Fear and Idolatry


[The above recording and the manuscript below is a sermon delivered at Bethel Bible Church – Whitehouse on 7/17/2016 entitled “Fear and Faith (Part 2).”] 

As I mentioned last week and will continue to emphasize this week and next, the focus of our time in the Scriptures this morning will be on the relationship between fear and faith. Last week we looked at the story of Mark 4 and Jesus’ calming of the storm. If you remember, we observed that fear is not a bad thing; in fact, we are designed, as creatures, to be fearful. When we fear the Creator rather than His creation, it gives us only one object for our faith when we are looking for salvation from the storm: God.

This week, I would like for us to consider this question: what happens when we allow ourselves to be afraid of created things rather than the Creator Himself? Or to put it more directly:

  • What happens when we are more afraid of what we see than what we believe?
  • What happens when we are more afraid of what people will say and do than what God has already said and done?
  • What happens when we are so afraid that we forget about God entirely?

I’ll be the first one to admit that, unfortunately, I know the answer to these questions from first hand experience. And maybe some of you do too. But in either case, I think it will be worth our time this morning to look at the answer to these questions – as humiliating as it may be – in hopes that we do not continue to misplace our fear or our faith.

So, where would you turn to answer questions like these? The Book of Numbers, of course! I’d like for us to look at Numbers 13 and 14 this morning, please, if you’ll turn there with me.

Numbers 13 and 14 tells the story of the 12 spies who were sent out to investigate the Promised Land before the Nation set out to take possession of it. The story happens just over a year after the Nation of Israel had come out of Egypt. In that first year, the people had made their way out of Egypt, they had heard from God at Mount Sinai, and they had begun following the pillar of smoke that rested on the Tabernacle.

As the nation drew closer to the southern edge of the Promised Land, Moses assembled the people and told them, “Go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has told you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deut. 1:21). This is all the instruction the people should have required. God said “go”. However, as if a scouting report would help them more than the presence of the Living God, the people ask Moses if they can send out men to explore the land and gather intelligence about it before they proceed. God is generous to the people and says in Numbers 13:1, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a chief among them.” So Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran, according to the command of the Lord, all of them men who were heads of the people of Israel.”

Moses does as the Lord commanded and selected 12 leaders (we should really refer to them as leaders; spies is a bit misleading); one from each tribe. Then, if you’ll look in verse 17, Moses gives the spies some additional instructions and tells them, “Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land.”

Moses asks the twelve leaders to do three things: 1). Bring back a scouting report on what they see  2). Bring back some of the fruit of the land and 3). Be of good courage. Moses gives them these instructions not because he needs the intel; he trusts God will make it possible for them to possess the land. The intel will rather serve as a testimony to God’s greatness and faithfulness to keep His promise – which is exactly why they should be of good courage and bring back some appetizers.

So, they go. They travel a massive region of land from the south of Israel all the way up into what is Modern Syria and even beyond. It took them forty days to make the circuitous route. When they return home, they debrief Moses and the congregation in verse 27 saying, ““We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large.” And the leaders go on to describe their foes and other seemingly inevitable pitfalls in the land. They conclude by saying they don’t believe it can be taken; they are afraid that they cannot defeat the people who live there.

Then, we come to the most important exchange in the story, v. 31: “But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.”

Now, I want to give the leaders of the tribes of Israel the benefit of the doubt, here, but at the same time, it’s hard to imagine that after what had just happened a year earlier at the Exodus – remember the 10 plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the defeat of the most powerful nation in the world at that time? Yeah, that – that these leaders of the people would be so hard pressed to believe that the same God who delivered them from the hands of the Egyptians would not also give them the land that He had promised? Apparently so. In fact, God’s presence doesn’t seem to even be an afterthought for them; except for Caleb and Joshua, that is.

To make matters worse, Chapter 14, begins the response of the people to their leaders:  panic. Verse 1: “Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

They haven’t even faced an army yet; they haven’t even tried to possess the land and they are ready to abandon ship, disavow their God and run back to the country they prayed so earnestly to be delivered from. The fear of their circumstances is greater than their fear of the Lord. That’s just like fear, though, isn’t it? When we’re afraid it makes us do such silly things that seem so rational at the time, but are faithless, misguided, and desperate. In fact, as soon as they stop fearing the Lord, they lose their faith in him as well. And what do they do? They immediately start looking for another “leader” (or should I say, savior?).

