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No Golden Calf

October 11, 2020

Once again, I think it is important to bring up our reading from Philippians before we hear God’s word from Exodus today.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things… and the God of peace will be with you. Last week I couldn’t help but rail against the chaos that is swirling all around us… engulfing us… overwhelming us… knocking vision askew… taking away hope… causing anger and bitterness and tribalism and distrust and fear of neighbor. Chaos where we can’t seem to find a foothold… or a handhold against the whirlwinds of the chaos that has not somehow been compromised by that very chaos.

Last Sunday we heard the words of the Ten Commandments spoken into that chaos… and these ideas that too often in the recent past have been relegated into good lessons meant for children to hear… or utilized as a weapon in an ongoing, purposeless, culture war that has become a vehicle for the chaos… we heard in these Ten commandments what is true and honorable and just and pure. If there is a good to be found in the increasing chaos it is that we are being reminded… reminded of the rightness of faith… of the peace that can come through grace… of the value of creating community that understands the importance of seeing the common good through the eyes of Christ… of throwing off the rubbish that has accumulated and hidden the light of our souls… and returning again to the meaning that comes from serving the world and the neighbor around us as revealed in Christ’s cross… sacrificial… life-giving. To be reminded that there is something to those Ten Commandments… a wisdom that transcends time and context.

When times are good… when we are prosperous… when life has that level of expected predictability… how easy it is for us to take for granted our relationship with God. How easy it is for us to go from a relationship of seeking out God to a relationship of assuming God.

We shared communion last Sunday for the first time in a long time. Did you experience something different? Did that simple symbolic act strike a deeper chord within… or was it just for you that thing that we do with the bread and the juice? Did you taste the God of peace? Have an experience of the Holy Spirit intruding into the chaos? Did you find yourself hungering for more?

In today’s Old Testament Reading, the people of Israel leave Egypt and slavery behind by the mighty hand of God. They gather at the foot of God’s holy mountain where Moses brings down to them those Ten Commandments. And then Moses returns to the mountain to receive more of God’s Word to bring to the people. But Moses has been gone for a long time… and the people quickly forget God’s wisdom that has been delivered to them in favor of the rubbish that they know and assume. So I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today from Exodus 32 starting with verse 1.

READ Exodus 32:1-14

I read this passage and I see the question of identity. Who am I? Who are you? Who are we together? And the question is not just directed at those things that we think are vital and without question… but the passage has the same question asked of God.

The story of Exodus is the story of transition of identity for the Israelites. Who were they? Who are they? Who is God shaping them to become? Yes, the Israelites have been freed from slavery, but freed to be what? They’ve stepped into an unknown wilderness with nothing more than a promise before them. They are following a God who has been silent for hundreds of years while they were in Egypt. Now this God leads them with pillars of smoke and fire. This God fights for them, sending plagues upon the Egyptians to secure their release… parting the Red Sea so that they may safely cross and then bringing the waters crashing back down upon Pharaoh’s chariots… bringing to a close their former life in Egypt… bringing to an end that identity. Somewhat… because we see from our reading today how much of that identity they carry with them whether there are Egyptians around or not. When the Israelites become thirsty in the wilderness… they are quick to complain that there was water enough for them in Egypt. They look to the days back when. Still… God provides water for them where they are now. When the Israelites become hungry… they complained that there was food enough for them in Egypt. They look to the days back when. Still… God provides food for them where they are now.

Now their journey has brought them to God’s holy mountain where Moses has gone up to receive the divine blueprints for what this people will become… the law that will shape and mold this people into this God’s people. Not the letter of the law… but the Spirit that is in the law.

But as I said… Moses is delayed. And in that delay the people turn to his brother Aaron with the demand that he makes an idol for this God they still don’t know. Make an idol like they would do while back in Egypt and those days back when. They are a people who were forged in Egypt. This is how it is done. Images are created for that which is beyond our comprehension. An idol gives us focus… gives us something on which we can project our faith, or our dreams and desires. An idol is something through which we can see ourselves reflected back at us. Maybe the demand for an idol to be forged comes because despite all that has happened… despite all that God has done and provided for this people… this is still a group of Egyptian slaves gathered here at the base of a mountain of an unknown God. Perhaps when it comes down to it… this is still all that they are.

