Sunday June 10th
Here’s a little riddle for you about cows:
Do you know how long cows should be milked?
The same way that short cows should be milked!
In Exodus 32 the people of Israel are going to literally have a cow – one that they made for themselves!
Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Look how quick they were to just abandon Moses and all that he had taught them about worshipping the true God of Israel. But that’s how people can be – very fickle!
Now the heat is on Moses’ brother Aaron, and he falls into what one writer calls “Male Answer Syndrome”, which is defined as “a tendency of men to answer a question even when they don’t know the right answer.”
I mean, think about it – there is only one correct answer that Aaron can possibly give, and that answer should be “No, I can’t do that, it would be wrong.”
He should have reminded them of what God had already said in Exodus 20 verse 4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth below…”
But instead of giving THAT answer, Aaron gives THIS answer:
2 Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” 5 Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6 So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.
Here is how the Jewish Bible commentary explains all of this:
“The Jews needed a tangible representation of the Divine presence in their midst.” They had seen the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire and they wanted some form of visual reminder that God was still with them.
Now remember that, during all of this time, Moses was up on the mountain receiving the 10 Commandments.
So God tells Moses to go back down immediately because: "Your people have messed up!"
7 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’”
Moses, as a human being, has been completely unaware of what’s been going on down at the bottom of the mountain. But God, who knows all things, is VERY aware of what’s happening among the people that He has chosen and rescued from Egypt. And God offers Moses an interesting choice:
9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. 10 Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.”
God is offering Moses a reboot! He’s saying, “Listen Moses, you and I both know that this group of Hebrews has been nothing but trouble – grumbling, complaining, rebelling, and now they’re building idols to worship!
How about I just wipe them all out and we start over? I’ll start again with you the way I did with Abraham and with Noah. I’ll find you a new wife and start fresh with your new descendants. What do you think about that?”
But Moses actually has grown to LOVE these people, despite all of their complaints and issues, which is the mark of a true leader. So he answers God this way:
11 Then Moses entreated the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14 So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
Moses’ argument is basically, “Yeah God, but that would look pretty bad to the Egyptians if you wiped out the entire Hebrew nation after rescuing them, don’t you think?”
Now it says in verse 14 that God changed His mind, but I wonder if God wasn’t just testing Moses, to see what he would say, the same way that God tested Abraham but never really intended to let Abraham sacrifice Isaac.
15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets which were written on both sides; they were written on one side and the other. 16 The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing engraved on the tablets. 17 Now when Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a sound of war in the camp.” 18 But he said,
“It is not the sound of the cry of triumph,
Nor is it the sound of the cry of defeat;
But the sound of singing I hear.”
Joshua has been faithfully waiting for Moses, somewhere up on the mountain. He hears all of the commotion down below and tells Moses, “It sounds like a battle is going on down there!” But Moses knows the truth, because God has already warned him, so he tells Joshua, “That’s not a battle you’re hearing, it’s a party!”
19 It came about, as soon as Moses came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.20 He took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water and made the sons of Israel drink it.
If Moses had truly talked God out of His anger, maybe he should have planned to deal with his own anger too. Because he goes off the rails when he sees what the people have done. He smashes the Ten Commandments, melts down the golden calf, mixes the melted gold with water, and makes those rebellious Israelites drink it!
Then he has a few choice words for his brother:
21 Then Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?” 22 Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. 23 For they said to me, ‘Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.”
Did you catch that hilarious lie? “I don’t know how it got there! I just threw a bunch of gold jewelry into the fire, and the next thing I knew – this calf appeared!”
Yeah, right! Now Moses is going to lay out a challenge:
25 Now when Moses saw that the people were out of control—for Aaron had let them get out of control to be a derision among their enemies— 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered together to him. 27 He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.’” 28 So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day. 29 Then Moses said, “Dedicate yourselves today to the Lord—for every man has been against his son and against his brother—in order that He may bestow a blessing upon you today.”
The sons of Levi pledge their loyalty to Moses, and then they help carry out Moses’ judgment against the other Israelites who participated in the idol worship. But where were these guys when the false worship was going on? Why didn’t they speak up then or try to put a stop to it?
