Down with art? - Exodus 20:4-6
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
There is the story of the Roman Catholic curate in Belfast who one day went into his church and made his way around the Stations of the Cross, these are artistic representations of Jesus crucifixion set along the walls of the church. He would pause at each picture; say a little prayer and then move on until finally he eventually he came to a statue of the Virgin Mary. On this occasion, as he bowed before the statue, the statue, miraculously bowed back- and the curate fainted. Well, when he had recovered he rushed around to the parish priest to tell him what had just happened. And so the priest thought that he would try it out. And so he did. He went around the stations of the cross, came to the statue of the Virgin Mary, bowed his head, the statue bowed back and he fainted. Pretty soon news of the miracle of the statue of the Virgin Mary eventually came to the attention of The Revd Ian Paisley- Protestant of Protestants- and he decided that he would find out for himself what was really going on. And so Ian Paisley went along to the church, made his way around the Stations of the Cross, bowed his head before the Virgin Mary, and the statue fainted!
When we come to the second of the Ten Commandments in which God forbids the making of any images, what does that include? Statues of the Virgin Mary? Paintings of Christ? Illustrations of Jesus for Sunday school children? Should the great Sistine chapel’s ceiling with its representation of God as a muscle bound old man in the sky be whitewashed over? Just how is this commandment relevant for us today? Well, tonight I hope to show you that it is as vitally relevant and that it is a disregard of this commandment which inevitably leads to disregarding all the others.
Now there are five things about this commandment I want us to think about.
First, the priority of the commandment. It is important that we get it straight in our minds what these commandments are and what they are for. These are commands given by God to people who want him to be their loving ruler. They shape the kind of people God wants them to be and establishes the kind of relationship he wants to have. You see, when people think about being given commands there are two ways of looking them. For example, suppose I were to invite you to our kitchen in order for you to make omelettes. But I make it a condition that if you want to make an omelette in our kitchen then you must wear a yellow party hat. Bizarre or what? That kind of commandment is not only arbitrary it is nonsensical because there is no real connection between making an omelette and wearing a hat, you can make an omelette without wearing anything (although then you might catch a cold). But supposing I were to say to you. You can make an omelette on the condition that you break an egg. Then the connection is obvious, in fact you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, it is part what omelette making is all about. Now some people see God’s commandments like the first one, wearing a party hat- God just throws in an arbitrary rule here and there, but whether we should keep them or not is down to us. But in reality, God’s commandments are more like the second one, just as you cannot make an omelette without breaking an egg, you cannot love God and be one of his people without following his commands, its part and parcel of what being a true worshipper is. What is more, all the commandments have good reasons behind them which are for our good and God’s glory as we shall see.
Now the fact that this commandment comes second in the list in itself tells us that it is important, that is why it occupies this prime position: “You shall not make for yourself an image…” Idolatry, the making of things which occupy pride of place in your heart is tantamount to replacing God as God. It is never put that way of course, but that is what it is. And if God is replaced as God, then what the true God has said will either be jettisoned or reinterpreted in line with the idol you have put in his place. So if you spend most of your waking hours working to earn more money to buy the bigger house and better wardrobe, then you will have to airbrush out the tenth commandment about coveting and possibly the eighth one about stealing. If your identity is bound up with the kind of person you are seen to have hanging on your arm, then the 7th commandment about not having sex outside of marriage is going to have to have a make over. I remember attending a conference early on in my ministry where a bishop was telling us how impressed he was with two Anglican nuns he had met who had discovered God in their lesbian relationship. Getting to know God, (who they would call Jesus) through sex. Now do you see how if this commandment falls, all the others eventually fall- it’s playing theological Jenga? And the history of Israel proved this to be so over and over again. Injustice, sexual immorality, greed and lying which poisoned Israelite society came after the making of idols, not before. And you know what? The same is true in the lives of some of our churches today and the lives of some Christians. May I suggest to you that if you have problems with some of these commandments, it is because you have already replaced the true God in your mind with a fabricated god of your own making? There are mental images as well as metal images which we furnish- of the ‘I like to think of my God like this’ variety.
Secondly, notice the comprehensiveness of the commandment: v4 “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.’ We are talking about representing God in some way by a painting, a piece of sculpture, or even an idea- ‘The great architect’- and God says do not do it! It doesn’t matter what you point to in creation or what idea may come out of your head, you cannot say ‘God is like that’- so don’t even try.
