” and Paul appears to have been a child of his day in using the examples he uses. Some say this is binding for us, others do not think so, for Paul hardly saw things at a genetic level; but this sermon is not about homosexuality. I am sorry I had to mention it, and fear that, for some it will become more of a focus than the apostle means that it should, blinding us to the rest of the passage. The truth is that the apostle names a variety of things that God has inflicted upon human beings as punishment for our Idolatry. These other things include: a base mind, improper conduct, all manner of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malignity. We have become gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil. We are disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Please note that the wrath of God is not revealed primarily because of these things. Rather, at least in part, the wrath of God consists of these things. God lets our choices punish us for our choices. And the basic sin of humankind is idolatry. Thus C.H. Dodd calls God’s wrath, “an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe.”

Now if idols have no real existence, and if they are as dumb as block of wood, and as harmless as scarecrows in a cucumber field why is the worship of idols so terrible, and why is God so much against it? Let me give four reasons.

  1. We turn from God to idols. If I may use a biblical image, we turn from the fountain of living waters which is God, to broken cisterns which we have hewn out for ourselves that can contain no water. We human beings can never rise above our Gods. The Bible teaches that if we choose to worship idols, we will spend out days in the desert. If we choose to worship God, we will spend our days in a green and pleasant land. If we choose to worship idols, we will spend our days in the depths. If we chose to worship God we will mount up with wings like eagles, we will run and not be weary, we will walk and not faith. I know I am piling up metaphors, but that is o.k. The God and father of our LORD Jesus Christ is more wonderful than any pile of metaphors.
  2. Idolatry breaks down the family. In the Bible the worship of Idols almost invariably involves cult prostitution. Some prostitutes were women servicing men, or women servicing women. Some prostitutes were men servicing women, or men servicing men. The worship of idols caused both husbands and wives to commit adultery. In worshiping with a cult prostitute, they committed adultery not just against their spouse, but against God himself. Over and over again prophets in the Hebrew Bible describe Israel’s romance with idols as Israel’s adultery against God. Thus Jeremiah says that the people of Israel have committed adultery “under every stone and tree.” And God orders Hosea to “take a wife of harlotry, and have children of harlotry, for the land commits great harlotry by forsaking the LORD.”
  3. Idolatry requires people to waste their resources. In the inter-testamental story of Bel and the Dragon, the people of Babylon presented gifts of food and drink to the idol Bel. Every day they spend on it twelve bushels of fine flour, forty sheep, and fifty gallons of wine. Likewise, in every home where idols were worshiped, people sacrificed food to their idols that they could have given to their hungry neighbors, and to their own hungry children.
  4. As we have already mentioned, idolatry requires people to sacrifice their future, for it requires them to sacrifice their own children. In the Hebrew Bible God is clearly against child sacrifice. In the time before the giving of the Law, the story of Abraham and Isaac makes this clear. God tests Abraham by requiring him to offer Isaac in sacrifice, but at the last moment God provides a ram for the sacrifice. This story was often told by the Hebrew people to illustrate that God is not a God that requires the sacrifice of their children. Then came Moses and the Law. In Leviticus 20, God speaks through his servant Moses and says that if any man of Israel, or any man who sojourns with the people of Israel, sacrifices his son to an idol,”he will be put to death.” The people did not listen. In Isaiah 57 the prophet speaks agains those who “ inflame (themselves) among the oaks and who slaughter (their) children in the ravines.” And in Jeremiah 7:31, God speaks through the prophet saying, “They have built the high places in the valley of Hinnom to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind.”

Now we do not worship idols like Baal, and Bel, and Molech, and the like. What are the idols of our culture? What are the things that break down our families, and cause us to waste our resources, and sacrifice our children? Let me mention four things.

Some will say sex. In our culture we bypass the idol, and make sex itself the idol. We use sex to sell everything imaginable. More than anything else we worship the cult of youth and beauty, and place more value on a pretty face than on the wisdom of the mature mind. Yet wisdom, too, is worshiped in its way, for knowledge is power. No less a person than John Adams, our 2nd president, said that in America there is an aristocracy of sorts, and those with youth, and beauty, and money, and education, will always be a little more equal than others. Sad, but true.

Some will say money. Money is a good example of how a power, or, even an idol, can be both good and bad. In and of itself, money is not evil. As a medium of exchange money is a good thing, and in our modern world we could not do without it. Can you imagine paying for your new truck with vegetables from your garden? But the author of 1st Timothy is certainly right when he says that the love of money is the root of all evil. And Jesus warns that we cannot serve both God and Mammon. Mammon is not just money, but the whole money system. We may use it; but it just as easily uses us.

