October 9, 2011
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 mold, 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.
A few years back, we took a confirmation class to Wall Street. There were no protestors that weekend, but there was a soup kitchen. The Saturday morning was spent providing a morning meal to an assortment of street folks who dropped by. Some had not slept yet and others had not yet dried out. Suffice it to say, it was not only an opportunity for service by our young people; it was also an education.
But for me, the real insight came shortly after we left. We decided to walk over to the World Trade Center site, not far from where we had spent the morning. We came around the corner and there it was: an enormous metal bull. It was eleven feet tall, sixteen feet long, twisted as if in motion, the symbol of aggression and prosperity.
Maybe you’ve seen it, the “Charging Bull” statue of Bowling Green Park. All the tourists admire it and click pictures with their iPhones. If you sneak a peek down below, you will see it is anatomically correct. Well-polished at that! This bull is sculpted from bronze, not from gold. But weighing in at 7100 pounds, it is a most impressive structure.
Like its Old Testament counter-part, the Wall Street Bull inspires confidence and activity. It is necessarily larger than life, a mascot to consumers and investors. I’ve heard sermons about the Golden Calf that emphasize the gold. They say something like this, that the people hand over their jewelry so it can be melted down and fashioned into something they can worship. They are worshiping their own greed, says the preacher, and their costly sacrifices are actually celebrations of their own affluence.
I suppose that might be a pretty good stewardship sermon, especially in a week when protestors occupied Wall Street and denounced the national greed that has twisted our economy out of shape. A quick survey of preachers who are tackling this lectionary text today belies a significant critique of Charging Bull Economics. One minister in New Jersey, for instance, posted a chart of the ratio of pay between CEO’s and their workers. You have probably seen these statistics. In Japan, a CEO typically makes eleven times the wage of an average worker. In Germany, twelve times. In Great Britain, the guy at the top makes twenty-two times the average wage below. And in America, the ratio is 475 to one. And so that preacher concludes, “The bull calf many worshiped in antiquity has become the Wall Street bull many people worship today.”
Well, that’s interesting, even if most of us can’t do anything about it. The point would be it’s all about money and greed and astronomic wages. It’s all about the gold. That’s interesting. But that’s not what this story in Exodus 32 is all about. It’s not about materialism. It’s about what happens when Moses takes his time coming down from the mountain.
He was up there to talk with God. For twelve chapters, Moses has had an exhaustive conversation with the Lord. God is spelling out the implications of the Ten Commandments. The Big Ten did not cover every topic, so God is filling in some of the details. What exactly does it mean to honor Mom and Dad? It means don’t curse them, don’t strike them. If there is a prohibition against coveting, what about property management? God gives that some attention.
A few of the chapters have to do with worship: who can draw near to God? How shall they approach? How shall they decorate the sanctuary? What kind of incense should they use? Back and forth, Moses goes up and down the mountain to have these conversations with God. It takes a while. When Moses does not quickly return, the people grow anxious. “Where is this Moses?” they ask. “What has become of him?” “If he is not around, who shall go before us?” Those are the questions that create the golden calf.
As is often the case, the people raise questions about Moses when they really have questions about God. I don’t know if you realize that, but sometimes people will stir up noise about God’s representative as a displaced way to cope with their anxiety.
The minister up in Syracuse took a vacation and some church people went berserk. He had surprised his wife with a cruise to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary. They were cruising to Spain. The day after he left, a thief broke in and stole the offering money before it could be deposited. Thousands of dollars evaporated. Payroll checks were going to bounce. The church secretary felt unsafe at her own desk.
Within hours, the phone lines were buzzing: where did the minister go? How could he leave us at a time like this? Can we trust a minister who goes away? Doesn’t he get too much vacation any way? We would never abandon our fellow people if we had a job like his. There was talk of a petition, informal gatherings in living rooms, other complaints allowed to surface, rumors about the actual status of his marriage – and how much of this noise was actually about him? He was on a cruise with his wife. Didn’t matter – absence and anxiety.
People will stir up all kinds of things when there is absence and anxiety. That is what prompts all the noise in our Bible story. Moses is out of sight. He is not rushing back to hover over his people. This absence is what stirs up all the anxiety. Where is he? What has become of him? Who shall go before us?
And as I’ve suggested, these really aren’t questions about him. Moses is merely the target. The questions are really about God. After all, where is Moses? He is spending time with God.
Most of the tribe says, “That doesn’t matter. Moses is supposed to be spending all his time with us.” They think that’s the issue. But the real issue is the kind of God that they have. The kind of God that all of us have. There are at least four characteristic that make our kind of God difficult to have:
First, God is quiet. God speaks only when necessary. “Day to day pours forth speech,” says the Psalmist, “but there are no words.” (Psalm 19)
Second, God is out of sight. God does not make a lot of public appearances, and even then they are ambiguous epiphanies.
Third, God seems indifferent. Indifferent. God does not seem to notice our striving or care about our achievements. God does not give special rewards to the spiritually successful, no special blessings to those who show up in worship every week. Just like everybody else, they contract cancer, have uncontrollable children, and encounter their share of bumps.
