The empty promises of idols and the only hope that matters

Sermon about 1 John 5:21 ‘Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.’


(I) We need spiritual fathers and mothers

‘Dear children…’

The way the apostle John addresses the congregation shows a close relationship. In a discussion on the future of the Christian church and the place of young people in the church somebody said: ‘we need farmers rather than sowers, we need mothers rather than midwifes’. Sowers come and go, but farmers do all the painstaking work to prepare the soil, to sow and to look for the harvest. Midwifes are a great help when a lady gives birth to a child, but a mother is always there and gives all here time and energy in educating her child

In order to be able to grow in discipleship and to become mature in faith we need ‘spiritual fathers and mothers’ rather than teachers and leaders. Cf. the apostle Paul’s relation to young Christians: 1 Cor. 4:14; 1 Thess. 2: 7, 11; 2 Tim 1: 2; 2 Tim 3: 10. To the Thessalonian church he says: I have been with you like a mother (to care for you and to teach you) and like a father (to help you and to encourage you). Who is your ‘parent’ (mentor, coach, example…)? For whom you could/can be a ‘parent’ in faith?


(II) Empty promises of counterfeit gods

‘Keep yourselves from idols’.

The words mean a warning signal. Be attentive of idols, don’t draw near, flee away! (Cf. 1 Cor. 10: 14; 12:2). If we look to the context of this Bible passage, we may ask: did John have in mind the teachers and leaders with false ideas about God and Christ? They wanted to instruct and to exercise power, but they weren’t a father or mother to the church. They put themselves in the front and divided the church (Cf. 2 John 2:7v; 3 John: 9). Their way leads to death, John says in verse 16, because actually they put themselves in the place of God. That is what sin is from the origin. Look in Genesis 3, the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. Due to the word of the evil one, it was so attractive to be like God, to know good and evil, and they obeyed his words. That’s is behind the problem of counterfeit gods as well. If we continue to obey them, we are busy to serve ourselves, and this is the way to hell. Because I think that hell is the place where people are without God, only thinking about themselves, while feeding the remorse that they should have done it differently in their life.

Greek and Roman gods still alive

People of John’s time could think about the many images and temples of the Greek and Roman gods: Venus or Aphrodite (goddess of beauty and sexual attractiveness), Diana or Artemis (goddess of fertility), Mars or Ares (god of war), Hephaistos (god of craftsman), etc. Gods everywhere… Paul comments on the religiosity of the people when he visited Athens for the first time (Acts 17). He was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. They symbolized a spiritual reality of powers/influences that people tried to use and manipulate to get a better life. We shouldn’t think that these gods have gone with the disappearance of Greek and Roman cultures. They are still here and have a lot of power. Look at Aphrodite: many young ladies sacrifice to her with eating problems, anorexia and depression. See Artemis: the weight of money and career have got cosmic dimensions. We don’t burn incense or bring child offerings but in a way it happens because we sacrifice our family and friendships for making our career or our business the ultimate thing. Why they are so attractive? In these gods you have something on hand that might give you what you long: happiness, power, success, a name, luxury, physical or emotional satisfaction…You have a ‘god’ with whom you can make a contract: ‘if you this for me, I do this for you’.

Human heart the ‘factory’ of idols

It is important to understand idolatry (Rom. 1: 23-25; 1 Thess. 1:9). Why are these idols there? The ‘factory’ of idols is the human heart. Idols become idols because of our greed, says the apostle Paul in the letter to the Ephesians (Eph. 5: 3 and also Col. 3: 5). As soon as we make something what in itself is good (authority, relations, sexuality, family, self-development, career…) the ultimate, it becomes an idol. In that case we pay for it, get addicted to it. It exercises power on us. We become a slave…and ultimately it will kill us . Pauls says: if you continue with that you will not have a place in the Kingdom of God (Eph. 5: 5). There is the danger that you will die spiritually and also physically. Tim Keller (in ‘Counterfeit gods’) refers to a number of suicides in the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008, like the Gen Dir of Sheldon Good (US Broker), Danish director of HSBC bank. Dreams turned into nightmares.

That’s why the Old Testament warns against other gods on many places, cf: Ex. 20:3-6 ; Psalm 96: 5 and 97: 7, 9, Psalm 115, Isaiah 44 and Ez. 6 and many other places. The prophets call them ‘dung-gods’, ‘shit-gods’. In Exodus 23 we read that the Israelites wanted a ‘visible, manageable, touchable god’ that brought them back to the pots with flesh in Egypt. This longing after visible and manipulative gods never went away in among the people. They wanted a holy cow, an insurance for life, a god full of promises of security, health, happiness and satisfaction. When we ask ourselves how they could reach that stadium, we have to ask ourselves about our ‘holy cows’ and let us have a closer look to them.

Idols of our time

How can we identify Idols of our time? Of course we all know that there are very attractive ones: money (in the Bible called the god ‘Mammon’), sex and power. They are dominant in nearly all cultures. But let us try to look for the more subtle ones that may influence us greatly in the context of the city and of the university setting.

