June 10, 2018

“Idol Worship”

 Exodus 20:1-17; Exodus 32:1-14


Last week, we spoke briefly about Aaron and the making of the golden idol calf, but we only touched upon it. As we look specifically at the second commandment today, “You shall not make for yourself an idol,” we need to look a bit more in depth at this scene. Moses had gone up either Mt. Sinai or Mt. Horeb to receive the Ten Commandments, and then came back down amongst the people of God. But the next morning, Moses left again to go up the mountain which was covered in a cloud, (Often the symbol of God’s presence in scripture). Moses waited by the cloud for six days, then went into the cloud on the seventh day. But Moses didn’t come out of the cloud. In fact he remained there for forty days.  The people got restless. They missed their leader. Perhaps Moses had abandoned them or gotten hurt or was dead. Furthermore, they had a short memory. They had already forgotten God’s faithfulness. Sure God had gotten them out of Egypt, freed them from 400 years of bondage, had rescued them from Pharaoh and his army, but what had God done for them lately? They were abandoned in the middle of nowhere. Their hero, their idol Moses was gone, and they needed a new god stat.



“Moses was so yesterday!” comments one of the Israelites. “We need a new leader, one who won’t leave us all the time, who isn’t so moody, and who has more shine and pizzazz!”  The crowd cast their votes, and went to the representative of their old leader, Aaron, who also happened to be his brother. Aaron went along with the crowd.


Perhaps he didn’t want to rock the boat, didn’t want to stand up against the crowds for fear of what might happen to him and to his family. Yet here was Moses’ brother, who stood with him before Pharaoh, who helped free the slaves, and who had become a prophet of the people, and the head priest, who was according to Psalm 133 anointed with oil which signified his total consecration in holy service to God. Perhaps life had been pretty rough in the 40 days since Moses had departed, and Aaron didn’t enjoy having to make decisions for the people. Surrounded by impatient and angry crowds, life got hard, and so even Aaron looked elsewhere for help.


Theologian Stephen J.Shoemaker says, “When times get hard and God seems nowhere to be found, the consolations of what we can see and touch, taste and smell are awfully appealing: the feel of gold, the taste of skin, the smell of soil, the sea. Golden calves often beat out the imperceptible God.”




I remember a chaplain candidate I had a class with while I was in seminary. He mentioned to our group how he counseled a woman who was in distress, who had prayed and prayed for help and healing, but didn’t find relief. “What do I do when my faith in God doesn’t seem to work anymore?”, she asked him. “Try a new kind of religion, or add something to yours.”, was his answer. He suggested she begin Native American spirituality as a way to seek peace and healing, which she did readily. When in her eyes, God stopped working, she replaced God with  something else, just as the Israelites had done.


The crowds took off their golden rings which were on the ears of all the people. These rings signified ownership in slavery. They took their symbols of servitude and gave them over to Aaron to make a golden calf, enslaving themselves to a false idol. Why a “Calf?” The actual word in Hebrew is  “bull”. There were bovine gods on both ends of the trail when the Israelites made their trek from Egypt to The Promised Land. The Egyptians had their cow-god Hathor as well as their bull god Apsis, and the Canaanite religion worshiped the bull as a symbol of power and fertility. Some features of Canaanite religion attracted the Israelite religion, including the fertility rites of the bull which prompted orgiastic worship and sacred prostitution.  The bull was the cult animal of the Canaanite god Ba’al. Israel’s king Jeroboam I had shrines dedicated to Yahweh, but also had golden bulls throughout the buildings, which may’ve been an influence of the Canaanite religion.


Why does Aaron say in plural, “These are your gods?” There was only one bull, according to the text. Scholars think this may be a reference to 1 Kings 12:28-another story in which there are two golden calves. This scene in Exodus may have been influenced in some way by this story, or perhaps both Apsis and Hathor were made.  We don’t know for sure. What this statement does tell us is that even Aaron had replaced Moses and was speaking on behalf of God. It was the bovine god that would lead them now, not  the one God, Yahweh, or God’s representative, Moses.


Maybe feeling a bit guilty for his statement, Aaron suggested the following day would be a festival to Yahweh- Perhaps he wanted to avoid violating the first two commandments.


Then we read that at this festival, the people rose up to “play.” They weren’t playing baseball or soccer. This wasn’t a friendly pick up softball game after a church picnic.  The word for “play” suggests that a rowdy party, complete with orgy ensued, sort of a spring break Wilderness party…. That was not what Aaron had in mind to honor Yahweh. Suddenly, most of God’s commands were broken all at once as the good times rolled.


This act by the Israelites is called “apostasy”- it is a departure from one's religion or one's principles. And, as is usually the case, the departure is caused by following one or both of the two main detractor idols from religion: the material idol (golden calf) and the sensual idol (the party to honor Yahweh). For those of you who have followed Game of Thrones, think Tyrion Lannister, before he got serious. The "material" and the "sensual" are the two pied pipers of apostasy. An unrestrained pursuit of material things and sensual pleasures will lead one away from God and faith quicker than anything. Only when God is first and foremost will life succeed--a lesson the Israelites had to learn, as we must, too. Idols of course, are still around today, and they aren’t limited to being golden statues anymore either. Consider the following three examples:


1)We call them sports idols, and entertainment idols, an appropriate designation. And we give them our generous offerings, paying large amounts of money for tickets just to see them sing, and play. We fork over cash for our favorite sports franchises to help them build huge ridiculously expensive stadiums for them to play in.  This perpetuates the system of chasing the almighty dollar- The idolatry of the material. Not long ago, an NBA basketball player noted for his ability to rebound and destroy backboards with his slam-dunk, was offered a fortune to endorse Nike shoes. The NBA star agreed, he posed for a poster session, and 20,000 posters of the player were printed. It wasn't until after the posters were distributed that someone discovered that one of the shoes our hero was wearing for the poster ad was, in fact, made by Adidas. He was sued for damages, of course. But when asked in court why he didn't wear the Nikes on both feet for the poster shot, he said that he felt it was enough that he wore that make of shoe on one foot because he also endorsed the other brand ... and if he had a third foot he'd find yet another sponsor. It was all about the material, about the money. As we consider this story of idolatry and the story of the golden bull or calf, in a twist of irony he just happened to play for...wait for it- the Chicago “Bulls."



