November 9, 2014 – No other gods

Exodus 32:1-14

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.         The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt! The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

1 Corinthians 10:1-7, 14-15

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness. Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play….” Therefore, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.

Matthew 5:17-20

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

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Pentecost 22   November 9, 2014   Ps 106, Exodus 32:1-14, 1 Corinthians 10:1-7,14-15; Matthew 5:17-20   No other gods

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Moses is way high up the in the cloud of God’s heavenly presence, high on the mountain with God…

Down below hell’s breaking loose… As Israel cries out, impatiently, for man-made gods, and Aaron fashions a calf made of gold from the earrings of the people. Who shout, “these are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt…”

Forty days earlier, remember, God said to Israel through Moses, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me… You shall not make for yourself an idol…in the form of anything in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters beneath the earth… You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God…”

But here’s Israel, breaking the first three commandments, one, two, three… And here’s Moses’ own brother, Aaron – Making the golden calf, and an altar for worship – hosting the idol festival – offering burnt offerings to the god of gold.

The golden calf is one of our most infamously shocking biblical infidelity stories. Rabbis of old said this was like a husband or wife cheating on their spouse on the honeymoon. (The bible often uses marriage and wedding imagery to describe our relationship with God. Isaiah, Hosea; Ephesians and Revelation name Israel as the wife of God, the church as the bride of Christ. The ancient rabbis and medieval church alike considered The Song of Solomon the biblical book that best describes the intimate love between God and God’s people.)

Now Israel is on the honeymoon with God in the wilderness. All Israel has said in unison, “we will do everything the Lord has said.” And God’s still explaining to Moses, on the mountain, how to build our wedding cottage – how to construct the ark of the covenant, the tent of tabernacle, the worship-accessories – – everything we need to live with God in love and worship…

But now here’s Israel, calling a golden calf statue ‘god’. Having a wild party, whooping and hollering, half-crazy, out-of-control… No wonder God’s ready to call the whole thing off…

And God says to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt; have acted perversely…” ‘Let me alone so my wrath may burn hot against them and consume them… Then I’ll make a great nation, from you alone, Moses…’

Up to now God’s been calling Israel “my people.” Now they’re “your people,” Moses…

But Moses says, “O Lord, why does your anger burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt…?” Moses pleads with God, reminding God of his promises to Israel… Telling God ‘this won’t look good, Lord. All our neighbors will look at us and laugh if you give up on Israel…’

And Moses must be very persuasive… Because God changes his mind, and doesn’t destroy Israel after all…

However, as we read on, we learn – when Moses makes it down the mountain, and sees for himself what’s going on – now it’s Moses who’s enraged – smashing the tablets with the commandments on them into tiny pieces. Smashing the golden calf also. Ordering it ground into powder and mixed with water, to be drunk by Israel…As if to make Israel taste it’s own idolatry. As if now Moses sees with God’s eyes – the utter horror of God’s people shattering their sacred covenant… Breaking not-just-the-letter-of-the-law – but trashing our whole relationship. All for a quickie-fling with a golden idol. And just as our honeymoon in the wilderness is beginning…The marriage seems already over and done.

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Sure is a good thing idolatry is all back in the Old Testament… Ancient history now…

Though actually… I’ve been remembering back when I was in seminary, getting a package in the mail, once, from my former pastor and her husband, who’s also a pastor. Opening it, curiously. I could tell it was a book. Expecting, probably, a spirituality book of some kind. But when I got the package open, yes, it was a book, and it was religious – but the title was – “Is It Wrong to Worship Fish?”

The book was about obsessive-compulsive-fishing-disorders – clinically-described in great detail. The note attached said “We saw this book, Tim – and couldn’t help thinking of you! Love, Barb and Mitch.”

I was shocked. Could my fishing habit really be that out of control? But probably, if we have to ask – it’s easier just to come clean. So, to make a long story short… I confess – I am an idolater. (In recovery, I hope – but surely an idolater.) And after I did a prayer of confession for my sin of fish-idolatry – I looked again at the card sent by my friends, who also fished – noticing now, at the bottom of the card – “P.S. We bought ourselves a copy too.”

