3rd March 2013


The Ten Commandments (2): “Idolatry is banned!”

(Exodus 20:4-7).

One sometimes gets the impression that the prophets of the Old Testament spent a lot of time being angry or sad or both! And there were three issues in particular which seemed to rouse them to particular heights of condemnation or grief. Two we can easily identify with today: corruption in business with merchants ripping off their customers with false weights, adulterated goods and high prices; and corruption by national leaders who lied to their people and looked after their own interests when they should have been humbly guiding and looking after them. All of that seems uncannily familiar!

But the third issue which aroused the prophets’ ire doesn’t immediately strike the same chord with us: the constant tendency of Israel to abandon its devotion to God and start worshipping pagan idols, in specific disobedience to the Second Commandment. Indeed this tendency was so strong that, as we know, the Hebrews constructed a golden calf and began to worship it even while Moses was absent, communing with God on Mount Sinai. Moses soon put pay to that travesty; but idol-worship reared its ugly head again and again over the next thousand years, only dying out when Jerusalem fell and the Hebrews were exiled in Babylon.

And so we read the scathing words of prophets such as Jeremiah and Isaiah, who were not only horrified by the ease with which the Hebrews turned to idolatry, but could not understand why anyone would wish to do so. For, says Jeremiah, these idols are a total waste of space; they can’t do anything, they can’t speak, they have to be carted around and they simply stand like a scarecrow in the middle of a cucumber patch. What’s the point of worshipping them? Isaiah goes even further in his ridicule: he tells the story of a man who chops down a tree and then cuts the log in half. One half he chops into firewood which he then sets ablaze to warm himself; the other half he carefully sculpts into a statue which he then worships. And Isaiah says, “Just look how ridiculous that is: it’s all the same tree”. (I must say that, given the choice, most of us would have happily worshipped that firewood in the cold weather we’ve been having recently!)

So what was the attraction of these idols? Why did the Hebrews want to worship these tinpot and utterly useless gods instead of the almighty Yahweh who, they believed, had brought them out of Egypt? I think that there are several reasons. One was that the Hebrews didn’t like being different to all the nations that surrounded them; it is always easier to fit in rather than stand out. Another might well be that there is always a bit of a thrill in being naughty, in going against what one is told to do. Yahweh had said, “Don’t worship idols”; but, hey, who cares what he says? As I said last week, they were simply not thinking of how they were spoiling their relationship with God.

But I think the biggest attraction of idol-worship is that statues and images are tangible: you can see them and touch them, understand them and even, in some way, control them. That is very different to the sophisticated worship of an almighty God who is bigger than our largest imagination, who cannot be conceived in terms of images, who is apparently unpredictable, yet who also says that he wants to enter into a covenant of love with us. Please don’t think I am attacking the Catholic Church when I say my next few words; but I can understand the devotion of Mary and the saints is so popular and why the Pope – as we have seen this week – is a figure who attracts such adulation. It is because the faithful can “get a handle” on saints or church leaders much more easily than they can on God himself. It is only when we get to Jesus himself that we find God expressed in a way which is simpler for us to understand (although even he is surrounded with a great deal of mystery); the Hebrews had no such figure to take hold of.

Of course we live in a very different world to those wandering Israelites of 3000 years ago, and we might well think that this Second Commandment simply does not apply to us. After all, I don’t think there is anyone here who would ever be tempted to set up and bow down to a home-made god in our back garden or in a little niche in the corner of our living room! That time has passed for ever. But, of course, the tendency to idolatry is still present within us although it takes different forms. So there are some people who seem to worship pop idols, Hollywood stars or even football players. These devotions are usually little more than teenage crushes; but there are far more significant modern idols which often seem to dominate peoples’ lives.

For these are things like the overwhelming desire to gain status in society, so often defined by the possessions we purchase or the clothes we wear, all of which aim to show our superiority to neighbours. Or there are the twin idols of sexual gratification and perfect relationships: many people seem to believe that their lives will be “sorted” if they get these things right, but they are actually chasing the unreachable pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Alongside these are other gods of perfect health, of sports and hobbies and the arts, of dedication to a political cause, or simply the pursuit of pleasure.

In some countries such as the United States the nation and its flag almost seem to have assumed the status of idols; that may be less of a problem here in Britain. Today we also have the idol of instant communication: it is amazing how many people are addicted to their phone or computer and cannot survive for more than half-an-hour unconnected to the social media. That little box in one’s hand is both seductive and powerful. And finally – of course – we have the hugely persuasive god of money which often seems to be the dominant force in today’s world. None of these things are bad in themselves; but all of them must be kept in check because they have the power to rule our lives and ultimately take the place of the living God, our Creator.

Well, I’m sure you’ve all heard preachers speaking (dare I say pontificating?) on most of these issues before – although it is, of course, one thing to listen to a sermon and quite another one to take heed of what we hear and significantly re-order our lives! So what I want to do for the rest of our time together is think of things which Christian people such as ourselves are particularly likely to idolise. And my short list might just include some items that surprise you!

