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The Cure for Idolatry

April 30, 2023 Speaker: Jim Davis Series: Jeremiah

Passage: Jeremiah 2:1–9

We just heard part of Jeremiah chapter two, but this section actually goes all the way through chapter 3. We introduced the concept of prophetic books last week and Jeremiah’s call. We also talked about how the prophets serve as covenant prosecutors on behalf of God to God’s people. Now we get to more to the heart of what exactly Jeremiah is called to do and in what way he is prosecuting Israel’s covenant keeping. 


The issue is idolatry. I don’t know what you think about when you hear the word idol, but you wouldn’t be an anomaly if you thought of people worshiping some specific animal or trinket and, by and large, feel glad we don’t do that anymore. Or you may hear the word idol and just think about a celebrity of some sort. You might think idolatry is something that Israel struggled with 2500 years ago, but we are much more advanced today and have moved to more sophisticated things. 


If that’s you, you would be wrong. Idolatry is something every person wrestles with. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world and it doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or not. The question actually is whether we see the idolatry in our life. And it is important to see because it shows us a lot about our heart. Idolatry is something every person wrestles with. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world and it doesn’t matter if you’re a Christian or not. It actually explains why we do what we do. And it has everything to do with whether we can find satisfaction and contentment or not. 


So, I want to look at this passage about idolatry and see three things. 1) What Idolatry is, 2) what idolatry produces, and 3) the cure for idolatry. 


  1. What idolatry is


Idolatry is placing something of lesser importance in the place of highest importance. And, of course, when we place something in the place of highest importance, whether we realize it or not, we are worshiping that thing. In Israel’s case, they were worshiping Baal and Asherah. This is why verse 8 says, The priests did not say, ‘Where is the LORD?’ Those who handle the law did not know me; the shepherds transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit. - Jer 2:8


Baal was a Canaanite deity who was believed to have power over the thunder, rain, and crops. Asherah was a Canaanite goddess of fertility. So, the Israelites who were scared of having a bad harvest would worship Baal in hopes of having plenty to eat. Now, we have to remember that in that day, agriculture was pretty much the main economy. There were no factories, there was no middle class. Their whole livelihood depended on the harvest.


Not only did their livelihood depend on the harvest, it also depended on children. In addition to the natural desire to have children and raise them, there was no social security. They weren’t meeting with financial planners about retirement. They depended on the next generation to take care of them in their old age. They went so far as to believe that anyone who could not have children was under a divine curse. So, worshiping Baal and Asherah weren’t just silly rituals to them, it was a way of pursuing the things they desire most in the world. The things they depended on most for survival. They pursued these idols to satisfy some of the deepest longings in their hearts. 


Now, can we really look at that and roll our eyes and think we are any different? We desire financial security, we desire families, we desire stability, and we desire success. And while we might not go to Baal and Asherah to get them, we have our own Baals and our own Asherah’s. We work long hours at jobs we don’t even necessarily like to provide a level of financial security for our families that don’t even see us that often as a result of our work. In many cases, our family has more than enough to live comfortably, but that doesn’t end the pursuit. That makes work and money an idol. 


What about family? Certainly we want our children to do well, but we become so consumed with their popularity, their test scores, and sheltering them from the evil in the world that we become helicopter parents living vicariously through our kids and trying to control them in ways that aren’t realistic or healthy which can often have the exact opposite effect. That’s not loving our children, that's creating an idol of them. That’s worshiping Asherah. 


Maybe nowhere do I see this having a more devastating effect than in kids athletics. I was talking to a parent last year who by all accounts is a nice, enjoyable person and they were asking me if we would ever consider having a Saturday evening service at OGC. My first response was that if I’m preaching a Saturday evening service with kids in my home, then I’m not qualified to be preaching at that service. Then, I asked why Saturday was so important. They responded, “Well, we have three kids in seven sports leagues and we are always gone on Sundays, but we also want our kids to grow up in church.” I was nicer than this, but the heart of my response was that we can’t have it all. We have to make decisions about what priorities we are going to have and they have made sports a higher priority than they should be and the long term effects will be harmful for their kids. I didn’t use the word idol, but that’s what I was getting at. 


But, children aren’t the only way we make family an idol. Singleness is not only a reasonable lifestyle, but a good one…a biblical one. Paul was single and said he wished all could be like him. Jesus was single. Augustine after becoming a Christian was an advocate for the single life. Some of the most influential Christians to ever live were influential because God called them to a life of singleness. Not that our worth is dependant upon productivity, but single people can do more in two days than I can in a week. In our modern times, we can look at people like John Stott or C.S. Lewis who was single until his seventies. I’m convinced that much of the culture war that we see today surrounding marriage is at least in part the church’s fault because we have elevated and glorified marriage to this unreasonable and unbiblical end-all goal, right, or status symbol, separating us from one another. And that’s when it has become an idol. 


