September 20, 2015
There is a well-worn story of the little boy who one day was sitting at the kitchen table doing artwork when his mother passed by. There were markers, crayons, pencils, paper and all sorts of supplies scattered about the table and he was working feverishly. “What are you working on?” she asked him. “I am drawing a picture of God!” the little boy replied. “Oh, my,” said his mother, “I guess you are aware that no one really knows what God looks like.” “Well,” said the little boy, “they will when I get finished with my picture!”
I like that cute little story because there is a strong element of truth in it. From the time we are young until the time that we die, most of us work hard to capture a picture of God. Our attempts, I think, are by and large noble ones. We want to be able to understand what God is like. We want to know what to anticipate in terms of how God is likely to be at work in our lives. And, we want to be able to have some grasp – to the best of our ability- of the Holy One who is the creator of the universe. To this end, we make statements, create expectations and agree with each other about how our good God will respond in the various situations of life.
Our word pictures of God, which become our modern image of God in our minds and on the written page, are in many ways simply a different twist on the images of God that the ancient people created in a day and time before the written word was commonplace.
This we think is where idols first originated.
After all, even during the biblical period, most people didn’t read and write. Thus, at that time, to create an image of God, one needed something more than words, one needed pictures, objects, sculptures. But again, the endgame was the same. These pictures and objects were simply their way of describing what God was like and what God was not like. It was their way of getting their mind around how to talk about or what to expect from God and how to anticipate that God would go to work in their day to day affairs and in their individual lives.
It all makes good sense and thus one wonders why it was so problematic. Why was God so displeased with images and why did God so disdain idols? And, why was God opposed not just to idols of false gods, but displeased even with those made in God’s own likeness? After all the command is clear – “don’t make an idol of anything in heaven above or in the earth below” – this became the second commandment.
Further, this commandment its not only the second one given, but it also occupies three full verses and takes almost a 100 words to explain. For comparisons sake, take if you will this second command of Exodus 20 and consider it beside the sixth and eighth commands “not to murder” or “not to steal”. In both, barely a sentence is used that in each equates to less than half a dozen words.
It is interesting. After all, we rarely list idol worship as one of the great sins of modern humanity. Likewise, when we worry about the spiritual well being of our children, spouse or one of our relatives, bowing down to idols is not generally what we are loosing sleep over. Yet, evidently in the eyes of God, this was an absolutely critical command for early follows and thus followers throughout all generations to embrace and to build their lives around. But why?
There are several good, helpful and practical answers to this question and several ways that we wander into idol worship both as it relates to things in the “heavens above” and to those on the “earth below”. This morning, I want to center in on only one that I think might be most helpful for us as people of faith and that is related to the phrase here about idols of things in “heaven above”.
Why exactly is it that creating an idol, even of God, is so dangerous? It is because that creating idols even of good things is a way of creating limitations.
I read an article recently about a father who developed an interesting yearly habit with his son. Every year from 1986 when his son was born until the present in 2015, the two have taken the same picture together, using roughly the same pose, on the same day of the year. What was even more fascinating was the fact that the edition of the story that I read, included all 29 of theses pictures. Again, it was the same image, the same man and the same boy. Yet as the years and pictures went by, it felt like you were looking at two totally different people. In fact, if you held the first picture taken in 1986 up beside the last picture taken earlier this year, you would be hard pressed to immediately recognize the young man and the infant child as the same people in the picture of an older man and full grown son 29 years later.
My point is simply this, even in the best of pictures, it is impossible to capture the full or complete essence of anyone. And, in a nutshell, this is the problem with creating an idol or making an image of God. No matter how good it is, God is always bigger, God is always more complex, God can never be contained to just one image – any picture of God, no matter how well done, is always incomplete and never captures God in totality.
No, on the surface we would all quickly say that we don’t do this. In all likelihood, none of us have statues of God in our home. But, again, this was the early form of idols in a day before written languages, books and extensive vocabularies. Thus in 2015, our images are far more complex. Again, they are the idols of our words. They are the pictures of God that individually and collectively we have crafted of God in our minds.
