Exodus 19-24: A Sermon on Idolatry from Exodus 20:4-6

Exodus 20:4-6
The church around the World reported in February of 2006 that the Indian government has just opened a new shrine. It is one of the largest Hindu temples of modern times. It is a 45 million dollar “pink sandstone shrine to tolerance, located in New Delhi. Those attending the opening was the nation’s Muslim president, its Sikh Prime Minister and its Hindu chief opposition leader. More than 7,000 sculptors worked for over five years on the temple. The building sits on 234 pillars topped by nine domes is decorated with more than 20,000 statues of gods and goddesses, encompassing the gamut of the Hindu pantheon.

In India today, I have been told, there are 350 million gods who are worshipped. The Hindu religion is pantheistic. This means that their god is everywhere and is not separate from His creation. They believe that he is in the walls, that he is in the chairs and rocks and trees and therefore they worship all of these things. Even rocks are worshipped at times. This was once illustrated to me by an Indian pastor. He shared with me that if a Hindu devotee happens to be walking up a path and trips on a rock and by tripping over that rock notices that there was a poisonous snake ahead which was ready to strike; a shrine to that rock would be naturally created and then it would be worshipped. New gods are being created as we speak!

We Christians believe that God is everywhere but that he is separate from his creation. So we say that God is omni-present.

Let’s face it, we live in a 7/11 world. When we want something, we go and get it. If we don’t have the money, we just pull out our credit cards. When a relationship becomes difficult or if it requires too much of us, we just break it off and go off into our walled world.

When you apply for a job, your employers will probably ask you if you are a self starter. When they ask this question, they are wondering how well you work while unsupervised. In the world, a person who manages themselves well, will generally be well rewarded for their efforts. We live in a culture where independence is rewarded and dependence is not appreciated whatsoever.

So here is where the rub is for us Christians: While God wants us to be hard working, industrious, entrepreneurial and passionate about what we do, he wants us to be dependent upon him for everything.

The seduction and consequences of idol worship hits closer to home than you may think.
In this text this command to not worship any idols hits home in two ways.

I. Idols are closer than you think.
It seems like it would be a good to ask the question, “What is an idol?” Well there are two answers for this. One answer is literal and the other is spiritual.

Literally – an Idol object that we worship.
Illus: Most people know that congregational churches are the oldest group of churches in New England. The pilgrims started the first congregational church in Plymouth in 1620 right after getting off the Mayflower. When giving tours of the church, often people ask the question, what are some of the distinctives of congregational churches? Well our church is a little different that many of the other congregational churches. Most of the older ones, like the first congregational church of Middleboro MA or Park Street in Boston are very plain inside. The reason for this was this second commandment. The pilgrims were under the impression that ornate churches take away a proper focus on God in worship and place it on the buildings. This is why the churches were plain and the reason why they called it a meetinghouse rather than a church. They were afraid of literally breaking this command. While I don’t believe you have to build plain churches, I applaud the fact that they did not want to be responsible for leading people into worshipping things in the church rather than the one for whom the church was created.

Spiritually – an Idol is anything that we build our lives around other than God.
In a place that we used to live, I went out at about 7:00 pm to jog. As I was running, I began to hear the roar of fire engines; I saw billowing smoke arising from a home not too far from where we lived. I continued to run my route and when I was almost through, I went right in front of the house. There was a sad scene with hundreds of people crowding a house going up in flames. The very next night at about the same time I started to go jogging and as I did, I noticed billowing crowds arising from an area near our house and I ran over there, and as I arrived I noticed that the fire fighters had just begun to assemble at the scene. Then it hit me. This scene was so sad because they were, at one point or another, someone’s idol. Someone sacrificed, saved, worked in order to purchase, maintain and enjoy those houses. In these houses children were raised, songs were sung, birthdays were celebrated, moments were cherished and in an instant and in a moment in time it was all gone. Surely they went in the same way that all idols eventually go. No material possession that you can see with your eyes, will survive into eternity. Yet we all are tempted to live for them. Look around you, all that will survive are those people that you can see and can impact for Christ.

