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The Idols of Our Fear

Exodus 32:1-14

· Exodus

(No recording available for this week's sermon)

Exodus 32:1 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.” 2 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.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold,[a] 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!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6 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.

7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 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!’” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 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.”

11 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? 12 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. 13 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.’” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

*****

Moses is up on the mountain, and the people of Israel are down on the ground…waiting. Can you think of a time when you’ve been left waiting? The appointment was supposed to be twenty minutes ago; they said they’d call back in a couple days to let you know if you got the job; the nurse had said the doctor would be right in with the test results. But you’re still waiting. And while you’re waiting, you start thinking, but not rationally. The scenarios that invade our thoughts in those moments are as weird as anything a science fiction writer could come up with, and as the seconds tick by they become more and more morbid. 5 minutes past curfew you’re mad, 30 minutes past you’re concerned, an hour past and surely they’re somewhere bleeding in a ditch. When we are left waiting, our thoughts often tend toward fear.

The children of Israel are waiting. “Moses delayed to come down from the mountain…” What is he doing up there anyway, surrounded by fire and clouds of smoke and trumpet blasts? I wish he’d come down and tell us what God wants us to do. What does God want us to do? Why did God get us out of Egypt just to bring us here? It’s been awhile. It didn’t really seem like he knew where he was going before this either. Is he really talking to God? Did he just have an accident up there? Is Moses ever going to come back down? This place isn’t very safe. We’re in the desert. This manna shows up every morning but what if it doesn’t tomorrow? We’ll be stuck out here. We might need to do something different. Better safe than sorry. Moses got us out of Egypt but he might not be the guy to take us to the Promised Land…Waiting leads to fear and fear makes us skittish, unable to follow the course we set out to take.

Our thoughts fall into these patterns because we’ve been burned before. The people of Israel were in slavery for generations. Their elders waited and died waiting. They waited and things only got worse. We all have times when we’ve been waiting and if not the worst case scenario, something bad does happen, and those times have a way of casting a shadow over any other time we find ourselves waiting. [When we first found out something was wrong with James, we waited for over an hour in the ultrasound room; and now every time we find ourselves waiting for test results, we brace ourselves.] Those moments loom and weigh upon each of us so that we don’t get any relief until we’re not waiting anymore. We need to not be waiting. Whatever the outcome is, good or bad, we want it to just get here because the waiting seems worse than even bad news.

This is especially true in our world, where speed is a virtue and is readily available. We want results and we want them right now. If I can travel across a continent in hours, get a meal in minutes, look up anything on a smartphone in seconds, why can’t other things work that quickly, too? Why can’t I heal faster when I am hurt? Why can’t they just forgive and forget? Why can’t our church just grow? The speed of the world shames the slow, those who can't "keep up." But the truth is, some things take time—don’t work according to a set schedule—like receiving God’s word, like really healing instead of masking symptoms with painkillers, like real reconciliation instead of just asking the wounded to be quiet. Some things take time and that’s OK. Waiting is already hard enough without the added insult that something is wrong with you for not getting through this faster.

This doesn't make waiting any easier, and our temptation as we wait is to come up with a shortcut, a way to manage our waiting so that we're done with it sooner. The people said to Aaron, “We don’t know where Moses is, so make gods who will go before us, who will show us the way forward and protect us from whatever is up ahead.” And Aaron answered, “Ok. Bring me all your jewelry.” And he melted it all down, all the gold they’d brought with them out of Egypt, and he made a golden calf and the children of Israel worshipped the calf and offered it sacrifices and Aaron said to them all, “Behold your gods who brought you out of Egypt.” And the people threw a big raging party to celebrate their new gods.

Notice that nothing about their situation has actually changed. They’re still in the middle of the wilderness, still eating food that the LORD has provided. They still don’t know where they’re going, they have no idea when or if Moses will come back. But they revel before their new gods, not because their “gods” are any good but because they feel that they have taken control. They have invented a technology for managing their uncertainty. They have made themselves a comfort machine that can’t really do anything but it’s shiny and it distracts them from what they were afraid of.

In a scary place they make a god who can’t really do anything for them, but that’s kind of ok because they’ve already given up on getting anywhere: it’s just nice to have something predictable and comforting. They give up on actually doing anything and worship “effectiveness” even if it doesn’t effect anything; worship “innovation,” even if they’ve reinvented the wheel; they guild our tiredest most boring impulses so that in the dreary wilderness we’ll at least have the thrill of something shiny.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the gold the Israelites used to make the calf must have come from Egypt. When they leave their bondage they take with them the “spoils of Egypt,” and at the time that seems like a sign of their victory but it means they carry little pieces of Egypt with them and then the weld those pieces together to make their idol. They polish their old chains and set them up again like it’s something new and exciting rather than stepping into the uncertainty (but also the possibility!) that God might actually do something new with them.

