The Second Commandment: No graven images
So, we’re continuing this series of sermons on the Ten Commandments, thinking out loud about the rules, and what might lie behind the rules, and we come to this, the 2nd commandment, against IDOLATRY.
That seems kind of strange and outmoded to us, since idols aren’t exactly something we see a lot of, and the props that we do use, whether sacred pictures in church or rabbits’ feet on a keychain or Elvis on black velvet, aren’t things we have a lot invested in. We feel the silliness of praying to a piece of silver or stone or wood, and we are tempted to think the people of ancient times silly for doing so. So to us, the 2nd commandment might seem kind of redundant; after all, the 1st commandment forbade the worship of other gods – wouldn’t that cover idols, too? But listen again to ALL that is said here:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
It’s not just the “otherness” of the gods being worshiped through idols – it’s the fact that these other gods are all part of the creation. Nature gods, sky gods, gods of the city or of human crafts; but, especially, gods that are continuous with the creation.
The big thing we are told right off in the story of creation is that God – the REAL God – spoke the cosmos into existence. He did not make it out of anything else, not least himself; he merely willed it to be, and it was. Therefore, God is not to be identified with any of the works that he has made. But the pagan gods were all part of the creation. It gave birth to them or they gave birth to it, or they made it out of some primordial chaos that they shaped. Time and Fate are superior to the pagan gods, and sometimes distance, too. They can be fooled, and they can be overruled. They are subject to the same processes that rule over the cosmos.
But the God of the Bible is not subject to time, or fate, or distance, or the limitations of the brain. His nature is its own necessity, he is utterly outside and apart from his creation. Which means that to worship something else is not merely to choose a different patron for your soul or your people, but to worship something lesser that will always in the end disappoint you. So God has to remind his people that they shouldn’t be fooled into worshiping cow-headed gods, or storm gods, or your ancestors or any of the other things that are made out of the world he has made.
Anthropologists delight in pointing out that the gods are just Man writ large – or Man’s fears, I might add – and we agree, but that is not a new idea to the biblical writers. You can see the Psalmist wrestling with this in Psalm 121, which we read earlier in the service.
“I lift my eyes to the hills” – why? Because the heathen’s sacred groves were up there, where the sacrifices and propitiatory rites took place. But “whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” – the Lord who MADE those hills. Therefore, I will not fear the sun goddess or the moon god. I will not give in to the panic of things that go bump in the night. For he is greater than all those things, and he will protect me.
That’s easier said than done, I know. MY prayers always assume a certain urgency when I’m trying to get to sleep out in bear country, for instance, and nobody who’s been through a tornado is ever quite as blasé about storms as he or she once was. So our confidence is not a cheap one, but one borne of experience, and it is as those who have prayed through their fears and know what they’re talking about that we say: If you worship the creation, you are always afraid of some part of the creation that you didn’t know to propitiate; but if you worship the Creator, then you don’t have to fear any earthly powers, natural or monstrous.
But it’s not just Man’s fears that the pagan gods embody – but Man himself – and his desires. For the pagan gods often were images of KINGSHIP. Royalty was seen as kinship with the gods. Many a human conqueror has declared himself divine in order to consolidate his power (“Oh, let’s hear it for ME!”) and many a willing slave has abased oneself before a Big Man in order to achieve his soul’s desire.
All political power is built upon Death: upon the power to kill and destroy. Even our Supreme Court has said so: in McCulloch vs. Maryland, Chief Justice Marshall noted that the power to tax is the power to destroy, which is why we Americans have always believed in the necessity of placing restraints upon government. Those who worship power wind up either sadists or masochists – all power-mongers, Every Man with a Plan -- they are in love with death, with the thrill of power that decides who will die, and who will inherit the resulting windfall.
And what of those who say they are in love with life – with those who worship the Life Force, the fertility goddesses of old, the Great Mother? What about those who see in the cycles of nature a mystery into which they desire to be initiated? To all the seekers after ecstasy? In the end, worship of the Great Mother and her divine consort always descends into the exaltation of lust and the celebration of perversion and an indifference to questions of morality. Even the paler, more respectable worshipers of the life force wind up as mere thrill junkies.
