Summary: The commandment against idolatry is "good news". It was not given because God enjoyed saying, "You can’t do this" and "you can’t do that either". The commandment against idol worship is at the top of the list after worshipping God because idols are counte
By Rev Bill Stewart
[Marilyn] "Paula, do you think there’s a God?"
[Paula] "Of course, there’s a God. What do you think I’ve been on about all these years? God is in everything and everything is in God. You are God, darling, if only you could see it and understand it."
[Marilyn] "No, I’m not God and I don’t want to be God. My life’s a disaster area—if I’m God then there’s no hope for any of us. I’m sick of all this, Paula. I want a God who is different from me, who is not me, who is somehow better than me."
[Paula] "Well if that’s the God you want, then that’s the God you’ll get."
[Marilyn] "That’s no help to me at all. I don’t want a God I’ve created, for Christ’s sake. I’m talking about a real God who is alive separately from me. Someone I can talk to and who might think differently from me. Is that too much to ask for?"
(from Mike Riddell’s book email@example.com, 1997, pages 131-133)
1. Australian idol?
Were you surprised when Christian performers seemed to have no problem competing in a show called Australian idol? Are Christians now so unconcerned about idolatry, or so unaware of our idolatry that being called an "idol" does not seem to bother us at all? Was God’s commandment ambiguous? Was it just a piece of friendly advice – take it or leave it, whatever you please? "That colour doesn’t suit you darling!" The second commandment says:
"4You 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. 5You 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, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments."
I don’t know about you but I find it very hard to read that commandment without thinking there would be something very wrong with me being called an Australian idol or an American idol or any other kind of idol. Would you feel comfortable with that? Thankfully, I don’t have the vocal talent to ever find myself in that particular situation. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t have a problem with idolatry. But where does the danger of idolatry lie for me? for all of us? And how do I avoid, how does each one of us avoid the temptation to worship false gods? Gods we have made for ourselves to set up in the place of the real, living God. Augustine, one of the great teachers of the early church taught that idolatry means either "worshiping what should be used or using what should be worshiped" (quoted in Smith 2006, p. 31).
2. Worshiping what should be used
As today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 44, makes clear, the "idols" made in the world of the Bible were made from metal or stone or wood. People made them with their own hands before worshipping them. That is why in the King James Version they are called "graven images". They were made to be visible representations of invisible gods, like this statute from Syria of the goddess called "Asherah" in the Bible. But, as Chris pointed out in last week’s sermon, it is impossible for us to make a visible representation of God that doesn’t in fact distort our understanding of God – to make God more like us and less like God, or not like God at all!
Probably none of us believe in idols of metal, stone or wood – at least not that crudely anyway. But, if anything, that just makes them more dangerous, doesn’t it? None of us are in danger of worshiping what should be used are we? We don’t idolize our physical appearance, or the appearance of our home, or our office or our car, or our clothes? This sort of idolatry involves "putting the things we love in the place of God" (Smith 2006, p. 31). And there is no shortage of potential "substitute gods" in our world today. Last week we were challenged about conflicts between our commitment to God and God’s Church and our commitment to:
our financial prosperity or
our professional advancement or
our family or
our home or our health or
our kids’ social development.
If we are honest to God then I suspect all of us are tempted in at least one of those areas.
We were also reminded last week that in the church there is a temptation for us as Christian people to turn aids to worship such as beautiful architecture, or music, or art into the object of worship without us even realising it. One example has always stuck in my mind. I remember several years ago when I was working with students at Ridley College being confronted by a very devoted Christian, who had been a CMS missionary for many years. This person had often held church services overseas in grass huts and under trees. But back in Australia this person wanted to know why the Christian students weren’t using the "beautiful" Ridley chapel as their meeting place any more? The answer was, in fact, very simple. The students wanted to share the good news with their friends and many of their friends wouldn’t come to the chapel. So the students wisely decided to take their worship to a place where they might come and hear the good news about Jesus. I’m not sure he was convinced by my explanation as his reply was "I just think it’s a shame to waste such a beautiful building that’s all." He was a person of great faith and commitment to ministry but in this case I think the priorities were wrong.