Idolatry is the instinct to make ourselves at home within, to worship, to distract and comfort ourselves within the well-worn patterns of this world. Everyone has gods with names and statues. It’s weird that they didn’t. It’s a bit embarrassing to have an Unnamed God, who is who he is, this God of fire and smoke, but we know that wealth and might and beauty seem to be the signs of blessing in this world, and so lets have gods of wealth and might and beauty like everyone else. Forget about where we were going. Forget about the invisible God who asks us to trust, who says a better world is possible. Let’s follow the shiny god who makes us forget our troubles, who makes us feel a little better at the foot of the mountain, which is the best we can do since the Promised Land is probably just a myth anyway. The Promised Land and the LORD are the kind of things you let yourself get worked up about when you’re a freshman in college, idealistic and naive, but when you’ve grown up a bit and seen the wilderness you know that you have to be pragmatic, you need beliefs you can get your hands around, manageable hopes, a god who won’t let you down because you don’t ask much of it to begin with. That’s the promise of the Golden Calf, that you can have all the shrunken desires you dare to allow yourself…but no more.

Meanwhile, God and Moses are on the mountain, and the sight of the Israelites worshipping the golden calf makes God angry. This immediately shows us the difference between the Golden Calf and the Living God. The Israelites at the bottom of the mountain do not want a God who gets angry. They want their idol who reflects their own sentiments back to them, comforting them and fighting their enemies. An idol will not get angry with the Israelites, which is to say an idol will not challenge them. But God will. Some Christians don’t like to talk about God’s anger because so many other Christians use “God’s” anger as an excuse for their own bloodthirsty and abusive tendencies. Those are important concerns (there is always a risk when we try to talk about God that we actually just talk about ourselves in cosmic terms), but I think it’s good to be able to say God gets angry at bloodthirstiness and abuse. God loves the world so much that God gets angry at the sight of injustice, racism, sexism and the idols of the market and whiteness and machismo that produce that kind of world. God gets angry because God does not want that kind of world, which is good for all of us. The Living God, an angry God, reminds us that we don’t get to make our own symbols and systems absolute. The first commandment means that God's people don't get to pledge allegiance to any earthly symbol.

In this way, God’s anger is not separate from God’s grace. God is not made up of different parts that can be set against each other: “Hear O Israel the Lord our God is one.” That God gets angry means that God will not let us grind ourselves down against the altars of our idols. God wants us to wait in such a way that we’re ready to move when the time comes, so that we’re not laden with things we’ve made for ourselves that aren’t great anyway. God’s anger here signifies that God wants better for us than the things we do to ourselves and each other. (So the fact that Moses changes God’s mind is consistent with the reason why God is angry: God wants to bring about new creation.)

So my friends, the question we have to ask ourselves after all this is “how do we wait?” The world is not how it could be. Our neighbors are hungry and scared and hurting. Though we are doing good work at Ephesus, our congregation has not yet grown the way many of us hope it will. As individuals and as a community we are, I think, not quite where we want to be. So how will we wait? Will we wait in such a way that secretly believes there is not a Promised Land to get to? Will we resign ourselves to the way things are and create idols to comfort us that it’s what we wanted all along? Or will we wait in such a way that we’re ready to move in response to God’s call, even practicing our moves now?

Ultimately what we worship determines how we wait. If we worship the idols of our fear, we will make life fearful for ourselves and our neighbors while we wait. If we worship the living God, we might just find new life. And of course because the living God is alive, God might not just sit and stay where we expect.

After Moses prompts God to extend the grace that is the other side of God’s anger, God soon commands the Israelites to build a tabernacle. God extends grace to the Israelites so that they will worship in particular ways: so that they will learn to confess when things are messed up with themselves and with the world, and begin taking steps to make those things right; so that they will learn to sing their joy and their despair and their anger and their sorrow back to God as a way of making those things tangible, rather than letting them coagulate and clot our souls in fear; so that they will learn how to carry their worship with them wherever they go, into new lands and new times. If worshipping an idol shrinks our desires to fit the petty little trinkets we make for ourselves, worshipping God is supposed to grow our desires so that even in the midst of fear we burn with feisty, sometimes even angry passion for the better world we trust is possible.

So my friends, as we wait, may our worship open up a way beyond fear; may you smash the relics of fear in your own life; may you burn for new creation as the invisible God whose name is above every name also burns. Amen.

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