Samuel and the idols

That sounds like the name of a rock band, but it’s a sermon title…


When we hear about idol worship, what do we think of?

Maybe when we hear about idols and idolatry, we first think of places around the world where idols are part of the cultural landscape. We might think of those countries where statues or shrines are plentiful in public and private places. In a similar vein, when we hear about idols and idolatry we might think of the Old Testament – passages like the one we read this morning – a story where the people of Israel had got caught up worshipping at shrines set up to the gods of their neighbours.

Now when we think about idolatry and idols in this way – in terms of statues and shrines, and in terms of the gods of the ancient Canaanites, for example – we create a kind of distance between ourselves and the notion of idolatry. We aren’t generally tempted to set up shrines to various gods in our homes. The temptation that the Israelites felt to worship the gods of their neighbours – that isn’t really a part of our experience. So when we initially think of idols and idolatry there is a kind of distance – we’re not immediately sure how this reality connects with our own lives.

Digging just a bit deeper, of course, we can begin to see that if we think of idols in a broader sense, not just in terms of statues and gods – then our lives do have a connection with idols.  We understand that an idol can be anything to which we give undue attention – something that absorbs more of our affection and energy than it probably should – our culture thinks of idols in this broader sense. You can idolize a musician (Elvis, anyone); a teenage girl can idolize a boy band (Justin Bieber, maybe); a middle-aged man can idolize his new car. We get the picture – we understand idolatry in this more abstract sense. It’s not just about statues and shrines and competing divinities – after all, we live in the era of American Idol.

But it seems to me that even here we have a problem really linking up our lives with the reality of idols. Why is that? Well, it’s because when we think about idolatry, even in this broader and more abstract way, we tend to think of it in dramatic terms. The idols of our culture emphasizes are big and dramatic and obvious.

Just this past week I picked up a recent book by Timothy Keller who is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan – it’s really a book about idolatry, and in its way it’s a good book. But the title of the book suggests just those kinds of dramatic and big forms of idolatry that I’ve mentioned. The title is, in part: Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex and Power.

And that’s often how it goes when we talk about idolatry in that broader sense. We tend to talk about how people idolize money, and how people idolize power, and how people idolize sex. Our narratives of idolatry tend always to be about the big, dramatic experiences.

So Timothy Keller begins his book by reflecting on the recent economic crisis, and gives a series of examples of those who idolized money and power. More specifically, he speaks about formerly high-powered, wealthy executives whose lives bottomed out, who committed suicide, when their corporations or financial prospects collapsed. A French money manager who lost millions in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme – a Danish executive of HSBC Bank – the chief financial officer of Freddie Mac, the huge American mortgage company.  We get the point – they idolized money and power, and when it was taken away from them they felt they had lost their identity, their meaning, their purpose.

There are other dramatic examples of idolatry. Think of the recent string of baseball players found out for their use of steroids – they idolized success and fame, and they have paid the price in public shame and in the damage steroids have done to their bodies.

Beyond these typically masculine examples, we can think of a typically feminine example. We can think of some women who have been so preoccupied with physical beauty that they have been willing to pay the price – willing to pay the price of damage to their bodies through multiple surgeries or excessive dieting.

Fair enough. It’s possible to become so preoccupied, as Keller puts it, with money, sex, and power, that the ways of the risen Jesus get short shrift – that God get shoved to the back of our hearts and lives. The nature of such idolatry becomes apparent when the money is lost, sex appeal fades, or power is frittered away – inevitably such idols fail.

But at this point are we really any closer to understanding the connection between idols and our own lives? Don’t these dramatic forms of idolatry still seem pretty far removed from our life and experience. If that’s idolatry then it’s pretty easy to step back and say: “Well, that’s not my experience. I’m not obsessed with power and sex and money.” And for most of us that’s probably true – we aren’t idolaters in this dramatic sense – we likely aren’t searching for meaning in sexual exploits, not seeking our deep purpose in the acquisition of power.

But let’s back up and ask why we’re talking about this. Today we continue finding our way into a sermon series on the life of David. Last week we looked at faithful, bargaining, prayerful Hannah – we saw how God answered her desperate prayer – we saw that she is a sign of the hope for God’s people. And what we remember this morning is that the child Hannah gave birth to was none other than Samuel. In keeping her faithful bargain, Hannah delivered Samuel into the service of God at Shiloh, Israel’s place of worship.

The Old Testament presents Samuel as a remarkable figure. Even in our relatively short reading for today, Samuel is portrayed as a judge – as one who brings justice and who upholds the law. In that passage he is portrayed as a prophet – one who brings God’s word of hope and correction. He is portrayed as a priest – one who offers to God the prayer and sacrifice of his people. Samuel is presented as a strong, faithful, wise leader of God’s people – and of course it is this Samuel who will eventually anoint David as king.

