Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, may we come to know you as you have revealed yourself in your Word. Open our eyes, dig out our ears, and soften our hearts to your Word, and by your Spirit lift us up to worship you in Spirit and truth. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Greetings from Countryside Reformed Church, where I was last week. It was good to share God’s word with them, but it is even better to back here with you this morning. Two weeks ago, we began a new series working our way through the Ten Commandments. The Bible is the story and proclamation of God’s deliverance of a people. God calls a people, rescues them, and then makes them his own. When God does this, he restores us to a particular way of life as his people. This way of life leads to true freedom and is encapsulated in the Ten Commandments, which were given to Israel after God rescued them from Egypt. Two weeks ago, we looked at the first of the ten. We talked about how the first commandment dealt with worship – that we were to worship the LORD and trust him alone. This is because we are made for worship, because our greatest temptation is to worship something other than God, and because worship is the first and most fundamental part of our life with God. As we look this morning at the second commandment, we will see that it too deals with worship. It’s Exodus 20, verse 4 through 6. Exodus is the second book of the Bible. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Exodus 20, verses 4 through 6. Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.
You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or in 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, 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 to those who love me and keep my commandments.
This is the Word of the LORD. Thanks be to God.
Back in January 2012, Olga and I had the opportunity to go to Chiapas, Mexico to visit with RCA missionaries and local churches in that region. Chiapas is the province of Mexico right along the Guatemala border. About fifty years ago, there were a couple thousand evangelical Christians and now, by the grace of God, there are over half a million when we were there. It has been an incredible harvest for the glory of God.
While we visited house churches in small villages in the mountains, we also took one morning to visit one of the larger catholic churches in the area. I grew up with most of my friends being polish catholic, have been to catholic masses before, but what we saw that morning was hardly recognizable to anything I had seen in the States. Even when our guides warned us of what we might see, we were shocked.
We walked into this large gothic style building. There were no seats in the sanctuary, but a series of statues, some of Jesus, some of Mary, some of the Apostles lining the walls. In one corner, a man was slaughtering a chicken, there was blood and feathers on the floor. At the back, there was the altar where the priest would consecrate the mass. Before each of the statues were people prostrate, weeping, wailing, praying, placing offerings. It was chaotic and disturbing. Olga will probably agree that I am not doing the description justice. I have been in many worship services in many different denominations, but there was only one word we could use when we left the sanctuary and talked as a group: demonic.
After praying as a group for those who were participating in this spectacle, we had the opportunity to talk to the local priest in charge of that parish. We were gentle in our questions, but we asked about how he allowed such practices to be a regular part of the worship life in his parish. He said, “It takes time to change the people. We need to be slow and patient with them.”
I tell this story not to scare you or directly to make some comment on the catholic church, but because as I have reflected on that event over the years, I have noticed two things that relate well to the second commandment. First, every single person in that sanctuary believed that they were worshipping the one true God. They were sincere and wholehearted in their worship. We can worship the right God in the wrong way. Second, just because our carpet is not covered in blood and feathers, we cannot simply say to ourselves, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like those people.” We face similar temptations, even if the form is different.
As we look deeply at the second commandment this morning, I want us to hear a warning and behold a promise. Hear a warning and behold a promise.
First, the warning. We cannot encounter God on our terms, but only on his. Listen to the second commandment 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. You shall not bow down to them and worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing children for the sins of the parents to the third and forth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations to those who love me and keep my commandments.
The second commandment is the rejection of making images of God to be used to worship him. It is a rejection of worshipping images and worshipping through images. It is not a rejection of art and artistic expression. When God gave instructions on the building of the tabernacle, the place of worshipping the LORD, they were told to make some things to look like pomegranates and others to look like almond buds, to create great big cherubim (a type of angel) on the top of the ark of God, which was called the mercy seat. It was not wrong to depict creation in art. It was wrong to try and depict the creator and, in particular, using it for worship. When God called for Israel to build the ark where he would sit enthroned between the cherubim, there was to be no image there. Between the two cherubs on the ark was to be a void which only God could fill, a void with no physical image on it.
The first commandment is all about worshipping the wrong god, or worshipping something else, placing your trust in something else, instead of or alongside of God. That is one form of false worship. But there is another. We can enter into false worship when we worship the wrong god, but also when we, as the catechism puts it, “worship him in any other way than has been commanded in God’s word.”
It is worshipping the right God, but in the wrong way. The first commandment speaks to ‘who’ we are to worship, but the second commandment touches on ‘how’ we are to worship. No images, no statues of God.
The problem with idols, with carved images of God, is not only that they are trying to depict one who cannot be truly depicted, to contain the Creator is some form of the creation, that they are trying to worship the living God who speaks through a dead idol that cannot, to pray to the God who hears through an idols who cannot, to implore the LORD of history to act by praying to an idol that cannot move or breath at all. Not only all this, but idols are ultimately ways that we can have God on our terms.
