Becoming God’s People: A Factory of Idols

Exodus 32:1-14

This fall we’ve been following the Israelites on their Exodus journey through the Red Sea and into the wilderness.  On this journey they’ve been learning little by little what it means to be God’s people: to be remembered and chosen, to be free, to trust God to meet their daily needs even when the things they need seem hard to come by.  They’ve been learning that God is with them in their wandering even when sometimes they wonder if God isn’t.

They’ve also learned, by now, that being God’s people means following some rules.  And even if we, as Christians, don’t necessarily love this characterization of a faithful life as one of following rules, I think we can probably get behind the idea that being God’s people means intentionally living in a way that is pleasing to God – even when we mess up sometimes.  Last week we met up with the Israelites in the wilderness just as they are about to make this whole “being God’s people” thing official.  God says if you’re going to be my people, here are the things I expect from you.  And God gives them the Ten Commandments – and then a whole lot of other more detailed case laws as well.  And the Israelites listen to them all and they say, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” We’re in.

Today we’re going to get to the messing up part.

After the covenant is sealed, God invites Moses back up the mountain.  Moses starts up and once again a dark cloud covers the mountain, and on the seventh day God calls to Moses out of the cloud, and Moses steps in, becomes enveloped by heavy mist.  He stays there for 40 days and 40 nights.  While he’s up there God is giving him instructions for building the tabernacle, the tent-like mobile Temple where God will officially live in the midst of the Israelites as they wander from camp to camp there in the wilderness – we’ll come back to the tabernacle next week.  When God is done, God gives Moses two tablets, inscribed by God’s own finger with the covenant that has just been created.

It’s a pretty holy scene up on that mountain.

But the people are not up on that mountain, and they can’t see or hear what’s going on in that cloud.  What they know is that Moses seems to be taking his sweet time coming down.  And they start to get antsy.  You know that feeling when someone is late and you can’t get in touch with them, and at first you try to kind of go about your day as normal, everything’s probably fine, but as time goes on you get more and more worried that something has happened, and maybe a little angry in case something hasn’t, until you’re going down all sorts of rabbit holes and really working yourself up.  I’m pretty sure that’s how the Israelites are feeling here.

But Moses is also more than just a friend or family member who is late, he’s their leader.  He’s the one with the direct connection to this God they’re supposed to be following through this otherwise god-forsaken wilderness.  And if Moses isn’t coming back, they haven’t just lost him, they’ve lost God too.

And that really puts their future up in the air.

So they decide to take matters into their own hands.  They go to Aaron, Moses’ brother and official spokesperson, and they say “Make us gods who can lead us.”  They don’t want cloud and fire and mystery and holiness up on some mountain.  They want gods they can touch and see and wrap their minds around.

So what do you think Aaron says? I’d like to think that if I were Aaron, my first response would be something along the lines of “Uh, I don’t know, guys, I don’t really think that’s such a good idea.”  I mean, this is the person who will eventually become the high priest of Israel.  Instead – and I truly do not know what is going on in Aaron’s head at this moment – he says bring me your jewelry.  Maybe Aaron is getting antsy, too.

My own opinions aside, this is apparently the kind of leadership the people are hungry for.  They bring Aaron their gold jewelry, everything they managed to raid from the Egyptians on the way out, and he throws it into the fire and molds it into the shape of a bull calf.  When he’s done, the people look at this hunk of metal that had once been their bracelets and earrings and they bow down and they say, “Here are our gods who brought us out of Egypt!”

How soon we forget what God has done for us.  How soon we are ready to worship anything else.

Maybe the surprising thing is that the people need something to worship.  Their first inclination when they start to get nervous about their future and God’s role in it isn’t just to throw away the idea of God altogether. It’s to find something else to call God.

You might think that this isn’t the case anymore, in our modern secular society where more and more people every day seem willing to discard the idea of God – but I don’t know.  There are lots of other things we can worship, lots of other things we can put our faith in, even without calling it that.  Maybe especially without calling it that.  And by the way, I don’t just mean that as an indictment of our less religious neighbors, the Nones and the Dones.  I mean that for all of us.

In any case, once Aaron gets going, he really gets going.  He’s going to ride this wave of the people looking to him for leadership.  And so he takes one look at this calf he has created and all the people worshiping it and he says, “ You know what we need?  An altar! I’ll make an altar, and we’ll have a festival!”  There’s another way to read this, actually, which is that Aaron takes one look at the calf and sees what he has done, and he tries to walk it back.  “We’re going to have a festival to the Lord,” he says.  To YHWH.  This calf is the same god as that God on the mountain, just in a different form.  This is all still legit.[1]

Never mind that number 2 commandment: thou shalt not worship idols.

