Seward United Methodist Church
Wednesday, January 19, 2022
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In Whose Image?

Exodus 32:1-14

 I find this to be a very frustrating story.  I read it, and I want to scream: How could they!?  How could they turn away from God so soon after all the miracles he had done for them?  He had delivered them from Egypt.  He had parted the Red Sea.  He had given water from the rock, and manna from heaven.  And so soon, they turn their backs on him.  How could they substitute an idol, a piece of wood covered with gold, for the true and living God?  How could Aaron, a “professional” person of faith, a God ordained priest, be led astray himself and help to lead others astray so easily?  

 I know the answers to these questions.  I just don’t like them.  And I think the answer is that they could, and they did, because idolatry is always going to be a real and powerful temptation for us.  And maybe we don’t think about that as much as we should.  Maybe we think that because we are people of faith, and because we don’t make idols out of gold or silver or wood, that idolatry is a non-issue for us.  It isn’t.  It’s still a temptation.  Let’s talk about why.

 First, we are always going to be tempted to “re-invent” God according to the values of our society.  That’s what the Israelites were doing: re-inventing God.  

Moses was on the mountain.  Exodus 24 tells how Moses took Joshua with him up onto the mountain and they were gone for 40 days.  Chapters 25 through 31 were all about God’s instructions to Moses about the Ark of the Covenant, and the Tabernacle, and about the proper way to worship God.  Those chapters all take place on the mountain.  

Meanwhile, the people are down below.  And there is this incredibly ironic contrast.  While Moses is on the mountain, learning about how God wants to be worshipped, the people down below take matters into their own hands and do it their way.  They get impatient.  They go to Aaron and say, “Hey!  That there Moses guy has been gone a long time!  It’s time we start taking care of ourselves.  Make us a god.”  

So Aaron makes the golden bull.  A lot of Bible translations render that as golden calf, but from what I’ve read, it’s better to see it as a young bull, a bull in the prime of its strength.  The symbol of the bull was very common in the religious practices of the ancient Near East.  Almost every nation of the Near East had at least one god who was represented by a bull idol.  The best known to us was Baal, the chief god of the Canaanites.  The bull was a symbol of strength, power over the forces of nature, and

fertility.  Often the idea was not that the bull itself represented the god, but rather that the pagan god was enthroned on top of the bull.  So it may be that the Israelites were not thinking of God in the form of the bull, but rather enthroned upon it, and representing all the values that went with that image.

This would be an example of syncretism.  Syncretism is when we take elements from other religions and add them to our own.  So, rather than rejecting God completely, they were just adding elements from the religion of the people around them.  And in so doing, they were reinventing God.  They were changing God to make him fit with the values of the ancient Near Eastern world:  Power, control over the elements of nature, fertility.  

And if you think about the world they lived in, you can understand why those values were appealing.  They didn’t have the technology to be productive regardless of the weather.  They were dependent on the forces of nature.  If there was plenty of rain, they lived well.  If there was a drought, they might die.  Fertility was highly valued, partly because of the need for the crops to be productive, but also because fertility was associated with sexual indiscretion, which was a common element of Near Eastern culture.  They were re-inventing God to suit the values of the culture around them.

We are tempted to do the same thing.  We are tempted to change God to fit with the values of our society.  For example, our society values independence and self-reliance.  Go out on the street and you’ll probably find a lot of people believe that the expression “God helps those who help themselves” is from the Bible.  It isn’t, by the way.

I think the best example of this is the so-called, “Health and Wealth Gospel.”  The health and wealth gospel is the idea that if you obey God, God will bless you with good health and abundant wealth.  That’s not necessarily the case.  But there are a lot of people who preach that message in our society, because it appeals to our values, especially our culture’s love of money and desire to have the “good life” right now.

A second way in which idolatry is a temptation is that we are always going to be tempted to idolize other people.  

This whole situation got started because Moses had been on the mountain for forty days.  And it seems that the people had idolized Moses.  They saw him as the visible representation of God.  If they couldn’t see Moses, they couldn’t see God was with them.  So when he left, they went looking for a different idol.  

I think this speaks to the dangers of a personality cult, which is still very much a danger.  In any kind of organized religious system, you are going to have people who are ordained, chosen, at least in some way, to represent the presence of God.  That in itself is not necessarily bad.  What is bad is when people begin to blur the line between God and those who represent him.  

This is what “cults” are all about.  They’re all about a leader who becomes their “god.”  But it also happens in churches.  People idolize their pastor.  I know that’s hard for you to believe when you have me for a pastor, but it happens.  Sometimes people blur the lines and become devoted to their pastor rather than God.  Once or twice I’ve heard people say, “I need my pastor.”  Not about me, of course.  Well, no.  You don’t need your pastor.  You need God, and your pastor is not God.  

In a similar way, Aaron, the priest, had made the mistake of idolizing himself.  In his pride as a God-ordained person, he thought that he could “manufacture” the divine.  What is idol-making except an attempt to manufacture God.  

If people can make the mistake of “idolizing” their pastor, then it only makes sense that the pastor can make the mistake of idolizing him or herself.  They can make the mistake of thinking it’s all about them, not God.  

Both of these things are real dangers.  And usually when they happen, it’s a real mess.  I remember not too long ago hearing a situation about a church and the pastor who had founded the church.  This pastor had done all kinds of sinful things, most especially sexual impropriety with members of the church and embezzling money from the church.  And the worst part was that people in the church knew it was happening and did nothing about it.  I don’t think anything could explain that except a personality cult.  The pastor idolized himself, and thought he could do nothing wrong, and the people idolized him, and thought the same.  

A third way that idolatry tempts us is that it makes faith easy.  It tames God.  It domesticates God.  It turns God into something that can be controlled and manipulated.  And a tame God is no God at all.  Idolatry allows us to “recreate God” on our terms.  Idols are comfortable because they make us feel like “God is with us,” but it’s a God who expects nothing from us.  

It seems to me from our passage this morning, that what the people really wanted was to engage in the same pagan sexual immorality that was widely practiced

all around them.  And creating an idol that symbolized fertility, and then having a “festival to the Lord” was a way of creating a God who endorsed the very thing they wanted to do.  

The problem is that it’s a corruption of the nature of God.  After the image of God was corrupted by the use of a pagan image, then the worship of God was quickly corrupted by sinful desires.  It started out very similar to the worship that is described in Exodus 24, where after offering burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, then the people sat down to eat together.  The difference is that now those offerings were corrupted by the use of idolatry.  And once worship was corrupted, it all went downhill into a very pagan festival.

We all worship something.  Every person worships something.  It may be called God or a god.  It may be an idea, a principle, a philosophy.  It may be a more material thing:  money, success, pleasure.  But we all worship something.  And what we worship has a great influence over everything else in our lives.  What you worship determines your values.  In the case of the Israelites at Sinai, they were sort of worshipping God, but their worship of God had been so corrupted by false ideas of God, that their worship led them to values that are contrary to God’s values.

Well, what’s the answer?  What is the antidote to idolatry?  I think the answer is simply knowing God.  If we really know God, we won’t be content with idols.  If we truly know the power, the grace, the beauty, and the goodness of God, we won’t be content to worship anything less.  Only if we know the greatness of God will we be able to free ourselves from the sinful tendency to worship something less than God.

I think the root of the idolatry at Sinai is that most of the people did not truly know God.  They knew Moses.  Or they knew the pagan gods and pagan customs of the nations around them.  But they didn’t truly know God.  

We are all going to worship something.  And if you don’t know God, you’ll find something else to worship.  And I can guarantee you, it will not be as good as God. 

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