Sorry, Audio Not Available.
Sorry, Video Not Available.
Exodus 20b – Idols: Sharing Snapshots of God
Sermon Transcript by Rev. Ernest O’Neill
There is something that is good for us to see and I pray that the Holy Spirit will make it clear. Let’s turn to Acts 14 and look at the situation there because you think that people idolize this person or that person, but surely back in New Testament times it was absolutely free from all of that. But you can see it there in Acts 14:11, “And when the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices, saying in Lycaonian, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’ Barnabas they called Zeus,” so they began to treat them like gods, “and Paul, because he was the chief speaker, they called Hermes. And the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates and wanted to offer sacrifice with the people.” And then of course the apostles said, “We’re men we’re not gods.”
But it was an early instance of people idolizing or trying to worship, in place of God, the servants of God and therefore making them idols. And that’s what an idol is; it’s someone you treat in place of God. I would remind us again that it is so important to see that whether it’s [Hudson] Taylor, or [Watchman] Nee, or [Andrew] Murray, or [Smith] Wigglesworth, or [Oswald] Chambers, they are just men who are pointing us to God. We have a tendency to say, “Of course I wouldn’t dream of making an idol of Chambers, he’s only a human being.” I don’t think it’s Chambers himself; I think it’s his ideas, so often, that we can fill our minds with — the ideas that Chambers has transmitted, or with the ideas that Nee has transmitted. We can put those ideas in place of God and we can make them idols. I think the important thing that we need to see about idols is in several verses in the Old Testament.
Deuteronomy 4:28 is one of them, “And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of men’s hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.” And that’s the difficulty with an idol; it doesn’t see, it doesn’t hear, it doesn’t smell, it’s something that you design yourself. And that’s so often what a set of ideas can be, or I’m sure that’s the danger of principles; when we talk about principles, we make a principle God to us although we say, “No, no we’re not; we’re just talking about the principles of God and God’s principles for work, or God’s principles for this, or God’s principles for that.” But it’s so easy to end up worshiping a dead, inanimate precept rather than God himself and to make that the chief concentration in your prayers and your meditation and your thought.
Now it’s mentioned again in Isaiah 45:20, because idols were a constant deception that Satan practiced on the Israelites. Isaiah 45:20, “Assemble yourselves and come, draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save.” And it’s a game; they can’t hear, they can’t see they can’t smell, and they can’t save and yet it’s very easy to get ourselves involved in idol worship; worshiping something that takes the place of God, something that even reminds you of God but that is not God. Your relationship becomes as Martin Buber the philosopher would have said, “Not an I/thou relationship but an I/it relationship.”
You see it again in Jeremiah 10:5, “Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Be not afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, neither is it in them to do good.” So an idol is something that cannot save you, cannot speak to you, cannot hear you, cannot deliver you. Indeed, you can see an idol is something you yourself can carry around and that in fact you can make by your own design and your own skill. And
it seems to me the danger of worshiping or thinking about the ideas, good spiritual ideas, I mean Thomas a Kempis is full of great thoughts, and Chambers is full of great thoughts and Taylor — they all have great thoughts, but here is what I saw; they are snapshots of God.
They’re snapshots of God. They’re in a way frozen fossils of something living that God revealed to that particular man at that particular time. And it’s so easy for us, instead of going to God himself, to take one of those frozen fossils, or one of those snapshots and look at it and say, “Ah, that’s quite an insight. That is true.” And then it’s very easy for us to hand the snapshots around and say “It’s good to have fellowship like this where we share with each other.” We share insights that this person has or that person has, but too often we share it and it has not life; it’s a substitute for life. So we’re sharing snapshots.
It would be a bit like me coming back from Italy with snapshots that I had sneaked of Irene that she didn’t know I had taken and then she came home and I passed these snapshots around and I said to you, “Now there she is — trying to escape the photo. There she is.” And I ignored her completely and just passed the snapshots back and forward and ignored her utterly and absolutely. You can see what you’d be doing: you’d be looking at the images of the person, you’d be talking about the person, you’d be talking about her real attributes, you’d be talking about things she did, you’d be talking about her nature, you’d be talking even lovingly about her, but there would be a vast difference between that and actually talking to her face-to-face and getting her life coming to me and my life going back to her. One is a living, alive, dynamic relationship with a person which is the whole heart of your existence. The other would be – well you would say it’s not even talking about the person; it’s talking about a picture of the person or what the person had done in the past.
