Sermon: Worshipping God Rightly

[This sermon was delivered on Sunday, September 20, 2015]

Two weeks ago we kicked off our fall series through the Ten commandments. Today, we look at the second commandment. You can find it in Exodus 20:4-6. I invite you to turn there now as we study God’s word together. Exodus is in the Old Testament, the second book in the Bible. Exodus 20, beginning in verse 4.

Now, Pastor Stephen challenged us to memorize the Ten Commandments together as we go through this series. He pointed out the shocking statistic that, although 4 out of 5 Americans believe the Bible is the literal or inspired Word of God, the average American cannot name 4 of the Ten Commandments. Even though it may be difficult, we will do our best to help you along the way.

Before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may Your Word be our rule.

Your Holy Spirit our teacher,

And the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen.

Let’s begin by reviewing the first commandment. Repeat after me:

And God spoke all these words:I am the LORD, your God, who brought you out of Egypt out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:1-3)

Good. Let’s say it once more all together:

And God spoke all these words:

I am the LORD, your God, who brought you out of Egypt out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.

Good. Now say these words after me.

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. (Exodus 20:4)

Let’s do that again.

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

The commandment goes on:

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:5-6)

These are the very words of God.

The first commandment is about worshiping the right God. This second commandment is about worshiping the right God rightly.

God says no images. No idols. I’d like to point out that idolatry always has good intentions. We want to help the people of God worship more effectively. We think we can use clever means and methods to achieve that purpose, but it backfires. All worship that is not expressly commanded by God is in vain, and unhelpful. It is not worshiping God rightly. The Heidelberg Catechism helps us to understand this, and I’d like to invite N & W forward to read those portions to us.

Q96. What is God’s will for us in the second commandment?

A. That we in no way make any image of Godnor worship him in any other waythan has been commanded in God’s Word

Q97. May we then not make any image at all?

A. God can not and may not be visibly portrayed in any wayAlthough creatures may be portrayed, yet God forbids making or having such images if one’s intention is to worship them or to serve God through them.

Q98. But may not images be permitted in churches in place of books for the unlearned?

A. No, we should not try to be wiser than God.God wants the Christian community instructed by the living preaching of his Word—not by idols that cannot even talk.

Thank you N and W.

The Catechism reminds us that we should avoid idols and not try to make images of God. But shouldn’t we? I mean, what’s so bad about it anyway? God is invisible, we can’t see him, shouldn’t we have something to help us focus, to help us worship? Wouldn’t it actually be easier, be more helpful, if we had an image of God in our worship?

Let me tell you a story that takes place not long after God gave this commandment, while Moses was up on Mount Sinai.

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” But he said,

“It is not the sound made by victors,

or the sound made by losers;

it is the sound of revelers that I hear.”

As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.

Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

When Moses saw that the people were running wild (for Aaron had let them run wild, to the derision of their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’” The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. Moses said, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.”

On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin.”

Then the Lord sent a plague on the people, because they made the calf—the one that Aaron made. (Exodus 32)

Say these words after me:

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.

How long did it take Israel to forget God’s instruction? How long did it take them to make worship more about themselves and their creation, than about the one who had created them, rescued them, made them His own? Not long.

It happens so easily.

The Israelites, our brothers and sisters, went through a spectacular experience. They were brought out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery, by the one true God! But it didn’t take them long before they thought themselves to be wiser than God.

the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us;

And when Aaron takes all their gold and melts it down and forms a calf, what do the people say? “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”

A festival to the Lord. They were claiming that in worshipping this golden calf, they were actually worshipping the one, true God.

In their anxiety, they forgot God’s word about no images, and made an image.

They wanted to see what they worshiped.

Why is God so angry? What is so bad about making images of God? On the surface, it doesn’t really seem all that bad. Wouldn’t an image of God help us to remember to worship him? Wouldn’t it be helpful to have something tangible?

God says “No.” But why? What do idols do?

The irony is that we intend idols to help us focus on God, but, in fact, they make us lose our focus.

The challenge we face is that few of us are tempted to go out and construct a golden calf and offer sacrifices around it. Few of us are tempted to bring a statue or a painting into worship and claim it depicts God and we should pray before it.

The challenge is that we can begin to believe that the second commandment has nothing to say to us, at least. But I don’t believe that’s true, at least it isn’t for me.

Let’s think together for a few moments about what idols do. No matter what their intention, they make us lose focus on God in our worship and in our daily living out of our faith.

I think a big part of it is that we make them. Our memory verse begins with You shall not make for yourself an image. An idol is something we made. It is a product of the work of our hands. We shaped it. We like to be in control of all we do. If we make an image of God, we are put in charge. We use our own creativity to imagine what God must be like. In short, when we make an idol, an image, we make God in our own image. Do you see the problem here? An idol, an image, is something we make in our own image. But, God is not made in our image. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Genesis 1:27 says,

So God created humankind in his image,

    in the image of God he created them;

    male and female he created them.”

We are made in God’s image. God should not be made in ours. When we make idols we worship something that we have created, rather than worshiping our creator.

A second problem that arises is that idols confine God to one space. If we were to create an image of God right here in the sanctuary, God would be limited to this space. As soon as we walked out those doors we wouldn’t need to look back. We could easily say to ourselves, “God belongs in this space. What I do here is for God. But, as soon as I walk out those doors I can do my own thing.”

But the thing is, God is not limited to this space. We come here as a community to worship God, but when we leave, God does not stay here. God is with us wherever we go, in whatever we do.

It is so easy for us to lose our focus. In biblical, God-centered, Christ-focused worship we look to the Word and the sacraments to inspire our worship. But, it’s so easy to forget about this. We so often want to make this time about us rather than about God. We want this time to entertain us. We worry that if we don’t do the latest and greatest thing, people will leave or they won’t be interested. We tell ourselves that if we sing these particular songs in these particular ways, that people will come. We tell ourselves that if we have the latest in technology, dazzling displays, exciting entertainment, that we’ll grow. Our focus slips. We start to make worship more about ourselves and our creations, than about the one who created us, and the world around us.

Do you see how easy it is? Even if we don’t construct a golden calf, we still fall into the temptation to make worship about us and our creations rather than about God.  We can take a good thing, turn it into a god thing, and end up in a life of total bondage and corruption.

But, there is good news. We know one who died in our place for our idolatry so that we could be reconciled to God — Jesus Christ. Colossians 1 says that

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-16)

Left to ourselves we fall into idolatry. But new life is made possible through Jesus.

Jesus gave us another gift as well — something God invites us to use in worship in order to remember him, to commune with him, and to give us hope — this holy Supper.

We come remembering that our Lord Jesus Christ perfectly fulfilled the law, even to death on the cross. Because of God’s eternal covenant of grace, we are accepted. We will never be forsaken.

We come to commune with this same Christ who has promised to be with us always. Christ is the true Bread which nourished us and the Vine in whom we must live if we are to bear fruit. The Holy Spirit unites us into one body and in communion with all the saints. So we receive this supper in Christ’s love and our affection for one another.

We come in hope believing that as surely as we eat this bread and drink this cup, we will be raised from the dead into eternal life.

This is the Lord’s Table. (Worship The Lord, RCA Communion Liturgy)

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