Back to Index

Listen to sermon by clicking here:

Modern Idol Making
January 28, 1979

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

EXODUS 20:4-6

The choir sang, “Search your heart and you'll find you are free. Search your heart and let it guide you. Be the one you want to be. Find the strength that lies inside you. Lift your head for all to see. God granted us the power to dream. The power to stand tall. Search your heart, you will find you are free.” The 10 commandments have to do with loyalty and freedom. In supreme, unswerving loyalty to God, we are granted freedom. The 10 commandments serve as warnings of dangerous areas wherein if we tread, we will lose our freedom. 

Particularly is this true for the second commandment—“You shall not make for yourself a graven image.” Making an idol the object of our worship, the object of our loyalty and our devotion is to become enslaved to that idol. The idol is a substitute for God. Whatever it is, whatever in our lives is a substitute for God becomes our idol and that idol enslaves. Most particularly, most specifically, did we see this tragically dramatized before us in the story of the People's Temple, Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre. We haven't quite assimilated the horror of that whole event. It's overwhelming! 900 people died—over three times as many as are here today. 900 died. It started out innocently. I've been reading this week about this movement. 

People were attracted to the movement by his personality, his charisma,  his faith healing, the need for security, and by the desire to change the world, to make the world a better place in which to live. The error came as this man became an idol—a human being became an idol. Gradually, as they became involved in this movement, the followers turned over their salaries,  their pensions, all their income. Many of them moved into the temple and lived, ate, studied, worked together. He held them in line with brainwashing techniques— all night brainwashing sessions in which various individuals were made to stand up, were questioned at great length and made to tell before the entire group stories of their personal sex lives, or any desire they ever had to leave the temple or to separate themselves, or any independent or critical thinking. There were public beatings, marriages were broken up, children were taken from couples, children were taken into the next room and given the electric prod. The parents listened to the screams as they were punished for their misbehavior. And people didn't leave. They couldn't leave. They had lost their freedom. 

To turn anything into idol worship is to lose one's freedom. This is not an isolated example for the cult movement is growing and spreading. Authoritarian religion is popular and spreading. You and I are constantly tempted to worship idols. You and I are constantly tempted to take our God given freedom and lay it at someone else's feet. God made us to be free. God gave us minds and intelligence to reason. Christ came to set us free. John 8:32, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” To worship the God of Jesus Christ is to discover one's freedom and to live one's freedom. The temptation is to lay that freedom down and sacrifice it to some cause, or to some person, or to some institution. 

It can happen in patriotism. A few years ago, there were popular bumper stickers and posters—“My country right or wrong”. An attitude like that is idol worship. It is an idol to give a nation unswerving loyalty when it’s wrong. Freedom is to have a criterion higher than any institution, than any movement. We are to apply the criterion from higher morals to every activity in which we are engaged, and to call that under judgment constantly. To have unswerving loyalty to a church, or to a minister, or to a cause, or to an institution is to make that an idol. When one loses one's freedom, there’s a temptation to make community pressure an idol. To not stand up for what is right, to not fight injustice, because of community pressure is an idol. There’s the temptation to make employers our idols when job security and fear for one's job is paramount in one's life, rather than what is right, what is just, rather than one's personal integrity and sense of worth. How tempting it is, how easy it is for us to make idols. 

Idol making is not only to put a substitute in the place of God. There's another aspect that is even more subtle, and against which the commandment was directed. That is the temptation to make idols in order to control God, in order to manipulate God. It was believed that if one could make an image, if one could capture another person in an image, then one had to some extent control over that person, like Voodoo. Those who believe in Voodoo make a little statue of you, and when they stick the pin into the statue, you feel the pain. Or, they hold the statue over fire and you feel the heat and burn. The commandment against making an idol and against making a graven image of the Lord was: Do not be tempted to try to manipulate and try to control God. 

There's a difference with symbols—a cross, our windows, the altar, the eternal light. Symbols are made to remind us of God, to point us to God. An idol or an image is meant to either substitute for God or have control over God. 

