A Sermon by Rev Kurt Ho. AsplundhPreached in Bryn AthynMay 21, 1995
“You shall not make idols for yourselves; neither a carved image nor a sacred pillar shall you rear up for yourselves; nor shall you set up an engraved stone in your land, to bow down to it,- for I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 26: 1).
It is the faith of the New Church that there is one God and that the Lord Jesus Christ is that God. He alone is to be worshiped and followed. As He said: “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12).
The first of all the commandments is that we should worship the one true God and have no other gods before His face. At first hearing this sounds simple enough. Who among us would bow before a carved image? Who would worship an idol? The fact is, we all do. I hope to show that the essence of the first commandment, found in the text, is as important for us today as it ever was, when understood more deeply.
In ancient times and in primitive cultures the worship of idols was common. Israel was surrounded by nations worshiping false gods: the Baals and the Ashteroths, and a host of others. Indeed, Israel’s most common failing as a people was a recurrent idolatry. Time and again they had to be warned against this practice – meanwhile either suffering defeat at the hand of their enemies or disease or natural disaster when they sinned. The Old Testament thus presents a religion based on fear. God speaks and the people tremble. When they obey Him, they are rewarded; when they disobey, they are punished.
We may wonder today that people could have been so ignorant and superstitious. Did they believe that these images of stone, wood, or metal had any power? The prophet Jeremiah railed against them: “Everyone is dull-hearted, without knowledge; every metalsmith is put to shame by the graven image; for his molded image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them” (Jer. 10 14). What possible attraction could the lifeless idols of foreign nations have had for the people of Jehovah?
Yet if the truth be known, this longing for false gods is just as strong today as it ever was. We are as susceptible to the idols of modern culture as Israel was to the gods of the nations around them. We are as willing as they were to forsake the true God to worship images of our own making. We are as willing to put our trust in them to achieve our ends of imagined prosperity and happiness.
Where is the altar? Where is the image? Not in our house or in our yard but in our heart and mind; yet it is just as real as any statue of wood or gold. The doctrine of the New Church teaches about our gods. “Everyone’s god is that which he loves above all things,” we are told (AE 935). This statement opens up a wide realm of possibilities. Our god could be a leader to whom we are devoted; or a cause; it could be a personal passion; success, power, wealth; the potential list is endless. There are as many “gods” as there are human loves. When any one of these loves rules our life, that is, has more power over us than anything else, including our religious beliefs or training, it becomes our god. We hold it in our mind continually; it affects and colors all that we do; we think about it, and seek ways to promote or act on it; we often surround ourselves with its symbols.
While our doctrine expresses and explains this idea of the gods of our life, common perception also recognizes its reality. You can hear it described in the very language of religion as when a person is described as “worshiping” a friend; or is a “disciple” in some great “crusade.” Money is one man’s “god,” we hear. Popularity may be the “altar” on which another will “sacrifice” his integrity. There are “sacred cows” with some which are above reproach. It is commonly known that a person’s life can be caught up and totally committed to something or someone. This is from a deep love for that thing or person.
We all have ruling loves in our lives, and it is right that we do. It is through these loves that we have motivation and ability to serve our neighbors. However, these loves should not supersede or displace our love of the Lord. When asked what was the greatest commandment, the Lord taught that the first of all the commandments is: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
We today are just as prone as the Israelites to turn away from the Lord to favor instead the false idols of life. And what is more, we will suffer the same curses and plagues and the defeats that come from that apostasy. The difference is that our defeats will not be at the hands of Philistines, Amorites or Assyrians, but according to the false attitudes and perverted loves represented in the Scriptures by these peoples. Our plagues will not be physical but mental. So while our life in the modern world is easier in some respects than life in the ancient world through the advancement of science and technology, would we not admit that we live in troubled and often terrible times? There are anxieties, stresses, injustices, confusions and much unhappiness. People long for what they call “the good old days” when at least it seemed that life was simpler; when family and moral values seemed more prized; and when people seemed to find comfort in their faith in God.
People long for peace – not just worldly peace, but the kind of peace the Lord gives. One of the beautiful passages of the Heavenly Doctrine describes this: “… peace has in it confidence in the Lord”; we are told “that He directs all things, and provides all things, and that He leads to a good end. When a man is in this faith, he is in peace, for he then fears nothing, and no solicitude about things to come disquiets him. A man comes into this state in proportion as he comes into love to the Lord” (AC 8455).
