Colossians 2:6-15 (New International Version)
Freedom From Human Regulations Through Life With Christ
6So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, 7rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. 8See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. 9For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. 11In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, 12having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross. 15And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
9 A GOLDEN IDOL
To get at this we are going to examine two passages of the Bible. The second one is our text from Colossians. But before we look at that, I’d like us to have a look at a story from Exodus 32:1–6. You’ll find it on page 78 of the pew Bibles and it will be on the screen behind me.
The people knew that Moses had ascended the mountain in order to speak with God, but he wasn’t back in what they considered a timely fashion, so they took things into their own hands, literally. Aaron has them bring their gold to him and it is fashioned into the image of a calf. Now listen to what Aaron says. “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Then he makes an altar in order to make the calf an object of worship and makes a proclamation: “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” Try to pretend you don’t already know the story. On the face of it, what is wrong with what Aaron says? He recognizes the people are only free from Egypt because of divine initiative. They didn’t free themselves, they were “brought up out of the land of Egypt.” And the feast day is not a feast for the calf; Aaron says it is a festival to the LORD. Perhaps you remember what I said last week: whenever you see the word LORD using that lettering called small caps, that is the name God reveals to Moses at the burning bush. Aaron has convinced himself he is doing the right thing. They will celebrate the blessings of God in front of the calf they made to represent God.
What then is wrong with what Aaron does? I think there is a clue in verse six of this story. They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel. It appears to me that what the people thought they had accomplished was to get some boundaries on this God who insisted he was beyond their control. To me that verse suggests the people think they have put their lives into
various compartments. Think of it as “TV dinner” religion. The microwavable tray is divided into three sections—the meat is separate from the peas and the potatoes, ideal for kids and others who don’t like parts of life touching one another. We did our duty, got the sacrifices out of the way; now it’s party time and we wouldn’t want any rules to get in the way.
What has happened then? By creating an image to represent God, the people have given themselves an object of worship that makes no ethical demands of them.
9 THE GIFT OF JESUS
I want to come back to that idea, but first let’s have a look at verse nine from our text in Colossians. In him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily. Paul is, of course, talking about Jesus. Earlier in the letter he says that Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Obviously I have had the luxury of time to think this through, but let me try out something with you.
First of all I come to the Ten Commandments with this conviction: out of love, God is giving us ten opportunities to live in harmony with his will and purposes. This is not an original idea. In an essay dealing with the second commandment, Rabbi Daniel Polish says this. “In Jewish tradition that divine love is identified with Torah and commandment that are understood not as a burden but as tokens of our mutual commitment to one another” (The Ten Commandments For Jews, Christians, and Others, 38). In other words, God takes a people as his own and then tells them how it is they can live in harmony with his perfect will.
There is, then, a reason why God prohibits the making of images, even if in our minds, like the former slaves with the golden calf, the image is to represent God. We are not to do it because we will get it wrong.
I think of it this way. On the day I wrote this sermon I was able to look at the daffodils I had purchased from a volunteer at Toronto Western Hospital in support of the Canadian Cancer Society. The daffodil is my favourite spring flower and it is a marvel. It begins with a nondescript
bulb, which given the nourishment of soil, water and light pushes a green shoot up until a brilliant yellow flower bursts forth. This can only be called glorious and yet it is just a small part of creation.
If you have a computer you will recognize this story all too well. Your e-mail is open and your web browser. Word is also running because you’re updating your resume. An e-mail comes in from the bank and you decide to also open Excel because you want to update your account information. The computer freezes, as we put it. It just stops. That’s what happens to my mind when I try to imagine what God must be like and how he ought to be represented.
I am bound to get it wrong.
You may dismiss me as just an old crank, but it seems to me our particular part of the world is more prone to this spiritual error than any other. Years ago the artist Andy Warhol pronounced that everyone would be famous, but only for 15 minutes. He didn’t live to see the myriad ways in which his prediction has come true.
I am sure to step on some toes the further I wander into this topic, but the cult of celebrity has captured significant segments of our television viewing. There are supposed reality shows for chefs and cleaners and tattoo artists, for designers and models and singers, who compete, to become an idol, an object of worship. We watch shows about people who are famous for no other reason than they are famous. Once again I quote Rabbi Polish. “In this regard, the great emblem of our idolatry might be the totemic figure of Mickey Mouse. Apparently he is famous for his fame itself. This to such a degree that a satirical essayist suggested that archeologists in the distant future might well be misled into imagining that Americans were a people who worshipped…a mouse” (Ibid., 34).
God, then comes to my rescue. As Jesus said to Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). There is something within every human soul that longs to know about God. I think even those who claim to be atheists are in fact dealing with this inner longing by dismissing it. Emerson said, “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. …That which
dominates our imaginations and thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming” (Ibid., 33).
God comes to our rescue. It is as if God says to us, do not put your finite minds to the task of imagining how the infinite ought to be represented. You will get it wrong and you will fashion something that caters to your self-interest and which will not make the sort of demands upon you that will truly fashion you as heaven intends.
Instead, God says, look to the one I have given you, to the gift I have bestowed upon the earth. Look to Jesus and there you will see what God with a human face looks like.
But, we say, no, there are no photos, of course. There are not even the sort of portraits that were left behind of the famous of his day. Of all the things the gospel writers told us, there is nothing about his height and weight, the colour of his eyes and hair. Of course not. The gift of God to us in Jesus is not this is what God looks like, but instead, this is what God does.
We don’t worship God by performing some ritual toward an image of Jesus. We worship God by believing in and following Jesus.