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Rev Julian Mann: We must turn away from worshipping the false god of materialism


This is an edited version of a sermon preached today at the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge.

Preparing for this morning, another 1970s schoolboy memory of the Ten Commandments crept into my mind. I seem to remember that there was an 11th Commandment doing the rounds – ‘Thou shalt not get caught’.

This was the early days of the permissive society and in a way this add-on 11th respected the fact of the Ten Commandments – they were there; they were a given. Unlike the unabashed postmoderns of today, we didn’t feel free to rewrite them but adding one on – Thou shalt not get caught – was surely indicative of a sense that if you could get away with breaking them, why not? God’s commandments were losing their grip on our culture as it was shifting rapidly away from its biblical foundations.

We saw last week that the Ten Commandments, when seen through the prism of the gospel, give vitally important spiritual and moral shape to our Christian lives. These commandments wonderfully reflect the character of the God who has saved us in and through his one and only Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We focused on the First Commandment – ‘you shall have no gods before me’ – and we saw that this commandment to the people he has saved reflects the fact that the God of the Bible is the only true creator and ruler of the universe. That is his character, he is the only Lord and so his saved people need to reflect his character by having no other gods beside him.

This morning we are focusing on the Second and Third Commandments – ‘you shall not make for yourself an idol’ and ‘you shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God’.

Look around Oughtibridge or Worrall or Wharncliffe Side and we don’t see any idols, do we? – any metal or stone representations of gods. You do in some parts of the world. In India you will see shrines to the various gods of Hinduism and statues of those gods and you will find people worshipping those gods and sacrificing to them. Not in Oughtibridge, surely? Somebody might be doing that in their front room but surely not in Coronation Park.

An accurate observation on one level but we know that an idol, a false god, can be mental as well as metal and we know that the false god that is worshipped by most people in this community is materialism. People are putting their ultimate trust and confidence, their ultimate hope for meaning and purpose and significance in their lives, in their material progress – bettering themselves materially, getting a bigger house, a better car, more expensive holidays.

That’s what people round here generally are putting their hearts and souls into. We need to understand and be clear in our minds that our non-Christian friends and family members and neighbours who don’t come to church are not spiritually neutral. They are not spiritual ‘don’t knows’ even if they aren’t convinced atheists. They have made a choice to invest their souls into something else other than the one true God, who is to be worshipped as Trinity – Father. Son and Holy Spirit. They are worshipping an idol, the false god of material progress. It is a false god because it cannot deliver salvation from sin and judgement.

You remember from the reading from Deuteronomy that Ray brought to us the warning attached to this Second Commandment – ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments’ (Deuteronomy 5v8-10 – NIV).

The human race has made a fundamental decision to rebel against the good, true and perfect God who made us and to whom we are accountable. Because of that fundamental decision, God in his justice hands us over to a plethora of evils and this is true of every society in every generation. We take our children with us – yes, like us they choose to rebel against God but we certainly influence them with our own patterns of sinfulness. I grew up in a rampantly materialistic society in south London – I was a little materialist myself.

What breaks the cycle of rebellion followed by divine judgement is when individuals turn from idolatry, from false worship and put their trust in the living God. That happened in the Old Testament – Rahab the Canaanite prostitute became a believer in the true God, Ruth the Moabitess became a believer n the true God, the pagan Ninevites turned to the living God through the preaching of the prophet Jonah. People got saved from the cycle of sin and judgement then by becoming believers in the God of Israel  – now people get saved through our Lord Jesus Christ, the true God’s final and definitive self-revelation. The cycle gets broken when individuals stop worshipping false gods and put their trust in the only God who can save them from that deathly cycle of sin and judgement.

So, we need to be clear in our minds about the true spiritual state of the non-Christians around us – they are ensnared by idolatry. And we need to be clear that the only way out of the cycle of destruction is saving faith in the Lord Jesus and we need to make sure that we ourselves are not ensnared by idolatry. The God who has saved us in the Lord Jesus is to be our only Lord, the only God we worship and adore. The Second Commandment – you shall not make for youself any idol.

And now the Third – you shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.

Yes, this does forbid using the name of God or of his Son, the Lord Jesus, as a swear word. We should never profane God’s name in that way. But this commandment goes even deeper than that.

When we became Christians, we take Christ’s name – we become a Christian man or woman. And so as those who bear Christ’s name in the world we can damage the reputation, the name of the Lord Jesus – not his nature, that is unaffected by us, but we can affect his reputation in the world.

Let me give you an example and this is a composite picture based on real experience. A new person joins the firm – to be friendly one of his new colleagues asks him what he did over the weekend. ‘Oh, I went to a brilliant Christian conference – the praise was amazing, the talks were inspirational and I am really spiritually uplifted.’

And his colleagues notice that he has a Christian fish sticker on his car, prominently displayed. He’s an open Christian – there’s no denying that. But as the weeks progress, it becomes clear that he’s a little bit work shy and frankly, as he gets his feet under the table and sort of gets away with it, he gets worse until one day the boss walks in and finds him absorbed in a computer game – peering into a screen on which a Palm Cross is prominently displayed.

What do you think that does to the reputation of the Lord Jesus?  For a professing Christian to behave like that in the workplace – effectively stealing from his colleagues – is to misuse the name of the great God whose Christian name we bear and, as the Second Commandment makes clear, God will not hold us guiltless if we behave like that.

If we persist unrepentantly and unremorsefully in non-Christian behaviour, we show that we are not real Christians at all and so we will be judged along with the non-Christian world.

We can damage the reputation of the Lord Jesus by how we behave. So let’s make sure we encourage one another as a church family to live Christainly across the whole of our lives and under God to foster a church culture where we can be honest with one another about our struggles with sin and graciously and lovingly encourage one another to live Christ-like lives in the workplace, at home, at school, in our private moments, amongst our friends.

Let’s be encouraging one another to walk in the way of God’s good commandments as the people God has saved in our Lord Jesus Christ and who bear his glorious name.

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Julian Mann
Julian Mann
Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Heysham, Lancashire.

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