21st-Century Idols

Sunday Worship at Black Forest Community Church
Black Forest, CO
January 18, 2015
© Rev. Diane Kay Martin

                                                                                              21st-Century Idols

Scripture Reading:       Exodus 20:1-6

Then God spoke all these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You 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. You 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, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Last Sunday, we started a series on the Ten Commandments. I wrote our Call to Worship today as a way to revisit some of the major themes we covered last week. Recall that when Moses asked God what his name is, God said, “I Am.” And that “I Am” contained in it the sense of past, present and future, as in “I Was, I Am, and I Will Always Be.” And the God of Israel, who called himself “I Am” and sought to be in covenant with them, longs just as much to be in relationship with each one of us. Each one of us! As I encouraged you to “hear into” the song that David, Sarah, Kelly and Cole sang a few minutes ago, it is this God who sees our tears and says, “Let me into your life. Let me into your pain. Let me ‘fix you.’”[1] And that’s good news, because sometimes we need fixing, amen?

Recall that in today’s (and last week’s) scripture, God introduces himself by what he’s done for the people. God says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. … What did I do? I freed you from bondage! That’s how you’ll know it’s me: I am the God who sets you free! All down through the ages, I just keep setting you free!”

In a covenant agreement, each party has an obligation, something they bring to the table. God’s part, in this covenant, was setting the people free. The people’s part was that they would worship this God alone. None of the other gods (the “strange” gods, as the Hebrew text actually reads) with whom they had become familiar while they were in bondage were to have a place in their hearts. Because none of those other gods loved the people of Israel as this God did. None of those other gods had earned a place in their hearts, as this God had. That is the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods but me.

That is very clear, and God doesn’t need to say it twice. The Second Commandment, then, makes a different point—it begins to get at the way our God, our only God, wants to be worshipped, and that is without any images of him. For a long time, I thought the Second Commandment was sort of a restatement of the first. No other gods, and no carved images of other gods. But no—we’ve already got those other gods out of the way. Case closed. Not gonna do that. This commandment is about our God. All of the foreign gods had form and shape. They all had images that could be seen, images that represented their natures. But the God of Israel—Jehovah, the Great I Am—did not want to be bound by images. Just as much as he did not want his people to be in bondage, he did not want them to put him in bondage!

What I mean by this is this: The moment we carve—or paint, or engrave, or stitch—an image of something, that image is imbedded in our mind’s eye, and that is forever how we see that thing. As soon as the people would have carved an image of God—what they thought God must look like, based on what they thought God must be like—then God would have been “stuck” in that image, in that personae. And God does not want to be stuck!

Every reformation of the church in every age bears this out. We don’t see God the same way people saw God a generation ago. A generation ago, God was white. Black was evil. Thank God for reformers like Martin Luther King Junior who helped us see the light. A century ago, God was male. Female was sub-human, not worthy to vote. Five hundred years ago, God was Catholic. Protestants were heretical. Seventeen hundred years ago, God was Constantinian. All other views were anathema. Two thousand years ago, God was Jewish. Gentiles were outsiders. Four thousand years ago, God favored polygamy. Monogamy was a poor man’s lot. Six thousand years ago, God told his people to attack neighboring countries. Peace was a compromise of God’s promise of sovereignty. We do not see God in the same way our ancestors did! And thank God for that! I would not want to be stuck in any of those perceptions, would you?

But the minute we decide we have God figured out, to the point that we are tempted to draw God into a box and tape the lid shut—the minute we are tempted to “carve” out for ourselves an image of what we are certain we know about God—that’s when we limit God to the point of rendering him impotent. We actually put God in bondage to our own limitations—we actually limit what God can do in our lives and in our church, and God says, “Let me out!”

Because we do not know the last thing about God yet. Some might even say we don’t know the first thing about God! But I would rather have it that way. I would rather be surprised by God than be cursed to serve the same God of my great-grandparents’ era, the god of three and four generations ago. I want to be free to discover God for myself. I want to be free to “seek the vision of Christ, making it my own,” as in this church’s purpose statement.

The god of my great-grandparents’ era was a stern god. He loved scary, overpowering pipe organs and hated alcoholics. He created the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression to punish the people for their sins. He sent itinerant preachers to small towns to bring people to their knees in agonizing tears of repentance, for that was the only way to find salvation. I am so glad I do not serve the god of my great-grandparents’ era. I am so glad God is not “stuck” in that image.

In 1620, when the Pilgrims sailed for America aboard the Mayflower, they had great hopes of founding a society where they would have liberty to follow God as they saw fit. The Reverend John Robinson bid the Pilgrims farewell with these earnest words: “I charge you before God to follow me no further than you have seen me follow the Lord Jesus Christ. If God reveals anything to you by any other instrument of his, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth by my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.” In other words, God has not yet finished speaking! In other words, in the shortened motto of our denomination, the United Church of Christ, “God Is Still Speaking.”

God said, “You shall not make for yourselves any carved images of me—because I do not want to be set in stone! I do not want to be stuck! I need room to breathe! I need room to speak! I need room to be seen and heard in new ways!”

In the context of this interpretation of the Commandment, how would God “punish children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me”? By making them worship the God of their great-grandparents generation! By forcing them to try to accept an image of God that was relevant four generations ago but is anachronistic now. By taking the joy of discovery out of the covenant relationship God desires to have with each generation of his people!

My husband Nathan has been installing a new fence along the east side of our property. He’s been digging new holes for the fence posts, because the old posts don’t line up with where the new posts need to be. He was digging one hole, and he hit something hard. It wouldn’t give. But right next to it, the dirt gave way. He dug straight down at that spot and discovered bricks—a circular wall of bricks that, a few generations ago, formed a well. Now, we don’t know why that well was filled in and buried. All we can assume is that it no longer worked. Maybe it dried up. Maybe it was contaminated. Maybe it leaked. But the landowner gave up on it and dug a new one. Now, Nathan could have kept digging around that old well. He could have kept poking at it, stabbing at it, excavating it, digging out the dirt around it to expose the sides of it. He could have cleaned it up, polished the bricks, built it up a little taller, made it look nice and spiffy, even built a little roof over the top, hung a bucket over the opening, thrown in a few coins. But it still wouldn’t have produced any water! The well is dry! It’s cracked. It’s broken. It leaks. It will never produce anything of use again. No, he did the best thing he could with that old well: he dug his new hole next to it and filled the well back in with dirt. He gave it up. He let it go. He moved on. He did not waste his time trying to make something old and broken do what it is no longer able to do. He did not turn that broken-down old well into a 21st-Century idol, something that was relevant years ago and is anachronistic now but we just keep trying to make it work!

In the song our youth sang a few minutes ago, I asked you to imagine that was God saying, “I want to fix you.” God’s main interest is us! God is less interested in usdoing things a certain way than about us being free! Free to discover who God is today. Free to fall in love with the God of the 21st Century. Free to fall in love with Jesus who is as timeless as love itself.

God’s main interest is also those people outside these walls, who are looking for a church in Black Forest and aren’t really sure where they’ll find what they need. God is less interested in what we’ve been in the past than about what we will be to them—relevant, appealing, welcoming, accepting—now!

Do we have any 21st-Century idols here? Do we have any old, broken-down wells that will never produce anything of life again? Have we carved God into images of stone, or are we letting God breathe the breath of new life into who we are, who this church is? For, hallelujah, “the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.”Let us dig new wells; let us love the still-speaking God; let us embrace new truth and light from Jesus, who is God’s holy Word.




[1] Four of our youth sang the song “Fix You” by the pop band Coldplay.