So had we had better whitewash the Sistine chapel after all? Can there be no religious art then? Not necessarily, because we have the specificity of the commandment, in verse 5, ‘You shall not bow down to them or worship (literally ‘serve’) them.’ God is talking about using images, objects, paintings, and pictures as aids to worship. It is not simply that God is condemning the practices of other religions, saying you should not worship their gods, their idols; he has already said that in the first commandment. No, here he is saying something rather different, he is saying that you should not worship me, the true God, the real God, the God of Israel by using visual objects as if they can represent me- they are idols. Now of course people won’t call them ‘idols’ or refer to what they do with them as ‘worship’. They will be spoken of as ‘icons’ (which, by the way, is the Greek for ‘idol’), or religious aids. They are not worshipped but ‘venerated’. They will be said to ‘assist our devotion’, help ‘focus the centre of our consciousness’, ‘deepen our spirituality’. But according to this commandment these are distinctions with no difference. Whether you call it worship or veneration, the result is the same, something other than the true God occupies your mind and imagination, these other things give you a religious buzz- but they are still idols, god-substitutes.
Let us not think that these Jews or the people of the surrounding nations were simpletons. They didn’t believe for a moment that the little idols they kept on their shelves-Nebo or Marduk- were the gods themselves. They knew they were stone or wooden statues. But they did believe they were symbols of those gods, and symbols exercise a tremendous power over us. Take the American flag for example. The Stars and Stripes has tremendous power in the United States. It conveys a sense of patriotism, of belonging, of history and prestige, which we find very difficult to appreciate since we have lost an Empire and have slid into becoming a third rate country. But not the Americans. During the anti-Vietnam War campaigns of the early 70’s what shocked people most was not the sight of thousands of young people turning up at the Washington monument to protest, but the taking of an American flag and burning it. Symbols are very powerful. And idols as symbols are also very powerful, which is why they are so dangerous.
And arguments for the use of idols will always seem reasonable. People will say, we need to be more ‘right brained’ in our worship- subjective, intuitive, creative, expressive, imaginative. And Moses brother, Aaron, would have agreed, for that is exactly what he went on to do in chapter 32. He made the people a golden calf, and said, ‘This is Yahweh who brought you out of Egypt.’ Not another god, but their God. And so they venerated the bull. Now, from one point of view can you think of a more fitting symbol, a better visual aid, of a rescuing God than this? The bull denotes strength, resilience, life, a creature pulsating with blood and energy and determination. Why can’t they say, ‘God is like this’ if they find it helpful? They didn’t literally believe that the golden object in front of them was the god who saved them- after all they had just made the thing out of gold jewellery lifted from the Egyptians, but it was a pretty reasonable representation of God- so they thought.
Let me tell you something: increasingly within evangelical spirituality the use of objects is being introduced to help us in our devotion. A friend of mine had a brother who attended a well known Anglican evangelical college. And one day the students were asked to bring a symbol of their ‘brokenness’ to the morning worship in college and to place it on the altar- it could be a stone, a piece of pottery, a picture. So my friend’s brother spent the night making a paper mache bull, which, having sprayed with gold paint, he carefully placed on the communion table the following day- the Principal was none too pleased. But he made the point!
But if we still haven’t got the message that idolatry is not only stupid but dangerous, think on the fourth feature- the seriousness of the commandment:: ‘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, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.’ The NIV is not helpful at this point, for it suggests that if parents commit idolatry God takes it out on their children. A more literal translation would be, ‘For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the sin of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.’ What is being said, is that a consequence of one generation committing idolatry- imagining God to be other than he is, using aids to worship him- is the production of later generations who end up hating him. And so, because they hate him (strong word) he will punish them. And of course we can see it. Do you think that if you are chasing after a lifestyle which is all about having and enjoying, that your children or grandchildren will not be affected by it? They will want those kinds of idols too. If you send the message to them by the way you live that the most important things in life are having good looks, good clothes, good food and good houses- then they will believe you and want those things too. Of course, that will mean they will not want the God who says, ‘No, that way is false and disappoints, what really matters is having a relationship with me’- that God they will see as getting in their way and they will hate him for it- and it will be us the parents and grandparents who by the way we have lived which will have consigned them to God’s anger. Is that what we want? For that is what God says will happen as sure as night follows day. But that is not what God wants. He wants to show love to thousands of generations- but how can he if they hate him and it is our fault?
