DON’T SHRINK THE SACRED (COMMANDMENT II)Listen
Good morning, friends.
My names is Brett Davis, and I’m a volunteer pastor here at New Life Manitou…and can I make a confession? It’s a spiritual confession—a church confession—a God confession:
I don’t like God being invisible.
It’s so obvious that maybe most people don’t think about it very much…
“That’s just what God is like. Of course God is invisible.”
But—can I be honest?—most days it really bothers me. God is invisible. As a general rule, you can’t see God. In those seasons of life when life is falling apart, and you feel lonely or betrayed or broken, and you finally drop to your knees in prayer… you don’t generally look up and see Jesus sitting on your ottoman. And in those seasons of life when life is bursting forth in such profound blessings that you actually, literally want to burst out in song, the clouds don’t separate with rays of light to show God’s smiling face.
When my daughters were born—in those moments of deepest transcendence—of most profound miracle—I couldn’t see God… even though my deepest being desperately want to thank someone for the miracle in my arms. And on the darkest nights of my life, when I wondered how I could go on, I couldn’t see God… even though my deepest being desperately ached to be held in his arms.
I’ve been to seminary… I know the “right” answers to why God is invisible.
God the Father is immaterial, omnipresent, infinitely qualitatively different from space-time. And God the Son—Jesus—has ascended into heaven—the first of the human race who has entered into a new mode of existence. And God the Spirit is like the wind—we what the wind does but we can’t see the wind itself.
But the technical, intellectual, theological answers to the question “why is God invisible?”—those answers fall flat when you’re flat on your back in pain. Or when someone you love is flat on their back.
That’s my confession: I struggle with the invisibility of God.
Maybe some of you struggle with it too.
I know God’s invisibility is a huge hurdle for a lot of people who—genuinely—would like to believe… But it’s hard to trust what we cannot see.
If my confession is also your struggle, know that we’re not alone.
The people of God
have always struggled
with God’s invisibility.
That’s why the very second commandment
that God gives his people
from their very inception:
“Do not make an idol for yourselves” (v4).
You’re going to be tempted to carve something up—
to try to make an image of me—
so that you can be more certain of my presence.
Or you’re going to be tempted
like all your neighbors to make an image of
the mysterious elemental forces of sky and earth and sea (v4)—
the sun, the storms, the fertile soil.
Don’t do it.
Don’t carve an image—
don’t make an idol.
It’s the second commandment God gives,
and it’s the first commandment we break.
The people of God—the Israelites—
fresh from their rescue from slavery
watch Moses ascend the fiery mountain called Sinai
to receive direction on what it means
to be a people devoted to the living God.
And after a few days of Moses being gone,
the people of Israel say in Exodus 32:
“Hey! All this watching and waiting and ambiguity is terrible.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could see God?
“…That’s Moses’s brother, right? Yeah—hey Aaron!?
Would you mind making something we can see?” (v1)
And before Moses can even get down the mountain,
the people of God have gathered around a golden calf in worship”
It’s too hard, too complicated,
too mysterious, too strange
to worship a God they cannot see.
So they craft a golden calf
so that they can see Yahweh.
That’s what they’re doing in that story it would seem.
When you read the story,
it doesn’t seem like Israel is trying to abandon Yahweh;
they just want to have some certainty about Yahweh.
Aaron—brother of Moses, creator of the golden calf—
unveils the image and then says:
“Let’s have a festival to Yahweh.” (32v5)
We’re not trying to abandon God,
we just need God to stay still and stay put.
“Why don’t we just add something to God? Let’s add visibility to God. Let’s add stationary to God.” That’s what it feels like doesn’t it?
Idolatry always feels like we’re adding something to the world—like we’re adding something to our lives—like we’re adding something to God. No big deal—let’s add visibility to God. And let’s add stationary to God.
Let’s add certainty.
Let’s add manageable
Let’s add silent.
Let’s add powerless
Let’s add dead.
