The Golden Calf

I’m just going to let this one speak for itself. The texted used are Exodus 32 1-14 & Matthew 22 1-14. The audio is available here.


Since you all are still just getting to know me, I want to tell you something about myself: I love baseball. Truly. It is one of the greatest loves of my life. And even in moments such as this, when my beloved Nationals have left me heartbroken in the exact same way 4 times in the last 6 postseasons, I still love baseball. I’m a little lukewarm on a few umpires, but that’s a sermon for another day.

This postseason, I went to two Nationals home-games: game 1 and game 5. Now, for game one, I had a standing room ticket. I had a lovely view, thanks in large part to getting to the stadium super early. For game 5, I had a seat. Even though I had an incredible view for game 1, I definitely preferred having a seat; especially since the game was almost 5 hours long.

If you are sitting out there and wondering what the difference between my sitting or standing at a baseball game has to do with anything, I would first like to thank you for paying attention. And, I want to attempt to explain something rather complicated about this reading from Exodus. Actually I’m going to attempt to explain a few things as we go, but, we’re going to start with the calf and the importance of a seat.

Because, the “calf” that Aaron fashions, could mean one of two things. It could be itself an object of worship. There were two God in Egypt that were associated with bulls (and calf actually means young bull) – El, and Ba’al. The golden calf could have been an object of worship – an idol – to those gods. But, the shape of the calf was also a common form of a pedestal or seat used in thrones.

So, either the calf was an object to be worshiped, or it was a seat for God to take and be worshiped on.

There are hints in the text that Aaron meant it as a seat for God, but there are even stronger hints that the Israelites thought of this as an object to worship.

Either way, it’s an appeasement by Aaron. It’s a way for Aaron to avoid the emotions that are stirred up in the people. The people, who are in a brand new world and constantly surrounded by new places and experiences. They’re scared and confused and their leader has been missing for 40 days. Aaron seems to miss what is at the root of these fears, and so instead of seeking to help calm their fears, Aaron appeases them by reverting to something familiar to the people, even though he probably knows that it is wrong.

A moment of backstory I think will really the story of the Golden Calf more understandable, and why I think Aaron knew what he was doing wasn’t good.

Last week, in what we read in Exodus, God had called all of the Israelites to Mount Sinai, and Moses led them. While there, God spoke to everyone, and gave the 10 Commandments – these commandments begin by God saying:

“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

After receiving the 10 Commandments, the Israelites decided listening to God directly is really, really scary, and sent Moses to handle all further direct communications. So Moses went up the mountain. He was there for 40 days, receiving the Commandments, and a description of how the Israelites should live in community together.

This is where this week’s reading picks up.

It’s 40 days later, the people are getting nervous that Moses isn’t coming back, and they have started acting out of their anxiety and fear. But of course, like most humans, the fear of the Israelites isn’t coming out as fear. It’s coming out as Anger. And an attempt to revert to the “good old days” when, by the way, they were slaves in Egypt.

The allure of hindsight is a strong theme in the early chapters of Exodus. God does a really good job of meeting all of the needs of the people. God protects and delivers the people out of the hands of the Egyptian army. God provides water, then food. After all of this, God asked the Israelites if they would like to be in relationship with God. And the people say yes – that’s why they were standing on Mount Sinai!

Six weeks later. It wasn’t even a full 6 weeks before the Israelites were so scared and confused they were ready to revert back to the old ways. It was only 6 weeks of living into these new lives, 6 weeks into embracing the changes required by being God’s people, 6 weeks into this new relationship with God, and this new relationship with themselves. Six weeks, before they got scared and were no longer willing to embrace change, even though it was without question, the best option for them.

And Aaron let them. Led them, actually. Aaron led them down the path towards what would have been their demise. God says as much! God is ready to blot them out and start over. If it weren’t for Moses, this story would have a VERY different ending. Instead, the Israelites spend 40 years in the desert, relearning who they are, and trying to understand their relationship with God. Before ultimately being led into the Promised Land.

In both Exodus and the Gospel, we have situations where God is laying it all out there on the table – quite literally in the Gospel – and God’s people, those of us who are supposed to love God, worship God, be in relationship with God – We, as God’s people, mess. It. Up.

I can’t tell you why the guests didn’t go to the wedding banquet, nor why they so violently mistreated those sent to bring them to dinner. But, I can tell you that the violence seems to be a restating of what happened in Exodus. And of what happens in life today as well.

It is really hard to have a relationship with a God that you can’t see. Especially in a world filled with distractions. This is a world where we make idols out of a lot of things that aren’t God. And I don’t mean idols in the sense of celebrities or sports stars that we appreciate.

Idols are things that we revere or worship. We’re in church, so it’s easy to think that what we revere and worship is God. But I ask, do we?

Is God the thing that we revere the most in this life?

God wasn’t the most revered thing in the Gospel. And for the vast majority of us, God isn’t the most revered part of our lives today either.

Things come between us and God. And more often than not, that thing is us. We set up stumbling blocks between us and God.

We might think we’re setting up a pedestal or throne for God, but what we’re actually making is a golden calf that perverts our relationship with God.

We make gods (with a little g) that distract us, and take our attention away from living into the commands and directives of God (with a big G).

This is a remarkably easy thing to do, and these readings tell us that this is a trap that humans have been falling into for thousands of years.

So what do we do?

The first step I can think of is one that I mean genuinely. We must all ask ourselves, in an honest, open, and vulnerable way, if we really want to agree to the covenant that God offers. Do we really want to trust in the Lord our God with all our hearts, and with all our souls, and with all our minds?

If the answer to that is yes then next, we must take an honest look at what the idols are in our lives. What are the things that are running our lives in ways that prevent us from truly living into a relationship with God? What are the things that we let dictate the terms of our relationship with God, and with one another?

Money.

Work.

Schedule.

Reputation.

Appeasing others.

Political Affiliation.

Race.

Religion.

Guns.

Sex.

Sports teams. (That’s mine)

Power and the pursuit thereof.

Avoiding conflict.

Going back to the good ole days.

All of these are things that impact and influence how we relate to God. Whether we know it or not.

It’s easy to think that God just fits nicely into our lives as they are or as we want our lives to be. But take a look at this Exodus reading. Take a look at this reading from Matthew. How do you think God likes it when we do things the way we want, instead of the way God wants us to do them?

At some point, I think we lost the concept that to truly follow Christ requires all of us. It requires us to do things that we don’t want to do, and at times that we aren’t comfortable with.

Loving your neighbor as yourself is a prime example. It’s not treat others as you treat yourself, which is what we tend to do. It’s love your neighbor as yourself.

Love.

It requires first, to love yourself. And then, to treat everyone as well as you treat yourself. It requires empathy. Compassion. Emotions. There can be conflict. And you must always proceed with love and out of our love.

It’s what God requires. In exchange for living out of our love and embracing the love that God requires, we are offered a full and vibrant life. God’s grace will fill us and help us change into the people we are created and called to be.

But if we don’t, if we just show up exactly as we are, changing nothing about ourselves and just expecting to be welcome, not embracing the gifts and grace that God offers; well, to that I say, many are called, but few are chosen.

We have an opportunity. We have been invited to the banquet before God. We have the choice to do the hard work, to wade into the difficult mess of reorienting our lives to the commands of God, and to live the life of love, respect, and equal treatment that God has created us to live. Or, we can do things as we want to do them. As we’ve always done them.

We can make a seat for God to be with us, or we can make an idol to worship instead.

It’s up to us.

“There will come a time when we must choose between what is right and what is easy.”*

Choose well.

Amen
*Albus Dumbledore