Union University R.G. Lee Society of Fellows

"American Idols"
Matthew 4:1-11

by Dr. Marvin Cameron
Pastor, First Baptist Church
Kingsport, TN


   Of all the “reality” television programs of the last couple of years, one captured the nation without forcing the participants to risk life and limb. The program is entitled, “American Idol.” A number of people of varying degrees of talent are invited to participate. The two finalists display their talent on the last episode. Following the final episode, viewers are encouraged to vote on-line for the winner. The names of Kelly, Reuben and Clay became household names in our nation last year.

   It is the title of the program that I find intriguing. The name, “American Idol,” seems to strike at the heart of one of our nation’s obsessions. We are consumed with fame and fortune and those who possess either. The title, “American Idol,” is sometimes given to those we know only by one name such as Elvis, Tiger or Michael. Their names are recognizable to millions, even billions.

   However, it seems that the title “American Idol” is not identified so much with an individual as with a concept. That concept would include fame, fortune and certain skills. These areas have become the objects of idolatry in our nation.

   The Bible has a good bit to say about idolatry, or making gods out of things. It is one of the most significant sins of the Old Testament. Repeatedly, we witness the people of Israel and other nations pursuing other gods and idols. We see the damage which results from it.

   We should not be surprised to see Jesus dealing with some of the same temptations very early in his ministry. The Gospel of Matthew offers us a glimpse into the internal and external struggles facing Jesus in the wilderness.

   We all know the story. It is the battle between good and evil. It comes at the conclusion of a period of fasting for Jesus. It is a time of spiritual preparation for the ministry he is about to embark upon. Now the tempter appears to test Jesus and his commitment to God.

   The tests Jesus faced could be compared to the tests facing every American today in a time of idolatry. Look at them again with that in mind. The first temptation is the temptation to change stones into bread. On the surface, it sounds innocent enough. Who would not want to feed hungry people? Jesus must have known hundreds who needed something to eat. There were certainly plenty of stones. Any visitor to the wilderness area east of Jerusalem has been struck by how barren the land is and how plentiful the stones are. Why not just change a few stones into bread? What could it possibly hurt?

   The first temptation is at the core of American idolatry. It is the temptation to take the easy way out. We see it everyday. Schools are filled with papers printed straight from the internet. Expense accounts are padded with phony charges. Coaches have been terminated because they falsified resumes. Sermons are stolen from other ministers without any attribution.

   Taking the easy way out has been elevated to the status of normalcy. We are no longer shocked, just bemused by it all. But Jesus provides the answer. In verse 4, He says, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

   Is that not the temptation involved in taking the easy way out? Is it not really the temptation to live by bread alone? We live as if all that matters is from the material realm. We measure our success, not in spiritual dimensions, but in material ones. Even churches suffer from this malady. We measure our achievements, not by lives changed, but by buildings built and budgets met. The challenge of Jesus to us is to tell others of the life that he came to give.

            Recently, I was privileged to study in the R. G. Lee Library at Union University. In one of his many scrapbooks, I read the following response to the question of what Baptists need to do: “We’ve got to wear out shoe leather…I believe every preacher should make a specific effort to win the lost regularly. That’s our main mission. And it’s what we’ve been neglecting.” Perhaps that is an appropriate response to the temptation to take the easy way out. I need to hear that reminder frequently. Nothing we do is more important than bringing others to know Jesus Christ. Taking the easy way out will not be an option for those who would follow Christ faithfully.

   The tempter’s second attempt seems almost magical. He suggests that Jesus jump from the pinnacle of the Temple and allow angels to catch him before he touched the ground. The implication is that Jesus should draw a crowd and show off His powers. “Get your name in lights and forget the source of the power,” he seems to suggest.

   Doesn’t that sound like 21st century America? Get your name in the public eye, no matter if it is positive or negative. The Super Bowl of 2004 is still causing a furor because of a “wardrobe malfunction” that few believe was unintentional. Was it merely a stunt to stimulate a declining career?  

