Series: Becoming the People of God
Sermon: The Golden Calf
By: Donnell Wyche
God’s Presence is Too Much!
When we launched this sermon series, we centered in Exodus and the liberation of the people from under Pharaoh’s rule and reign because on the surface this story feels like a typical biblical story with the goodness of God defeating the powers of evil. We’ve certainly seen that, but this story also includes the story of all of us. What does it mean to be freed from the powers of empire: fear, greed, violence, material wealth, and scarcity and how will we choose to live in God’s presence, promises, and provision. We’ve seen just a bit of the ups and downs of this question as we have considered the story of this liberated people. We have witnessed the faithfulness of God, the presence of God, and the kindness of God. As we wrap up this series, I want to continue this journey by witnessing the deep grief and pain of God with one of the most dramatic parts of this story, the construction of the golden calf.
Before we get to the actual event, let’s consider what happens leading up to this event.
After God speaks directly to the people in Exodus 20 and gives the people the 10 sayings, the 10 commandments, the decalogue, the people are afraid. Hearing directly from God for themselves seems to be too much.
I’m reading from Exodus 20:18-20:
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.” The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. (Exodus 20:18–20)
The people can’t handle having direct contact with God, it’s too much. But Moses tells the people, “Don’t be afraid” – it’s best that you hear directly from God, let God’s provision, presence, and spirit keep you from sinning. This is not the absent or distant God, this is the Lord who delivers you, who leads you, who provides for you today. But like this people, we fear the vulnerability, trust, and faith that is required to follow God’s clear voice.
In what seems like a compromise, God warns the people about the potential of replacing God’s clear voice with something or someone else.
I’m reading now from Exodus 20:22-23
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold. (Exodus 20:22–23)
Sidebar: A word on idols. Many commentaries will note that the people were quite familiar with idols, with many understanding that the idol wasn’t the god or power they worship–the idol served as a representation.
God was saying something significant here. I am real. Idols aren’t. I am active. Idols aren’t. I am personal. Idols aren’t. “I am the Lord who delivered you.” You don’t need to make a representation of me, trust me, have faith in me, and do what I say, that’s enough.
In Exodus 21-24, God gives the laws of the covenant–the guidelines for how the people are to respond, interact, and serve God. Follow these laws, honor this covenant for ordering your daily life, your relationships with each other, your property, and your relationship with me. Keep this covenant, obey my commands, and you will be my kingdom of priests to the entire world. The laws outlined in the covenant establish a high standard for the people because God is trying to imprint the people with the character and identity of God and have them reflect who God is to rest of the world. This remains our calling today.
Since the people are afraid to go themselves into the presence of God, God decides to pitch a tent with the people. This is incredible! God is so committed to be with the people, that God imagines a tent with God’s abiding presence in their midst. This is the request of God since the beginning, will you make space for me in your daily life?
Sit with that for a moment.
For the next six chapters starting with Exodus 26, God gives instructions for creating a tent with detailed symbolic references that hint back again to the Garden of Eden. It’s this idea that when you are in the tent, you are in God’s presence. God is spending all this time, 40 days and 40 nights, with Moses detailing the construction of this tent to establish a place for God’s abiding presence to dwell among the people, so you would be surprised to discover what happens next.
Overwhelmed by their anxiety, the people respond to Moses’ absence by giving into fear. It’s as if Moses was the one who liberated them, instead of God.
I’m reading from Exodus 32:1-6
When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. (Exodus 32:1-6)
There is so much to unpack and so little time!
On the surface, it feels like the people have given up on the God who liberated them. They seem to be done. The powerful, providing, abiding God is too much. But, I want to enter into the text from the emotional state of the people– the people are caught up in fear and anxiety. Yes, they have been liberated from slavery, but they are also new to freedom. They are failing to figure out how to trust, follow, and worship the God they cannot see, do not understand, and cannot control.
This people is just like all of us.
