Mars Hill Part 2: American Idols (Acts 17:22-31)
Rev. Erik Veerman
Mars Hill Part 2: American Idols
Sermon Manuscript Mars Hill Part 2
Since 2008, hundreds of bloggers, journalists, and book authors have written about “The seven deadly sins of social media.” They’ve connected the ills of social media with the traditional seven deadly sins - vanity, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed, and sloth.
In fact, ten years ago, a Wall Street Journal article noted this: “social networks do best when they tap into one of the seven deadly sins.” That rings true, doesn’t it? The social media platforms thrive when they appeal to our sin nature – our coveting, our pride, our anger. And, of course, it’s more than just social media today - it includes streaming services and one-click shopping apps.
Last year, Netflix released a documentary called The Social Dilemma. It uncovered how social media companies capture your attention; how they create an addiction in you like a drug; and how they sell you out. For them, it’s not about you, it’s about them. But they appeal to you, to make you think it’s about you, but they are just using you. And the sad side effect is that you become more about you.
How is this related to Acts 17?
Well, when the apostle Paul arrived in Athens for the first time, what did he find? He found that all around him were idols. In Athens, these idols were wood and stone - images of gods. They were things that the people worshipped instead of the true God. Today, in our culture, idols are all around us, but they are different kinds of idols – idols that social media reveals. Maybe we could call them heart idols. Idolatry of things, and people and pursuits. I’ll define idolatry a little more in a minute.
Let me begin, though, by tell you where we’re headed this morning. This is the second sermon on these verses in Acts 17. We refer to them as Paul’s address on Mars Hill – if you’ll remember from last time, that’s the translation of the word Aeropagus – Mars Hill. Originating from the Greek god Ares, which the romans called Mars.
Also as a reminder from last time - we interacted with how Paul addressed the situation in Athens - his approach. I left the outline from the first Acts 17 sermon on the back of your bulletin for reference. The brief summary is this:
• First, Paul had a heavy heart. He was saddened by what he saw. That’s where he began. And so, of course, he took opportunity to speak to the philosophers of Athens – he wanted them to know the one true God.
• Second, as he spoke to them, Paul interacted with their beliefs. He identified their false gods and hopes – their idols.
• Third, he responded with truth about the true God – He is the creator God of all things and is close to them.
• Next, Paul called them to turn from – to repent from their unbelief and to turn to God in Christ.
• Finally, Paul revealed Jesus – the one who died and was resurrected. They needed to turn to turn to him because not only does he offer true hope but he will also judge sin, idolatry, and unbelief.
This morning, we’re going to take those 5 points and apply them to our situation. Now, I won’t call out each point, but if you’re listening and following along, I’ll refer back to Paul’s words. The difference is, instead of pointing out how Paul addressed the Athenians, I’ll be talking about how he would address us.
What would Paul say to us today? What would he say are our idols and how would he redirect us to God in Christ?
The reason I started with social media is that it both appeals to and contributes to our idolatry. Before analyzing our idols, let’s dive a little deeper into idolatry. What exactly is it?
Put simply, an idol is something or someone that replaces God in your life. It comes between your heart and God. An idol is something you love more than God… or worship over and above God. Or serve instead of God.
An idol can be anything or anyone that you exalt more than the one true God. To find out what are the idols in your life… you need to ask the question: What or who are you most devoted to? What consumes your mind and heart? What is the motivation for your actions?
Certainly, like in Athens, some idols are false gods with visible representations – statues that are worshipped. But let me make it more real. If an idol can be anything that is elevated above God. Then your career can become an idol. Good grades at school can become an idol. Politics can be an idol… money can become your idol. Your home… or your outward appearance, or even your family or children can become your idol. The list is long. And behind your outward idols … is an inward heart idolatry. Like prestige, or control, or accomplishment or sinful indulgence.
And the thing is, every one of us is an idolater. You and me… young and old.
John Calvin, the French theologian of the 16th century said this… “man’s nature… is a perpetual factory of idols.” “Man’s mind,” he said, “full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to his own capacity;.” Calvin goes on to say that we inwardly conceive and give birth by our blind desires to these false symbols and things that cannot save us.
No one can escape the temptation of idolatry.
So take a second and see if you can identify your idols. What things or pursuits are you fixated on or obsessed with that take your focus away from God? [pause]
As I’ve been thinking about the idols in our culture (here in metro Atlanta and really in our country as a whole), there’s an idol that’s come to mind that rises above all the rest. It’s ubiquitous - everywhere. Most of the time, this idol is not acknowledged because it’s so ingrained in us, we don’t see it or realize it – we’re blind to it.
It’s the idol of “me.” (well, not me!) It’s the idol of your self. Self idolatry.