Idolatry feels like addition—like we’re adding something to the world or to God or to our lives—but idolatry is always subtraction.
At it’s heart, idolatry is when we shrink the sacred.
We shrink the great mystery of God thinking we’ll improve on him. But idolatry isn’t how we add to the world, it’s how we make the world smaller. Usually—at the heart of idolatry—we’re trying to make the life safer in some way… and we only succeed in making the life smaller.
You can see it clearly in the ancient world when someone would carve a bit of the created order—sky, earth, or sea—and call that creation the Creator. Someone whittles some wood to worship. An image of the sun god, a statue of the storm god, a figurine of fertility. Whittle up some wood, and the elemental forces of this beautiful, dangerous world seem a lot more manageable. It felt like you were making life safer.
But carving graven images—making physical idol—is just an outward sign of an inner sickness. It’s just one of the ways we’re tempted to subtract from God.
The warning against idolatry is the second commandment God gives and it’s the most frequent commandment Israel breaks. Throughout their history, Israel’s prophets would—over and over—call the nation out for falling into idolatry. Sometimes their idolatry would involve physical, graven images… that’s the way they would shrink the sacred. But just as often they would commit idolatry in less tangible, less touchable things.
Radical preoccupation with physical pleasures—with food and drink and sex and comfort—gets denounced as idolatry.
Greedily pursuing material goods—thinking that money and resources and retirement plans and umbrella insurance policies can give us ultimate security in the world—that’s idolatry.
Trusting powerful militaries and violence to keep us safe in the world gets denounced as—you guessed it—idolatry.
Israel struggled with the same three idols that we struggle with: sex, money, and power.
We discover something good and beautiful—like sex or food or sleep or pleasure—and we pursue it. We pursue it without consideration for God or the fully human life God he wants for us—a life of honesty and intimacy, commitment and health. Somewhere along the way, we’ve begun worshipping the wonder of creation instead of the wonder of the Creator. And our lives shrink in the process.
We take something altogether good like security or provision and daily bread and we make it supreme—we chase after it. We work longer and longer hours, we add more and more to the bank account—we think we’re adding to our family—adding to the world—but really—if we got honest—we’ve shrunk the sacred. The reality that God provides for us—his sacred gifts of family and leisure—the sacred practices of play and generosity—that’s all evaporated. It’s not just God that’s gotten smaller… life itself has gotten smaller.
When the Sacred Creator shrinks
this sacred life he gives us shrinks too.
And so in the traditions of Israel we find the harshest kinds of condemnations of idolatry—in the all it’s many forms. The psalmist writes in Psalm 115:
Why do the nations say,Psalm 115v2-8
“Where is their God?”
Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever pleases him.
But their idols are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but cannot walk,
nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.
The prophets and the psalmist invite us to recognize that there’s a direct correlation between what you’re worshipping and what you’re becoming. If it’s not God, then it’s probably some form of sex, money, or power.
We could say it this way: our devotions eventually define us. What you’re supremely devoted to, eventually defines you.
And idolatry is always subtraction. The second commandment warns us—in the strongest of terms—against shrinking the Sacred—against shrinking God—against shrinking down the thing we’re most devoted to—because you’re actually not shrinking God at all. God stays the same, regardless of what we think of him. You’re shrinking down you. I’m shrinking down me. We’re shrinking this sacred life that God has given us.
In the ancient world, it was common for a woodworker to whittle something to aid in worship. But the wisdom of God comes along and says, “You realize that worship is whittling you, right?” What we worship actually whittles us—it shapes us, it makes us.
The things we’re most devoted to in life
will come to define our life…
…so make sure it’s not shrunken.
Make sure it’s not empty. Because when we’re devoted to something empty… we’re empty. What obsesses us eventually possesses us. Be mindful of what you’re devoted to because it eventually defines you.
