Sunday, September 25, 2016

WE NEED GOD to ‘Lay Down the Law’

A Sermon based Upon Matthew 22: 34-40: Exodus 20:6; Leviticus 19:28
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, D.Min., Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Year C: Proper 21, 19th Sunday After Pentecost, September 25th, 2016


One day a seeker approached a great Jewish Rabbi named Hillel, who lived until the time Jesus was born.    The seeker said to the great Rabbi, “If you can teach me your whole religion standing on one leg, I will become your disciple.”  And Rabbi Hillel answered him, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another.  That is the whole Law; the rest is commentary; and learn.“   (http://www.humanjourney.us/JesusInHistory.html).

Jesus did not invent the golden rule; but he did promote it.   Jesus promoted the golden rule because the main rule is love.   Every rule is about love and begins with love: “This is the first and great commandment… Jesus said.  “You must love the LORD your God with all your heart,…?  Where did Jesus get something like this?   Jesus also said: ‘A new commandment I give to you’ which is ‘to love one another’ (John 13:34), but just how ‘new’ was it, really?  It might have been ‘new’ to those disciples and could be ‘new’ to us too, this law of love was definitely was not ‘new’ to God. 

Today, we come to the concluding message on the Ten Commandments.  Here, at the end, we come to the commandment rightly called the 11th commandment, which might even include a 12th commandment.   In other words, Christians don’t just settle for ten, but we make it 11, or perhaps 12.  We may even reduce all the Ten Commandments down to these two.   
If this sounds confusing, it’s really not.  The ‘greatest’ commandment we encounter today, from Jesus, points out that all of God’s commandments are about love.  As the gospels present Jesus’ unique message, “love” is the final interpretation of what the commandments mean and how they should be implemented into our lives.   No matter how you count them, it’s love that counts most of all.  It’s all about love.

LAW IS NEVER ALL
In today’s text we have the well-known gospel story, told by both Matthew and Mark, where a Scribe (Mark) or Lawyer (Matthew) who was an expert in the Jewish Torah (or Law).  Whereas in Mark, it appears that the Lawyer is asking a sincere question (Mk. 12:34), Matthew names this a trick to ‘test’ (NRSV), ‘tempt’ (KJV), or maybe even to trap Jesus into giving a wrong answer (22:35).  In the same way Jesus has just silenced the Pharisees about the question concerning Resurrection (Mt. 22:23-33), now Jesus silences this Scribe concerning the Law.   This follows Matthew’s own agenda to assert Jesus as the one who is greater than Moses, who has come as the ‘preeminent’ interpreter of the Law. 

The Greatness of the Law   When the Scribe asked Jesus, “Rabbi, which is the great commandment in the law?’ (v. 36), Jesus gave an answer the Lawyer did not expect.   Jesus does not simply give one law, but Jesus gave two laws that made one single point.  When you love God and you love your neighbor only then can you understand the whole point of the law.  The whole Law is now reduced to one single act: Love.

Without a doubt, Jesus believed in the greatness of the law.  Jesus quoted the Psalms often, and he had to have known those great lines from Psalm 19, saying; “The Law of the LORD is perfect…The Decrees of the LORD are sure….The precepts of the LORD are right…The commandment of the LORD is clear….(Ps. 19:7-8).   But taking his cue from Deuteronomy, what was clear to Jesus was that the Law was about “love”: “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5).   Deuteronomy is the ‘second’ interpretation of the Law and it is an interpretation that has ‘love’ written all over it (Deut. 6:5; 7: 9-13; 10: 12-19; 11: 1; 13:3; 30:6).  The point of Deuteronomy was not to correct or rewrite the Law, but it was to put the whole law into better focus because already, many had forgotten what the law is really all about.

But the Law Can't Be All It is important that God’s people know that the Law is about love, about a covenant relationship, and about having a loving community.  This is important because even the Law can’t do it all or mean everything all by itself.  As again, going deeper into what the Psalmist wrote, “The Law of the LORD is perfect” because it “revives the soul”.   “The decrees of the LORD are sure” because they “make the simple wise”.  “The precepts of the LORD of the LORD are right” because they “cause the heart to rejoice.”  And finally, “The commandment of the LORD is clear” because “it enlightens the eyes.”  What is this reviving, wisdom, rejoicing, and enlightening all about?  It is all about something the law can only point to, but it not something the Law can do.

When you get to the New Testament, the apostle Paul made it clear what the Law can and cannot do.  Paul, a professional Pharisee and promoter of the Law came to realize that the Law has its limits.   “The Law is holy, and the commandments are holy, just and good” Paul wrote (Rm. 7:12), but he also wrote that “the commandment which promised him life proved to bring death” (Rm. 7: 10).  The problem in the Law was not the Law itself, but the problem was what the Law, even God’s law cannot do.  The Law can reveal sin, but the Law cannot deal with sin, especially the kind of sin that stays hidden deep down in the human heart (Rm. 7: 7-9). 

The only hope true salvation, as Paul saw it, is a different kind of “law” that God has released into the world, which Paul called the “Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rm. 8:2).   This is the kind of Law that has ‘no condemnation’ (Rm. 8:1) that ‘sets you free’ (Rm. 8:2), and that ‘sets your mind on ‘life and peace’ (Rm. 8:6).  Do you know what kind of “law of the Spirit” doesn’t condemn, sets your free, and focuses your mind on ‘life’ and ‘peace’?  “The only thing that counts,” Paul told the Galatians, “is faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).  “The greatest of these is love”, he told the Corinthians (1 Cor. 13:13).  He told the Philippians that they are to ‘be of the same mind, having the same love…that was in Christ Jesus’ (Phil. 2:2-5).   “Above all,” Paul told those at Colossae;  “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…. (Col. 3:14).  

The long list of Paul’s discovery of love over law could go on, which is quite remarkable, since Paul was once trained as a legalist.  But perhaps the final word from Paul should be how Paul instructed young Timothy to “hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (2Tim. 1:13).   The ‘sound teaching,’ which was undoubtedly the main teaching of Paul, was not about greatness of the ‘law,’ but it is about our human need for ‘grace’---the grace of Jesus Christ, that is, which was, and still is, the kind of grace that can only be built upon the foundation of “the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8.2), flowing from this ‘the God of love’ (2 Cor. 13:11) who has revealed himself fully in the ‘love of Christ’ (Eph. 3:19).

The only thing left to say about Paul’s discovery of the priority of love over law is to repeat what the preacher King Duncan once said.   In a sermon he remembered a moment in the “All in the Family” TV series, where Archie Bunker is arguing with “the Meathead”, his son-in-law’, who was a professed agnostic.  The son-in-law asks,  “Archie, if there is a God, why is there so much suffering in the world?”  After a long, awkward silence, Archie finally yells, “EEEDITH, would you get in here and help me?  I’m having to defend God all by myself.”

Archie was wrong to think that he needed to defend God.  While there are always have been, and always will be questions we don’t have answers to in his life,  there is one answer that always works:  Love.   While none of us can answer ‘why’ people suffer,  we all know that God’s response to our pain is love---and that is the only response that really matters or makes sense.  It is this love that comes into our human sin and pain, to bring healing and hope, that the message of Jesus is all about.

