Key Verse: 2
“He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…”
As a brief introduction, today we begin a new series of messages, following the topics of Tim Keller’s book, Counterfeit Gods. All of the topics in this series are based on narrative passages from different books of the Bible, and all of them focus on the topic of idolatry. Idolatry may be considered a politically incorrect term in today’s generation. But idolatry is an important topic to study because, according to the Bible, idolatry is the root of all sin. Biblical morality and ethics are based on the Ten Commandments, and the first and most important of the Ten Commandments is that we should have no other Gods than the God revealed by the Bible.
The Second Commandment, even more clearly states, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Ex.20:4). Usually, when we think of idolatry, we tend to associate an idol with a primitive statue of Zeus, Aphrodite, or the deities of other ancient pagan religions. Few people in the modern world worship a statue as god, so we may think that we have easily kept the First and Second Commandments. However, the Bible presents a much larger definition of idolatry than this. St. Paul summarized the idolatry of the human race when he said, “They worshipped and served created things rather than the creator” (Romans 1:25). To our surprise, anything can become an idol, anything at all. The philosopher Nietzsche said, “There are more idols in the world than there are realities.” The human heart is a factory that produces all kinds of idols. An idol can be defined as something that replaces God as the ultimate desire of our hearts. Surprisingly, the most virtuous things can become the most deceptive idols. These things may include love, wealth, success, achievement, patriotism, and pride, which will each be discussed in detail in our message series on counterfeit gods. Today we’ll study about the idolatry of getting one’s heart’s desire. Through this study, let’s think about why idolatry is inevitable, how idolatry happens through the danger of desires, and how idolatry can be replaced by a greater godly affection.
First, idolatry is inevitable
No matter what, the human heart drifts toward idolatry. You can’t avoid it. A cat can be satisfied to only sleep and eat tuna every day. Animals do not worship, but humans worship. It is our nature because we are spiritual beings. All human beings were created in the image of God. Something must capture our heart’s most basic allegiance and hope. God created us with himself as our ultimate need. The 18th Century French philosopher Pascal said, “There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of every person, and it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ.” Ecc. 3:11 says that God “…has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done...” How can it be that during the second largest financial crisis in our nation’s history when many top businesses failed, Avatar, the most expensive movie ever produced in history could have an ample budget? It is because people want a glimpse of paradise at any cost, even if it is only a mirage. We cannot live with an empty soul. Idolatry is inevitable without the life-changing work of the Holy Sprit, leading us to seek our ultimate happiness in God through Jesus Christ. Only two things can be ultimate in our hearts, either God or an idol, but there can be millions of kinds of idols for every interest. We live in the age of preferences in which we can have custom-made idols. Popular shows like “Twilight”, popular games like “Call of Duty”, and even the famous TV show, American Idol, wrongly claim to be all we ever wanted.
There are many narratives in the Bible which address the problems of idolatry. Today we will talk about Abraham. Abraham was a godly man in the book of Genesis, who followed God’s call. He left everything including his people, his nation, and his father’s household, in order to follow God by faith. God blessed Abraham with the gift of a son, who was a miracle child for Abraham and his wife Sarah, who had been barren and were now old enough to be in a nursing home. After decades of agonizing delay, Abraham received everything he ever wanted from God -- a son to raise and carry on his family name. Can there be anything wrong with wanting something which is noble and good, and receiving it? Well, God tested that by requiring Abraham to give it all up.
Second, the danger of desires.
We never imagine that getting our heart's deepest desires might be the worst thing that can ever happen to us. Many people who have studied Genesis may think that chapter 21, which describes the birth of Isaac, is the climax of Abraham’s life, because he followed God’s call, he grew in faith, and was blessed with the wonderful gift of a son. Now he could rest in peace. Not at all! After this, Abraham received another call from God, and this time it was shocking. Let’s read verse 2, “He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…” God’s demand sounds overly harsh, but this was the perfect test to see what was in the first place of Abraham’s heart. The test implies that Abraham’s affection for his son had become idolatrous adoration. God was not saying that Abraham should not love his son, but that he should beware not to turn his beloved son into a counterfeit god. If anyone puts a child in the place of the true God, it creates an idolatrous love that will smother the child and strangle the relationship. In our recent study, Isaac idolized his son Esau, and this caused his brother Jacob to feel jealous and revengeful. In turn, Jacob idolized Rachel, and his first wife Leah felt unloved. Isaac’s entire family was damaged by his idolatry. The Bible says that God himself is our true source of love, joy, peace, hope, and provision. But the wall of idolatry blocks us from enjoying God’s ultimate beauty and a life-giving relationship with God. If we look to a created thing to give us the meaning, hope, and happiness that only God himself can give, it will eventually fail to deliver and break our hearts. As mentioned earlier, the most virtuous things can become the most deceptive idols. A precious child is a very good thing in life, but he or she cannot take God’s place. God made so many good things in the world; in fact all created things are good. God did not make anything bad or evil. But a disordered value system leads to idolatry.
