“Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store, from each idol that would keep us, saying ‘Christian love me more.’”
“The vain world’s golden store.” In our text today: the people of Israel have now been wandering in the wilderness. Their joyous liberation from the Egyptians seems like a distant dream.
Ever had something good happen -- known someone for whom something good has happened -- and almost immediately, they were complaining all over again? That’s pretty human, really. (Let me tell you, from expert experience too: it’s easier to see ungratefulness and distrust in others than to see in myself.)
The Hebrews had once done that celebratory dance on the other side of the Red Sea, their enemies covered, Egypt far across those chariot-and-spear-infested waters. All their troubles were behind them then, it seemed. Gone forever. But now…
Now, Moses their primary leader has gone away: he’s gone up to meet with God on Mt. Sinai -- the guy who led them into this mess (not freedom) has just abandoned them, apparently. And so Aaron their second in command is taking the reins...and he’s cratered. They’re pressuring him, whining to him, afraid, angry, desperate. (Can you see it, in the absence of primary leadership?) Plus, strange people and strange rituals are all around them -- and frankly it all looks pretty good...and fun...and immediately satisfying. The dominate cultures around them are elevating banners and flags, they’re worshiping gold, they’re having great parties, they’ve got powerful militaries, all the fanciest toys, they don’t seem to need at all this God-whose-name-is-Yahweh, any more than a rock-star needs another glistening sports car in the driveway.
The people all around the Hebrews were saturated with the material. And that seemed to be enough and quite fantastic. So the Hebrews, Aaron included, all cratered, while moses was gone … and tried to make God tangible. [pause]
We can sure be guilty of this too, friends in Christ. We sure can look around and be lured -- acquiescence, fear -- idol worship of the things we can see and that seem to give us some assurance and some immediate satisfaction... We sure can be lured to distrust the God we cannot see at the moment, up there on that holy mountain.
What are the idols of our day? How do you worship gold? Put your trust in things other than God? Make sacrifices at the altar of the bank window to “ensure” your security? (worth-ship: worthy)
I’ve been reading articles this week by Christians (across the political/theological) spectrum critiquing Americans‘ idolatry to our flag. American flags elevated above a flag with a cross on it, or even flying from a steeple or draped over an altar. There’s even language out there that calls us to worship the flag. We certainly condemn anyone who doesn’t pay proper homage to the flag and the anthem...that’s all come to the surface recently with quarterback Colin Kaepernick not standing during the National Anthem. The names that he’s been called...and even threats he’s received!
We don’t like to be called out on the idols we worship. I think we’d rather point a finger at the idols that others worship, and how ridiculous that seems to us, resting secure in our own righteousness before God. But this challenging text holds a mirror right up to each one of us -- whether your idol is a flag or a pension account or a car or a weapon in your safe or a diploma on your office wall or a connection you have or simply a prized possession… Don’t you dare tell me what my graven image is ;)
Idol worship happens when we start to distrust the God we cannot see -- and start looking to other things (that we can see) to save us.
I mean, we raise these things even to the level of “salvific”! (Hebrews!) We want tangible things, results we can see, money in our hands, fences around our yards, guards standing watch -- visible signs of safety and even salvation and freedom and liberty as if God’s promise isn’t enough for us. (This is what’s so profound about offering and pledging our money...in its purest state: it’s about trust in the God we cannot see.)
Idol worship, on the other hand, happens when we can’t take it any longer -- waiting on this God of ours -- and so, like the Hebrews of old, we reduce God down into a golden calf, an earthly thing -- and credit our very salvation to that thing. [pause]
Remember last week, when the Israelites were instructed at the Passover meal to burn their leftovers? One commentator wrote that was because, God’s people are called to entrust themselves fully to God, not rely on a cushion of support, leftovers, safety nets. That’s “Pharaoh theology”, stores and stores of back-up, just-in-case, contingency material things that will save us. “Wilderness theology”, on the other hand, is about entrusting ourselves totally to God’s providence. No left-overs to fall back on. Only God’s gracious providing...(which we see later with the manna in the wilderness).
The gold that the Israelites had, all those earrings, were from the Egyptians. They had taken it from Egypt, and carried it all the way into the desert, and now they were melting it into a graven images, and praising that gold for giving them freedom. In other words, they had fallen again for “Pharaoh theology” all the way out there in the wilderness.
Well, God sees all this. And God’s anger burns hot, and God says to Moses: “Go down at once! Your people, whom I 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. I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.” But Moses implored God -- and here’s the good news in all this -- Moses implores God: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people?...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 the Lord changed his mind about disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” God changed her mind. [pause]
All this trouble: Israelites being afraid and starting to worship false gods, God being angry, Moses pleading before God, and God changing God’s mind.
Friends in Christ, we have a God who flip-flops! Thanks be to God! We have a God who says one thing but does another. Thanks be to God. How’s that for a surprising God?!!
No, God is not pleased with our idol worship, when we’re guilty of that; yes, it makes God angry even. “Why can’t you let go of those material things?!” God must be yelling at us.
But ours is a God of love and mercy...ultimately. Ours is a God who hears the pleas of the prophets: “Remember your promise to your people!” God is not a machine, who executes the justice we deserve. Ours is a God who gets close, who relates...and at the same time, who we can’t always see. Ours is a God -- ultimately --whose name is Love. Ours is a God who decides in the end to forgive...even more than that: to enter this world in the person of Jesus...even more than that: to walk among us, to identify with our pain, to come along side...even more than that: to take our brokenness and pain onto himself, onto the cross...even more than that: to conquer death and sin in the resurrection...even more than that: to join us to him in baptism, new life starting now!
Ours is a God of re-conciliation, re-surrection and re-starts. Today is our re-start, sisters and brothers in Christ! Today is your re-start! Turn from your idol worship; turn from your fear and your anger about not always being able to see God; and turn from your shame about messing up and falling for the many golden calves that you fall for in this world. Today is our re-start...even while we’re still in the wilderness of this life. Today is a new day out in the desert.
“Jesus calls us from the worship of the vain world’s golden store, from each idol that would keep us, saying Christian, love me more.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.