The question is… can you see yourself in these people? Can you identify with them? Perhaps feel a bit of empathy as they command Aaron to do the real work of a priest? Tell us only about the gods we already know so well and with which we are comfortable. Look at us Christians… at us in the sense of the larger church. Look at all that God has provided and done for us as we have been freed from the slavery of sin. Look at us… maybe not so much as we camp at the bottom of God’s holy mountain… but hopefully as we stand at the foot of the cross. Who are we? What are truly our identifying marks as a people? What forges our identity today? What are the essentials and what is the rubbish? The idols of Aaron’s making that we have put forward… in all of our different theological tribal configurations… what have they proven to be as the years have passed by? What has happened to us as a larger body of Christians every time we have declared a new circumcision and sought its enforcement over the powers of grace? What has happened each time we’ve put forward a shiny calf saying this is our god? The same answer has come back to us… the same answer that the Spirit spoke through Paul in his day. Circumcise your hearts and not your flesh. Your tiny tin gods have no power. The gospel is still waiting for you to go and faithfully proclaim it to the world. There is good enough in the gospel alone that it doesn’t need to be linked to politics or nationalism or white supremacy or capitalism or whatever else we consider to be of real and true value like the gold gathered together to make the idol of our choosing. The truth of God’s good news is able to stand alone. God’s kingdom of grace is enough.

So maybe it is because the people brought out of slavery in Egypt just don’t know any better. Or maybe there is another way of looking at this. Maybe we make idols because… as the passage says… we are a stiff-necked people. A stiff-necked people who will not follow after God… no matter what is provided for us. Maybe the calf reveals… instead of an ignorance… a rebellious and sin creating heart. We do not need to be a people who reflect the God on high, we need a god who will reflect the people. We are not a people who will follow. We are a people who lead and who create our own path. We are a people who are not forged, but a people who forge our own destiny. What is the saying? Nature abhors a vacuum. Moses is delayed. With the calf before them, the people will leave this mountain behind and they will forge their own path into the Promised Land. Having the knowledge of good and evil, they will create the righteousness and justice that gives them favor and positions them for the top of the pyramid. The calf… growing into a bull… strengthens the strong and weeds out the weak. Useless are the poor in spirit, for they scavenge after and weaken the strong. Useless are those who mourn, for they need to get over it and move on. Useless are the meek, for they will be trampled upon and forgotten. Useless are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they only distract us with their complaining about things that do not need to change. Useless are the merciful, for they only give hope to the hopeless. Useless are the pure in heart, for they only delude themselves. Useless are the peacemakers, because they will always fail in the face of true evil. We are conquerors. What could Moses possibly bring down from that mountain that will be better than the calf our gold has created?

I think we are wrestling with that question more than we would like to admit.

In the story, God makes an offer to Moses… to get rid of these troublesome ignorant stiff-necked people and start all over with Moses and his descendants. Moses is wise enough to turn this offer aside. Yet… both the ignorant heart and the rebellious and sin creating heart will readily take God up on the offer. Even standing at the foot of the cross, the ignorant heart and the rebellious sinful heart will not see the unmerited and unearned love, grace and mercy in the cross… but see in the cross the wrath and the destruction of others. How many churches do you know that implore God to bring down destruction on all others while through them… and them alone… a new people of God will be forged. Only we… only we are God’s true people. Only we will escape the wrath that all others deserve as God starts again with us… or saves only us and destroys the rest. We don’t make the rules. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for God’s wrath will burn hot against all who oppose them. Blessed are the pure in heart and the right of religion, for they won’t be burning in hell for all eternity like everyone else.

In this story that is so much about identity, Moses reminds God of God’s identity. You can’t wipe out the people… no matter what they’ve done… no matter how many golden calves they construct… no matter how many times they turn from you… you can’t wipe them out and start over because you made a promise. You are a God of covenant. A covenant made not on condition of the people obeying the terms of the covenant. You made a covenant based upon the foundation of who you are. This is the God you have revealed yourself to be. It is upon that identity that the God of wrath and destruction changes his mind.

I would like to think that Moses keeps having this conversation with God. As a Christian, I imagine Moses now pointing to the cross. This is who you say are. It doesn’t matter how many times these stiff-necked people call for you to be a different god… a god that suits them… or a pale imitation of whatever golden calf they are currently constructing… you are the God revealed in the cross. That is your identity. And when the people standing at the foot of the cross, finally let go of their identity as slaves to sin and follow you by taking up their own cross to be servants of grace… then that will be their identity as well.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things… and the God of peace will be with you. Amen.

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