 “It is impossible to improve on the teachings of Jesus”  King Duncan goes on to say.  And this is,  I say, is right at the heart of what Paul realizes too, not by theory, but in practice.  When, as a legalistic, murderer of God’s true people, Jesus appeared to Saul on the Damascus Road as his judge on the.  But Jesus did not stop there, but went on forgive Saul and to call him to mission in Jesus’ name as Paul, who now discovered, in that moment,  that there is no way that you can ever improve on the love and grace of God that revealed to him in Jesus Christ.  Christ’s love will not answer every question, but it does answer the great question.  “Why” will only be answered by the reality of divine and human love.

THE LAW IS ABOUT LOVE
Since, the Law can’t do or be everything, to be worth anything at all, it must point to something greater.   This is why the whole law, and the greatest law, as Jesus explains, must point to love, or it means nothing.  Because, as Paul enlarged on Jesus’ teaching, “If you don’t have love, you don’t have anything worth having, haven’t said anything worth saying, nor have you ever ‘done anything worth doing’ (My paraphrasing of 1 Cor. 13: 1-3), the law must be all about love.   Isn’t this how Jesus got the idea from Deuteronomy?  When Moses was going over the Law again, for the very last time before his death, he must have realized, that without ‘love’ the law does not, will not, and cannot work—at least, it won’t work as it was intended to work.  The law can’t be perfect, can’t be sure, can’t grant wisdom, and can’t even be right, unless it points us to the greatest law of all---the law of love—which is the law ‘observed with the whole’ heart (Psa. 37:31; 119:34).  It is the law of love that all the reviving, wisdom, rejoicing, and enlightening, is supposed to be about. 

But it is not just enough to say that the Law, even the Ten Commandments is all about “love”.   In clarifying what that the ‘greatest’ law is about love, Jesus is very specific, just as the Ten Commandments are very specific.  Here, in our text, Jesus heads in two directions to clarify what the great law is about:  the great law is about how to ‘love’ God; and the great law is about how to ‘love’ our neighbor.  

       Loving God is what the first 4 commandments are about---Having no other gods, making no idol or image,  no misuse of God’s name, and honoring the Sabbath, are laws that all have to do with ‘loving God with your whole heart, soul, and mind.    
       Loving Neighbor  is what the last six commandments are about---honoring parents, no murder, no adultery, not stealing, no lying, and taking control over lustful desires is how you express love to those around you.

In both of these ‘directions’ the main message is all about love.  Love is the common denominator that is not just an idea, a feeling, or a wish, but love is doing what love will do: act responsibly out of an obligation that comes straight from the heart.  “You shall love the LORD with all your HEART…. (Deut 6:5).  “You shall love your neighbor as YOURSELF….”  (Matt. 22:39).   The point is that you must love both God and Neighbor, or there is no proof that love is “realized” or God’s law is ‘obeyed’ by you. 

Isn’t this exactly what John’s letter to his church was saying when he wrote, “Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.   The commandment we have …. is this:  those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”  (1 Jn. 4:20-5:1 NRS).   The law, the commandment we have, John says, is all about love, or it is about nothing.
You can’t say you honor God’s law, unless you love—you love God, and you show you love God, by loving your brother, your neighbor, or even the stranger you might meet on the road.

Ron DelBene recalls that when he was growing up his mother “had a real thing about cleanliness.” Anyone have a mother like that? His mother was a nurse.  

From an early age Ron was taught that when he went through a push door to shove it open with his fist. If the door had a handle he was to pull it open with his little finger. If he did as his mother instructed, he would not get germs on his hands. Ron never forgot his mother’s teaching. “At age forty-eight,” he says, “I probably had the strongest little finger in America.”

One day Ron was serving a hot meal at a soup kitchen. They were serving chili with two pieces of buttered bread on that particular day. A man came through the line who looked even more scruffy and broken than the others. Ron was overwhelmed by his stench. “Like the pull of a magnet,” Ron recalls, “my gaze went to the dirt and dried blood on his hands.” Before he realized what was happening, the man clasped Ron’s hand in both of his. “Brother,” said the scruffy man, “I love you. Thanks for being here.” “I’m glad you came,” Ron replied after swallowing hard. Ron tried to smile as the man shuffled over to one of the tables with his meal.

The next man stepped up. As Ron handed him a bowl of chili, a little of the chili spilled on Ron’s hand. Without thinking he licked it off. Then it hit him. That was the hand the other man had just clasped! Ron momentarily froze, repelled to think that he had licked something that smelly, dirty man had just touched. It was a moment of revelation for Ron.

“The light of awareness changed my vision and my heart warmed with new understanding,” Ron says. “No longer was Jesus only the handsome man I had pictured in my mind and seen in paintings,” he continued. “Now he had a scarred, stubbled face and fingers stained yellow; he was dirty, he smelled bad, and he wore cast-off clothes. I had just served him chili and bread.” (As quoted by King Duncan, in a sermon, “Surprised by Love”, from DelBene, from the Heart (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1991), pp. 32-33).

There’s a reason we are to prove our love for God by loving our neighbor as ourselves. When we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind and love by loving our neighbors, this is when we experience the presence of the risen Christ in the life of the other, who may most often be ‘the least of these’ (Matthew 25:40).   The law is about loving God through loving ‘them’.

LOVE IS ALL THE LAW IS ABOUT
The final point is not just that the law is about love, but that love is what the law is all about.   This may sound as if I’m saying the same thing in different ways, but there is a difference.  To say that the law is about love sounds as if law still has priority in all things.  But to say that “love is what the law is all about” means love has the final priority.   Let me put it this way, when you love, when you act out of love, and when you are loving toward another as toward God, this is what it means to be a fully redeemed, restored, and complete and perfect, human being.

We must make ‘love’ our priority, the priority of our faith too, why?   Even in the 10 commandments, we learn that love is what the law is about.  Let me conclude with three simple points that reveal love in God’s law.
       God’s Laws are about relationships not rules.   When Moses gave the Ten Commandments, God was not setting rules for the sake of rules, but God was laying down the law for the sake of maintaining a saving and sanctifying ‘relationship’ with the living God. 
       God Laws are about having community not control.  Also, God’s law are not about forcing people into God’s control, but there were intended to create space so that a community based upon trust and faithfulness could happen. 
      Finally, God’s Laws are about being in covenant not being contentious.  The reason the law was given was not to give rules for the whole human race, but the reason the law was given was so about promise---God making a promise to be with his people, and the people making and keeping their promise to God.  At the center of everything God commands is the promise---the promise of God and the promise of God’s people.

Perhaps the biggest and too often ‘unanswered’ question about the 10 commandments is why are they stated in the negative.  If they are meant to be so positive for us—about having a relationship with the true God and about creating a space for real community to happen between people, then why are all of them, except one, stated in the negative, rather than in the positive?   Why does God thunder “Thou Shalt Not….”  over and over, instead of giving us more positive, affirming, statements or commands,  like “Thou Shalt be HonestThou Shalt be Contended”, or “Thou shalt be Pro-Life”, or “Thou Shalt Respect God, or Thou shall Love only God, and so on.   Why do these commandments, sound so little like love, but make it sound as if God is already on our case about something, making demands rather than creating the boundary of a loving relationship between us and him?   

Besides, when we say our wedding vows of love, we don’t say, “I’ll not commit adultery, or I’ll not covet my neighbor’s wife, or I’ll not hate my in-laws if you don’t hate mine.   In a wedding ceremony, we make our sacred covenant by being more positive, saying, “I take you to be my wedding husband/wife…. To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in heath, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.  According to God’s holy law; this is my solemn vow.”   In our most sacred wedding vows, we sound much more positive in our speech to each other than how God speaks to us through these 10 Commandments.  How can we say, along with Jesus, that as they are, mostly stated this very negative fashion, that as the commandments are really, truly, honestly, fully, and completely about love?  How can Jesus say this?  How can Jesus say that all the law is really about love?