(1) Finding our identity in our work or career. There is a big pressure, in particular in the university context to produce, to be competitive and visible. ‘You should deliver something to be somebody’. Many people are concerned: ‘Am I on the scene? Am I visible and am I liked?’ There is a lot of insecurity because of fear to make the wrong choices. ‘I have everything, I posses everything, I want everything, but I don’t dare to take any risk’, a senior Dutch student wrote in the newspaper NRC of 30 Aug. O&D2). The put our ultimate identity in what we produce, is a great risk. Brother Cyril from Chevetogne told me his story a couple of years ago. He was a Belgian musician and artist, studied in US and reached the top as a conductor of opera’s. In Venice he burst into tears after a performance that brought a lot of applause. He said: ‘There was a big black hole in front of me. I had reached the top, but what was next?’ Het began to search for many weeks. Finally he visited the monastery in Chevetogne, Belgium. ‘It was as if I entered a beautiful room. And inside a bridegroom, who had dressed the room. It was as if this man said: ‘I prepared everything, but where is the bride? I am waiting for her…’ Brother Cyril said: ‘Then I realised that the bridegroom was Christ and that I was the bride.’ He found his full happiness in Christ, joined the monks in the monastery. He didn’t throw away his musical talents and experience, but it was not the ultimate for him any longer.

(2) Our security. Paying to the god of security (safety) is one of the main concerns of life in the West. You can insure yourself in every aspect of life. For example when you book a flight or hire a car, you are asked many times if you have insured yourself enough. You can take a ‘life insurance’, but be sure that a life insurance actually is a ‘death – insurance’. Payment will follow after death. Where are we safe, where can we be secure? There is no place where we will be kept safely, and no insurance will rescue us from pain, depression, sickness or death. But Jesus says: if you want to save your life, you will loose it, but if you loose your life because of Me, you will save it. Because He conquered sin and death, He is the only One who can rescue us from sin, pain and death.

(3) Our relations. Relations, husband, wife, friends, family members, they are all very important for us. We are not alone; we live in a context. Family contacts and friendships are essential in order to have a meaningful and happy life. But when they become the ultimate to live for, we will lose our happiness sooner or later. Like the lady whom I met a couple of years ago, who expressed a desperate longing to have a child. She and her husband had to wait for a long period. But finally they got a child and she was extremely happy. But then she began to handle her child with extreme care, being afraid for any little problem or accident. She protected her every moment, also when she became a teenager. Inevitably the girl began to rebel against her mother, cause a lot of pain in the end. Finally she separated herself from her mother. For the mother the ultimate happiness became the ultimate torment. The fulfilment of our deepest longing can become our biggest disaster. On the other hand: pain, loss and disaster can be God’s preparation to rescue is from hidden idols. Do you know that on his wedding day a Jewish groom wears the undershirt that will be stored in the cupboard till the moment of his death. He knows: this marriage is not the ultimate thing. But because he knows, he can fully enjoy it. God who called Abraham (Gen. 12; Gen. 15) took away Abraham’s security First in Ur and Haran, where he had to leave so much what was dear to him. Later when God said to sacrifice his firstborn son Isaac, who was his ‘name’, his ‘future’ to him. But God said: ‘I am your shield, I am your earnings’.


(III) The only hope that matters

Identify and abandon counterfeit gods!

How can we overcome the addiction to counterfeit gods? Like in every addiction, there are several ways to deal with it. According Tim Keller (in ‘Counterfeit gods’) there are four ways possible: A. you can blame others and you continue on your way, B. you can blame yourself and consider yourself a failure, C. You can blame the world and become cynical, D. You may conclude: ‘If I see that desperate longing in my life that cannot be satisfied by one experience in the world, the most probable is that I am made for another (supra-natural and eternal) world.’ (words of the famous English author C.S. Lewis).

The apostle Pauls mentions the essence of idolatry in Romans 1: 21, 25. ‘They changed the truth of God by a lie and worshipped created things rather than the Creator’. It means shortly: you think that you need something to be happy, something that you consider in your heart more important than God. According to Martin Luther this is the origin of all trespasses. The ‘good’ fills our dreams, it evokes our imagination, it promises us peace and security, and finally: it becomes our ‘god’. Let us think: what makes us happy in particular, but also: what makes us angry or depressive if it is taken from us…so what is our ‘lord’?

(1) Realize that our real god is that what fills our heart and thought above everything. It is the content of our dreams, what gives joy in the secret of our heart…

(2) Look at the way you spend our money. Money flows naturally where your greatest love is

(3) Look at your deepest emotions (fear, despair, depression). Do they reveal that you pay a price for something that is not God?

The real medicine in the Gospel.

What can rescue us from idols? Like with every addiction, just efforts to change our life often seem in vain. The moral answer ‘change your attitude’ is not sufficient. Yes, we need insight, repentance and confession of our addiction. But what is the most important: a new joy in the living God by the help of the Holy Spirit. Like the man who found a treasure in the field (Matth. 13:44). Because of the new joy he gave up everything to get that treasure. If we find our joy and wealth in God alone, others gods will lose their influence. Worship, adoration of the living God will replace the adoration of counterfeit gods. It is a long life process!

The Gospel is a great medicine, because it proclaims us Jesus, the Son of Man, who left his position and honour, the security and presence of His Father to meet us in our sins and in our fears. He gave himself in order to set us free and paid the price of his blood to buy us free from the Liar who possessed us (Eph. 5:2). Do you fully believe that?

It is all rebounded upon the one question: ‘What is your only comfort/hope in life and death?’ And the striking answer of the Catechism of Heidelberg to this question is:

That I – with body and soul, both in life and death- am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood. He has delivered me from all the power of the devil. He preserves me so that without the will of my heavenly Father, not one hair can fall from my head. Yes, all things must serve my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready to live for him.’

Let us pray over these words silently, thank the Lord for what He did for us and ask Him to fasten these words in our life.