Either way, God is not impressed.  God sees what is going on from up on the mountain and God tells Moses he better get down there.  “Do you know what YOUR people are doing?” God asks Moses. “I have half a mind to just destroy them and start over and make a great nation out of you.”

Moses, alarmed, says, “Oh, no no, God, don’t be so angry with YOUR people.”  And God relents, though we get the sense that God is not yet over it.

I imagine this one of those times for Moses where you know you have to defend someone in a given situation because it’s your job, but you’re just waiting to be alone to really let them have it.  It’s like he’s is fighting for his kid against the teacher who wants to fail him, but on the drive home is going to let that kid know he’s grounded for a month.  With God placated for the time being, I imagine Moses gathering steam as he continues on his way down.  Finally he gets close enough to see and hear the general drunken raucousness going on, golden calf at the center, and his nostrils flare, and in one swift movement, Moses hurls down the stone tablets representing God’s covenant with the people and they shatter into pieces.  Then he takes the calf, grinds it into dust, adds water, and makes the people drink it.  (You don’t remember that part of the story from Sunday School, do you?)  Then Moses turns to Aaron and says simply, “What have you done?”

“Don’t blame me,” said Aaron, “I just threw some jewelry into the fire and out popped this calf.”  (I always liked that line.)

As I said before, it’s human nature to need something to worship.  Most of us probably aren’t too worried about being tempted to bow down to a golden calf.  Not literally, anyway.  But idols aren’t just metal statues.  Idols can be anything we worship that aren’t actually God.  What do you think are some of our modern-day idols, either personally or culturally?

“Human nature,” said John Calvin, “is a perpetual factory of idols.”

And yet I also think idolatry is a tricky thing.  The reason it’s tricky is because maybe we’re not always sure what we’re worshiping and when.  If we put a lot of energy into worrying about money, does that mean money is an idol?  If we revere a particular leader, are we committing idolatry?  At what level does our loyalty to a political party and its ideology veer into idolatry?  My guess is that when we do, or like, or revere, these things ourselves, they are simply parts of a faithful and well-prioritized life; but when someone else does them in a way that we don’t like, it’s idolatry.

Things I’ve heard called “idols” include Trump and Obama, America and Wall Street, contemporary worship music and old church hymns, even sometimes the Bible itself, when each literal word is raised above the Holy Spirit and the love that Jesus taught.

The theologian Paul Tillich defined faith as “ultimate concern.” Sure, we need money, but is it getting in the way of living a life pleasing to God?  How about really?  Sure, it’s OK to achieve success in our careers, but are we making choices in light of our ambition instead of our call?  What is our ultimate concern?

In the end – like with most forms of sin – the question probably isn’t “What are other people’s idols?” but “What are mine?”  Maybe that second commandment, rather than giving us a box to check off or not check off or just a rule to follow, instead invites us into reflection about what our ultimate values and priorities in life are.

And maybe the even more interesting question to reflect on is why, in fact, we as humans are so drawn to the worship of idols.

If I’m honest, I have some sympathy for those Israelites wandering in the wilderness, because I understand wanting to put my hope and trust in something tangible.  It’s hard, sometimes, to trust that God really knows what God is doing, or that God is even really there, when God isn’t someone I can see or have a conversation with.  It’s easy, especially perhaps in moments of high anxiety, to wonder if perhaps I’ve made the whole thing up.  Never mind that these people have literally just walked through the sea on dry land to freedom following this God of cloud and fire.  I like to think that if something like that had happened to me, if God showed up in my life in such a powerful and obvious way, that I would never have doubts again.  But the truth is that it doesn’t usually work that way.  I look back and I can see that thing God did as the result of so many other factors at play, in retrospect.  Or I simply wonder, as the Israelites have already done, where God is now.

In the wilderness of our own lives, we want to believe that someone or something is going to make it all OK, and we, too, want that someone or something to be something we can see, someone whose rallies we can attend, numbers in a stock portfolio, substances that make us feel a certain way – anything that makes that promise tangible to us.

And yet to live as people of faith means to live into the mystery of who God is, this God surrounded by cloud and darkness, this God we can’t see or touch or wrap our minds around, whose very presence with us we sometimes question.  This is the God who travels with us through the wilderness, this is the God who leads us to freedom, this is the God who names us as God’s people.