Going back to the seven deadly sins that social media seems to draw out in us… most of them come from a love of self over and above all other loves. Think about them. Vanity (excessive admiration in one’s own appearance), envy (a covetous desiring of someone else’s possessions or qualities that you want for yourself), gluttony and greed (an overindulgence or selfish desire of food or drink or wealth or power as status symbols), lust (a passionate desire to satisfy your sensual desires). Even slothfulness is a form of selfishness – laziness).
So maybe the seven deadly sins of social media lead to the one main idolatry of social media – self idolatry.
I’m not saying that social media is all bad. In fact, most idols are good things turned to ultimate things. Like your money or your career – good things, but when they become ultimate things for you, they become idols. I’m merely highlighting social media as an avenue to understanding the idols of our culture. But social media can also exacerbate our self-idolatry.
Even if this self-idolatry is not something that you’ve been overcome with, I think you would agree there is a strong temptation to be sucked into the trap.
And we look around us and we’re grieved. I think the apostle Paul would be overwhelmed in his heart – just like he was in Athens. Especially to see the impact on the children and teenagers. If you are a teenager, know that the world around you wants you to focus on yourself, your desires, and your appearance. This self-identity and self-focus nature of our culture is deeply affecting your generation. A recent survey of kids ages 14 to 17 found a 60% increase in depression in just 8 years; In that same timeframe, a 56% increase in suicide. The studies point to the impact of social media and other technology. Those are difficult to hear. You likely know families grieving.
Everything about us wants to share that there’s eternal hope… that peace and comfort can be found… that there’s a God who offers grace… we can know him, as the Apostle Paul said in verse 27… and be known by him and loved by him. He created us.
If the apostle Paul were to identify this American self-idol, he would find it in many forms. Philosophers of our day call it expressive individualism. It’s the idea that self-expression and individual freedom should be our goal – the culture says. Anything else, like religion, only restricts us. Paul wouldn’t find an altar “to the unknown God” (verse 23), but he would hear the mantras of our day, such as:
• “Follow your heart” You’ve no doubt heard that. Our culture says, “if it feels right, do it.” What’s right and wrong is not something outside of you, it’s in you. That’s led to several things including sexual freedom without consequence and without a standard.
• Here’s another phrase: “be true to yourself” One of our cultural gurus, so to speak, was recently interviewing members of the British royal family. She asked them this: “what is your truth?” That says a lot. Our culture says even truth is in the eye of the beholder. Truth is not objective and out there, it’s in here.
• Maybe you’ve heard “You do you” You need to create your own identity. Our culture says that no one else should impose an identity on you. You need to craft your own identity based on your desires, not those of your community or of God who created you.
One of the ancient Greek myths of Paul’s day was the story of Narcissus – He was this handsome young man who was totally self-absorbed. Because of his self-obsession, over and over he broke the hearts of those who fell in love with him. One day a nymph named Echo fell in love with him. But when she went to embrace him, he pushed her away – he said, “I would rather die than give my love away.” Devastated, Echo ran and hid herself in a cave. She, herself would soon die of starvation. Only her voice remained in the cave.
Well, that angered one of the Greek goddesses, Nemesis. So, Nemesis punished Narcissus by causing him to fall in love with his own reflection. Narcissus found himself at a pool of water outside of the very cave where Echo died. He was so fixated on his own reflection in the water, that he couldn’t take his eyes off of himself. Nothing around him could distract him or break him away from his self-absorbed reality… not even the echoing words of Echo. Farewell, farewell, farewell. Narcissus himself would soon wither away, dying of starvation, in his own self idolatry.
In our culture, today, we’re fixated on our reflection. Our thoughts on Twitter. Our selfies on Instagram. Our desires… our feelings… our truth. We have a hard time breaking away from staring at our reflection, and it’s slowly killing us. Deep down there’s a realization of our failures and our limitations.
• When physical and mental pain come, we realize we can’t save ourselves.
• When relationships fall apart because of our selfish desires, we realize our self-idolatry destroys community.
• When mutilating our bodies leads to more unhappiness, we realize we cannot satisfy ourselves.
It all leads down the path of disillusionment - emptiness and pain. It’s a dead end.
To use similar words as the apostle Paul in verse 23: But what you worship in yourself, this I proclaim to you. There is a God who made you. Who made everything, who made each of us - all humanity - who created the heavens above, all the things on the earth. As the Bible says, “in him, and through him, and to him, are all things.”
There is a true God – who himself is truth. Who knows all things. Who knows you. The Psalmist writes of him, “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works.”
This God has established the beginning and the end. He is the one who establishes what is good and right and loving. We don’t get to define what is good and right. He is the one who also calls out what is evil and idolatrous. Psalm 115 begins this way, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory.”
By exalting ourselves above God, we have exalted the created thing above its creator. We act as if we know what’s best for us and not God, our creator.
But God is the one who knows all things. He knows what’s best.