   The second temptation could be translated into our society as the desire to have style over substance. It is the temptation to put on a show instead of delivering real goods. This temptation seems to strike at the heart of our culture. Some years ago I overheard a conversation between two major college athletes. One had not seemed to have put forth his best effort in the game that had just ended. The other asked if anything was wrong. The first responded, “I was just styling tonight.” In other words, he had not given his best; he just put forth enough effort to stay in the game.

   Have we ever done that as pastors? Have we ever substituted the glitz and glamour of a show for the hard work of Bible study and biblical preaching? Is it true that much of our worship is designed to make people feel good rather than encounter the living God? Have we sold our calling for a moment of fame?

   We Baptists are tempted to forfeit our heritage in this new day. We trade our Baptist distinctives for a moment of political influence or power. Those things which meant much to us today mean little, because they are not “stylish” in this culture.

   Dr. Lee addressed this in his volume, 501 Illustrations. He wrote of the price Baptists have paid for our religious freedom. “Multitudes who enjoy freedom of worship in our land should know that many church bells echo with groans of Baptists who suffered in jail and in stocks for religious freedom – and freedom of worship. The Bible which many love comes to us stained with the tears and blood of Baptists who stood for it on torture racks, in jail, in exile.” Surely they did not die for us to settle for the momentary “style” that replaces the substance of our heritage and God’s Word. We Baptists owe it to our ancestors to continue the struggle for freedom to worship in spirit and in truth.

   How did Jesus respond to the second temptation? With simple words: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Could it be that He was speaking to me? Or to our time? Do I ever put God to the test? How about you? What would Jesus’ response be to us as we are tempted to substitute style for substance?

   The third temptation is the most dramatic of all. The tempter shows our Lord the kingdoms of the world. “You can have it all!” There is just one little matter. Jesus would have to worship the tempter. Is this temptation not at the heart of the idols which confront America?

   We can frame the third temptation this way: You can have it all, if you just worship the things you want instead of God. Maybe it is not as dramatic in our lives. We do not have the opportunity to become master of all we survey. The temptation is more subtle and gradual. We begin our careers with high and noble ideals. We are out to change the world. Then, reality sets in. Someone else gets a promotion (or a bigger church) that we feel we deserve. Another uses unethical means to get ahead. He gets the raise, the nice car, the “good life.” And we begin to wonder, “What do I need to do?”

   Maybe it takes a different form. Perhaps our job becomes our god. All other relationships; with God, with family, with congregation, become secondary in life. We become consumed with the acquisition of things or titles. All the while, we slowly begin to worship what we want, not what we need.

   Dr. Lee, in his epic sermon, “Payday Someday,” relates a story about a young man who had been writing him critical letters. The fellow called himself, “The Chief of the Kangaroo Court.” He asked Lee to visit him in the Charity Hospital in New Orleans. The man informed Lee that his time in this life was drawing to a close. Yet, he had final words for the preacher. “I sent for you, sir, because I want you to tell these young fellows here something for me. I sent for you because I want you to go up and down the land and talk to many young people. And I want you to tell ‘em, and tell ‘em every chance you get, that the Devil pays only in counterfeit money.”

   How many of us are selling our lives and getting only counterfeit money in return? The counterfeit money may come in many forms, but not one of them is eternal.

   Jesus’ response to this final temptation is simple. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.” The antidote to the counterfeit culture of our day is simply this: the worship and service of God.

   Jesus passed all three tests with flying colors. He knew that man does not live by bread alone. Further, He was aware that it is not our place to test God. Finally, He knew the joy of worship and service to God and God alone. Could it be that those three lessons could allow us to defeat the temptations of American Idolatry? Might we be more effective witnesses, servants and pastors if we made Jesus’ words our own?

   Our task is the greatest calling anyone can know. As I read from Dr. Lee’s notes, I found this quote from the late Benjamin Disraeli, former Prime Minister of Great Britain: “For life is too short to be little.” Many of us spend precious time doing little things which become our idols.

   God is calling us to engage the culture, to announce the Good News and to overcome the idolatry of our age with the ageless truth of the Gospel. God help us not to succumb to the idols of this or any age!




   Marvin Cameron has been pastor of First Baptist Church in Kingsport, TN since 2001. He holds a Bachelor of Arts from Union University, a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Penny have two children, Chris and Tyler.