The reason God stated the commandments in this negative form must be for the same reason a parent has teach a child to understand ‘no’ before they can understand ‘yes’.  Of course, hearing a ‘yes’ is better than always hearing a ‘no’, but as a parent, you have to start somewhere.  If your child is getting ready to walk out in front of a car, step on a poisonous snake, or take hold something that will hurt them, the first words out your mouth, if you really love your child, will be “Don’t…Stop…No!”.  This is the very first sign of your love for your child.  Likewise the Ten Commandments are the first ‘signs’ or ‘words’ of God’s love for us.  They are the first, but not the last.  They very first sign that God wants us to live and God wants to live with us.   Love will always understand  ‘no’, before it can fully understand ‘yes’.

What Jesus shows us, however, is that when we live in obedience to God’s commands, love never stays with ‘no’.  This is why the 10 commandments end up being transformed in the Sermon on the Mount.  After we, as children of God, come to understand what ‘no’ means, we are on the right path understanding what God’s greater ‘yes’ is all about.   The first step from ‘no’ to ‘yes’ is when you come to realize God is love and God loves you.   This same God who says ‘no’ is also the God who said “yes” to you, before the day you were born.  This ‘yes’ was the love that the law was always, and will always be about.   Amen.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

WE NEED GOD To Be All We Can Be.

A sermon based upon Exodus 20: 2-3;  Deuteronomy 6: 4-9; 11: 1-7
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin,  Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Year C:  Proper 20,  18th Sunday After Pentecost,  September 18th, 2016


The unforgettable movie “The Gods Must Be Crazy” is an South African comedy film about a happy, contented tribal culture who believes the gods have blessed them with everything they need.  But that BEGINS to change when they encounter A RATHER SMALL AIRCRAFT FLYING over their remote village deep into the African continent.  The pilot is drinking out of one those old-fashioned green Coca Cola bottles. When he is finished with the beverage, he throws the bottle out of the airplane and it lands near some native tribal leaders below.  THEY PICK IT UP and ARE GREATLY INTRIGUE. It is shaped far differently from anything they have ever seen.  Until now, these secluded tribal people have known nothing of the modern world. 

Because this strange item has come to them from the heavens above, THEY BELIEVE IT TO BE a god, or a gift from the gods.  So they naturally begin to ASSEMBLE A NEW Way of life around it.  They develop songs about it and say prayers to it.  But as the story unfolds, envy, jealousy, and disputes arise like the simple, harmonious tribe has never known before.  It’s all because of the bottle. 

In an attempt to bring peace back into their lives, some of the leaders leave the village, in an attempt to take the ‘bottle’ back.   But it’s too late.  Now their simple lives have been altered and made much more complicated by the not-so-simple, often very negative, “new world” this bottle has invited them to encounter.   As there seems to be no way to stop the flood of trouble,  a tribal leader takes the bottle up to the top of a mountain to throw it back into ‘the window of the gods’.   What we all know too well, is that once the simple innocent world has been invaded, there is no way of going back.

WE WILL WORSHIP SOMETHING
There are many spiritual and cultural truths from this film, but most basic is its portrayal of the instinctive need for HUMANS to WORSHIP something--whether it is coke bottles, pop stars,  or the most destructive desire for wealth or power.  Humans NATURALLY BEGIN TO WORSHIP what or who we prize the most.   In order to find purpose or meaning in our short, insignificant LIVES, whether we are part of an ancient tribe or people in this complicated, modernize world, we still must give ourselves to  SOMETHING bigger than ourselves.

Several years ago, before there was Oprah, THERE WAS PHIL DONAHUE.  He was known for a radical, groundbreaking approach to TV talk shows.  On one of his shows, way back in the 1970’s was the first time I heard someone say that we, as a nation, are fast becoming a nation of addicts.  The point was that in the western world, ADDICTION WAS ON THE RISE, as more and more are hopelessly addicted to drugs, to alcohol, to sex, to food, and to a host of other things.  As humans beings, who must give ourselves to something, we can just as easily give ourselves to the wrong thing---to something that enslaves rather than frees.  TO BE ADDICTED TO SOMETHING means you HAVE GIVEN THE CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE OVER TO SOME LESSER GOD THAT WEAKENS YOU, AND without some form of intervention, WILL EVENTUALLY DESTROY YOU.   To give yourselves to wrong attractions, the wrong powers or to the wrong desires, will eventually destroy your freedom.  It will also destroy your God-given potential.  It can destroy your personality, and worse of all, IT WILL DESTROY YOUR ABILITY TO GIVE AND RECEIVE LOVE. 

 Is it not true, that the more  simple trust in GOD has been removed from the center OF OUR LIVES, the more we ALLOW “OTHER GODS” or “powers” TO TAKE OVER?  Could our struggle with some many impossible to overcome ADDICTIONS reflect the “emptiness” that is at the very center of our modern, mostly secular lives today?  Have we lost the delight for our own lives because we too have replaced the hunger and thirst for the true God with our own lust for “other gods”---which are lesser gods and very destructive powers that don't have our best interests at heart?

This very first commandment reminds us that we are created to worship.  YOU WILL BOW DOWN To Something.   But BEWARE.  Beware when you give yourself over to something or someone.   EVERYTHING YOU WORSHIP AND GIVE YOURSELF TO WILL NOT CARE ABOUT YOU.   Other gods don’t die to set you free, but they live off enslaving you and off taking life from you.  It is, however, the desire of the TRUE GOD to FREE You from  bondage.  It is the desire of the true God to give you true freedom.  BUT FALSE GODS WILL PUT YOU INTO BONDAGE and do set your free to find life.   THESE LESSER GODS ARE LIKE A BOA CONSTRICTOR that will wrap its self around its prey, drawing in slowly and more tightly, each time you breathe in, until your breath GETS SHALLOWER AND SHALLOWER with no life left.

THIS IS THE GREAT DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WORSHIPING WHAT IS TRUE OR WHAT IS FALSE.  It is not an imaginary difference, but it a difference that makes all the difference in the world.  IN ONE OF JAMES MICHENER''S GEOGRAPHIC NOVELS about some exotic part of the world, GEOLOGISTS WERE DIGGING UP THE RUINS of a civilization from an era long gone and long ago.  As they uncover the relics of that ancient society, they begin to DISCOVER THE INFLUENCE OF THE GODS that ancient people worshiped and HOW IT SHAPED THEIR IDENTITY AS A PEOPLE. One geologist is heard to say, "If  THEY’D HAD A DIFFERENT GOD, THEY COULD HAVE BEEN A VERY DIFFERENT PEOPLE."    People reflect, if not BECOME LIKE THE GOD or GODS they WORSHIP.

This is WHY WE MUST ONLY WORSHIP THE ONE TRUE GOD--the God whose character is holy and righteous, as well as, gracious and merciful.  But how do we know or worship a ‘true’ God in a secular world, in which people more generally assume it that we have no need for God?   Since we are not ancient Israelites having just be delivered from slavery in Egypt, how can we expect moderns who think they have everything they want or need, to worship this one, true God, who is unfathomable to some, and has become unbelievable to most?

