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 mould, 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.
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
So here’s something that’s true about me. I am an impatient person. Now some folks might be surprised to hear me say that, as I think I do a pretty good job, in most professional settings, of taking on the role of the patient mediator— particularly in stressful situations or contentious conversations. But actually, when it comes to certain things I want to do, or things I want to accomplish, or things that I want to see happen in society, I am a terribly impatient person. Just ask my husband. He’ll tell you all about it.
I’m the kind of person who hears that famous, beloved Martin Luther King Jr. quote about the arc of the moral universe being long, but bending towards justice, and thinks, “okay, yeah, but how much longer are we going to have to wait?” When it comes to social progress in particular, I’m like the five year old kid in the back of the car driving the adults crazy, kicking the back of the driver’s seat, while incessantly asking the most annoying question in the world, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
Yes, I know all about impatience. Which is why, upon reading this week’s passage from Exodus, I knew I had to preach about it. Because I totally understand what’s going on in the minds of the Israelites when they melt down all their gold in order to fashion themselves a new god. Because quite frankly, this other God, the one that Moses supposedly had direct access to, was taking wayyyyyy too long to deliver on that promise of leading them to some supposed land of flowing milk and honey. They’d been in the desert for a really long time, and they were tired of waiting.
But perhaps I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. We should probably back up just a little bit, because it’s been a few weeks since we’ve heard from Moses and his friends, and we’ve skipped ahead a bit since our last check in with them. So basically, the last time we heard from the Israelites, they were wandering in the desert, having recently escaped from Pharaoh and his army, and they were grumbling a bit, because let’s face it— even manna from heaven starts to get a little monotonous when it’s the only thing you get to eat for every single meal, every single day.
Eventually, however, the Israelites make it to Mount Sinai where Moses receives the law—including the famous ten commandments— in a fiery display of lightening and smoke. And also a trumpet. The people are, understandably, very impressed by this, and they say to Moses, “we are totally with you, and we will totally follow all of these commands.” This instills confidence in Moses, and so he tells the Israelites that he must go back to the top of the mountain to receive further instruction about the law. “In the meantime,” he says, “just wait here, and follow the Lord’s commands. I’ll be back.” “We’ve so got this” the Israelites say in response.
But then, Moses was gone— not 10 days, not 20 days, not 30 days, but, you guessed it— 40 days and nights up on top of the mountain. And if there’s one thing that’s true about human beings that hasn’t changed in thousands of years, it’s that our memories are short. And so the people got impatient. They forgot about their promise to Moses, they got tired of waiting for him, and they decided to take matters into their own hands.
Which pretty much brings us up to speed with where our reading begins this morning. God was taking too long (in their minds) to get them where they wanted to go, and so they decided it was time to put their trust into something else. And it is here that we find what may just be the root of all idolatry— that when our trust in God begins to falter because we don’t see things happening in the way, or at the speed which we desire, we take matters into our own hands.
In some ways, I think, this is the central, ongoing narrative when it comes to humanity’s relationship to God. We find faith and then we lose it. We remember, and then we forget. We put our trust in God for a time, and then we get impatient, and disillusioned, and cynical. And so we turn away from God. We turn our backs on God’s eternal promises, in favor of promises from far less trustworthy sources— be they politicians, or corporations, or whatever the next new thing is that will supposedly save us. It’s the ongoing cycle of human history. And throughout history, we’ve found plenty of things— call them idols, call them golden calves, call them false gods—to put our trust in, over the one eternal God. Money. Material goods. Technology. Modern medicine. Wall Street. The Dow Jones Industrial Average. Status. Success. Political ideologies. Government systems. Patriotism. Industry. Military might. Institutions. And the list goes on. And here’s the thing— most of these things are intrinsically neither good nor bad. Indeed, some of them, like modern medicine, are mostly good. But all of them can become pitfalls for our spiritual health when we allow them to take the place of our divine creator in terms of where we place our ultimate trust, how we form our core beliefs, and how we choose to understand our primary identity.
