The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Bernier: “The Dangers of Idolatry”
For today’s post I want to mention another excellent sermon by the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Bernier of Providence REC in Texas, titled “The Dangers of Idolatry”; the text follows:
The Dangers of Idolatry
9th Trinity, August 5, 2012
In our epistle lesson for today, Paul writing to gentile converts of the Corinthian church, who had been thoroughly immersed within the idolatrous culture of paganism, warns them and us through them, against the dangers of idolatry.
Such a warning tends to carry little impact upon us these days. Pos-Modern Christians are prone to consider idolatry somehow as a sin of the past, or at least as so obvious a fault that no one needs to worry much concerning it. Therefore, it is not hard for many Christians to become presumptuous concerning the danger of idolatry without realizing that it lays much closer home than one may think.
Ironically, a similar self-confidence was part of the mind set of the early Corinthian Church, as if they would answer Paul: Idolatry?! Why, we are way too wise to fall into the worship of idols, we have knowledge, besides, we also have the gospel, Christ, and his sacraments, these will protect us, idolatry is an issue of the past.
But, Paul challenged the Corinthians on their self-confidence. As if he were saying, “You are going too fast. Remember the people of Israel. Remember their experience in the desert. They were all delivered out of Egypt, they all partook of the Passover, crossed the Red Sea, were under the cloud, ate the Manna and drank from the rock.
Furthermore, Paul remarked that these things were for them means of grace by which they received Christ; by which they ate and drank spiritual food and drink. In other words, all these things were sacramental means of God’s grace to them; the equivalent of what we have under the New Testament. The people of Israel ate and drank spiritual food and drink, they were partakers of Christ, just as we are partakers of him through Baptism and Holy Communion. But the multitude of these blessings did not prevent them from perishing in the dessert, falling prey of idolatry and unbelief among other sins.
Therefore, we Christians of the present time, living at the last stage of redemptive history, cannot become presumptuous in our thoughts and hearts and pay no heed to the warnings concerning the dangers of idolatry as if it were a sin of no concern to us.
To understand better the nature of this danger we must consider more carefully the nature of idolatry.
The people of Israel had heard the voice of God at the giving of the Ten Commandments, receiving clear instructions concerning idolatry in the first two commandments:
I am the Lord thy God, thou shall have no other God’s before me; Thou shall not make unto thee any graven image…, thou shall not bow down thyself to them nor serve them.(Exodus 20:2-6)
These two commandments are intrinsically related exposing the root of idolatry.
The first commandment reminds us that there is only one God, who admits of no substitute;
The second commandment reminds us that there is only one way to worship the one God, which admits of no substitute;
Idolatry simply defined is the human tendency to seek and create substitutes and alternatives to the worship of the only one true God altering his appointed means to do so.
In his perceptive commentary John Calvin discussing the origin of idolatry observed that:
“Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” John Calvin (Institutes, Book I.11.8)
Calvin observes that the origin of images, and image worship lies in the heart of man, in man’s desire to have a tangible deity.
Consider what happened to the people of Israel shortly after receiving the Ten Commandments:
¶… when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him. Exodus 32:1
They could not see Moses, therefore they looked quickly for a man made substitute they could see. They did not abide long in obedience to the word of the true invisible God, “thou shalt not make unto thee…”. Calvin observed that: “The example of the Israelites shows the origin of idolatry to be that men do not believe God is with them unless he shows himself physically present.”
In other words an idol may be defined as a man made visible sign of God’s presence, ie. a man made sacrament. An idol is a man made alternative way by which to be assured of God’s spiritual presence and blessing.
Remember sacraments are God appointed visible tokens of his presence and a means by which to receive his favor effective for all who faithfully receive them. They come from God, they do not originate in man. In that sense the Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments, the Tabernacle, the Manna, the Water from the Rock, the Temple, etc. were all sacramental types of Christ, divine means by which God appointed the Old Covenant Church to partake of His deliverance, presence, protection, promises and blessing.
But notice that many of these God given sacraments were neglected or distorted in the course of the life of the Old Testament Church and that many perished in consequence.
This precedent helps us to understand that idolatry is not only bowing the knee before the idols of paganism, but that any distortion of a God given sacrament and worship entails also the sin of idolatry.
Consider for example the fiery serpent (Numbers 21:9), a symbol of the cross of Christ, (John 3:14) which Moses was commanded to make for the healing of the people when they were afflicted by serpents because of their sin. Everyone who turned in faith to look up to this sign was effectually healed and lived. But later on in the history of Israel this same serpent had to be destroyed by Hezekiah in the times of the prophet Isaiah, because in the process of time it had become an object of idolatrous worship. (2 Kings 18:4)
The people had called it by a new name; “nechushta”, the “brass thing”; it was probably brought by Solomon into the temple where it eventually became an object of worship and incense was burned before it.
