Posted: October 11, 2011 by Todd in Sermons
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Exodus 32:1-14

Preaced at Grace UMC on October 9th, 2011.

You may have noticed that Pastor Bryan isn’t here today.  I think he said something about going up to Camp Sumatanga to spend some time with God.  It seems like he ought to be here, with us, his people.  It’s his job to lead us in worship.  How are we supposed to worship God?  Really, it’s hard to say what has even become of him.   We’ve got to do something!   Pause   There was an idea in this morning’s Scripture reading.  Let’s see – some of you have gold rings on – earrings, necklaces. Let’s pass all those things forward and I’ll do like Aaron did and melt them down and form something here we can worship.  It’s okay, you can trust me…. [more…]

Imagine the Ridiculous Situation

Yes, of course, I’m only kidding – you can stop passing your jewelry forward now.  Can you imagine the situation with Aaron collecting the gold from all the Israelites?  It really seems monumentally stupid to our ears to give up your jewelry and cast it into an image to worship.  And I didn’t see a single one of you actually take any jewelry off.  And so, you’re to be congratulated for passing this little test.  I can imagine Aaron as an ancient version of one of these gold buyers that seem to have cropped up everywhere.[1]  Their loud, bold, bombastic signs are only rivaled by new home signs and payday loan stores.  Virtually no one would take this idea seriously now – literally melting gold down to form a new god – a golden calf may not appeal to us, but we do have our  sacred cows that function as idols.  We certainly are vulnerable to being seduced by some human plans and ignore a bigger vision that God has for us for the sake of comfort, for the sake of preserving the status quo, for the sake of protecting our sacred cows.

Action Bias

The Israelites were so desperate to do something – any action would be better than continuing without being led by Moses, God’s representative.  Like most humans, when confronted with despair, fear, and uncertainty, they had an action bias.  Let’s just try something, whether it’s a good idea or not – even without thinking it through – the most important thing is to  get moving.  And so came to be this ridiculous idea of forming a golden calf.  And as if that weren’t dumb enough, they did it by destroying their most valuable possessions. Moreover, they declared that this calf had brought them out of the land of Egypt, even though it didn’t yet exist.

Despair in the Culture

I was being playful before about how Pastor Bryan is like Moses – gone off to meet God at Mt. Sinai – I mean Camp Sumatanga – but I do see some real parallels between this text and the current anxiety in our culture about the economy, unemployment, government debt and so on.  When facing these times of despair, we may not worship golden calves any more – although perhaps we still do some of that too – if you noticed the cover of your bulletin, it is from a 2008 prayer for the economy at the foot of the bull statue on Wall Street.  Yet, like this Israelites, we do often find ourselves with the action bias impulse compelling us to “Do Something” and in our haste to do something, we settle for false gods – often something very definite – a program, a physical thing, but not something invisible, mysterious, even indefinable like God.  Anxiety and fear are abated, not by turning it over to God, continuing to be a faithful disciple of Jesus – even during difficult times, but in finding ways we can get some control over the situation – even if that control is illusory.