I think that’s what that bit at the end of the second commandment is talking about, when it says (v5-6) that God is passionate—God is jealous—and there are profound consequences when we shrink the sacred. It’s a way of communicating how distorted and broken our lives become when we’re devoted to less-than-ultimate.
God won’t stop it.
And it’s a way of communicating that our broken, distorted lives affect those around us. To the third and fourth generation (v5)—that’s typically how many generations are alive at any given time. Your life affects your parents and their parents. Your choices affect your children and their children.
I hear about the jealousy and passion of God and my tendency is to get super uncomfortable…but I promise you, the jealousy and passion of God are at the heart of the gospel
God loves us—jealously. God loves this world—jealously. He will not share us—will not allow us to settle for shrunken devotions or shrunken lives or shrunken futures. God is passionately, jealously devoted to his people being free from slavery and fully, forever alive. And so, in the fullness of time, the invisible God made himself visible.
One early Christian put it this way:
God rescued us from the control of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. He set us free through the Son and forgave our sins. The Son is the image of the invisible God, the one who is first over all creation… (v19-20) …all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him, and he reconciled all things to himself through him—whether things on earth or in the heavens. He brought peace through the blood of his cross.Colossians 1v13-15)
The invisible God has given us something to look at, to gaze at, to worship:
The good news entrusted to the church its that the invisible God has set us free from the powers of darkness by bearing the weight of darkness himself. We look at a human being—at Jesus of Nazareth—pouring out love and healing and peace into everyone possible—even to the point of shedding his blood. That’s the passion of the God on full display.
The good news—the gospel—is that God loves idolaters. And it’s a good thing… because that’s all of us. If you want to see the fullness of God—it dwells in the person of Jesus.
If you have shrunken the sacred and are find yourself empty because of empty devotions… God loves you. Jealously. God has shed his blood to bring you peace… and is already at work to expand your life into what it’s meant to be.
That’s what God’s always been like. Even in Exodus. You see, God calls Aaron—brother of Moses, creator of the golden calf—to become the first high priest of Israel. The first idol maker in Israel becomes the first true worship leader of Israel: “You’re passions and instincts were right, Aaron… they were just shrunken. Here… try this life on for size. This will make you more truly you.”
And that’s the Spirit’s invitation to all of us:
“Try on the life of Jesus… this will make you more truly you”
It will mean turning our backs—again and again—on all the things we think will add to our world and devote our lives to self-giving, self-emptying love. Empty yourself. Give yourself away for others. That’s the image that God gives us in Jesus, because that’s what God is like—.
So love others sacrificially. Seek their good above your own. Turn the other cheek, go two miles instead of one, give away your life… Love, love, love—with every breath.
It’s hard, because the gospel offers us a life that looks like subtraction, but it’s actually addition—it’s actually multiplication—it’s actually factoring up and exponents and limits approaching the infinite. We’re invited to gaze at Jesus, to worship Jesus, become like Jesus. As free and alive as Jesus.
Perhaps if you got honest, the deepest devotions of your life are leaving you empty. You’re shrunken. You’re becoming something less than you—less than who God created you to be—because an obsession is possessing you. Maybe it’s time to talk someone about that—talk to God, talk to someone up front on the prayer team, or maybe someone you love.
Maybe you’re here this morning and—no joke—God’s invisibility is a really big deal. You’d love to believe, but you just can’t. Can I encourage in two ways?
First, recognize that you’re already trusting what you cannot see. In fact, everything most important to you is—in fact—invisible. Every kind of truth. Any kind of concept. The very notion of justice. The importance you place on relationships. All our instincts toward goodness and away from evil. The entire inner world of humanity… everything that makes humanity humane is invisible.
Second, look at Jesus. Jesus is the solid image we’re given. Dig deep, commit yourself, do the research, and you’ll discover something solid in Jesus of Nazareth. We look backward at the life of Jesus and we can see—with crystal clarity—what God is like.
You’ll find something solid there, until that magnificent day when faith becomes sight.