We long for something black and white, we long for something solid and gold, but God invites us into a life and relationship that is dynamic and mysterious and adventurous and hard but also full of love and grace and provision.

The day after the Golden Calf Incident, Moses goes back to have another word with God.  The future of God and God’s people is still up in the air.  Moses moves once again between his role as leader of the people and his role as intermediary with God, and angry as he is, he pleads with God to forgive them.

God’s forgiveness, in this story, is not an instantaneous thing.  You can read it if you want the details of the conversation.  I know some of these Hebrew Bible stories can shock us a little bit with a God who gets angry, who doesn’t seem to always forgive as easily as we would like to believe.  But I think it’s important to remember that while people’s understanding of God undoubtedly evolved and changed over time, this God of the Hebrew Bible is the same God we meet in Jesus – who also gets mad at the idolatry he sees in the Temple, and at people who make law and not love their ultimate concern.  Stories like these remind us that God’s forgiveness isn’t cheap – but it is real.  The story (at least this part of it) ends with God telling Moses to make two new tablets.  The covenant that was broken is renewed.

And that’s the good news for us, claiming our identity as God’s people today – our God is a God of second chances.  Our God renews broken covenants.

And when the people continue their journey into the Promised Land, it will be with this mysterious, powerful, inscrutable, gracious God in their midst.


[1] The CEB Study Bible, p. 138 OT

Becoming God’s People: A Rule of Life

Scripture: Exodus 20:1-17

A couple weeks ago when we were reading about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea I said that I thought that was the most Exodus-y part of Exodus.  If any scene has stuck with you from Sunday School or Hollywood adaptations, it’s probably that one.

But I think today we’ve come to the second most Exodus-y part of Exodus: the Ten Commandments.  If another scene has stuck with you, it’s probably along these lines: Moses emerging from the top of Mount Sinai, stone tablets in hand, while all the people watch on below.

But let’s back up and get there.  Last week we left the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, facing hardship and deprivation, wondering if God was still with them, but also finding grace and provision along the way.  They eat manna and drink the water God provides in the dusty desert.  They fend off attacks from nearby tribes with God’s help.  They start to think about the structure of their community, and how conflicts get solved.  They will be wandering in the wilderness still for a while now, but we could say they are beginning to settle into the wandering, beginning to learn bit by bit what it means to be God’s people.

They have already been wandering for three months when they enter the Sinai desert.  Here God calls to Moses from the top of Mount Sinai, “Tell the people: You’ve seen what I’ve done for you, how I rescued you from the Egyptians.  Now, if you and all the Israelites obey me and keep my covenant, you out of all the nations will be my people, my treasured possession.  You will be a priestly kingdom and a holy people.”

Moses repeats all these words to the people down at the bottom of the mountain and he says, “Will you do it?” and the people say, “We will.”  God and the Israelites have been feeling each other out up to this point, each learning about who the other is and what they can reasonably expect and what life looks like together – and they’re ready to make it official.

God tells Moses to have the people consecrate themselves, to make themselves ready for something holy.  They wash their clothes and get ready.

On the third day there is thunder and lightning and a thick cloud descends over Mount Sinai.  There is the blast of a trumpet so loud, the text says, that “all the people in the camp trembled.”  They stand at the foot of the mountain and smoke billows up from the peak and the mountain trembles, too.

God calls to Moses, and as the people watch, Moses ascends, disappearing into the smoke.

And then, the text says, God spoke these words.  The ones we just heard: Have no other gods before me.  Don’t make idols.  Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.  Honor the Sabbath, and your father and your mother.  Don’t kill, or commit adultery, or steal, or bear false witness, or covet. 

These things, according to God, are at the very core of what it means to be God’s people.  They’re not the only laws God will give the Israelites.  The next few chapters are full of more, and Leviticus comes after that.  But these ten are the core of God’s covenant with God’s people.

For something so at the core of what it means to be in relationship with God, though, I think it’s safe to say that the legacy of the Ten Commandments is mixed.  Many of us may still see them as the most basic tenets of what it means to be faithful, if not almost universal rules for what it means to be good and moral people.  There may also be those of us who question their relevance today, at least some of them – I’m going to guess we’re all on board with “thou shalt not commit murder” but what about taking God’s name in vain? It’s possible, also, that some of us may feel like something is missing – that if we were going to pick our top ten rules for being God’s people, we might have included others, like more about caring for the poor.

