Friday, 9 October 2020

The Golden Calf

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation, 
the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 
October 11th 2020

Exodus 32.1-14

'The people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain…'
            so our reading for this morning begins,
and this raises a question for us, as it did for the Israelites in the wilderness,
            of how we will respond
            when the way we are used to encountering God is no longer available to us.
For the Israelites,
            Moses was their spiritual rock, their leader, their saviour.
It was Moses who had brought them up from the land of Egypt,
            Moses who had defeated Pharaoh,
            Moses who had led them through the wilderness,
            Moses who struck water from the rock at Horeb so the people didn’t die of thirst;
and now he was gone from them.
He’d gone up the mountain to meet with God,
            not come back down again,
and the people down in the valley
            didn’t know what to do next.
The one who had been their priest and their prophet,
            the one who had represented God to them and them to God,
            was no longer with them.
So what are they to do?
When I learned this story in Sunday School,
            I was told that the people manufactured a idol at this point,
                        and that the golden calf was possibly an image of Baal,
                        the Ancient Near Eastern fertility God.
However, re-reading it now, I’m not so sure.
They definitely make a golden calf,
            and worship it, offering sacrifices to it;
but when Aaron presents the calf to the Israelites,
            he introduces it not as Baal, or some other god,
            but as the one who brought them up out of the land of Egypt (v.4);
                        interestingly, something they had previously ascribed to Moses (v.1).
The problem here, I think,
            isn’t so much that they go worshipping the false gods of other nations,
            but that they make a false image of their own God.
The sin of Israel here isn’t a departure from the worship of Yahweh,
            it’s the manufacturing of a false representation of the Lord.
And this is a far more insidious sin,
            and one that easily creeps upon us all.
That’s not to say that we’re immune from the sin of idolatry:
            humans have a remarkable capacity to construct new gods after our own image
                        and then devote sacrifice and worship to them.
            From the sacrifices of money we make to the gods of free market consumerism,
                        to the worship we give to those images of our identity
                        that exist in our social media streams;
            from the sacrifices of time we offer to the gods of entertainment
                        to the worshipful pursuit of sex and pleasure;
            in so many ways we can construct other gods
                        and worship them with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.
However, alluring though such idolatrous distractions may be,
            they are also fairly easy to identify.
Far harder to pin down
            are those places where we don’t so much make other gods for ourselves,
            as we do construct false images of the God we know and love.
And we are particularly prone to such acts
            when we, like the people of Israel in the wilderness,
            find ourselves cut adrift from our certainties.
So the question here for us, perhaps,
            is how we can identify those times when our equivalent of Moses
            has gone up the mountain and not come back down again…
What are the things, the people, that have consistently in our experience
            made the invisible God seem real for us.
It might a friend, a mentor, maybe a minister,
            who has now left our lives.
It might be a style of worship that barely exists any more,
            perhaps a packed congregation singing the songs hymns of our childhood.
It might be a form of prayer that used to seem so meaningful,
            but which has run dry in recent years.
What are you missing? What do you long for?
            What is your Moses that has gone from you?
And, here’s the difficult question,
            what have you replaced it with?
Well, I’ll leave that one for us each to ponder,
            and we’ll head back to the Bible for a minute.
This story of the Israelites in the wilderness
            is still part of the Jewish pre-history mythology.
It’s one of those stories that evolved and was passed down
            from generation to generation
until it got written down in the sixth century
            by the Jews in exile in Babylon.
And this means that in order to read it well,
            we need to have an eye on those who wrote it.
When we know why they shaped it the way they did,
            and if we can who its intended first readers were,
we will ourselves understand it better.
So, this text about Moses going up the mountain and not coming back,
            needs to be heard in the context of the Babylonian exile.
And for the exiles, their answer to the question
            of what it was that had gone from them,
            would have been the Temple in Jerusalem.
In 587 BC the Babylonians despoiled the temple,
            desecrated the Holy of Holies,
and, despite what Indiana Jones may believe,
            destroyed the ark of the covenant containing the tablets of stone
            with the ten commandments inscribed on them.
Everything that had given them stability in their religious life
            had gone from them,
and in its place they were in Babylon,
            surrounded by images of the Babylonian gods,
            which they knew to be false,
but wondering what their God looked like for them
            when everything they thought they knew about God had gone…
And here we can find the answer
            to one of the more puzzling aspects of our reading this morning.
Did you notice that although there is only one golden calf,
            the people refer to it in the plural?