After his anger has cooled down, Moses prays to God for forgiveness for the rest of the people:
30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You yourselves have committed a great sin; and now I am going up to the Lord, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 Then Moses returned to the Lord, and said, “Alas, this people has committed a great sin, and they have made a god of gold for themselves. 32 But now, if You will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out from Your book which You have written!” 33 The Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book. 34 But go now, lead the people where I told you. Behold, My angel shall go before you; nevertheless in the day when I punish, I will punish them for their sin.” 35 Then the Lord smote the people, because of what they did with the calf which Aaron had made.
This whole story is one of those that we can too easily file under the category of – “That’s what those Hebrew people did back then, but I’ve never worshipped any golden calves!”
The thing is - idolatry can take a lot of different forms.
And I want to give you an interesting perspective that one writer shared. He wrote this:
We try to make idolatry hit home by naming some modern practices or things as idols: a hobby, a job, a person. A contemporary idol is something or someone that replaces God in our lives. We set something else in God’s place. Idols replace God. That’s how we typically talk about idolatry.
But that’s not the way the story of the golden calf describes idolatry. God isn’t simply being replaced with the image of the golden calf. There’s something else going on. Let’s examine this more closely:
At Aaron’s request, the people give up all their golden jewelry. Aaron melts it down and forms a calf. But the calf isn’t supposed to replace the God of Israel. Instead, the people perceive the calf as a way to worship the God of Israel.
This is what they say when they see it: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” The calf isn’t actually a replacement for God; rather, it is meant to help the people in their attempt to worship the true God. The calf simply functions as a focal point for God’s presence in the midst of the people.
Aaron is very clear about this. He says to the people in verse 5, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” When he says “the Lord” he uses the same name that God gave to Moses at the burning bush—YAHWEH. This golden calf is in some strange way supposed to help the people of Israel worship Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…the God who just saved Israel from Egyptian slavery.
To these people the calf is simply a creative aid for the worship of the Lord; it helps them make God feel present, tangible, and real. For them it served the same purpose as having a worship team or waving banners. It was intended to get them into God’s presence, or more accurately, it was intended to make God’s presence appear before them.
But this is what idolatry does - It ultimately distracts us from a true relationship with God. It’s an exciting spectacle that distracts us from the reality of the true God who is always present, who is always near us, who will never leave us nor forsake us.
The thing is that we can all recognize very easily that God is not a golden calf. That image has nothing to do with God’s presence, even if they thought they were worshiping the true God.
But God isn’t a lot of other things that we sometimes use to try to connect with His presence.
For instance, God isn’t a certain worship song or a certain worship band or a certain style of worship or a certain volume of worship, but sometimes we act like God is only present when the worship is to our liking.
When we think that way, we make worship an idol.
And God isn’t necessarily in our flag waving or our shouting or even our praying in tongues. Those things CAN BE ways to connect with God, but if we start acting as though we MUST do those things in order to feel God’s presence, we turn those forms of worship into idols.
But isn’t speaking in tongues and prophesying good?
Well yes, it certainly can be, but as the Apostle Paul reminds us in 1st Corinthians 13:1-2
“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
What are noisy gongs and clanging cymbals made of?
Metal, just like a golden calf!
Tongues, prophesy, and any other act or gesture that is separated from love is nothing but an idol, because it causes us to miss the true presence and image of God.
And what is the true image of God? We were told back in Genesis 1:26 Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’
Where do you go to find God’s true image? Where do you go to find God’s true presence? Where do you go to know that God is still with you? You don’t have to go anywhere. Turn to your neighbor. Turn towards any other human being. That’s how close the image of God is.
And as John told us in 1 John 4:20
If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.
Here’s my suggestion as to how to tell whether your favorite form of worship is genuine or if it has become an idol:
Does it make you love other people more?
It’s that simple. Because if you come away from some supposed time spent with God and you can’t get along with your brothers and sisters in Christ, then you weren’t truly worshipping god – you were worshipping your worship time. And that thing you were doing has become an idol in your life.
Let me close out this message with this wonderful quote that sums it all up very clearly:
“True worship is a life-long education in how to dwell with God and our neighbors at every moment of your life. True worship isn’t an enthusiastic moment of escape; instead, true worship teaches us how to be present, truly present, in a world held in together only by God’s grace. True worship is a slow, patient path of discovery where we come to see people, even difficult people, as the image of God’s beautiful presence.”