Imagine you just drove out of the showroom with your brand-new Ferrari 458—one of the most powerful, beautiful, and expensive cars on the market. It’s shiny and alluring and will have most of your mates drooling at your good fortune! But as you drive away, you notice a 30-year-old Hyundai Excel parked at the second-hand dealership next door. It’s your favourite colour and it’s only done 250,000km! So, on a whim, you make a trade—your new Ferrari for the old Hyundai. The second-hand car dealer even throws in a year of free rego and a full set of tyres. “What a bargain!” you grin to yourself as you rattle away.
It’s ludicrous, isn’t it? It defies all logic. Yet this is nothing compared to what God accuses his people of doing in Jeremiah 2:11—“Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols.”
The opening of Jeremiah is tragic. The choices made by the people of Israel are unbelievable. Why would anyone, when they have a good thing, trade it in for something greatly inferior? But that is what God’s people had done repeatedly over the generations. They had the one true God of the universe as their Lord, but they turned away from him to worship idols made of wood and stone. It just doesn’t make sense.
And yet, such is the condition of the fallen human heart that it’s a mistake that’s easy to make—even for us today.
Having spent a significant portion of the last few years in South Asia, I’m familiar with physical idols. There are temples to various “gods” dotted across our suburb. Every morning I hear the bells ringing as my neighbours fulfil their worship rituals to the idols in residence at the top of their houses.
It’s easy for me to distance myself from such tangible, obvious idolatry. The temptation to bow before a golden statue is probably not an issue for you, either. But before we cast our judgement on the Israelites of Jeremiah’s day, we need to realise that there are subtler idols that can creep into our hearts unawares.
In Jeremiah, the Lord goes on to declare, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (2:13)
We want water, and we dig our own broken water tanks that can’t hold it, instead of going to the source of living water—God himself. Self-sufficiency can be idolatry.
We face hard times and difficulties and look everywhere else for help, instead of seeking the Lord in prayer. Searching for security or salvation in anything besides God is idolatry.
We want to be happy, so we spend our efforts on accumulating stuff, surrounding ourselves with friends and giving ourselves away in romantic relationships, instead of finding our joy and contentment in relationship with our heavenly Father. This, too, is idolatry—a broken cistern that cannot hold water.
It’s futile—but that doesn’t stop us. Every one of us is guilty of serving substitute gods. We have the Ferrari parked in our garage but prefer to drive around town in beat-up old rust buckets that should be at the wrecker’s.
No Way Back…
What’s worse, as Jeremiah 2:22 says, no amount of effort on our part can rid us of the filth of idolatry. “’Although you wash yourself with soap and use an abundance of cleansing powder, the stain of your guilt is still before me,’ declares the Sovereign Lord.”
What hope is there for idolatrous human beings? There’s none to be found in Jeremiah 2, but if we look a little further afield there’s a glimmer.
The Lord says, “I will cleanse them from all the sin they have committed against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion against me.” (Jeremiah 33:8)
…Except by Grace
We can’t fix ourselves, but God can. We are stained with the dirt of our rebellion, but he can wash us clean. When we confess our sin of idolatry, he is gracious to forgive. When we pray for his help in fighting this battle, he will give it. When we can’t see the idols of our hearts, his Spirit can show us where we’ve replaced our glorious God for something inferior. With the Lord’s help, we can identify and dethrone our idols and grow our loyalty to him as Lord alone.
Photos: (inset)TuRbO_J and Brian Snelson, flickr