Near the end of the book of Job – after Job struggled to understand why everything was happening to him, God questioned him. He asked: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? ...Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment? …Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth... have you walked in the recesses of the deep? Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings? …Who has put wisdom in the inward parts or given understanding to the mind? Who can number the clouds by wisdom?”
Yet we act and think as if we are God himself.
One author put this way: “The world says to look in first, but the Bible says to look up — to God and what He has revealed about the purpose and meaning of human life, through [his creation around us] and especially in His Word.”
Like Paul says in verse 29, we ought not, we should not look inside ourselves as the ultimate authority for purpose, meaning, identity, morality, or truth. When we do so, we replace God with ourselves. Instead, we should look to our creator – the eternal God. When we do look inside ourselves, we should see the marks and reflection of our creator. Our longing for purpose, our desire to create, our intellect, our ability to relate and love, they all come from the image that God has given us in him.
Many of you are familiar with the 10 commandments. They are the commands that God gave to Moses for us –for all humanity. When it comes to idolatry, many of the 10 commandments apply. Certainly the first 2 commandments apply: commandment 1 - “You shall have no other gods before me.” That deals with idolatry. But so does commandment 2 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” That also address idolatry. But idolatry also relates to the 10th commandment. Coveting. You shall not covet. You shall not covet something that is not yours. That selfish desire to put yourself above other people and even God himself.
Self-idolatry breaks God’s commands. Of course, all idolatry does, but all idolatry begins with us - making God in our image.
Let me share another story. This one, though, is not a myth. Let’s go all the way back to the beginning, to creation… to Adam and Eve – our very first parents. This is recorded in Genesis – the first book in the Bible.
One day, as Eve was walking in the garden, Satan himself slithered up to her. He was embodied in a snake. I always have the Jungle Book in my mind – you know, Kaa the snake trying to seduce Mowgli.
Well, in the Garden of Eden, Satan tempted Eve. And how did he do it? Satan appealed to Eve’s ego – her self. God had said to Adam, the whole garden yours! Everything! .…but only this one tree is off limits. God had said, “You may not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil... or you will die.” Well Satan twisted those words. He said to Eve, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.”
Satan lied, but they bought the lie. They ate the fruit. They desired to put themselves before God and be a god unto themselves. Do you see, this self-idolatry is not something new in our culture, it goes all the way back.
To again use the words of the apostle Paul – this time from verse 30 – “God commands all people everywhere to repent” Our idolatry is an affront to God. We’re replacing God with whatever or with ourselves.
And God wants us to turn to him. The very fact that he commands us to forsake our idolatry by repenting of it… means that he will receive us when we turn to him.
And the amazing thing is how he receives us.
• With our self-centered idolatry, we have exalted ourselves to a position of God. We, who are utterly unworthy creatures, who have violated God’s commands, have viewed ourselves on par with God – when we were the ones who needed to be humble and lowly.
• And God, who is utterly worthy, because he is creator and perfectly good and right did something utterly amazing. He humbled himself. He set aside his glory – in a perfect display of self-sacrifice – He, in the person of Jesus Christ, took on flesh. He gave his life for you and me. He’s the only one, as God and as man, who deserved to be self-centered. Yet he humbled himself.
• When the soldiers were whipping him, he did not say “wait, it’s about me, don’t you see.” When they nailed his hands and feet to the wooden cross he humbly submitted. He breathed his last. When he did so, not only did he endure physical death, but he endured the wrath of God for our self-idolatry… for those who believe in him by faith.
But the story doesn’t end there – Death could not hold him. He was resurrected and then exalted to heaven. That’s where he is now with all the power and glory and judgment of God. He went from humbling himself to being exalted.
Jesus himself said, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” In that first part, Jesus is saying if you exalt yourself – in self-idolatry, pretending to be God, you will be humbled. This is where Acts 17 verse 31 comes into play. It says that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed;” Paul is speaking of Jesus. He goes on… ”and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” It’s the resurrection that’s the power to both save and judge. The warning that Paul gave to the Athenians for their idolatry is the same warning for us and our self idolatry. When we exalt ourselves, God will humble us by judging us.
But, (and here’s the good news) Jesus also said that if you humble yourself, you will be exalted. We humble ourselves by submitting to the one, Jesus, who humbled himself. We do that by seeing and forsaking our idolatry and turning to Jesus by faith. Our humility comes through his humility, so that in his exaltation, we may be exalted.
Friends, you can’t save yourself by yourself. You can’t create your own truth just because it feels right. Your identity doesn’t come from within – it comes from the God who made you. And he’s the same God who, in Christ, can lift you up, can restore you to him, can redirect you to him. He can break the power of gazing at your own refection. He can take all the sins that social media reveals… and he can forgive and turn you to worship him. From a self-centered idolatry to God-centered life in Christ.