An Idol Tale
This sermon was preached for morning worship on September 12, 2010 at the Presbyterian Church of Laurelhurst. The readings for the day were Exodus 32: 1-14 (The Golden Calf) and Luke 15: 1-7.
Our reading today from the book of Exodus is a famous one. It takes place just a few months after the people of Israel have made their great escape from the land of Egypt, as they wander in the wilderness en route to the Promised Land. They are still learning, sometimes the hard way, what it means to be God’s Chosen People—and how to live and work and worship in an authentic way as the people of God.
It’s hard to be God’s people in the wilderness. The newly freed people of Israel are struggling with what it means to be free—they are hungry, and thirsty, and afraid—they press their leader Moses to the limits of his patience and complain about their plight even when God ‘s grace is tangible all around them in the incredible gift of manna falling from heaven.
It’s hard to be God’s people in the wilderness. The newly freed people of Israel are impatient and distrustful, and when Moses is called by God up to Mount Sinai to receive God’s continuing revelation to them—including the Ten Commandments, laws of conduct and order, instructions for the construction of a tabernacle and the Ark of the covenant—the people start to get uncomfortable. By the time Moses has been holed up with God on Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights –they’re more than uncomfortable. They’re restless, they feel abandoned, they don’t know who’s in charge, they’re maybe a little—or a lot—afraid. Needing reassurance, they tell Moses’ brother Aaron, “Make a god for us.”
And so Aaron does the only thing he can think of to calm the people down—he oversees the creation of a golden calf—and this golden calf isn’t just any old idol to be worshipped. This golden calf, Aaron tells the Israelites, is an image of “Your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” And no doubt relieved and reassured by having a familiar god right there that they can see and touch and understand, the people begin to worship and celebrate.
They’ve made a terrible mistake.
When God sees his chosen people dancing and drinking and making sacrifices in his name to the golden calf, he is furious at their lack of patience, their lack of loyalty, their lack of understanding, and he’s almost ready to bring an end to this whole experiment with the Israelites and destroy them altogether. Despite all that they’ve been through and experienced, despite coming to know God as the one who led them out of slavery in Egypt, despite the guidance of the Ten Commandments (as in “you shall have no other gods before me. . . you shall not make for yourself an idol. . .”), the people still don’t get that God is not a golden calf who can be seen or touched or made into an image or an object.
The golden calf called for by the people and created by Aaron is an offense against God because no finite image can ever fully capture the infinite God. God is indescribable and elemental. God calls himself “I am who I am”—which is on the one hand completely obvious but on the other hand completely mysterious. God can be known, or experienced, or revealed but can never, ever be domesticated, described, or completely understood.
I wish I could tell you that this episode of the golden calf was the last time any of God’s people got it wrong and started worshipping a false image of God instead of God himself. But I’m afraid that worshipping false images and idols is a pretty common preoccupation of all times including ours. Certainly theologians and preachers have railed against this kind of thing for centuries—one might even say millennia.
I know that you’ve all heard this before in one sermon or other—that we all worship something, even those of us who don’t acknowledge the presence of God. We worship, as one commentator puts it, things like “money, power, fame, career, self, or the Minnesota Vikings.” We worship the ideal of the perfect body, or a political perspective we know is right, or a movie star, or a particular brand of craft-brewed beer.
As churchgoing Christians, we’ve pretty much internalized the idea that we shouldn’t be worshipping these things instead of God; that instead of putting our faith, and our hope, and our trust in these kind of things, that we need to put our faith in God as revealed through Jesus Christ.
But just like Aaron, who was doing the best he could with his limited understanding, and set up the golden calf not as a new god but as an image of the One True God, the God who had brought the Israelites out of Egypt—just like Aaron, we can still sometimes set up idols for ourselves that are false images of the true God.
Rolf Jacobsen, an Old Testament scholar at Luther Seminary, puts it this way:
“. . .Idols can also be our false images of the true God. Things that we associate so much with God, that we worship them instead of God—the church building, the old liturgy, the retired pastor, the painting above the altar, a doctrine to which we cling too tightly. . . This form of idol can actually be even more dangerous to faith than outright idols.”
Furthermore, Professor Jacobsen tells us that the story of the golden calf, “. . . exposes what happens when God's people fall prey to the temptation of confusing the human "image of God" that is a spiritual leader (a pastor, parent, bishop, teacher, mentor) with God. When that leader disappears, humans can lose sight of God and lose faith in their direction.”
Just like Aaron, we can be going along our own spiritual path, confident of our direction, our traditions, our doctrines, even our leadership—and we can still get ourselves in trouble because no finite image—even if that image is a principle, a doctrine, a building, or a person--can ever fully capture the infinite God.
God is who God is. God can be known, or experienced, or revealed but can never, ever be domesticated, described, or completely understood.
But where does that leave us? If every tradition, doctrine, building, and person is a potential false image of God, how in the world are we supposed to figure out the difference? How are we supposed to worship in spirit and in truth? And there is a larger question, too. How in the world are we supposed to live as God’s people in the world if God himself can’t be described, or imagined, or understood?
Of course I’m not advocating that we all run screaming from the sanctuary at the impossibility of these questions. Instead, I do have a few ideas about how to tackle these questions, ideas drawn from the scriptures we read today. No doubt many of you will have more, drawn from other sources, and I hope you will share them with me. For now here’s some ideas to start with.