 YOU MUST CHOOSE TO WORSHIP THE TRUE GOD.
In our kind of world, a non-enchanted, secular, high-tech world centered upon self and fulfilling human desire, worship of the one true God is NOT AUTOMATIC.  If you look closely that this first commandment,  you understand that worshiping the one, true God wasn’t automatic in the ancient world either.  It was into a world of many options then too, that God said to his people,  “You SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS before me.” It was exactly BECAUSE THERE WERE, and STILL ARE, ALL KINDS OF GODS AND POWERS IN THIS WORLD to choose from that God demands our utmost allegiance to Him.   

 How many could have done SOMETHING much DIFFERENT WITH YOUR TIME today?  You could have done something more pleasurable or something more exciting, instead of BEING HERE to GIVE YOUR HEART TO THE one TRUE GOD. It is YOUR CHOICE that makes all the difference.  True worship of the living God is a choice BORN OUT OF YOUR FREEDOM which chooses NOT to DO OTHERWISE.

 GOD WANTS US CHOOSE HIM FULLY, BUT ALSO FREELY.   THE Reason  WE HAVE TEN COMMANDMENTS is not because God wants to CONTROL OR FORCE us to comply, but these 10 commands ARE INCREDIBLE WORDS THAT CALL US TO COVENANT and freely RELATE TO this GOD who calls US TO CHOOSE THE POWERS OF LIFE, not death.   WHEN GOD SAYS “no other gods” we are IMMEDIATELY CONFRONTED both with our freedom to choose rightly and our Freedom To Choose Wrongly.  JOHN MORLEY, a member of the British House of Commons during the 19th century, once TRAVELED FROM ENGLAND TO CANADA to address the graduating class of a university. He began his speech by saying, "I have traveled 4,000 miles to TELL YOU THAT THERE IS A DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RIGHT AND WRONG."   CHOOSING WHAT IS RIGHT is what worship is about. To live, to breathe, and to step into the next moment of our life is always a CHOICE IN ONE OF TWO DIRECTIONS: WE ARE EITHER CHOOSING TO WALK  TOWARD THE ONE WHO CREATED US or we are choosing to WALK AWAY FROM HIM.   EVERY DAY WE MAKE A CHOICE.  To be human is to decide and to choose.   You cannot be alive and not choose.

 It is BECAUSE WE HUMANS ARE FREE that GOD THUNDERS this first commandment as a warning from Sinai: "You must not have any other gods except me." GOD IS AFFIRMING HIS PRIORITY as the CREATOR OF LIFE.   He is calling us to worship and only choose Him, not only because HE DESERVES TO HAVE FIRST PLACE, BUT BECAUSE HE IS the only, true GOD.  ALL OTHER GODS SHOULD BE SPELLED WITH A LITTLE "g"  because they are REALLY NOT THE LIFT GIVING GOD AT ALL, ONLY PALE SUBSTITUTES.   Psalm 115:4-7 says, "… Their idols are silver and gold, the work of  human hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak. They have eyes, but they cannot see. They have ears, but they cannot hear. They have noses, but they cannot smell. They have hands, but they cannot feel. They have feet, but they cannot walk. They cannot make a sound with their throat."(NASB) In other words, false gods are COUNTERFEITS. They might have LIMITED POWERS, but eventually they can only ENSLAVE OR DESTROY, because they DON’T HAVE THE POWER OF LIFE TO SAVE, which means they are not God at all.

 THE GOD WHO IS THE ONE TRUE GOD.
YOU MAY BE THINKING, "I DON’T WORSHIP GODS OF STONE--- IDOLS set up in some pagan temple. I am a SOPHISTICATED PERSON."   But to be tempted to worship ‘other gods’, doesn’t necessarily mean you might run out into the woods at night and worship a rock.  BUT THERE ARE GODS BESIDE IDOLS OF STONE. ANYTHING CAN BE A GOD, if it takes the place of the true God.   So, if you want discover who, or what you worship, ASK YOURSELF these THREE SIMPLE QUESTIONS, to determine who or what is “God” in your life:

 (1) ON WHAT DO YOU SET YOUR AFFECTIONS?  When your heart takes a break from the complexities of daily living, WHERE DOES IT COME TO REST?  Like a COMPASS NEEDLE, though spun around will always come to rest by pointing north, WHERE DOES YOUR HEART POINT WHEN IT COMES TO REST?  WHAT IS REALLY IMPORTANT TO YOU?  There are many concerns and loves, but what is ultimate love guides all other desires or loves?  Is it your JOB? A PROMOTION? Perhaps your HOME? Your CAR? Maybe another PERSON? Or MONEY? MATERIAL things?  On what do you set your affections?  Do you set your greatest affection on God? WE ARE TOLD IN THE NEW TESTAMENT, TO SET OUR AFFECTIONS ON THINGS ABOVE.,
(2)  This is proven by answering the second question: WHOM ARE YOU TRYING TO IMPRESS? We work, we buy, we plan, we push ourselves, we study, and we achieve, but why? Who or whom are we trying to impress? Some may say they DO IT ALL FOR THEMSELVES.   There are some who are guided by purely SELF-CENTERED MOTIVES OR AMBITIONS. We work for ourselves. We accumulate for ourselves. We  achieve only for ourselves.  SOME WILL say they LIVE FOR OTHERS, for their family, or for some other person or persons.  In other words, it’s not “your” own opinion that matters, but OTHER PEOPLE’S OPINIONS ARE IMPORTANT TOO.  Perhaps we might even become PEOPLE-PLEASERS. Perhaps we strive to look good in the eyes of others.   Giving ourselves to others can be good, but alone, it might go wrong too.   You can give, and give, and give, and not have anything left of yourself.    This is why this first commandment points us in an even higher motive than SELF, or OTHERS:  it EXHORTS US TO BE GOD-PLEASERS. The person we should seek to impress most is God. We should seek TO BE A DELIGHT TO HIM.   ONLY when we have our hearts on God do we know how much or what is necessary for others or for ourselves.
(3)  The final question is most obvious: WHAT ARE YOU LIVING FOR THAT YOU WANT TO GIVE YOU LIFE, RIGHT NOW?  What are our GOALS? What are OUR ASPIRATIONS? What are OUR OBJECTIVES?   IF YOU WERE TO LIST YOUR GOALS ON A SHEET OF PAPER would ‘Spiritual’ goals, you place for God be at the top? Would your main priorities be your walk with God, and your service to Him, or is God only a leftover, afterthought, or a postscript?   ARE YOUR GOALS ONLY CENTERED AROUND PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENT, job, home, family, money and the like?  You can live for all of these, but you must also ask yourself: WHO GIVES YOU YOUR LIFE AND THE POWER OF LIFE?  These kind of questions WILL HELP YOU EVALUATE WHAT YOU PUT FIRST.  As Jesus instructed: seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and ALL THESE WILL BE ADDED.  ONLY SEEKING YOUR OWN KINGDOM or your own rightness, and you NOT ONLY LOOSE YOUR KINGDOM, YOU’LL EVENTUALLY LOOSE YOURSELF TOO?    

 Choosing God means YOU ARE NO longer the center of YOUR world.  Realizing that Life is bigger than you, and is a gift, is also how your best chance for life happens too.   I once  read of A MAN IN A CATHOLIC PARISH who had a life-THREATENING ILLNESS.  The priest was called to his hospital bed.  The man was on first name basis with the Priest: “Ed, in a real crazy way, I AM GRATEFUL THAT THIS IS HAPPENING TO ME.” The Priest asked, “Why?”  The sick man answered, “Because THE WORD THAT KEEPS COMING UP IN MY MIND is the word, ‘give’… give, give.   I have some sense that NOW I AM CALLED TO GIVE MYSELF IN A WAY I’VE NEVER GIVEN BEFORE.” I have come to realize, as death threatens, and the end will come, to take myself out of the ‘center’ and to give is the only true way to live.