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Idolatry is a universal problem… A huge theme all through the bible from Genesis to Revelation. St Paul recycles this golden calf incident and several related idol-worship incidents from the exodus in our reading from Corinthians – letting us know the tendency to worship idols is still very much alive and with us. The New Testament gospels and letters name idolatry as one of our most pervasive dangers. The traditional favorites – greed and sexual immorality – are the most frequently named idols. But the bible lets us know – anything we pay more attention to than God counts as idolatry… Having any other god before God… is the definition of idolatry…

Most of us are much more discrete, of course, than the Israelites of old. We usually don’t dance around a golden calf in broad day light… (Though it’s not so unusual to see folks on Wall Street tossing confetti, whooping, hollering, ringing bells – when it’s golden-bull-market-party-time…)

Most of the time we’re more discrete about our idolatry. But – as some of the Rabbis and saints of old have said – probably everyone is an idolater, some of the time…

Who or what is our God, our idol? Anything that claims more of our attention than God… tends to become our god. Most of the time the problem isn’t even that the things that claim our attention are bad – at least not if we’re able to keep them in proper priority order. There’s nothing inherently evil in gold. In the second chapter of the bible the gold of Havilah is called good. In the closing chapters of Revelation the streets and walls of the New Jerusalem are pure gold, and good. Sexual love in the garden was good – and even though sex contends with money to be the world’s most popular idol, sexuality is still a good gift from God, whenever received properly.

Just like the church is a very good gift from God. But even church becomes an idol, if we’re more in love with church (or how we think church ought to be) than we are in love with God. Religion is a gift from God, but religion easily becomes an idol. Like Aaron, Israel’s chief priest, we, God’s people, have often been entangled in idol worship. Joining dutifully, even cheerfully leading sometimes, in the worship of material prosperity – the nation state – our favorite brand of the church – various theologies or philosophies – our own good works – all potentially good things – that become idols – sometimes demonic idols – when we give them higher priority than God. And –

It’s so very easy to slip-slide into idolatry without ever meaning to, or even noticing… Just past where our reading stops today, there’s a conversation between Moses and Aaron. Moses says to his brother, “What got into you? How could you do this?” And Aaron says, “the people said, ‘make us gods’ – and I said, ‘give me your gold’– and I threw it in the fire, and out came this calf.” Yea, right. Like all by itself. A totally lame excuse, so lame Moses can’t even bring himself to reply. But this is how it happens… We never set out to become idolaters. It just happens, by itself… one little decision at a time. Whenever we let something, anything, claim more of our heart than God… we’re doing idolatry.

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But – thanks be to God – part of the beauty of God’s gracious justice is – those who are part of the problem – get to be part of the solution…

Moses, remember, when he first meets God in the burning bush, wants just to run away from the job of helping Israel get out of Egypt. But now Moses emerges as a leader with a huge heart for God’s people. His people. Moses intercedes now with fervent prayers – and refuses God’s generous offer to clone him into a new nation, and wipe out the rest of Israel. Moses won’t give up on Israel…

And I strongly suspect this was God’s hope and intention, all along, when God threatens to punish Israel severely for it’s infidelity. God’s intention in every judgment threat is probably mostly to frighten us into remembering our true calling and purpose in life. Most of us need a little fear of God (along with the steadfast love of God)… To keep our attention on God… So we can be saved.

And thanks God – the golden calf isn’t the end of our exodus story. Thanks God, Moses intercedes, and God changes plans. And the story goes on – and – instead of being poisoned by drinking the ground-up powder of the golden calf – instead, it seems, we’re inoculating against the deadly plague, by ingesting a small dose of what nearly kills us. Tasting just how bad sin really is. Reminding ourselves not to sin again…

And thanks God! Even the object of our idolatry now becomes part of the solution… As from here on, Israel will be giving gold for the making of the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle… Giving gold as purification from the sin of worshiping gold.

Giving ourselves, above all, more and more to God in worship. Taking extra time to let God restore our relationship with God…

And – Thanks God! The antidote for idolatry isn’t harsh punishment. Jesus, the fulfillment of all the law and prophets, is our evidence. Now, in Jesus we see – that the only lasting cure for the idolatry of having other gods – is to practice always putting God first. The only enduring cure for idolatry – is to be loving God – with all our heart, soul, mind and strength… Loving our neighbors, loving one another always, all the time, so all the world can see…

Christ alive – at work in us… Helping us every hour… as we call on Him…

For all the help we all need, always…

Thanks be to God – Who isalways – here – for us. Amen.