Monday, March 26, 2007

Sermon on the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4-6)

This is a modified version of the sermon I preached yesterday, while on mission....

What picture do you have of God?

What picture do you have of God?

I guess one picture a lot of people have of God is an old man on a cloud. And maybe he can see everything, but he can’t always do that much about it.

That's a famous picture of God by Michelangelo. One of the big problems with it is that it shows God as the kind of guy who wears a pink nightie.

Or maybe your picture of God is more like this:

He used to be a great footballer. He's still better than anyone West Ham have got, and he's meant to be a really nice bloke as well. But he's not God, no matter what people say.

Back when God was giving these commandments, people tended to make pictures of God that were more like this:

In fact, while the real God was giving these commandments to Moses, the rest of the people were busy building a golden statue of a cow and saying that it was God. Coz when we make pictures of God, we tend to make him look like things we’re used to.

But this is what God says:

Do not make for yourselves images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it.

In other words, don’t make pictures of God. Don’t think that any of those things really are God. Don’t try to come up with ideas of what God is like that are too much like what we’re used to.

Maybe you think you don’t do that. But I know I do, and I’m pretty sure we all do. We all make our own pictures of God, and I’m going to tell you how we do it.

I think a clever French guy once said “God made man in his own image, and now man repays the compliment.” We have our own ideas of what God looks like, and often we make it so God looks like us and sounds like us, except maybe a bit more powerful.

Maybe we think that our God is a God who doesn’t mind us living the way we live or who thinks our excuses are ok. So I drive faster than the speed limit, but I invent a picture of God that really doesn’t mind how fast I drive and then I act like it's ok.

Maybe our picture of God condemns some sins more than others, so we think that “sin” is talking about what other people do rather than what we do. So sometimes I think that someone else’s adultery is worse than my pride, even though if anything the Bible says that pride is worse. Or that God likes some groups of people more than others. Maybe we’re white and English and we don’t like coloured people, so we make up a God who doesn’t like coloured people either.

Did you know that in the Southern USA, 200 years after we abolished slavery in the UK, some of the last places to have official segregation of white people and coloured people are churches? Because people took what they were like, and invented a picture of God who was like that too, and even the world can see that it's a load of rubbish.

Or maybe we make a picture of God who doesn’t claim the total devotion of everything that we have and everything that we are. Maybe he thinks that we’re good really or that we can cope on our own, that we don’t need to pray and that it’s fine to turn up to church once a week, then go out and ignore God with the rest of our lives. Maybe our picture of God didn’t say thinks like “If anyone wants to save his life, he must lose it, but if anyone loses his life for my sake and for the gospel, he will save it into eternal life.”

Maybe our picture of God doesn’t really mind if we flirt with other gods, if we spend all our time and devotion on things that aren’t about him, if we live for things that aren’t God. Maybe our picture of God never said things like I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals. But the real God did.

I guess there are some people who don’t make that kind of picture though. Maybe your picture of God isn’t one you thought up to be like you, it’s one someone else thought up to be like them.

That’s a big part of what it means when God says “I bring punishment on those who hate me and on their descendants down to the third and fourth generation.” If parents have a wrong image of what God is like, often they pass it on to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Often the reason that people have messed-up images of God is that they’ve got them from other people. These descendants who get punished are still doing wrong – they’ve still got the wrong picture of God, but it isn’t something they started.

I meet all kinds of people who have wrong pictures of God. Women who think that they can never be forgiven because they’ve had an abortion and somebody else’s picture of God said abortions couldn’t be forgiven.

Black people who see white people ruling over them and think that God must be white too because that’s how the whites act.

Children who think that God is a killjoy rather than a God who came so we could have life in all its fullness, just because someone else’s picture of God was like that.

But whatever our wrong picture of God is, whenever we have pictures of God that aren’t what God is like, God says that is wrong.

Why is it wrong?

The first reason that it’s wrong is in the passage. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it because I am the Lord your God.

God is God. He is who he is. He doesn’t want to be replaced by our pictures and ideas of who he is, because that’s all they are. Pictures and Ideas. And he is God. And he sees those pictures and ideas that we have of him as rivals.

I often hear people saying stuff like “Well, I like to think of God as like this….” But that’s just your idea! It's just your picture! What you like to think about God doesn’t change what he’s actually like. You can think God’s a hamster, but that doesn’t make it true.