 We choose the one true God by the IDENTITY WE CHOOSE FOR OURSELVES. We are either people who CHOOSE TO LIVE FOR Ourselves, TO TAKE and keep on taking… OR, on the OTHER HAND, We ARE PEOPLE WHO CHOOSE TO BE INSTRUMENTS and to GIVE THEMSELVES FULLY INTO GOD’S HANDS.

 Saint Francis of Assisi SAW HIMSELF AS AN INSTRUMENT of the one,  true God and IT TURNED HIS LIFE AROUND and GAVE HIS LIFE MEANING.  Francis expressed it in a WONDERFUL PRAYER: “LORD, MAKE ME AN INSTRUMENT OF YOUR PEACE. Where there is HATRED, let me SOW LOVE, where there is INJURY, PARDON; where there is DISCORD, UNION; where there is DOUBT, FAITH; where there is DESPAIR, HOPE; where there is SADNESS, JOY.  GRANT THAT WE MAY NOT SO MUCH SEEK TO BE CONSOLED AS TO CONSOLE, to be UNDERSTOOD AS TO UNDERSTAND, to be loved as to love, for it is in GIVING THAT WE RECEIVE; it is in forgiving that we are forgiven, and it is in dying that we are born into eternal life.”

 Isn’t it amazing how EVERYTHING CHANGES WHEN WE CHOOSE TO PUT OUR LIVES INTO THE HANDS OF GOD as his instrument?  WE WORSHIP GOD, not just with words, with lips, or with a few scattered  SUNDAY ‘nods to God’, but we WORSHIP GOD ONLY WHEN CHOOSE TO WORSHIP HIM DAILY with all our lives and we put nothing in HIS PLACE AND WE HOLD NOTHING BACK.

 ISRAEL’S GOD AS THE ONE, TRUE, GOD
WORSHIPING the ONE, TRUE, GOD, means FINALLY THAT WE COME HOME to WHO WE ARE CREATED BY SO WE CAN BECOME WHO WE ARE CREATED TO BE.   Clinging to things that cannot last only leads us from one pain to another in life. Only God lasts.  We have no scientific proof that there is a God and we have no scientific proof that there is not a God. All we have is the low, clear voice within saying always, “THERE MUST BE MORE to this than this.” And that is all the proof we need.
(From: Chittister, Joan (2012-08-01). The Ten Commandments:  Laws of the Heart (p. 21). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

 BECAUSE THERE IS MORE, This FIRST COMMANDMENT ASSUMES that you WILL WORSHIP something.  It also assumes that YOU MUST CHOOSE TO WORSHIP THE ‘TRUE’ GOD and it assumes that this ‘true’ God MUST BE THE “ONE” AND ONLY GOD in your life.  All this is implied in ‘having no other gods before you.’   

 STILL, A FINAL, MOST pressing, UNANSWERED QUESTION MAY prevent THESE Ten Commands from GIVING LIFE today.   These commandments were once given to BE THE FOUNDATION FOR THE SPIRITUAL AND SOCIAL LIFE OF A COMMUNITY who INTENTIONALLY CENTERED THEMSELVES together in COVENANT WITH THE “ONE” “TRUE GOD” God who once called ISRAEL INTO BEING, but how CAN WE ‘ASSUME’ these laws are also MEANT FOR US?   IN A WORLD WHERE ‘TRUTH’ AND ‘LAW’ MEAN SO MANY THINGS to MANY DIFFERENT PEOPLE, how can we know THAT THE ONE TRUE GOD’ OF ISRAEL is also the ‘one, TRUE, GOD’ FOR US and IS LORD of the UNIVERSE?

 Well, TO BE QUITE FRANK, the truth is that we CAN’T ASSUME THIS ANYMORE, as we once thought we could.  Maybe WHEN WE ARE ALL LIVING IN OUR HAPPY LITTLE SINGULAR WHITE, EUROPEAN, American RELIGIOUS TRIBES made of DIFFERENT “JUDEO-CHRISTIAN” Flavors” we assumed it, but we don’t live there anymore.  LIKE THOSE ‘TRIBAL LEADERS’ IN THAT MOVIE, “The god’s must be crazy”,  WE TOO CAN’T JUST THROW THE COKE BOTTLE BACK up into the sky and go back to the way things once were.  LIFE HAS BECOME MORE COMPLICATED and you CAN’T JUST ASSUME WHAT WAS ONCE GOOD FOR ISRAEL is good for us.   Even Israel, modern Israel that is, DOESN’T PUT THAT MUCH STOCK IN THESE 10 COMMANDMENTS anymore.   Today, even Israel is less Israel,  or as the Apostle Paul once put it,  All that is called “ISRAEL IS NOT ISRAEL  (Roms 9-11).  

 It is PRECISELY BECAUSE life is much different than it was before, that the 10 commandments BELONG TO MORE than a “NEUTRAL” government building,  and must belong to MUCH MORE than in a “PUBLIC” school book, and MUST BE EVEN BECOME MUCH MORE than a NICE “MORAL” Tale told to children.   No, the 10 Commandments, if they are to GIVE THE LIFE THEY WERE INTENDED TO GIVE, must BE GET INTO OUR SOULS with the whole HEART, SOUL, MIND AND STRENGTH.  How can this happen?

 There is a GREAT Biblical EXAMPLE OF Someone quietly and fully putting the true God at the center of their lives.  DO YOU REMEMBER THE STORY OF MARY AND MARTHA IN LUKE’S GOSPEL  (10: 38ff)?  When Jesus came to visit, they both loved Jesus, BUT THEY HAD DIFFERENT WAYS OF RESPONDING TO JESUS.   MARTHA, responded to Jesus WITH HER BUSINESS.  Mary, on the other hand, RESPONDED TO JESUS BY GETTING CLOSER to him by HANGING ON to EVERY SINGLE WORD.   THE TEXT TELLS US THAT WHILE MARTHA WAS “DISTRACTED” by her many tasks, Mary WAS SITTING AT JESUS’ FEET, listening, and taking everything in.  

 When Martha observed Mary there, she protested, saying, “Lord, do you not care that MY SISTER HAS LEFT ME TO DO ALL THE WORK by myself?  Tell her to help me?   We can understand Martha’s difficulty, for we TOO ARE OFTEN PRESSED UPON BY THE WORRIES and cares of this world.  WE TOO ARE IN A HURRY to make sure THINGS GET DONE RIGHT BECAUSE WE LIVE TO MAKE EVERYONE HAPPY.  But there is more.  There is MUCH MORE THAN OUR HURRIED, WORRIED LIVES.  Listen to Jesus’ response:  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things.  There is need of only one thing.”  MARY HAS CHOSEN THE BETTER PART, which will not be taken away from her. 