Listen to verse 4 again:
[Aaron] took the gold from them, formed it in a mould,
            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!"
What’s going on here?
The answer can be found in the book of 1 Kings,
            which tells the story of the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel
            to Assyrian invaders in 722BC,
                        about 130 years before the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem.
At that time, Israel had divided into two kingdoms,
            a Northern kingdom ruled by Jeroboam
            and a Southern kingdom based in Jerusalem,
                        ruled by Rehoboam of the house of David.
Jeroboam’s problem was that Rehoboam had possession of the temple,
            and so people from the Northern Kingdom kept making a pilgrimage south
            to offer sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem.
His worry was that eventually, the Northern kingdom would reject him as king,
            and turn its allegiance to Rehoboam of Jersualem
            because he had control of the temple, the centre of religious worship.
So now listen to this from 1 Kings 12.26-30
Then Jeroboam said to himself,
            "Now the kingdom may well revert to the house of David.
 27 If this people continues to go up to offer sacrifices
            in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem,
the heart of this people will turn again to their master,
            King Rehoboam of Judah;
they will kill me and return to King Rehoboam of Judah."
 28 So the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold.
He said to the people,
            "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough.
            Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt."
 29 He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.
 30 And this thing became a sin,
            for the people went to worship before the one at Bethel
            and before the other as far as Dan.
Did you spot it?
            The story of Moses, Aaron and the golden calf,
                        written in exile in Babylon,
            is directly quoting from the book of 1 Kings,
                        where it describes the sin that brought down the Northern kingdom.
Jeroboam’s two golden calves
            were proclaimed as ‘the gods who brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt’
as a direct challenge to the temple in Jerusalem.
Scholars tell us that what’s probably going on here
            is that the calves were intended as earthly pedestals
                        for the heavenly Yahweh to stand on,
            functioning in a manner similar to the ark of the Covenant in the temple,
                        as a place of earthly worship of the invisible God.
They aren’t idolatrous Baal gods,
            but they certainly are false representations of the true God,
brought into being as Jeroboam tries to break
            the Jerusalem temple’s monopoly on Yahweh worship.
And a century or more later, in exile in Babylon,
            the Jerusalemites reflected on this story
            to help them understand their own experience of losing their temple,
and they used it to frame their re-telling
            of the story of Moses, Aaron, and the people in the wilderness.
The experience of Israel’s wilderness wanderings
            becomes a key metaphor for understanding the Babylonian exile,
and the story of the golden calf
            functions within that as a warning of the temptation to make false images of God,
            and as a call to faithfulness even when God seems impossibly distant.
And so how do we hear this,
            in our own times of exile.
The last six months has been a time of exile from our building,
            and for many of us it has been deeply destabilising.
I think the longest I’d ever been between church service attendance
            before 2020 was about three weeks,
and for most of my life I have been to church at least twice a week.
We have been exiled from our building, from our worship,
            from our community, from our work for social justice,
            from our singing and our pipe organ.
And I wonder how we hear the story of Moses, Aaron, and golden calf?
What temptations have we faced
            to construct false images of the true God?
What have we tried to put in place
            of that which was taken from us?
Again, I’m not offering answers here,
            just asking questions.
But I do have some ‘wonderings’ that might spark our thinking…
I wonder if sometimes we make golden calves from our memories,
            worshipping that which used to be,
            and devoting ourselves to the task of bringing it back into being.
It’s great that some of us, at least, will be in our building
            on Shaftesbury Avenue next Sunday morning.
But it won’t be a return to the temple in Jerusalem,
            because that has gone from us.
I also wonder if we might ponder the experience of the early Christians
            in the time after Jesus was taken from them.
For them, their prophet and priest had gone from their sight,
they no longer had direct access to the one 
who had represented God to them and them to God,
and they too had to work out how to relate to God
without a person or an image as an intermediary.
God may have been fully present and revealed in Jesus,
            but once Jesus was no longer there, what were they to do?
And the answer, of course, was that they had to discover
            that God was with them in a new way,
not in the worship of the rebuilt temple,
            nor in the person of Jesus,
                        nor even in the remembrance of Jesus’ words and commands,
but by the Holy Spirit.
God is known to us not in our memories,
            not in our place of worship,
                        not even in our holy texts,
but by the Holy Spirit,
            at work in our hearts,
            drawing us to new acts of faithful worship of the true God;
and challenging all our attempts and temptations
            to make false representations of the true God.

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