A sermon on Exodus 20:1-3 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 20 December 2020
Our message today is about idolatry. Idolatry seems stupid. Bowing down and worshipping statues. But as the picture posted above tries to show, idolatry can take different forms. And our smugness can blind us to our own idolatry.
There are basically two kinds of idolatry. And the first two commandments in Exodus chapter 20 talk about both of them. The first kind of idolatry is the worship of gods who are not the true and living God. The first commandment says,
You shall have no other gods beside me.
And we started talking about that last week. We may not worship Baal or Thor or Zeus. But we may worship money or celebrity or status in our community. Whatever we think is the ultimate reality or the greatest power that controls and defines our lives is our god. We don’t have to love it or worship it. We can hate it and fear it. But by our idolatry we try to control it.
The second kind of idolatry is to worship the true and living God using images and idols. The second commandments says,
You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous god.
God is not jealous like a girlfriend who wants to control every aspect of her boyfriend’s life, so that he cannot have any other friends. God is jealous like a wife who will not tolerate any other rivals for her husband’s affections, so that he cannot have any other lovers.
An idol is not just a statue or a picture. It is not just a work of art or a piece of engineering skill. It is more than an illustration or an educational tool. We use pictures in our church. Pictures of Jesus in my children’s talks or in my sermons. Are they idols? Not to me. Are we breaking the second commandment? Not in my opinion. But those are also, in my opinion, the wrong questions. The right question is this: If we got rid of those pictures would we have removed the real idols from our hearts? And the answer simply is no.
Because idols are more than pictures. They are physical, tangible representations of a god in order to create a channel of blessing. An idol is something I can see and touch. It may represent some aspect of the god’s nature or power in visible form. The worshipper can use the idol as a means of fellowship. The god is normally absent. Off in nature, bringing rain, increasing fertility. But by visiting the idol or by bringing the idol into his or her home, the worshipper can be with the god, both physically and spiritually. So then through an idol the worshipper can harness the god’s power. Just like our system of dams and canals take the rain that falls in the mountains to farms in the drier inland, so the idol brings the god’s blessing into the worshipper’s life. It becomes a tool of control, focusing the god’s natural power, like a magnifying glass can focus the sun’s light to start a fire.
We can make an idol from the church building, mistaking the “church” that the church meets in for the church that meets in the “church”. Now, in English both things are called church. The people who meet and the building they meet in. But when the Bible talks about the church it means the people, the congregation. So although we can use the same word for them, we shouldn’t confuse them in our hearts. We can also make an idol out of our favourite pew so that we cannot summon the presence of God in our heart unless we are sitting in it.
But our idols can be more subtle. We can make an idol out of our regular pattern of worship, reciting the Lord’s prayer, singing three Amens, as if God is not truly with us unless we conform to these regular patterns. That’s something we’ve had to learn this year with the ban on singing, can we worship God without singing hymns? As if the true and living God cannot do business with our hearts and lives if we skip this or that normal part of our worship.
When I was a very young minister I made an idol out of graphs. I would count the people who came to church, I would count the money they put in the offering, and I would chart the graphs and calculate the averages. And if the graphs were going up, God loved me and had blessed my ministry. But if it rained or it was the school holidays or it was clean up Australia Day and the numbers were down, I was devastated, because God had abandoned me.
I think the heart of idolatry is about control. Whether it is a statue or a lucky coin or a graph on a computer. An idol summons the presence of the power and blessing of God on my terms, at my timing, under my conditions, as if I cannot trust the true and living God to generously give his blessing. You see, there are two kinds of idolatry. It’s not just about worshipping another god. It’s also about trying to control the one true God we worship.
Idols of any kind are wrong, whether they are the idols of others that we make fun of, or whether they are the idols we secretly cherish in our own hearts. Idols are wrong because they cannot do justice to the true and living God. They are poor substitutes. They cannot take his place. They cannot do what he can do. They try to make visible what cannot be seen, and make physical what is purely spiritual. They are made of wood, so they cannot see. They are made of stone, so they cannot hear. They are graphs on a computer screen that cannot encourage or affirm me. If they fall down, they cannot even pick themselves up. So why would anyone ever ask for their help?
People make idols. They cannot bring us fellowship with the God who made us. They are illusions. Figments of our own imagination. They cannot do justice to the God who in his infinite wisdom imagined and designed and made us. As Paul says in Romans chapter 1,
They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised. Amen.
Worshiping gods we make instead of the God who made us. Robbing him of his glory, giving it to lesser, unworthy things. Our highest dignity is to know and love and serve our maker. But by bowing down to created things, the works of our own hands, we make ourselves less human.
No image, no representation can do justice to the glory of the true and living God. A statue of a bull could try to represent God’s strength, but not his holiness. A statue of a woman with a blindfold holding a pair of scales, could try to represent God’s impartial justice, but not his fatherly care for the poor and the weak. A crucifix can remind us of pain and suffering of the cross. But it cannot do justice to the strength and willingness of Jesus’ sacrifice the power of his resurrection or the vigour of his risen life. Idols reinforce the image of God that we imagine, rather than seeking God as he really is. And relying on idols in our worship of God means not coming to God with humble and broken hearts, but expecting God to come to us on our own terms, and at our demand. It means forsaking the true God and worshipping as God our own hopes and aspirations, our own needs and wants. Gods of war and fertility and vengeance rather than the God of truth and faithfulness and grace. It means trying to tame God, like chaining a bear and training it to dance to our music.
No, the only image of God, the only true visible, tangible representation of his being, the only picture that does justice to the complex nature of the true and living God, is our Lord Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul says in Colossians chapter 1,
He, the Son, is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.
It is Christ who shows us what God is like. It is he who brings the presence of God into our lives. It is he who is not controlled by us but who moves us by his own Spirit. It is he, and not a picture of him, not a Christ frozen in place on a cross, but the real him, made real on every page on the bible. He is God with us, the word of God revealed to us, the Son of God who makes him known. He is the image of God. The image in which we were made. The image in which we are being restored by his Spirit. When we imagine that God is absent and that we must summon his blessing into our life, Christ is the presence of God with us.
At the heart of idolatry is the desire for control. To tame God. Like Adam and Eve who took the forbidden fruit to be like God. To master God so that he dances to our tune. So at the heart of faith must be the decision to give up control. To acknowledge our creator who does as he pleases. To acknowledge our Father who does everything for our good. To acknowledge our Saviour who doesn’t need to be put on tap because his blessing floods our life. To acknowledge the Spirit, the power of God at work in our lives, setting us free for God and for our true selves. Maybe not on our terms. Maybe not at our appointment. But continuously and generously, he comes to us and is at work all around us, if we have eyes to see it.
We can make fun of savages and of their idolatry. But our own behaviour makes fun of us. May we have grace from God to root out all idolatry from our hearts to serve the true and living God.