Created to Belong: Lay Down Your Idols!

October 9, 2016

Preaching: Brian Keepers

Text: Exodus 32:1-14

Created to Belong: Lay Down Your Idols! 

Part 1: Setting the Stage

Last Sunday we heard the story of the Passover from the OT book of Exodus.  How God remembered his people, the Israelites, who were enslaved by the Egyptians, and rescued them from bondage.

Through the leadership of Moses and Aaron, God led his people through the Red Sea and into the wilderness.  They were bound for the Promise Land, but first God brings them to Mt. Sinai.  Here God affirms his covenant with the Israelites and calls them his “treasured possession” and says that they will be a “priestly kingdom and a holy nation”—a light to all the other nations.

Then God gives them the Ten Commandments, the Law, to show them how they can live as a people who belong to God.  You see, the exodus was not just about being rescued from something—a life of slavery; it was just as much about being rescued for something—a new life of freedom with God.  The Law would guide them in the way of this new life of freedom.

When God speaks to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, the people all answered as one, “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do.”  They promised to keep the commandments and live as those who belong to God.

That’s where the story picks up today, in Exodus chapter 32.  God has summoned Moses once again to come up on the mountain to encounter God’s presence.  The LORD gives Moses instructions for how to build the tabernacle, a portable sanctuary in which God would come and dwell with his people as they make the wilderness journey.  

But Moses has been up there on the mountain with God for a while, and the Israelites are growing restless and impatient.  What’s taking him so long?  When will he return?  Will he return?  Listen to this next part of God’s Story and our story.  Read Scripture.

Part 2: Come, Make Gods for Us!

There is so much about this part of the story that is puzzling.

How is it that the Israelites, who could say with such enthusiasm one minute, “Everything the Lord has spoken we will do,” twelve chapters later are already breaking the first two commandments by worshiping an idol?

And how is it that Aaron, Moses’ right hand man, caves into this request and fashions for them a golden calf without a hint of hesitation or protest?

And what are we to make of this whole episode where God burns with anger and wants to destroy the Israelites, but Moses argues with him and convinces God to change his mind?

It raises lots of questions.  But as Josh and Marlin Vis reminded us last week, we don’t have to avoid the questions or be afraid of them.  The Bible invites us to engage the tough questions and to wrestle with story, much like Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord at the Jabbok River, trusting that in the wrestling there awaits a blessing.

So let’s engage this puzzling part of the story together.

It begins with Moses absent from his people, up on Mt. Sinai in the presence of the LORD.  How long has been gone?  Long enough for the Israelites to feel anxious and begin to wonder if he’s coming back.

So in their anxiety and impatience, the Israelites do what we all do.  They did what Adam and Eve did back in the Garden.  They take matters into their own hands.  They gather around Aaron and say to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

The Hebrew word translated as “gods” here is elohim, and it is unclear if it is being used in the plural or singular.  In the singular it is the same word used for “God”; in the plural you would translate it “gods.” So what are the people asking for here?  Are they demanding Aaron make them other gods?  Or are they asking Aaron to make them an image of the one true God?  It’s rather ambiguous.

What is clear is that in their anxiety and insecurity, they are trying to take control of the situation and they want a visible representation of the divine.  And Aaron provides that for them.  He tells them to take off their gold jewelry—most likely the gold they received from the Egyptians—and bring it to him.  He then forms it into a golden calf and presents it to them.  They declare, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

Let’s not be too hard on Aaron here.  I suspect that he is doing his best to be a pastor to these people.  It seems to me that he is taking this visible idol and trying to steer them back to God.  That’s why he declares a festival the next day to worship the LORD.  And that’s what they do—they arise the next day and offer burnt offerings and sacrifices and eat and drink and worship.

But who or what are they really worshipping?  Whether in their mind they are worshipping other gods or a visible image of the one God, the problem with all of this is that they are clearly breaking the first and second commandments.  The two commandments upon which all the rest hang on.  You shall worship the Lord God alone and you shall not make any idols.  But that’s what they do.

Part 3: Are Idols More Than Just Golden Cows?

Let’s pause here and talk about idols.