THAT “ONE THING which is the ‘better part” is to INVITE YOURSELF, to CHOOSE, TO KNOW THE PRESENCE OF THE LORD OF LORDS, and King of Kings, WHO HAS COME CLOSE TO US IN JESUS CHRIST.   DO YOU KNOW  HOW DO YOU “SERVE” WHEN WE A KING COMES TO YOUR HOUSE?   If you think like Martha, you ‘do things’ for him.   But think about this another way: “HOW DO YOU SERVE A KING OR this GOD, who comes to us, to call us to be his own ISRAEL, as the GOD WHO HAS AND IS EVERYTHING?   HOW DO YOU SERVE A KING WHO HAS COME TO YOU BECAUSE YOU CAN”T GET CLOSE TO HIM?   YOU certainly don’t BEGIN AS MARTHA DID, but YOU MUST DO WHAT MARY DID.  YOU Acknowledge that the KING has found you and you SIT DOWN TO LET HIM SERVE YOU FIRST.

 “Be still, and know that I am God…” This is WHERE ALL THE COMMANDMENTS Begin and End.   There was nothing wrong with what Martha was doing, but there is something BADLY WRONG WITH WHAT MARTHA WAS MISSING.  She is MISSING THE BEST PART….the LISTENING… The LEARNING… the GROWING… THE WONDERING… AND THE WORSHIP… What she was missing, most of all, was the LOVE God had to give her first.

 We will also come to worship the one, true God when we let him find us, first.   And WHEN HE COMES TO US, we need to MOVE IN CLOSE WITH ALL OUR HEARTS until we come to fully understand that what he come to give us, FIRST OF ALL…AND MOST OF ALL IS….HIMSELF.   Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

WE NEED GOD to Keep Up Our Image

A sermon based upon Exodus 20: 4-6; 32:1-29; Acts 17: 16-31
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, D.Min.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Year C: Proper 19, 17th Sunday After Pentecost, September 11th, 2016

A little boy drawing a picture was asked, what are you drawing?   
        His quick reply: “God”. 
The teacher answers, “But no one knows what God looks like.”  To which the 
          little boy answers, “They will when I get through with my picture.”

How do you visualize God?  What lens or filter do you look through?    The Second commandment; “You must not make carved or graven images of God” (Ex. 20:7), intends to make us realize that any of our ‘images’ of God, either mental or religious, are not really God.

You do realize that you don’t actually see or hear God on your own terms, don’t you?   Some in Broughton Mental Hospital would claim they’ve heard God talking to them directly, but a healthy mind would only acknowledge knowing God through the mind or heart.   Recent science even suggests that we have “God spots” in our brains.   Using physical, cultural and spiritual filters, our minds seem ‘wired’ with a capacity to focus less on self and more on God and others.  But we do this indirectly, not directly; approximately, not exactly, intuitively, not always analytically.   For example, we can see this limitation is how many of us, because of our forefathers in faith, understand God through Baptist filters, through Methodist filters, Quaker, Presbyterian, Catholic, and so on.   Humans are spiritually ‘programed’ with a built-in need to transcend our self-centeredness, but our spiritual beliefs and religious traditions are particular to our own ways of seeing, based upon our specific needs, experiences, and our own ability to understand through differing cultural and religious viewpoints.   (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/20/god-spot-in-brain-is-not-_n_1440518.html)

Scripture says “No one may (actually) see (God) and live” (Ex. 33:20).  This means the ‘living God” who is the ‘true God,’ will remain hidden, beyond all our individual viewpoints and the mental images in our minds, or he ceases to be God.  As J.B. Philips suggested many years ago, unless you always allow for your own limitations, even in how you interpret the God who has revealed himself to us through the Word, Jesus Christ, “Your God (Could) Be Too Small.” 

THE PROBLEM WITH “IMAGE
Since, ‘our ways are not God’s ways, and our thoughts are not God’s thoughts’ (Is. 55:8), let me tell why this is so important;  why it is important for us to know that the true God and the ‘truth of God’ is always beyond us and can’t fully be ‘imagined’ by any of us.  I was on my first mission trip outside the U.S., on a mission trip to Brazil, where I was revival speaker for the Monte Horbe, Igelsia Baptista.   My sermon was being translated by a Brazilian lady who did everything she could to try to make my sermon work.  But it just wasn't working, at least it wasn’t working for me.  But it wasn’t the sermon material that was the problem; but it was the hammering going on overhead as I preached on that Sunday morning.  

While we were trying worship and I attempted to preach, several men were hammering away on the roof.  How could they do such a thing on Sunday?”  I thought to myself.  “Why did the people and the pastor let this go on, especially while I, a visitor, struggling to preach with a translator, was trying to preach?”   I just could not figure it out.  Was my preaching that bad?  Maybe.  Maybe they just took advantage of moment when the real pastor had a Sunday off, and they wouldn’t pay attention an American.  All this was whirling in my mind, so after the service concluded, I could not wait to ask the Brazilian pastor why those guys kept hammering while we were trying to worship.
      “Those are my deacons,” he answered trying not to laugh.
     “Your Deacons were hammering on Sunday during the worship service? 
    “Yes,” he said.  “We have a hole in our roof.   We are all poor people and cannot afford to take a day off to fix it, so with the only time they had free, they were fixing the roof.”
      “Doesn’t that disturb worship?”  I asked.
      “That hammering was worship”, he said. “They were all hammering away to the glory of God because they were fixing the roof.
His answer both humbled me, but also inspired me, to realize that God could ‘work’ in ways that I had never imagined before.

This is one of the first things you’ll notice when you visit different churches in different cultures.  They seldom do things exactly the same way we do.  We all pray, but we pray differently.  We go to church for worship, but we express our worship differently, we dress differently and we approach God differently.  Sometimes this happens out of habit or traditions established long before we can along.  Other times, differing worship arises out of particular experiences or necessities of a particular moment.   It is always important that we no mistake the ‘form’ for the truth of God that is always beyond our own traditions, rituals, or worship practices.

Whenever missionaries go to different cultures, one of the great temptations is to try to make “Americans” out of people, rather than calling them to become Christians within their own culture.   Because we all come with set of lenses that human culture gives us, the good news of God ought to be allowed to shape us within our own cultural filters.  While this is the normal and natural way to receive the gospel, it is also important that the gospel must not restricted by these cultural filters.   For example, when you put ‘native’ peoples into three piece suits and make them sing Bach, it might look cute and interesting, but the problem is that it may not be true worship for those people.   True worship must arise out of a particular culture and tradition.  Faith must not oppose culture because it also needs culture as a channel for responding to God.   In other words, it is through what happens around me, that I realize what my responsibilities should be. 

In the same way, you must try to understand culture when you preach, teach, or try to communicate the gospel, especially ‘cross-culturally’.  For example, when missionaries first preached to Chinese people and spoke of being ‘sinners’ it first sounded like the missionaries were calling them all “criminals” or ‘crooks’.  The traditional Chinese language had no actual word for sinner.  So, those missionaries had to develop a way of  clarifying that being a sinner did not make you a criminal, or bad person, but it being a ‘sinner’ means that we all ‘fall short’, as Scripture says, and we all have potential to commit ‘crimes’ against God and each other.  But, through Jesus, God has provided a way to forgive and help us overcome.  They had to help the Chinese, and other Asian cultures,  picture the ‘good news’ in ways that “fit” their own cultural understandings.

Why am I giving you this extended lesson in “Cross Cultural Communication?”   It all goes back to this second commandment.   If you are going know a truth as big as God, you must realize that you will always face limits.  The truth about God, if it remains God’s truth, must always remain bigger, larger, and greater than all “human” understandings and cultures.  God can’t be reduced to human ingenuity or imagination. God only remains God, precisely when we don’t try to force God to fit neatly into our finite minds.  Only when God remains above or beyond us, can the true God be in us.    

