a sermon for Desert Mission Anglican Church on October 15, 2017
Passage: Exodus 32:1–14
What went wrong with the people of Israel?
When we pick up the story here in our Old Testament passage from Exodus 32, the people of God had seen more miracles and had experienced the direct presence of God in more dramatic ways that most of us can even imagine! We’re talking a supernatural rescue from slaver, bread from heaven, water from rocks, the voice of God coming from the sky like thunder! What happened to them, so that they seem turn away from the most basic of commandments–the commandment not make an idol—so quickly?
I think if we approach this story with humility, we realize we need to know the answer to this question, because if it could happen to this people, that had seen so much of God’s direct intervention in the world, it could happen to us, too.
I’d like to suggest 3 ways the chosen people of God got there:
First, the people became impatient.
This is how the story starts: “when the people saw that Moses delayed…” Have you ever doubted God’s goodness because you were impatient? Have you ever been so fed up with a situation taking so long to resolve (and you just wish God would show up!) that you let yourself distrust God? Maybe you lost your self-control and acted out in anger or irritation, or maybe you lost hope, or maybe you just decided the effort wasn’t worth it so you stopped trying to be faithful in a certain area of your life.
Now, it’s fine to struggle with waiting on the Lord. It’s hard work to wait, and I don’t think we ever need to gloss over that. We don’t have to like waiting. But there’s a temptation in it to replace God, as we wait on him with something or someone else. Impatience can often lead to idolatry, and impatience is something many of us struggle with. We are not immune.
Second, the people had already formed idols in their hearts.
They had already made an idol of Moses himself. Even before Israel determines to make the golden calf, they are attributing the acts of the Lord to him! They say, “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.” (Exodus 32:1). So it was Moses that parted the Red Sea? It was Moses that rained down manna from the sky? It was Moses that led them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night? Yikes! But can’t we relate? Don’t we have a tendency as human being to raise our leaders, both in and out of the church, to nearly godlike status? The way people talk sometimes, you’d think they consider the President or the Pope or their Pastor as only hope! NT Wright says,
Treat the leader as God, and you’ll have a vacuum when the leader goes off doing business with God.
(Twelve Months of Sundays: Reflections on Bible Readings, Year A Proper 23)
We might say an idol can be a good thing, that becomes an ultimate thing. Moses had become their ultimate connection point with God, so when he wasn’t immediately available, they searched for something to take his place.
Aaron, not knowing exactly what to do, goes along with their demands.
This brings us to the final reason I want to talk about today:
Israel’s second-in-command leader at the time, Aaron, was willing to compromise.
Think about it…Aaron didn’t abandon the worship of the true God wholesale, he compromised with the demands of the people to make the faith a little more like what they wanted. He made only one idol, and he clearly associates it with the true God. He says, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD” (Exodus 32:5). The word translated in English as Lord there is Yahweh which is the personal name of God.
By the way, God certainly allowed images to be used in worship. Right after this incident, he will give instructions for the Ark of the Covenant, to have two statues of angles on it, and of course ministers would bow there, not to the angels, but to the presence of God that they were a reminder of. That’s fine.
So, maybe that’s what Aaron was trying to accomplish, but he should have known better than to make a golden calf, because a calf explicitly represented Egyptian gods. As soon as it was completed, the people said “These are your gods, O Israel…” They didn’t say, “here’s some art to remind of the one true God!”
In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Stephen says,
Acts 7:39–40 ESV
Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us…’
Aaron’s misguided attempt to keep the people from totally abandoning their faith by allowing explicitly pagan elements just enabled them to keep going.
It’s occasionally more subtle in today’s church, but all of us that lead in some capacity in the church are confronted with constant temptations to compromise.
One of the biggest ways we can as leaders compromise is to make effectiveness instead of faithfulness our ultimate goal. We can be churches bursting at the seams with people, with baptisms every Sunday, a bustling food pantry and be busy with all kinds of ministry and mission and still miss out on communion with Christ. Effectiveness can become an idol.
When pastors suggest prosperity in this life is the goal and gift of the Gospel instead of Jesus himself, they are suggesting idolatry and encouraging trust in a message that’s simply not the message of the New Testament.
When leaders introduce elements into a worship service that glorify a country or a government as the source of our security or hope or freedom or joy, in a worship service that’s supposed to be about him, that’s idolatry.
When I come to church to feel good about myself because I’ve done my duty for the week instead seeking an encounter with the living God, I commit idolatry.
I hope that you are seeing that the Israelites are not unique. Idolatry in some shape, fashion, or form is an intense and constant temptation for the people of God—lay and ordained —because there is nothing Satan would like more than to draw people away from giving God the glory and worship and praise he deserves, and in doing that, distract us from abundant life in God.
And I bet very few of us, myself included (of course!) are innocent.
Just like the Israelites, who had just been delivered from hundreds of years of slavery and oppression, we sometimes have a tendency to return to our old ways. And just like them, we stand justly under the wrath of God.
Exodus 32:9–10 ESV
And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…”
Moses pleads for his people:
Exodus 32:13–14 ESV
Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.
Moses came before God, on behalf of his people, in desperation, with nothing to rely on except God’s own promises. As soon as he invokes those promises, demonstrating his reliance on the grace and love of God in his pleading with God, the Lord relents, and has mercy.
It’s worth noting that the people didn’t escape every consequence of their sin—in fact, many died because of it, many fell ill because of it, but they were not ultimately wiped out as a people and the covenant that they had broken was eventually restored.
But what are we to do, when we sin and fall short of giving God all the glory? When we commit idolatry as communities of faith and as individuals? Who are we to rely on when we don’t have Moses to intercede for us? The writer of Hebrews says
Hebrews 3:3 ESV
…Jesus has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses…
Hebrews 7:25 ESV
…he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
You see because Jesus was able to take our sins with him to death and defeat them there, and because he is alive and now and has enacted a better covenant between God and the world, we have someone to run to and someone to turn to when we recognize our sin. All we have to do is repent, and God will relent.
More than that, God will redeem and restore. Since we know that Jesus is God and shares a perfect will with the Father, we know that the Father doesn’t want to pour out his wrath on us. He wants to relent. He wants to show mercy. In Jesus we see God in the flesh putting into action the character he talks about when his covenant is renewed with the people of Israel:
“The Lord…proclaimed, “[I am], a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Exodus 34:6–7, ESV)
This is Good News, because it also means that even though we may be tempted…everything else that we try to put trust in for anything, whether relationships, governments, money, or power has been exposed as what it is: not at all trustworthy and not at all life-giving. But…
Since Jesus is trustworthy and our source of life, we can place our total trust in what God has done for us in him! The Good News is that we can turn from our idolatry toward Jesus. As we learn to trust him more, we will grow in peace.
So with Paul we can “Rejoice in the Lord always…” because “The Lord is at hand.” We can leave our anxieties behind. Free from the worries of this world, which are themselves a form of idolatry, we have the space to really focus on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. Which means most of all, we are free to live in life-giving communion and union with Jesus Christ, the one worthy of our worship, our maker, defender, redeemer, and friend. Amen.