Icons and the second commandment
A Sermon on Exodus 20 prepared by Nathan Nettleton, 3 October 1999
Icons, as representations of the incarnation rather than images of God, can serve to open us to God rather than becoming alternatives to God.
We heard the ten commandments read for us earlier in the reading from Exodus. The second of the ten commandments would be quoted by many many Christians to condemn the presence of icons here in our worship space and out in our prayer chapel. The second commandment says quite clearly, Do not make for yourselves any images of anything in heaven or on earth or in the water under the earth. Do not bow down to any idol or worship it, because I am the Lord your God and I tolerate no rivals.
Now there can be no doubt that these icons are in some way an attempt to represent things in heaven or on earth, and there is also no doubt that many of us bow down before them or in other ways show great honour to them for what they reveal of Gods presence in heaven and on earth. So is their presence here a violation of the second commandment? Is the use of icons an offence to God? Well as you no doubt expect, I dont think so, but I do think its a pretty fair question, and since the use of icons is relatively new here and since some of you may still be uneasy about their presence, I dont think we can just read out the commandments and just skip on past them without at least acknowledging the question and making some attempt to engage with it.
The use of icons has raised bitter controversy a number of times in the history of the church, and some related controversies seem to have arisen among Jews before the time of Christ too. By the time of Christ many Jews took the second commandment to mean that you could not make any artistic representation of human or animal figures in any medium for any purpose whatsoever, but it is clear from other parts of the Bible that Jews had not always seen the commandment that way. For centuries after the time of Moses there were images in use in Israel, both for religious purposes and for general artistic purposes. There are a number of references to the Teraphim and the Ephod, both religious sculptures, one even describing King Davids use of them and there is no condemnation made. The prophet Hosea even threatens to remove them if the people dont repent as though their removal would be a religious disaster. Moses himself was ordered by God to make an image of a serpent on a pole to which the people could bow down and be healed of the consequences of snake bite. The serpent on the pole continues to be used as a logo by the medical profession to this day. So unless we want to say that Moses, David and Hosea all broke the second commandment without consequence, then we must at least conclude that there were some ways in which images could be used that were considered acceptable and not seen as violations of the commandment.
More importantly though, the situation has changed with the coming of Jesus. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul describes Jesus as the image of the invisible God. God has sent us an image of God. It no longer makes sense, if it ever did, to say that the things of earth cannot represent the things of heaven, because in Jesus Christ the things of earth and the things of heaven have been reconciled. They being made one. In Jesus Christ we have seen that our God is a God who becomes flesh. The technical term is incarnation. Our God constantly moves to become incarnate among us, to us, within us. In Jesus Christ, the invisible God becomes visible, touchable, even tasteable. And that move of incarnation goes on continually, in the bread and wine, in the lived faith community, in the reading of scripture, in the faces of the poor, in the awesome beauty of trees and rocks and sunrises, and in song and dance and poetry and art. God is constantly beckoning to us, calling us to perceive the presence of Holy Spirit in all things - the divine presence taking on flesh in all the things of earth. The image of God has been given to us by God and all things are being reclaimed, redeemed if you like, as Gods image bearers.
Icons then, are representations of the incarnation. They continue a move that God has already commenced - the use of the things of earth to bring to light the realities of spirit. The are not so much attempts to provide an image of the invisible God as they are representations of Gods constant reemergence among us in the things of flesh, of matter. The icons represent Gods presence becoming visible among us, and as such they become a kind of window that enables us to see deeper into the realities of Gods presence in all the things of earth. They are painted in a style, based on centuries of prayer filled tradition, that encourages silence, meditation, contemplation. They invite us to contemplate the spiritual realities into which the icon seeks to be a window.
Im not going to presume to try to explain the careful and prayerful disciplines involved in the painting of an icon. Theres a good icon painter living in our local area and maybe well get her to come and tell us about it over supper one Sunday evening. All I want to say is that both the unusual style of the painting and the prayer soaked discipline of its production are intended to give the finished icon a spiritual transparency that allows those who spend time prayerfully contemplating it to be drawn further into the spiritual realities it represents, the life of the God who is constantly becoming incarnate among us.
I must acknowledge though that for most of us the style of icons and the practice of their contemplation are quite foreign, so dont expect them to do anything much for you in a hurry. It is as you live with them for long enough that they become familiar and then move beyond familiarity that they are likely to begin to catch you unawares and surprise you with their truths.
But for now, if they serve to remind us that this is a sacred space when we walk in here, that is enough to warrant their presence. They serve to define the space as a place of prayer and worship, a place where we gather to encounter God and offer ourselves to God. They may help provide a focus for your prayer in much the same way as placing a persons photo on the table in front of you can do when you are writing them a letter. You never make the mistake of thinking you are writing to the photo, but it helps concentrate your thoughts as you seek to express yourself to the person who is revealed to you through the photo. In the same way I dont think any of you are likely to make the mistake of thinking that you are praying to the icon itself. The icon can, like the photo, help concentrate our attention on the God whose incarnating presence is represented by it.
It is of course possible to use icons in ways that slide towards idolatry. The person who thinks that the presence of an icon in their home is like a lucky charm that will, all by itself, protect them from harm or bring blessing upon them, regardless of their lack of any other effort to know God or follow in the ways of Christ - such a person is treating the icon as an idol.
But real idolatry, the idolatry that most of us are easily lured into at times, is when we start treating things as though they have ultimate meaning and value in and of themselves, and not as though they draw their value from their proper relationship with God and Gods creation. It can be anything - a house, a car, a job, a person, a social rank - whenever something starts becoming the thing around which my life revolves, the thing I make all may major decisions in reference to, the thing that I think will bring ultimate meaning and fulfilment to my life if only I can attain it and perfect it, then I have erected an idol. I have made an image and bowed down to it. I have fallen short of the second commandment. And I dont know about you, but I would have hardly a day when I dont find myself drawn towards such idolatry in some way or another.
Thats why each week as we approach God we confess that we have been seduced by fashionable dreams and pursued our desires at the expense of others. Dreams and desires that may in and of themselves be perfectly OK can nevertheless become idols that cause us to turn our backs on Christ and disregard the needs of others. We have failed to integrate spirit and flesh and forfeited our wholeness and dignity. Whenever spirit and flesh are divorced and we fail to recognize that God is in all things and all things are in God, and we grasp at things as though our consumption of things had no relationship to the health of our spirits, then we fracture our wholeness, our integrity, and we reduce ourselves from God-bearers to mere consumers. We stand in need of the mercy of God to restore us. We stand in need of the mercy of the God who meets us in Christ, leads us to his table, offers us bread and wine, simple fleshly things, and enables us to see that they are indeed the bread of life and the wine of promise, bearers of the Holy Spirit who nourishes us and all creation, body and spirit, for new life.
And it is as we are so forgiven and nourished and healed and made whole again that we become icons of grace. We ourselves become living icons to one another and to the world - visible representations of God becoming incarnate in us and through us for the life of the world. To this end we live, and to this end we pray, through Jesus Christ. Amen.