I think the first idol we might worship is the idol of “respectability”. You know, church people are well-known for being steady and industrious and moral and good citizens – which is all to the good! But the danger comes when we start thinking of church as a group of “people like us”, of folk who never “make waves”, of individuals who never say outrageous but always keep their head well below the parapet of controversy. And it gets even worse when folk within the church itself start saying, “He shouldn’t have said (or done) that: he may be right but it will tarnish the good name of the church”. Talking like that means that we are worshipping that particular idol.

For we have to remember that the Bible contains a long tradition of God’s people not behaving respectably; it is not a Christian virtue! There are prophets such as Hosea who married a prostitute or Jeremiah who got thrown down a well for speaking boldly. There is St. Paul – a man who, in his earlier life, would have valued the praise of the “Establishment” – daring to say, “I couldn’t care less if people call me a mad man, I want to be a fool for Christ”. And he, of course, was only following Jesus who had scandalised the Jewish society of his day by criticising the pompous religious leaders, eating with the wrong people and doing miracles when he shouldn’t have. In fact I think that the Church could do with a lot less respectability and a lot more outrageousness – that would shake up the world, wouldn’t it!

The second idol that can beset Christians is the idol of good doctrine and correct beliefs. Now that might sound a very strange thing to say: am I saying that we can believe what we like (however outlandish) and still call ourselves Christians? Am I saying that we can all decide which bits of the Bible to accept, reject, or reinterpret? The answer to those questions is “No, I’m not saying that at all” – for I am utterly committed to the historic beliefs and doctrines of the Church and the aim of my ministry is to pass those on in ways which you can all understand.

But – and it’s a very big “but” – we must remember that we do not worship the Bible but the God who is revealed in it. Similarly, we must realise that the Thirty-Nine Articles or the Westminster Confession are simply ways of organising what humans have come to believe about God. And this is where I have to part company with some of my Strict Baptist and Evangelical friends who sometimes seem to forget that faith is about following Jesus and having a living relationship with God, and turn it into a dry theological exercise of making sure that you have correctly ticked all the tiny details of doctrine. When you start becoming more interested in the Bible than in God himself, and when you find yourself using the tiniest minutiae of belief to erect barriers between you and other Christians, then you have fallen prey to this kind of idol-worship. (And may I say that those of us who call ourselves “liberal” can be just as bad, priding ourselves on our supposed “tolerance” which has become an idol that bedazzles us just as enticingly and holds us just as tightly in its grip).

The third idol that I think we often worship in the Church is the idol of the family. Again I must say that there is nothing wrong with families; indeed, churches sometimes feel that they are the last institution around that is upholding traditional ideas of the family (although they are wrong, for family values are very strong in many other sectors of British society – just think of the Asian communities).

But the danger comes when we start idolising the family. I’m not going to say much more about this as it’s actually the theme of my article in this month’s “Comment” which I would ask you to read. May I just say here now I am concerned of Christians who too readily put family commitments about their spiritual ones (although I recognise that the opposite can also be true); we need to remember that there was at least one occasion when Jesus was so busy attending to the needs of others that he had to ignore his own mother and, further, that he said, “A man’s foes shall be the members of his own household”. I am also concerned that churches can present such a picture of perfect family values that people whose families are broken or dysfunctional may say, “My family life is in a mess, I can’t live up to that ideal, the Church is not the place for me”; here we must recall the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the Samaritan well – a woman who had been through men like nobody’s business and who was rejected by polite society, but welcomed by Jesus. Families are great, of course they are: but they must never become our god.

The final idol that Christians are particularly liable to worship is, I believe, the Church itself. Again, I must tell you that I am committed to the Church and in that I follow Christ who, we are told, loved it and gave himself so that it could be brought into being. The Church, the fellowship of believing people, is important to God as a community in which he is worshipped and by which his work is done in the world.

But we must beware of making the Church and what we do within it the be-all and end-all of our Christian lives. If we go home after worship simply talking about (and possibly criticising) the way the service went, what the preacher was wearing, how the choir sang, whether the flowers were to our taste, but not about our meeting with the living God, then we have got our priorities wrong. If we get so stuck into our church activities, whether they be children’s work or providing shelter for the homeless or preparing lunch for the elderly, but consistently forget that they are all part of our mission in God’s name, then we might as well stop doing them. And if our discussions in Church Meeting get totally bogged down in issues such as “maintaining our traditions” and “doing things in our own way”, then we have shut the life-giving Spirit out of our gathering and turned our history and habits into a sacred cow which needs to be slain, pronto!

I have said a lot this morning; I could have said more. I may have shocked you; indeed, I almost hope that I have. For the issues I have mentioned were all highlighted by Jesus himself two thousand years ago; indeed, they are issues which have tempted and trapped God’s people, not just since the time of Moses but since the beginning of life as we know it. For we are always tempted, as St. Paul knew, to “exchange the glory of the immortal God” for the image of something else: not necessarily a statue or a heathen altar but an ideology, a hobby, an institution which in itself may be admirable but which, nevertheless, distracts us from the worship and service of God. That can never be right. May I finish simply by quoting and commending the final words of St. John’s first letter, which say: “We know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding ...; he is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols”