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Clashing Idols

Iconoclasm:

Shattering Our False Images of God

Preached by Rev. S. Randall Toms at St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Baton Rouge, LA on September 20, 2009

II Kings 18:1-4

“Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea son of Elah king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz king of Judah began to reign. Twenty and five years old was he when he began to reign; and he reigned twenty and nine years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name also was Abi, the daughter of Zachariah. And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that David his father did. He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.”

            Human beings are image-making creatures.  If we go back through history, we can find that from the dawn of creation, the beginnings of civilization, human beings have been making images, drawing pictures, molding statues of animals, other people, and even the gods that they worshiped.  So, when God gave the commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:] Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them,” it must have seemed like a very strange prohibition.  Almost all the other peoples of the world made images of their gods.  It seems to be the natural impulse of people to make images of everything, so why would God prohibit people from making images of Himself.

            The prohibition against making images of God seems more puzzling when we realize how many word-images of God we find in the Bible.  The Bible often compares God to certain things of which it would be easy to make an image.  In our study of the book of Hosea on Thursday evenings, we see God compared to a lion, a leopard, a bear.  Since God compares himself to such animals, why not make an image of such an animal and use it as an aid to worship?  Then, in books such as Daniel, we find descriptions of God such as, “I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.   A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened” (Daniel 7:9-10).  Since we have this visual description in words of the “Ancient of days,” why not put that description to paper, to canvas, and use it in worship?  The Bible gives us many descriptions, metaphors, similes, in the effort to describe God.  Since we think in images, even when we think about God, why should there be a prohibition about making an image of God?

            This issue is further complicated by the fact that images are not completely forbidden when it comes to the worship of God.  In Exodus 20, God gives the commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”  But then, in Exodus 25, we have the instructions concerning the crafting of the Ark of the Covenant, something that would figure prominently in the worship of God in the tabernacle and the temple.  God gives the command,

“And thou shalt make two cherubims of gold, of beaten work shalt thou make them, in the two ends of the mercy seat. And make one cherub on the one end, and the other cherub on the other end: even of the mercy seat shall ye make the cherubims on the two ends thereof. And the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the mercy seat shall the faces of the cherubims be. And thou shalt put the mercy seat above upon the ark; and in the ark thou shalt put the testimony that I shall give thee. And there I will meet with thee, and I will commune with thee from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubims which are upon the ark of the testimony, of all things which I will give thee in commandment unto the children of Israel.”  So, in Exodus 20, God says don’t make any images of anything in heaven above, and then almost in the next breath, he gives Moses the instruction to put cherubim, certainly a creature from heaven above, on the Ark of the Covenant.  I pointed this out to someone one time and they said, “Well, it’s all right to break the law of God, if God tells you to break it.”  We know that is not going to happen.  God does not give people his law and then tell them to break his law.   It’s obvious that the command about graven images was not a total prohibition of image-making, even in the matter of worship.  Then in Exodus 26:1, we read, “ Moreover thou shalt make the tabernacle with ten curtains of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet: with cherubims of cunning work shalt thou make them.”  So, in the tabernacle, you have curtains with images of cherubim woven in them.”

            Furthermore, there is the story in the Old Testament of the time when God sent fiery serpents among the people.  How were the people to be cured of these snake bites?  God tells them to make an image.  We read in Numbers 21: [7] Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people:

“And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.”  So, the God who said, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image,” tells Moses to make a graven image, an image of a serpent, definitely a creature of the earth, and to lift it up.  The people are even instructed to look at it in order to be healed.  Furthermore, the Lord Jesus Christ compares himself to that brass serpent in John 3: 14] And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.  Whenever we look at such passages of Scripture, we are often confused.  Can we make images, or not?  Can we use images in worship, or, are such images forbidden?

            Protestants, especially those with a Puritan heritage, have a great fear of images.    Some of the Protestant fear of images comes from a desire to stay away from what they perceive as abuses in Roman Catholicism.  Since images figure so prominently in Roman Catholic worship, surely, images must be rejected altogether as far as the worship of God is concerned.  For many Protestant Christian, heavily influenced by various forms of Puritanism, the evil is in the image itself.  I sometimes think that many Puritans wished they had been born blind and deaf, for they see their senses as nothing more than the gateway of sin.  If they had been blind, they would have never seen or been tempted by visual images.  If they had been deaf, they would have never heard sinful words or concepts.  But God made us with eyes to see, ears to hear.  And he made a beautiful world with beautiful things to see and beautiful things to hear.  From the time we wake up in the morning, our eyes are bombarded with images, but sadly many Christians think they must live with blinders on lest something sinful should enter through the eyes.  Surely, God would not have made us with eyes, with the ability to see images, if images, in and of themselves, were sinful.  The sin is not in the image.  The sin lies in what we do with the image.

            In our text for today, we read a story about the brass serpent that I mentioned earlier.  Obviously, there was nothing wrong with making the brass serpent.  God himself gave that commandment and used looking at the brass serpent to heal the people.  But do you remember what became of that brass serpent.  In II Kings 18, we read of the good things that Hezekiah did as king of Judah, such as smashing idols.  But there was one “idol” that gets special attention:  the brass serpent that Moses had made.   There was nothing sinful in the image of the brass serpent itself.  God had commanded that it be made for a holy purpose.  But later on, the people put it to an unholy purpose by worshiping it and burning incense to it.  People began to think that power resided in the image of the serpent.  Thus we see how people take the image of a perfectly good thing, or morally neutral thing, and use it for a sinful purpose.   For this reason, God forbids that people should make an image of Himself, for people would begin to think that power resides in the image.

            But there is another more important reason why God forbade his people from making an image of him.  There is no image that can adequately depict him.  Images of God would not do him justice, and our concepts of God would become limited.  When Isaiah speaks to his people about the foolishness of idolatry, he describes it like this way in Isaiah 40:

“To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him? The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains. He that is so impoverished that he hath no oblation chooseth a tree that will not rot; he seeketh unto him a cunning workman to prepare a graven image, that shall not be moved. Have ye not known? have ye not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?
[22] It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: That bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity. Yea, they shall not be planted; yea, they shall not be sown: yea, their stock shall not take root in the earth: and he shall also blow upon them, and they shall wither, and the whirlwind shall take them away as stubble. To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One.”

When God says, “what likeness will ye compare unto him,” he is not saying that we cannot make comparisons and say, “God is like….”  After all, as we have seen, God often does that in his word.  We have seen how he compares himself to a lion, a bear, a leopard.  Then why not make an image of a leopard and say, “This is our God”?  We cannot do that because such a representation of God would be limiting.  While it may be true that God is like a leopard in some ways, he is far more than that.  Images of God tend to limit our conceptions of God.  The Scripture says that our God is a consuming fire.  We could paint a picture of fire and say, “That is our God.”  But while it is true that God is like a consuming fire, he is more than that.  There is no one image, or combination of images that would be adequate to describe God.  So, when Isaiah says that there is nothing to which we could compare God, he is saying that there is nothing that we could adequately compare to God.  No matter what image we produced, it would leave something out.  This is why he presents himself as the one who is high above us.  The heaven of heavens cannot contain him.  He is everywhere at once.  What kind of image could you use that would adequately describe all that he is?

            Now, it would be easy to think that in our modern times we are no longer in danger of making any graven images of God and worshiping them.  I’m sure that none of you are going to go home this afternoon, get a block of wood, fashion an image and call it “God” and worship it.  You are not going to draw a picture of an animal and call it your god.  But with that said, human beings, even sophisticated Americans, are very much still in the idol-making business.  We do not make these idols with our hands.  We make them in our minds and hearts.  We fix in our minds our own image of God, our own ideas about God, and we say, “This is how I conceive of God to be.  This is what I think he is like.”  And inevitably, there is something wrong with that image.   Like all idolatrous images, it is limited, inadequate in some way.    Sometimes our ideas about God were given to us by our parents or our grandparents.    Sometimes, our image of God was shaped by the particular church in which we may have grown up.    Sometimes, our image of God was shaped by ourselves.  We may have heard the truth about God in our early years, but that idea of God was not pleasing, not comfortable, so we fashioned a God who would be easier to live with.  Some people have shaped a god who is all love, but no wrath, no justice.  Some people have created an image of God in their minds who is the great avenger.  He is nothing more than the great fault-finder who is always standing over us with a stick, ready to slap us the way an over-bearing father might.  He is the great chastiser, but he is not one who is full of mercy, grace, understanding, and pity.  Some people have created a god who is the great Santa Claus.  He exists to give me presents.  If I know how to work him right, manipulate him with promises and faith, I can get him to give me whatever I want.  For some, God is the person who will make everything in my life smooth and easy.  He will protect my family and me from tragedies and disasters.  All of these images of God are idolatrous, and like all idols, they should be smashed and broken in pieces, for they deprive us of the full vision of God in all his glory. 

This shattering of idols is often called “iconoclasm.”  So, in our text for today, Hezekiah is a great “iconoclast,” that is, one who destroys idols.  But as great an iconoclast as Hezekiah was, the greatest of all iconoclasts is God himself. In C. S. Lewis’ book, A Grief Observed, we find one of the most quoted of all passages in his writings:

