American Idols

Exodus 20:3

“You shall have no other gods before me.

Dear Friends in Christ,

The year was 1924 and the Olympic Games were to be held in Paris, France.  A new sport had been added that year to the list of international competitions and that was the sport of canoe racing.  The team that was favored to win the 4-man canoe race was from the United States.  One of the members of that team was a fellow by the name of Bill Havens.

As the time for the Olympics drew near, however, it became clear that Bill’s wife could very well be giving birth to their second child about the time he would be competing.  Now remember, this was 1924, long before the days when supersonic jet liners could shuttle people across the Atlantic Ocean in just a few hours.  Rather there were only slow-moving ocean-going ships.  So Bill found himself precariously perched on the horns of a dilemma.  Should he go to Paris and risk not being at his wife’s side when their second child was born?  Or should he withdraw from the team and remain behind?  Bill’s wife insisted that he go to Paris, that this was something he had been working toward for years.  But still the decision was not an easy one for Bill to make.

Finally, after much soul searching, Bill decided to withdraw from the competition and remain behind with his wife and experience the birth of their child.  He finally came to the conclusion that that was a higher priority than going to Paris to fulfill a life-long dream.   So that’s what he did.  To make a long story short, the United States 4-man canoe team won the gold medal without Bill and though Bill competed in future races, he never won an Olympic medal.

People said, “What a shame.”  But Bill said he had no regrets because he viewed his commitment to his wife to be more important than his commitment to his dream.

That word commitment is what we’re going to spend our time talking about today, only we’re not going to be looking at our commitment to our spouse or our commitment to a dream or a goal.  Rather we’re going to be talking about our commitment to God as we continue with a sermon series that I began last Sunday entitled “The Fundamentals of Our Faith” and that will find us studying the 10 Commandments.  And to help us keep our focus here, I’ve even come up with a sub-theme to this series that I have to confess I kind of like.  I’m calling it “Straight Talk for Crooked Lives.”

Before we get started with the 1st Commandment, though, I want to just remind you of a term that you may or may not recall from your Confirmation days, however many years ago that may have been.  And that term is “the 2 tables of the Law.”  The 1st table of the Law deals with Commandments 1-3 and focuses upon our relationship with God.  It was once summarized by Jesus when he was approached by an expert in the Law who asked him: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Remember what Jesus said in response?  He said, “`Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.”  That was his way of summarizing the 1st table of the Law.  But then he was quick to give a summary of the 2nd table of the Law – Commandments 4-10 – that focuses upon our relationship with our fellow human beings when he said, “And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”  So as we work our way through the 10 Commandments in this series, try to keep that distinction in mind.  The 1st table of the Law deals with our love for God; the 2nd table of the Law deals with our love for others.

So let’s get started now with the 1st Commandment where God says: “You shall have no other gods before me.”  I believe there’s a good reason why God made this commandment the first one.  If we could keep this one perfectly, then we would have no problem keeping all the others.  If we would give God first place in our lives at all times, then we would never misuse his name; we would never violate the Sabbath Day; we would always honor our parents and those over us in authority; we would always treat our fellow human beings as God commands us to do.  Unfortunately, this is the one commandment that we probably break more frequently than all the others, which in turn causes all the others to come tumbling down in our lives like a house of cards in a windstorm.

Now at the heart and core of this 1st Commandment is a sin that the Bible refers to as idolatry.  And I would imagine that when most of us think of idolatry, we might picture something like this (show picture of Israelites worshiping the golden calf).  Remember that?  Here God had just delivered the Israelites from 430 years of slavery in the land of Egypt and he had done so with great signs and mighty wonders that included the 10 plagues that he brought upon the Egyptians and the parting of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian soldiers in that sea when God brought the waters crashing back down upon them.  You would think that after such incredible displays of power and protection the Israelites would be committed to God forever.  But their commitment lasts only about 3 months at which time they find themselves at the foot of Mt. Sinai where, again, God manifested his presence and glory in some pretty impressive ways that included thunder and lightning, a thick cloud and smoke, a very loud trumpet blast, and the shaking and quaking of the mountain.  God was as real to them and as near to them and available to them as he had ever been.  But when Moses went up on that mountain to receive from God the very commandments that we are studying right now and when he was slow in coming down from that mountain, the people grew impatient.  So they grabbed Moses’ brother Aaron, who had been left in charge of things, and they said: “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”  And sadly, Aaron caved in to the pressure.  He said, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.”  So that’s what they did.  And out of all that gold, Aaron fashioned an idol in the shape of a calf, probably very similar to one of the idols that the Egyptians worshiped.  And with Moses still on the mountain enjoying sweet communion and fellowship with God, the people declared that this idol was the god responsible for bringing them out of Egypt and they began to engage in an orgy of idolatry and immorality that included dancing and revelry, worshiping and sacrificing to this false god that had been made by human hands.

