As a boy, I was a devoted follower of the “Hot Stove League.” This league took place between the end of the Major League Baseball season in October and the beginning of the next season in April. It received its name from the image of men ensconced in a hunting cabin and warming themselves around a wood-burning stove while swapping fantasies about possible trades. The dream was that your favorite team could trade some nonproductive player and get a superstar in return, a player who would lead the team to the pennant.
In Pittsburgh, the dream was a fixation. Our joke was that the Pirates were in first place in the National League—if you turned the newspaper upside down. Each year I rooted for the “cellar” team. The only good thing about our team was Ralph Kiner, the Hall of Fame-bound home-run hitter. A ball autographed by No. 4 adorns my desk in the office.
Then came the fateful day—”Doomsday” in the eyes of Pirate fans—when word came over the wires that Kiner was involved in a “blockbuster” trade with the Chicago Cubs. Kiner had been swapped for a couple of mediocre players, plus “a player to be named later.” It turned out that this mystery player was the key to the deal. He was a highly promising minor leaguer who, when he came up to the Pirates, was about as hot as his last name. (I’ll keep you guessing on that, but it rhymes with “Sneeze.”)
With every trade, hopes soar. We part with someone or something we are willing to let go in order that we can gain something we want but presently lack. Sometimes trades benefit both parties, but this ideal is rarely realized.
Though the Kiner trade was a bad deal, it pales into insignificance when compared with the worst of all possible trades. Far and away, the worst trade is a theological one. It is a trade that we might deem foolish—nay, incredibly stupid. But its utter stupidity is exceeded by its wickedness. This trade is one in which God Himself is exchanged for an idol.
In Romans 1 Paul describes this exchange: “…although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.
How dumb is this deal? Swapping the immortal, invisible, only-wise God for a creepy crawler? Or trading the eternal God of majestic glory for a totem pole or a carp?
Imagine a craftsman taking an inert block of wood or stone, then sculpting it into the image of a fish. When his work is finished, he cleans up the chips from the floor, puts away his chisel and hammer, then falls on his knees to pray to the deaf and dumb object he just made for himself. The Old Testament prophets scoffed at those who fashioned idols by their own hands.
And yet, this sort of trade is approved by every human being. There is no sin more basic, no sin more common to humanity than the sin of idolatry. It is the oldest sin known to man.
Why such stupidity? Why such evil? Why do we all have the propensity to swap the truth for the lie? Obviously it is because we desire the lie more than the truth.
The truth about ourselves in light of the glory of God is too painful to behold. It reduces us to radical corruption. It reveals our sin. This revelation is so threatening to us that we stop at nothing to drive God from our thoughts. By nature, we will not have Him in our thinking: He must be banished from our consciousness, exiled from our lives. The vacuum left by His departure may then be filled by more friendly “deities,” those we create for ourselves who make no absolute claims upon us.
Simply put, none of us wants to be judged in light of the absolute standard of the holiness of God. We would rather be judged against a lesser standard—say the standard of the snake or the crocodile. The morality of snakes does not embarrass me. The ethics of the crocodile do not intimidate me. I can compete with creatures, but not with God. And so, we exchange the Creator for the creature. Unfortunately, conversion does not suddenly erase our proclivity for idolatry. This sin lurks at the door of every Christian. It simply manifests itself in more subtle and sophisticated ways than by the fashioning of the image of a snake or a cow.
Idolatry grabs us by the throat when we “remodel” the Biblical God into one of our own liking. We approach God as if His attributes were special dishes offered at a smorgasbord. We carry our tray through the line and select a little love, a portion of grace, and a double helping of mercy. But we plead a special diet when we pass by His holiness, justice, wrath, and sovereignty. By stripping God of His sovereignty, His omniscience, or His omnipotence, we cut Him down to a size we can live with.
It is no wonder that the Law of God puts so much weight on the prohibition against idolatry. The first four of the Ten Commandments all deal with this sin in one way or another.
God and God alone is worthy of our worship. His attributes are not subject to change or negotiation. We must constantly examine our thoughts to insure the God we affirm is the Biblical God in the fullness of His glory. Anything less is an idol of our own making—a lie that has been substituted for the truth.
There is no trading season for God. The only Hot Stove League that seeks to swap Him for something better is the league of hell itself.