Some will say the automobile. I personally love the automobile, and the freedom it gives us to move about. There was a time—in my own lifetime, when the freedom of the open road was real, because we could still find a country lane all to ourselves. Today we get that freedom at the expense of countless hours of commuting and occasional gridlock. There is little doubt that the automobile is creating a drain upon our planet. Let me give just one small example. Several reputable agencies have said that, by cheating on its diesel emissions, VW has decreased air quality in the US alone to the point that it will cause 60 additional deaths by the end of 2016. That is just the tip of a big iceberg. In his book, “The Medium is the Message,” Marshall McLuan said that we cannot see the automobile by itself, but we must also see the system of fueling it, and the roads upon which we drive it, and the parking lots upon which we part it, and many other things besides. An idol was a small cog in a big machine which was the worship of idols. And the automobile is a small cog in the big machine that is the use of automobiles. Of course, and here is the issue, what we have said about automobiles could also be said about the millions of airplane flights, and the giant cargo ships that ply our seven seas. I am not saying I have a solution. I don’t. We will not give up our automobiles tomorrow; but we do need to see the problem as it exists.

Some will say the gun. The gun is a object of power unlike almost any other. Jared Diamond taught us that the history of the world can be written in guns, germs, and steel. The late Chris Kyle wrote the history of the United States by describing ten firearms. Guns come plain and fancy. Some are just tools in the hands of a farmer or rancher, but others are created as works of art to be enjoyed by those who have money enough to afford them. When I visited in Edinburgh in 1999, a clerk showed me a double-barreled shotgun that costs more than I make in a year today. The good things is that a fine gun like that will never be used to stick up a convenience store. The bad thing is that Ernest Hemingway used one almost like it to end his own life. As a boy, I used a gun given me by the late Dr. F.I. Dorsett, one of my father’s best friends, to hunt rabbits and squirrels with the late John Holeman, a school principal, and one of my dad’s best friends. As an adult, I have carried a shotgun as I followed birddogs across North Carolina, Kentucky, and Indiana. One of our own members, Eben Alspaugh, sold a bird dog to Jimmy Carter when he was President of the United States, and it has been my pleasure to hunt with him. Likewise, I have spent many happy hours on a deer stand in the Green Swamp. I did not take many deer, but I never failed to appreciate the wonders of the world around me. I do not think that many boys who grow up hunting and fishing will ever end up in jail. That said, my son never enjoyed either, and he turned out o.k. And my grandchildren live in an increasingly crowded world. So I will doubt I will teach them. I am not surprised that since 1970, the number of hunters has been cut in half. Likewise, as a Marine I was a rifle and pistol expert. I never went to war, but I headed a training command that prepared several thousand Marines to use their weapons—-whether the rifle, or the machine gun, or the mortar, or the rocket launcher. At the same time, I have determined that I will not use a gun for self defense. I say that for two reasons: 1) I would be afraid that in turning a gun on a burglar, I might escalate a robbery to a murder, perhaps my own, or a member of my family, perhaps the intruder’s. I do not own anything I value more than a human life. 2) I not sure I could ever pull the trigger on another human being. And you are probably just like me. In his book, “On Killing,” Lt. Col. David Grossman, an respected Army expert, says that in World War II only 15-20 percent of American soldiers actually fired their weapons, and many of those who did fire their weapons intentionally fired to miss. Most of the deaths of WWII were cause by bombs, and cannon fire, and crew served weapons. Grossman says that we human beings have a natural safety-catch when it comes to killing another human being, and distance, and sharing the responsibility of killing helps to take it off Gossman’s considers his job to be twofold. On the one hand, his job is teaching the Army and the police how to take that safety-catch off, for those times when a soldier or a policeman must employ deadly force. On the other hand, his job is teaching America and the civilized nations how to put the safety catch back on so we don’t go around shooting ourselves and each other. Here is the frightening thing: Grossman says that the way the Army takes the safety catch off is to employ training that can be directly compared to the violence we see in movies and in video games. I know that because we used the first wave of that kind of training in the Marines, and it is still used today, and 90 to 95 percent of todays soldiers and Marines are likely to shoot, though not necessarily to shoot to kill. In Vietnam it took 50,000 rounds of small arms fire to kill a single enemy. Grossman says that the only way that society can put the safety catch back on, is by either banning all guns and all other weapons, as the Japanese once did in the 16th century—and that was an imperfect and temporary fix, or by controlling the access that our children and young adults have to violences in television, movies, and video games.

I have just scratched the surface of idolatry. There are many more things that we could name. Many have suggested “technology.” The truth is that almost anything can be an idol. Something becomes an idol when we place it ahead of our devotion to God, and harm our relationships, especially the relationships we have with our wives, and husbands, and children, and neighbors. When I consider the idols of our day, I know that I don’t have all the answers. I know that your answers may be different from my own. Yet, together, we can seek the lead of the Holy Spirit in finding answers. A first step, is, I think, to confess with Isaiah, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”

Finis