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(136) Inscription 39_The Idolatry of Stuff

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Inscription: Writing God’s Words on Our Hearts & Minds

Part 39: The Stuff of Idolatry

Isaiah 44:16-20

November 21, 2010



·         Leftovers, FB Buddhism

Scripture reading: 2 Chronicles 28:1-5 (peter t.)

Q   How many are excited about the snow?


black friday

This week we celebrate one of our nation’s biggest holidays. Perhaps it defines the American spirit more than all the others. You know which one I am talking about, right? Black Friday.

·         I know it’s not a legal holiday, but for many people, this is the big event...

I don’t understand. Black Friday is a day I am very happy to stay at home. Go out shopping or stab my hand with a fork, it’s a bit of a toss-up, but the fork won’t put me into debt.

·         I’m not saying it’s wrong, some of you’ve planed strategically and are being good stewards – I’m just saying I hate it.  

Why aren’t we thankful?

This is a Thanksgiving Day sermon of sorts, but it’s not your typical “look at how much stuff you have, shouldn’t you be thankful, you ungrateful lout” sermons.

·         If you use toilet paper instead of tree bark, you’re in the top 5% of the world, so quit complaining (not really).

Q   Does that work for you? Or does it leave you feeling guilty and unthankful?

Isn’t that like telling the clinically depressed person they just need to be happier? We need to first look at why before we can address how to change.

Q   How can we live in one of the most affluent countries in the history of world, but still be ungrateful and want more?

Buddhism would say that the problem is with our desires, that by wanting things we create suffering, and through meditation we try to rise above it.

·         Given that our materialism is so unsatisfying, you can see why Lisa Simpson became a Buddhist.

Christianity has a very different response – there is nothing wrong with our desires. In fact God gave them to us, you are meant to be constantly driven by this desire for something else.

·         If anything, we want too little, not too much.

The purpose is to drive us to satisfy them in him. “You were born for infinite happiness...” (The Great Divorce, Chpt. 8) There should be this “holy discontent,” a homesickness (as I described it last week).

·         The problem is not with the desires, but that we try to satisfy them with the wrong sort of things.

The Bible has a name for this: Idolatry.


In Chronicles, which we finished up this week, the central problem is idolatry – worshiping something in addition to God. Not “other than” but “in addition to” – with rare exception, Israel didn’t stop worshiping God, they just added other gods.

·         But God was cool with that, just like you would be cool with your wife having a boyfriend. Oh, you’re not? Neither was he.

Throughout this time, God sent prophet after prophet telling the to knock it off. One of the best know was Isaiah, who wrote the longest book of prophecy in the Bible, Isaiah. It was written during the time of 2 Chr. 26-32:

·         Here is his searing critique of idolatry:

Isaiah 44:16-20 Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”  17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “Save me; you are my god.”  18 ¶ They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand.  19 No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, “Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”  20 He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads he cannot save himself, or say, “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

We read this and find it amusing (God is delightfully sarcastic), but also irrelevant – this describes a primitive religious practices, nothing we see today.

·         But let me tell you what I see when I read this: I see me, I see you, I see my culture.

How? Well, let me unpack this a little – as I said, the ancient Israelites didn’t start worshiping idols and stop worshiping God. They started worship both. Why? Because they thought that God couldn’t take care of all of their needs.

·         They saw him as a “desert god,” but now they needed an agricultural god, like Ba’al.

It’s like: Thanks for everything, the plagues and manna were cool, but we also need agricultural god. The fact we worship him by sleeping with a prostitute has nothing to do with it. 

·         But don’t laugh at them – this is exactly what we do.

We know you created us and saved us, but we have these other needs you just can’t meet, because, well, you are invisible. So we are also going to start worshiping these other gods – money, relationships, power, religion, and so on.

·         There are countless idols we have, different things we look to provide what we think God is lacking.

wrong tools

But this is a Thanksgiving sermon, and we are talking about how we can live surrounded by such bounty yet be unthankful, so I want to hone in on the idol of “stuff,” things, possessions.

Q   What are the legitimate, God-given needs that we think God can’t meet, and that we want stuff to meet?

Because that is one key to our lack of thankfulness: All too often we look to “stuff” to meet a need it could never meet, and then complain when it fails.

Do you catch that? One of the main reasons we have a hard time being thankful for all of our stuff is that it is not doing the job we expect of it.

·         When I needed to change my brake pads, I didn’t have the right tools, and tried to jerry rig stuff, but didn’t work.   

A sobering example: The same thing happens when we expect our spouses to fill what only God can, we become ungrateful for all they do give us.