And so fifthly we come to the reasons for the commandment. There are two basic reasons why we are not to imagine God or use anything which represents him in our devotion of him. The first is that idols or images conceal rather than reveal. If you say ‘God is like this’ or ‘I like to think of God as’, then you have straight away corrupted God. Images conceal truth about God’s personal, holy character. Think about the golden bull for a moment. There is no indication that Aaron’s motives were wrong. He wanted to help the people in their worship- hence the use of this symbol. But how can a bull or a painting or anything, possibly convey the moral character of God, his kindness, his goodness, his love of truth? A bull might denote strength but at the same time it denotes dumbness- and God is not dumb. A bull is something we harness to work for us- you cannot do that with God. And God so cares about us knowing him properly that he is said to be ‘jealous’. This is a good thing. It is like the passionate concern folk have for a good name. You see, if it is put about that Jo Bloggs is weak, or untrustworthy or fickle- then that is going to affect how people will relate to him. That is why we have laws of libel. Well, paintings which try to depict God or statues which are meant to help us focus on him are libellous. What is wonderful about God, his infinite wisdom, his love of the good, his fidelity and trustworthiness are hidden if not down right distorted. That is why we are to have nothing to do with them.
The second reason for the commandment against idols is that they deform rather than inform, that is, they distort the truth about God. This follows on from the first point. We start thinking wrong thoughts about God and so start behaving in ways which are inappropriate towards him. Again, we see this with the incident of the golden bull. If God is seen primarily as a power, a beast, then very soon his people start acting like beasts too. That is what they did as their worship turned into a sex orgy. As a matter of historical fact the use of crucifixes in prayer has led people to have a morbid fascination with suffering, thinking that through self- inflicted suffering you get closer to God. What often happens is that whatever is the dominant view of the surrounding culture is taken on board and the Christian faith is modified accordingly. There is the feminisation of the church. And so female crucifixes exist which have on them Christa, a female Christ, because, it is argued, some women find it more helpful to relate to a female god. In each case we make the god we want, and the true God is misrepresented and people are led away from him until eventually they end up hating him.
Now we may not find ourselves being tempted down the road of icons and crucifixes, but we are still prone to idolatry nonetheless. We can insist that God is as we want him to be- so he must meet my needs now, he must heal me now, he must give me that job now. And if he doesn’t we begin to resent him. Of course the God you despise is not the God of the Bible, but of your imagination- the sugar daddy God and who here has not toyed with that one?
But the underlying reason for all these other reasons why idolatry is wrong, using pictures and religious objects in worship- visualisation techniques and the rest- is because of the way God has chosen to reveal himself which is by speaking. This is part of Moses sermon on the second commandment as we find it in Deuteronomy 4, 15 ‘You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, 16 so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape.’ God has not made himself known by giving us a work of art by which we can be reminded of him. He has made himself known by speaking. And so idols are corrupt and corrupting. To know God is not by making something which we can ponder, but by listening to his word which we can obey. To know God’s love is not found by focusing on a symbol, even, may I say, the symbol of the cross, but by listening to the message of the cross. The fact is, having idols make us idle. We lazily fix upon a picture and allow our minds to drift, but when God speaks-then we have to pay attention.
“Ah” you say, “what about the incarnation? God did appear once in human form and so surely we can paint pictures of Jesus and use them to help us focus on him.” Here we must be very careful. Yes, God did appear in human form as Jesus, but nowhere are we given a physical description of Jesus. We don’t know if he was tall or short, fat or thin, had long hair or was bald. We haven’t a clue. The only possible description we have of Jesus, is in the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19, for when it says that Zacchaeus ‘wanted to see who Jesus was, being a short man he could not, because of the crowd’, it could be that it is not Zacchaeus who was the short man (although that is the way it is often interpreted) but Jesus who was short- the Greek could support either interpretation. But it really doesn’t matter what he looked like- it is in his person, his words and deeds that we see he is full of grace and truth and those are recorded for us here in this book. I have no problem with religious paintings of Jesus, but that is not the place to go for inspiration for devotion- it is to here we turn and have all that we need to know God properly and to worship him properly without the ‘add ons’ of religious paraphernalia. How do I know God is a kind God? Because I see his kindness in the words and actions of Jesus. How do I know that he shows love to thousands of generations? Because he has shown kindness to thousands of generations on the cross. How can I know all of these things about God and many more beside? Because God has spoken and continues to speak and our response is not to scratch around for other things to help us in our devotion, but to love and believe everything he tells us about himself in his Word.
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