Christian historian and professor Scot McKnight gives the following test to his college students at the beginning of every year:
A test that begins with a series of questions about what the students think Jesus is like. Is he moody? Does he get nervous? Is he the life of the party or an introvert? The twenty some odd questions are then followed by a second set—with slightly altered language—in which the students answer questions about their own personalities.
Over time McKnight has found the results to be remarkably consistent, and that is, most everyone thinks Jesus is just like them. McKnight added, "The test results also suggest that, even though we like to think we are becoming more like Jesus, the reverse is probably more the case: we try to make Jesus like ourselves."
Even more, we could also add that McKnight’s test exposes a great irony for many Christians today, that though we have been made in God’s image, we nevertheless try to make God into ours. Which, in many ways, is what today’s commandment is all about.
This summer we’re doing a sermon series on the 10 Commandments, commandments that were and are given to a people who have been set free that they might live free.
Last week we looked at the first commandment, and today we now look at the second. And the two are so similar to each other, that at first glance, we might think that they are saying the same thing.
Where last week we looked at the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me.” And in it we identified some of the false gods that fight for our attention, that vie for our allegiance, whether it be power or beauty, money or status, whatever those things are that we look to for our hope and happiness, significance and security.
And today’s commandment, as Paige just read, says, “You shall not make for yourself an image (or in other translations, an idol) … later saying that “you shall not bow down to them or worship them.”
No false gods vs. no images or idols. Don’t worship either. As important as this second commandment is, you might wonder, how is it any different from the first?
Well, here’s the distinction, as best as I understand it, having read some authors far smarter than me.
While the first commandment states that we do not worship any false gods, the second commandment is that we do not worship the true God falsely.
Or to put it positively, while the first commandment commands that we worship the right God and the right God only, the second commandment is that we worship the right God rightly, that we worship him in the right way, for who he truly is, just as he was meant to be regarded and worshiped.
After all, an image or idol of something, no matter how beautiful or accurate it may be, is a poor substitute for the real and glorious thing that it is pointing to. It is one thing to watch a video or see a picture of Old Faithful, it’s another thing to see it in person yourself. Whether it’s an image or idol, replica or bobblehead, it can never truly do justice to the real and glorious thing it points to.
And here God is saying, don’t make for yourself an image, or an idol of me – it reduces me into something that I’m not.
Don’t worship a replica or knock off version of me – it makes me into something that I’m not or communicates a message that I can’t get behind.
For example, consider how Jesus is literally portrayed and displayed in our culture today. Think about the skin color that’s given to him by the artist creating the image. He’s white! Now, think about that, a 1st century Middle Eastern man with white skin. How is that even remotely possible? It feels like a bit of a stretch, to say the least.
Now, I get the sentiment here. There’s comfort in having a God that we can relate to, who is just like us.
Nevertheless, I wonder if our continued exposure to a white Jesus has subconsciously led us to believe that Jesus is also an American. Which all of a sudden, can turn a simple and innocent image into something rather dangerous.
It can mean that we miss the multi-ethnic, cross cultural community that Jesus is trying to build through his church. Even more dangerously, it can lead to dehumanizing policies and practices to all those who aren’t American, whether it be in the realm of immigration or wherever else. The great tragedy at stake here is that we who have made God in our image, now fail to see the image of God in those who are different from us.
Now, maybe I’m connecting dots here that don’t actually exist, yet even still, I think it helps us to see how humans creating an image of God can serve as a lousy and even dangerous substitute for the real and glorious God of the universe.
Even still, to all of this, you might say, okay, I see how there are problems with a white Jesus, and yet, what does this commandment have to do with me? I’m not a carpenter or an artist, I don’t paint sculptures or chisel wood into idols that I then kneel down before and worship, and so, what does this commandment have to do with me? And how could I possibly break it?
Well, remember, to create an image or idol of God, is to diminish God, to reduce him beyond what he actually is, to meet our own liking and preferences.
And when you think about it that way, my goodness, I think to myself guilty as charged.
And I see this most clearly when I reflect upon our spiritual ancestors long ago. Here they were at the base of Mt. Sinai, Moses was on the mountaintop receiving the 10 Commandments and before he could even get the tablets in front of the people, they were already breaking the 2nd commandment as they built and fashioned a golden calf, and they said to one another, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
In other words, you know that God who brought plague upon plague, who divided the Red Sea as if it were jello, you’re looking at it. This golden calf is who made it all happen.
This sounds insane, now doesn't it? Who in their right mind would worship a golden calf? Who could possibly be so delusional? Well, here once again, I’m helped by our friend Jen Wilkin, whose book on 10 Commandments a number of us are reading.
