Idol to Icon

A sermon for 7th Sunday of Easter

Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:7-18, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21,

Exodus 20:2 reads:

2  I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;
3  you shall have no other gods before me.
4  You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
5  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, …

and Exodus 34:14 reads:

14  for you shall worship no other god, because the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. … 

and Deuteronomy 4:15-18 reads:

15  Since you saw no form when the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, take care and watch yourselves closely, 16  so that you do not act corruptly by making an idol for yourselves, in the form of any figure—the likeness of male or female, 17  the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the air, 18  the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth.

For reasons I’m hazy on, images of Christ and the Virgin Mary became popular and by the 5th century were plentiful, especially in the Eastern Church. In the latter half 7th and early 8th century the iconoclast controversy broken out; those who minimized the incarnation, or  believed all matter was evil,  and the probable influence of Islam raged against the veneration of icons. Pope Leo III believed such veneration had gotten excessive, and was an obstacle to converting Jews and Moslems, declared all images idols and ordered them destroyed. Persecutions and revolts broke out. Brother against brother, sister against sister, church against church; intrigue, depositions, and assassination eventually greatly contributed to the split of the church into east and west Constantinople and Rome  in the mid-9th century. [i]

So; what do you do, when your wife does business as Angels Icons and Art, producing all sorts of art work, predominately images of angels, written to lead one deeper into God’s presence? Here, today, it’s not much of a concern, but if it were, I think I’d go back to Athens and revisit Paul’s visit to the Areopagus,



Paul is there waiting for Silas and Timothy; they rushed him on ahead, because of the violent crowds in Thessalonica. Paul notices the phenomenal number of idols, that seem to be on every street corner. Paul’s arguing in the synagogue spills  into the streets, where he confronts Epicureans who believe human life exists by natural chance  and Stoics who are hard rationalists. [ii] He is seen as a preacher of foreign divinities, and is considered a ‘babbler’ [iii] Whether it’s an arrest or an invitation you don’t refuse is unclear; no matter  Paul ends up at the Areopagus, to face the intellectual elite of Athens, who will pass judgment on his argument. It is what the elite in Athens do.

Paul demonstrates his intellectual prowess by carefully noting their religious proficiency, revealed in all the objects they worship. He carefully notes the altar to “an unknown god.” Paul uses it to proclaim the creator God who does not need anything human made; who is not, cannot be served by human hands; who gives life to all living things. Borrowing from a Greek poet Paul declares: In him we live and move and have our being. [iv] Paul is insisting that religious practices must reflect humanity’s kinship with God.  The substitution of inanimate materials for a God who is transcendent and animate makes no sense. [v]

Paul then moves to bring his audience into God’s circle noting:  the time of ignorance is over he commands all people to repent … besides its confrontation, it’s a remarkable declaration of the universality of God’s salvation. [vi] If Paul had stopped here, he likely would have been wildly accepted. However, he knows his calling; he knows the audience must go beyond observation to truth that’s known only in revelation, specifically the revelation of Christ’s resurrection, the source of all our assurance. [vii] Some scoff and leave, some want to hear more, and a few come to believe.  Robert Wall explores how Acts might offer contemporary readers a model for engaging the secular intellectuals of our day. [viii]  

I don’t think there is any question. While perhaps there’s a bit more sophistication, Paul’s speech in the Areopagus is what my colleague and others who are a part of Acts8 call an “Elevator Pitch” a memorized speech-let so you will [a]lways be ready to give an accounting of the hope that is within you. [ix] Steve also picks up on Peter’s guidance to do it with gentleness and reverence. He goes on to write: 

… over time, as relationships develop, the Christian hope for the restoration of all things in the Kingdom of God should, ideally, shine through everything you do, especially showing forth in how you handle the difficult moments in life.  And when, eventually, someone notices, and when, eventually, they get up the gumption to ask, then all you have to do is share your story. [x]

I am not biased but I believe Angie’s icons are powerfully written in persuasive, inviting images. At times they are the bright shining that evokes the question.  At times they are her imaged elevator speech.

Like Athens we live in a culture full of idols:

highbrow education,
retirement accounts,
hedge funds,
and off shore accounts;

some are ideologies

profit driven capitalism
conservative individualism
liberal collectivism,
theocracies of all sorts;

anything that promises to give life and breath, promises ultimate life offends God, at least that’s what we read in Exodus and Deuteronomy. We also hear lots of legalistic, exclusive impending judgmental doom; lots of fear provoking proclamations about spiritual warfare with Satan and legions of demons. We live in a culture that needs the revelatory truth of our living incarnate God who transforms all humanity, all creation. Our family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and strangers on the street need to see and/or hear of salvation that’s not out there somewhere, off in the future, but that God’s kingdom has come to earth as it is in heaven; right here, right now! It doesn’t matter if you share your story: in icons, music, poetry, at the food pantry, or clinic, in charitable fund raising, with an isolated neighbor, or chance elevator pitch the world needs to hear your story, as much as you need to know it well enough to share it.

It is true Exodus, Deuteronomy and other Old Testament writings reveal that God demands all our all, and promises sever consequences if we veer off course. I happen to think the consequences are the results of our actions, not wrath, but I wander.

All these writings also reveal a gracious loving God who keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation, [xi] they reveal the creator God from whom we live and move and have our being; [xii] the incarnate God from whom salvation flows to all the risen Christ in whose resurrection we have hope the eternal Spirit who journeys with us for all eternity.



[i] E. L. Cross & E. A. Livingston, Iconoclastic Controversy, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 1974
[iii] William H. Willimon, Interpretation, ACTS A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING, James Luther Mays, Editor,  Patrick D. Miller, Jr., Old Testament Editor,  Paul J. Achtemeier, New Testament Editor
[iv] Wall, ibid
[v] ibid
[vi] ibid
[vii] Interpretation, ibid
[viii] Wall, ibid
[ix] Steve Pankey, Always be Ready, Draughting Theology,
[x] ibid
[xi] Exodus 34:7
[xii] Wall, ibid