Don’t make any graven or carved image!” is the commandment that reminds that no cultural, human-made, or humanly imagined image of God you or I have in our minds, will ever be all there is to God.   If you stop and think about it, no command has had a greater ‘ripple effect’ in Bible or theological “pond’.   While defining what we mean by God has very important implications for what we believe, realizing that we ‘can’t’ fully grasp the whole ‘truth of God’ is just as important.  When you start to believe or think you know everything there is to know about God, or when you think you have ‘the corner-market’ on God, you have immediately begun to create a ‘false image’—a false image, which the Bible says can become your idol.  

Idolatry--- worshipping “Idols” is the big “no, no” of the Bible (1 Sam. 15:23).  The sin of Idolatry is how ancient peoples tried to approached or imagine God on their own terms.   This is not just a religious problem.   This is something that should concern you—whether you are religious or not.  When you imagine God, on your own terms, without allowing for your human limitations or without submitting to God’s revelation of Himself, it isn’t long until you begin to make ‘false’ images or idols, not only of God, but you can also start making ‘false images’ or ‘idols’ of yourself.   We must realize that this is not really a commandment about God wanting to protect his image, but it finally a commandment this who God who is trying to protect the ‘image’ of God stamped within each of us. 

Of course, we live world that uses the term ‘idol’ figuratively, but also flippantly--such as the once wildly popular show “American Idol”.    This popular usage of the word “Idol” reminds us just how much of our culture today is built around ‘image’?   Image sells.  Daily we are bombarded by stereotypes; including popular images of youth, images about money, about sex, and of course, in this political year, images of power that promises the ‘moon’.   Even churches have gotten into image making business, by marketing themselves in ways that may help present the gospel in a very image conscious world.   Make no mistake, even though our society has very few ‘ironsmiths’ fashioning  images of godlike ‘idols’ (Isaiah 44: 12ff), we still live in a world continues to promote ‘godlike’ images of what people want. 

On the TODAY SHOW once, there was a spot about how many thousands, even millions of dollars are spent by Americans each year so they can go on diets in order to project the ‘right image’.   In fact, for most American who diet, it is not about health at all, though it could be, but most dieting today is about ‘image’.   What was most interesting in the report, was scientific studies have proven that ‘fad’ diets really don’t do much to help us lose weight, nor recreate our image.   Heredity and genetics has much more to do with our body type and sometimes even our weight, as much as anything we try to do to obtain a certain look or shape.  Moderation and exercising are much healthier than going after an ideal weight that most people cannot, or should ever REACH.  And even and if we do reach it, we will most likely not be able to maintain it.   

Along with this concern for physical image, we also SEE THE SELLING of images all around us?  The image of having the right body, the right car, the right house, and the right job are all a part of the daily dreams of most Americans.  Some will sell their own souls, or the soul of their family, in order to obtain or maintain the perfect image some wish to see in themselves. 

Interestingly, the commandment of God is concerned about the kinds of “images” we promote.   But, in this second commandment,  as it is constantly communicated in the Bible, God has some very different reasons for being ‘image conscious’.   God is concerned that when we create ‘false images’ of God, or what we want to be ‘god’ for us,   we will also end up with false, self-destructive, life-robbing images of ourselves. 

HOW IMAGES BECOME IDOLS
In order to better understand humans still may become ‘idol’ makers, let’s go back to the first story of ‘idol’ making.   IN EXODUS 32, even while Moses was on the Mountain with God, receiving the Ten Commandments, the people of God became impatient and convinced Aaron to help them CREATE AN “IMAGE” representing their desire for gods’ on their own terms.   It is exactly this human tendency to be impatient with the truth of God, along with being so overbearingly “IMAGE CONSCIOUS” that this commandment was given to deter, saying:  "Do not make for yourselves a carved image, whether in the form of anything in heaven above or on earth beneath or in the water under the earth.  You are not to bow down to them and you are not to worship them."  (Ex. 20:4-5a).   GOD’S PROBLEM IS NOT SO MUCH WITH us needing to imagine God in our own minds, AS IT IS WITH TURNING our way of imagining God into self-serving “IDOLS”.   WHEN WE “IDOLIZE” the IMAGE---we confuse a human-made image we have created in our own limited, finite minds, with the unbounded, infinite, eternal truth of a living God, who cannot be contained or controlled by us.    
ONE OF THE GREATEST truths in the entire Hebrew Bible is how it was finally perceived that “idolatry” was the ‘sin’ which resulted in the DOWNFALL OF Israel  (Eze. 23:49).  But of course, we would never be so foolish today, would we?  IDOL WORSHIP SEEMS LIGHT YEARS AWAY FROM US, right?    Wrong!  Idolatry is still a major concern for truth faith.  Do you know why?   It’s simple:  God does not allow for substitutes; none.  This is the core problem of making our own images of God.  WHEN WE ‘IDOLIZE’ THE IMAGE, even perhaps a very good image of God which we may have in our own mind---if we are not careful,  even “good” images and ‘true’ understandings of God, when craved out or controlled by us, can END UP BEING SUBSTITUTES for the true God, who is beyond all human imagining and comprehension. 

Let’s get practical.  Think, for a moment about how we might idolize an image as a substitute for the true God.   Let’s go straight to the most important one for ‘biblical Christians’: BIBLIOLATRY---which is IDOLIZING THE BIBLE.  We Christians believe the Bible.  We Believe the Bible is true in what it intends to say, and we also believe that God’s truth is revealed in the Bible.  What we must be careful not to think or do, however, is to start treating the Bible as if it is “god-like”.  The Bible does become a worthy vehicle of the truth of God, but it must never become ‘godlike’.  Since the Bible has human authors, though guided by the Holy Spirit, we still have to carefully interpret its words with reverence.  The Bible is a trustworthy ‘channel’ for God’s Word, but only because it points us to the final WORD of God, who is Jesus Christ.   When we lose the living message of Jesus as the key that unlocks the truth of God written Word, we are liable to idolize the Bible.  Some people do this with a particular version of the Bible, because instead of following the Spirit of Jesus revealed in the Bible, they start getting stuck on Bible itself, and end up brow beating other people with their opinions about the Bible, rather than actually following Jesus.  Let’s face it folks, there’s been a lot of Bibliolatry among some Baptists.  Many have idolized a book, and have missed  obeying the truth of the God of the book.

The same kind of thing HAPPENNED WITH DENOMINATIONALISM, DIDN’T IT?  Some people used to think their denomination was the only true denomination and that all other denominations were going straight to hell.  Instead of being humble and realizing that we are all limited in our view of God and we all see God through our own experiences, SOME ELEVATED THEIR OWN VIEWPOINTS SO HIGH, that they MISSED OTHER ASPECTS OF GOD, which could be found in other denominations. 

If we are not careful, we too can get stuck in the very kind of MAN-MADE RELIGION Jesus came to free us from.   OUR FAITH IS NOT ABOUT RELIGION, IT IS ABOUT RELATIONSHIP.  This reflects the great problem with idols: It’s HARD TO RELATE TO AN IDOL.  You can talk to them, but they don’t talk back.  You can walk to them, but they can't walk with you.  You can hold them in your hand, but they can’t hold you.  That is the problem with substitutes.  They can be there when you want them, but THEY ARE NOT ALWAYS THERE WHEN YOU NEED THEM.  Idols are mere substitutes with no true substance.   They are dead replacements for a living, true God. 