Like I said earlier, it’s easy to be hard on the Israelites and Aaron.  To shake our heads in bewilderment and think, “How could they?”

But idols are tricky and subversive things.  We may tend to think of idols as little statues we worship or, like in this story, a golden calf.  And thank God we don’t have any little statues of false gods on our fireplace mantle at home…no golden calves in our sanctuary this morning.

Or do we?

Here’s something that I find intriguing about this whole golden calf episode.  The golden calf is fashioned out of the gold that God provided to the Israelites—from the Egyptians—when God led them out of slavery.  Think about that.  They make an idol out of a gift God gave them.

They take something good and they turn it into their god—the thing they look to for security and safety and to help them feel better.

So what if idols are not bad things but good things—gifts even—that we turn into the most important thing in our lives?  Things that we attach our security and safety to, things we look to give our lives meaning and purpose, things that we expect to save us?

This is exactly the point that Timothy Keller makes in his excellent book Counterfeit Gods.  He puts it this way:

“We think that idols are bad things, but that is almost never the case.  The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect that it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes.  Anything can serve as a counterfeit god, especially the very best things” (p.xvii).

So what is an idol?  Keller goes on to describe idols this way: 

“[An idol] is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you only what God can give….[It is] anything so central to your life that, should you lose it, your life would hardly feel worth living.  An idol has such a controlling position in your heart that you can spend most of your passion and energy, your emotional and financial resources, on it without a second thought.  It can be family and children, or career and making money or achievement and crucial acclaim, or saving ‘face’ and social standing.  It can be a romantic relationship, peer approval, competence and skill, secure and comfortable circumstances, your beauty or your brains, a great political or social cause, your morality and virtue, or even success in Christian ministry…an idol is whatever you look at and say, in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I know I’ll have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure’” (xvii-xviii).

One of my best friends was gifted with exceptional abilities as a basket ball player.  In high school and college, basketball was his life.  He was a professing Christian, and would tell you that Jesus was his Lord and Savior, but by all practical purposes, basketball was really his lord and savior.  He wouldn’t have been able to name this for you at the time.  Which is kind of how idols work.  We don’t realize the kind of hold they have on our lives.  Then in college he suffered an injury that ended his basketball career.  He was devastated.  The one thing he loved most, the thing that defined him and gave him a sense of value and worth, taken away from him.  It was only then, once he lost basketball, that he realized how much of an idol it had become.  This was a spiritual breakthrough for him, and today he is a pastor and would say, in hindsight, losing basketball was the best thing that could have happened to him.

Here’s the point: an idol can be anything and everything, and we all have them.  It’s part of our human condition—to fashion idols and put our hope and trust in them.  John Calvin put it starkly: “The human mind and heart is a factory of idols.”  The question is not, “Do I have idols?  Rival gods competing for my heart?” Instead the key question is, “What are my idols?  What am I looking to, other than God, to define me and give me security and purpose?”

Sometimes our idols may not be things that take the place of God but can be false images of the true God.  False ideas that we construct about who God is and what God is like.  As Blaise Pascal put it, “God made us in his image, and then we returned the favor.” For many of us, myself included, we have a picture of God and Jesus that looks more like us than what we encounter in the Scriptures.

Part 4: Go Down, Moses!

So let’s go back to the story in Exodus 32.  The Israelites are reveling in the presence of the golden calf, and the scene shifts to up on the mountain where Moses is with God.  The LORD sees what is happening and is outraged.  God says, “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…” God goes further, “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.”

This part of the story may not only be puzzling but even troubling.  Here we see God angry, ready to destroy the Israelites because of their disobedience and idolatry.  While God’s character, at its heart, is love and mercy; that does not take away from God’s holiness and passion for justice.  In fact, you could say that God’s mercy and justice are two sides of the same coin.  And so we encounter the main conflict in this story.  How is God to respond—the God who made promises to his people—when they are disloyal and disobedient?  What about when these two aspects of God’s character seem to collide: mercy and justice?