This burning of incense to the serpent is an illustration of the corruption of what originally had been a God given means of grace. The same object received a man made name and was put to a man made purpose different to the one appointed by God, in other words it became a man made idol, an alternative way to approach God and be assured of his blessing and presence. The perversion of a sacramental object became an idol!
This same principle can be illustrated by the transformation of the Temple of Jerusalem, the token of God’s presence among his people, from a house of prayer into a den of thieves ;(Mat. 21:13) this involved the transformation of the temple from true worship into an abominable idolatrous place, where the idol of greed and covetousness (Col. 3:5) was effectually served under the hypocritical pretence of serving God in strict obedience to the Law.
We know how strongly Jesus responded against this perversion, and how this corruption led to the destruction of Jerusalem.
Idolatry, then is a more subtle problem than we are prone to think. It involves the natural tendency of the human heart to seek and create alternatives to the Word of God, perverting his worship. Idolatry and true worship are mutually exclusive, one involves fidelity to God’s truth and his blessing, the other entails our self-assurance, in our rebellious wisdom and his judgment and condemnation against it.
But it is important to consider that idolatry seldom appears in its true color and with its ugly face of rebellion against God’s commandments and the elevation of human wisdom; but often disguises itself as a “new” “alternative” way to approach the same God in worship, basing its appeal upon this contradictory claim.
Worship must be rendered in spirit and truth, since God does not change the principles of heavenly worship cannot change either; Therefore worship involving any distortion of divine truth, cannot be spiritually alive, but involves the corruption of idolatry, which is the fruit of human pride in making its own judgments a sufficient condition for true spiritual worship, instead of God’s revealed Word, eternal character and judgments.
We must therefore abhor any and all man made sacraments, and any distortion of the true sacraments, for there is only one way for men to approach God and that is the living way opened in and through Christ alone, who is the life, the way and the truth, so that no one can come to the Father but by him. To him nothing can be added; from him nothing can be subtracted.
All men have access to Christ, for he is the light of the world, which illuminates every human heart (John 1:9). If we love and follow the truth, we will always be drawn nearer and nearer to Christ and away from every form of idolatry; if and when, on the other hand, we prefer our own opinions, seek for alternatives, rejecting or distorting the truth revealed in Christ, we will be driven necessarily and insensibly towards idolatry, fooling ourselves to think that there is no difference between it and true worship. The light in us will become darkness, and like many people of the Old Testament church we will harvest the fruit of our apostasy.
As Paul well said to the Corinthians these things were written for our instruction. To us, “upon whom the ends of the world are come,” is given the challenge of being believers at the end of the world. If this saying was true when written to the first generation of gentile converts, it is even more so for us living 2,000 years afterwards.
No one, but God alone, knows the length of this dispensation, the last in redemptive history, but what we know is that each day passing brings us closer and closer to the end of this age and final judgment.
This is true individually, as each day brings us closer to the end of our days upon the earth. But, it is also true generationally as, contrary to perception, the existence of humankind upon this earth is not perpetual. It has a definite time limit, like the seconds of a minute, like the minutes of an hour, like the hours of a day; the last age has a definite term of days; its time is coming to the end, the minute, the hour, the day will pass. Every one alive today is one day closer to seeing that end than the day before.
Wisdom requires we pay heed to Paul’s exhortation knowing where we are in God’s providential plan. We await the coming of Christ and the end of history. That end is drawing nearer, therefore we must diligently watch and pray looking attentively to the things God recorded in Scripture for our instruction, that being grounded upon the Truth revealed by him in his word, we may be delivered from the delusions, errors, sins and apostasy, characteristics of these perilous times, committing the same kind of errors and sins the people of God committed in ages past. These were also prophesied as types of the errors and apostasy we are now witnessing today, as more and more people turn to man made religion, morals and values, to our contemporary idols and fornication and tempting God and murmuring, just as they did.
In our Gospel lesson we have the only answer to this predicament; it involves a change of mind and a change of heart; the prodigal son must come to his senses; God’s people must wake up to the reality of the foolishness of perverting the Gospel message and corrupting the true worship of God, looking for alternatives and transforming it into various forms of idolatry.
Then we must return to our Father’s house, where we will be received with great rejoicing, for it is not the will of the Father that we should perish, but rather that we would enjoy the blessing and healing he has provided by the sacrifice of his Son, to all who faithfully receive and follow him alone.
May we be ready to do the same, for his honor and glory, now and for evermore. Amen.
Fr. Bernier is “spot on” in this sermon; I would say the greatest danger now for the United States of America, and to the Church in the West, really is idolatry in some form.