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TEN FOR OUR TIME: When Tolerance Creates Trouble

Acts 4:5-12

Did you hear about the army chaplain who was vigorously preaching a sermon on the subject of the Ten Commandments at the base chapel? He worked his way down the list of the laws one by one. There was a crusty old master sergeant sitting on the front pew, and as the chaplain counted off the commandments, the old soldier flinched at the mention of each one and shook his head in despair as the memory of all his violations of the commandments struck him like repeated blows. When the sermon was over, the sergeant was pretty well devastated by the assault. However as he walked out of the chapel, he was heard muttering to himself, “Well, at least I haven’t made any graven images!”

He is not alone. Most people would be quick to argue that since we do not go about carving idols and images, this second commandment is not particularly germane to our times and our lives. And yet when you look at the Ten Commandments this commandment takes second place in priority following the first and most crucial commandment of all. The first commandment says that we are to have no other gods than the one true God. We are to put God first. We are to let God be God. That is the most important thing of all. But the next most important thing to do is to understand God aright. We are not to have any wrong ideas about Him. We are not to portray Him in ways that are in error. We are to approach Him in the right way. We are to see Him not as we wish to see Him, but as He really is. Therefore this second commandment speaks quite clearly to our lives and to the times in which we are living.

Now I want to suggest that there are two dimensions of truth contained in this second commandment. Actually it is a one-point truth, but like a coin, it has two sides. One side says, “Don’t make God too small.” The other side says, “Don’t make humankind too big.” Now let’s take a look at how those twin truths arrive out of this commandment from God to us, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.”

First don’t make God too small.

In Old Testament times there was clearly a temptation to whittle God down to size. People tried to limit God, to hold Him to one geographical location even. They said, “God is in our land—Palestine; in our city—Jerusalem; in our suburb—Mount Zion; in our Temple—the holy of holies.” In fact you may remember that early in Israel’s history, they tried to cram God’s presence into what we would call a cedar chest—a trunk. It was the Ark of the Covenant. But it amounted to trying to put God in a box. This commandment says that we cannot put God in a box. We cannot get Him into one place. We cannot limit or localize Him. We cannot make Him less than He is. Now let’s be honest enough to admit that sometimes we do try to limit God to manageable proportions. We try to shape God to suit our own tastes, our own thoughts, our own desires. We take a notion from here, an idea from there, a word from a favorite Sunday School teacher, a thought from a sermon—we take these things and weave them together and we say, “This is what God is like.” Little wonder then that the God we create for ourselves looks very much like us. Yes, we like to make God into what we want Him to be. But this second commandment in essence says, “Thou shalt not reduce the Lord your God to your own terms.” The Bible tells us that God created us in His own image. However, the Bible strictly forbids us from trying to create God in our own image.

We are living in an age of tolerance. And I suppose that’s not all bad. It is far better to be tolerant than it is to be cruel. However, tolerance has become so fashionable in our time that it actually can turn out to be a serious sin. For example, we say that every person has a right to his or her own religious views, that no one should intrude into the religious understandings of another person. We describe ourselves as being very tolerant in this regard. But I am suggesting to you that too often we are too easy in our tolerance. Too often we allow distinctions to become blurred. We are sometimes so indifferent with regard to the beliefs of others that we tolerate from them things which run directly contrary to the word, the way, and the will of Almighty God. We accept from them ideas and actions which run against the truth about the God Who is God. The problem is that, once these limited, inadequate or inaccurate ideas of God become tolerated and accepted, they are very difficult to change. I read about a Protestant church in Denmark where every time the congregation would leave the place of worship, they would each in turn bow before a certain spot on the wall. Now the wall at that point was completely plain. There was nothing there. Still all would bow before that spot. When asked why no one seemed to know. It was just something that had been done there for generations. Then the church had a major renovation. In the process, there was discovered under three layers of paint and two layers of plaster at that very spot a picture of the Roman Catholic Madonna. Now that sanctuary had been used years before by a Roman Catholic congregation and evidently the congregation at that time fell into the pattern of bowing before the Madonna as they left the sanctuary. Here now was a congregation of Protestants to whom such an act would be completely uncommon yet they were doing the same thing nearly 100 years later even though the Madonna had long since been covered up. You see it’s so easy for us to tolerate other people’s ideas about God that once those ideas are accepted we become comfortable with them even if they reduce God to something He is not.

