Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
-I John 5:21
Keep yourselves from idols. Sounds pretty easy right? I mean when was the last time you saw an idol in the shape of a man, woman, beast or bird? Come across any Asherah poles lately? Idols are just an Old Testament thing - or so we’d like to think. In the explanation to the first Commandment, Luther reminds us that an idol is anything we fear, love, or trust in more than the Triune God. There are still a great many idols out there - most of which don’t have temples or statues.
As we enter the 6th month of this pandemic, we see the world getting angrier and more divided. BLM, QAnon, Antifa, Republican, Democrat, Christian, Atheist, we all have our titles and tribes and these tribes seem to be increasingly violent towards each other. Civil unrest is not surprising during an election year, but 2020 seems different; almost as if the angst is caused by something else. Of course we have Covid-19 and all the changes that wrought, and maybe that’s the root cause. Perhaps Covid-19 and the response to it have exposed our idols for what they are.
One of our modern idols, one that affects young people in particular, is the idol youthful indestructibility. At the outset the younger members of society felt as if Covid could not affect them, or if it did it would be no worse than the flu - something they’d get over without too much discomfort. They even coined a new term for their god of perpetual health by calling this virus, “Boomer remover” as it seemed to be especially deadly for those over 60. Then Spring Break happened. The bars and beaches were packed. Social distancing was unknown. Suddenly hundreds and then thousands of people in their prime got sick and many even died. The god of “It won’t happen to me” was toppled as well as their worship of youth and mindset of immortality. Suddenly they realized they are just as mortal in the face of this virus as an 80 year old. The virus doesn’t discriminate, it will kill young and old alike. This isn’t just a god of the young. We have become accustomed to the wonders of modern medicine which would seem like a miracle to those only a century before us. If we get sick, or have an accident, or catch a “bug” all we need to do is take the right pill or have the right surgery or procedure and then we can resume our lives as usual with no disruption to our daily patterns. But there is no “cure” for Covid. All we can do is treat the symptoms with various levels of success and hope that our bodies can fight off the virus. There is no pill that is 100% effective at stopping it, no procedure that can correct the damage it causes, not even a vaccine that works without catastrophic side effects (at least not yet, though trials continue). All we can do is change our lifestyles to stay 6 ft (or more) apart, wear masks everywhere we go, and wash our hands often or use copious amounts of alcohol based sanitizer - and even that isn’t a certainty of protection.
The idol of invulnerability has been cast down. Whenever an idol falls, those who feared, loved, and trusted in it understandably become anxious, fearful, and angry. Much of the violence and vitriol we see in our world today has nothing to do with the cause(s) for which the perpetrators claim. You don’t hold a police department accountable by defunding it and burning down its stations. You don’t show that Black Lives Matter by demolishing the businesses of black business owners. When your “god” fails to save you and that / those which you love, it’s natural to look for a savior (or a devil) elsewhere. So when idols fall, where do you turn?
Christians are well aware of this idol and refuse to worship it. We know we are mortal and that we have all sinned in some way, shape, or form, both in what we have done (commission) and in what we have left undone (omission). We know the penalty or wages of sin is death and that death will eventually come to all of us. But our God is not a god of the dead but of the living. He raised the body of His crucified, dehydrated, shock-ridden, spear punctured, Son to life again on the third which has been perfected just as Christ’s body is. This is our hope when we say “I believe…in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” We know the earthly god of immortality and invulnerability to be just another idol.
Another of the idols Covid-19 has cast down is one that many of us, even regular church-goers, bow down to. That is the idol of family. If you have ever skipped out on church or refused to serve God n some way to see your grandchild’s soccer game or go to a family reunion, or just have some “family time” during the worship hour; then you have offered your pinch of incense to this idol. Now there’s nothing wrong with loving your family or spending time with them, in fact we are commanded to honor our fathers and mothers and to love our children and raise them in the fear and knowledge of the Lord (proverbs1:7 and others). Jesus makes it plain that family can become an idol when He says, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;” (Mt. 10:37). The key phrase in Jesus’ teaching is “more than me”; if family comes before God, we’ve got things in the wrong order.
Covid has certainly changed family dynamics. At the outset of the lockdowns and other mitigation strategies, we were expecting a baby boom by year’s end. But just the opposite has come to pass. Recent surveys show that marital intimacy has precipitously declined in this pandemic, down as much as 60% according to some results (too much of a good thing?). Divorces, especially online divorces, have increased 140% compared to last August (last month data was available). Domestic and child abuse are on the rise and parents having to suddenly become teachers and full time care givers has caused cracks in the family unit to open to full blown fissures. For many months, children could not see their grandparents, cousins, and, in the case of blended families, their step or half siblings. School and community sports were put on hold as were graduations, weddings, reunions, and other gatherings. Even funerals were restricted and many families never got a chance to say good-bye or find closure during the Covid-19 months. All it took was a virus one-billionth our size affecting less than 10% of the population to cast this idol from its throne.
While some families are seeing the fallacy of this idol, others have been strengthened by having to spend more time together. Parents and children who often passed each other by as one went to school or sports and the other went to work are now getting to know one another. When God is at the center of the family and their trust is in Him, then the inconveniences of the Covid-19 era are not earth shattering. As we resume worship, more families are seeking baptism, weddings, confirmations, and Christian education to strengthen their families and the understanding of the God who makes spouses, “no longer two but one.” (Mt. 19:6). Turning from an idol back to the Living God will always yield better results than what the idol promises.
Of course there are a great many more idols that have been knocked off their pedestals these last few months, but just take a few moments and consider what it is that you “fear, love, and trust in…above all other things.”. In the next installment we’ll continue looking at some of these idols in their post-Covid state as well as an idol of my own making that I just recently realized had become an idol in my life.
Until that time, I’ll leave you with John’s words, “Children, keep yourselves from idols.”
Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.