We do this with exercise, we do this with entertainment, we do this with hobbies, we do this with shopping. Anything we can think to enjoy, we can elevate it to the highest place in our hearts and turn it into an idol thinking it will give us satisfaction that it just won’t. And idol is anything that we think we can’t be happy without. If we say, “I’ll finally be happy when I have…” and we fill in that blank with anything other than God, we have created an idol and that idol will never give us what we desire. It can’t! To go back to Augustine, in his book The Confessions he calls this a disorder of loves. He says that human beings were created to love God above all else and that all other loves were meant to be ordered in relation to this primary love. He argued that when people loved things or other people more than God, their loves became disordered, leading to various forms of sin and suffering. He viewed disordered loves as one of the main fundamental problems of human nature. 


Angela pointed out a quote to me this week in a book called The Search for Significance. It says, Whatever it is in your life that makes you feel significant, that makes you feel like you matter and your life has meaning and a purpose, that gives you an identity, it’s an idol. It’s an idol because it can’t give us what we seek. 


This is why verse five says, r“What wrong did your fathers find in me

that they went far from me, sand went after tworthlessness, and became worthless? - Jer 2:5 It wasn’t that the things the Israelites were desiring were bad desires, it’s that they elevated those desires above God and because of that, those things became worthless because no one will ever find ultimate satisfaction in work, money, family, bodily health, hobbies, or anything else. When we look there for ultimate satisfaction, they become, by comparison, worthless. 


This is the heart of Jeremiah’s charge against them. They have left God to pursue idols and God is calling them back. And all of us do this as well. This is why John Calvin said that our hearts are an idol factory. We can’t help but go after them. This is exactly what verse 25 is saying, 25  Keep nyour feet from going unshod and oyour throat from thirst. But you said, ‘It is hopeless, pfor I have loved foreigners, and after them I will go.’ - Jer 2:25 Some translations say, I must go after them. 


We know we inherently lack what we deeply desire and we are looking for that satisfaction in all the wrong places. But, not only will it not provide what we are looking for, it will produce some dangerous things. 


  1. What idolatry produces


Idolatry produces ungodliness. And since godliness conforms us more into the image of Jesus and makes us more human, ungodliness produced by idolatry makes us less human. Ungodliness is when we make God into our image. Jeremiah begins by comparing us to a bride in verse 2 and the first fruits of a harvest in verse 3. Then, because idolatry has taken the hearts of the Israelites, God says that they have become a degenerate vine and an adulterous bride. 


Then, in verses 23 and 24 things progress even more.23  kHow can you say, ‘I am not unclean, I have not gone after the Baals’? Look at your way lin the valley; know what you have done— a restless young camel running here and there, 24  ma wild donkey used to the wilderness, in her heat sniffing the wind! Who can restrain her lust? None who seek her need weary themselves; in her month they will find her. - Jer 2:23,24 Here God is saying that his people have become like a restless camel and a donkey in heat that can’t help but instinctively and habitually pursue its passions. 


God is showing us, through Jeremiah, a path of becoming less and less of what we are made to be because we are pursuing our satisfaction where it can never be found. Maybe the best picture of what idolatry produces is found in Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. He was the picture of success and God humbled him by making him crazy to the point of grazing grass in a field. He looked just like a camel or a donkey. He was sub-human. The great Nebuchadnezzer had become a physical manifestation of the reality of his heart. 


In 2020, my family watched the 10 part documentary on Michael Jordan called The Last Dance. One of the most fascinating figures in this story to me is Dennis Rodman. And if you’ve ever seen the 30 for 30 on him, you’ll remember the end of it well. Dennis is sitting on a dark stage in an empty room and he says something like this about himself. “You would think that one of the most famous people in the world would be happier than this.” Then his lips quiver and he says, “Funny.” Then it’s over. He had every success on the outside, but no hope or happiness on the inside. 


But, the ungodliness produced by idolatry not only dehumanizes us in this life, but also in the next. Paul, writing to the Romans says  5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are lstoring up mwrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. - Rom 2:5 In Jeremiah’s context, the covenant curses of Deuteronomy chapters 27 and 28 are clearly in the background. We were made to enjoy eternal fellowship with God, but the logical end to our ungodly pursuits is God’s eternal wrath instead of his eternal love that we were made to enjoy. Again, in Paul’s words, God will give us up to the desires of our hearts and that will not go well for any of us. In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, he writes, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'”


So, what then is the cure for idolatry? Last point. 


  1. The cure for idolatry


The cure for idolatry is seeking satisfaction and significance in the only place it can be found: God. If we keep the bride metaphor, he’s calling his precious bride back to himself. Our culture looks at the God of the Bible as if he’s just some angry beast in heaven waiting to taze us whenever we step out of line. That isn’t the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible loves us and is jealous for our love. 


