(published in the Abingdon Creative Preaching Annual 2014)
It’s comforting to be reminded that our instant-gratification culture is not a byproduct of the digital age, nor a particular failing of “young people these days.” Unwillingness to wait, desire for immediate tangible results, and impatience with the mysterious slowness of spiritual life seem to go back millennia, rather than being a hallmark of the Millennial generation.
Couple that inability to wait with a leader willing to give in to the anxiety, and you have the perfect storm. How many congregations have also faced this problem? The people are anxious and uncertain, so demand a solution. The leader, even while knowing better, gives in to the demands, and soon we are worshipping something that is decidedly not God.
Part of the difficulty is that at least initially, the idea seems to make sense. People desire a deeper relationship with God—how can we resist giving it to them?
Resist we must, because no preacher, teacher, pastor, or parent has ever been able to simply hand spiritual depth over on a golden platter.
Building a relationship with our God takes time. Even face to face, it took many days for Moses and God to get to know each other well enough to reach the point where the commandments could be delivered, let alone the point where they spoke to one another “like a friend” (Ex. 33:11, NRSV). Desire for relationship is the first step, and the Israelites certainly had that. But a spiritual life, whether that of an individual or a community, also requires effort, energy, honesty, perseverance, endurance. We have to be willing to wait, to “trust in the slow work of God” (as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said), to sit in silence, to put in the same amount of time both listening and speaking as we would with a human friend.
But it is so much easier to work with something we can see and touch. As a leader it is so much easier to offer the cheap facsimile than to nurture true spiritual relationship. We know how this story ends: Moses ends up in the strange position of convincing God to reclaim the people as God insists they belong to Moses (God having apparently forgotten how much work it was to convince Moses to go back to Egypt in the first place!). Yet even knowing this story, the temptation is great. It takes a long time, and we “don’t have a clue” (v. 1, CEB) what is happening during the time when nothing appears to be happening, and suddenly we are sacrificing and dancing and giving our hearts to something hard, cold, and unforgiving.
As preachers we may tire of wondering what the golden calf looks like in our community. It is important that our own spiritual lives are strong so we don’t fall into Aaron’s trap of believing we can provide people with anything more than tools and space to seek, no matter how uncomfortable or anxious they (or we) might be.