Fourth, God is immortal. Or to put it in plain speech, God is on a very different schedule from the rest of us. Prayers are not answered on demand. Predictions cannot be made. Promises still wait to be fulfilled.
Quiet, invisible, apparently indifferent, and immortal: these holy attributes are revealed when Moses delays in coming down from the mountain. The anxiety of Israel is exposed when the people discover what kind of God they really have. Somehow they already know in their bones that they cannot go back to Egypt, they cannot go back to the way things were, they cannot return to what was predictable even if it was oppressive. They are moving through the wilderness stage by stage, a bit at a time.
While they wait one more time to move on, they it becomes apparent what kind of God they have. The God of Israel is a God who wants the chosen people to stick it out, to stay faithful over the long haul, to live within the sacred bounds of covenant, to remain patient and to trust what they cannot yet see.
And they don’t want that.
For better or for worse, Moses’ brother Aaron, the associate pastor, suggests an alternative. “Give me your gold earrings,” he says. “Bring them here.” And everybody does this. The text emphasizes the point: all the people bring all their gold.
When Aaron melts all of it down and shapes the molten gold like a cow, there is an interesting little detail that often overlooked. The people speak up and talk to themselves, and say, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” These are your gods -- plural, small “g.” Yet Aaron has a theological education, so he corrects them. “Tomorrow,” he says, “will be a festival to the Lord!” Uh-oh. He uses God’s proper name, Yahweh, normally too holy to be spoken by a Jew, and usually translated “the Lord.”
And it’s not just the misuse of the holy name that is the problem. It’s that Aaron the priest, who ought to know better, has reduced the great God Yahweh to a shiny little statue made out of earrings. The God who brought Israel out of slavery with an outstretched arm and a mighty hand is boiled down to a figurine that most scholars believe was quite small. After all, it was made out of earrings donated by people who had been oppressed slaves for most of their lives. How big could it have been?
Every Jew and Christian agrees: the name of the sin is idolatry. Out of their anxiety, the people forgot the Second of Ten Commandments: don’t make for yourself an idol, shaped like something down here on the ground. God is jealous and wants no competition. The big issue about the Golden Calf is that they could reduce God to something so small. It happens, you know. It happens all the time.
Aaron’s big mistake was simplifying God, making God easy, tangible, and less mysterious. It’s deciding that you will not take God as God is. Instead you will decide what kind of God you want.
Rather than a Deity who is unpredictable, you spell out in specific detail what God is doing, where God is going, and the kind of behaviors that God demands. You might even declare the kind of people that your predictable God particularly loves – and exclude everybody who does not live up to your expectations.
Rather than a God who is completely free to do whatever, to go wherever, to reach whomever, you locate God in one specific place, one single spot, and you legislate what will happen whenever you go there. God becomes identified with one church, or one group, or one program. As long as all of that is intact, you don’t have to deal with a God who stays on the move.
We do this. All of us do this. At the church camp where the staff keeps going back year after year after year, it is a major disruption at the arrival of something or somebody new. In the congregation where the same people keep doing the same volunteer work in the same exact way, and everybody expects the same results, good people will risk burn-out and boredom for the sake of continuity. It’s a great distraction from looking at the much bigger picture.
When it comes to Sunday morning, the same people may sit in the same pews, hoping to sing the same hymns surrounded by the same friends, and hearing the same announcements at the same time of the year. And nobody pays attention to the quiet calcification of the heart, the loss of breath, the diminishing hope. Because God has been made much smaller.
The high demand of the cross becomes a piece of small jewelry, no blood or nails visible. The even higher joy of the resurrection is reduced to usher schedules, printed agendas, and the last person left to turn out the lights.
This kind of idolatry is in the American air. It’s in the world’s drinking water. It’s in the church’s baptismal water. Religious people are often the ones who will do anything they can to make God manageable. They will print book after book, pamphlet and pamphlet, attempting to remove all God’s holy ambiguity and explaining away every mystery. They will take their great Christian freedom and boil it down to habits and clichés. If you don’t believe me, go over to the parking lot of the Christian bookstore and look at the bumper stickers on all the Christian cars.
It’s not that they are wrong. Just small. Their faith is too small. In the great line from J. B. Phillips, our God is too small.
This is the truth about us, the religious people, the offspring and adoptees of Israel. In the attempt to deal with our anxiety as we make our way through the wilderness, we create a smaller, simpler god. “The human heart,” said John Calvin, “is a factory of idols.” What we create, again and again, is merely a shadow of the Lord who frees people from oppression, sin, and death.
But the real God, the God of Israel – well, that God defies explanation. In fact, we heard it: when Yahweh the Lord sees the Golden Calf, Yahweh says to Moses, “I am going to blast them back into the sand. I will snort my hot wrath, consume them, and start all over.”
Moses said, “Wait a second. You are going to blast them away? But they are your people. You said it yourself. They are your own people. How dare you wipe them out!”
There was silence. Deep silence. Then God said, “You are right. I will change my mind.”
Now, do you think people like us are capable of changing our minds? What do you think?
(c) William G. Carter
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