Sermon: “Plucking the ‘I’ Out of Idolatry”

Plucking the ‘I’ out of Idolatry
A sermon  on Psalm 115:1–9
Bethlehem Baptist Church, June 28, 2014


On behalf of my wife, Lisa, and our three sons, I’d like to thank-you, Bethlehem. When our family arrived in Minneapolis on an arctic January morning, the welcome may not have been warm meteorologically, but it was loving. We thank God for you. You’ve opened your homes to our family, and you’ve opened your hearts to our ministry. When I asked Lisa to explain how she felt, she said “Next time we move, let’s not.”

When children ask parents to explain a difficult concept, sometimes it’s easiest to explain that concept by describing what it is NOT.  When they ask, “Daddy, what does miniscule mean?” you can answer, “Well, son, that means it is not big.”

When they ask, “Daddy, what does complicated mean?” you can answer, “Well, son, that means it is not simple.” And when my sons ask, “Daddy, what does dating mean?” I can answer, “Well, son, that’s means it is not for you.”

Similarly, when we search our Bibles, we are asking, “Daddy, Father, God, What does worship mean?” And, as a good Father who knows how to give good gifts to his children, our God gives us many good answers. In today’s passage, he gives this good answer, “Worship means it’s not idolatry.”

This morning, I’d like to turn our attention to Psalm 115, the passage that was already read, and hear more from our heavenly Father about this. If we surveyed 100 Christians about worship, we might find 300 different opinions. So, I am so thankful for God’s Word, and how it cuts through the noise of our world, through the confusion of our minds, and through the darkness of our hearts, and reveals truth to us. Let’s pray.

Our Father, you spoke “Let there be light” and light shined out of darkness. You said, “This is my Son; listen to him.” Lord Jesus, you speak; and, listening to your voice, new life the dead receive. The mournful, broken hearts rejoice; the humble poor believe. Through these words, may your church not simply learn about you, may we actually learn from you. Holy Spirit, work in us to give us an ear to hear what you are saying to your church. Speak, Triune God of glory, AMEN.

The title of this morning’s message is “Plucking the ‘I’ out of Idolatry.” Psalm 115 points us to four ways that true worship plucks the “I” out of idolatry. First, in verse 1, we see the OVERTURE of true worship. Second, in verses 2–3, we see the OBJECT of true worship. Third, in verses 4–7, we see the OPPONENTS of worship. And fourth, in verses 8–9, we see the OUTCOME of worship. Let’s look and see these ways together.

The Overture of Worship (v. 1)

What is overture? An overture is the song that’s played at the very beginning of an opera. (Yes, it’s a music term from the music guy.) It sets the overall mood for the opera and introduces the main themes that will be developed later. And in verse 1, we have an overture. “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory, for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!” Let’s look closer and see the mood and the themes in this overture.

“Not to us, O LORD, not to us.” The verse begins with a mood of skirmish between two opponents: God worship and self-worship. The idolatrous heart has a relentless drive to glorify the big ugly “I”, to be recognized as the center of attention, a relentless drive to be celebrated and given credit.

That drive makes us restless and unhappy. It’s alive and well in the darkest corners of your world, in the darkest corners of your church, in the darkest corners of your own heart, and in the darkest corners of your preacher this morning.  And we need to recognize it for what it is: it’s the relentless drive to fight for what C. S. Lewis called the “silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are.”

God wants us to experience something different than self-worship. Lewis describes it as “the relief, the comfort, of taking the fancy-dress off—getting rid of the false self [plucking out the ‘I’ of worship], with all its ‘Look at me’ and ‘Aren’t I a good boy?’ and all its posing and posturing. To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.”[1]

That is so compelling. When I’m honest with myself, I feel like that man in a desert, and I bet you do, too. So, how can we get that drink of cold water? How can we pluck out the “I” of idolatry? If you can recognize the fact that you are in a desert, then you are ready for the Bible’s answer. Look at it in verse 1. It’s this prayer: “O Lord, to your name give glory.”

But what does this mean? Are there more specifics available to us? Of course there are. The overture has introduced the mood and the themes of the psalm. Let’s read on and watch the themes develop. Let’s now turn to the object of worship.

