I gave this meditation at the AEF Conference today.
Exodus 32:1-9 tells a troubling story – a cataclysmic idolatry meltdown with a golden calf. But I wonder what should trouble us most?
It’s troubling how people could forget that God hates idolatry. Don’t they remember the first two commandments: you are to have no other gods before the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt; you shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or earth beneath ? How could they ignore such direct commands?
And it’s troubling that a spiritual leader compromises so crassly with culture. Of course, there are two spiritual leaders in the story. One - Moses -is up the mountain communing with God, while Aaron is at the foot of the mountain communitng with the people, close to culture. And most of us are at the foot of the mountain close to culture. So probably we understand how Aaron could bow to pressure when the people are impatient with an absent Moses, and the invisible holy God who is leading them into his story. They want something now,visible, immediate, and pleasurable. Surrounding cultures worshiped gold bulls - why not here? And like a really terrible unsubtle B movie, the people take off the gold earrings and throw them into a fire. Aaron later excuses himself: 'I just threw them into the fire and out came this calf'"(verse 24). Philips Brooks called this 'a curious and ingenuous lie.' The text makes it clear that Aaron fashioned it with a tool. How troubling that a spiritual leader can so quickly accede to culture.
And it’s disturbing how, when the people see the idol, they start chorusing: 'These are your gods who brought you up out of Egypt', blasphemously echoing the first commandment, and arrogantly replacing God’s story with their own. This manufactured thing is now credited with making their story happen. How troubling when people invent their own religious story.
But, perhaps, most troubling of all - when Aaron hears this chorus, he seems to remember the true God and pulls back. ‘When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced: Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh, to the Lord.’ Alongside, this travesty of a false god, he wants to bring the true god. Note, not instead of, but in addition to. So that the next day they can bring their burnt offerings and fellowship offerings to the holy invisible God on the altar, but really enjoy themselves (with undertones of sexual licentiousness) before a visible false idol. To glory in a finite god instead of giving all glory to the infinite God.
That’s terrifying. That God is not enough on his own. That the people gain a worship buzz out of something else, given pride of place alongside the true God. And it is possible isn't it....
for preachers to glory in their preaching
for worship leaders to glory in their skills and beautiful offerings
for leaders to glory in their acumen
for whole churches to glory in their reputation, their buildings, their programs?
For us to glory in a finite god, instead of giving all glory to the infinite God.
It’s a troubling text. Sometimes we need to be troubled.