That is a great danger in the times in which we are living. Let me be quite specific here. Both as an American and as a Christian, I am led to be tolerant of those who practice the faith of Islam. I want to take any opportunity possible to speak to them of Jesus Christ, but I must not use force or coercion or manipulation to try to win them to the Christian faith. I will share with them the glories of the Christ I love, but they have the right to reject that testimony. However, I dare not let that tolerant spirit keep me from denouncing those practitioners of Islam who follow the directives of the fatwas of Muslim clerics and carry those directives to the point of beheading defenseless civilians and slaughtering innocent school children. To allow my spirit of tolerance to lead to silence or acceptance of things which are an affront to the God Who is God would be to violate the second commandment.

Dear friends, this second commandment tells us that God will not let us limit Him in any way. He will not let us take Him for granted. He is continually challenging us to climb higher and higher in our understanding of Him. He is a God Who commands us to grow up in Him and to let the knowledge of Him grow up in us. I would suggest to you that that happens only when we confront Jesus Christ. Peter said in Acts—plainly simply, clearly he said, “There is salvation in no one else.” Therefore, we must never become so tolerant or so casual in our beliefs about God that we forget the One Who is the center of our faith. You see, when we want to know what God is like, when we want to know just how big our God is, when we want to know whether our beliefs about God are true or not, the one to whom we look is Jesus Christ. We see God in Jesus Christ, and we encounter Jesus Christ on the pages of the Bible. That means we must put aside everything else but Jesus—only Jesus.

Now let’s flip the coin. Don’t make humankind too big.

The second commandment reminds us that if God is so big and absolute and universal then anything we, as humans, do is not absolute and universal. The commandment is a call to modesty on our part. It declares that no human being is larger than life. There is not enough grandeur, not enough talent, not enough goodness to put a halo around any human being’s head. We are all human, and that is all we are. We are not God. No human being is to be worshiped and adored—admired, yes, respected, yes, loved, yes, but never worshiped.

Yet that is precisely what we do, isn’t it? We make idols or images out of other human beings. Consider for a moment what we do with our athletes and our entertainers. We surround them with an artificial media-sustained imagery. They are larger than life and there is almost a sense in which we worship them. There are certain singing stars, for example, who stand up to sing and a whole generation of admirers bow down before them. We do the same for our political leaders. We turn the Presidency into a kind of imperial office holding the person who occupies that office in a sense of awe. We even do that for our religious leaders. We afford them often times a kind of kingly status and that is wrong. Throughout the years of my life, I have spent a lot of time in Montreat, the Presbyterian community in North Carolina, and through my years in Montreat, I have come to know, love, and admire Billy Graham. You see Billy Graham lives in Montreat. I have often wondered why this great evangelist of such international renown would choose to live in such a place. But I think I have figured it out. It is because there in Montreat he is treated just like everybody else. He has to walk the gravel paths through those beautiful hills just like everybody else. He has to stand in line at the deli in the only grocery store in town just like everybody else. He attends church at the Montreat Presbyterian Church and gets there early to find a pew just like everybody else. He sits on the curb wearing a baseball cap to watch the Fourth of July parade just like everybody else. His grandchildren play and have fun in the day camp program just like everybody else’s children and grandchildren. You see, I think he has chosen to live in Montreat because there, at least, he will be treated just like everybody else, and frankly, I think that is why he is so able to point others to the only One Who is worthy of worship and adoration, Jesus Christ. Yes, I believe that Billy Graham’s greatness as a disciple of our Lord flows directly out of his modesty as a human being.

So today I offer to you a God Who is bigger than the universe but nearer than the person sitting next to you. A God Who is completely beyond our understanding but Who comes to us in Jesus Christ saying, “I want you for My own.” If you offer yourself to this God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, then your life will never be the same. You will become more than you ever dreamed you could be.

Which brings me to the last thing I wish to say…

It’s about Johan Heinrich Daniker, the great sculptor. He carved many famous statues particularly of the Greek deities. But when he reached the latter stages of middle age, he decided he wanted to do his masterpiece. Because he was a Christian, he chose to sculpt the form of Jesus, the Son of God. Daniker understood that Jesus is God with skin on His face. Jesus is God as He really and truly is. If you want to see God, look at Jesus. So Johan Daniker set out to sculpt Jesus. The statue became world famous. It vaulted Daniker to a place of great prominence among the world’s sculptors. A few years later Napoleon, who was on the throne of France, saw this particular statue. He then wrote to Johan Daniker and said, “Come to Paris and carve for us a statue of Venus to stand in the Louvre.” Daniker wrote back this magnificent line, “Sire, the hands that are offered to God in Jesus Christ can never again fashion any lesser deity.”

That is the call of the second commandment—to know God, not our image of God but God as He really is. He means for us to know Him truly, and if you want to know God truly then look to Jesus. For Jesus is what God is. And, dear friends, I must say it plainly, simply, clearly, there is salvation in no One else…

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