Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Interim Pastor

Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister

Morgan Park

 Baptist Church

11024 S. Bell Avenue 

Chicago, IL 60643


Sermon July 19, 2015

EXODUS 20:1,4-6

20Then God spoke all these words: 4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth

Sisters and brothers, when I say the word “God” – what comes to your mind? Do you envision God as having a body like ours? Do you imagine God to be like the famous painting in the Sistine Chapel – with God reaching out to touch Adam? I suspect we have a few here who have seen that painting. Is Michelangelo’s portrait of God an accurate depiction? Let me hold up for us this famous image! Is this what God looks like? The answer: of course not!

But the truth is the way we envision God may well be the most important decision we make as creatures of God. If our vision of God is too small – if our vision of God is too narrow – then everything else about us will be too small and too narrow. Of course, our vision of God grows as we grow.

But our language necessarily breaks down as we attempt to speak of God. With words, we can only come to a fuzzy, out-of-focus, picture of God. Yet words are the principle way we communicate. So let us continue our words about God, keeping in mind the 14th Century mystic Meister Eckhart’s caution that God is more what we don’t say about God than what we do say. 

As children, our image of God is very simple and, as we might suspect, childish – a God who is a long-way from being God. To ask a child to have a mature and well-developed understanding of God is like asking that child to grasp the intricacies of quantum mechanics. Children think of God in crude anthropomorphic images – some of which we can find in the pages of Genesis – where God Almighty is very much like us and not too much like God.

Children go through various stages of understanding about God as they move from infancy into adolescence. In my doctoral studies, I spent time examining these stages. I won’t bore us with these stages right now – but I will say that as children grow into adolescence, they often rebel against their childhood views of God. A young child’s view of God often resembles a “superhero” from one of the many children’s television programs. As the child grows, he or she moves away from this notion of God as ‘superhero.”

Teens ask questions about why the world is the way it is. They ask why God doesn’t make things better. Why doesn’t God prevent pain and suffering? And these questions – and the answers they receive – often from parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and other family relatives – will do much to shape adult belief or unbelief. All of us should prepare ourselves for these questions because they will come in some manner or another. Be forearmed with good answers to these perplexing questions about how God works among us.

It might be helpful to know that, according to research, some 80% of children under the age of 13 believe the Bible to be literally true whereas only 15% of adolescents over the age of 15 believe this to be so. A deeper and more symbolic understanding of the Bible seems to come with maturation if our young have help in achieving a broader Biblical maturity.

Most of the images of God we were given as children no longer fit when we become adults. And it’s important to recall that the way we think about God has a profound impact on how we think about ourselves and all our many relationships. God is primarily about relationships. Our language about God needs to highlight relationships.           

Over the centuries, many have attempted to give an accurate portrayal of God but I’m sure we understand that any and all attempts to depict God are doomed to failure. Such portrayals may be artistic masterpieces, such as Michelangelo’s God, or they may be the primitive attempts of our children, our grandchildren, our nieces and nephews to draw God but all these attempts always fall short of who God is.

Last week we looked at the first commandment – which rules out the worship of other gods – any “bowing down” to false gods. Here in the second commandment we hear about how we might worship the one, true God. In our worship of the one, true God, we must never attempt to substitute something created, something fashioned by human hands, for our Creator.

We are never to put up some icon – or some depiction of God – and say: here is your God! And the irony here is that while Moses was receiving the commandments on Mount Sinai – the people Israel were doing just that at the base of the mountain.

With Aaron’s help (Aaron – as we know – was Moses’ brother and the first high priest of Israel), the people turn in all their gold and Aaron makes a golden calf, actually probably a golden bull, a sign of strength and fertility. Aaron then declares: “Here is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” He then announces a party for the next day. At that party, people get drunk and engage in revelry – possibly of the sexual variety, along with offering sacrifices to their golden idol.

On top of Sinai, God tells Moses what has happened. God declares he will wipe out everyone! In Genesis and Exodus, we often encounter a grumpy God because the Israelites’ understanding of God was very much based on human traits and human qualities. We had not yet been given language about how God is light – how God is love.

Anyway, Moses asks God for a reprieve. Moses goes down the mountain – throws the Ten Commandments at the people and breaks them into pieces. Moses burns the golden idol – grinds it into dust – and makes the people drink the gold dust.

Moses then asks who is on his side – and all the sons of Levi gather around Moses. He orders them to put on swords and kill anyone who has worshipped the golden calf. Brother is turned against brother and thousands are put to the sword. Because of their loyalty to Moses, the clan of Levi will become the priests of Israel.

So, brothers and sisters, we learn here what happens when people substitute a golden calf in place of God. This so-called “setting up idols” was very common at that time and place. Not so much anymore! So, we may breathe a sigh of relief, and say to God: “You don’t have to worry! I’m not going to set up any idol in place of you – no golden calves for me! But, of course, it’s not that simple! So let’s go deeper into this second commandment!

And, by the way, our Catholic and Lutheran brothers and sisters put together what we regard as the first and second commandments and make one commandment of them. This is why we have different numberings of the Ten Commandments as I mentioned last Sunday.

So, how might we “break” this second commandment? One way, as I’ve already mentioned, is by having a too narrow vision of God, a too-human image of God, a God who is too flawed to be God. If one is an adult – one should have an adult view of God. But this is not always easy. It takes work. It takes study. It takes creativity. It takes poetic imagination. And, most importantly, it takes prayer.

It might also be helpful to know God’s main function is not to make us happy, healthy, and wealthy – at least in this life. If this was God’s main function in this life, then God fails rather miserably … Not so?

Brothers and sisters, God’s main function is to help us deepen our relationship with God. God loves us so we can love each other and in our loving of each other, we grow in our love for God. God wants from us nothing less than our full devotion. It is not enough to come to church each Sunday and then neglect God the rest of the week. We know this – but sometimes we forget.

Sisters and brothers, if we allow a day to go by without prayer being part of that day – such a day is a wasted day – no matter how much money we made that day – no matter how many text messages we received that day – no matter how many “likes” we received on “Facebook” – no matter how many “good deeds” we did that day. We know this – but sometimes we forget.

The second commandment makes it crystal clear that nothing less than our full, undivided devotion is enough for God. Whenever we attempt to manage God – we break the second commandment. God will not be managed by anyone – be they prophet, priest or king. God is divinely free – without any restraints of any kind.

But to grasp this ultimate divine freedom - we must let go of some of the childish notions of God with which we were raised. God is not to be manipulated. God is not to be emotionally blackmailed. God is not running some version of “Let’s Make a Deal.”

No created image can express what God is like – with one notable exception. And what is that exception? The exception is clearly stated by our brother Paul in Colossians chapter 1, verse 15: “Christ is the image (in Greek – the eikon) of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” So – we are not left completely clueless about who God is and what God is like. As the theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna writes: “If it is true for Jesus Christ, it must also be true for God. Or, better, it can be true for Christ only if it is true of God … Christ is the visible icon of the invisible God.

Sisters and brothers, we have God’s image born into flesh and blood. And the more we study the Gospels – the deeper into the Gospels we go – the more we come to understand the true nature of who God is – and even though Jesus is but a partial image of the fullness of the Godhead – we know that this image can be trusted.

This image can be embraced. This image is the one that will lead us deeper into the all-loving, all-merciful heart of God Almighty! Brothers and sisters, if we want to know about God – let us look to Jesus. In Jesus we find the perfect human embodiment of all that we mean by God. Let us look to Jesus. Let us embrace who he was two thousand years ago. Let us embrace who he is now. Let us embrace who he will be when he returns to heal all that is broken! Amen!