Still Putting Our Faith in Gold

As a political matter, I’m not attempting to knock any one of these things, but it seems that many different solutions are being bandied about as the “golden” one to our current economic crisis – let’s put our faith in government bailouts or massive loans or adjusting macroeconomic fiscal policy or tax cuts or tax increases or cutting government programs or adding new ones.  Let’s do something – anything.  In fact, it seems like we’re doing a little bit of all of these.  Indeed, all of these things may have merit as political solutions, but we must not make idols out of them and still choose to lean into our relationship with God during these times.  It’s interesting to me that even as we read this ancient story with modern ears that in the midst of widespread despair we still seem to put our trust in gold.  On August 22nd of this year, gold reached an all-time high price of $1,908 an ounce.[2]  It seems that talk show hosts who spend much energy talking about our state of despair are also featured on commercials hawking gold as the place to put your faith during these tumultuous times.  Indeed, the history of the price of gold seems to show that during times of despair and uncertainty, people tend to shift their assets to gold – it’s something very physical with a long historical track record.  It’s value echoes through the ages – medieval alchemists tried in vain to create it.  New World explorers wandered far and wide to discover it.  Yet, this rush to put faith in gold isn’t really about the gold.  It’s about creating a god.  And somehow in both the ancient mind and in the modern mind, gold seems a suitable substitute for God.  And though I think there’s something unique about gold here, let’s not get too caught up in it – other things can function in exactly the same way.  No modern discussion about idolatry this week could be complete without mentioning the new iPhone 4S.  If you’re like me, a golden calf doesn’t seem like much of a temptation, but a new iPhone – eh – these things are pretty impressive.  A golden calf couldn’t legitimately lead the people anywhere.  But a new iPhone 4S – that’s a different story entirely.  This newest iPhone can interpret our voice commands and when I want to eat, drink, and rise up to play, it can tell me exactly where to do so, for how much, offer reviews of my available options, and give me a map to get there.  Talk about being led in the wilderness.  It’s the closest thing to omniscience we have all in the palm of our hand.  It may not be gold, but, like the golden calf, it is new and shiny.  New and shiny can often be relied upon for temporary excitement and happiness.  If it’s new, it’s true.  We no longer need to wait for Moses to come down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets from God.  We’ve got a shiny new tablet to lead us.

Conceptual Idolatry

The problem of idolatry goes far beyond gold, the iPhone and even physical things altogether.  Theologian Peter Rollins speaks of conceptual idolatry and suggests that ideology about God is actually a form of idolatry of God.  Both words, ideology and idolatry derive from the same Greek word, meaning essence.  We come to God with our pre-conceived notions about God, we read them into the Bible, rather than let our reading of the Bible and our experience in relationship with God inform us about who God is.  When we blindly take our theological assumptions into our relationship with God – God becomes something less, something other, an idol.  “Idolatry does not rest in the idea of the object itself,”[3] Rollins says, but rather in the way we engage the object or idea as something, however lofty it may see, that ultimately confines God to that which we can use, understand, or agree with.  We try to iron out perceived inconsistencies of God in Scripture rather than letting God be God.  Even in this very passage we see a God willing to destroy God’s people and a God with steadfast love.  Rollins says, “None of us can ultimately understand God as God really is.”  But we can be in relationship with this dynamic God, rather than seeking merely to define God.  Rollins goes on to say “Just as a painting we love will speak to us in different ways at different times so too the revelation of God will speak in multiple ways depending upon the context within which we read it and into which it speaks.”  Many commentators suggest that what the Israelites actually did may not have been as egregious as it sounds to us upon a first reading.  The golden calf wasn’t meant as a replacement for God, but rather a visual manifestation of God – a particular way of experiencing God.  Aaron proclaims in the Scripture, tomorrow shall be a festival to Yahweh.  The people conceived of this enterprise as a faithful one.  Idolatry is not only found in replacing God, but also in reducing God.  That’s how subtle idolatry can be.  The difference between idols and God is that idols enable us to do what we want and the God of Moses makes claims on the people.  Idols promise everything now, God promises delayed gratification.

