II. You shall not make for yourself an idol.
At my home church in St. Louis, they install paintings of the senior pastors within the church after they have retired from ministry there. However, while I was in college, the senior pastor at the time insisted that his painting be commissioned during his final five years, so that it could be placed in the beautiful building renovation he was helping to accomplish. Well, one morning a little girl was walking with her mother to worship through the gathering space where the painting was displayed. She looked up at the visage and said, “mommy, is that God?” Dumbfounded, I do not think her mother was sure how to respond. I think some of us fellow pastors, knowing ourselves, probably might have said, no, but sometimes we might fall into a trap of thinking so.
The second commandment of the ten is in fact, a continuation of the first commandment – you will have no other “little-g” gods before God. In reality, there are two forms of idolatry that are prohibited here. The first is obvious: we are not meant to make images of anything or anyone else in all of creation in order that we might worship it.
The second is a bit more daunting: we are not meant to make any images of God. In ancient times, this meant that artwork was, rather obviously, forbidden for fear of how it might lead us into unhealthy ways of life. However, if we unpack what is at the heart of this commandment, I think we will find that what God is asking has far more to do with our hearts than any piece of artistry that adds beauty to God’s creation.
Let’s take these two forms of idolatry in reverse. Starting first with images of God. The problem with creating images of God, especially if we consider them authoritative in any way, is that we are putting God into a box. We limit God. We prevent God from self-defining who God is going to be. And God has said from the very beginning that God is who God is. “I am who I am” is God’s name. What is more, what the ancient people of Israel understood, is that it is God’s own Word that defines who God is. The Word spoken at creation. The Word that came to Moses to save the people. And we know, the Word that became flesh.
But who is the Word? You know. We know. Because we follow that Word. And no, I do not mean the Bible. The bible is merely a written witness to the true Word of God. The true Word of God is Jesus Christ – the Word that was in the beginning and was with God and was God. The Word that brought all creation into being. The Word that defines who God is and who gives definition to all things. We must never give into the idolatry of thinking that Jesus is not our guide and guard in all things. It is the Christ – Jesus’s life, words, actions – through which we check everything in our life. Including scripture. Anything less, at least for us as followers of the Christ, will mean that we are not following the God we claim to serve.
And what has Jesus taught us about the God of all creation? That our God is expansive. Our God is bigger. Our God is more creative. More imaginative. More wondrous. Simply more than all generations had previously understood. Most importantly, Jesus taught us that our God is love. A love that does miraculous things that boggle the human mind. A love that seeks justice in all of human relationships. A love that will move mountains to ensure that every single person is welcomed back into the fold of God’s family. That is who Jesus, God’s Word made flesh, has taught us our God is.
The idolatry we tend to run into with God these days is trying to keep God in a box that is far too small. In a place we can control. Looking the way we want God to look. Acting like us. Sometimes it is artwork that does this, but far more often it is our hearts and minds that we keep closed around images of God that are not who our God really is.
Let’s talk about the other form of idolatry. It is true we tend not to make too many physical “little-g” gods out of wood and stone or clay these days. Although we do still have an affinity for bronze cows somewhere in the back of our minds I think. But again, this form of idolatry has far less to do with a love of artistry and far more to do with our hearts holding on to material things.
Remember what we learned last week? These days, our “little-g” gods still exist. They just tend not to be anthropomorphic. However we are often still choosing things we shouldn’t. Our possessions, our labels, our security, our status, our power, our beauty, our control. It is not that having some amount of security, of having a house and a car, of having some clothes, of having food security, and safety are bad things. Yet, we often grasp and grasp until we begin to choose those material things over the people we are meant to serve. To care for. To help. When we do that, those things become idols. They take the place where God is meant to be ruling in our lives.
Another form of idol worship we have in this world? When we look to anyone living on this earth as our Lord and Savior. There is an old joke that pastor nominating committees sometimes need to be reminded that the people they are looking at are not Superman and they are not Jesus – because we cannot save the church. That’s God’s job. But this applies to a far bigger picture than just individual pulpits. Anytime we place our faith in a human figure, especially one that has laid aside all that our God stands for, we are worshipping an idol. And ours is a jealous God – we should be mindful of our actions.
So what is meant to happen when we stop worshipping the idols that so tantalizingly tempt our focus? Who keep our minds in boxes? Who limit our viewpoints and sometimes have us wondering if we are seeing God in all the wrong places?
Then we will start seeing the world through heaven’s eyes. We will start seeing the image of God that God’s own hands have wrought that is walking all around us.
As God asked us not to make graven images, God had already placed the image of the Triune God everywhere in our midst. In us. God’s own self had made us. Breathed life into us. Made us to love and be loved.
But we tend to forget that. We lose sight of that image in ourselves and in everyone around us. As we shrink the vision of who God is, we also shrink who God can make us to be, let alone anyone else. And then, people can become commodities instead of God’s beautiful, living incarnations meant to create love and life here on earth.
Far too often in this life we forget what is most essential. We forget what it is that God wants us to remember. We are to have nothing else in our lives before God. Not “little-g” gods. No idols of wood or stone or clay. No boxes that keep God contained. We are to open our eyes and minds and hearts to who God truly is: something far more vast and wonderful than we can possibly imagine. A love more powerful than any force on this earth. And a creative force that chose to manifest that love in its own image in us. All of us. Every single other human on this earth. You will never look into the eyes of someone who God does not love. And the way that we truly worship our God, this immense and profligate God is by living as God’s love dictates, every moment and every breath of our lives. It’s just that simple. And it’s just that hard.