The Object of Worship (vv. 2–3)

Begin in verse 2: “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’”These are the taunts of unbelievers. It’s encouraging to recognize that in 3500 years, from these ancient pagan nations in the psalms to today’s New Atheists, there are no new insults. It’s still this: “Where is your god? We don’t see him! How can you worship a god that you cannot see?”

Believers answer by declaring who God has revealed himself to be.  Look in the text and see it for yourself in verse 3: “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.” Be very clear, believers: if you have to choose between a god that’s visible and a god that’s biblical, choose biblical every time. Let’s look at our Bibles in this psalm and discover who God has revealed himself to be. Let’s begin in verse 1 and then we’ll move to verse 3.

First, investigate verse 1. What two characteristics does God reveal that make him the worthy object of our worship? His steadfast love and his faithfulness. Children, let me have your ears for an important sentence.  God is completely good. This is hard for us to understand because we don’t know anyone or anything else that is completely good. We don’t know any other loves that are steadfast. (“Daddy, what does steadfast mean? Well, son, it means that it’s not shaky.”) We don’t know any commitments that are completely faithful. Kids, your mom and your dad love you very much. But sometimes they get tired or distracted or frustrated, and their love for you—well, it isn’t completely steadfast. But God is not like that. He doesn’t get tired, or distracted, or frustrated. Listen, Psalm 5:4 says that God is “not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with [him].” God is completely good.

But, consider this option: What if God were only good, but not powerful? What would your opinion of him be then? You might admire a god like that, but you would feel sorry for someone who knew good things to do but couldn’t do them. But listen to Psalm 119:68. It says of God “You are good and do good.”

That truth leads us back to our passage to discover in verse 3 the other characteristic of God that makes him the worthy object of our worship. What do you see there? “God does all that he pleases.” He is BOTH good and powerful! He is almighty. What does it mean to be God? Here’s as simple an answer as I’ve heard: God is the greatest possible being. Are you looking for an object of worship that is worthy of worship? Look to the God of the Bible! Look to the God of Jeremiah 32:17, which says “Ah, Lord God! It is you who has made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you.” Consider the greatness of God. That is our point here. “Our God is in the heavens. He does all that he pleases.”

How does this God of the Bible—this all-powerful, all-good, completely reliable God—compare with the idols of the nations? We’ve explored the overture to worship and the object of true worship. Now, let’s make the comparison with, third, the opponents of worship.

The Opponents of Worship (vv. 4–7)

Look at the opponents of worship in verses 4–7. “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat.

There are many fake gods that are competing for your attention.  They are shiny and appealing (“silver and gold”) and they would like to be the most important thing in your life and the place where you seek happiness.  Martin Luther defined idolatry as “whatever your heart clings to and relies upon, that is your God; trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.”[2]  Jonathan Edwards wrote “Something will have the heart of man. And that which a man gives his heart to may be called his god.”[3] These fake gods clamor for you to cling to them and rely on them. They beckon after you to give them your heart.

One way to hear fake gods is to listen when things get quiet [pause]. Fake gods come sneaking through the door of your thoughts and offer their fake view of what you must have to be fake happy. Think about it: in your quietest privacy, where does your mind wander to or dwell on? What promises you joy and comfort? What promises distraction from your boredom? These are your fake gods.

Another way to hear fake gods (which, again, is simply another way to say idols) is to listen when things get loud, when your world gets crazy.[4] Explore your emotions when they are their most uncontrollable and painful.  Follow those emotions, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, back to the witch and discover the idols they reveal. Consider the last time that you “lost it.” Ask yourself what was so important to you that could make you so desperate.  Pastor Tim Keller says “when you pull your emotions up by the roots … sometimes you will find your idols clinging to them.”[5]

Have you heard them? Let’s make this sermon something more than a simple academic exercise. Holy Spirit, bring to mind right now specific idols in the lives of each person here this morning. I pray that, by your power, we will be aware of the fake gods and their lies. Amen.

Now, let’s hold these idols up to the light of Scripture and find out what God says about them.

