Sunday, October 11, 2020

Phil Kniss: It just came out of the fire!

“The people turn away”
Exodus 32:1-14

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This Old Testament story can be read as
a old strange tale from a land far, far away,
or, an essay on how to live with today’s news and social context.
. . . or . . . both.

If we open our heart and mind to it, this story more than most, I think,
easily straddles two very different worlds—
the Ancient Near East, and
our own 21st-century North America.

As Peyton pointed out to the children,
we first hear this story, and think “that’s strange!”—
worshiping a golden calf,
instead of God who helped them out of slavery.
But then we think some more,
and we realize we have things that distract us from God, too.

Let’s dig a little deeper into that line of thinking.
But first, we’ll look at a few details in the text.
There’s a little bit of ambiguity here.
It’s not exactly clear what’s happening—
is it worshiping a false god?
or worshiping God falsely?
Of course, neither one is a good thing,
but it’s interesting to ponder.
Does the Golden Calf represent some foreign or heathen deity,
and they’re turning their back on Yahweh?
Or, are they just trying to remake Yahweh
into something more sturdy and tangible and visible,
because pillars of cloud and fire are a little nebulous,
and this spiritual entity Moses keeps
walking up the mountain to visit,
they’ve never seen.

The people, in going to Aaron, used a generic word.
“Come, make us elohim. Make us “gods.”
Elohim can mean the gods of the nations, or their one God.
But in either case, they don’t call God by name.
Aaron does.
Once Aaron saw how things unfolded,
and the people get all excited about this calf,
and start bowing down,
Aaron seems to want to reframe the situation,
and bring it back to Yahweh.
So he built an altar in front of the calf,
but tells the people,
“Tomorrow there will be a festival to Yahweh.”

It makes me wonder if he was thinking,
“This looks like we’re worshiping an idol,
but let’s say this stands for Yahweh,
and it’s all good.”

Aaron is a master of the art of self-justification.
He can dodge an issue as well as any politician on a debate stage.

We’ll get back to this scene in a moment,
but now the camera shifts back up the mountain,
to Yahweh and Moses in conversation.

Again, a subtle shift in vocabulary speaks volumes.
In this conversation Moses gets sassy with God,
and gets away with it.
Actually, he changes God’s mind.

God first says,
“Go back down the mountain, because YOUR people,
that YOU brought up out of Egypt,
have gone wild, and are worshiping a golden calf.
I’ve seen how stubborn and evil your people are.
So just step aside, and let me destroy them.
Then I’ll start over and make you into a great nation.”

It sounds like God is playing right into the greatest temptation
of prominent religious leaders—to make it all about them.

But Moses wouldn’t have it.
He turned God’s words right back in God’s face.
“Don’t be angry at YOUR people,
whom YOU brought out of Egypt!”
Don’t destroy them!  What will the Egyptians think of you?

So God took a deep breath.
It says, “the Lord relented, and did not destroy his people.”

Some more things happen in chapter 32,
horrible things that could take us
a whole seminary course sorting out how to make sense of
how God’s actions relate to our actions.
Read it yourself, but just to name it in 15 seconds, and then set it aside.
Moses goes down and somehow—between Moses and/or God—
the golden calf gets ground into dust,
the dust gets mixed with water and the people have to drink it,
and then there’s a violent massacre of the worst offenders,
and then, some kind of plague falls on the people.
Bad stuff.
Some of that falls into the strange and faraway category—
hard to read that with today’s world in mind.

But I do want to lift out one key comment from Aaron,
and reflect on that a bit.

When Moses came down the mountain,
and saw all the revelry taking place around the altar to the calf,
all in the name of a festival to Yahweh,
he turns to Aaron and says,
“What in the world have you done?”

And Aaron, ever the skilled politician,
minimizes, deflects, and blames:
“I just threw their jewelry into the fire,
and out came this calf.”

Even though, a few verses earlier,
the text was careful to tell us that Aaron fashioned this calf,
with tools, held by his hands.
So this was a little more than deflection.
This was really fake news.

So let me recap,
in terms that are a little more general.
Listen carefully,
and see if you hear anything at all,
that sounds like it might possibly pertain to us—
something that we might have seen before,
or maybe even participated in.

So . . . the people are in a state of widespread ambiguity and anxiety.
They are sincerely trying to follow God’s way,
but God is hard to decipher.
Not much clear and tangible to go on.
Generalized promises of presence, and faithfulness,
but hard to pin down exactly what God is up to.
But the people are expected to keep waiting,
keep worshiping,
keep holding on to their unanswered questions.

But it gets old over time,
and so they start creating their own tangible representation of God.
Something they can point to and touch,
and say, this is it.
And doing that makes them feel better,
and the more they get used to this particular form of God,
the more it actually functions as God to them.
The form itself becomes sacred,
and they devote themselves to that form.

Then when someone comes along with a prophetic word
that’s hard to hear,
and accuses them of idolatry,
of putting more stock than they should in these forms,
the people, as well as their leaders,
defend themselves.
They say,
“Oh no, no, no! We are still worshiping Yahweh!”
This particular institutional or cultural form here
that you accuse us of worshiping,
it’s not an idol.
We just gathered a bunch of stuff,
and put them together,
and it just . . . it, it, it just came out of the fire!
It just came out of the fire.

I think this strange story is lot more real than it seems.

Idolatry is not some rare and exotic sin that befalls
some poor benighted heathens far away,
who bow down before statues and offer them food.

In our journey of following God into the unknown,
into the unchartered wilderness of life,
idolatry is anything we create,
that gives us comfort and predictability and controllability,
that creates a tangible substitute for the intangible.
It’s anything we might create
that we say looks like God,
because it looks like what we wanted anyway.

Idolatry is something we engage in daily
as we put our trust in tangible things like
material possessions or retirement investments
or social status or other stuff of privilege.
Not saying those are evil in themselves.
The Golden Calf was not inherently evil.
It was how the people related to that object,
and how they let it replace
their worship of a God they could not control.

Idolatry is what moved them further away from their calling.
Their call was based on their ancestor Abrahams’ call,
when God told Abraham to leave his security behind,
and go to that place yet-to-be identified.
That call was affirmed when God sent the people out of Egypt,
into the wilderness,
and told them to watch and listen,
and keep moving in the same direction God was moving.

Turned out that wasn’t quite enough for them.
And often, it’s not enough for us.

It’s a constant temptation for us to make idols we can manage,
and worship them,
without ever admitting that we worship them.
We say, “It just came out of the fire.”

Especially in times of stress and uncertainty and risk,
we are prone to make idols.
We as individuals, and we as a church,
are both equally prone
to be involved in idol-making.
We all have the urge to manage and control God,
or create a God that looks and acts like us.
We all have to be on guard.

We are called, sisters and brothers,
to go all in with God,
to worship God alone,
to throw ourselves on the love and mercy of a mysterious God.

That is hard to do anytime.
It’s particularly hard when the world is trembling around us,
with political chaos, pandemic, climate change,
and with super-storms and super-fires,
adding suffering upon suffering.

We should give ourselves grace when we grasp for something solid.
But we should also keep reaching toward
the God that is beyond our control,
and who promises to be with us in the wilderness.

May God have mercy on us all.
Please join us now in a responsive confession,
which you will find in your order of worship,
as Laura and the singers lead us.

—Phil Kniss, October 11, 2020

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