Revelation of Despair

Times of despair reveal what we actually believe in.  It seems that the Israelites had expressed, at some level, belief in Yahweh, by following Moses into the wilderness and out of Egypt. But now that Moses had been gone for a long time and they experienced hunger in the rough terrain of the desert, we see what initially looked like faith was actually self-interested back-scratching with God (if you get us out of Egypt, we’ll trust you).  Despair reveals the truth about your faith.   When you look at the kind of God they created – it wasn’t one who made demands of them or formed their character, but rather it was the kind of god who  enabled them to party.  They ate, drank, and rose up to play.  The language “rise up to play” may seem innocuous, but it seemed that what was going on here was similar to the debauchery that accompanied the worship of ancient fertility gods – perhaps something like you’d expect to see at 2:00 am during Mardi Gras in the heart of the French Quarter or the infield of the Kentucky Derby.  It wasn’t a God who formed them, but rather they formed the god they wanted.  It was like theologian Richard Rohr observers, “God formed us after God’s own image  and we have returned the favor.”  In times of despair – do we find ourselves leaning on God even more or are we tempted to seek out something we can control – something defined, something physical, something that meets our immediate needs without attention to the Promised Land.  Do we find ourselves with the impulse to shout as loud as we can, “We Buy Gold!” or do we live through the despair, trusting that we are still on a journey with God to a land flowing with milk and honey.  In a very real way, faith doesn’t even begin until we come face to face with despair – we have to make the decision to fall off the cliff before we can start to fly.

Idolatry Shortchanges Us

We all go through many seasons and stages in our lives and we may find at times that God doesn’t feel present with us.  We may feel uncertainty, despair, depression and more.  It seems as though God is far away – those connected to God are far away.  Yet, in our Scripture, God and Moses were atop Sinai about the business of creating some rules that were to guide Israel towards an abundant life – the tablets of the 10 Commandments.  God’s very absence was because God was at work making provision for the people.  When we’re faithful to God – even though we may not have the entirety of God’s plan in our purview, we’re helping to bring about the kingdom of God.  When we construct for ourselves our own “promised lands” and live our lives based on our own vision, we are functionally worshipping an idol.  And we’re getting in the way of what God is trying to do in the world and we’re settling for something much smaller in the meantime.  Our human temptation is to eliminate suffering or even discomfort quickly.  Nothing else matters during times of despair other than stopping the pain.  Yet, God wants more for us than merely the absence of pain.  God wants to lead us to the Promised Land, to an abundant life, to resurrect us in the very kingdom of God.  God’s map is bigger than ours and God’s destination is bigger and farther away than ours.  And when the “idolatries of despair” tempt us, we’ve got to refuse to settle for less than God intends for us.  Idolatries of despair cause us to lose our focus on God and we retreat to simply protect “me and mine.”  You see, the irony is that the Israelites who God had liberated from physical slavery in Egypt had now enslaved themselves to their fears.  We’re often like the people who trade their gold to these fast talking gold dealers with their bold, bombastic “We Buy Gold” signs for quick cash, way below $1,908 an ounce.  Our faith in God needs to be bigger than our feelings about God, which can be so fleeting, momentary and short-sighted.  We need rootedness in God to continue in the way of discipleship, even when God seems far from us.  Jesus experienced this powerfully as he died on the cross saying the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  Jesus’ faith lived through and beyond his feelings about the Father in that painful moment.  As we see with God atop Mt. Sinai giving the commandments to Moses and as we see with Jesus Christ in the resurrection, at the very moment we feel God’s distance, in reality, it is those times when God is most present.  Don’t settle for the Golden Calf.  God is leading you to the Promised Land.

Moses’ Faith Through Despair

The Israelites weren’t the only ones facing a situation of despair – Moses was confronted with both the disobedience of his people and the threat of their annihilation.  Would Moses find himself alone in the midst of the wilderness – without his people – if God followed through with the threat to consume the people?  But unlike the Israelites, Moses chose a different path in the face of despair – he leaned further into his relationship with God at the very point of despair.  Do we have the kind of faith that can lean even harder on God in times of despair and uncertainty – even when God’s response may be part of the source of that despair and uncertainty?  Is our faith a veneer covering our self-interest revealing its superficiality at the first signs of despair?

