When idols take up too much space in our hearts, we can neglect our relationship with God, who remains faithful even in the midst of our unfaithfulness and continually calls us back in love.
Vicar Bristol Reading
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 18 C
Texts: Hosea 11:1-11, Luke 12: 13-21, 32-34
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
‘Idolatry’ is one of those words that sounds really biblical and serious, but also a little archaic and obscure.
When we speak of idols today, we’re usually referring to pop culture icons, people to be adored and emulated. We think of “American Idol” before we think of statues of foreign gods. But the biblical writers took idolatry seriously.
This morning we read from Hosea, a Hebrew prophet who was highly critical of idolatry in ancient Israel. Wanting to ensure that their families and their fields were sufficiently fertile, the Israelites had taken to offering sacrifices and incense to Baal, a tribal fertility god whose popularity was on the rise during the Hosea’s life. This was a betrayal of Israel’s covenant with God, who had clearly commanded them to worship no other gods. Hosea tried to convince his people that God was not very pleased about their behavior. He used his own fractured family as an allegory for the strained relationship between God and the people. We heard last week the story of Hosea symbolically naming his children Lo-Ruhamah, which means “No-Mercy,” and Lo-Ammi, which means “Not-My-People.” In one translation God says to Hosea, “Name your child Nobody, because you’ve all become nobodies to me and I, God, am a nobody to you” (Hosea 1:9, The Message).
This is the impact of idolatry: We start paying a little more attention to idols, and a little less attention to God.
We start trusting idols a little more than we trust God. These objects of adoration and devotion become a source of life and meaning, and eventually God become a nobody to us. Now maybe you and I have never experienced a Canaanite fertility god having such an impact on us, but Baals aren’t the only kinds of idols.
The apostle Paul reminds us in Colossians that greed is also idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
The insatiable desire to have more and more material stuff, the secret envy of other people’s lifestyles and possessions, the endless endeavor for wealth and success… These are idols with which we are more familiar. They can start to take up too much space in our hearts, to demand an ever-increasing percentage of our effort and focus. Greed is idolatry because enough is never enough. When we get caught up in the idolatry of greed, we can end up like the wealthy landowner in Jesus’ parable, achieving material security but disregarding our dependence on God. This man has forgotten his own mortality, and all the supposed ‘treasure’ he has stored up is good for nothing when he comes unexpectedly to the end of his life. The problem is not that he paid attention to his physical life; it’s that he neglected his inner life. The problem is not that he was financially successful; it’s that he did not address his spiritual poverty. The problem is not that he became a somebody in his community; it’s that he let God become a nobody in his life. He let his wealth and savings play a role that only God can play. He found his identity in his own merit, instead of his being a beloved creation of God. And in the end, those idols left the landowner empty-handed.
At the conclusion of the parable Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.” So make sure the treasure you give your heart to is the real deal.
Don’t commit your time, your energy, your loyalty, your adoration, your trust to treasures that can wear out or be stolen – treasures that need bigger and bigger barns just to store them. In the end, those things cannot be depended on. Eventually idols leave us wanting, Whatever our particular ‘treasure’ looks like – career success, personal appearance, intellectual knowledge – These can be good things in our lives, but they cannot be God over our lives. We can’t stake our lives on anything but God.
When we allow idols to take the place of God, God is heartbroken.
Hosea’s description of God’s response to the people’s idolatry is striking. He expresses God’s heartache as that of a parent whose children have betrayed their relationship. God is like a fiercely protective father, remembering how he held his children’s hands as they learned to walk, lamenting that the children have now rejected his care. God is like a tender mother, reaching down to feed her children, keeping them safe at every moment, grieving that her children have now forgotten that it was she who sustained them and raised them.
Hosea’s words describe a God who is devastated by the people’s unfaithfulness, and yet, this is what God decides: “I could never give up on my children. I could never destroy them.”
This is not a God of destruction and punishment, but a God of life and forgiveness, a God who has wrestled with the reality of human brokenness and has decided to be a force of grace and healing. Those people who chose idols over God, they aren’t called “Not-my-people” after all. They are called “Children of the living God.” They aren’t called “No-Mercy.” They are called “Complete Compassion.” God roars like a lioness calling her cubs back to her. No matter how far away from her they run, she will guide them home. God’s faithfulness is not like the faithfulness of humans; it never wavers. God never leaves. “I am the Holy One in your midst,” God declares (Hosea 11:9). God always desires to be in deeper relationship with us and continually draws us back.
We need to notice the things in our lives that crowd out God’s loving voice, that strain our relationship with God, and to stop giving those things so much attention and power.
What are the idols that are gaining too tight a hold over your heart, the things that are being treated like precious treasure but will never actually be as satisfying as they claim to be? Don’t build bigger barns to give those things more room in your life.
Invest instead in the parts of your life that make you more aware of the presence of the Holy One already in your midst.
Be attentive to God’s voice in your heart. Nurture the habits that help you deepen your relationship with God who loves you – whether that’s silence, worship, prayer, fellowship, service, or just… rest… God, the source of abundant life, is always with you. God, will never leave you, and will never leave you empty.