Now sometimes, we can catch ourselves in this process, and we can even laugh at ourselves for it. Silly human, we say to ourselves, there you go again! When will you ever learn? Certainly, it is almost laughable that the Israelites decide to place their faith in a cow fashioned from melted gold. It’s completely ridiculous when you think about it. How is this inanimate piece of metal going to get them to the promised land?
But the truth is, this really is no laughing matter. In fact, at times, it is deadly serious. Our willingness to toss our trust in God aside in favor of more human solutions has at times cost millions upon millions of lives and been the source of terrible devastation. How often, for example, have we grown impatient with that long, moral arc, and decided that war or violence was the only we to get what we want, rather than the slow, humble, patient work of finding mutual understanding and common ground? How often have we put our faith in military might rather than the prince of peace—dropping bombs rather than forgiving our enemies? How many times have we neglected to heed God’s command to turn our swords in plough shares and our spears into pruning hooks because it wasn’t expedient or practical for us to do so?
When it comes to identifying our idols, I would suggest that an idol is anything that distracts us or prevents us from faithfully following God’s commands with a whole and undivided heart. Here in America, it seems to me that our hearts are very much divided. We have made idols out of our guns and our bombs, trusting in them, rather than in God, to keep us safe. We have forgotten Jesus’ command to put away our swords, and instead flood our homes and our street with more and more guns. For many people in this world, this is no laughing matter. It is deadly serious. But what if we were to change this narrative? What if we were to put God first? What would it look like to transform our tools of violence and war into instruments of sustenance and peace? What would it look like to trust God over guns, compassion over conflict, mercy over political expediency?
These are hard questions, I know. And I don’t expect us to come up with all the answers this morning. I’m simply trying to point out that when it comes to our American gods, and when it comes to our own personal idols— whatever they may be—it is urgent, and at times even a matter of life and death, that we recognize what they are so that we can put our trust back where it belongs— in the source of divine love, in the heart of all compassion, in the sustainer of all that is, and all that has been, and all that ever will be.
This is a hard task, and unfortunately, it’s one that we will have to engage in over and over and over again, because we are human, and we are impatient, and our memories are short. But there is good news in all of this. I’m not all about the doom and gloom this morning. The good news is this: that God’s mercy is sure and God’s faithfulness endures forever. Throughout the course of human history, we have turned our backs on God, lost faith in God’s promises, and lost patience with that long, arc of morality. We have taken things into our own hands, and we have wreaked havoc in our lives, in our communities, and on our planet. And yet, God does not turn God’s back on us. God welcomes us back every single time. God’s door is always open. God’s mercy endures forever.
Now before we proceed to the next part of our service, there is, at the end of this passage, a rather peculiar little twist that deserves our attention for just a moment. We read that Moses is able to convince God to give the Israelites a second chance, despite their faithless behavior. I realize that it might seem somewhat strange that Moses has to be the one to talk God off the edge of the cliff. I mean, shouldn’t it be the other way around? If God’s mercy is so sure and so abundant, then why was God the one who was ready to smite the whole lot of Moses’ fickle followers? This certainly has the potential to be something of a roadblock. But I actually think that this point in the narrative provides an interesting possibility for us. I would present the possibility that perhaps Moses, in this passage, could serve as a model for us as the Body of Christ in the world. That we, like Moses, are to become the advocates for mercy and compassion in a world so quick to judge and condemn. That we, like Moses, are to become reminders of God’s constant faithfulness in a world that is so quick to forget and turn away. That we, like Moses, speak words of mercy and reconciliation in the face of great anger and resentment. I ask this morning, could it be, that the very thing that makes us human—our tendency to lose faith and turn away— is exactly what gives us the capacity to show mercy and forgiveness towards others who have turned away from or lost faith in us?
It’s just a thought. And admittedly, one that requires more exploration than we have time for this morning. So I present it now simply as a possibility for further reflection. In the meantime, however, I would suggest that our most pressing task this morning is to identify where our own impatience lies, to discern where we might have misplaced our trust, and to name those things in our lives that have become idols and distractions for us. Our lives, and the future of God’s creation may in fact depend upon it.