2)Finances can become an idol for us so easily. We worry about our incomes, worry about our investments, worry about not ever having enough money to make ends meet. Philosopher and author Sam Keen was leading a seminar for religious folk and asked: "What are the symbols of your religion?" The participants named things like the cross, the Bible, and other objects of popular piety. "Baloney!" said Keen. "Take out your wallets; your purses. What do you find? Spread it out in front of you." They did, and saw Keen's point as they looked at their money, their credit cards, their social security cards, their business cards, their medical insurance cards, and so forth. Keen then told them each to take a dollar bill, set it on fire and let it burn up. Only a few of the participants could do it; it seemed such an utter sacrilege--and it revealed their idolatry. When we try to replace God with the almighty dollar, we worship a golden bull indeed.


In his book Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe describes a Wall Street trading room as a place where young men assembled "to moo for money," imagining themselves to be "Masters of the Universe" as they swore and bellowed into telephones, trading securities worth millions in the space of a few seconds, believing that "by age 40 you were either making a million a year or a million a day,” as Michael Milken reportedly made, before his methods put him in prison. Such total obsession in chasing dollars and the scandalous methods of that chase by the predatory pirates of Milken's ilk, is the lowest bow possible to a golden calf in today's "bull market," and the despicable practices in place helped bring this nation to its financial knees in October of 2008. Jesus tells us we cannot serve both God and money. We can learn from today’s passage that placing our material concerns ahead of our faith in God will get us no more satisfaction than the Israelites got in the desert as they worshiped their golden bull.


3) What about feeding our desires of food, drink and sex in excess as the Israelites did at their party the day after the bull was made? We have within us a natural preference for pleasure over pain. Our mind loves to experience sensual pleasure and we reside in a world teeming with pleasurable possibilities. We are surrounded with color, sound, and form, and have within our biological make-up senses that respond with excitement to such stimuli as eating, seeing, hearing, touching.



The very pleasurableness of pleasure, however, can be a snare. It can become an idol when pleasure becomes a supreme pursuit, when self-denial is forgotten, and the golden calf of pleasure pushes God aside. Pleasure then becomes our god. An example this overload of the senses life style would be that of a rock and roll singer.  Singer Alanis Morissette was rocketed to the top of the rock charts many years ago with her first album, “Jagged Little Pill.” After years of struggling to make it, Morissette was suddenly there, and she was able to feed all of her desires. She lived the life of excess. Yet in time, she drew back from her success, and people wondered what went wrong. Alanis began to see the emptiness of an idolatry of the senses. “I wish people could achieve what they think would bring them happiness, in order for them to realize that that’s not what happiness really is,” she said. When we live for pleasure, and not for God, life seems hollow and shallow. Author Joy Davison says, “Living for our own pleasure is the least pleasurable thing we can do; if our neighbors don’t kill us in disgust, we will die slowly of boredom and lovelessness.”


We need to touch on a difficult segment in today’s passage, verses 5-6. God says, “You shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the sin of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commands.” What in the world are we to do with such a passage? First, let’s take it in context, as an idiom that meant the children would be punished for the father’s sin. This was often the experience for the Hebrew people. The nation of Israel was repeatedly punished for their transgressions when they turned away from God. As a result, children 3-4 generations down the road suffered in exile in Babylon, including innocent children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. God’s declaration about "visiting the iniquity" means that God will go and "see the sin" practiced by the fathers, being learned and practiced by their descendants. They will be punished for their own sin, learned from their fathers.

But a more important answer can be found in looking at the main covenants expressed in scripture. There are in effect four main covenants between God and the people: 1st- God’s covenant with Noah, followed by the covenant with Abraham, followed by followed by the covenant with Moses, and finally, Jesus Christ who is the new covenant. As Jesus is leading the disciples through the last supper, he declares, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”( Luke 22:20) Christ’s sacrifice gives us full access to grace. And Hebrews 8:15 says, “That is why he is the one who mediates a new covenant between God and people, so that all who are called can receive the eternal inheritance God has promised them. For Christ died to set them free from the penalty of the sins they had committed under that first covenant.”.(NLT) Jesus is the one who perfects the commandments, or the covenant with Moses, and is the vehicle of grace which takes us away from the sins of our descendants visiting us.


When life gets hard and we forget God’s faithfulness, when we put our material and sensual desires in place of God, we too will end up wandering in the wilderness. God says, you shall not make for yourself an idol, and gives us this guidance with good reason. When we get rid of our idols and worship the One True God alone, we will live the abundant life God intended for all humanity- one in service to others, one guided by love, fed by joy, and led by the light of hope. Alleluia! Amen.


Closing Prayer: Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God said, I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Dear Loving God, may we walk with you in faith, in spirit and in truth, so that when life gets hard, or we place others or ourselves in front of you, you might draw us back, and call us to your side. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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