I’ll use an illustration I got from my old pastor, JD Shaw. Say you’re a man, you’re married, and you open the door to a room, walk in, and see on the other side of that room your wife engaged in a passionate kiss with another man. What do you do? If all you do is say, “Sorry for interrupting you, let me close the door so you two can get back at it,” then I’d say there’s more wrong with you than with your wife. In that moment, it would be absolutely right, it would be imperative, to be very jealous for your wife’s affection, furious about what’s going on, and to step in and do something about it. If you really, truly are in a love relationship with someone, then you will be jealous for their affections. That’s the way it should be. And that is God’s posture toward us. And because that is God’s posture, all we have to do is go back to him. This is exactly what he says in chapter 3, z“‘Return, faithless Israel, declares the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for aI am merciful, declares the LORD; bI will not be angry forever. 13  cOnly acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the LORD your God.. - Jer 3:12-13 


In the best sense of the word, God is a jealous lover, he is a true husband calling his beloved back to him. And once we see the satisfaction to be found in him, all our other pursuits for satisfaction will seem like watching a cheap romcom on the Hallmark channel by comparison. Sorry to those of you who love Hallmark movies. 


Tim Keller says that spiritually speaking, if it’s not God who is the lover of your soul, if it’s not God in whose arms you are spiritually, if it’s not God whose meaning is the source of your meaning and whose affirmation is the source of your self-worth and whose power is the source of security, if it’s not God, you’re in bed with something spiritually. Something you’ve given yourself to in realms so deep and so profound that God here is saying, “You are every bit as spiritually beholden to it as you are physically beholden. You are every bit as spiritually laid out, as spread out, and as vulnerable to it spiritually as you are physically when you’re having sex with someone. You’re doing the very same thing spiritually you do in bed with someone physically. The same thing. You have to have this. You are spiritually incomplete, and therefore, you’re in bed with something.


Maybe no one has experienced a more poignant example of this than those who have strayed from their spouse and been welcomed back. That’s a hard journey and I don’t want to minimize it, but the feeling of relief, forgiveness, and acceptance when welcomed back can change your whole perspective on life. And this is just a pale glimpse to the unending forgiveness and acceptance that God offers us…all of us who stray. And he does it at a great cost. He has committed his love for us in Jesus. On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for our straying and has created the only way for us to return. 


But again, there are many out there who think that God is still essentially an angry being, but Jesus made him tolerate us. No! Not only is this not the picture we have in our passage, if we look at the whole of the Bible, we see that God loves us so much that he sent Jesus, who is himself very God, to win us, his wayward bride, back! God’s love for us precedes Jesus’ work on the cross. This is why he reminds the Israelites in chapter 2 that he led them faithfully through the wilderness. They don’t have to follow idols to find what they want. Just turn back to him. 


Verse 13 says 13  for my people have committed two evils: kthey have forsaken lme, the fountain of mliving waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. - Jer 2:13 The people have forsaken the true God who is a spring of fresh water for a cistern that holds dank stale water. But, not only do these cisterns hold bad water, they are broken. They will eventually be empty. 


Do you see what God is doing? He isn’t just casting judgment, he’s calling them back to the source. Remember when Jesus was talking to the woman at the well? She was amazed at how much Jesus knew about her. She was amazed that Jesus was talking to her as everyone else considered her an outcast since she had had five husbands and the man she was not living with was not her husband. And what did Jesus say to her?  “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” - John 4:10 We seek satisfaction in broken cisterns, but Jesus comes to us offering fresh, living water. 


All our weary pursuits for satisfaction are just that, weary. They lead us to utter exhaustion because the pursuit is never ending and when we think we’ve reached the end zone, it always seems to move back ten more yards. Whether we seek these moving end zones in our job, in our gym, in our family, or in our self-righteous good works…they will not satisfy us because they weren’t made to. Our problem is that we just can’t see this. We need a new way to see. Much to my disappointment, I now use reading glasses. I tried my best to resist it because I didn’t want to admit that I needed them, but when I finally put them on it was so much easier to read. I didn’t have to strain anymore. Everything was so clear and my eyes were put at rest. Jesus gives us a new way to see. 


This is why he said, “Come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Rest from these pursuits. And when we find him, all the things that we used to give our lives to to find satisfaction, ironically become much more enjoyable. They become more enjoyable and satisfying because we aren’t asking our spouse, our children, or our jobs to be our ultimate satisfaction. We are no longer slaves to them, but they are a sort of icing on the cake. And who doesn’t like icing? All we have to do is repent and turn to Jesus. This is why John says in 1 John, 9 uIf we confess our sins, he is vfaithful and just to forgive us our sins and rto cleanse us from all unrighteousness. - 1 John 1:9 Idolatry is hard work, but repentance is not. Repentance is resting from the hard work that doesn’t satisfy. 


The call of this text is to see our idolatry…and all of us are guilty of it…to see the weariness our straying has brought our souls and turn back. Turn back to the One who loves us more than we could even love ourselves and enjoy the satisfaction that we were made more in him. 

More in Jeremiah

June 4, 2023

A Path of Unbelief

May 28, 2023

The New Covenant

May 21, 2023

God’s People in Exile