Ethics of Christian Love: “Cutting God Down to Size” (part 3 of 13)

Exodus 32:1-20; John 4:23-24


The second commandment which speaks of idols and “graven images” deals centrally with worship.  It is an answer to the question: HOW DO WE WORSHIP YOU LORD?  The commandment itself says what not to do; that is, not to make any likeness of God from anywhere in all creation.  Jesus states the positive side in our text.  Our task is to search out some of the meaning of worship this morning.



Let’s begin by going back to the context in which God gave his law to the people of Israel.  This was a primitive people.  They had been in slavery for 400 years.  They experienced miracles never before seen in being freed from the Egyptians: the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea,  being led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night, God providing water, food, and meat for this huge number of people.  Now the first goal for their journey was to meet with their God to worship at Mount Sinai.  God’s man, Moses, had led them well, but now he was up on the mountain what seemed to them to be a very long time.  They began wondering if he was ever coming back.  They came to worship in the light of all that had happened, and in the context of their fears for the future.  They came to worship the one who is God above all, but with Moses gone, how were they to do that.

They made two mistakes.  In their impatience and lack of trust they did not stop to think that the God who brought them out of Egypt would surely bring Moses back.  They had been ordered to wait because God was going to tell them how they should worship.

They wanted to worship, lacking trust and disobeying, but they needed a symbol, an image to grab on to.  God was too distant, too vague, too big, and they wanted something they could grasp, cutting God down to their size.  They did not know any other way to make their worship real, and the calf or the bull was used by others they had seen to worship the God of power.  This was worship they had seen in Egypt, possibly even participated in, so they drew on their experience.  They built the calf as a means of worshiping God, a symbol they could look to, and then quickly lost the connection between the symbol and the reality of God.  They started wanting to worship, which they were told not to do, and when they did worship they ended up with an idol and the practices of pagan worship with all of its drunkenness and promiscuity.  It was not their intention in the beginning, but they ended up worshiping a piece of gold.

I suppose it seems strange to us that people would bow down to an overt idol like that.  We are likely to call it primitive and pagan.  Yet, if we think about it carefully, we can see in the dynamic here a reality that is not so very far from us.  We also use symbols all the time in order to help us approach God, take in the truths of God, experience the presence of God, and get some limited understanding of God.  We are surrounded by symbols: words are symbols, bread, wine, water, songs, prayer, an order of worship or liturgy.  This commandment is not against our using symbols in worship, but rather it is against making the symbols the object of our worship.  In other words, the symbols take the place of the reality – the reality of who God is, the reality of our spiritual relationship with him.  For example, if a person began to think that taking the bread and wine in communion is a way of being saved rather than pointing to Christ, as if the bread and wine have some special power, then the symbol has become the reality, then we are worship the symbol.  It is an idol, a substitute for God, a replacement for a personal and community relationship with the living God.

On the surface this seems clear to people, but when we dig into it we begin to see that being faithful to God’s moral law requires spiritual discernment.  Throughout Judaism and Christianity this issue has been a struggle.  It is about religion and religious practice that so subtly replaces the reality of our relationship with the living God.  This is the meaning of Jesus’ statement: true worshipers worship in spirit and in truth.

King Saul disobeyed God, and then thought all he had to do was something religious, so he made a huge sacrifice of animals to God.  God rejected his sacrifice and said through the prophet Samuel, “It is not sacrifice and burnt offerings that pleases the Lord, but a broken and contrite heart.”  The religious symbols and things that are meant to help us worship so quickly become the objects of our worship.  There is an interesting story in Numbers 21.  The people became impatient with their slow movement, and (vs.5f)

They spoke against God and against Moses and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert?  There is no bread!  There is no water!  And we detest this miserable food!’    Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.  The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you.  Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.  So Moses prayed for the people.  The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.”  So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole.  Then when anyone ws bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

The next statement is that the people moved on, but it is not the end of the story.  Evidently when they moved on, someone took the snake and the pole and put it among the things in their tent that they were moving.  We don’t hear about it again for 100s of years. In 2 Kings 18 King Hezekiah brought reform to Judah, rededicating the temple and leading people to worship again. Verse 4 says,

“He removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles.  He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it.