The Difficulty of Faith in Despair

Leaning into our relationship with God is hard work.  Moses found himself at odds with God.  On the cross, Jesus found himself at odds with God.  In these times of despair, though, actively wrestling with God, is surely preferable to seeking alternatives to God.  God and Moses’ discussion here is fascinating.  It reminds me of two parents discussing their teenager’s bad behavior.  The mother says to the dad, YOUR child crashed the car while text messaging without a seatbelt on.  Dad replies, no, it’s YOUR child who did this incredibly dumb thing.  Both Moses and God distanced themselves from Israel and what they were doing, by emphasizing the other person’s ownership of the people.  It was the ritual letting-off-of-steam common in marital arguments.  After they got past the blaming and name calling, God confessed God’s emotions – I’m so mad at this child, I think I’m going to wring his neck off!  God too, seemed to have an action bias, telling Moses, “Holy Cow, Moses!  Do you realize what YOUR people have done?  Go down at once!”  And Moses leans in to his faith, into his relationship with God.  God, what about all this time and energy you’ve invested raising this child, educating him, teaching him, nurturing him?  And what are the neighbors going to think when they witness you strangling him?[4]   And didn’t we take vows at his Baptism to love him and teach him in the ways of the Lord?  Didn’t we say we’d to lead him to the Promised Land?  God seemed to want to be left alone, the way humans like to practice their shortcomings in private.  Wrongdoing doesn’t like witnesses.  But Moses really lays it on thick here praising God, saying you “brought them out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand.”  Moses, it seems, had just read How to Win Friends and Influence People and was showing God how it was in God’s best interest not to destroy the people.  We often think of God’s all-loving nature as some sort of academic theological truth about God, yet here, it seems that God ensures God’s own loving nature by being in relationship to human beings – Moses in particular.  This sort of conversation with God is really heart wrenching work.  It isn’t a romanticized Precious Moments like faith – but it’s a Biblical faith.  Time and time again in Scripture, the saints of God wrestle with God in their darkest hours.  And it’s that very wrestling that gives rise to their sainthood.  It can seem strange to our ears to hear in verse 14 that God “changed his mind” because of the theological assumptions we bring to the text.  But isn’t God’s freedom to change God’s mind at the very heart of intercessory prayer?  If God cannot change, why petition God in prayer?  On the one hand, wrestling with God is always hard, heart wrenching work, but on the other hand, it can be truly freeing.  Speak your mind to God.  Talk to God unfiltered.  God can handle it.  The key is to stay engaged in your relationship with God.  That’s why God can’t be reduced to some physical thing – or even a conceptual framework – God is dynamic – a relational being.  In the midst of the wandering wilderness of your life – don’t settle for something less than this dynamic, relational God.  It may not come quickly or without struggle, but if you lean into that relationship with God, on the other side of the struggle, you’ll discover that you’re on a journey with this living God to the Promised Land.

This is all true of our own individual lives – but it is also true about our relationship to God as a church.  We’ve taken great leaps of faith in our history as a congregation, deciding to close down University UMC and move to the warehouse, making a leap of faith to build two buildings for the purpose of inviting others into this dynamic relationship with God.  And we’re still a moving people – in the first months of a new pastorate, just last week, we said goodbye to Nylea as our choir director and we’re excited to be led by a Gianna as we continue to move as the people of God.  The 2012 budget process is underway.  We’re at a point, where as a church, we’ve got to, like Moses, lean into our relationship with God.  Listen carefully to where God may be leading us, but also speak passionately to God and with each other about our next steps as a church.  And the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel will hear us, will interact with us, and will continue to lead us to become the unique kind of church that God wants us to be.

Let us pray.

“God of the wilderness, like Moses, at times we want to ask, ‘why does your wrath burn hot against your people?’  We confess that at times it’s easy to abandon our relationship with you and to settle for something static, predictable, controllable.  Give us the courage to be in authentic relationship with you.  Make us realize that we don’t need to make sacrifices to create you, but help us to remember that the sacrifice acceptable to you is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, this you will not despise (Ps 51:17).  Amen.”

[1] Show gold dealer picture.

[2] http:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price_of_gold

[3] Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God, Chapter 1.

[4] Interpretation source of “what are the neighbors going to think” idea.


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