That’s idolatry, right?  At least that’s what most people think of when they hear that term.  And that’s sad because who among us has ever engaged in that kind of idolatry?  You might find that over in Africa or some other uncivilized part of our world, but you’re not going to find cultured and refined people in the United States of America bowing down before an idol made of wood or stone or some kind of precious metal.  So there’s a risk here that people who hold to that view of idolatry might look at the 1st Commandment and say, “Well, I’m ok here.  I’ve never worshiped an idol, so I guess I’ve got this commandment under control.”  And that’s one reason why I like to stipulate between 2 types of idolatry.  The first one I refer to as coarse idolatry.  This is the most blatant, the most obvious form of idolatry, like the one we just looked at.  This does involve actually bowing down and worshiping a literal idol.  Or it might involve worshiping the sun, the moon, the stars, as some primitive tribes do.

But then there’s another form of idolatry that we are much more familiar with because this is the type of idolatry that we all engage in from time to time.  I call it refined idolatry.  And it simply means placing something ahead of God in your life; failing to give him 1st place at all times; failing to give him the kind of commitment that he desires, deserves, and yes, demands of us.  And oh my goodness, when we start talking refined idolatry, the list of American idols that we can come up with is virtually endless.

For example, whenever I ask my students in both my youth and adult Confirmation classes what is the #1 god that people worship in America today, without exception they say: MONEY!  We even use a god-like term for it, don’t we?  We sometimes call it “the almighty dollar.”  Martin Luther once said that the last part of a person to be converted is his pocketbook.  And I believe he was right.  While it’s very easy to receive from God the treasures of his grace and mercy and forgiveness that he offers us in Jesus, when it comes to giving back to him our own treasures in proportion to how he has given to us, that’s where people balk.  That’s where they falter.  In fact, statistics I recently came across on the Internet reflect this all too well as they revealed that over the past 30+ years Americans consistently give anywhere from 1.5 to 2.0% of their income to charitable causes.  That’s a far cry from the standard tithe or 10% that God called for from his people in the Old Testament.  So money can definitely be our god.

So also can sports.  In fact, I would say that this is one of the biggest American idols we have in our country today.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I love sports just as much as the next guy.  I love to play them and I love to watch them.  But when we start placing sports ahead of God, when we spend more money going to a ball game than we would ever dream of putting in the offering plate, when we start having sports activities for our children on Sunday morning during the worship hour which is becoming more and more common these days, that’s when we’ve made a god out of sports and that’s when we find ourselves in violation of the 1st Commandment.

Like I said before, the list of gods that we worship today is endless.  If time permitted, we could talk about the god of recreation, the god of the stock market, the god of alcohol, the god of television, the god of the Internet, the god of PlayStation, the god of Facebook, the god of cell phones or Snap Chat or Instagram.  And if you don’t think a cell phone can become your god, consider this statistic.  In 2017 it was reported that the average female teenager sends 4050 texts per month while the average teenage male sends 2,539.

Now again, there is nothing wrong with these things in and of themselves, but when we start placing them ahead of God, when we start relating to them more than we do to him, when we say that we just don’t have time to read the Bible or pray or go to church because we are so busy, but we’re busy doing those things I just mentioned, then those things have become our god and we are guilty of the sin of idolatry.  And we need to take that sin to the foot of the cross and ask our Heavenly Father to forgive us for relegating him to the lower rungs of our lives rather than giving him top billing.  And we need to ask for the power of the Holy Spirit to help us bring to fulfillment the words of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount when he said: “But seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”

That’s really what Bill Havens did in that story I started my sermon with today.  He knew that his first and foremost God-given obligation was to be there with his wife when she was about to give birth rather than to be pursuing an Olympic gold medal on the other side of the globe.  And I think God just might have taken note of that, for the child that was born to Bill and his wife was a boy, whom they named Frank.  Twenty-eight years later, in 1952, Bill received a cablegram from Frank.  It was sent from Helsinki, Finland, where the 1952 Olympics were being held.  The cablegram read: “Dad, we won.  I’m bringing home the gold medal you lost while waiting for me to be born.”  Yes, Frank Havens was part of the team that had just won the gold medal for the United States in the canoe-racing event that his father had dropped out of 28 years before.

Now some would call that a mere coincidence.  And maybe it was.  But remember Jesus’ words: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Could it be that because Bill Havens sought to fulfill his God-given obligation to his wife first, God added that special blessing unto him when his son brought home the gold medal?  I’d like to think so.  And who knows what the great God of the universe will do for you when you give him the highest place of honor in your life and allow him to have free reign over all that you do?  Amen.

ADDENDUM: In June of 1924, the S.S. America left with Team USA for France without Bill Havens. The team included James Rockefeller; Jack Kelly, Grace Kelly’s father; Johnny Weissmuller, Hollywood’s future Tarzan; Benjamin Spock of Dr. Spock fame; and Bud Havens, brother of Bill. In July at the Olympics the crew won three gold, one silver and two bronze medals in six events.