Some of us may see the Ten Commandments as all well and good but also think they don’t really matter so much anymore, because they represent “the Law” from which we as Christians are freed.  What it means to be God’s people (we might say) isn’t following commandments but having faith in Jesus.

But on the other hand we fight over whether they should stand in front of courthouses.  The Ten Commandments continue to have a hold on us, both culturally and individually.

There’s plenty that could be said, and has been, about every one of these commandments.  We could talk, for example, about whether the prohibition on murder extends to killing in war, or in self-defense.  We could talk about what it really means to take God’s name in vain – what if it’s more than just an occasional “oh my God,” but more about when we do harmful things in God’s name?  We could talk about all the idols we make, not just out of wood or silver or stone, but out of the things we put before God in our lives, like money and popularity and success.

But instead, I want to talk about the Ten Commandments as a whole.  The Israelites are, in the wilderness, beginning to learn what it means to be God’s people.  And one of the first thing God tells them is that being God’s people means living like God’s people.   This is not a chosenness that lets them get away with anything they want, it’s a chosenness that comes with the burden, and gift, of obedience and loyalty.

And since we understand ourselves to be God’s people and part of God’s continuing story, I think it’s worth asking what that looks like for us now.

In the Gospels, someone asks Jesus what the greatest of the commandments is.  He answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength.  And the second,” he says, “is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22; Mark 12; Luke 10)

He’s not quoting any of the ten when he says that – he’s quoting other passages from Deuteronomy (6) and Leviticus (19) – but some scholars have pointed out that the Ten Commandments can be read in this light.  How do we love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength?  We have no other gods, we make no idols, we don’t take the Lord’s name in vain and we honor the Sabbath.  And how do we love our neighbors as ourselves?  We honor our parents, we don’t murder or commit adultery or steal or bear false witness or covet.  It’s at least a start.

The thing is that we may say we don’t need the law anymore because now we are God’s people in a new way; we’re God’s people by faith and we live that faith by loving God and our neighbors.  And yet if you’re anything like me, maybe you still need some help.  Because loving people is great, but if I’m honest I’m not always sure what that looks like or what that means, concretely.  And I believe in the Holy Spirit’s guidance on these matters, but also believe that having some things spelled out for me can help.

In monastic communities, they have what is called a Rule of Life.  This will say things like you gather for worship at these times; that you will spend the rest of your time in worship and study.  They say things like you wear clothes that are plain and cheap, that you regularly confess your sins, that you care for the poor and the old and the sick and welcome guests like you are welcoming Christ.  They also dictate the way you are supposed to relate to the other people in your community, both peers and superiors.[1]

All that is of course much more specific and detailed than the Ten Commandments, which are by and large very broad, leaving a lot to be filled in.  But I’ve found myself really attracted to this idea of living intentionally as God’s people and the way those specifics have the potential to shape our daily lives by holding us accountable to our priorities.  And I wonder if we can think of the Ten Commandments as the first Rule of Life.  It’s the one that sets a baseline for all other Rules of Life.

So here’s something for you to think about this week: if you were going to make a Rule of Life for yourself, what would you include?

We claim to be God’s people in the world.  How are we intentionally living that out?  What are we setting as priorities?  What makes us distinct from others wandering in this same wilderness?  Is it in how we spend our money, how we spend our time?  Is it in how we treat the most vulnerable members of our community?  Is it in being willing to confess our sin instead of defending it?  Some of all these things?  How do we spell out what it means for us to love God and love our neighbor?

How does the witness of the saints we named today help you think about that?

The good news is we don’t have to do it perfectly.  Living as God’s people isn’t about checking all the boxes all the time.  It’s letting ourselves be shaped and formed by God’s grace as we figure out what it means in practice to worship God in all aspects of our lives and to live well in community together.  And this grace isn’t even a New Testament concept, as we often make the mistake of thinking.  As we’ll hear about next week, Moses will barely be down from that mountain before the Israelites break about half of the commandments in one fell swoop (maybe you’ve heard of this little incident involving a golden calf?)  And yes, God gets pretty worked up about it.  And no, God doesn’t abandon them.  Because they are still God’s people, and there will be more chances.

And we are God’s people, and there are always more chances.

And still God calls us, over and over, to live like we know it: to live like we are God’s people.  Because it is through God’s people that God will achieve the very redemption of the world.



[1] I recommend The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century by Joan Chittister on the Benedictine Rule and its relevance today.