That’s what the other reading was about. We can make up all kinds of ideas about God or pictures of God or statues of God or whatever, but that’s all they are. Our ideas. Our pictures. Our statues. They can’t save us, they can’t help us, they can’t rescue us.

If we want to know what the real God is really like, we need to look at what he has shown us he is like. We can’t just take our own ideas about it.

God is real, and God tolerates no rivals.

Do not bow down to any idol or worship it because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals.

You see, God isn’t going to put up with us making all our pictures.

Imagine that I draw a bad picture of my girlfriend (I couldn't exactly draw a good one!) and then relate entirely to that picture instead of her. She'd be really annoyed, and rightly so.

Making our pictures of God and treating them like they are God is ignoring the real God. He gets angry with it, and rightly so.

If people did that with anything other than God, we’d think they were crazy! But we do it all the time, with the one true God, who made the universe and who can do whatever he wants with it. It’s completely stupid. It’s just as bad as going off and worshipping a different god altogether.

But it’s not just that. You see, what we do affects other people as well, and it’s especially true for church leaders and parents. You see, if I have a rubbish picture of God, then I’m going to tell you about it, then you get the rubbish picture too. That’s another part of the reason God included that stuff about parents and children. If we get a wrong picture of God, we’re going to pass it on to our children and then they’re going to have problems too.

It is really really important that we make sure that our picture of God is right. So how can we get a right picture of who God is?

We can’t get one by our own thinking or by our own imagining, but God has given us one.

This is what God says – Hebrews 1:3

Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. When he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the majesty in heaven.

If we want to see what God is like, we should look at Jesus. Jesus is the perfect picture of God. If we look at Jesus, we’re looking at God. If we listen to Jesus, we’re listening to God.

And what’s the time where we see Jesus most clearly? On the cross. Jesus lived on earth for 33 years or thereabouts. But almost half of what people wrote about him in the gospels was written about the week he died.

So when we look at Jesus on the cross, we see that God really does care about what we do, the way we act, the way we think, the way we make false pictures of God. We see that God takes sin seriously, and that he takes it so seriously that Jesus had to die to take the punishment.

We see that God really does care about us, and that he loves us so much that it wasn’t us dying on that cross under God’s judgement, even though it should have been. It was Jesus, dying for us. We see that because Jesus has died, he has taken the punishment for whatever we’ve done wrong, so that whatever we’ve done, whatever false pictures we’ve made of God, we can be forgiven and we can come back into relationship with the real God, because Jesus has dealt with it. But it's not just us God loves - it's everyone else too. God loves the Man United fans and the foreigners and the refugees at least as much as he loves us. Actually, God was never white and English, but he was a refugee...

We see that God really does care about the way we live. Yes, Jesus died in our place, but Jesus also died to give us an example to follow. Jesus said “If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Jesus gave up his life for us. We should give up our lives to follow him. That might not mean getting killed for it, like Jesus did, but it might. It’s much more likely to mean us saying to God “Whatever you want me to do, wherever you want me to go, whoever you want me to be, I’ll do it.” We might not have to die physically, but we will have to die to ourselves – to say “As far as my ambitions go, my hopes, my fears, my preferences – I’m dead to them. They don’t matter any more. If God wants me to spend the rest of my life running a homeless shelter looking after Man United fans with horrible skin diseases, that’s fine. If God wants me to quit my job, give away all my money and spend my time looking after Somali refugees in Liverpool, that’s fine. If God wants me to stay in my job, but to really live for him in my work – to tell my friends and colleagues about Jesus, to live in a way that shows that we belong to Jesus, and to offer to help out at church, that’s fine too.

We need to die to those pictures too – to say “As far as they go, I’m dead to them. I might have used them once, but I’m done with them now. No more. Gone. Dead.” Following Jesus means dying to ourselves and to all those comfortable pictures we had of who God is.

But more than that, when we look at Jesus, we see that death is not the end. We see that after Jesus had died, God raised him to life and made him king of the whole universe. We see that if we follow Jesus in his death, we will follow him in his resurrection – that the way to heaven is for us to die to ourselves, to die to all those rubbish pictures we have of God, and to follow Jesus in the way of the cross.

Heavenly Father, we’ve all done it. We’ve all made up pictures of you that aren’t like who you really are. We’ve ignored you and what you say about how we should live our lives. Help us to come back to you now. Thank you that you have shown us what you are like by sending Jesus to die for us. Help us to follow you, the real you. Father, whatever you want us to do, wherever you want us to go, whoever you want us to be, help us to be willing to do it.

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