Look in verse 5: “They have mouths, but do not speak.” Our fake gods have a mouth that looks real, but it can’t speak.  They can’t tell us what to do.  They can’t tell us how to move our lives forward. If you ask a fake god for advice, they cannot answer you. That’s one reason you are so confused about how to move forward: Often, you are asking advice from fake gods who cannot speak.

Verse 5 continues, “They have eyes but do not see.”  Our fake gods don’t see us and they certainly can’t see the future. Thus, it is impossible to be clear-sighted when following a blind idol. “They have ears but do not hear.” Any prayers to fake gods are worse than unanswered; they are unheard.  They have “noses, but do not smell.”  Fake gods don’t even know that they stink.

They have hands but do not feel; feet, but do not walk.” A fake god cannot pull you up with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. It will never run to your rescue.

Here, the idol-worshipers might protest, “Yes, but they are silver and gold! And it’s better to have an idol you can hold than a god you can’t see!” But silver ears cannot hear any better than copper ears, and gold arms cannot rescue any better than arms made from aluminum-foil. Believer, do not be duped. “No sound in their throats” means that they are lifeless. You cannot receive life from something that is dead. Just because something is shiny does not mean it can save.

I’m getting ahead of the text, but I can’t help it. Take a moment and contrast the idols of the nations with the God of Israel.

Does the God of Israel speak?

Yes. And God said, “Let there be light.” And God said. And God said.

Does this speaking and creating God see?

Yes. He sees everything. Hebrews 4:13 says that, “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Does this speaking and all-seeing God hear?

Yes! In Mathew 12:36, Jesus says that, “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

Does this all-powerful, all-seeing, all-hearing God of Israel smell?

Well, Yes!  Revelation 8:4 says the prayers of the saints and the smoke of the incense rise to God.

And does this glorious God have hands and feet?

Revelation 19:15 says that, with his feet, “He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.”

He sees idolatry; he hears idolatry, he smells idolatry, and he moves to punish idolaters. What a heavy, heavy truth!

So, then, we have considered the opponents of true worship. What is the payoff, then, of following these fake gods—these idols— of the nations? That brings us to the Outcome of worship in verse 8–9.

The Outcome of Worship (vv. 8–9)

“Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.”

Think about this: why is God so worried about idols? Aren’t they just statues?  Why was he so concerned that Israel was making images? Does he hate sculpting? Does God hate art? Should we mob over to the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and start tipping statues?  “You’ve turned my Father’s forest preserve into a den of statues!”

No.  He loves images.  Remember that he made us in his image.  Here’s a word for anyone in our congregation who makes things. I’m thinking of artists, but this applies to everyone who makes things:[6] A tempting lie for makers is this: I make things in my image, but I am not made in anyOne’s image. I am original, not derivative.

But human creativity is not the same as God’s creativity. (Here is an absurd illustration to help us understand the absurdity of comparing ourselves to God.) Human innovation is like Taco Bell, where they make their food by combining the same 6 ingredients: ground beef, rice, cheese, salsa, lettuce, and a tortilla. If the tortilla is small and folded, it’s a taco; if it’s big and wrapped it’s a burrito. Hail, human innovation! And if there’s no tortilla, it’s a taco salad. That’s not innovation, that’s removing an ingredient and adding a bowl. That’s not progress, that’s laziness. J

Contrast this human creativity with God’s creativity. God creates out of nothing—ex nihilo. Nothing existed, and then by the word of his power, God created quasars and quicksand, pollen and polyphany, nebulae and nerve endings, hydrogen and hemoglobin, Niagara falls and nanoscale light fields, white blood cells and dark energy.

Artists and creative people, accept your role. Accept God’s commission to create, but do not look to your creations to provide your identity or value, else they become idols. Your creations cannot save you.

The problem is that when we make idols, we are committing two huge sins.  First, we are neglecting our God-given role to be images.  Creating idols proclaims this lie: “I’m not created in the image of God; I’m creating the world in the image of me.”  Second, when we worship created things, because we reflect God, we proclaim this lie: “God worships things. He’s a giver of worship rather than the recipient of worship.” That’s a lie. And it’s killing us.

