A sermon on Exodus 32:1-14, preached for Preston High Street UCA on 7/8/20
Moses had been gone, somewhere up on the mountain, for a long time. Too long. What had happened to him? Had he died up there? There were always wild animal sounds out in the darkness. Could a jackal or a lion have eaten him?
And, in the meantime, God had been very quiet. The one who had been devouring fire on the mountain and spoken in terrifying thunder seemed to have vanished along with this Moses, who claimed he spoke for him.
Who was he anyway, this Moses character? He came out of the desert with some hard to verify story about real parents and royal adoption and all the rest, but none of us really know who he is. All we know is that we are out here in the desert all by ourselves, and it is, frankly, time to take matters into our own hands.
It might be a story from the depths of history – we’re talking thousands of years ago, but we too long to hear from God, and, in God’s silence, we too get busy and create gods for ourselves – gods of wealth and power, gods of sex and shopping, gods of politics and ideology, even gods of religion and Bible.
Thousands of years later, we too are sitting at the bottom of the mountain, getting fed up with waiting on God.
It’s a bit of a mysterious story, when you break it down. For a start, it isn’t obvious precisely what has happened here. The word Elohim in Hebrew can mean either God-with-a-capital-G or gods, plural. So, when the people say to Aaron “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us” it might actually be a reference to the God. Or it could be to another god, like the neighbouring people had. So when Aaron draws the fresh cast golden calf out of the fire, and then declares a festival of the Lord, we aren’t entirely clear what he’s doing.
Neither, I suspect, is he.
Is casting an image of an entirely new god worse than attempting to make an image of the living God?
Whichever it was, God was absolutely livid.
For those of us who were brought up with a picture of God as perfect and changeless, the idea of God and Moses yelling at each other on a hillside is bizarre. What’s the point of arguing with God? God is, by definition, always right, so arguing is pointless, and perhaps blasphemous.
But Scripture can be a bit impatient of my assumptions, and argue is what they did. Moses pointed out how it would look to other people if God destroyed the people he had led into the wilderness, and reminded God of the covenant he had sworn with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
And God, it says, changed his mind.
God, it turns out, is not the same as my ideas about God. So, in the end, it doesn’t matter all that much whether Aaron was making an entirely new god, or trying to give the Israelites an image of the living God which they could see and touch. In fact, if anything, if Aaron was trying to give them an image of the living God, that would actually be worse.
The thing about idols is that we control them. We can dress them up in nice clothes, carry them around with us, maybe even punish them if they don’t live up to our expectations. We sort of worship the idols, but really we own them. The relationship is entirely on our terms. We have the last word. We know what they mean and what they want.
They are, after all, only idols. A domesticated cat rather than a living lion.
How different that is to the living, demanding, life-giving God arguing with Moses on the mountain! Out of love, God gives way to Moses and keeps his covenant with the people. It is a living thing, a relationship. We worship God herself, rather than a set of words and ideas which, in the final analysis, are things we can control.
There is a big question underlying this which I haven’t addressed yet: why is God so angry? If he doesn’t want us cowering in fear – and his lively engagement with Moses suggests that he doesn’t – then what’s the big deal?
It’s because idolatry – putting something else in God’s place – is the key to missing the whole point of our lives. If life has a meaning, some underlying harmony, if there is a point to it all, then that point is God. Everything we put in the way of that truth stops us from fulfilling our true destiny.
And the more like God it is, the worse. No-one is going to make an idol out of, say, playing marbles. They might, however, out of football. The money involved, the godlike beauty of the players, the gathered congregation breathing together, cheering and screaming together, the huge temples we erect… as shiny a golden calf as the heart could desire. It’s easy to see how you could be tempted to build a whole life around it. A life, in the final analysis, wasted. One which mistook an image for the reality.
Likewise with politics. Ideologies which promise a full explanation of the world, leaving nothing out, so that we build heaven on earth, are like God in their promise. But, like the calf, they are fixed in metal and stone. Life is far, far too complex for any ideology to describe adequately. The twentieth century was a golden age for ideology, and the mountains of corpses which resulted vividly illustrates why God is so furious.
Finally, religion itself can be an ideology. When we are so completely sure that we know exactly what God wants: Who are the innies, who are the outies. When the living God is reduced to a tight formulation which demonstrates that – hurrah! – God likes me best, then we have taken the best thing, and made it into the worst.
And, of course, these come in both conservative and liberal variants. A gospel which reduces everything to social justice is every bit as inadequate, every bit as idolatrous, as a theology which reduces everything to the marriage equality debate or an overly simplistic formula.
There is no comparison between, on the one hand, ideologies and theological formulas, set in stone and cast in gold, and on the other the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No golden calf, no matter how hallowed by tradition or excitingly new is the God who goes head to head with Moses on the mountain, who is passionate in love and anger, and who is ultimately trustworthy.
To make an idol is to presume to own God, to think that we have the final word. Which is, ultimately, to be caught up in ourselves and the whole tragic story of humanity’s desire to become like gods ourselves.
God loves us. God loves you. Specifically, by name. And that means that God wants all of us. Not a little bit of our time, not a little bit of our money. But everything. All of us. Everyone serves something: we just get to choose who, or what. We can serve the golden calves of doctrinal purity or football or income redistribution – and still miss the fundamental purpose of our lives. Which can’t be adequately pictured or defined, because it is God himself, who cannot be captured and tamed for our convenience.
We need God because there is, in the final analysis, nothing else. And, as we live into that truth, we discover the paradoxical result that whoever gives themselves to God – whoever loses their lives for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel – gains their souls, gains their true selves.
Which is a promise no golden calf, no matter how shiny, can possibly keep.