You can know that a good thing has become a counterfeit God when its demands on you exceed your love for God. If a job requires us to violate our ethics, it has become an idol. If there is a favorite food, game, activity, or fill-in-the-blank, which we cannot live without, it has become an idol. When we need to depend on another person to have a sense of value or security, they have become an idol. When the pursuit of an activity compels us to waste money uncontrollably, it has become an idol. Even self-discipline can become an idol. When the demands of necessity are not pressuring us, whatever our thoughts, time, and money gravitate to are likely to become our idols. But crossing the line of idolatry can easily be deceptive and unnoticeable. This is why our greatest desires can be so dangerous, especially when they are good things. When I was young, I enjoyed collecting things, especially Star Wars merchandise. But after I was uncontrollably compelled to spend all my money on Star Wars merchandise, I eventually realized that it had become an idol. It was a deceptive idol because it was not clear at what point it exceeded love for God. Was it the fifth item, the twenty-third, or the seventy-fifth? Similarly, how many harmless slices of cheesecake can be dangerous; how many movies can be dangerous; how many sports tickets, new furnishings, or internet sites can be dangerous. There may be some laws that set a clear standard, but generally only one’s conscience before God can prayerfully determine where those limits are. It is important for us to be aware that any desire can lead to idolatry at the point which it robs us of the true love, joy, peace, and value that are only found in God himself. 1 John 2:15 says “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” According to 1 John…, the ‘world’ can be defined as “the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and pride in possessions…” (1 John 2:16). When pushed beyond our love for God, desires lead to the deadly d’s of disappointment, discouragement, and despair.
Third, a greater godly affection.
Let’s read verse 9, “When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.” How could Abraham obey such a difficult command from God? When God sent the ten plagues on Egypt in the story of the Exodus, his ultimate punishment was the death of the first born sons. Though this incident sounds like child abuse to our modern ears, Abraham would not have been surprised that God would take the life of his first-born son. Sin is high treason against God. Abraham knew that he was a sinner who deserved to have his blessings taken away, and that God had a right to destroy him. Abraham had a sense of the gravity of the debt of his sins. Romans 3:23 says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” Romans 6:23a says, “For the wages of sin is death”. But Abraham also had faith that God is good, and that God loved Isaac even more than Abraham did. In fact, God had promised that all nations would be blessed through Isaac, and so Abraham told his servant “We’ll be back”. In verse 8, Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Abraham did not know what would happen, but he believed that God loved him and that God would somehow have mercy on him. If Abraham did not believe in both God’s justice and mercy, he would either get mad or despair. But instead, Abraham could trust and obey God. Hebrews 11:19 says, “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” At the last minute, God sent an angel to prevent Abraham from following through with the sacrifice, and God provided a lamb instead for the sacrifice. 2,000 years later, Isaac’s descendent was Jesus Christ. God stopped Abraham, but God did not stop himself from killing his own son on the cross. God did not take a sacrifice from us, but instead God sent his own Son as the sacrifice for the sins of the world. John 3:16 says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Though we struggle to give up our idols, God gave up what he legitimately loved most, his only Son.
When God’s sacrificial love and mercy shines into our hearts, idols can be destroyed, and inflated values can be reduced to their proper boundaries. In fact, God’s love is the only power that can remove our idolatry. There are at least two reasons why we cannot simply turn away from idolatry. Firstly, we cannot restore our broken love relationship with God by our own effort. The rigid demands of God’s holy law either prompt us to rebel like the prodigal son, or to live by fear-based compliance and unhappy traditionalism like the older son in that parable. The second reason why we cannot simply turn away from idolatry is that we only end up replacing one idol with a different idol. A youth ceases to idolize pleasure; but it is because the idol of wealth has become a stronger desire. Likewise, money ceases to master the heart of a thriving citizen when the love of power takes over. In this way, desires are like the child’s game ‘king of the mountain’, which constantly displace other desires, but apart from God, they are all idols. This was how it was for Jacob, whom we learned about recently. Jacob first desired honor from his father, next Jacob desired love from Rachel, next he desired wealth through his livestock business. Finally, Jacob wrestled with God and discovered that God himself was all he ever wanted. The puritan minister, Thomas Chalmers, wrote a famous sermon titled, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. In it he said that we can only displace our love for the world by setting God as more worthy of attachment; not to resign an old affection leaving an empty heart, but to exchange an old affection for a new one. He also said that when we are enabled by faith to see God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ, as he lavishes us with his promise of forgiveness and gracious acceptance – then an affection for God supersedes and replaces the desires of the world. Idols cannot be removed to leave a vacant heart, but witnessing the love and glory and grace of God by faith can replace idols in our hearts, and can give us the true joy, peace, and satisfaction that idols cannot provide.
In today’s passage, we learn that idolatry is inevitable, that desires can be dangerous, and that counterfeit gods can only be overcome by a greater godly affection. Abraham was blessed by God with a son whom he had long awaited. A son is a wonderful blessing. But whenever we receive what want, we need to be cautious. Anything, even a good thing, can become an idol when it exceeds love for God in our hearts. When Abraham’s love for his son became adoration, those boundaries were in danger of being crossed, and God to whom Abraham had once been devoted, gradually drifted down to the back seat of Abraham’s heart. God decided to test Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering. Abraham obeyed, passing the test. The nature of an idol is that a person feels he or she cannot live without it. But Abraham was willing to offer his son Isaac up to God. Abraham showed that God was his greatest affection. It was not a grudging obedience, but a matter of unconditional trust. God did not really intend to harm Isaac, but to use this story as an illustration, so that Abraham and everyone who reads his story can realize that it was in fact God who gave up his only Son for us, though we are the ones who deserve to have our greatest blessings taken away. Sometimes to test our faith, God may take away our greatest blessings. But it is God himself who is the greatest blessing, and when he is our greatest affection, we can accept the loss of smaller affections. These smaller affections, when put in God’s place, are given a responsibility that they cannot meet, and will always disappoint us in the end. So let us welcome God’s tests of faith with trust that the purging of idols is good for us, and let us gaze on the grace and glory of God until he becomes the greatest affection in our hearts. Then God’s peace, love, and joy will give us ultimate satisfaction and security which will not disappoint us.