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Idol Worship

Judy Skaggs

June 26, 2011
Exodus 20:4-6

06-26-2011 SermonLast Sunday, San began our summer preaching series on the 10 Commandments. These are God’s gracious instruction to God’s people. In the Reformed tradition, we don’t look as these commands as a measuring stick for righteousness or a litmus test for purity, but rather as a covenant that lies at the heart of our relationship with God and with one another.

The passage San read last week began with a reminder that God had chosen and saved Israel from the slavery of Egypt, and because of that, God provided the people with an important way to respond in acceptance of this gracious act. The Torah, which is translated as instruction, is the means God’s people can use to respond to God’s redemption.

We find that the writer of the Heidelberg Confession which is from the Presbyterian Book of Confessions begins with two questions. The first asks – what is your only comfort in life and in death?-  and the answer is that we belong not to ourselves, but to our faithful savior Jesus. And the second question is what we must know to live and die in that comfort? The answer is –  three things – first, the greatness of my sin, second, how I am freed from my sin, and third, what gratitude I owe to God for such redemption.

And in that confession under the thankfulness section is an exposition on the 10 Commandments. So for the writer of the Heidelberg, these commandments were a way to express our gratitude for God’s saving power. Even in Calvin’s order of service, he placed the summary of the law following the assurance of pardon. When we hear the good news of Jesus Christ, then we respond by saying this is how we want to live – to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. These 10 commands express the way that we want to live into the covenantal relationship we have with God and with each other.

We look today at the second command of not making any idols in order to worship them. In many ways the second commandment is supportive of the first – to have no other gods. It goes a bit further in saying that we must not worship the true and living God in the wrong way. God is prohibiting our making of any kind of image or idol to use in our worship. An idol is not so much a false god as it is a substitute for God. And because it stands between us and God, it gets in the way of God’s communication with God’s people, and therefore hinders the relationship.

We know that when this commandment was written, Israel was surrounded by many other religions and all of them had many idols. And we know from all the stories in the Old Testament that they often slipped into idol worship.

In fact, while Moses was up on the mountain getting the commandments from God, his brother Aaron was at the base of the mountain with all the people. As they got restless when Moses did not return, Aaron had them collect all their golden earrings and other jewelry and they melted it and formed a golden calf. Aaron was trying to convince them that this calf was the god who had saved them from slavery in Egypt. And, they were about to sacrifice to this calf-god when Moses came down from the mountain and stopped their worship.

We know from other writings that they struggled with idol worship throughout their history. The prophets continued to condemn their worship of idols. They reminded the people that their idols are made by human hands, out of materials like wood or silver or gold. The prophets said – you have to carry these idols around; they don’t speak; they don’t hear; they don’t feel; they can do nothing! What sense does it make to put one’s trust in these inanimate objects? And yet that is exactly what they continued to do!

So this is where we enter into conversation with the second commandment. In our culture, we may not have idol makers on every corner making statues as the ancient Hebrews did. But That does not mean that we can get rid of the second commandment – which, by the way, has been suggested by some theologians.

Our idols are much more subtle. One thing we might consider is that even in our  theology, we create thoughts and images of who we think God is. We develop complex theological systems and perhaps deceive ourselves into thinking that we know who God is and that we can “see” God theologically, with our concepts even if not with our eyes.

Our Puritan ancestors cautioned against violating this commandment in this way. Now, it is difficult to talk about God without using images – scripture is full of them. The danger comes when we think we have somehow captured God, or that an image is a means of getting our own way with God. Perhaps it is a reminder to not take our own ideas too seriously, to leave room for critical thinking, and to stay humble when it comes to theological thinking.

We might also consider anything that might be standing in for God or a substitute for God in our lives as an idol. I know last Sunday you considered having other gods and what some of those might be. But with the second commandment we go further and consider what might be the objects of our worship – what do we adore or pay our homage to?

And as we examine ourselves, we have to realize that some of our idols are not bad things, they can even be very noble, or very generous things. For example, if we are volunteering here at UPC or at some other place and we are giving a lot of our time and energy, we might make our own giving the object of our worship, a substitute for God. We might sometimes even put our loved ones ahead of God, or our job or something we really love doing. None of these things is bad, but they can become our own personal idols.

Now, this commandment ends with the reason that it should be obeyed. The heart of the reason is divine jealousy. God is described as jealous in several passages. This jealousy of God is seen as part of the covenantal relationship. Patrick Miller describes this jealousy as having two dimensions. One is the zeal of the partner for the other member of the relationship – the zealous pursuit of the good and well-being of the one who is loved. That zeal, however, demands the sole affection of the other, assuming an unbroken faithfulness. It is an uncompromising commitment in love that is in view when the Lord is jealous for Israel’s complete trust.

The commandment goes on to speak of a generational consequence of not keeping this command. The interesting thing is that there is a limit for the consequences expressed – to the third and fourth generations. So the consequences for our sin can be stopped. They don’t go on forever. However, God’s mercy and grace are limitless – to thousands of generations. We could also find evidence in other passages later in Exodus, in Deuteronomy and in the prophets which indicate that children are not punished for their parents’ sins, but that each person pays for their own disobedience. That may be another whole sermon!

This second commandment reminds us of our tendency to let many things stand in the place of God or at least to let them get in the way of our full devotion to God. Perhaps we just have trouble remembering how much God loves us, and that God wants good for us, and that God is trying to guide us and lead us to our greatest potential.

For the most part, we like our life the way it is, and we are afraid that if we get too serious about worshipping only God that our life will radically change. Unless we are careful, we might slowly develop a substitute for God that gives us the feeling that we are serving God, when actually we are serving the substitute that does not demand too much of us.

We began our worship today with that wonderful hymn. The last line is “Let my praise and worship start with the cleansing of my heart!”

Let our prayer be that we always begin worshipping by continuing to set all substitutes aside and worship God alone. Amen