“IDOL-ING”

EXODUS 20:4-6

 

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             Imagine, for Trudy’s birthday, I decided to draw a picture of her, a portrait that would hang over our living room couch.  And her birthday is not until mid-November so I have a lot of time to think about the portrait, and work on it, and revise it, and then November 16th comes and I present her with the portrait.  Of course, the problem is I am not an artist, and though loving and polite as she always is, Trudy doesn’t think it’s a fair replication of who she is, but I am convinced it is and want to hang the portrait over the couch, but she does not.  If that happened, Trudy would be upset, and rightfully so because what I think is a fair and accurate representation of who she is, is not accurate at all.

            That’s the sense of the second commandment.  On July 4th we began a summer sermon series on the Ten Commandments, and maybe we should rename them.  Maybe we should call them the Ten Promises instead of the Ten Commandments because God promises if we live by them, life will go better for us.  If we follow the Ten Commandments life will be less stressful, less complicated, less painful. 

            Take the first commandment that we looked at two weeks ago: You shall have no other gods before me.  If we follow that commandment, our life will be free from a sort of Jekyll and Hyde existence where we are pulled in many different directions because we follow so many gods and have so many centers of trust and loyalty.  So, if we follow the first commandment - no other gods - our life will be more unified and ordered, less chaotic. 

            Now we come to the second commandment.  Listen to it.  I’m reading from Exodus 20, beginning in verse 4:

 

            You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to those to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

 

            If you were raised Lutheran or Roman Catholic or Jewish this second commandment, as we know it, does not exist.  Well, that’s not quite right.  It exists, but it is lumped into the first commandment, so our second commandment is actually the second part of the first commandment for Lutherans, Roman Catholics and Jews.  The Lutherans and Roman Catholics and Jews still have ten commandments but they split up our tenth commandment about coveting into their ninth and tenth commandments, the ninth dealing with coveting our neighbor’s house and the tenth about coveting our neighbors spouse and animals.  And to tell you the truth, I wished this week I was a Lutheran or a Roman Catholic or Jewish because our second commandment presented me with four challenges.

            Challenge number one was the problem of literalness.  Simply put, how literal are we to take verse four?  For example, our son gave us this little “Jayhawk” paper weight.  Should we have refused to accept it?  After all, the word “graven” literally means a sculpted or carved representation, and the fourth verse has nothing to do with worship.  Verse five does.  Verse five states that we should not bow down and worship the little Jayhawk, which our son, a KU grad sometimes does during basketball season, but that’s another story.  No, the fourth verse has nothing to do with worship.  The fourth verse is a simple, straightforward prohibition against any carving or sculpting any life form in the heavens, or on the earth or in the sea.  It’s as if this second commandment has a fence around it, to make sure we keep it.  To make sure we don’t end up worshipping these images, we are not even supposed to make them.

            And, for years, this is how the Hebrews understood this command.  For years the  Hebrews refrained from having statues of any kind, except for those God expressly prescribed.  Not so much as an animal head to decorate a chair, or a bird woven into the fabric of a rug was used, unless directly prescribed by God.  Of course, this hindered the Jewish arts for a number of years.  The Jews have given us much with music and literature, but not merely as much in sculpture and painting because of this fourth verse. 

            So, how literally do we take this verse? 

            Then there is the second challenge:  the problem of a jealous God. 

            I enjoy Garrison Keillor, particularly his Tales from Lake Wobegon.  Listen to this one.  It’s about people who come home for Christmas.  One of the returnees is Eddie.  Keillor writes,

 

            Eddie the Jealous Boy came home ... he came up with his lovely wife, Eunice.  She is the most beautiful woman ever to leave Lake Wobegon, having been elected Tri-County Queen in 1960, Miss Sixth Congressional District the same year, and then Miss Upper Mississippi Basin by the Corps of Engineers, and having won them all, she retired from royalty because it made Eddie crazy to see other men look at her and like her.  If she so much touched a man on the arm in a friendly way, it meant she’d later spend hours listening to Eddie’s hot dry angry voice and endure days of his silence, and so this funny and lovely woman has tried to please him and make herself quiet and dull and unattractive, but he’s more jealous than ever. 

 

            We don’t like a God like that.  A God like Eddie the Jealous Boy is so unbecoming and, not only that, but also how can jealousy be a virtue in God when it is a vice in us?  After all, didn’t the Apostle Paul write, The works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy ...?  How can jealousy be a virtue in God when it is a work of the flesh?  And doesn’t God go a little overboard by having his jealousy impact three generations of people?  That’s a lot of jealously. 