And what about the response of those who still fear the Lord in the story? Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua – they remember what happened at the base of Mount Sinai when the people decided that their God and their leader had abandoned them: make us another god! That wasn’t even a year ago – and the discipline from that incident was severe. Moses and Aaron’s fear is rightly oriented in God & what is the result? They say, verse 7, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” They remind the people of what they should have already known: “We should fear the one who created and commands the people who live in the Land that the Lord has given us. We have nothing to fear except Him alone.” In fact, they remind them that fearing the people would be an act of rebellion against the Lord.

The response of the people to such godly counsel? Get some rocks! Let’s overthrow our leadership and get out of here.

Isn’t that just like fear? Even when someone speaks the truth to us, if we’ve misplaced our fear in something that’s not God, we’ll be so overcome with anxiety we won’t recognize the truth that can set us free from it. We feel safer going where our fear wants us to go.

The remainder of chapter 14 is the story of how Moses’ fear of the Lord (and the Lord’s reputation) causes him to intervene on behalf of the people before an angry God. God wants to destroy the people and start over, but Moses’ pleas persuade God to pardon their iniquity, but His pardon is not without discipline. Because of their faithlessness and disobedience, God tells that generation that they will wander for 40 years in the wilderness and die there (a year for each day they spied out the land) – never seeing what was promised to them. Instead Joshua and Caleb would be the leaders for the next generation and lead them in to possess the land. God is still keeping his promise to the Nation, just not the generation. The only people who die right away are the other 10 leaders; they are overcome with a plague.

Now, this story illustrates how powerful misplaced fear can be. We watch a sort of progression happen with the leaders and the congregation throughout this story that are the three principles I would like for us to focus on this morning:

1. Misplaced fear leads to misplaced faith

2. Misplaced faith leads to misplaced worship

3. Misplaced worship leads to a misplaced life

Let’s talk about each of these for a moment.

First, misplaced fear leads to misplaced faith.

Do you know what fear is? Can you define it? Fear is the emotional response to circumstances we perceive that we cannot control & that will do us harm. For example, if a cockroach walked through those doors right now, I doubt that many of you would jump out of your seats screaming “run for your lives!” Sure, some of you might be grossed out, but few if any of you would experience fear. Why not? Because even if you are startled by the cockroach, all you have to do is squash it and it is no longer a threat to you. It is something you know you can control, so you don’t really experience fear.

Now, on the other hand, let’s say a couple of thousand-pound grizzly bears come in through the doors and they haven’t eaten in months. In that moment, we evaluate the situation: this is a circumstance we know we cannot control and will likely do us harm. So, we begin to experience this emotion of fear. But none of us would just sit there and say, “Hmm, I’m afraid right now.” Fear always leads us to action. In those split seconds we have to make a decision, and the question we are asking ourselves is:

“What do I perceive has the power to save me from this circumstance I cannot control that will do me harm?”

Some of you would rely on your quick feet and dart out the other door. Some of you would whip out your concealed weapon (that you’re not supposed to have in the building..ahem) and find out how effective a pistol is against a grizzly bear. Some of you would barricade yourselves behind some tables and chairs. Others of you might go all Davy Crockett on the bear and whip out your Bowie knife and take it down. Some of you might even trick the bear into eating the communion elements while you make your escape.

In any case, fear immediately causes us to look for a savior.

The Israelites heard the report of their leadership that this promised land they had heard so much about was all a big sham. Their greatest fears had come to pass. They had journeyed a year into the desert – leaving the most prosperous nation in the world – only to come out here and have their leadership tell them that it’s never gonna happen. And what do they do? Filled with their worst fears, they take matters into their own hands and begin looking for another savior.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t carry guns or Bowie knives with us in case Grizzly bears barge into church services, but if that did happen, would any of us have the courage when the bears came in to drop to our knees in prayer? Wouldn’t that be just as viable a means of salvation as a gun or a knife? It did work for Daniel . . .

I don’t mean to guilt you here; I’d probably be the one tricking the bears to eat the communion elements, myself. I’m just trying to illustrate two things: first, that there are things like guns and knives that we would never think to call an idol, but can quickly become one if we put our hope in it instead of God. What we turn to for help in those quick moments reveals what we perceive has the power to truly save us, does it not? The second is that sometimes in our lives when we experience fear, it is just as easy – if not easier – to place our faith in things that are not God. Both illustrate the bottom line: faith is easily misplaced – and sometimes we don’t even notice.

The second principle we need to learn is that misplaced faith leads to misplaced worship.