The opposite state of mind, not peaceful but anxious, is described elsewhere in the doctrine as a state of “care for the morrow.” Such care or concern is with those “who are not content with their lot; who do not trust in the Divine but in themselves; and who have regard for only worldly and earthly things and not for heavenly things. With such there universally reigns solicitude about things to come, and a desire to possess all things and to dominate over all … and they have no consolation, because of the anger they feel against the Divine, which they reject together with everything of faith, and curse themselves” (AC 8478).
The key differences between these two opposite attitudes or states of mind are specified. The one state is built on confidence and trust in the Lord, and love to the Lord. The other rests on trust in self. It harbors an anger against the Divine instead of a faith in the Divine.
The underlying issue in finding true peace is obedience to the first commandment. The Lord said, “You shall have no other gods before My face. You shall not make for yourself any carved image; … you shall not bow down to them nor serve them” (Exodus 20:3,4). What this means to us today is explained in the Heavenly Doctrine. “Other gods” refer to truths from a source other than the Lord. Since all truth is from the Lord, revealed in His Word, truth from any other source ought to be suspect. It is merely a human understanding of truth; it can be perverted and falsified. Such are the “graven images’ which men make and set up.
Doctrine teaches that by “a graven image” is meant a humanly devised construction of truth. A “graven” image refers to a product of human intelligence as opposed to a product of Divine intelligence. A “molten” image refers to a product of the human will. “To have either the one or the other for a god, or to adore it,” we are taught, “is to love above all things all that which proceeds from self … ” (AC 8869). Here is a clue to the real issue in the first commandment. That which we love above all things may take many forms. It may be a love of power, possessions, or prestige. In every case, however, it has its roots in the love of self as opposed to the love of the Lord. The primary enemy of our love of the Lord is our inborn love of self.
Making graven or molten images is done by those who “entirely disbelieve that anything of intelligence and wisdom flows in from the Divine, for they attribute all things to themselves; everything else that happens to them they ascribe either to fortune or to chance” (AC 8869).
This same distinction between what is Divine and what is merely man-made is found in other contexts of Scripture. For example, it is signified in the command that the altars for worship were to be made of “unhewn,” or uncut, stones. “Hewn stones” signify such ideas as are conceived by what the doctrine calls “self-intelligence.” This self-intelligence is, as the name suggests, an intelligence that a person acquires for himself or herself apart from any reliance on learning it from the Lord. It is a reliance on human experience and intellectual conclusions drawn from such experience. It does not take into account any ideas of truth from Divine revelation. Such thought is described in the doctrine as follows: ” ‘stones’ denote truths” (n. 8940); “and to ‘hew,’ or fit, them denotes to hatch or devise truths, or such things as resemble truths from one’s own, or from self-intelligence. For things which are hatched or devised from one’s own, or from self-intelligence, have their life from man, which life is no life; whereas that which is not from man’s own but from the Divine has life in itself, because all life is from the Divine” (AC 8941).
Does this mean that the human mind is incapable of understanding truth, and that all human thoughts and reflections are worthless? Certainly not. We have a God-given capacity to see and understand truths. It is our responsibility to learn and reflect on the things of life and to apply our understanding to the proper application of principles in what we do. What this does mean is that we are foolish to believe that self-intelligence is superior to Divine intelligence. We should not exalt ourselves above our Creator. We have been given life by the Lord and the capacity to learn from Him what is the purpose of our life. True wisdom is to see this for ourselves and to choose to live in harmony with His Divine purpose. This is the essence of keeping the first commandment. To believe, to the contrary, that there is no God other than a force of nature, and that life’s purpose is to do what pleases us, is the essence of breaking the first commandment.
The Heavenly Doctrine shows the contrast here: “When truths are taken from one’s own, they regard and have as their end dignity and eminence over all in the world, and likewise earthly possessions and wealth above all men, and therefore they have in them the love of self and of the world,” we are told, “thus all evils in the complex” (n. 7488, 8318). By contrast …… truths which are from the Word regard and have as their end eternal life, and have in them love to the Lord and love toward the neighbor, thus all goods in the complex.” The passage continues: “When truths are hatched from one’s own, or from self-intelligence, they rule over the truths which are from the Divine, because these are applied to confirm them; when yet the contrary should be the case, namely, that truths from the Divine should rule, and those which are from self-intelligence should serve” AC 8941:2).
