“How to Get Away with Idolatry”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, March 26, 2023
Reading: Ex 32:1-13, 19-20, 30-32.
We’re in the midst of a series on the book of Exodus. I’ve loved living with these stories. Several of you are reading along with us for Lent. I wonder if you noticed how hard, how severe, this story is for today. I’ve struggled with it. Let’s struggle with it together, shall we?
The golden calf is Israel’s worst catastrophe. At the moment of God’s giving of the law, the people are breaking all ten commandments. This is like someone cheating on their new spouse on their wedding night. If we Christians see the worst sin in Genesis 3 with the fall of Adam and Eve, our Jewish neighbours see it here, with the golden calf. Nothing worse has ever happened.
Here’s why it’s such a catastrophe. The point of God’s calling of Israel is to make a priestly people. That is, a people who pray for the whole world. We don’t use the word “priest” much around here, Lori and I and our retired clergy aren’t priests, so let me explain. A priest goes to God on behalf of the people and makes prayers, offerings. Then the priest goes to the people on behalf of God with words, direction, hope. A priest conducts traffic between heaven and earth. Israel is that priest for the world. God doesn’t call Israel for Israel’s sake. God calls Israel for everybody else’s sake. But here’s the problem. What happens when Israel, God’s priestly people, fails? Who prays for the rest of us then? Who conducts the traffic? One scholar says this is like a terrible worldwide fire. The world’s fire crew races off, but the firetruck gets stuck in a ditch. The rescuers . . . need to be rescued. Israel’s fall is not just embarrassing for her. It’s a disaster for the whole world burning. If God’s priestly people fall into idolatry, the rest of us, are beyond lost.
This story about God’s priestly people shows the best reason to come to church. We don’t come for a spiritual pick-me-up, though that can happen. We come here to pray for everybody else. To drag people before God and demand that God bless and heal them. And, my fellow priests, we have two very different portraits of priests in this story. Two ways to fail.
One, Aaron. This is not good. The people say Moses has been gone a while, who knows if he’s even coming back? “Make gods for us,” they plead. Aaron does. No argument. Takes their gold, melts it down, puts it in a mold, makes two calves—the symbol of their enemies’ gods. They acclaim, “these are your gods O Israel, who led you out of Egypt!” and Aaron builds an altar and announces a festival. They have the story right: someone led them out of Egypt, they’re right to want a festival, an altar, to give thanks. Those are all good things God directs in Exodus. But they attribute their redemption from slavery to these hand-made shiny inanimate objects. Gods they’ve made—the very definition of an idol. A teacher of mine calls the golden calf an “abominable metal cow.”
Israel wants a god it can control. Moses wanders off. The calf won’t. In Exodus, God constructs elaborate means to be present with the people but also invisible: in the tabernacle, but also veiled. With beautiful and elaborate decoration. Holy days appointed by God. Altars and festivals that require great care. Free offerings from the people, not manipulated. Exodus takes chapter after chapter to lay all this out. But the people want a visible god. One they can move around. And control. Rituals they make. It’s all done in a rush without care or tenderness. Idols are not usually the opposite of God. Idols are good things we mistakenly worship. Satan is not so obvious as to dress in red, with horns, or a pitchfork. No, evil is stealthy. It dresses up as good.
Now, this would be the obvious place for a sermon to denounce idols. That’s easy. Idols are everywhere. I said last week we’re not usually tempted to worship Molech or Baal, but we might be to worship Nike or Apple. It used to be the tallest buildings in this city were churches like ours. Churches can be idols: whose is best? Who’s right and everybody else is wrong?! But steeples were soon eclipsed by businesses, towers of commerce, banks, hundreds of stories higher, scraping the heavens. But those businesses have been eclipsed by condos, some of the most expensive buildings in the world, while other people sleep on sidewalks, government says it can’t afford to help. Our age idolizes celebrities, internet personalities, superficial physical beauty. Nobody centrally planned all these idols. They just accumulated over years. And it’s not just wealthy countries like ours that have such idols. A friend of mine did ministry in a refugee camp in northern Uganda, and noticed what buildings reached highest fastest. Little makeshift churches. Also, little makeshift . . . liquor stills. Also, little makeshift radio towers. Reaching up, just a storey or so higher than the shacks people lived in. Like Toronto in early days. We human beings long to worship, to forget our troubles and play, to communicate and conduct commerce. It’s just hard to tell when those good things become idols.