Think about it, she says, a golden calf.
Golden. You and I are often drawn to what is shiny and novel, fancy and attractive, all that glitters and gold.
And yet, consider the other part. A calf. A calf. Why not a lion or a stallion or a grizzly bear? Why not something powerful, something that can defend you when you need it?
Well, think about it, a calf is cute and innocent and tame. You can keep it under your control and authority. You can force it to submit to your will.
For example, if you’re a rancher, you immediately get this. You know that shortly after calving season, you’re on the clock to start branding season, because you want to brand while that calf is still a calf and not a steer! Otherwise, when it comes branding time, you won’t be controlling that calf, rather that steer will now be controlling you.
And though I have never been a part of the branding process before, (I’ll be honest the finer details of the whole operation make me rather queasy) friends, this is what I so often do with God.
I fashion him into a cute little calf, a sock puppet God, where I am in control. Where I remain in the power position. Rather than allowing him to be Lord of every square inch of my life, I diminish him, I demote him and place him in the role of a consultant, in other words, God, I’m going to put you on retainer for a while, I’ll call you if I need you.
Or I elevate certain attributes of God, while diminishing others. I highlight his love, I push his wrath off to the side. Or I focus on his mercy, while neglecting his justice.
Friends, maybe you can relate with me here. Maybe ask yourself, in what ways do I diminish God, make him less than he truly is? In what ways do I fashion him into something he’s not, whether it be a calf or whatever else.
This is the great tragedy and sin that we constantly have to check ourselves on - that though we have been made in God’s image, we nevertheless try to make God into ours.
Now, to all of this you might say, “okay, now I get it, now I see it, I at least in part can now see some ways in which I violate and break this second commandment.”
And yet, at this point, you might be wondering, “So now what do I do? How do I ensure that I am worshiping the right God in the right way, for who God truly is? Or how do I at least start moving in that direction?
Well, two places to start and that is in your bible reading and prayer. In reading our bible, we take in God’s word for us. And in prayer, we give our words to God. And both in different ways, help us to worship God more fully, more rightly, more completely. Here’s what I mean:
Through our bible reading we meet God himself for who He truly is, not who we want him to be. Through his word, he defines himself, explains himself, he reveals himself. In fact, this is, in part I believe, much of the rationale behind the second commandment. We don’t need to create images and idols that end up diminishing God in some way because he’s already fully revealed himself through his word. And so we must immerse ourselves in scripture.
And as we do, we must also be willing to read large chunks of scripture over time. Doing so forces us to wrestle with the difficult passages and difficult truths, therefore giving us a much more robust view of God. Truth is, there are all sorts of things that I might wish Jesus had never said. If I skip over them, I create God in my own image. But if I embrace them, then I’ve got a much better shot of allowing him to mold me all the more into his image.
Bible reading is one way in which we can worship God for who he truly is, now consider prayer. Consider the breadth, the content of your prayers over time. What is it that you go to God in prayer for? And do your prayers, over time, demonstrate the fullness, the multifaceted nature of who God is? You see, if we only pray for healing for ourselves and others, then our prayers might reveal that we see God as a divine healer, and he is! Or if we only pray for things themselves, they might reveal that we see God as a great provider, and he is!
But of course, he’s more! And so, maybe take a list of the names and character traits of God and ask yourself, how would this aspect of who God is lead me to prayer? If God’s a holy judge, then I have sin to confess. And if God’s a forgiving Redeemer too, then I can confess that sin with confidence. If he’s the Wonderful Counselor, then I can go to him in search of wisdom and direction. In other words, remember and reflect upon who God is and what God is like, and allow those truths to kick start your prayer life.
Bible reading and prayer help us course correct this impulse we have, that though we have been made in God’s image, we try to make God into ours.
And for today, let’s wrap things up here.
So many things in our lives need changing, replacing, editing, updating. Roads need repaving. Papers need correcting. Cars need maintaining. Clothes need altering. Habits need reforming.
But with Jesus, no changes are necessary. No images need to be created. He is perfect just as he is. And we must take him as he is.
For he is, as the bible later tells us, “the image of the invisible God.” In Jesus, in flesh and blood, through God’s Word, we see God for all he is and who he will always be. And he cannot be improved.
And we must hold him in midst of all his beautiful tension and complexity. For he is Lord and Savior, Servant and King, Humble and Courageous, Human and God, and he is, to use a couple images that scripture gives us, Lion and Lamb. All powerful, yet suffered for all.
With Jesus, every addition is a subtraction. In him, no more and no less, is all we’ll ever need.