Now that, it seems to me, is the danger of idols in our life. The danger is of talking about sides or facets of God’s character but not in his presence, not in a real living relationship with him. The alternative is in Romans 1:22-23, “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.” That’s the alternative you see: the glory of the immortal God — exchanging that for fossilized images of him. And it’s good to see that “immortal” means the ever living God. So it’s exchanging the ever living God who lived not 200 years ago, not 1,900 years ago, who lived not just with me, not with Chambers, not with Taylor, not with Murray, but the ever living God who lives in every century, and every situation, with every person — you’re exchanging the immediacy of God for idols of him that have been made. And often it’s possible to have those idols in our heads and to be dealing with those idols.
Acts 17:29 makes reference to them again, “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent.” Not silver or stone — a representation by the art and imagination of man. Now it seems to me it’s very easy by our own art and imagination to create images of God that we worship. I wrote it down to try to grasp it in some way: an idol is a piece of knowledge about God, something that we master and control and pass on or receive, but the tree of knowledge is the opposite of the tree of life. It’s very easy to worship idols, frozen images of God’s past revelations, instead of the living God appearing to us today. And it seems to me it’s the complete contrast between the tree of knowledge and the tree of life.
I think we’re probably at our most dangerous when we’re talking about people, or we’re talking about
God. That sounds strange because we’ll say, “Oh no, it’s great to talk about God.” We’re maybe in our most dangerous moment when we’re talking about God or about people because we’re talking about a third person thing, or situation, or concept, and in this funny way, I know you’ll say, “Oh wait a minute you couldn’t do a thing then on the earth.” But in a way it’s so unreal to talk about God when he’s present here and can hear every word. I understand you may say, “Oh wait a minute, you’re driving yourself into an illogicality here or an impossibility,” but in a way when you think of it strictly speaking, absolute reality is that God is here this moment and hears everything, sees everything, sees what I even haven’t said and what is in my heart, sees what you haven’t expressed and what is in your heart.
God is here, and in a way every time we talk about him as a “him” we’re not at the highest point of reality. In a way you can only talk about God in the second person and if you say to me, “Then you’re really virtually saying all you can do is pray.” That’s probably true. That’s maybe why worship is such a unique experience, because worship is talking to God, and singing to God, and praising God and that is the nearest thing to reality that we can get here on earth because God is present here at every moment. And the moment I say to you, “What do you think God would do about this?” At that very moment to some extent, an unreality has come in. To some extent we’ve ceased to actually be at the highest level of faith because in a way it’s kind of like saying don’t let him know that we’re talking about him. But in fact, we’re not even saying that because we’re really having a quiet, civilized, sophisticated conspiracy with each other. We’re in effect saying, “Now let’s face it he is somewhere around, but of course he wouldn’t be so awkward as to be right between us at this moment. So let’s accept the convention that we can talk about him as if he’s somewhere else.”
Probably it’s the beginning of religiosity, which probably ends up eventually in the churches as absolute hypocrisy. Probably it’s the beginning of our sidestepping of God or talking around the person as if he wasn’t there and it may well be the beginning of idol worship, because in a way you’re setting up an idea of God that is not true. You’re pretending in some way that he isn’t present and therefore you can talk about him without him really hearing.
I know we all say to each other, “Well now, wait a minute, you have to have some way of talking about God without getting yourself into a place where every mouth is stopped.” And yet it is so tricky because as you talk that way, so the children learn to talk that way. It brings back to me this Pastor that I was assisting in Belfast; he had three children and one of them was David, and David was still maybe about a three year old or four year old and Helen and Ruth were the two sisters. David was scared one night in his bedroom and couldn’t go to sleep. So Ruth was a dear little girl and she went in and tried to comfort him and she said, “David, Jesus is here, Mary’s here, Joseph is here, the cattle are here,” and tried to surround him with all the good people. And David still was crying and then she said, “And God is here.” And he lifted the bed clothes and said, “Get out God, I don’t want you.” He took very literally the idea that God was there, and I think that we probably are beginning that long journey that Wordsworth said, “Shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy. At length the man perceives it die away and fade into the light of common day.” It is possible that we begin to lose the immediate sense that God is here every moment when we begin to talk with each other as if he isn’t here, or as if he’s up there somewhere. We begin to talk as Deists or Theists that, sure there’s a God somewhere, but he can’t intervene in this present world.
Well, that’s what the Bible seems to be getting at when it talks about idols; an idol is something that you worship in place of God himself. It’s a piece of stone, or even an idea that you design by
your own skill and your own imagination and therefore you have control of and of course, it can’t do anything for you. That’s why so many of us find ourselves in a faith that doesn’t seem able to deliver us from our bad habits and a faith that doesn’t seem to have the power that God has, because we’re not in the grip of God – indeed, the idol is in our grip. The idea, or the thought, or the set of principles that we worship are in our grasp, and therefore they can’t deliver us because they’re, finally, dependent upon us.
