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“The American Idols”
Joshua 24:14-18

Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost—August 26, 2012

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In today’s Old Testament Reading, Joshua has become the new leader of the ancient people of Israel, following the death of Moses.  After their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, he is finally about to lead the Israelites across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.  But, first, he gathers them together, to remind them of the Lord’s great blessings, and to warn them against falling away: “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.”

The Old Testament records how throughout their history the ancient people of God many times fell away from the Lord and turned to idols.  What are “The American Idols” that tempt us today to fall away from the Lord?  There are three main categories of “The American Idols,” three “isms”: materialism, hedonism, and false spiritualism.

Logically, it seems that in 21st century America we would not be very susceptible to materialism.  After all, the Census Bureau reports that even of American households below the official poverty line, 33% have a wide-screen TV, 66% have cable or satellite, 70% a DVD player, and 50% and video game system; 80% have air conditioning, 92% a microwave, 50% a personal computer; 75% own a vehicle, and 42% actually own their own home.  In fact, the average poor person in America lives in a bigger, better house than the average middle-class person in Britain, France, or Sweden. 

Perhaps most importantly, 96% of poor parents in America say their children never went hungry during the pervious year because they couldn’t afford food for their children.  In fact, the Centers for Disease Control says that the threat to poor children in America is not a lack of food but obesity.  We’re the only country in history with that problem.

Even what we consider to be poverty in America would be middle class or upper middle class in most parts of the world.  With the material abundance and modern conveniences we enjoy, compared to people in ancient times, or even in many parts of the world today, we all live lives of unimaginable luxury.  You would think all these material things we already possess would satisfy us and we would be immune from materialism.  But, strangely, it seems to have the opposite effect.  As the old adage says, “The more you get, the more you want.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains why we are not satisfied, even though we have so much abundance: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”

That’s the root problem: “You of little faith.”  We turn to the false god of materialism because we have “little faith” in the true God and his providing for us.  As Jesus said:  “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Martin Luther puts it this way in his explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism: “Many a person thinks he has God and everything he needs when he has money and possessions; in them he trusts and of them he boasts . . .  surely such a man also has a god—Mammon by name, his money and possessions, on which he fixes his heart. It is the most common idol on earth.”

That is the first American idol that we are guilty of worshipping.  Paul describes it in Colossians as, “Greed, which is idolatry.” And he warns in Ephesians, “Of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person, for such a man is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped . . . and serve the Lord.”  The second American idol tempting us to fall away from the Lord is hedonism, from the Greek word for pleasure. 

Now, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasures of life.  Jesus himself joined in the wedding party at Cana and even turned water into wine for the celebration.  Many times in the Gospels Jesus is pictured at dinner parties with his friends.  Moses says in Deuteronomy, “For the Lord your God will bless you in . . . all your undertakings, and you shall surely rejoice.”  Psalm 30 says, “You have turned my mourning into dancing . . . and clothed me with joy.”  And the book of Proverbs says, “May you rejoice in the wife of your youth. . .  may you ever be captivated by her love.”

So, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the all the pleasures of life, for these too are gifts from God.  As Paul tells Timothy, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”

The problem is not enjoying and taking pleasure in all the blessings that God provides you in life.  The problem is hedon-ISM, making the pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence the center of your life instead of God.  Paul puts it this way in 2nd Timothy: “There will be terrible times in the last days.  People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” 

That is the second American idol that we are guilty of worshipping, hedon-ISM, making the pursuit of pleasure and self-indulgence the center of your life instead of God, “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped . . . and serve the Lord.”  In addition to materialism and hedonism, the third American idol tempting us to fall away from the Lord is false spiritualism.  In today’s Gospel Reading, the people who have heard Jesus preach complain, “‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’ . . . At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.” 

Sadly, the same thing is happening today.  People consider Jesus’ teachings too hard to accept, and so they turn away and desert him.  Mainline denominations that were once solid have abandoned the teachings of God’s Word, especially on moral issues, shamefully adopting instead the world’s perverted viewpoint.  On a wide range of doctrinal and moral issues many of the biggest churches, the most popular preachers, and the best-selling religious authors don’t teach according to the Bible.

We Americans are rightly concerned about healthy eating, what we feed our bodies.  But, we’re not very discerning about what we feed our souls.  The Apostle Paul faced this same situation, as he wrote to the Corinthians: “Your minds are being led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.   For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.”  And he tells Timothy, “Some have wandered away and turned to meaningless talk.  They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.”

Today’s Gospel Reading beautifully expresses the precious treasure that you lose when you wander away from Jesus and the truth of God’s Word: “Then Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, ‘Are you also going to leave?’  Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’”

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped . . . and serve the Lord.”  Like the ancient Israelites, we are guilty.  We are guilty of falling away from the Lord, and falling for “The American Idols”: materialism, hedonism, and false spiritualism.

But, today’s Epistle Reading tells us the Good News: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

Paul is talking in that beautiful verse about you.  Christ loved you and gave himself up for you, to make you holy.  In Holy Baptism he cleansed you by the washing with water through the word.  Through the sacrifice of his blood shed on the cross you are forgiven, holy and blameless in God’s sight.

 “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped . . . and serve the Lord.”   In the recent Olympics the gold medalists were on a perch in the center, with the silver and bronze medalists a step below.  God demands that you put him alone up on the center perch of your life, and everything else must remain a step below.  Anything else that takes first place in your life and knocks God off that center perch has become for you an idol.  As Martin Luther says in the Large Catechism, “That to which your heart clings . . . is really your God.” 

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped . . . and serve the Lord.’ . . .  Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods!  It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our fathers up out . . . of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. . . We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.’”


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