We have been created by the Lord in a most wonderful way. We are “vessels” of life. Our life is a Divine gift, flowing in continually. But the gift is real – that is, given without reservation or reserve. The life we receive from the Lord is given in such a way that it is ours to live. It is under our control. Only then can we fully enjoy and appreciate it. The nature of this gift is rudely pictured, perhaps, by a gift of cash from a parent to a child. The money is not a true gift if the parent places restrictions on it, saying it must be spent for this and not for that. Only when the child feels total discretion over the money does it in any way resemble the Lord’s gift of life to us. The parent, in his wisdom, however, would not give such a gift to a child without preparation. The money could become a curse rather than a blessing if irresponsibly used. So with us. Life does not come to us from the Lord without instructions. The Lord knows how it may best be lived to bring happiness and eternal blessing. Therefore, He has told us the secret of a happy life. This He has fully revealed in the Word of the Old and New Testaments and the Heavenly Doctrine of the New Church. Yet we may ignore everything the Lord has taught without forfeiting our gift of life. We may decide from self-intelligence how we will live. We are free to make this choice. However, since our self-intelligence is imperfect and self-centered, we will draw false conclusions about how to live. We will strain against the true order of life and bring sad consequences upon ourselves.
You might think the Lord would be angry with us for misusing this gift He has given. Far from anger, the Lord grieves for us, as a parent would for a wayward child. And time and again, the Lord tries to lead us back into a happier use of our life – gently, with compassion, with deep love.
Teachings from the Heavenly Doctrine confirm all of this: We are told, “It is in accordance with a law of the Divine Providence that man should think as of himself and should act prudently as of himself, but yet should acknowledge that he does so from the Lord” (DP 321, emphasis added).
“It is also clear that he who believes that everything he thinks and does is from himself is not unlike a beast, for he thinks only from the natural mind which man has in common with the beasts, and not from the spiritual rational mind which is the truly human mind; for this mind acknowledges that God alone thinks from Himself, and that man thinks from God” (DP 321:2).
“The Lord draws after Him the man who from freedom wills to follow, but He can draw no one who does not will to follow Him … For unless it appeared to man that he followed the Lord as if of himself, that is, acknowledged His Divine and did His commandments as if of himself, there would be no appropriation and conjunction, and thus no reformation and regeneration” (AE 864).
Elijah, the prophet of the Lord, came to Mt. Carmel to challenge the prophets of Baal, 400 in number. It was to be a contest by fire. Let fire come down from heaven to testify of the truth. It was a challenge to the people of Israel as well. For Elijah said to the people: “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him” (I Kings 18:21). But the people answered not a word. They awaited the proof.
Then the contest began. Through the long day, the prophets of Baal cried out in vain to bring fire down from heaven, but no fire fell. Then, at the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah gathered the people, rebuilt the altar of the Lord, soaked the sacrifice with water and prayed to the Lord God. Immediately, fire fell and consumed the sacrifice. Now when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and they said: “The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!”
May our hearts be moved also by the fire of Divine love to worship the Lord alone, acknowledging His Divine power and love. For the Lord Jesus Christ is the one God of heaven and earth, and you shall have no other gods before His face! Amen.
Lessons: Lev. 26:1-17; I Kings 18:21-26, 30-39; AC 6325
Arcana Coelestia 6325
It is an eternal truth that the Lord rules heaven and earth, and also that no one besides the Lord lives of himself, consequently that everything of life flows in – the good of life from the Lord, and the evil of life from hell. This is the faith of the heavens. When a man is in this faith (and he can be in it when he is in good), then evil cannot be fastened and appropriated to him, because he knows that it is not from himself but from hell. When a man is in this state, he can then be gifted with peace, for then he will trust solely in the Lord. Neither can peace be given to any others than those who are in this faith from charity; for others continually cast themselves into anxieties and cupidities, whence come disquietudes. Spirits who desire to direct themselves suppose that this would be to lose their own will, thus their freedom, consequently all delight, thus all life and its sweetness. This they say and suppose because they do not know how the case really is; for the man who is led by the Lord is in freedom itself, and thus in delight and bliss itself; goods and truths are appropriated to him; there is given him an affection and desire for doing what is good, and then nothing is more delightful to him than to perform uses. There is given him a perception of good, and also a sensation of it; and there is given him intelligence and wisdom, and all these as his own, for he is then a recipient of the Lord’s life.