It’s a bad situation, but there is a bit of humor in it.  You see God and Moses arguing here like two exasperated parents who aren’t sure what to do with a stubborn and disobedient child.  Parents, you know what this is like.  When your child is behaving well, you’re happy to claim them.  But when they’re behaving badly, we say to our spouse, “Tell your son to shape up!” “Are you going to do something about your daughter?”   There’s some of that going on here.  God says to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt…”

But Moses says, “Whoa…wait a minute!  Lord, these are your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt…” And Moses stands in the gap and becomes a mediator between the people and God.  It’s hard to know what God was thinking in all of this—if he really planned to destroy his people or was just expressing frustration.  Or if he was perhaps testing Moses, to see if he really was committed to being faithful to God and sticking with the Israelite people.  After all, God’s offer must have been tempting: “Moses, forget them; let me make a nation out of you.”

If it is a test, Moses passes the test.  And he persuades God to show mercy instead of destroying the Israelites.  He appeals to God’s reputation, saying, “What will our neighbors think if you destroy your own people?” After all, one of the main points of God delivering is people from slavery was so that the Egyptians and the whole world would know the power and goodness of God.  Then he appeals to God’s covenant—made with Abraham and Sarah.  “Remember your promises…” Moses says.  Not that God has forgotten them, but Moses is speaking back to God his promises first made to Abraham under that star-lit sky.

And God changes his mind.  Which raises all kinds of questions about prayer that we’re not going to get into this morning, except to say that God invites us into a kind of authentic relationship with God in which our prayers really do seem to make a difference.

But here’s the key thing I want to emphasize, especially in light of what we’ve talked about regarding idols.  The truth is that idolatry was not just a matter of bad behavior for the Israelites—it was a deep heart issue.  And God is angry not just because they’ve dishonored him but because he knows that these counterfeit gods destroy us.  The gods we make end up making us—they hold us in bondage, take life, and ruin us.  God had delivered them from slavery; and here they are, putting themselves back into slavery with a counterfeit god. 

If the Israelites are to lay down their idols and turn their hearts back to God, it is not something they can do on their own effort.  God chooses to show mercy, to stay true to his promise even in the face of their disobedience.  And he sends Moses down to be the mediator.  “Go down, Moses!”   Moses is, in a real way, a representation of God’s presence (without becoming an idol).

Part 5: Another Mediator Comes!

Moses points us to the mercy and kindness of God that we will experience in another mediator who is to come—the Mediator-- Jesus Christ, God’s Son.  Moses is a precursor to Christ, God who comes down to be with us in the flesh, and does for us what we can’t do for ourselves: frees us from our idols.

What happens when God’s mercy and justice collide?  The cross and empty tomb happen!  Through Christ’s death and resurrection, God enables us not only to discern our idols but to lay them down, put them to death.  We want a visible representation of the invisible God?  God does that for us in Jesus.  Here is your God!  Not in the things and people and images all around us that our hearts tend to attach themselves to, but in the living Jesus who comes to be with us, brings God’s healing and forgiveness, and draws us into relationship with the one true God.

And if you can have the real thing, why would we settle for anything less?

C.S. Lewis once made the point that when we give Christ first place in our lives, then everything else in life is put in proper order.  When Christ is our first love, the good things in our lives, things that we are tempted to turn into idols, remain as gifts that are only enhanced.  We enjoy them more when we don’t look to them to save us!

So let me end with some questions for you today…

What idols or rival gods are competing for your own heart?  What are you looking to, other than Christ, to give you an ultimate sense of acceptance, meaning and purpose? 

One way to surface our idols is to reflect on how we spend most of our time.  Another way is to look at where we invest our money.  Here’s another clue: what preoccupies your thought world?  What consumes your emotions?  What is something that you say, “If I could only have this, it will make me happy?” Or “If I would lose that, I couldn’t live without it?”

Name those things today.   And turn to Christ.  Set your heart and mind on him, receive his presence and power, let him help you lay down your idols and step into a life of genuine freedom.  Let him transform you from the inside out, in the deep place of your heart.

It’s a process, of course, learning to lay down our idols and more and more set our hearts and minds on Christ.  But it is precisely this process that gets us on the road to discipleship, which is the true road to life, joy and freedom from the idols that seek to enslave us.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Renee Krueger