So the Father wants us to worship him without any idols and that’s, you remember, what is said in John 4:23-24, “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” And what I’ve tried to say is that it’s so easy for our worship to deteriorate into mental concepts about God which we worship as idols, and mental precepts or conclusions that we serve or obey as God. Probably our most irreligious times are when we’re discussing what God is like, or what other people are like, or what we ought to do instead of being quiet, bowing before God and speaking to him.
And undoubtedly the principle “Be it unto you according to your faith” must work here in this instance; that the more you dwell constantly in reality before God and treat him as he really is, the more real your own experience of him is. And if you ask what is real worship, John 20:28, it seems to me. If you start at verse 26 it gives you the continuity, “Eight days later, his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” And that’s the heart of worship: preoccupied awe at God’s presence. And probably the truth is that hymns and methods of worship, and theology, and even prayers or others’ ideas can all become idols unless our hearts and our heads are filled with God right before us, with our wills reaching out to grasp and know him. Unless we have that desperate hunger to draw him into ourselves, the danger is we end up worshiping idols.
The thought came to me again that one of the unique characteristics or remarkable characteristics of this dear man Smith Wigglesworth’s life was that sense of the constant presence of God. He puts it in a strange way you see, and he emphasizes this same thing; life. There’s all the difference in the world between the life coming from God as you worship him and the deadness as you talk about God. There’s an immediate life that comes to you as you’re caught up with him that makes up for 100 of hours of deadness, and inspires your life and inspires your life for years, just to touch the life of God.
“Notice this expression that the Lord gives the gospel message, the words of this life,” Acts 5:20. “It is the most wonderful life possible, the life of faith in the Son of God. This is the life where God is all the time. He is round about and he is within. It is the life of many revelations and of many manifestations of God’s Holy Spirit; a life in which the Lord is continually seen, known, felt, and heard. It would take me a month to tell what there is in this wonderful life. Every one can go in and possess and be possessed by this life. It is possible for you to be within the vicinity of this life and yet miss it. It is possible to be in a place where God is pouring out his Spirit and yet miss the blessing that God is so willing to bestow. It all comes through shortness of revelation and through a misunderstanding of the infinite grace of God and of the God of all grace who is willing to give to all who will reach out the hand of faith. This life that he freely bestows is a gift. Some think they have to earn it and they miss the whole thing. Oh for a simple faith to receive all that God so lavishly offers. You can never be ordinary from the day you
receive this life from above; you become extraordinary, filled with the extraordinary power of our extraordinary God.”
It is that grace sense of moment-by-moment immediate living with God. And of course, it lifts – it changes completely our whole attitude to our own discipleship because, and I think it is laudable when each of us, and each one of us have been in this spot, where each of us catch ourselves saying, “Oh I let Satan get in on me,” or we can say, “I was just a bit worried.” And it’s great the way we catch ourselves and we reflect, “Now wait a minute, I should not worry; ‘Cast your cares upon the Lord for he careth for you. Do not be anxious about the morrow for the morrow will take care of itself.’” It’s so tempting to say it isn’t it; that we lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We kind of pull ourselves together, and it is laudable to do that, except that it’s like saying, “This millionaire is beside me, I’m in financial trouble. For a moment I’ve been worried but I ought to remember he won’t make me do without money if I need it.” It’s true in a way, and it’s good that we said that, but the fact is the millionaire is right beside us. He’s right there and the money is available and there shouldn’t be a moment of worry about the money because here the millionaire is, right beside us.
So in a sense we play the game of being a disciple. In a sense we’re playing the game of being a believer in God, and we’re so often involved in keeping up the appearance; “Well, let’s keep up the faith. Let’s keep up the faith baby. Let’s hold onto the faith. Well, I slipped for a little there, I was a little worried but I’m back — I’ve got the faith again.” Well in a way it’s unreal because we ought to be grateful that the Father didn’t forget to give us our last breath. We ought to be grateful he didn’t forget to move the last pint of blood around our body. We’re glad that he’s not as forgetful as we are and of course the truth is if he’s giving us our breath, if he’s giving us our blood then he’s right here giving us everything else — we dwell in the midst of plenty.
But so often when we remind each other of that we’re into idol worship. It’s the idol of “Remember that we dwell in the midst of plenty.” That’s our idol — the thought that we dwell in the midst of plenty. So we worship that thought or we try to get life from that thought and that’s why we never get life from it. We get a kind of reassurance that deals with all the other miserable thoughts we have and we put one good thought up against the bad thought, but we don’t really get life from it because it’s an “it” and the millionaire Father is beside us.
Only the Holy Spirit can make this real to us, but it seems that that’s what God is saying, “Don’t worship idols; worship me. Don’t ever, ever, ever spend a moment as if I’m not there. Not ever. I’m here all the time.”
Let us pray.