Once the Nation of Israel was afraid of their circumstances more than their God, they sought to control their circumstances rather than believe God’s promises. They refused to risk their lives and possess the land and decided to stone their leadership and go back to Egypt. That will solve their problems; that will bring them comfort; that will quiet their fears.

Here’s the tricky thing: sometimes taking matters into our own hands really works; it takes away our fears and makes us feel better. Sometimes placing our faith in things other than God is more immediately satisfying than trusting in Him. And if it’s satisfying one time, what do you think we’ll do the next time we experience a similar fear? We’ll choose it again and again and again.

And that’s just the story of the Nation of Israel, isn’t it? We continually find the Nation worshipping false gods and taking matters into their own hands throughout the rest of the Hebrew Bible. The Prophets will call this idolatry and adultery and forecast the Nation’s imminent destruction because of her choice to place her faith in things that are not gods at all.

The same is true for us. When you follow your fears, you’ll find what you worship.

Fear can lead us to idolatry just as quickly as it can lead us to Jesus. God has designed us to fear him, but if we place our fear in something other than Him, we end up worshipping something that is not God at all. And that’s called idolatry. We don’t ever wake up in the morning and think to ourselves, “Gosh, I could sure use some more idols in my life today.” No. We just get scared and we make quick godless decisions and that’s all it takes; we’re ready to embrace an idol.

Finally, number three, once our worship has been misplaced our life will surely follow.

The funniest part of this story in Numbers 13 and 14 is that after God, you know, took them out behind the woodshed and told them they would wander in the wilderness for 40 years and die there, they say in verse 40, “Here we are. We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned.” See how fickle fear is? Now that the fear of the Lord’s discipline was greater than the fear of possessing a land with great and mighty enemies, they are all of the sudden ready to go and fight. It’s like my kids when I’ve told them they’ll lose TV if they don’t clean their room. They don’t clean their room, I tell them they have lost the privilege of television and then all of the sudden – bam! – their room is clean and they expect to be able to watch Star Wars. I don’t think so.

Then, of course, they pitch another fit when I tell them that I actually meant what I said about losing TV. “Get some rocks!”

Their heart is truly revealed. They don’t care to honor or reverence or obey me – they just want to use me so that they can have what they want. That’s the core of what an idol-maker does: crafts a god to worship so that he can have a god that does what he wants.

When we forsake the One True God for gods of our own making, we will surely die.

Here’s what I mean: when we tell the Author of Life that we know better than him; he will call us on it. It’s like this poster my parents had hanging up in the hallway of my house growing up: “Teenagers: tired of being harassed by your parents? Act now! Move out. Get a job. While you still know everything.” What do we all know will happen to that teenager? He would wreck his life – maybe even die. Sadly, that’s what will happen to us when we place our hope in idols that are no gods at all.

So, I asked the question at the beginning, “what happens when we allow ourselves to be afraid of created things rather than the Creator himself?”  What happens when we are more afraid of what we see than what we believe? More afraid of what people will say and do than what God has already said and done?

Answer? We become idol worshippers.

Only our idols aren’t silver and gold. They are far more sophisticated these days. We know that a statue can’t do anything for us.

But having power or influence over others?

Amassing people who love and respect us?

Attaining a certain level of wealth and financial freedom?

Being able to master a weakness in our lives?

Making sure people are dependent on us and need us?

Gaining recognition and worth for our accomplishments?

These are idols we are much more familiar with. These are idols that many of us have turned to in moments of fear – and we didn’t even notice.

Friends, Jesus didn’t die on the cross for our sins and rise from the grave so that we can live our lives clamoring for more power, more approval, more comfort, or more control. He is the Author of Life, the creator of all things, he is before all things and in him all things hold together. If that is our God and we are His people, then what have we to fear, but Him? His death and resurrection have secured for us a peace that surpasses all understanding and guards our hearts and our minds from anything that could cause us to misplace our faith. He is the only one who has the power to truly save us from our circumstances because He is the only one who is in control of them. Let us be found believing that truth more than what our eyes may see or our hearts may feel.

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3 thoughts on “Fear and Idolatry”

  1. Thank you for providing this sermon online. I’m preaching on David and Goliath and I made the same connection between fear(our Giants) and Idolatry. Reading your sermon gave me several insights that I didn’t think about. Do I have permission to use some of your language and main points?

    1. Dwayne – Glad to hear that this was helpful to you in your study. Thank you for asking; feel free to use portions as you see fit to encourage your congregation. May God bless the preaching of His Word!

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