The first thing is humility.
I believe that the episode of the golden calf calls all of us to humility. Just like Aaron and the Israelite people here in our passage from Exodus, we all have ideas, and images, and experiences that have shaped our understanding of who God is and how God would have us worship and live. But unlike Aaron and the Israelite people, we need to have the humility to acknowledge that our understanding is imperfect and our ideas are just too small and incomplete to adequately or completely describe the God Who Is.
And here’s a quote to chew on, something that was on my mind a lot this week as I considered both this passage about the golden calf and the various controversies about Muslims and mosques and Koran-burnings that were spinning out of control in the media. It’s a quote from spiritual writer and fellow Presbyterian Ann Lamott. She says: “You can tell you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
We may not be able to avoid setting up idols for ourselves as we struggle to understand and describe God; but we have to have the humility, as God’s people, to acknowledge and to discard those idols and images when we catch a better glimpse—or a different glimpse—of who God is and how God is working in the world.
The second thing I think we can glean from this passage is about trust—trusting in God’s leadership, God’s revelation, and God’s provision. Scripture tells us that the people of Israel in the Sinai wilderness are impatient, restless, and afraid because Moses “delayed to come down from the mountain” and they “did not know what had become of him.” They’ve lost sight of the fact that it wasn’t Moses, but God who delivered them from slavery and brought them up out of Egypt.
The Israelites have also lost sight of the fact that the God who delivered them from slavery hasn’t really gone anywhere--he is still there with them. God has provided manna from heaven to assuage their hunger, and even as the Israelites pout and agitate for their golden calf God is working, just a ways up the mountain with Moses, providing guidance, and comfort, and principles for living their common life together as God’s people.
Even as his people betray him, God is working to lead them, to reveal himself to them, and to provide for them. God loves us, is faithful to us, and is reaching out to us even when we turn our backs on him. That’s something we can trust.
So, humility. And trust. Those are two things we can hold on to as we try to know God authentically, to worship God truthfully, and to live as God’s people in the world.
There’s something else, too, that I think we can glean from today’s scripture readings—and I’m not really sure how to say it best, so I’ll just try and you can tell me if I’ve succeeded and it makes sense to you.
It seems to me that we—in our post 9/11 world—with all the best intentions in the world—have participated in setting up an idol—an image that we worship, that keeps us from living as God’s people in the world-- fully free, fully redeemed, fully infused with God’s grace. And that idol is—the notion of safety.
We seem to have this idea these days that safety is a right; that we all should be safe, from everything, all the time. We should be safe from terrorists. From bombs. From oil spills. From disease. From injury. From abuse. From emotional distress. From death even.
This belief in the ideal of safety—or maybe I should say the idol of safety—is an undercurrent that seems to run beneath everything we say and everything we do, as individuals and as a society—whether it’s making foreign policy, adjudicating legal cases, considering what medicines and treatments we want to pursue, deciding where we live, or who our friends should be.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not wishing bombs, oil spills, disease, injury, abuse, emotional distress, or death on anyone—ever, any time. And I certainly do believe in the ideal of safety.
But here’s how safety becomes an idol for us: when safety becomes the value that determines our every action and reaction and emotion and commitment; when our desire for safety trumps love, or trust, or respect, or hope; when our desire for safety keeps us from talking to people, reaching out to others, working to ease another’s pain; when our need for safety prompts us to hate, to scorn, to betray, to vandalize or to burn; when being safe means more to us than being authentic people of God.
In today’s passage from Exodus, the Israelites set up their golden calf precisely because they want to feel safe. It’s risky business being out there in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land; it’s risky business being a free people; it’s risky business following a God you can’t see or touch. But that place of risk is exactly where they’re supposed to be. That place of risk is exactly where God has led them to--where they encounter God--and where God reveals himself to them.
If we had time to look at our gospel passage for today, I might point out that the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness to go after one that is lost isn’t pursuing a strategy that any of us would consider safe. Wouldn’t it be safer to just cut your losses and focus on keeping the 99 together and out of danger? One out of 99—isn’t that an acceptable loss? Pursuing the one at the expense of the safety of the 99, or at the expense of yourself is a strategy of risk.
There’s nothing safe about seeking and searching—about reaching out, extending oneself, exploring the different or the unknown. There’s nothing safe about loving God or loving our neighbor as ourselves.
And looking at the bigger picture of the Gospels, there was nothing safe about Jesus’ life in the midst of humanity, his association with sinners and prostitutes and tax collectors, his defiance of religious and political authority figures, and his criminal’s death on the cross. And there was nothing safe about the lives of the saints and sinners who followed him and endured prison, torture, and martyrdom for the sake of faith in Christ—except, of course, for the ultimate safety offered to them, and to us, in Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and in his redeeming promise of eternal life in the presence of God.
Today’s scriptures remind us how easy it is to let impatience, or fear, or any of a number of golden calves, distract us from knowing and experiencing, and following, the God Who Is.
Today’s scriptures remind us that being God’s people involves humility—and trust—and the willingness to take the risk of loving, of reaching out, of following God into the wilderness and into freedom.
Today’s scriptures remind us that not even our own safety can trump our walk as God’s people and our work as Christians in the world--and that our only true safety is to be found in God’s presence, whether it is God’s presence here in this life, or God’s nearer presence in the eternal life to come.