What we do is we create absolutes for God. When we are not healthy, when we become gravely ill – God is the one who always makes us well. When we have family struggles with our spouse or when our children don’t do what we want – through prayer, God is the one who will quickly fix things. When there are disasters in the world or tragedies in our streets – God is the one who will keep safe those who love him and are his children. When we loose our job – God is the one who will ensure that we get another one if we just keep coming to church, giving our offering or teaching our Sunday School class. When we struggle or go through a difficult time – God is the one who will immediately get us out of it and make sure that we have a happy ending.
In essence, we have systematized God. We have created instructions for how God is supposed to work under certain situations. These are the images of God that have become our idols. And, when God doesn’t live up to our image that we have created – we become disillusioned. We become angry. We give up on God. We decide that he is nothing longer worthy of our devotion.
But the problem is that our image of God never captures fully who God is or how God always work. Does God heal the sick, does God keep us safe, does God help us through our family struggles, does God make life better? At times God does all of these things. But, if you read the scriptures or if you live life very long, what you find out is that God never does all of these things all of the time. And, doing all of the right things – even the right religious things never guarantees that God will do things the exact same way overtime either.
Just think about the Bible itself for a moment. There are lots of people that Jesus did not heal. There are many disasters that befell the Israelites that God did not protect them from. There are many families in scripture that still fell apart. God was with them to love them, care for them, nurture them but God was not and is not a genie in the Bible who also does exactly what we want when we want it done or in the same way every time. This may be what our idol does, but this is not what God does.
Think about the way Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit. Jesus spoke about the Holy Spirit as wind and fire. Why? Because for early people and for us, wind and fire are two of the best images of things that are unpredictable, uncontrollable, unable to be mastered and that ultimately are mysterious.
Yes, we must still talk about who we have known God to be. Yes, we must still talk about how God often works. Yes, we must still talk about how God loves us at all times and wants what best is for us. But, we must never allow ourselves to define God too narrowly or to develop a solid image that explains how God always behaves because if we create such images and idols we are only setting ourselves up for disappointment. And, further, we are suggesting something that is rather ridiculous – that we as human beings can completely and nonchalantly explain and define an infinite, Holy God.
This summer, when we were on the mission trip to Marfa, we went on a little field trip one afternoon. You see, Marfa is home to a number of artists and one day, we went to see one of these artist’s displays. The artist’s name is Donald Judd and years ago, Judd started creating stainless steal boxes. Over time, Judd created over 100 of them and they are on display in old army barracks there in Marfa in the West Texas countryside.
Judd’s goal was to make each box slightly different from the others. A goal which he achieved. While most of us in our group were a little underwhelmed and decided that maybe we need to work on our appreciation of art, Judd’s work provides a great reminder as it relates to the second commandment.
We can create box after box after box after box – with all boxes being different just like Donald Judd did. But, we will never create the box that adequately defines or captures God. God will always remain beyond our grasp. God will always live beyond our boxes.
Knowing this, embracing this, living with this is to our benefit and it will make our lives more joyful. Again, I am not saying that we should not talk about what God is like, I am simply saying that we must never let our images, our ideas or experiences become our idols which is to say they must never become absolutes or ways that God must always act. Instead, we must find a way to enter every situation unsure of how God will act or what God will do while fully aware that God loves us and wants our best no matter what God does or doesn’t do.
C.S. Lewis wrote a book about the death of wife Joy, that was called Surprised by Joy. That title had a double meaning. Lewis had been surprised because Joy was the wife he never expected. But, Lewis had also been surprised by God because God didn’t heal his wife Joy in this life no matter how hard Lewis prayed. Nonetheless, God got C.S. Lewis through that time in surprising ways. I think that book was a way in which Lewis was giving good advice. Rather than approaching life demanding that God do this or that based on our images and idols, if we can approach life making no demands but letting God rather surprise us with what we receive, what we might just find is a joy that we did not expect. Amen.