“Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21, ESV).
A 151-foot-tall hot-air balloon replica of Rio de Janeiro’s “Christ the Redeemer” statue wearing a soccer jersey floated over Melbourne, Australia, this week. The balloon, promoting the gambling company Sportsbet and the FIFA World Cup extravaganza, is the perfect amalgam of an old-fashioned, Ephesian-style temple idol and the more intangible heart yearnings for things other than God.
There is nothing wrong with soccer. Some of my best friends play soccer, especially the ones from Marseille. “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4, ESV). Or if you want to cavil that soccer wasn’t “created by God,” then I still adduce God’s denouncing of the false asceticism of those who cry “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch” (Colossians 2:21, ESV).
I merely make the point that a World Cup icon floating over Australia with a “Keep the Faith” hashtag hailing its national team enables us to look no further than helium Jesus for an example of the exhortation of the biblical author to keep ourselves from Greek “eidolown.”
In 1980 at a local Laundromat I met an old man doing his wife’s laundry. His name was Bruce Hunt, and while we waited through washing and drying cycles, he told me of his time (1938–1945) as a missionary in Korea during the Japanese occupation. In this case, literal idol worship at the Shinto shrines became the wedge dividing Christian against Christian. Some pastors refused to bow, while others came to the conclusion that the preservation of the church was well worth a bow. (Hunt belonged to the first camp and went to prison.)
My own idolatries have not centered on visible shrines. But I have bowed to desires that have been just as effective in derailing my relationship with God and wreaking havoc in my family. The immediate textural context of John’s admonition addresses devotees of having it your own way, as well as those who make of soccer a religion:
“… He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:20-21, ESV).
That is to say, nothing else is God and nothing else is life.