We still need to be warned against the trap of creating Idols, even in a modern world.  WHEN WE PUT ANYTHING, anyone or any idea in the place of the living, untouchable, unspeakable, and undefinable God, we CREATE AN IMAGE THAT BECOMES AN IDOL.  God defines us, we don’t define him.   As the theologian Paul Tillich once put it: “The true God is the “God beyond God” we imagine, or he is not God at all.”   If we fail to forget that God we could and would know nothing of God, unless God had revealed himself.   AND EVEN WHAT has been revealed to us, we CAN’T HOLD TO TOO TIGHTLY, or MISS the Many WAYS GOD CAN still COME to us, in our world and into our hearts.  Remember Mary Magdalene in the Garden, as she met the resurrected Christ, and how she was still trying to hold on to the earthly Jesus.  Jesus spoke to her, saying, “Mary, don’t cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.”   Only when Mary ‘let go’ of the God she once knew, could she continue to walk with the living, life-giving, death-defying God of her own future.

WHO REALLY GETS HURT?
In THE FINAL PART OF THIS COMMANDMENT, God reminds Israel that HE IS A JEALOUS God who will NOT ALLOW HIS PEOPLE TO WORSHIP idols.  If they do, GOD says he WILL BRING JUDGMENT, “visiting the iniquity of the Fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation….”

SOUNDS A LITTLE HARSH, DOESN’T IT?   Why is God so concerned about idolatry?  Why is he so jealous?   Well, the answer is in the text itself.  IDOLATRY ENDS UP HURTING US more than it could ever HURT GOD.  When we substitute our false images for the true God, WE are the ones who SUFFER THE CONSEQUENCES.  

The greatest tragedy of idolatry is that when we ‘create’ a god of our own, we create a god we can use, but we have left the very GOD can use us.   When we limit God, WE LESSEN OURSELVES.   When we create a false image of God, we demote and demoralize the image of God within us.  When we get fixated on the thing we want, we are likely to miss the very thing we need. 

Pastor John Killinger tells of a woman who once fell in love with a travel poster.    It was a dramatic photograph showing the whitewashed buildings and Byzantine domes of the Greek island of Santorni, with the shining blue sea behind them.   She asked the travel agent for a copy of the poster, and she took it home and put it up in her breakfast nook, where she would see it every morning.   Soon she began to dream of going to the Greek islands and seeing this ‘fabled’ view for herself.  

Each time she received a paycheck, she put away a few dollars toward the realization of her dream.   Eventually the day come when she flew off to Athens on the first leg of her journey.  Because her tour included several days in the city of Athens, she dutifully made the rounds of the sights, but she confessed to one lady that she was not very much interested in what she was seeing, for she had really come for only one purpose: to see the beautiful scene in Santorini that was captured o her travel poster.

When the tour group left Athens, it traveled by steamer to the ancient island of Mykonos, with its twisting, narrow streets, it unforgettable harbor, its picturesque windmills, and it whitewashed buildings and Byzantine domes.   Most of the people in the group oohed and ahhed at the glorious sights, and some even began to write poetry the evening they stood on the hill and watched the sun set like a fiery red wafer into the mauve and golden sea.  But the woman was unyielding; she had come to see the houses, domes of Santorni.
From Mykonos, the tour transported the group to the little island of Paros.  They stayed on the leeward side of the island in a hotel overlooking a beautiful bay where the fishermen brought in their catches every evening just before dinner.  In the daytime, many of the party lay indolently on the crescent beach that stretched around one end of the bay.  Others swam in the luminously clear waters, marveling at the beauty of their surroundings.  But the woman rarely left her hotel room.  She was dreaming of her special view in Santorini.

Finally, the tour arrived at Santorini.  The ship sailed into the rim of the enormous volcano on which the city is perched.  It was almost dusk, and the sky over the sea looked like a great bank of embers, slowly fading into the night.  Many people said it was the most beautiful sight they had ever seen.  But the woman rode silently up the hill to the hotel, clutching her dream of the view on the poster.  “Tomorrow morning, when the sun rises,” she thought to herself, “I will see it.”  She would have only a few hours in the city, but it would be worth it.  She would stand on the walls of the city and look down across those gorgeous housetops and domes pictured on the poster.  Her heart was pounding faster than she had ever known it to pound.  She didn’t know if she would be able to sleep.
During the night, a great storm off the coast of southern Italy moved into the Aegean Sea, bringing cooler temperatures to the region.  As the cold air met the warm sea water, thick vapors rose and spread their murky blanket over everything.  When the woman awoke and rushed out to her balcony to look out over the view she had longed to see, everything was shrouded in fog.  She could barely see the building immediately below her hotel.  Later in the day, her heart heavy with disappointment, she sailed with her group toward Crete, where they would catch a plane home.  She had missed everything; all the grandeur and beauty of an entire civilization, by focusing too exclusively on a single image. (See To My People With Love, Abingdon Press, 1988, pp. 36-38).

If you idolize God into a single fixed form; a god who only reflects your own views, your own self-made images, your own individualized politics, even your own culture or ‘home grown’ religion, you will end up carving out your image of God.  If you fix your sights only on this one image, you’ll end up missing everything else God is or is doing in this world.   The only way God can be seen, without shortchanging his image and without short changing our own lives, is by following Jesus. 

While we know that people can ‘use’ Jesus too, instead of actually following him, if we want to find the way to follow Jesus without falling into idolatry,  we need to remember the conversation Jesus once had with the Woman at the Well.  The topic of their discussion was about whether God should be worshiped in Jerusalem, or in Samaria.   The Samaritans had their own copy of the Bible, and considered themselves faithful Jews, even though they were not Jewish.  The Jews considered these Samaritans half-breeds, because they weren’t purely Jewish and used their copy of the Bible.  How did Jesus answer the argument over who had the true image of God?  Jesus answered, “one day” we will all “worship the Father in spirit and truth”.  One day, we will get beyond all the limiting ways humans get fixated and miss the ‘true God’ who is spirit—the spirit of love and compassion.    Paul explained the same hope to the Greeks in Athens when he said, “God doesn’t live in man-made temples… human hand can’t serve his needs, because he has need of nothing.  He himself gives life and breath to everything and satisfies every need there is.. (Acts 17: 22-31). 

So, how do we overcome idolatry, according to the Christian gospel?  There is only one way.  Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me, has seen the Father.” (Jn. 14:9).  Do you know how WE CAN WORSHIP JESUS AN NOT IDOLIZE GOD?   Besides the fact that JESUS WAS GOD IN THE FLESH, there is yet another reason.   Jesus not only showed us God was at work in Christ Jesus, reconciling the world to God’s love, but Jesus ALSO SHOWED US HOW GOD CAN LIVE THROUGH any of us.   What Jesus came to do was to restore the “image of God” in us.   WE WERE CREATED IN GOD’S IMAGE, and through Jesus Christ, this image of God in us can be restored.  WHEN YOU CAN SEE GOD IN JESUS and you want to see God at work in your LIFE, AND when you also begin to SEE THE IMAGE OF GOD IN OTHERS, you don’t need an idol any more.   It is like Jacob told Esau, “Seeing your face, is like seeing the Face of God.”  WHO NEEDS AN IDOL, when we can LOVE EACH OTHER?  Who needs an idol, when the GOD WE CAN’T SEE IS REVEALED BEST BY LOVING the people we do see?  It is through loving, caring, and serving others that the God’s truth still tears down all the false idols in this world.   Amen.