Richard Niell Donovan
Most people haven’t read the book of Jeremiah, so I need to explain what he was talking about. Jeremiah was a prophet. That means that he was God’s spokesman. He begins by recounting the faithfulness of the Israelites to God during their forty years in the wilderness after the Exodus.
But when God finally permitted the Israelites to enter the Promised Land, they became friendly with the local people and began to worship their gods. It all began innocently enough. They began to make friends with the Canaanites. Then they began to marry the Canaanites. Then they began to worship the Canaanite gods of wood and stone. And then God punished them for their faithlessness.
Jeremiah reminded them of God’s faithfulness. God said:
“I brought you into a plentiful land,
to eat its fruit and its goodness;
but when you entered, you defiled my land,
and made my heritage an abomination” (2:7).
Then Jeremiah told them how foolish they had been. He said, “Has a nation changed its gods, which really are no gods?” (2:11). He was telling them that the pagans were faithful to their gods, even though they were only chunks of stone or wood. But the Israelites, even though they have experienced God’s power and faithfulness, had abandoned him for these pieces of stone and wood. And so God says:
“For my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the spring of living waters,
and cut them out cisterns,
broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (2:13).
The Israelites lived in a dry land where every drop of water was precious. They knew what it was to dig cisterns to collect runoff, and they knew what it was to lift buckets of water from the cistern and carry them to their gardens. Every drop of water was precious.
God said, “They have forsaken me, the spring of living water”—the mountain spring that flows faithful and pure—the artesian well that provides abundant water. “They have forsaken me…, and cut cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
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The problem that Jeremiah was addressing was idolatry—the chasing after false gods. Jeremiah called God’s people to return to the true God—and to abandon their idolatry.
When I read this scripture my first thought was, “What does this have to do with us today? We don’t worship gods of wood and stone” But then, as I thought about it, I realized that it has everything to do with us today. What is idolatry, after all, but putting something else in God’s place! Defined that way, we see idolatry all around us.
What are our idols? We might ask the question this way: What is more important to us than God. Those are our idols! They are many!
Chaplain (Major General) Kermit Johnson, a former Army Chief of Chaplains used to warn chaplains about something that he called SAM. He told us that SAM was the destroyer. When a chaplain left the Army in disgrace, it was usually because of SAM. He could have said that SAM constitutes our idolatry. What is SAM? SAM stands for sex, alcohol and money.
It should not surprise us that sex would be one of the destroyers— one of the idols—one of the things that we love more than God. Sex is the goddess of the century. It pervades our media and our entertainment! It promises us joy! The Pill freed us from fear and promised us sex without consequences. It made the rules obsolete.
But sex without rules has not lived up to its promise. The consequence of sex-without-consequence has been the near-ruin of the family in America. America’s children are paying the price for America’s pleasure.
It should not come as a surprise that alcohol is one of the destroyers—another idol—another of the things that we love more than God. We should really talk about alcohol and drugs, because they are similar. Idolatry is putting something other than God first in our lives. For an alcoholic or drug addict, nothing is more important than their fix! The next fix is more important than God, family or life itself. Those of you who are recovering alcoholics know how destructive—and idolatrous—alcohol and drugs really are.
And it should not come as a surprise that money is one of the destroyers—one of the idols—one of the things that we love more than God. Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in America, said, “The amassing of wealth is one of the worst species of idolatry.” The Bible tells us that the love of money is the root of all evil. It does not condemn money or the possession of money but the love of money. The problem is when we begin to love money more than we love God—when we begin to put money in God’s place. That is idolatry, and it is a destroyer.
But SAM—Sex, Alcohol and Money—is only part of our idolatry. Health is the most modern idolatry. Ellen Goodman, a Newsweek columnist, had a wonderful column on our health fetish. She said:
“The old taboos were religious. Ours are medical.
Our ancestors talked about risks to the soul,
and we talk about risks to our bodies.…
Our focus on these matters is religious in its intensity.”
Isn’t that true! Don’t you know people whose whole lives revolve around their cholesterol count! Health is the most modern idolatry. We care everything about the health of the body and very little about the health of the soul.
Even the church is not exempt from idolatry. It is all too easy for the church to become captive to the idolatries of tradition, attendance, money, and the beauty of our buildings. We are always tempted to make those things more important than God.
The really modern church idolatry has to do with the church and politics. The church has often tried to use the government to achieve its goals. In the process, the church has been seduced by power. When the church sits down with presidents and Congress, it often begins to believe too much in their power and too little in God’s power—to believe too much in politics and too little in prayer—and that is idolatry.
This is a fine line. The old cliché is that religion and politics don’t mix. The opposite is true. Our religious faith should affect every aspect of our lives, including politics. Our faith should affect our vote, just as it affects our family life, our entertainment and everything else.
The problem arises when Christians begin to think of government as great power and God as not-so-great power. At that point, we have crossed the fine line into idolatry.
Thirty years ago the church, particularly the more liberal denominations, began to push the government to eliminate racism and poverty. So far, so good! We must fight racism and poverty.
But the more closely the church worked with the government, the more it began to believe in the government’s power and the less it began to believe in God’s power. At some point, the government became our highest power—and that is idolatry.
It is interesting to note the effects of all that. The denominations that allied themselves so closely with the government have lost millions of members in a time of great church growth. They allied themselves with the government to increase their influence. Today, they have little influence.
Ironically, the right-wing of the church today is in the same place that the left-wing was in thirty years ago. Just as the left-wing of the church became an appendage of the Democratic Party, so the right-wing of the church is becoming an appendage of the Republican Party. The line between conservative religion and conservative politics has become very fuzzy. The right-wing of the church has placed a great deal of faith in the right-wing of Congress.
At what point does that become idolatry? It becomes idolatry when we begin to believe more strongly in secular power than in God’s power—when we put something other than God on God’s throne. That is now happening in the right-wing of the church, just as it already happened in the left-wing. I will dust off my crystal ball and predict that, within two decades, both the conservative churches and the Republican Party will be sorry that they ever met.
Let me be clear. I am not preaching about politics—or even politics and religion; I am preaching about idolatry—putting something other than God in first place in our lives and beliefs. That is what idolatry is!
When we love sex—or alcohol—or money—or health more than we love God, they will betray us. When we believe in secular power more than we believe in God’s power, it will betray us.
Jeremiah called the people of Israel to love God and to put him in first place in their lives. Today, I call you to love God and to put him in first place in your life. It isn’t easy, because other things always pull our hearts in another direction. But God, in his great love, will give us everything we need if we first give him our hearts. Give him first place in your heart today.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 1995, Richard Niell Donovan