The Problem with Golden Calves

16th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 24C)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Exodus 32:7-14

Psalm 51:1-10
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen

St. Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I have to confess, I’m a little envious of the Israelites.  Wouldn’t it be nice if our idols, the things that draw us away from God, were as easy to spot as a golden calf?  Imagine this: “Oh, that looks like fun, all the cool people are doing it, maybe I should—no, nope, they’ve got a golden calf, guess I’ll go do something else.”  Or how about this:  “Wow, that guy’s making some really good points.  I never thought about it that way, but that makes sense.  I guess I agree with—yowza, he’s got a golden calf.  I guess not.  Maybe I should take a more critical look at what he’s trying to do, because something’s not right here.”  Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that simple?

On the other hand, even the golden calf itself wasn’t really that simple for the Israelites.  After all, they didn’t see anything wrong with it—in fact, they demanded that Aaron make it!  Even though they’d just sworn to follow the Ten Commandments a few chapters earlier, here they are making an idol.  Why would they do that?

They were scared—they’d left behind everything they knew, and were in the middle of a wilderness, with basic necessities like food and water scarce and sometimes nowhere to be found.  Their leader, Moses, the one with the direct line to God, had disappeared up the mountain.  They wanted a tangible representative of God, proof that God was with them.  So they made one.  And Aaron was very clear, the calf was meant to represent their God, the God who led them out of Egypt and talked to Moses.  It wasn’t like they’d decided to start worshipping Egyptian gods, or the gods of the peoples living around them—all they did was make a symbol to set at the center while Moses was away.  So why was God so angry that he wanted to destroy his own people?  What was so bad about it?  What made the calf the straw that almost broke the camel’s back?  It wasn’t like the Israelites had never sinned before!

The thing about the calf, though, is that it’s a thing, a thing that can’t talk back or contradict you or rebuke you.  You can put a statue anywhere, make it a part of anything you please, and it can’t say no.  It can’t say or do anything you don’t want it to.  More than that—it’s a thing you can make.  You can shape it to look like whatever you want.  It’s predictable.  It’s easy.  It’s comfortable.  It’s safe.  A statue—an idol—will never demand anything you don’t want to give.  It will never ask you to do something you don’t already want to do.  But it’s still close enough to the God it represents that you can use it as justification, a way to cloak your own desires with God’s will.

God—the real God—is not that simple.  God is the one who breaks chains and brings people out of slavery, who creates and redeems the whole world and breathes into it his own life-giving spirit.  God is the one who loves us passionately and will never let us go.  God is the one who takes us and re-forms us as his beloved children, as workers in the kingdom of heaven.  God is the one who heals us, who comforts us, who is with us no matter what, even when we can’t see him as the Israelites couldn’t when they made the Golden Calf.  God is the one who forgives us when we sin.

But God isn’t safe, or tame, or predictable.  And sometimes, all too often, what we really want isn’t God’s creative and redemptive power, but something simpler and less threatening.  We want something that won’t push us out of our comfort zone, something that is easy, something that will confirm we’ve been doing the right thing all along.  We prefer comforting lies to difficult truths.  And so we go looking for idols.

There are a lot of idols in the world today, even within the church.  It’s a scary time for America: old certainties have fallen away.  Our religions are fragmented, our politics are worse, the old ways of doing things are changing and it’s hard to know what will come next.  There are wars, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and droughts all around the world.  People are dying and in dire need in our community and around the world.  We’ve been giving, and giving, and nothing seems to change.  Even our economy, the foundation of the US’s primacy in the world, is failing.  Everywhere you turn, things look bad.  We are afraid.  We are afraid of ourselves, and we are afraid of people who are different, ethnically, nationally, religously.  We are afraid of what the future might bring.  We are afraid of change and we are afraid of things staying the same.  Like the Israelites, we are in the wilderness.  And it is in the wilderness, when old certainties are gone and we have not yet reached the new promise, that idols look the most inviting.

There are all sorts of idols today, to suit whatever you’re looking for.  And unfortunately, they’re a lot harder to recognize than a golden calf.  For the socially and religiously liberal, whose goal is the transformation of society in line with their ideals, the golden calf is a God who came for social liberation, whose gospel is social justice, to the exclusion of all else.  For the socially and religiously conservative, whose goal is a return to the moral and political certainties of the last century, the golden calf is a God who came to teach moral lessons, whose gospel is old-fashioned American values, to the exclusion of all else.  For the economically driven, the golden calf is a God of material prosperity, whose gospel is riches.  Religious leaders, politicians, activists, self-help gurus, all come to the word of God with an agenda, and go away with exactly what they wanted to find.  They claim God’s authority for themselves, and we follow along behind because they tell us what we want to hear, and all too often they pander to our fears.

Now, our God is a God of justice and liberation, and our God is a God of righteousness who wants us to live a moral and blessed life, but those flow from the creative and redeeming work of God within us and in the world.  Justice and righteousness flow from the Gospel, not the other way around.  And God’s blessings cannot be counted in material possessions.  But in our fear and self-directed certainty, we choose the easy path, and we make a God of our own expectations, and we close our ears and harden our hearts to God’s true call.  We are a stiff-necked people who would rather go our own way than bow before the one true God who created us, who redeems us from our bondage and breathes his holy Spirit into our lives.  No wonder God gets angry at the Israelites!  No wonder God gets angry at us!

And yet, if God is angry, it is because he loves us, and wants the best for us.  God doesn’t want us to be lost in our own fears and self-certainties.  God doesn’t want us to go astray, and yet even when we do, God loves us.  We are all sinners.  We all go astray like sheep, and we all get lost like the coin.  We have all been, like Saint Paul, blasphemers and people of violence, in our different ways.

In the midst of our selfish fears, as we have strayed so far from where we should be, God comes to us.  Jesus Christ breaks into our world to save sinners, to save us, despite ourselves.  Jesus Christ comes with grace and truth, giving us faith for our doubts and hope even in the midst of our fears.  Christ, the son of the living God, who is greater than we can imagine and cannot be contained in our petty understandings, emptied himself and became a human like us, so that we might be redeemed.  He showed us how to live and how to love, as individuals and as a community, that our joy might be full, even when we’re in the wilderness.

We are broken, sinful creatures, children of a fallen humanity.  No matter how much God loves us, no matter how much wisdom and faith God tries to give us, we keep going astray like sheep.  We look for shortcuts, for easier paths, for greener pastures, for simpler messages.  And each time, God comes out to find us, to meet us where we are, and lead us back rejoicing.

We live in the between time, caught between the already and the not yet.  Jesus Christ has already come to the world, to give his life for all the world.  And yet Jesus Christ has not yet come again to complete His work and bring to life the new heaven and the new earth, where all things will be made new.  In this between time, there will be times when we feel like we are in the wilderness.  There will be times when we don’t think God is with us, and will try to grasp at whatever we think might help us.  There will be times when we go astray, and must be brought back by Jesus.  Being a Christian does not mean that things will always go well, and it does not mean that we will always follow God perfectly, and it does not mean that we will never go astray.  Being a Christian means that we trust God to find us no matter how lost we get, to love us, to show us God’s own grace and mercy and truth.

Now we see God’s good news only dimly, but when Christ comes again to take us to him we will see all things fully, as they really are.  And we will see Harold, and Tom, and all the saints who go before us, and there will be no more fear, no more grief, but only joy and love.  To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.

Amen.

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