A. My guess that most of us do not struggle with literal idolatry but this is why the Ten Commandments are so applicable to us.
B. The Sermon on the Mount gives us a glimpse on how we are to interpret these great commandments. There are two levels – one literal and one spiritual.
1. For example, in the Ten Commandments we learn that we are not to commit murder, then Jesus adds, even those who hate someone have already committed murder in their hearts. This is the nature of the Ten Commandments. There is an actual literal way to break God’s law and there is another way to break it, in our hearts. While most of us do not regularly worship idols literally, I would not be surprised that most of us have worshiped the idols of our hearts.
a. Whether this be material objects, relationships or positions of power of prestige. Anything, other than God, that we build our lives around is idolatrous.
There is no question that idolatry is everywhere.

Idols are Where you Least Expect Them.
Question #2 – We must ask ourselves another question, why are we so attracted to idols?
In the Old Testament we are given a picture into the allure of idols.
Exodus 32:1-10 “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him. Aaron answered them, “take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, these are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt. When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD’. So the next day the people arose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. Then the LORD said to Moses, Go down, because of your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. The have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made for themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up out of Egypt.” I have seen these people, the LORD said to Moses, and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
Now lets pick up again at verse 15:
Moses turned and went down the mountain with two tablets of the testimony in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, There is the sound of war in the camp.” Moses replied: It is not the sound of victory, it is not the sound of defeat; it is the sound of singing that I hear. When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it into powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.” He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?”

There are a few observations that we can make about worshipping idols:
Why do we turn to other things other than God to build our lives around?
1. Because we want convenient religion. We want a god who comes to us on our own terms.
In this story that I just read, we find Moses, up on Mount Sinai receiving God’s law from him. The people were getting impatient because Moses had been up there for over a month and they began to wonder if he was ever coming down. They were in the mood to party and they wanted to do it sooner rather than later. They wanted God on their own terms. They wanted to start worshipping then or they weren’t going to worship at all. Thus, they were tired of waiting around for God. They ran their lives and they didn’t like having to interrupt it to worship the Lord.
2. We worship them because we want to be liked. Or, to say it in a different way, we secretly desire to be approved more by people than be approved by God. While very few of us will admit to this, it is very common for people. The only reason why the people were able to get a calf to worship is because they pressured Aaron, the priest and brother of Moses to do it. It is hard to believe that Aaron would betray his God, betray his holy office as priest and betray his own brother Moses by producing an idol for the people. What could have possibly prompted him to do this? It must have been the fact that he was not willing to face the rejection and shame of the crowds. Brothers and sisters, be very weary about following the crowds for Jesus taught us that the way that leads to destruction is broad, but the one that leads to eternal life is narrow.
3. This is key. We worship them because we want to have a religion that we can control. Idols are tangible in that we can ascribe to them that which only deserves. God cannot be scene, yet he sees everything. God cannot be touched, though he is everywhere. God’s demands on us are great. He calls us to nothing less than total discipleship. Jesus told us that we are to pick up our crosses and follow Him. Yes He promises peace on the journey and joy and love, yet he also promises us that we will be given the fruit of long-suffering. Why would we be promised such a thing, because cross bearing is hard. A cross is not just something we wear around our necks, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with this for it is a good reminder. But the cross was an instrument of torture and it was an instrument of death. When we become a follower of Jesus we are not asking for an easy road. O how the teachers of our day are promising such a pathway but it is not possible. Jesus has warned us that we will drink his cup and that we will bear his cross. But here is the wonderful part – while the cross is an instrument of death, it is also an effective instrument. When we put to death the deeds of the flesh and we will experience resurrected life today in this world. Yes there is suffering for Christ’s disciples but there is untold blessings that go along with it.