Now in our passage for today, one of the most important things that Samuel does is to lead Israel away from the worship of false gods – he leads them away from idols and back to the God of their ancestors. We read in the text: “Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, ‘If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astar’tes from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.’ So Israel put away the Baals and the Astar’tes, and they served the Lord only.”

The heart is the place of loyalty – and Samuel invites the people to act on their desire to turn their hearts to the one creator God. The people are ready to act, and it is Samuel who leads them to fully express that loyalty – by walking away from those statues and shrines. Samuel reminds them it is God alone who will bless, protect, and preserve their shared life.

On the question of idolatry, it’s particularly important to remember the point I just made – that the Israelites are already making that shift from worshipping false gods to worshipping the God who created all things. They are already inclined to give their single-minded devotion to this God. Here’s what’s interesting about this: Samuel doesn’t need to browbeat or push or threaten the Israelites to abandon their idols and false gods. This is such an important point for us today. Whether we are within the church or outside the church it makes no sense to browbeat or push anyone to turn away from this idol or that idol. The lesson of Samuel, here, and the lesson of the gospel of Jesus Christ more broadly, is that we will only turn away from any idol, when something else more compelling and beautiful and meaningful has captured our heart.

It is when we apprehend the depth of God’s love,

It is when we catch a vision of God’s amazing power,

It is when we see beauty of Jesus’ resurrection life,

it’s then we begin to let go of secondary things,it’s then we see the way we have made secondary things primary – it’s then that we turn away from the idols that had captured our hearts.

There is a wonderful image in our text today from First Samuel chapter 7 that I’d like to explore it for a moment. After the people put away their false Gods, Samuel leads them in a ritual of repentance – a ritual of return to God. We read: “So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord.”

A beautiful image – water pulled up from the well – water in clay jars carried to the centre of the gathered community. And what do they do – they pour that water out. The water rushes away, spreading across the dried earth, finding its way to the lowest point, spreading thin. It is a beautiful action and image, with multiple layers and meanings.

In pouring out the water, the people acknowledge their emptiness and need. They acknowledge that only God can gather up their lives into something meaningful and complete.  It is God alone who can give a life that has ultimate purpose and meaning – it is God alone who can give the happiness that is truly happiness – it is God alone who can assure us of our beauty and worth as a living creature – it is God alone who can show us the truly human way (and who has shown us that way in Jesus).

As the Israelites pour out water on the dry earth, they say to God: “We put our lives in your hands, we put it all in your hands, we don’t hold anything back from you.” The pouring out of water is an extravagant and dramatic action – expressing God’s extravagant goodness and our dramatic need.

In the everyday, we seek meaning in all kinds of things, day by day and week by week. We seek the fullness of our lives in all kinds of things, day by day and week by week. And the point is not that we must abandon the richness and diversity of our lives – not at all. God fills our lives with such riches. The point, rather, is that it is very easy to seek our meaning and purpose in all kinds of secondary things to the exclusion of God. That’s what idolatry is –

seeking the deep meaning of our lives,

seeking the fullness of our existence

seeking our happiness and wellbeing anywhere other than in the living God.

But back to the point we made earlier – it is utterly pointless, and contrary I think to the good news of Jesus – that we browbeat anyone about the possible idols in their lives. We will only begin to recognize the idols in our lives, and do something about them, when we have gotten up close and personal with the God who has shown his face in Jesus. We will only really begin to recognize the idols in our live when we are confronted in a fresh way with life and person of the risen Jesus. Indeed, this talk of idols and idolatry won’t really make any sense to us until we have come face to face with the possibility of a life centered on him.

As we pour out our lives before the God of Jesus Christ, what are some of the idols we might discover in our lives. The question is such an individual one. The heart is an idol factory, as one author puts it, and each of us will have unique idols to put aside.

It is possible to idolize control – to find meaning in the ability to keep everything just where it belongs in thought and heart and life. Control.

It is possible to idolize children – whether they are young or full grown – to find meaning in their lives, in their well-being, in their success.

It is possible to idolize a comfortable, middle-class life – to find life’s meaning in a safe home, a stable income, a good set of friends, in the ability to enjoy and experience various activities.

It is possible to idolize freedom – to find meaning in the freedom to live life as person wants, to be whoever he or she wishes to be.

But back to our main point – it all begins not with our attempt to enumerate and define our idols against some vague religious backdrop. We will only discover and put aside any idols in our lives as we encounter in a fresh and new way the God who love us and fills our lives with meaning. It begins not with a negative moment of being told we’re not who we’re supposed to be, and what we’re not supposed to value. It begins in a positive moment of discovery and encounter – discovery of Jesus’ resurrection life among us, encounter with a risen Lord who gives purpose, joy, and love. In the days and weeks ahead may we find ourselves in the midst of just such a moments of discovery and encounter – pouring out our lives before God.


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