Graven Images

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Where do we look for strength, for comfort, for help, for love, acceptance and joy?  Where do we look for life?

According to the bible, the answer is: all the wrong places.

We are inveterate idolaters.  That is to say, our hearts are forever being set on idols: things that are not God.  The human race was made to worship, but estranged from the life of God, we worship everything but God.

The very first word from Sinai was this

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  (Exodus 20:3)

The Good Life means not prefering any gods before….

Well actually the King James have done what the majority of translations have done and finished the sentence with the word “me.”  But more literally the Unseen LORD on Sinai says “You will have no other gods before My Face.”  Or you could equally say “My Presence.”  It has been the Face or Presence of the LORD who has saved the people and brought them to Sinai (e.g. Deuteronomy 4:37).  And so the Father says to the people, “You’re mine, I’ve redeemed you, here’s the Good Life: you won’t have any other gods except my Son!”

It’s the Son of God who is the true Divine Image.  He is the One we’re meant to look to in order to see God.  He’s the One we look to to receive life.  But when people resist the first word from Sinai – Look to Jesus – they will immediately look to other images.

Spirituality abhors a vacuum.  When you stop worshipping Jesus, you start worshipping something – anything – else.

And so, here comes the second word from Sinai:

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.  (Exodus 20:4-5)

Perhaps we think we’re free from idolatry since we haven’t bowed down to a religious statue recently.  But “graven images” are not defined by their materials but by their effect.  It’s not how they’re produced.  It’s what they produce in us.  They are things we bow down to or serve.

So, obviously, it’s stupid to make a wooden statue and then serve it (read Isaiah’s devastating send-up of that kind of idolatry).   But the bible speaks equally of the “graven images of our hearts” (see Ezekiel 14 for instance).  Our hearts are captured by any number of enslaving passions.  So we might start a hobby and then get obsessed.  Or choose a career and then get enslaved to it.  Or embark on some scheme and find ourselves dancing to its beat.  That’s just like carving an idol and then bowing to it.  We start off in charge, but we bow to it, and it rules us.

Isn’t that the nature of our hearts?  We go after sex, money, power etc but the things we choose end up choosing us.

For me it was something as paltry as cricket.  I used to have a T-shirt that said “Cricket is life, the rest is mere detail.”  And though I’d laugh about it, that was essentially the way I lived – spending every hour I could chasing a little red ball around a field.  And when my cricketing dreams were ended, how did I feel?  Did I feel like a failed cricketer?  No, I felt like a failed person.  When something is your life and it crumbles, it feels like death.  Which only goes to show – it was a graven image all along.  A created thing.  A good thing.  But I’d turned it into a god thing.  And when we invest our hopes and dreams into these little idols they break our hearts.

More importantly the whole thing breaks God’s heart (as we’ll see tomorrow).  His very first word to us is to seek life in Christ.  And that’s the only solution.  We’ll only wean our hearts from graven images when we behold the true Image of God, Jesus Christ. As the old Scottish preacher, Thomas Chalmers, once said:

The heart is…  so constituted [that] the only way to dispossess it of an old affection, is by the expulsive power of a new one.

This works in every area of life – religious or otherwise.  At university we’d talk about the parties we’d been to, the concerts, the drugs, the sexual conquests.  Fast-forward 5 years and we are changed people.  Now we compete over who has worked the longest week:

‘I’ve worked 60 hours this week’
‘That’s nothing, I’ve worked 70 hours.’
‘I haven’t been home since October’
‘I wear a nappy to save on bathroom breaks.’

The partying has cut back drastically.  How?  Fresh will-power?  No.  New passion.  Fast-forward 5 years again and now it’s kids that dominate the discussion.  Now we all have a much healthier perspective on career.  Again, how?  Fresh wisdom?  Not really.  Just a new controlling passion.  In Chalmers’ words, there is an expulsive power to a new affection.

But there is the greatest power in that original affection: the Presence and Image of the unseen LORD, Jesus Christ.  He is our first love.  Returning again and again to Him is our only liberation from enslaving idols.  Seeing Him as the Source of our strength, comfort, help, love, acceptance and joy – that’s the essence of the Good Life.

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