It’s killing us by shaping us, for we become what we worship.  That’s the warning in verse 8. That’s the ultimate consequence that this Psalm calls us to recognize.

At the core of our beings we are imaging creatures.[7] That means God made you to reflect him. But if you are not committed to him, you won’t reflect the Creator. Instead, you will reflect something else in creation. So, the result of worshiping idols is that you become like them. Your spiritual blindness and your spiritual deafness is a result of becoming like your idols. Soon, you have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear.  That’s why our passage ends: O Israel, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield.

We are all worship leaders, and we’re excellent at it. As my friend Ken Boer says, everyday, through your words and actions, you are telling people what you treasure, what you believe is most enjoyable, and what truly matters in this life.[8]  So, you could lead worship this morning. You don’t need music and a PowerPoint presentation. On this screen behind me, we could pull up your checking account history and see what you literally treasure. We could pull up your Google history and see what you believe is most enjoyable.

And if that feels heavy, permit me to press a bit further. Hear the warning of Scripture. You are becoming what you trust in. Friend, let me ask you, have you noticed an encroaching spiritual blindness? You open Scripture and see … nothing. Have you noticed a growing spiritual deafness? Your small group is exhorting you to live for Christ, and their words mean less and less. Have you noticed yourself not speaking up for the gospel? Have you noticed your hands and feet becoming inactive in building the kingdom? Watch out for self-deception here. It starts with “I deserve this,” or “everyone else is doing it,” or “I can handle this.”

So, first we deceive ourselves, and then we deceive ourselves about the fact that we have deceived ourselves. We cover our own tracks. Beware! Pluck the “I” out of idolatry!

This sort of deception is what happened to the Israelites to whom this psalm was written. We saw this last week in Pastor Kempton’s message in Isaiah 6. “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” They became like the unhearing and blind idols they followed. They even took God’s gracious gifts and began to worship them above the creator. They took the bronze snake that Moses made, named it “nehushtan” and started to worship it until Hezekiah smashed it in 2 Kings 18.  In Jeremiah 7, the prophet Jeremiah rebukes people who trust in the temple instead of the God of the temple. We do the same thing when we give glory to “how God has moved in the past” instead of glorifying the moving God.

This is the result of the idolatrous Israelites becoming like their unhearing and unseeing idols. What hope is there for us? What strength is there for trusting in God? How can we pluck the “I” out of idolatry?

Here is our only hope. When God saw that his people didn’t trust him, and therefore lost the use of what mouths and eyes, ears and noses, hands and feet they had, he went all in.  When Adam failed to reflect the image of God, another image bearer was sent. God sent the Lord Jesus who is the “exact imprint of God’s nature,”[9] “the image of the invisible God.”[10] The second person of the Godhead took on a human mouth. He took on human eyes, ears, nose, hands and feet.

Remember Jesus’ words throughout the gospels, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” And he walks throughout the land—restoring sight to the people, straightening withered hands, and making the lame walk.  He describes his ministry to John the Baptist like this, “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, . . . the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up,” (Mt 11:5).Yes, it’s a picture of his kindness toward the helpless, but it’s also a picture of Christ conquering fake gods and undoing the effects of idolatry.  He’s rescuing people from their false gods.  Blind people have eyes that cannot see and lame people have feet but cannot walk, and Jesus Christ came to give them life.

Now we can “be conformed to the image of the Son”[11] and be “renewed in knowledge after the image of our creator.”[12] Now, we are saved, not by our images, but by being his images. We are saved, not by works, but by being his workmanship. And he’s come to give you life this morning. Those who trust him become like him.

Three Implications

Let me close with three implications…

An implication for gathering to worship

Because our God is an active God, we should come expecting him to move. How we approach to a situation reveals what we think we will find.

