Sunday, October 11, 2020

In-Between Times -- a sermon on the golden calf incident

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St John’s

In-Between Times

Exodus 32.1-14 (NRSV)

11 October 2020, NL3-5, Becoming God’s People 5

Last week we heard about the Passover meal that the Israelites observed the night before they escaped from Egypt. After that night, they travelled to, and through, the sea, and then into the desert, with God leading them in a pillar of fire to light the way at night and a pillar of cloud to show the way in the daytime. When they arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses made several trips up the mountain to speak with God, receiving the ten commandments and many other laws and instructions for how the people should organise their lives as a religious, social, and economic community. The story we will hear today happens during the fourth trip Moses makes up the mountain, which lasted 40 days and 40 nights as God and Moses spoke. Among the instructions given to Moses on this occasion was the call for the people to make an offering of precious metals and stones and fabrics for the building of a tabernacle—a moveable temple where God could dwell with the people wherever they were—with its furnishings, the ark of the covenant, the priest’s clothes, and the altar. As God is finishing up giving the law and instructions and Moses is preparing to take the tablets down to the people, today’s story takes place. It is from Exodus chapter 32, verses 1-14, and I am reading from the New Revised Standard Version.

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 mould, 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 worshipped 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 for ever.”’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Remember back at the beginning of the book of Exodus, when God first spoke to Moses from the burning bush, and Moses was shy and retiring, and looked for any excuse he could think of to get out of going to confront Pharaoh? He said he didn’t think people would listen to him, he said Pharaoh would just brush him off, he said he stuttered and so couldn’t be a public speaker…

You’d hardly recognise that Moses now! Here he is on top of Mount Sinai, not just talking face to face with God, but actually arguing with God and winning the point—something he was never able to do with Pharaoh. Talk about building confidence! 

We don’t know for sure how long it’s been since God called Moses, but it’s been long enough for arguments with the king and the people, plagues, and finally escaping. The Bible tells us that it took three months for the people to get from crossing the sea to the foot of Mount Sinai. During that entire three months, they’ve been able to see God leading them in the pillar of fire and cloud, and God has fed them with manna and quail every single day in the desert. Before that, of course, they saw God split the sea so they could walk through, and protect them from the Egyptian army. Before that, they witnessed the plagues. So it’s been a while — a year? A few years? — of constantly knowing God’s nearness and depending on God for everything, from daily bread to protection from enemies to navigation assistance.

Then Moses went up the mountain to talk to God again, and unlike the first time, when there was smoke and thunder and earthquakes and lightning, this time it was quiet.

When Moses had been gone for 40 days — six weeks! that’s half as long as they’d been traveling — they couldn’t take it anymore. They were so used to God’s constant presence, they didn’t know what to do when it was quiet. Where is God, if we can’t see the pillar of cloud or hear the thunder? When we aren’t having a Big Spiritual Experience, or when we are away from our religious spaces and rituals that remind us of God’s presence, where is God in the everyday boring bits of life? 

It can feel as if God has abandoned us, when we come down from one of those spiritual mountaintop experiences and then have to go about regular life. Of course God had not left the Israelites alone, and God does not leave us…but that feeling that maybe God wasn’t paying attention anymore must have been strong, because the quietness was so different than how they had experienced God so far. 

Is God allowed to be present differently? Or only in the one way we know and expect, and if God doesn’t show up like that, we’ll decide to abandon the whole enterprise?

The Israelites seem to have chosen the latter. They could not figure out how to be faithful in this time in-between the big revelations. For them, it was all-or-nothing: either God had to be visibly present, displaying power, all the time, or else God wasn’t worth following. So they decided to fill that gap with a god they could see, who would never disappear or be cloaked in mystery or stay silent for too long. This god they create will always be immediately available to them, and would definitely not be free to take a different form or work in any different way. He would be the same forever, predictable, just the way they liked it.

It’s very easy to see how this happens, I think. Sure, we look back now and wonder how they could have fallen so quickly into this trap of making a statue, but if we’re completely honest, we do the same. We’d like God to be predictable, and always immediately available in the ways we prefer, and never silent. And when we’re in those long stretches of life when God’s presence is less obvious, we slip easily into filling the gap with something else instead. It’s like the grown up version of the teenagers who party while the parents are out of town. Sure, we don’t make a golden calf anymore, but the fact that our idols are less tangible doesn’t make them any less dangerous.

The people asked Aaron to create a god who would meet their needs and wants, that would make them happy right now…and isn’t that often what we do, too? The instant gratification we get from, say, our beloved traditions…or our possessions…or our work…or even our relationships…or those conspiracy theories that fill the internet and the headlines…all of those can easily become idols that take the place of the true God, who does not exist merely to serve our every desire. 

So many stories of God’s people throughout history are about God making a promise, and then the people faltering in their trust and so taking matters into their own hands, trying to move God’s timeline along. At Mount Sinai we see that they take worship into their own hands, defaulting to the traditions they knew from pagan Egypt, making something that would tide them over until the next big epiphany. Essentially, they were told what God’s love language is, and they ignored that and did what made them feel good instead. It’s an easy trap to fall into — in our human relationships and even more so in our relationship with the Holy.

Part of becoming God’s people is learning how to be faithful to God’s way, to live and worship and speak God’s love language, even when we can’t actually see or even sense God with us, and even if it isn’t the thing that would make us most comfortable. We know that God is everywhere present. We know that God is faithful. The question is how we live as if those things are true in between the big moments when our spirits soar and our hearts are filled with peace. Being faithful when we can see the pillar of cloud and fire in front of us is one thing…but what about when it feels like we’re on our own in the desert?

As we wait in the wilderness of pandemic restrictions right now…

As we wait in the wilderness of political upheaval right now…

As we wait in the wilderness of grief and uncertainty right now…

What idols tempt us?

Perhaps it’s the temptation to find someone to blame — whether it’s another country, or a political leader or party, or the neighbours who don’t follow the rules.

Perhaps it’s the temptation to romanticise “normal” and focus all our energy on getting back to it, forgetting that normal also meant destruction of the environment, overlooking inequality, and shrugging our shoulders at poverty and at underfunding of health and social care.

Perhaps it’s the temptation to insist on the traditions that have formed us, whether or not they lead the next generation toward God.

Perhaps it’s more tangible than that — maybe some of us have given in to overspending on online shopping, or gambling, or drinking, as a way to fill the emptiness of the days.

Whatever idols have crept in to this in-between time, and however seductive they seem, however happy they seem to make us in the moment, I promise they are not up to the ultimate task.

As we join the Israelites in being formed as God’s people, both as individuals and as a community, we would do well to remember that we do not get to control how God appears to us, when or where God acts or doesn’t act, or who God calls. Our job is to keep our eyes and hearts open, to look for God’s presence and action everywhere, not to insist that God will always be one way or in one place. When we begin to believe that God should be predictable and controllable, serving our happiness first, we have made an idol that cannot save us. God cannot be contained in our images or in our ideologies, nor tamed for our consumption or pleasure.

Instead, God asks us to trust. God demands that we do justice and love kindness and walk humbly. God commands us to love our neighbour and our enemy, whether we can see them or not. God asks us to use the gifts and resources we have been given, not to build a monument for our comfort,  but to build up the kingdom of God. And God places us in community, calls us the Body of Christ, so we can support each other, remind each other of the stories of God’s power, and encourage each other to look for God’s presence, even in the everyday. 

May it be so. Amen.


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