Stuff isn’t bad

Q   Is the problem with the stuff?

The screwdriver I was using was a perfectly good screwdriver, as a screwdriver. The problem was with how I was using it.

Q   Looking back at Isaiah: Was there anything wrong with the wood? Anything wrong with using it to cook their food?

·         No, the only problem was when the wood was turned into an idol and worshiped.

Stuff isn’t bad – it’s stuff. It can be used correctly and it can be used incorrectly.

Q   Is it wrong to own stuff? Nice stuff?

No. So long as we use the stuff the right way, it’s a good thing. It’s not like God screwed up when he made the tree that they worshiped, or the raw materials that we have turned into clothes, cars, and houses.

Q   So how do we commit idolatry with stuff?

Lots of ways:  We try to find security in our stuff rather than in God, we try to find our identity in our stuff, not in Christ. But I am going to focus on one: Fulfillment


Q   Does stuff make you happy?

Of course! You get a new toy, a new outfit, a new house, it will make you happy. I just got a Kindle for my birthday, and I love it – so many obscure books for free!

Q   Is it bad that we enjoy stuff?

No! In the OT they were commanded to enjoy the bounty God had given them. Sometimes we feel bad about enjoying things God gave us. That’s like our kids not enjoying a gift we give them.

·         But there is a huge difference between buying stuff and being happy, and buying stuff in order to feel happy and fulfilled.

Q   Have you ever bought something to cheer yourself up?

Who hasn’t? I am so depressed, so I am going to buy this video game, this outfit, this candy bar to make me feel happier. Oh, now I got my credit card bill, and now I am depressed...

·         It sounds funny, but I’ve talked to people in a downward spiral, and I’ve seen them on Dr. Phil (not that I watch it).

Q   Stuff can make us happy, but can it keep us happy? In other words, can stuff fulfill us?

We know the answer is “no,” you buy something, it makes you happy for a little while, then the newness wears off. I still love my Kindle, and it’s making me happy, but that will fade.

·         Have you seen the “New Car Scent,” air freshener – what we are trying to buy is “New Car Feeling”!

Fulfillment and thanksgiving

Here is another reasons we have such a hard time being thankful even with everything we have. We tend to base our thankfulness on the fading happiness.

·         When the happiness wears off, so does the thankfulness (we really do this in marriage!).

So when the happiness fades, you can have one of two responses:

1. Buy more stuff – then you can be thankful for that stuff!

The American economic system practically founded on this cycle of buy stuff – be happy – happiness fades – buy more stuff.

·         It’s this cycle of constant upgrades.

The advertizing industry basically exists to create dissatisfaction, telling us that we are not happy with what we have, we need something else. (Commercial with computer upgrade)

·         I love the story Peter told the factory workers enticed to work more via catalogues filled with cool stuff.

We call it “consumerism.” Here’s Wikipedia’s definition:


Consumerism is a social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase goods or services in ever greater amounts.

Notice that “creation of the desire to purchase goods in ever greater amounts.” Does that sound at all familiar?

·         In other words, enough is never enough.

This is a relatively new thing, at least for the average person. Until the Industrial Revolution, this mindset didn’t exist.

·         Read “Little House on the Prairie,” they were thrilled with a single doll and a pane of glass.

Thanksgiving or Black Friday?

It is really ironic that Thanksgiving and Black Friday are back to back. These two are as far apart as any holidays could be. Black Friday represents consumerism more than any other day.

·         I am not saying it’s wrong to shop on Friday, just that it represents our obsession with stuff (even as gifts).

And what does Thanksgiving represent? Everyone knows Thanksgiving represents gluttony. But for the sake of the comparison, we’ll pretend it represents thanksgiving.

·         Thanksgiving finds satisfaction in what one has, consumerism in getting more stuff.

I don’t say all this to criticize businesses or industry. Maybe it means more people have jobs and health care, and we help poorer nations.

·         I am concerned that it is unsustainable, and that if the entire world lived like we do there would be no resources.

But that’s not my biggest concern; I am not an economist, nor a politician – I’m a pastor, I’m worried about your spiritual well being. I am warning you of the idolatry of using stuff to make you feel happy and fulfilled.

·         I am not worried about you having stuff as much as stuff having you.

“Prosperity has a way of knitting a man to the world. He has thoughts of him finding his place in the world when actually; the world is finding its place in him” Screwtape Letters

Ä  The second response when the happiness of our new stuff fades:

2. Remember that our happiness and fulfillment doesn’t come from our stuff, it only comes from God.

Okay, you say, that’s nice, makes for a good slogan, but completely unhelpful. When I get to Heaven, I will be fulfilled by God, but right now I can’t see or be with him.

