A great write up on idolatry by my good friend Erik Most. I highly recommend following his blog at: Glimpses of Grace
So put bluntly, in modern terms, Herod was a tool. Cocky. He thought he was the man, and wanted everyone to know it. He was that guy in the clubs with the popped collar, stunner shades on, hair gelled stiff, using money like napkins. Think Jersey Shore.
As Jeremiah and I considered this individual, we asked ourselves an important question. What about the human heart leads to action such as this? Herod’s behavior certainly isn’t anachronistic. We’ve seen power trips like this all throughout history, and we still see them today. Trump. Where’s the commonality? That common denominator is idolatry. The sin of idolatry subtly ravages the human heart. Idolatry can be defined as looking to other things to provide the comfort, satisfaction, joy, peace, security, and rest that only God can provide. Ask yourself the question, “If only I had _______, then I would be OK.” Or, “As long as _________ continues to happen, then I’m OK.” Fill in the blank. For Herod it was power. It was control. As long as he was in control, and could CLEARLY demonstrate it, he was ok. Herod was defined by lavishness and opulence. It could be different for you. Financial security? Family? Job? Marriage? Social status? Car? House? Education? Sex? Influence? What is the one thing in your life that if you lost it, you would be utterly devastated? An idol is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.
Now keep in mind Jeremiah’s last sentence. “We met Jesus.” We’re going there. I want to be clear on why we are going there before we do.
Jeremiah and I looked at Herod’s idolatrous situation, and ultimately ours, in terms of a two-fold identity. After a particular lecture in Caesarea, Jeremiah came up to me and applied these concepts of passive identity and active identity. Passive identity includes the factors you are defined by that are outside of your control. For example, your parents. Your neighborhood. Basically, the culture you were born into. This is very formative, and provides foundational nourishment through adolescence. Yet there comes a point where the individual delves deeper into personal autonomy.
We’ll call this active identity. From Jeremiah’s and my experience, we’ve seen this happen somewhere in the teens. At this point, the individual has had sufficient experience in the world, and starts making moves. Affections are stirred in particular directions, toward different things. Individuals start deciding who they want to be. What they want to be known for. This life long process of active identity and personal autonomy is an idolatrous incubator. You, me, and Herod place our identity and affections in these things that allure our hearts so effectively.
So what does Jesus have to do with this? In accordance with our trip, I want to demonstrate the character of God and idolatry through the Old Testament. This will help us make sense of Jesus. We are led to 1 Kings 18, where Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. This was a site we were blessed to visit a few weeks back.
The purpose for Elijah’s contest was to directly confront the idol of the Israelites. King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were promoting a pluralistic society in Israel. They saw no problem with worshipping Baal one day, and the Lord on the Sabbath. The case is no different in our present day. We live in a society that is absolutely deistically pluralistic. In the text, Baal was not a concrete god as we see with other ancient gods like Zeus. Baal was understood in more of a generic sense. There was a Baal for everything, such as water, food, and land. In our culture, these Baals still exist. Everything can be a Baal, and everything has been a Baal. How many times in our culture do we see success on TV, and think, “if only I had that, I would be ok?” When we see perfect women on billboards and think “if only I looked like that” or “if only I could date a girl that looked like her.” The possibilities are endless. There are Baals all around us. We undoubtedly live in Elijah’s pluralistic society.
With idols all around us, it is imperative to identify these idols. In the text we see the NIV translation say “they danced around the altar they had made…so they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” In their calling to Baal, we see the prophets do three things. They danced, they shouted louder, and finally they slashed themselves until their blood flowed. These are perfect characteristics and demonstrations of how we act with our Baals. Our Baals need appeasement. They are demanding. They require performance. We dance for them. When something has captured our hearts so intently that we will do anything to acquire them, we have been enticed by a Baal.
In recent years Madonna has expressed that the only reason she keeps going, the only reason she keeps writing new songs is because she can only stay on the top of the charts for so long. She needs the feeling of that number one spot. It’s the same with athletes who cannot bring themselves to retire despite an age that screams laz-e-boy (Jordan with the Wizards?). After the economic crisis hit in 2008, a string of suicides followed among the formerly wealthy. These included David Kellerman, the chief financial officer of Freddie Mac. Another suicide following the crisis was Cristen Schnor, a Danish banker who hanged himself in a London hotel. Their Baals were their identity. Their Baals demanded performance. When we do not appease our idols, or get what we want from them, we shout louder. We try harder. When our idols ultimately leave us empty, when we call out and get no response, our worlds crumble. Our idols demand our blood, and it gushes out in pursuit of them.
In the midst of our despair, we have a more beautiful remedy than we could ever imagine, and it lies within the place in which the fire came down. “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.” The fire did not fall on the Israelites watching, or further off into the mountains, but the fire fell on the sacrifice. The sacrifice on the mount defeated the idol, and was the means by which people believed.” The character of God as seen through the Old Testament is to save idolatrous sinners by means of sacrifice. Familiar, huh? Enter Jesus.
In the same way, Jesus sacrificed Himself on Mount Calvary to eliminate our idols. He took the fire of God’s judgment on our behalf, so that we may experience the fire of God’s love. Contrary to our false gods who say “slash yourself for me,” Jesus, out of adoration, slashed Himself for us. His blood flowed in our place. Not due to our performance, not because we deserve it, but because He already loved us-because of His pure, satisfactory delight in us as we are now. The remedy from our idols, the cure for our Baals, is not an increase in performance or effort, but instead resting in Christ’s finished work on the cross. “For He was pierced for our transgression, He was crushed for our iniquity. The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.”