The clear villain in this passage is Aaron. Brother of Moses. Priest in Israel, forebear to all other priests after him. Aaron gives the people the idols they want. And when Moses challenges him later, what have you done, Aaron says hey, don’t look at me, you know how bad these people are, all I did was throw their gold in the fire and out jumped this calf! Total abdication of leadership. And Aaron ends up unpunished in the story! Eve gets lambasted forever after Genesis 3. Aaron doesn’t even get demoted. Aaron is an image for us leaders, and remember we’re all leaders, priests, in here. Giving people the gods they want and then disclaiming responsibility is pathetic, passive-aggressive failure.
A friend and mentor of mine noticed his roommate in college went out on dates all the time. My friend didn’t. So, he asked his roommate’s secret. Easy, he said. I tell them whatever they want to hear. That’s how he got into their heads, in their dorm rooms. Finding what hurts and speaking to it. Evil is seductive, it plays on our insecurities, worms its way around our defenses, and manipulates victory.
But Moses is not much better than Aaron I have to say.
Moses starts out this story great. God wants to destroy the people and start over with Moses. And Moses won’t let it happen. God says, “Let me alone, so my wrath may burn hot against them, and I will make of you a great nation.” Moses won’t. God says to Moses Israel is “your people, whom you led out of the land of Egypt.” God is washing his hands. Moses corrects God. No, no, no, they’re your people, whom you led out of the land of Egypt. I almost called this sermon, “Getting the Pronouns Right.” Moses argues: ‘you don’t want the Egyptians to say you led them out to murder them, do you? Remember Abraham Isaac and Jacob whom you love.’ God pauses. You’re right. ‘I’m vain. I do care about my reputation. I do love Abraham Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses later offers to be blotted out of God’s book of life if God will spare Israel. Moses will not let God give up on Israel. That’s prayer. That’s being a priest. That’s demanding goodness from God when God would rather punish. That’s leadership. It’s brilliant.
And then . . . Moses does worse even than Aaron.
For most of us human beings, our strength is very close to our weakness. Two sides of a coin. That’s true of people, institutions, countries. Aaron gives the people what they want. That’s good at times. He’d have been a good salesman. Until he gives them the idols they want. Like a pharmacist who forks over poison because a customer seeks. Moses browbeats God into sticking by Israel when Israel cheats on him on their wedding night. That’s good. Until Moses sees what Israel has done with his own eyes. And Moses loses his mind.
Moses destroys the two tablets with the commands. God didn’t tell him to, Moses just did. Moses melts down the golden calf and mixes it in with water and makes the people drink it. That is, he turns the idols into human waste, which is what idols actually are. Moses demands to know what side the people are on. And when they choose against the Lord again, the Levite priests kill the people on the wrong side. God didn’t tell him to, Moses just did. Even if they’re brother or son or father. Three thousand die. This is all in the part you didn’t hear read. Always look in the neglected places. This is religious fanaticism. God doesn’t order it. Moses just does it. He’s cleansing the contagion from Israel, treating idolatry like we’d treat a biological pathogen or an infestation in our house. No tolerance. Get rid of it. Kill them all.
These are two different terrible ways to be a priest. Aaron goes along to get along. Whatever man, y’all can have any idol you want. Moses shows zeal. Rectitude. Too much of both. I’m right, everyone else is wrong. Kill anyone who disagrees. Aaron is the know-nothing liberal who agrees with everyone. It’s all good, who cares? Like churches in our day. Moses is the fanatic who insists on purity no matter who is injured in the process. The Lord demands it! No compromise! Like churches in the middle ages, the crusades, the conquest of the Americas. So which way will Israel, our priest, collapse? The firetruck is in the ditch, and one fire captain is saying, ah, there probably isn’t a fire anyway, who cares? The other is saying keep spinning the wheels! We’ll get out of the ditch soon! And burning out the motor.
Our world is still on fire.
You may have heard the church is in trouble in North America. Numbers shrinking, influence waning. I got a book in the mail about the church in Canada this week called, God Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Canada used to be more church-going than the US in the first half of the 20th century, now we’re much less, and the US is declining too. Churches have responded to this decline by trying to appeal to customers. Build market share. Be more entertaining, and cool, tight shirts and skinny jeans. And sometimes, that’s worked. Some churches have grown by thousands. But most of those “new” people have come from other smaller churches, which then shrink, or close. And many of those giga-churches collapse in spectacular fashion. Bad priests again.
Some think, who cares? Christianity had a good run. Canada can do without it. Didn’t churches do lots of harm too?