When we are in midst of it, we do the exact same thing. We construct idols (of money, sex, power, success, and the list goes on.) This idol that they have requested is meant to replace Moses. In their mind, he’s probably dead, so what now? They need something to hold onto, something to see, when the world isn’t operating the way it’s supposed to be. The idol in this way is intended to give meaning, structure, and order to their lives. Even if it is a representation of God, not something that they worship instead of God, God still forbids it. God forbids all of the idols we hope to construct in our lives because nothing in creation can be a representation of God. Remember God is real, active, alive, and persona — idols aren’t.
STORY: I’ve been confronting some idols in my life recently. It’s been painful because sometimes I mix up these idols for God. What I mean by idol here is something that threatens to replace the place that God is supposed to occupy in our lives. I’ve been confronting the way I have made an idol out of success. I am an overcomer. That’s the story I tell myself about myself. I work really hard and overcome obstacles. But an idol that demands success will never accept failure. Therein lies my fear, will I be accepted and loved if I fail? Just like this people I’m afraid, so in some ways it is easier to construct an idol out of my overcoming and hard work helping me to mask and cope with my fear that I do not belong and will be abandoned if I fail.
What idols have you constructed out of fear and anxiety?
What idols have you built because you cannot see, understand, or control God?
How have your idols replaced the role and place that God should occupy in your life?
Back in Exodus 16 when Moses takes creative interpretative leaps on God’s provision, Moses knew that these people bent on rebellion needed something to hold onto, and that’s exactly what the tabernacle would help with, it would be a physical representation of God’s abiding presence, but the people are not willing to wait.
Fed up and frustrated with the people God says, “I’ll just wipe this people off the face of the earth and start over with you Moses.”
I’m reading from Exodus 32:9 & 10,
“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:9–10)
This feels a like what happened with Noah and the flood. God is fed up, ready to destroy the people and start over with Moses. I want to enter this text again by considering the emotional state, this time of God. The author of this story invites us into the deep grief and pain that God experiences in the people’s rebellion. I know it’s difficult for us to think or even imagine that God could be hurt so deeply by the people. I think we miss what’s happening here because we are so familiar with the story that we just consider this is a plot device or tool. But let’s stop and consider what God is communicating to Moses when God threatens to destroy the people. God is deeply pained, God is hurt. The people have rejected God’s faithfulness. God’s provision. God’s promise. God’s like, “Well, let’s just go ahead and finish the story, I’ll just find another group of people.” These emotions are sometimes too strong for us because they speak of God’s desire for full devotion because God is a jealous God.
Moses does something bold. Moses asks God to reconsider.
But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and 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 wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’ ” (Exodus 32:11–13)
What gave Moses the boldness to ask God to reconsider? I think it was Moses’ own experience with the anger of God. Remember when God commanded Moses to go, Moses refused. God’s anger burned against Moses, but then God came up with another way. That experience changed Moses. Moses learned something about God. God is the God of endless possibilities. So, boldly, Moses reminds God of the promise to Abraham, Isaac, Israel. In what can only be described as a change of heart, God replies.
14Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. (Exodus 32:14)
Yes, God is patient in the end. Along with God’s patience is God’s deep disappointment. The people who participated in the rebellion will be punished for their sins. Some will lose their lives as a result, some will have to carry out those death sentences, while others will experience pain and suffering. In the end, no one there that day entered the promised land except Joshua and Caleb.
But Moses tells us something significant and important about God.
“The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6–7)
To be sure God is angered by the people and what they do, but God is portrayed, again and again, as responding to the anxieties that fuel the people’s fears without compromising the vision God has for an alternative society, a renewed world, a transformed people.
This story is an invitation for us to trust God, instead of our fears and the idols we construct because of our fears. If we want to become the people of God, then we must activate trust and faith, believing in the promise and provision of God, and give up our control.
Would you stand with me as you are able…
Let’s corporately repent of our sins and our participation in the rebellion:
“Jesus of Nazareth, I acknowledge my thirst for what you have to give. I surrender myself to you, whole and entire – what was, and is, and is to come. Plunge the wrongs I have done and the wrongs done to me into your fathomless mercy. Receive me as I am today. Make me what I am meant to be, and let me walk in the path of your new creation. Amen.”