We desire for God to be personal, not just god up there somewhere, but god with us, god for us. Christians do not believe in some divine clockmaker in the sky who wound up the world, set it loose, and sits back and watches. We believe in a God who is actively involved in caring for, sustaining, and redeeming his creation. We want God to be near us, to be with us, to be for us.
However, the temptation we face is to seek to have God on our terms. We want God to be in our lives, a part of our lives, but in a way we can manage, in a way we can handle, in a way we can, dare I say, control. This is what an idol does. It is an image of God, whether of wood or stone or simply in our hearts or minds that allows us to worship God, to attempt to have life with God, to serve God how we want. An idol can be ignored, it can be manipulated, it can be put up the shelf or walked away from as we see fit. When it comes to worshipping idols, we are in control of the situation. When it stops working for us, stops providing whatever we expect, we either put this image of god up on a shelf, or change our image of god to meet our new set of expectations. This is false worship and, in fact, just as much false worship as what we hear in the first commandment. The first two of the ten commandments warn against two different forms of false worship – worshipping other gods and worshipping the true god, but on our terms. Idols are a way of claiming to worship God, but still having ourselves on the throne. In its most powerful form, this type of worship ceases to be about God and becomes about us, our preferences, what we want.
At this point, we might be saying to ourselves. I get that what you saw in Chiapas was an example of trying to worship God through idols, but we don’t do any of that kind of stuff. I might step on some toes with this, including my own, but who do we truly desire to be pleased by our worship when we gather on Sunday mornings? Is it ourselves? The guests we hope and pray will join us? Or the LORD? The answer to that question is not about style in itself, it does not say whether we should sing songs from 1475, 1957, or 2017. But it does force us to ask about whether we are worshipping God only in the way we prefer. We all have preferences, but we should hold them loosely as we seek to worship the LORD as he has called us to. If we have trouble holding our preferences loosely, maybe we need to ask if we want worship on our terms and there is an idol involved in our hearts.
Again, we need to get real. How often do we want God in our lives when everything falls apart, when we need something, when it is convenient, but the rest of the time, we want to put him on a shelf and keep doing life as we see best? How often do we want God, but on our terms. That’s an idol and not the living God.
This is no small thing according to the LORD. Take some time to read through the Bible and notice how much of it is instructions related to worship and then go back to the Ten Commandments. The difference between worshipping God as he is, as he has revealed himself and commanded us, and worshipping God as we want him to be, on our terms and in our ways, according to the second commandment is the difference between loving and hating God. To try to worship the LORD using an idol, whether it is carved in wood or stone or simply carved in our hearts, is described here as hating the LORD. But worshipping God rightly, as he has revealed himself in his word, is described as loving the LORD. And this love or hate will spill over to the next generation. It will not just impact us, but those who follow after us. The impact will not be even or proportionate, either. There are consequences to three and four generations for those who hate the LORD, but love to a thousand generations for those who love him and keep his commands.
This is the warning of the second commandment: We cannot encounter God on our terms, but only on his. If we are to worship the living God, we cannot try and make him manageable, try to contain him just to some section of our lives. No images, no idols. Instead, the living, speaking, acting God of the universe.
Now the promise: We cannot make images of God, but God has offered us a true image to worship, Jesus Christ. In his book, How Jesus Transforms the Ten Commandments, Edmund Clowney puts it beautifully, he says, “Only God can make his own image. God commanded men not to make an image of him, but the implied promise in the second commandment is the God would make an image of himself. He did not want his people trying to make an image of him because his purpose was to show himself to his people in the person of Christ. The fulfillment of the second commandment is the birth of Jesus Christ” (28).
We desire for God to be personal, to be with us and for us. For God not to be just God up there somewhere, but God in the warp and woof of our lives. But the temptation we face is to try and bring God down, to contain him in an idol, in a picture, in the world, or in our hearts. The temptation is to only allow God near us on our terms, when we decide it is good and convenient. But God does something so much better than those idols we imagine.
God came as the man Jesus Christ. Colossians says that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God. You want to worship God, look to Christ. You want a God near to you, the LORD took on flesh, was born as a baby in a manger, suffered his whole life and on a cross for you. Three days later he rose from the dead and is now seated at the right hand of God, still with a human body, for you. The true God is far better than all the facsimiles we make out of our preferences or desires, far better than the version of God we hope and dream in our mind, far better than any Jesus statue in a sanctuary in Chiapas. God is for us, God is personal, God is with us, in and through Jesus Christ. He is the image. You shall not make images, you shall not worship images. God has sent his image, Jesus Christ, for you, with you, to redeem and reconcile you.
As I think about that congregation in Chiapas, I am thankful for all those small churches in mountainside villages holding fast to the gospel. I also desperately hope and pray that the catholic parish has been given solid, biblical teaching on worship and has removed those statues and idols and cut out the blood sacrifice. However, I also hope that they will be shown the true image of God, Jesus Christ, clothed not with wood or stone, but with the gospel. I pray that they, that we, would behold Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God, for it is in him that true worship is found.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.