Exodus 32: 1-14
Click here to view the full sermon for October 11, 2020, entitled "Golden."
The people are growing impatient. They don’t know what’s going on, and it’s starting to get to them. They had escaped the bonds of their slavery in Egypt, miraculously passed through the waters of the sea to freedom. They had survived the existential threats of dehydration and starvation in the wilderness when water was brought forth from the rock and manna rained down to feed them from heaven. They’d even survived a hostile attack from Amelek. And now they find themselves stuck in the middle of nowhere at the foot of a mountain that is covered in smoke with their leader, Moses, nowhere to be found. He said he was going up the mountain to talk with God, but quite honestly it is just taking too long. They’re getting restless and feeling abandoned. They need to know that this whole thing is going somewhere, that there is some kind of plan. They’re looking for a way to direct their energies toward something; something familiar, something comforting, something that they can see and touch and know.
It all feels very familiar at the moment. Seven months ago, everything shut down in response to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. At first the church decided to forgo three weeks of Sunday worship in the hope that the lock down would flatten the rate of infection and we’d be able to resume normal activities after that. But that didn’t happen. It took longer for things to reopen, and it was clear when they did that this pandemic wasn’t nearly done with us, not by a long shot. The longer the delayed return to what we’re used to drags on, the more restless we become. Things are still uncertain. We have no idea where they’re are heading, if infections will spike as they’re expected to in the next couple of months, if a working vaccine will emerge that people trust enough to take at levels that will create an effective herd immunity. We too are not yet out of the wilderness created by this virus and we miss the familiar rhythm of weekly Sunday worship together. We miss seeing our church friends. We miss singing together. We miss being enveloped by the sound of the organ and listening to the choir. We miss passing the peace and coming to the table and dwelling within the sacredness of our familiar space. And we are growing impatient to get back.
That is as understandable as the Israelites’ impulse when they approached Aaron because they too wanted to worship. They wanted something certain in a situation that was so very uncertain. Aaron was only too happy to oblige. After all, he didn’t want a riot on his hands. Aaron goes along to get along. He didn’t want the people to rise up against him, so he gives the people what they want. He takes something valuable, something precious to them- all of their golden jewelry- melts it down and re-fashions it into something they’ll recognize, a calf, a symbol of fertility and life. More than that, it’s something that they can get their hands on. It has definable proportions. You can see where it begins and where it ends. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that it is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. All that gold. Everyone knows that gold is the best. So shiny. At the sight of it they name their newly fashioned god as the one who brought them up out of the land of Egypt. That’s the thing. We tend to think that idolatry is so obvious; that its people worshipping totems out in the woods, or paying almost cult-like deference to celebrity, or wealth, or perceived power. But here at the base of Mt. Sinai, the people aren’t creating some new religion, or even breaking that noticeably from their own. The words, the altar, the offering of sacrifices all has the feel of something that they’ve done before, what they’ve always done, really. Perhaps the most dangerous forms of idolatry aren’t the ones that substitute our devotion to God with devotion to success, or reputation, or some other worldly value. No, the most dangerous idolatries come from dressing up those worldly values, the ones we craft from the things that are precious and shiny, in religious garb and trying to passing them off as God. The most dangerous idolatries are the ones that leave us unable to distinguish between what looks good to us and what looks good to God.
As breathtaking and inspiring as the cathedrals of Europe are, John Calvin and other reformers were sharply critical of them. They saw the way the church used the divine promises of God to finance the construction of these elaborate edifices. Like the Israelites handing over their gold jewelry, the people payed to have sins forgiven that they might find their way to heaven when they died. Luther and others insisted that whatever salvation is, it comes by the freely given grace of God that we receive in faith and not because of what we’ve done, or how much we’ve contributed to the building fund. Calvin, who famously observed that the human heart is a factory for idols, in particular advocated for worship space that was less ornate, so as to minimize any distraction from the Word of God. He thought it had become unclear whether the people were in church to worship God, or the work of their own hands. In the centuries that followed, Reformed churches have been characterized by their simple beauty, eschewing ornamental flourishes. That is because worship is powerful thing. It orients our lives according to what it is that we worship, what we place at the center of our lives. We belong to what we worship, it claims us. Likewise, it disorients us in the sense that it calls into questions any competing loyalties that might interfere with or disrupt our relationship with God. Plenty of people fall victim to the sin of idolatry because they have no faith or put their faith in the wrong things. That’s easy to see. But just as many people of faith are prone to idolatry because they too put their faith in the wrong things. We grow impatient waiting for a God we can’t always see. We want something to feel good about in the meantime, so we take matters into our own hands. We worship the promises of prosperity or nationalism. We give our devotion to the things that are meant to direct our attention to God, good things like music, and sacred space, even the bible itself- instead of giving that devotion to God. We mistake the means of worship with their end, which is God alone as the center of our lives to whom we belong body and soul, in life and in death.
Which brings us back to where we find ourselves on this second Sunday of October in the year 2020. Of course, we miss all the familiar things that we have come to love about church and the spiritual practice of Sunday worship. But none of those things are the actual focus of our worship. None of those things are the reason why we come to church in the first place, even if it might feel like they are. We come to church because we are the church. And we are the church because God has made it so in Jesus Christ. We aren’t the church because the building makes it so, as beautiful and beloved as it may be. We aren’t the church because the organ, or the choir, or the pastors, or the pulpit make it so- even though those are all good things. They just aren’t God. They aren’t what is ultimately at stake here. I think we need to really step back and examine what is behind the insistence of so many people to return to a form of worship that is an identified public health risk during a pandemic that has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Because its unclear if it is to worship the one who commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves. How can it be? It starts to feel like taking matters into our own hands because we cannot see where things are going, and we’ve grown impatient waiting for God to show us the way forward. It starts to feel like what we want to worship is ourselves, and what we need to stave off the restlessness that comes from an obedience to one of the two great commandments. The first, of course, is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. And we can’t do that either if what we’re really worshipping is a poor substitute for the God who is so much bigger, so much more than anything that can be melted down and made by our own hands.
We belong to what we worship. When the people lift up the golden calf as their god who brought them out of the land of Egypt, when we lift up our own efforts as that which will save us, we forsake the one to whom we are called to belong and allow something less to claim our lives. But the good news is that as angry as that seems to make God, in the end God relents and repents of that anger for the sake of the promises God has made to us. For the sake of our own promises, may we too relent and repent as we wait to see the new thing that God is no doubt doing even now.