And just as we still have those who are in love with the idea of power, and who worship it, offer themselves as its slaves or think they can ride it to a stature beyond ordinary human bounds, yea to the stature of a god among men, so we still have those who are in love with the idea that sex trumps everything, and whose only idea is more sex -- better sex! -- no matter what it takes or who gets hurt; let all traditional bounds of decency be trampled down lest anyone lose out on the gifts of the Great Mother. This is where idolatry gets you – where the worship of the creation rather than the Creator inevitably leads – and you don’t even need little toys of silver or wood to play.
And I can hear someone saying, "Oh, come on, Art, we can appreciate nature as an image of the divine without lapsing into idolatry, can’t we? Don’t you think nature is, in some sense, sacred?" So speak the apostles of the Romantic movement, and I have to admit I have great sympathy for that idea. It’s hard to climb mountains or hike through hushed and trembling wetlands or look up at the night sky and see Orion burning over you and not feel that somehow, God is there.
But you’ve got to be careful --- Many people would hear with approval a line or two of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry, but listen to the whole passage:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush aflame with God,
but only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,
and daub their natural faces unaware
more and more from the first similitude.
“Only he who sees takes off his shoes.” The rest wind up worshiping themselves as the final result of their pseudo-worship of nature. Power – Lust – Self: and we’re back where we started. If you start with the creation, your worship will curve in on itself and become, in the end, All About You. You have to start with God, to stretch your vision beyond the creation, and then you will receive all of nature as a gift, a mirror that reflects him who resides beyond it and is its master.
Images are dangerous, which is why Islam forbids all representational art. At various times, Christianity has also bent that way – in the Iconoclastic controversies of the 7th Century, or the Puritan smashing of statues and stained glass in the 17th. Judaism never went quite that far, but God himself was never to be portrayed in any way; and certainly, absolutely, NO Man, nor any Image of a Man, was ever to be accepted as a representation of the Lord, nor offered worship that was due only to the Unimagable.
And then came Jesus, and his coming split the Jews of his day, not only on his claims to be the Christ, but on his very identity. Especially after his resurrection, when his new form was so obviously no longer subject to the same limitations as earthly flesh and blood. Thomas fell at his feet when he met the risen Jesus, crying out, “My Lord and my God!” --something unthinkable for any Jew to say.
No Man can be God, not really God Himself. But those first followers were forced by what they had witnessed and heard and by the very testimony of the Scriptures to conclude that their friend, their Master, was none other than God himself in human form, come among them to save and to heal. Paul called him the Logos – the Word of God – that which spoke the cosmos into existence. And so here, he calls Jesus “the Image of the Invisible God, the firstborn” – that is, the heir – “of all creation," for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities -- all things were created through him and for him. he is before all things, an din him all things hold together."
In other words, when you look at Jesus, you see God in the only outward form in which he can personally be seen. In all the other works of God, you can “see him” in the same way we see Da Vinci in the Mona Lisa or we see Shakespeare in the Sonnets, but Jesus is God’s self-portrait, his self-revelation.
And how can this be, without lapsing into idolatry? How can a human being – a man of the 1st Century – be the eternal God, the hope of every soul? Well, as the Athanasian Creed puts it, “not by the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the assumption of the Manhood into God.” In other words, God didn’t squeeze himself into his creation, he has stretched the nature of the creation to encompass himself. And so he will do for us in the Resurrection of the dead. God, who is under no law but his own, has changed the law of creation to make a new creation possible, and all who believe in him through his Son, Jesus Christ, will be made heirs of creation along with him.
WE have not made a man into an Image of God; rather, God has offered to the world himself in human form, to gather his wayward children in and lead them to his everlasting kingdom. And the proof of this is that Christ takes us out of ourselves and sets us in heavenly places, rather than turning us in on ourselves, as all idols eventually do. When we offer God our worship through Christ, when we offer all our prayers “in Jesus’ name,” we are not putting greater distance between God and us by the use of an intermediary. We are rather being drawn closer, diminishing the distance between God and us; for now we have someone we can relate to, someone we can trust in, someone who unites God and Man and speaks for both, and when we speak to him, we speak to him who is beyond all worlds and at the same time the creator and savior of our world, and of us.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
All praise to him who is Lord of heaven and earth, who is and who was, and who is to come. Amen.