 What God had given as a tool and symbol for healing, people ended up worshiping.  The temptation to worship at the feet of their religious symbols continued.  They did it to the sacrificial system.  For some the temple became their object of worship.  They did it to the law itself – worshiping the law rather than the one to whom it points.  The second commandment is about the form of religion taking the place of the content.  It is about religious practice replacing relationship of spirit and truth with God.  The second commandment is violated when the form becomes more important than the content.

All of this becomes interesting in the light of the struggles in churches in recent years over liturgy or order of worship.  It is not an accident that there is no prescribed liturgy in the Bible.  That was done in the Old Testament, and they often ended up worshiping the religious form rather than the God to whom it pointed.  Obviously people have personal preferences in styles of worship within scriptural guidelines; however, when forms become more important then content, when I feel comfort and peace from going through something familiar instead of coming from my encounter with God, I have an idol.  I believe every one of us need to examine our souls, seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit on this.  For example, there is nothing sacred or even religious about music or styles of music in themselves until we fill it with the content of praise and awe and worship to God.  It is all about using a tool or symbol in our relationship to God.  It is all about the content.  People had a fit when Martin Luther wrote the classic and powerful hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, and used a familiar, popular tune that was often sung in bars.  The content transformed the music.  In other words, music becomes a means of worship when it becomes a transparent tool to draw us into the presence of God, when it becomes a part of the spirit and truth of spiritual worship that Jesus talked about.

We could say the same thing for sacraments.  They are not holy until the symbol aids us in being in the presence of Christ.  The Bible is a book, nothing holy about it as it sits there closed on the table.  It is the Word of God when we read and the Holy Spirit opens our hearts and minds,  and we are brought to our knees in faith and worship.

The images and symbols so easily take the place of reality.  When the Samaritan woman asked Jesus about the validity of worshiping God on Mount Gerazim as opposed to worshiping at the temple in Jerusalem, he responded:  “You do not know what you worship.”  True worshipers are not concerned about place, but about the spirit and truth of who God is and who they are in his presence.

The story is told of a Danish Protestant Church in the 1850s where a strange thing happened every week.  The people would walk into church on Sunday morning and get to a certain place along the wall and would kneel.  There was nothing different about that part of the wall, and when questioned no one had the vaguest idea where this came from.  Their fathers had done this, so they did it; although no one then living knew why.  The reason for the practice was revealed later when the walls were cleaned, and underneath layers of white wash and paint there was found at this spot on the wall a picture of a Roman Catholic Madonna.  For years, without knowing and apparently without questioning or caring, these Protestant worshipers had been bowing at the place where the Madonna was once visible, and to their Roman Catholic forefathers 300 years earlier, meaningful.

I wonder how many things we do with no more meaning than that.  What traditions and symbols do we use that have lost touch with the reality of the God we worship, and themselves have become objects of worship?  How do we cut God down to size, not unlike those primitive Israelites at Sinai?  I suspect that doing religious things without thinking is tempting because it takes work to stay in touch with the spiritual part of our lives, with the meaning of our relationship with God.  The sad part is that religious habits and symbols without spirit and truth make us spiritually shallow and hollow people.

What is even worse is that the law of cause and effect is written into this commandment.  When parents are religious without being moved and transformed in their spiritual relationship with God, when parents are more concerned about form than content, their children tend to lose touch completely with why it was important in the first place.  It becomes meaningless to them, as meaningless as Israel’s golden calf would be for us.  And they lose the desire to know God, to worship, to be his people.

We come to worship in spirit and in truth – in the spiritual depth of personal and communal relationship with God, led by the Holy Spirit; and in the truth of his Word.  Without the Spirit, our worship becomes impersonal formal religion.  Without truth we are left with enthusiastic paganism – a new form of the golden calf.  “THE TIME IS HERE WHEN TRUE WORSHIPERS WORSHIP THE FATHER IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH.  THESE ARE THE WORSHIPERS THE FATHER WANTS TO WORSHIP HIM.  GOD IS SPIRIT, AND THOSE WHO WORSHIP HIM MUST WORSHIP IN SPIRIT AND TRUTH.”