Q   What do you want me to do, spend my entire weekend reading the Bible and praying? Does that work for you, pastor?

·         No, God has given us many things to enjoy – a date with my wife, a party with friends, a book to read (on a Kindle).

These are reflections of the joy that comes from God. Enjoy them to God’s glory even as you grow closer to God, remembering that he is the source.

·         And then when the joy they bring fades, you won’t feel surprise – to be on earth means joy fades.

Beware using the reflections of joy improperly, of treating them as the source and turning them into an idol, asking them to do what only God can truly do.

The test: Is enough ever enough?

Q   How can you know if you have turned stuff into an idol?

Q   Here is one test – is enough ever enough, or do you always want more? Will you ever say “I’m good”?

Are you caught in the consumerism cycle of upgrades? Do you upgrade your phone as soon as your contract is over, buy a newer car as soon as the last is paid off?

Q   Do you ever ask yourself, do I need this upgrade? Do I need this stuff?

·         I know that I have just said something so radical your head is still spinning – you don’t need to upgrade.

You were happy with your old phone until you heard about the new one. You’ll be happy with this one until the “friendly reminder” that you are due for an upgrade.


Q   Asked another way: Are you content with what you have?

I am not saying that it is wrong to want nice stuff, but your contentment level with what you have a huge indicator of whether you are finding your fulfillment in God or stuff

Listen carefully to this passage, perhaps the most misquoted and misunderstood in the Bible:

1 Timothy 6:6-10   6 But godliness with contentment is great gain.  7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.  9 People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.  10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

·         It’s not money, it’s the love of money (and hence stuff), the chasing after, being eager for.

Notice what Paul says – once we have our basic needs fulfilled, we are content. He’s not saying we can’t have more, but anything beyond the basics is the icing on the cakes.

·         Can you get any more anti-consumerism?

SHOPPING differently

I hope you understand that the point of this sermon isn’t “Don’t go shopping on Black Friday.

I’m saying be wary. The entire combined forces of advertizing and consumerism have been allied against you, attempting to take not just your money but also your soul (said very dramatically).

·         Okay, it’s not that bad, but they are trying to convince you that stuff will fulfill you.

And I am honestly not mad at them for that. If you your fulfillment isn’t in God, you have to find it somewhere, that materialism is no worse than the other things people try.

Luke 12:29-31  And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it.  30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.  31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Let the pagan world run after those idols, you must never forget that you can only find your joy and meaning in God.

·         God has saved us from a world of sin and pain and given us the best gift he could – himself.

Sidebar: Thanksgiving and evangelism

As we are talking about sharing the Gospel, one great way to demonstrate the glory of God is to show that we don’t find our fulfillment in stuff, but in God.

·         Everyone knows that stuff is unfulfilling, but for many it is the best idea they have.

You demonstrate this by being content, but not being stuck in the upgrade cycle. And you demonstrate it by being thankful. Thankfulness says “God is good, he takes care of me, even if I don’t have everything I want.”

·         But when we complain and are ungrateful, we communicate that God is not good, that he hasn’t taken care of me.

It’s just stuff

To sum it all up, I have said that in order to act differently, you need to think differently.

·         I want you to cultivate a mindset that all of this stuff is only stuff.

Use it, enjoy it, share it, bless others with it, but in the end is it only stuff. I want you to walk into Walmart or Costco and think, “Wow, that a lot of stuff.”

·         Trip to CA: God protect my crap and remind me that it’s crap – it’s amazing how that will change your perspective.

We hold it all loosely. As Paul said, we use the things of this world, but are not engrossed in them, because this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:31).

Action Points

Where do we go from here?

1. Pray

Gospel perspective means that we know we can’t pull this off. You can will yourself to desire God as you fulfillment. Pray God will help you see differently.

2. Purge: Here is a practical exercise

Go home, and go through your stuff, and get rid of stuff you don’t need. There is something about hanging on to stuff you don’t need that clutters your spirit.

·         If you don’t need it, the reason you are holding on to it might be that it is holding on to you.

Give it to Bargain’s Galore, Friendship House, if you have nice furniture, give it to Love Inc. But bless others with things that have become your idol.

·         “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Luke 12:33 

3. Purchase – spend thoughtfully

Q   Do you need this? Is it excessive or reasonable (different for different people)

Q   Do you have the money for this?

Q   Are you going to use it rightly?

Q & A


Objectives of sermon:

·         To glorify God by holding up him as the source of fulfillment and revealing the underwhelming triviality of “stuff.”

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