Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, March 05, 2021
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Temptations of Religion

Exodus 32:1-14

There are many, many stories in the Bible that just leave me dumbfounded when I read them. And this one might be pretty close to the top of the list. I mean, really? What is wrong with these people!? God has delivered them from slavery in Egypt with ten dreadful plagues. He led them out to the Red Sea, and when things seemed hopeless, he opened the sea and led them to safety. When they were thirsty, he gave them water. When they were hungry, he gave them food. And after all this, they turn to an idol? What is wrong with you people!?

Well, the truth of the matter is that there are always going to be temptations in religion, both for religious leaders and for all who worship God. And I think we see those temptations at work here.

Moses is up on the mountain with God. He’s been there for 40 days. And Moses has been the point of contact between these people and God all along. He is the one who speaks to God and brings God’s word to them. When they need to hear from God, they go to Moses. And it’s set them up for a crisis of faith. Moses is gone now. Can they still believe in an unseen God?

And we should remember that they have spent 400 years in Egypt, a land full of idolatry. Before that, they were in the land of Canaan, another land full of idolatry. For that matter, the whole ancient Near East world was a place of idolatry.

And idols are easy. An idol is not terribly concerned that you love it or obey it. Idols just wanted you to make the sacrifices. And then you could live as you pleased. The temptation of idolatry is to make God in our image. Make God into something you could see, touch, and control. An idol is a safe god. The real God is not safe, at all. He’s not someone we can control. Idolatry will always be a temptation. Even if we don’t make an idol of gold or silver, we are tempted to “reimagine” God into an image that we want. As one theologian observed, “the human heart is a factory for idols.”

“Moses is gone. Maybe he’s dead. Make us gods to go before us.” Moses went before the people to God. They want a substitute. An idol was a point of contact between people and the divine.

Aaron is God’s appointed high priest. He doesn’t do a very good job. He falls prey to a different temptation, the temptation to think that he can produce the holy. “God shows up because I’m here.” This is a temptation for religious leaders. We can be tempted to think that when I show up, then God is here. That’s not true. God is present wherever two or three gather in his name. Not to mention he’s already everywhere. I

don’t bring God’s presence here. But the temptation is there. I’ve seen it in my own life when people, maybe unwittingly, act like something is different just because I’m there.

Aaron makes a “golden calf.” That’s not really the best translation. The Hebrew word really meant “young bull,” not calf. The young bull was a common image in ancient Near East idolatry and mythology. The bull represented strength and fertility, things people craved. You needed strength to keep you safe from your enemies. You needed fertility in your fields and herds or you’ll starve to death.

The bull was especially common in Canaanite religion. Their chief deity, Baal, was represented by a bull. It’s debatable if Baal was actually thought of as a bull, or if the bull was his throne. Same meaning either way.

Is this bull a replacement god? Probably not. It was probably seen as an idol of Yahweh. After all, Aaron says, “Tomorrow we will have a festival to Yahweh.”

But the worship of God has been corrupted by bringing an idol into it. And sure enough, the celebration of worship is also corrupted by this practice. That’s how idolatry works its way into true religion. You change your understanding of God, and then everything else is corrupted by it. The people make sacrifices and then they get into “eating, drinking, and pagan revelry.”

“Pagan revelry” is a polite way of saying “sexual indulgence.” This was common in ancient Near East religions, especially in Canaan. Was it just a good excuse to give indulge one’s desires? Maybe. But there was also a belief in what is called “sympathetic magic.” Sympathetic magic means that when you engage in “acts of fertility” then it encourages the gods to bless you with fertility in your flocks, your herds, and your fields. In any case, they follow the practices of Canaan rather than what God has commanded for true worship.

Moses is up on the mountain. And God says, “The people you brought up from Egypt have done such and such.” It kind of sounds like God is distancing himself from these people, right? “I’ve seen how rebellious they are. Now let me kill them all and I’ll make you into a great nation, Moses.”

There is another temptation here, the temptation of ambition. “You’ll be the guy, Moses, the guy everyone looks up to!” I think God is testing Moses. What will Moses do? It’s not like he hasn’t already seen how difficult these people are!

But Moses passes the test. He reminds God of his covenant. “Don’t destroy them. What will people think of you if you do?” He appeals to God’s honor and glory. He reminds God of his mercy.

Most ancient deities became angry, a lot. It was kind of what they did. But the true God is not just a God of anger and wrath. He is also a God of grace and mercy. This is what sets God apart from the false gods.

The real test is who will Moses become? All of us are expected to grow into the image of God. In order for Moses to become a godly leader, then it’s not enough that he becomes angry at sin and rebellion. He must also become merciful and gracious.

So must we. We live in a world with a super-abundance of anger. Turn on the television or social media, and you will see plenty of anger! Sometimes anger is justified. There’s a lot of injustice and oppression and evil in our world. It’s not wrong that we become angry at these things! But anger is not the image of God. Or at least anger alone is not the image of God. We must also become gracious and merciful. Anger comes easily. Grace and mercy must be learned.

All of us must grow into the likeness of God as people of faith. But there are temptations along the way. It’s a temptation to make an idol of God, to make God into the image of what we want him to be rather than who he is. And it’s a temptation to give into anger and forget mercy and grace. Some people’s religion has too much self-righteousness and anger and not enough mercy and compassion.

Should I be dumbfounded when I read this story? No. None of us should. Because it’s about people who are just as human as you and I. We are tempted to “forget God when we can’t see him.” Tempted to “reimagine God to a form that we want.” We are tempted to be angry and self-righteous rather than merciful and gracious. Like all stories about human beings, it’s not a story about stupid people. It’s a story about people who need to grow beyond sin to become like our Creator.

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