Unmasking our idolatries

Idolatry is not a thing of the past. It’s very much alive and well in my heart and yours. The only difference between modern idolaters and ancient idolaters is honesty — they were the honest ones, naming their false gods while we pretend to be monotheists.

If I could change one thing about the way you and I see the universe, it would be for us to think of ourselves as living in a world of competing gods. If we could see our divided allegiances between the God of the Bible and various other deities, we’d be shocked, for we are continually bowing the knee to false gods.

The old gods are alive and well today.

Heracles, the god of strength, is worshiped at the gym, with nutrition programs, and in sports facilities around the world.

Hera, the goddess of hearth and home, is worshiped by moms as they set up playdates, visit parenting websites, and post endless pictures of their kids on Facebook and Instagram.

Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, is worshiped in women’s magazines and, well, pretty much everywhere in our culture.

And on it goes. Health, wealth, weather, knowledge, wine and beer, war, and so on. Each of these preoccupations of our hearts and minds have their associated gods. Every culture before ours named them. We worship them while pretending to be either godless or faithful in our allegiance to the one true God.

Psalm 24 is referred to as an “entrance” psalm because of how it ends, but it starts by wiping the slate clean of our idolatries.

The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
    and established it on the waters.

As elsewhere in the Old Testament, the all-caps LORD is actually Yahweh, the covenant name of Israel’s God. But rather than claiming his due as their regional deity, the psalm claims everything. Not only does the entirety of the earth (and not just the land of Israel) belong to our God, so too does every human living on the earth.

How can he make such a bold claim? He made the earth and us. And that part about the seas and the waters goes back to the creation account and needs a little explanation. The deep waters (Gen. 1:2) are not created, existing prior to creation. On the second and third days of creation (Gen. 1:6-10), the waters aren’t spoken into being, but are given limitations by the establishing of the firmament above and dry land below. In fact, the land is established “on” the waters so that later on in Genesis when the Flood happens, the waters below the earth (as well as the waters above the firmament) burst forth and the pre-creation watery chaos returns to the earth (Gen. 7:11).

Now, in the ancient Near East, there were other competing creation stories. And in many of those stories, there was a monster goddess of the seas who participated in the creating of the dry land in one way or another. But Psalm 24 is a definitive rejection of this. Our God alone is the Creator of the entire world. There is no sea monster involved. He alone made it, he alone established it on the waters, and he alone claims it and everything and everyone in it as his own.

In the face of competing claims and competing gods, we make a bold and politically incorrect rejection. Pluralism is necessary for being good neighbors in a diverse world, but it is unacceptable in our worshiping hearts.

If we are to know who we are, we need to know who we’re dealing with. We worship the God of all creation, not just our local option. We belong to him, because everything and everyone belongs to him.

After establishing this, we’re asked the question: Who can worship our God?

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
    Who may stand in his holy place?

The answer immediately follows.

The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
    who does not trust in an idol
    or swear by a false god.

The clean hands and pure heart in other places in the Scriptures are tied to justice. But here they are tied to the purity of our allegiance to our God. We don’t lean on any other deity. We don’t make our vows or establish our lives on them. Our hearts don’t reach out to them and neither do our hands.

But who of us can say this? Our minds might be theologically pure, but hearts and deeds/hands are so muddled.

I know how much I lean on health care, among other gods, as a savior. This doesn’t mean I should ditch my health insurance and never see a doctor. No. Every competing god is based on a good thing. Timothy Keller is incisive on this point:

“Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry.”

We all do this. And yet, the psalm holds out hope that this generation might be the one which turns its back on idolatry, bowing the knee to our Lord alone.

They will receive blessing from the Lord
    and vindication from God their Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
    who seek your face, God of Jacob.

There is always a biblical hope that the emerging generation will be one which will abandon its idolatry and serve our Lord alone. I don’t believe this is wishful thinking; it’s is essential thinking.

Unless, we expect ourselves to be the ones who turn to God and forsake all others, it’ll never happen. And though we do so imperfectly, we do in fact make the effort. We turn, we repent, we reorient our lives toward the God who has reached out to us and never stops doing so.

And so, with this in view, the psalm turns toward worship. Since this generation is comprised of those who seek the face of the God of Jacob, we throw open the sanctuary gates in preparation for worship.

Lift up your heads, you gates;
    be lifted up, you ancient doors,
    that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
    The Lord strong and mighty,
    the Lord mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, you gates;
    lift them up, you ancient doors,
    that the King of glory may come in.
Who is he, this King of glory?
    The Lord Almighty—
    he is the King of glory.

It’s a beautiful call and response.

And we discover that it’s not we who enter the sanctuary, but it’s God, the glorious King. It’s not that he was gone, somehow limiting his omnipresence. Rather, it’s that in our worship he is uniquely present in ways he is not otherwise present at other times.

Though our theology tells us God is always here, there are times when we feel the full weight of his Presence in ways we simply don’t feel it otherwise. We are filled to the full measure of Christ. The Spirit of God is poured out. The gates are lifted up and the King of Glory enters in. The house is shaken. The Spirit descends like a dove. Tongues of fire dance over heads. We speak in ecstasy or are silent in awe.

This is where we find ourselves when we drive out every false god and are in the Presence of the One-and-Only, living the joy of the Second Commandment.

One last thing.

Although this is not the primary intent of Psalm 24:1, its declaration that “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who live in it” is essential to our theology and practice of creation care and justice.

I may have a piece of paper which says I own a parcel of land, but I don’t own it at all. It belongs to God. He made it. It’s his. But neither do I belong to myself. I am owned as well, for I was made and my Maker still has a claim on me that he’s never forsaken. And you and all of my neighbors belong to him as well.

When we have this basic approach to the world around us, ourselves, and every person around us, we realize we’ve got a huge responsibility. This place and these people are not to be abused, but to be cared for, because their Maker not only owns them, but loves them. To abuse them is to invite the wrath of their Maker and Owner. And so we love and cherish each person and place in creation, honoring our Creator by honoring them.