That misses the point. The church, like Israel before us, doesn’t exist for our own sake. We exist for everybody else’s sake. Our job is to pray for and bless and repair the world. The loss of the church means the loss of God’s own presence. It’s a catastrophe. The way forward isn’t to entertain people back in. That can work for a minute, but it does real harm eventually. The goal isn’t to pretend everything is fine. It’s not. People know it. Our goal is to join with God as he heals creation. We’re God’s hands and feet, God’s tools and trowel, God’s medicine and bandages. We’re how God is making all things new. Some of the things? No. A lot of the things? No. All things new. If we’re gone, it’s like God’s gone. Do you see the problem?
And do you see why we’re struggling? It’s our own dang fault. We’re like Aaron: blasé, self-concerned, blaming others, and shrugging while the world burns. Or like Moses, arrogant, 100 percent cocksure, handing out life and death and judgment. Aaron is much like liberal churches, ah, who cares, and who knows the truth anyway? Moses is like conservative ones. We’re right, everyone else is wrong, oh, disagree? Meet my sword. God’s people are in revolt, God’s priests are failing, one this way, the other that, God’s world is on fire. This is far worse than former churches becoming nightclubs or condos. This is a death for creation.
But there’s one more character in this story. One more who has a response to our dreadful spiritual state. This one is not like Aaron. He doesn’t just give us what we want. Garth Brooks once sang “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.” Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings loves gardens. And when Sam imagines taking the ring of power, he realizes he would choke the earth with gardens. Too much of a good thing. Most of us want a God like Aaron. Sure, I’ll give you what you want! A Santa Claus where every day is Christmas. Aaron shows what happens with that sort of god. Golden calves. Idols everywhere. Aaron is like Toronto’s cool hipster neighbourhoods: pot shops and tattoo places and bourgie food on every block. Give the people what they want and they’ll like you.
This other character is not like Moses either. He has Moses’ zeal and passion for the truth. But he doesn’t break things to get it. Moses rushes around saving the world, killing those who deserve death, saving very little, making clear who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s saved and who’s not. If you’ve ever been a fundamentalist, and most of us have at some point about something, you recognize Moses. To cite a movie you’ve never heard of if you’re older than Gen X but you have memorized if you’re younger, Moses is Walter from The Big Lebowski. ‘Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one who cares about the rules anymore?’ Moses shows the Trump phenomenon, being imitated in this country in y’alls own modest way. Just raise your voice, bang the table, drown out the sinners, and the world will snap back to the 1950s, when the men were men, the women were women, and everyone knew their place. And oh, we white guys were in charge.
The other character in the story is . . . God. The one who creates the world in love. When the world disintegrates into chaos, God is tempted to wash his hands. But God lets Moses talk him out of it. God is willing to let us change God’s mind—look! It’s right there in the book! Verse 14! God changes his mind, but not his character. God’s goodness never changes—God can’t change his goodness. God is tempted to wipe us out. You will agree we human beings deserve it at times. But God won’t do it. God lets Moses hold him back. When Moses offers to let himself be blotted out of the book of life in place of Israel, God says no. I’m not killing someone who did no wrong. And then this makes me nuts y’all: God doesn’t punish Aaron! Aaron is the figure who makes me angriest in this story. I think because we live in a time when the church is Aaron. But God makes a place even for Aaron! God says okay, here we are. All the different sorts of idolators, Aaron in his way, Moses in his. Worshiping things we made. That’s death. That’s a world on fire unrelieved. What will I do?
Start over with new, better people this time? No, I tried that, with Noah, and ten minutes after Noah’s ark lands, Noah is drunk and naked and cursing his own children. Didn’t work. I’ll stick with this compromised people. For better or worse, precisely when they don’t deserve it. And I’ll work from within to make them holy. To get the firetruck out of the ditch, and on the way to repairing the world, putting out the fire, making all things new. I’ll do it even with flawed zealous Moses, killing willy-nilly to show he’s right. I’ll do it even with flawed Aaron, live and let live, whatever man, not noticing the destruction that results. I’ll do it even with my compromised church in Canada. My overly zealous church in some times and places. My liberals and my conservatives—both being liberal and being conservative are great ways to avoid God. God says, ‘these atrocious sinners are all my people.’
And there are hints how God will do this in this story. The offer to suffer in place of Israel. To be blotted out instead of the people. Moses can’t do that. But God himself could. And one day God will, in Jesus, be blotted out, so undeserving atrocious humanity can go free. If a human priest can fail, Christ as high priest cannot. A third glimpse: Moses’ refusal to let God punish. If Moses can hold God back, so can Jesus. And Jesus will, one day. Only God made us. Only God can repair us. And God will do all that one day soon, through such flawed people as you and me. Get this firetruck out of the ditch, Lord. Your world is on fire. Heal us, and everyone else, and make all things new, God of Moses, and Aaron, and Jesus, and you and me. Amen.