Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Taming God

1st Corinthians 10:12-18 and Exodus 32

 Our story begins with Moses up on the mountain with God, and he doesn’t come down “right away.”  It makes you wonder how long the people waited for him, doesn’t it?  I mean, if it only took three days from the crossing of the Red Sea till the day they started crying out “There’s no water!  We’re going to die!” then maybe it wasn’t all that long after Moses went up on the mountain.

 The people come to Aaron, God’s own choice for a high priest, by the way!  And they say to him, “Moses, who brought us out of Egypt….”  

 Wait a minute:  Just who brought them out of Egypt?  Was it Moses, or was it God?  Right here, we begin to see the problem.  The people have made an idol out of Moses.  They look at Moses and they see a visible representation of God.  And if Moses is gone, then God must be gone, too!  They need to find a new idol.  

 “Make us gods to lead us.”  And Aaron, quite maddeningly I’d say, agrees to it!  How could Aaron agree to such a thing?  Some people say he has lost his “critical self-awareness.”  He’s lost his sense of who he really is and what he should be doing.  He’s lost sight of his role among God’s people.  Rather than a servant of God, he now imagines that he is able to “produce God.”  That temptation will always be there for those who serve God, to think that they can do things that only God can do.  

 So Aaron tells the people to bring gold and they melt it down and make an idol in the shape of a calf.  Two things about that:  First, the idol was probably not made of solid gold.  That would be a lot of gold.  What they would do would be to make a wooden form and lay gold over it.  Hence, later Moses was able to burn it.  Solid gold doesn’t burn.  Second, the idol was probably not in the shape of a calf, a baby cow, but rather in the shape of a young bull.  A young bull would be a symbol of strength and fertility in the ancient Near East mindset.  There were a few ancient Near East gods who were thought of in the form of a young bull.  But more often, the bull was thought of as the throne of a god.  So perhaps the idea was not that Yahweh was depicted as a young bull, but rather seated upon a young bull.  

 The people exclaim, “These are the gods who brought us out of Egypt!”  And perhaps Aaron begins to feel some remorse over what he’s done, so he says, “Tomorrow we will have a festival to the Lord, to Yahweh.”  

 So there’s still worship of Yahweh.  It’s not that they’ve outright rejected Yahweh.  But there is syncretism going on.  Syncretism is when people mix the worship of God with other religious ideas.  They still worship God, but they add other gods or idols to their worship of the true God.  And that happens quite frequently.  I think it’s still a temptation for the Church today.  We may be tempted to think so much of other things that they get in the way of our worship of the true God.  It might be a building.  It might be a charismatic leader.  It might be certain ideas or agendas.  

 The great sin of Israel, not just here but many places in the Old Testament, was that they attempted to substitute man-made, visible, readily available gods for the true, invisible, holy God.  They tried to domesticate God, to tame God.  They tried to remake God into something was predictable and controllable.  Rather than faith, they were looking for certainty.  You don’t need to have faith in an idol.  You can touch it; you can control it; you can see it.  In many ways, it’s easier to worship an idol than the true God.  

 The next day, worship begins in the way God had prescribed:  burnt offerings and peace offerings.  But before long, it degrades into something else.  Once the nature of God was corrupted by idolatry, then the worship of God degrades into “pagan revelry.”  The Hebrew word here described shameless, drunken, sexual acts.  

 It was a common belief in the ancient Near East that “human fertility” could be used as a form of “sympathetic magic” to create fertility in the world.  Of course, everyone needed fertility.  They needed the crops to grow and the herd animals to reproduce.  And many people believed that this “pagan revelry” encouraged the gods to grant them fertility in their fields and their herds.  Or at least it was a convenient excuse to act out in sexual ways.  

 And God said to Moses, “The people you brought from Egypt have defiled themselves.”  Notice that just as the people had credited Moses with their deliverance, so now God credits Moses with it.  Why?  Because he is disowning them.  They have disowned him, and he honors their wishes by disowning them.  