Images of the Holy easily become holy images—sacrosanct.  My idea of God is not a divine idea.  It has to be shattered time after time.  He shatters it himself.  He is the great iconoclast.   Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of His presence?  The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.  And most are ‘offended’ by the iconoclasm; and blessed are those that are not.”…  The same thing happens in our private prayers.  All reality is iconoclastic.”  Notice what he says.  “My idea of God is not a divine idea.”  But we very often think that our ideas of God are indeed divine.  We are so convinced that our ideas of God are correct, we almost think they were given to us by direct revelation from the throne of God.  But as we go through our lives, we find that our ideas about God are often wrong, and many times incomplete.  So God has to shatter these images we have of him.  Sometimes, our idols of God are smashed by reading the Bible.  We read a passage of Scripture, and a new truth about God leaps out at us, and we know that some of our previous ideas about God have been wrong or at least, unbalanced.  Sometimes, our  precious ideas about God are shattered by powerful preaching.   Last week I spoke on some of the reasons why we are a small church, but this is probably one of the primary reasons.  I’m afraid my preaching is “iconoclastic”; that is, people visit here who have held certain erroneous ideas about God, or inadequate ideas about God, and my preaching smashes those concepts.  As C. S. Lewis says, “most are offended by the iconoclasm, and blessed are those who are not.” 

Of course, C. S. Lewis is talking about that time in the life of John the Baptist when he was in prison.  He sent word to Jesus, “Are you the one who should come, or do we look for another.”  What was causing all this doubt in John the Baptist?  Well, John was still laboring under the ideas that many Jews had about the Messiah.  The Messiah was going to come and set up this glorious kingdom on earth.  He was going to overthrow all the enemies of the Jews and cause them to rule over their enemies.    But Jesus wasn’t behaving that way.  He was preaching, teaching, and healing some sick people.  When was Jesus going to get with the program and be what the Messiah was supposed to be?  So, Jesus tells the disciples of John to go back tell John about all the miracles that I have done, and then he says, “Blessed is he who is not offended in me.”  “That is, Blessed is he is not offended because of what I am doing.  Blessed is he who is not offended because of what I’m not doing.”    You see, Jesus didn’t fit  the idea of what they Jews wanted Jesus to be.  He still isn’t.  That is why the Jews continue to reject Jesus.  A crucified Messiah?  Never!  The Messiah is the glorious king who is going to deliver the Jews.  But Jesus wasn’t doing that in the way they expected.  Jesus didn’t come to overthrow the Romans and its corrupt, tyranny.  He came to deal with the sin problem in our lives by dying on the cross.  He shattered their false images of the Messiah, and they hated him for it.  So, any minister, any priest, who dares to shatter the cherished ideas that many people hold of God is hated.    But one of the duties of the pastor is to shatter false and erroneous concepts we may have of God.  As  C. S. Lewis says, this is one of the signs of the presence of God being among us.  If God is truly among us, he is going to be constantly shattering the false image, the erroneous concepts we have of him.

And then sometimes, God shatters these idols just through the circumstances of life.  As we age, unless we are too arrogant and stubborn to admit our ignorance, God is constantly showing us that he is far different than what we have ever conceived of him to be.  It very often happens when we are young, that we think we have everything figured out.  Sometimes, when people are converted to Christ, they have a certain concept about God, and they never move beyond that initial concept, never grow, never mature, and resist ideas that might run contrary to certain erroneous perceptions or incomplete ideas about God.  But God has a way of breaking through in the circumstances of life and revealing himself to be totally different than what we had previously thought him to be. When we read the story of Job, we see a man who thought he had God all figured out.  He knew what God should be like.  He knew how God should be dealing with him.  When Job was going through this period of intense suffering, he knew that God being unjust.  But, when God reveals himself to Job in all his majesty and glory,  Job realizes that his ideas about God have been limited.  So we read in Job 42:1-6

“Then Job answered the LORD, and said, I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Job admits that he has been talking about things that he really didn’t know anything about, and all he could do was lie before God in humility.  Job, and  the image of God he has held for most of his life, have been shattered by a true sight of the Almighty.

            Our false images of God must be shattered, but there is one image of God that is always trustworthy, one that we must gaze upon constantly in order that our ideas of God might be true, and that is the image of God revealed in our Lord Jesus Christ.  In II Cor. 4:4, St. Paul tells us that Christ is the image of God.  In Col. 1:15, he tells us that Christ is the image of the invisible God.  The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is “the express image of his person” (Heb. 1:3).  It is in Jesus Christ that we see the image of God in all its fullness.  Therefore, we must keep our eyes focused on Jesus, and if we keep our eyes focused on Jesus, beholding him, growing in him, then we will ever grow into a full understanding of God as he really is.

            If we keep our eyes on Jesus, not only will we be saved from false and inadequate views of God, we will actually be changed into the image of God ourselves.  Paul said in II Cor. 3:18, “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.”  One of the great dangers of idolatry is that we become what we worship.    If you have a mean God with no mercy, you will be a cruel person without pity.  If your God has no standards of right and wrong, you will become an immoral person.    But if you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, there you will see how God has revealed himself perfectly in his Son, and then, by living in him, meditating on him, walking with him day by day, you are transformed into the same image from glory to glory.  Be an iconoclast.  Smash all your idolatrous images of God, so that nothing remains but the image of Christ, an the constant sight of that image that will transform so that the image of God, tarnished by the fall, will be restored in you in all its glory. 

Amen.

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