Bethlehem United Methodist Church
Saturday, May 25, 2013
The Proper Image
September 23, 2012
Dr. George Buttrick tells a story of a saint knocking at the door of Heaven. He heard footsteps from the other side of the door, then a voice asking: “Who’s there?”
“I, Lord. It is I,” the saint answered. The footsteps moved away. The door of Heaven did not open. Then the saint knocked again, heard footsteps approaching, and a voice asking: “Who’s there?”
“I, Lord,” again the saint said. “It is I.” Again the footsteps moved away and the door of Heaven did not open.
A third time the saint knocked, heard footsteps coming, and sensed a presence pausing on the other side of Heaven’s door. “Who’s there?” Came the voice.
“You, Lord, you are there,” breathed the saint; and the door of Heaven swung open.
The Ten Commandments, like the teachings of Jesus, point us away from ourselves! They point us instead in two directions—God-ward and people-ward. They point us to the proper image.
Reverence for God and love and respect for people—all people, can never be separated from each other according to the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus.
The second rule of God for our lives is, “You shall not make for yourselves idols … to worship them.” This is the one commandment that most people feel less guilty about breaking; yet God says more about this one than God says about any other of the Ten Commandments except the Sabbath. Open your Bibles to Exodus 20:4-6 and see how much is said about this one commandment as compared to the other nine.
So much is said here because primitive people found it hard to believe in a God that could not be seen. Therefore, they made aids to assist their imagination—they made aids—idols—symbols—to help bring reality into worship. Nothing wrong with that; but bit by bit superstition turned the symbol, or idol—the aid—into the thing worshipped—the representation into the thing it represented. The idol became the god. And there’s a lot wrong with that. God knew that would happen to the children of Israel, and to us, so God said: “You shall not make for yourselves any idols to worship. You don’t need them (like all the other nations around you). Be different. Show them who I really am—a God not made by human hands.”
Idolatry means: Making means into ends.
Now, where are we guilty of idolatry? Where have we turned the symbol into the reality—the thing we worship? I can share some examples with you: any system of church government is a means towards the welfare of the church; but a system of church government can and does become an end in and of itself, so that people end up being more concerned with the way in which the church is governed than with the church being the church and pointing people to God. A church building, a sanctuary, is a means whereby a group of Christians can worship God together under the same roof at the same time. Idolatry happens when we end up worshipping the building itself, when we become more concerned with the place of worship, than true worship itself. The sanctuary becomes an idol worshipped, instead of an aid in true worship of God. I know people who worship the Bible, and worse yet, a particular version of the Bible, instead of worshipping the God to whom the Bible points. They practice Bibliolatry—a form of idolatry.
The sacrament of baptism is an idol—a symbol—an aid which points us to a greater reality. The mode of baptism is not the reality. The age of the person baptized has nothing to do with the reality. Whether sprinkling, pouring, or immersion, is not in and of itself baptism, but points to, or symbolizes something, some reality greater than itself—the baptized being immersed in the Holy Spirit. This is something that God does, not us. Baptism is a sacrament. We have two in the United Methodist Church. The other one is Holy Communion. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said: A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of inward grace. In other words, in celebrating the sacrament, we try to bring into our physical world what is happening deep inside our souls—what God is doing on our behalf.
The Bible, sanctuaries, sacraments, churches, worship services, ministers, and the like, are all symbols—aids—idols that are there to point us to God—to lead us to God—to help us worship God. We don’t worship the idol. We worship the One to whom the idol points. They can be sacred (which is where the word sacrament comes from) only because they point to God and our experiences of God and God’s Grace for us in Jesus the Christ.
Even more dangerous than our aids—idols in the worship of God, are some other images we make. We are told that God created us in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). But to live a life in conformity with our creation is difficult. In fact, it is so difficult that all of us fall far short of the glory of God. Therefore, instead of being like God, we seek to create God in our on image. We have it all backward. It is so much easier to make God like ourselves than for us to be like God wants us to be—an image of God’s likeness.
God tells us not to do wrong, but there are some things we want to do, right or wrong, so we create for ourselves to worship a god who doesn’t care what we do. We have an image of a loving God, full of grace and acceptance for us, and we like that God and worship that God. But we turn our backs to the same God who in Christ said: Love your neighbor as yourself. We turn our backs to the same God who said: You have robbed me in tithes and offerings, (Malachi 3:8). Do you tithe a tenth of every dollar you make—do you give it to God by giving it through the church? Is money your idol of worship?
It is so much easier to whittle God down to our size instead of repenting, changing our way of living, and being Godly ourselves.
The very process of thinking requires mental pictures or images. Think of an apple and you see one in your imagination. Think of God and you see some image of God in your mind. The danger lies in the fact that it can be the wrong image, which can be tragic, as we all witnessed on September 11, 2001. One becomes like one’s image of God, and if it is the wrong image, one becomes wrong, does wrong and people are hurt. And God is sad. So the Bible contains more warning in regard to God’s second rule for our lives, “You shall not make for yourselves idols … to worship,” than in regard to the other nine.
Have you ever heard of Bertel Thorwaldsen? He was a famous Danish sculptor who lived from1770 to 1844. He was one of the leading neoclassicists of his time. He brought a friend to see his famous statue of Christ. Christ’s arms were outstretched; his head was bowed between them. The friend said, “But I can’t see his face.” The sculptor replied, “If you would see the face of Christ you must get on your knees.”
The only perfect image of God we have is Jesus the Christ, suffering on the cross to set us free from sin and death. But we have to get on our knees from time to time to see the proper image of God. One day Philip the disciple said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father.” Jesus replied, “He or she who has seen me has seen the Father,” (John 14:8-9).
“He or she who has seen me (even suffering and dying on the cross for them) hath seen God.”
Jesus is the perfect proper image of God.
Charles Lee Hutchens, M.Div., Th.M., D.Min.
Bethany United Methodist Church
February 15, 2004
I preached this sermon again at
Source: Charles L. Allen’s book, God’s Psychiatry, Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1953.