Imagine it is 2:00 am and I am asleep.  My wife taps my shoulder and says to me “I heard something. I think there’s an intruder downstairs.” My mind immediately kicks into high gear. Like a good egalitarian, I say “Honey, it’s your turn.” I reach underneath my bed and grab a 7-iron I keep there in hopes of protecting my home. Even though I live in a hundred-year-old house, I know exactly how to sneak down my staircase without making a creak (a secret I will not be sharing with my sons!). My heart is pounding in the dark. My eyes are searching: the doors, the hallway mirror, the main-level windows that I know a person can squeeze through. Meanwhile, my wife is upstairs with her phone. She has dialed “9” and “1,” and she has her finger waiting on the other “1.” She’s waiting for me to scream, or to yell “FORE!”  How I approach this situation reveals what I think I will find.

But now imagine that at 2:00 am, my three-year-old son taps my shoulder and says “Daddy, there’s a dragon underneath my bed.” I smile dreamily at him.  “Okay, pal,” I mumble. “Let’s go take a look at your dragon.” Slowly, I lift my body from my covers and drop my feet on the bedroom floor.  Holding his hand, I stumble toward his room. But don’t confuse my walking for waking; I am still in stage 2 R.E.M. sleep.  I slide down onto my knees and dutifully stick my face under my son’s bed (with a risk of falling back to sleep down there!). “Nope,” I say. “No dragons under here. Go back to sleep, little buddy. I’ll see you in the morning.” I slide back into my own bed, and when the next morning arrives, I can hardly remember our late night dragon search.

How would the second scenario differ if I believed I was facing someone–or something–real, rather than imaginary? For starters, I probably wouldn’t have checked under the bed face-first! My heart would have been pounding, not at its resting rate.  I would have properly prepared myself for action, not for rest. The point stands: how I approached that situation revealed what I thought I was going to find.

Question: How will you approach God this morning? Do you expect a divine intruder? Or a “dragon under your bed”? Is He a person whom you will face? Or is He something that you treat as imaginary, only acknowledging with your words?

Many believers open their Bibles claiming readiness to “hear from God,” but the way they approach their time in the Word would argue that they expect nothing of the sort—reading only to check off a box on their list, impress their religious friends, and pacify their small group leader.

Many believers pray claiming opportunity to “speak with God,” but the way they approach the situation would show they expect nothing of the sort—dashing off well-worn prayer clichés designed to impress the people that hear them.

And many believers say they are going to church to “meet with God,” but the way that they approach the situation reveals that they expect nothing of the sort—hearts resting, entering sleepily and sliding back into their cars hardly remembering their dragon search. Or, worse, they enter nonchalantly and with a glib sense of entitlement.

May we mindfully approach the living God this morning with a sense of holy expectation. And, believer, know that He will surprise you.  That’s what intruders do.

An implication for our worship gatherings

Because our God is an active God, we should respond during our services. Just a few quick words, here, though so much could be said. We want the elements and the order of the service to reflect that we worship an active God who is on the move. At the beginning of our service, God has a mouth that speaks, and he calls us to worship. He reveals himself to be holy, and we respond by adoring him. Next, he has eyes that see, and he sees our sinfulness. We respond by confessing our sins. Then, he has ears that hear our confession and a nose that smells the pleasing and acceptable sacrifice of the Lord Jesus on our behalf. We respond with thanksgiving. His hands feel and his feet move and they call us to respond with our own feeling and moving. That brings me to my final implication.

An implication for scattering to worship

Our God is an active God. His mouth speaks, his eyes see, his ears hear, his nose smells, his hands feel and his feet move. Those who trust him become like him—active and sent. They pluck the “I” out of idolatry. Therefore, a worship service does not finish with an ending, but with a sending. No matter what the words are, it has this heart of “Go in peace.” We will get to those words in a moment.

Let’s pray.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins 2001) 127-128.

[2] Referenced in Beale, We Become What We Worship, 17.


[4]  to the second power (as college students like to say, “cray-cray”).


[6] We create, but in a commissioned way. We design, but only in a designated way. We devise, but only in a derivative way.

[7] Beale, We Become What We Worship, 16.

[8] Paraphrasing Boer, “The Worship Leader and the Gospel,” in Doxology and Theology, 210.

[9] Heb 1:3

[10] Col 1:15

[11] Rom 8:29

[12] Col 3:10


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