Oxford University Old Testament Scholar John Durham brilliantly observes the direction this commandment takes: “the worshiper who has made a commitment to worship only Yahweh must not compromise that worship by making it easy, that is by adopting for his own use shaped images to provide a concrete center for worship, a practice common to all of Israel’s neighbors.”

The sin of idolatry is so ingrained in our that we often don’t recognize it.
Sub Illus: I remember one time while working in a job, there was a fellow who was not our model worker. He was always in trouble and always on the verge of being thrown out of the company. In spite of all of this, he and I were pretty good friends. When going to work, I would often bring my Bible with me to witness and to study when we were on break. One day this fellow and I were talking and in the middle of it we received an work instructions. We had to fold up some netting and put it away. Because this material is difficult to work with, I happened to put my Bible down momentarily on the concrete floor. Within twenty seconds of putting my Bible down, this fellow, while good intentioned, misguidedly took my Bible from the ground, proceeded to wipe it off with a towel and then gave me a great public rebuke about how I had desecrated a holy book. Brothers and sisters, regarding the outward adornments of books and the physical layout of furniture in a church is not a holy pursuit, it is superstition. It is nothing less than idolatry! It is to substitute the substance of the Creator for the creation.
C. Genuine faith in God will result in a life which recognizes that it is not we who manage God, but in fact it is He who manages us. We are not in control of our destiny, but he is. No amount of positive thinking is going to symbolically twist God’s arm to do your will. The true task of faith, the true task of prayer is to find out what his will is for us and to pray that it will be done.
D. God tells us that there are some things that we don’t have control of. Many people turn away from God because they want to be the commander of their own universe. They want to control everything that happens and they feel that they can do it better than God. There are some things you can’t manage and you can’t control.
Illus: Have you ever done something or said something or made some gesture that looked or sounded or seemed just like your parents? No matter how hard you have tried to avoid it, you seemed to repeat it. For most of us there are traits that are positive and some that are negative. These things just happen and there isn’t much we can do about them. This is what the text is saying: We have the opportunity to shape succeeding generations for the better or the worse by the actions that we take and the lives that we live (Read verses 5-6). God is clearly showing his mercy here, our actions will affect 3 to 4 generations after us if we decide to worship a god in our own making. The god of our own appetite. Or we have another and better option, God will bless a thousand generations after us if we come to him, on his own terms, take up that cross and follow Jesus. Which will it be for you. How will you come to God. Will you manage your own life or will you surrender control of your future and place it in His hands and experience what good management is all about.

The Prince (told by Robert Morgan)
“Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian, told a story about a certain kingdom wherein there was a handsome prince, searching for a woman worthy enough to be he wife and to become queen of the land. One day while running an errand for his father he passed through a poor village. As he glanced out the window of his carriage his eyes fell on a beautiful peasant maiden. During ensuing days, he often passed by the young lady and soon fell in love with her by sight. But he had a problem. How could he seek her hand?

He could command her to marry him, but the prince wanted someone who would marry him out of love, not coercion. He could show up ot her door in his splendid uniform in a gold carriage drawn by six horses, attendants in tow, and bearing a chest of jewels and gold coins. But then how would he know if she really loved him or if she was just overawed and overwhelmed with his splendor? Finally he came up with another solution.

He stripped off his royal robes, but on common dress, moved into the village, and got to know her without revealing his identity. As he lived among the people, the prince and the maiden became friends, shared each other’s interests, and talked about their concerns. By and by, the young lady grew to love him for who he was and because he first loved her.

This is exactly the Gospel. The Prince of Peace himself, Jesus Christ, laid aside the robes of his glory, garbed himself as a peasant, became a human being, and moved into our village, onto our planet, to woo us to himself. Both the one who makes us holy and those who are being made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers.

No sinner escapes death, but through one victim, one righteousness, on faith, one hope, one clinging to the cross, one cleaving to one Lord, on journeying in one blood-stained path. There is one only Savior of all the saved, only one door of heaven, only one plea before the judgment seat, one only ransom of guilt” (Robert Morgan, 483).

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