            And that’s the third challenge this commandment presented to me this past week:  the problem of fairness.

            This doesn’t seem fair.  Why should our great grandchildren suffer for something we did?

            Of course, I was comforted somewhat by what came in the next verse, verse 6:  but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 

            I think back to moment in college still seared into my memory.  A few of my buddies at UCLA thought it would be great to play intra-mural basketball, so we did, and we were fairly competitive until we played a team captained by Mike Warren, the former starting guard for UCLA’s national championship team.  Mike was in grad school at the time, and some of you may better remember him as Bobby Hill from the old television drama Hill Street Blues.  Let me tell you, we lost that game 76-18, and that was the half-time score, 76-18. 

            It was a blowout, but that blowout does not come close to the blowout here.  Yes, God may allow the logical consequences of our actions to spread to the third and fourth generation, however God’s steadfast love spreads to the thousandth generation.  Did you catch that score?  1000 to 4.  That’s a blowout.  You see, God’s natural inclination is to bless and not punish.  Of course, that’s not saying God will not punish.  God will, but the odds that are that you and I will more likely be on the side of blessing than on the side of punishment. 

            Then this commandment presented me with one more challenge: the problem of relevance. 

            We understand how this command would have been quite relevant for the ancient Israelites  I mean, on the heels of receiving this command Moses’ right-hand man, Aaron broke it.  Do you remember the story?  Moses went up to the mountain and stayed there forty days and nights while God gave him detailed plans for designing the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant.  While up there, the people back in camp got bored waiting for Moses to return, so they came to Aaron and said, “We are getting a little tired of following around an invisible God.  We want a god we can see and touch, like other people have.”  Aaron thought their argument made sense, and he asked for all their gold rings ... nose rings, earrings, toe rings, finger rings ... and he fashioned a golden calf, a graven image to worship.  When Moses finally came down from the mountain, he went ballistic.  He broke the tablets of the law, including the command about graven images, and Aaron came up with a doozy of an excuse, saying, “Hey, Moses, I don’t know how this happened.  We were all by the campfire one night, singing Kumbaya, and we were recommitting ourselves to God by throwing our golden rings in the fire, and whoosh, all of a sudden out popped this golden calf, and we thought it was pretty cool, and so we started bowing down to it.  And anyway, Moses, if you hadn’t taken so long up on the mountain, none of this would have happened.  If you think about it, it’s really your fault, not ours.”

            Well, folks, how do we relate to that?  After all, I don’t see much idol worship on my block.  I don’t see anyone bowing down to a ceramic frog, or a wooden duck, or a bronze bull in my neighborhood.  Do you have any of that on your block?  We are not a primitive people.  There may be people in some remote corners of the globe who do this kind of think, but I’ve never seen anyone do it, and I have never done it, and have absolutely no plans to do it.  So then, what do we do with this commandment?  Has it outlived its usefulness? 

            Of course, you may have guessed that I would say, “No, it has not outlived it’s usefulness,” and I say that because of the principle behind this commandment.  The principle is still relevant today, and here it is:  Do not restrict, diminish your God.  You see, that’s the problem with an idol.  It is but a shadow of God.  It reduces God.  A clever French guy put it this way.  He said “God made us in his own image, and now we repay the compliment.”  We have our own ideas of what God looks like, usually a white guy with a beard, and often we make it so God looks like us and sounds like us, just a bit more powerful.

            For example, how many times have you heard someone say something like, “Well, I like to think of God like this….”  and they go on to describe their picture of God, but that’s just an idea!  It's just a picture!   What we like to think about God doesn’t change what God is actually like.  We can think God’s a hamster, but that doesn’t make it true.

            I want to share a quote with you from a contemporary of Albert Einstein.  This contemporary was ruminating on why Einstein wasn’t into organized religion.  Here’s what the contemporary of Einstein had to say,

 

            I see the design of the universe as an essentially religious question  That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe of the whole business.  It’s very magnificent and shouldn’t be taken for granted.

            In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically spiritual man.  He must have looked at what the preachers were saying about God and felt that they were blaspheming ... My guess is that Einstein simply felt that the religions he had run into did not have a proper respect for the author of the universe.

 

            So, is there any hope?  Are we stuck with incomplete pictures of God?  Not quite.  Let me direct you to a verse of scripture in the New Testament.  Whatever picture we have of God in our minds needs to be replaced by this picture.  I invite you to turn to the Book of Hebrews, chapter one, verse three.  Listen to these words.  This is the picture we need in our minds when we conjure up an image of God. 

 

            He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. 

 

            That’s the image we need to keep front and center when we think about God.  Amen.