Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
October 11, 2020
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt! The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Preacher and writer Fred Craddock once told a story about greyhound dogs, the kind that chase after mechanical rabbits at the races. Fred said that his niece buys some of those dogs after they are through racing. One day while visiting her he noticed one of the dogs lying in the den. A toddler was pulling on its tail. Another youngster was using the dog’s stomach for a pillow. Yet the dog just seemed so happy.
Craddock started talking to the dog. “Are you still racing?” he asked.
“No, no,” the dog replied. “I don’t race at all anymore.”
Fred then asked, “Do you miss the glitter and the excitement of the track?”
“No,” said the dog.
“Well what happened? Did you just get too old to race?”
The dog replied, “No, I still had some race left in me.”
“Well, then did you just not win anymore?”
“No, I won over a million dollars for my owner.”
“Did you get mistreated?”
“Oh, no,” the dog replied. “They treated us royally when we were racing.”
“Did you get crippled?”
“Then why, why did you stop racing?”
The dog said, “I just quit.”
“Yes, I quit.”
“Why did you quit?”
The dog hesitated for just a moment and responded, “I discovered that what I was chasing was not really a rabbit and so I quit. All of that running and running and running and what was I really chasing? It wasn’t even real.”
The story begs the question, are the things that we pursue in life real or just mechanical rabbits? Will the things we chase after endure or will they disappear long before our last breath? Are the things that we pursuing with our time, our energy, our priorities, and our ultimate allegiance golden calves of our own creation or something which is holy and eternal?
This morning’s scripture lesson is about our ancestors of faith who were still wandering in the wilderness following their exodus from slavery in Egypt. One commentator says that they were in the middle of a long trust walk, an extended pilgrimage of faith, witnessing a whole series of remarkable events and great wonders to sustain them. God had delivered them through the waters of the Red Sea. God had provided for them daily manna and water from a rock. They had just received the Ten Commandments instructing them how God wants them to live in relationship with God and with one another. The Israelites had a great leader in Moses, a leader who seemed to walk daily with God. They had a promise to motivate them, the promise of a new home, a land flowing with milk and honey.
And yet the people still didn’t seem to understand the meaning of their relationship with God. Following the receipt of the Ten Commandments, Moses had made a series of trip back up the sacred mountain to receive further instruction from God. His periods of absence were unsettling. With the commandments so new, with God so distant, and with their leader away, the people of Israel began to panic. Other priorities entered their minds. They longed for safety and security. They were ready to settle for easy answers and self-satisfying solutions. Rather than wait for Moses to return at some unknown future date, they decided to take matter into their own hands. They said to Aaron, Moses’ younger brother, “We do not know what has become of this Moses. Come make gods for us.” And in the wink of an eye Aaron gathered all of the gold that the people had brought with them, all of the rings and earrings and necklaces and bracelets and melted it into the form of a golden calf. All of the people of Israel danced before it as if they were in a drunken or drugged trance. In Moses’ absence, when God seemed absent, they people wanted reassurance and protection. They wanted a god who fit their image, some deity that would speak to their own needs and desires. And in doing so they quickly broke the first two commandments. “I am the Lord your God…you shall have no other gods before me.” “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…you shall not bow down to them or worship them.”
This morning we have to contemplate the sin of creating golden calves or false idols. Frederick Buechner once defined idolatry as “the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth.” It might be easy for us to see that the world has created idols of money, of fame, and of possession. It might be easy to point at the contemporary false gods of prestige, success, celebrity, and power. But it might be more difficult for us to understand the idols we have created from our own good intentions. When we seek comfort or reassurance or peace, we might bow to the empty promises of politicians or to the perceived hope of technology. When puzzled by the competing interests of a complex world we might worship state or nation. When charged with running things smoothly, we might put the perceived needs of institution above the greater good. We might bless our own thoughts and plans, beliefs, and assumptions as holy rather than challenge them with the truth of the gospel. Tim Kellar writes, “Sin isn’t only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building life and meaning on anything, even a very good things, more than on God.”
William Willimon tells the story of a visit to a church where he was shown the brand new organ that had just been installed. His guide said, “That organ cost the church nearly half a million dollars. It took the company three years to build it. It’s all handmade, the largest organ in the state, one of the biggest organs anywhere in this region.” Willimon was impressed. “What is the name of the organ?” he asked. “Well, technically it is named for the major donor. But I prefer to refer to it as ‘The Golden Calf.’”
In her book Mixed Blessings, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that “We have many idols in our lives. They don’t look like the golden calves of the Hebrew people in the desert. Our idols surprise us.” She points out that there is the idol of independence- that things will be fine as long as we can take care of ourselves; the idol of romance- that we can face anything in life if we just have someone love us the way we are; and the idol of religion- the belief that we if we simply attend worship and struggle to live a life of faith, then our souls will be secure. She writes, “The list can be long: the idols of health, friendship, patriotism… Now in each case mentioned, these are good and noble things! How else could they become idols? The first criterion of an idol is that it gladdens our hearts and nourishes our souls, because that is how we learn to believe in it and depend on it, and finally to cling to it as our only source of life.” The problem is that we fill ourselves so full of the sustainment that comes from our idols that we lose the ability to wait and to receive the unknown things that God has in store for us. Taylor writes, “We need to stop looking to all the idols in our lives to save us and start opening ourselves to God for our salvation.”
Our own Mike Sullivan has an expression he uses to challenge those with whom he is in conversation. He says, “Your God is too small.” J.B. Phillips wrote a book with that title arguing that too often we reduce God to an image that is too small and limited. We tend to think that we have to plan and manage and executive all things ourselves and we neglect to trust in the mystery and power of God. I think we also have a way of making God too small by making an idol of our beliefs about God, about thinking we already know everything there is to know about God, assuming that we ourselves possess the correct definition of God, and believing that we know what God really wants for others and for our world. Anne Lamont, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, says that we tend to create God in some image where God hates the same people that we do. Mathematician and Christian philosopher Blaine Pascal said, “God made man in his own image and now man repays the compliment.” By making God too small we create an idol that reduces the vastness of God reach in the universe and with humanity. We promote the dominant power structure. We keep ourselves from reaching out in understanding and in doing the work that Jesus calls us to do. We pin God down when we worship an image of God than conforms to our own preferences. St. Augustine defined idolatry as worshipping what should be used and using what should be worshipped.
Do not make for yourself idols that you worship. Do not limit the power of God to the limits of your own understanding and assumptions. Be aware of that which claims your life but which is not of your Creator. Be aware of how you limit the power of God to suit that which you already know and have, think and believe. Do not forsake the things that you believe, that you love, that you want in your lives. But hold them lightly and know when they are taking up too much room, when they have become the golden calf that limits the space for God to speak and act in your life.