You and I are constantly tempted to make an image of something in order to have power over God. Some do that with their church membership, or their good living, or their righteousness. They try to be good in order to bribe God. Then they feel it's unfair when a crisis comes in their life—they get ill, or get cancer. Then they say it's unfair. “Look at me, I've been a church member all my life. I've lived a good life all my life. It isn't fair. Why me?” The subtlety is that we try to bribe God, get power over God so we can tell God what to do. The Bible says God is the sovereign, God is the Lord. “You shall have no other gods before me, you shall not make any graven image.” You shall not attempt to manipulate me for I am the Lord. Idol worship, either substituting for God or trying to manipulate God, is prohibited. 

Why do we want to make idols? Why are young people called into cults today? What is it about us or about our society that we are caught up by charismatic people or authoritarian movements? What is there about us that we want to be told what to do and when to do it? My guess is as good as yours, and your guess is as good as mine, your analysis is as good as mine. But some of the authors that I've read this week about the Jones’ movement, give some of the dynamics involved in that movement. Some of the people attracted to Jim Jones were first of all afraid of their own death, for he promised that none of his followers would ever die. He dramatized that every now and then in his faith healing services, from supposedly raising the dead. Fear of death leaves one vulnerable to idolatry. (How relevant is our Sunday evening series on death.) Some of the people were attracted to this movement out of fear of illness, fear of sickness, for he promised faith healing. It's been documented that some would take rotten chicken liver, and when a person in the meetings would say they had cancer, they were taken out of the room and come back and showed to the whole group that this cancer came from their bodies.  

Some people were attracted to this movement because they sincerely believed in hope for a new world. They were impressed with the political action of the group. They were impressed because the movement was doing something about drugs, about society's ills. Some of the people were attracted because they were insecure; they were frightened of society and they were glad to turn everything over to someone else. Some people were attracted by his personality, which they say was overpowering. There's something in our society today that causes us to be confused, bewildered and searching. I think the best statement of what are the dynamics involved is stated by Alfred E. Newman in Mad Magazine, “Most of us don't know exactly what we want. But we're pretty sure we don't have it.” We don't know what we want, but we know we don't have it. 

Many collect idols to fill their lives, jump from fad to fad. They look for miracles rather than hard work. They take other people's words, instead of thinking through themselves—searching, groping to fill emptiness, fill the voids. 

So what to do? What do we teach our children and our youth? What we do ourselves to escape this temptation? First of all, commit to God as the Lord, and not just any God, not just any of the gods that are out there, but the God of Jesus Christ. We pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. We believe in the God revealed in Jesus Christ—no other God, but the God revealed in Jesus Christ. That's what we mean by being Christians. We see Jesus as a criterion from which to judge all other gods. 

Our authority by which we judge all other movements, all ideas, all popular things, everything that comes down the pike, is the Bible, and secondly, the history of our church, our tradition, 2000 years of experience, what people have learned in the past with these movements is a criterion. And thirdly, we use reason. The Methodist Church uses these three criteria as a means by which we decide what to do in our lives, what to believe and how to live. We use the Bible, we use tradition, and we use reason because God gave us our minds and our intelligence. If our schools and our homes are not teaching our children how to critically think, how to think for themselves, we are breeding grounds for fascism and for any cultic leader that comes down the road. We are breeding grounds for any dramatic person who treats us like a flock of sheep. To use our minds, to critically think and evaluate based on our experience, the tradition of the church and the Bible is the best safeguard to prevent idolatry. 

Some say that the 900 deaths in Jonestown had no meaning, but there's a lot of meaning. I believe that many of those people were sincerely concerned about making this world a better place. They were frustrated with all the injustice, hurting and suffering in this world. They saw in this movement something to do. May their devotion be a hope for us. The error lay in turning the movement into an idol and to surrendering one's freedom. May that error be a warning to us. May that whole tragedy become a sign of hope for us as we learn from God who spoke to Moses and said, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself. any graven image.”

© 1979 Douglas I. Norris