 God goes on, “I will destroy them and make a great nation of you, Moses.”  

 I think God is testing Moses.  There’s a test of Moses’ ambition.  Does Moses want to serve God’s people, or would Moses prefer the “greatness” of having a people of his own?  

 God is also testing what Moses has learned of God’s own character.  God has already shown himself to be rather patient with these stubborn people.  Will Moses now be patient with them, too?

 Moses passes the test.  He pleads with God on behalf of God’s people.   “What about your covenant, God?  Will you not keep it?  What will the other nations say about you if you destroy your own people?”  

 And God relents.  This Hebrew word, translated “relents” or “repents” is a difficult word to understand.  For one thing, it is almost exclusively used of God, so it’s hard to know how best to translate it from other situations.  But the question is there:  Does God change his mind?  And there is no easy answer to that question, because it raises all kinds of questions about God’s knowledge of the future and his unchanging character.  But we do see in the Old Testament that God “relents,” whatever that means, in response to three things:  1.  Prayer  2.  Human repentance and 3.  His own mercy and compassion.

 So Moses goes down to confront the people.  First he does two things.  He breaks the stone tablets of the covenant.  Now there’s certainly anger in Moses’ actions.  He is rightly angry at them for their rejection of God.  But it is also a visible display of the way they have broken covenant with God.  And second, Moses destroys the idol and makes them eat it.  That was done to ensure that it was completely destroyed.  No word about how it tasted.

 He confronts Aaron about his involvement.  And Aaron is just a bundle of lousy excuses:  They’re wicked.  They pressured me into it.  You were gone.  And when I put the gold in the fire, this bull just came out on its own!  He denies responsibility.  

 But it’s not over yet.  The people are still “out of control.”  Sometimes that phrase gets translated as “to cast off all restraint,” as in Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no revelation from God, the people cast off restraint.”  So Moses calls those loyal to God to take up arms and kill the idolaters, just as Exodus 22:20 said, “Those who sacrifice to idols must be put to death.”  

 This is not the only example in the Old Testament of the “righteous people of God” killing the ungodly.  It’s troubling for us.  So troubling in fact that there were in some in the early Church who argued that the God of the Old Testament was a different God from the God of the New Testament.  Now, we have a different ethic of how to

relate to the ungodly.  We believe that we pray for and witness to the ungodly, but are careful not to follow their example.  In the Old Testament, there was a more “protectionist” ethic:  A hard-line separation and isolation against the ungodly, even to the point of killing those who threatened the holiness of the faithful community.  

 But the one unbroken thread that runs through both testaments is that loyalty to God must come first of all, even above loyalty to family.  Moses said that, and Jesus said that.  God is jealous for our affections, not willing to be part of shared worship with idols.  He rightly deserves our affections, and God blesses those who value loyalty to him above all else.  

 At the conclusion of the chapter, Moses is again in prayer for the nation.  And I want to draw your attention to something he says, “Please forgive their sin, and if not, then blot me out of your record.”  Moses offers to take the punishment the people rightly deserve.  He has learned the servant’s heart.  And of course it reminds us of Jesus, who took the death that we deserved upon the cross.

 We heard earlier from 1st Corinthians.  Paul tells us that while idols may not be real, idolatry is real.  There is a real temptation to worship things other than God.  And there is a real temptation to turn God into an idol, to tame him, to domesticate him, to turn him into something we can control.  So Paul warns us, “Flee from idolatry.”  There are some sins that are just not worth fooling around with, and idolatry is one of them.  It is insidious.  We may not even realize that we are involved in it.  

 So the question is:  Are we accepting God as he is and submitting ourselves to him as he is, or are we like Aaron and the people of Israel at Sinai, trying to remake God to fit our ideas?  The answer to that question is never easy because we all have the potential in us to be idol-makers.  We may never chip away at stone or carve wood, but we can certainly elevate other things above the level of God.

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