Golden Calves–Then and Now

This is a guest post by Becky Frazier who is the Missional Discipleship Minister for the Otter Creek Church of Christ in Brentwood, Tennessee. She delivered this message over ZOOM for the All Saints Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee on October 10, 2020

Lectionary Texts: Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

I’d like to focus on our Exodus text today, and not just because I am a coward who doesn’t want to come anywhere near today’s Gospel text! I do think this story of the Golden Calf has something to teach us in this particular moment that we find ourselves in today. 

The text begins: “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.” Did you catch that? When Moses delayed. They were waiting and in their waiting they became restless and unsure and anxious. So they took matters into their own hands. 

So Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden[a] calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” 6 And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.

It’s important to note that the people were not abandoning YHWH altogether. The text is clear that their feast is to YHWH, not just to the gods. In their waiting and anxiousness about what comes next, they created either something to worship alongside YHWH (to cover all their bases) or were creating an image of God that they could see and control and manipulate and make sure they didn’t lose sight of. 

Do you ever find yourself doing this? Waiting and growing anxious in the waiting. Waiting for the next phase of life. Waiting for something to be over. Waiting for something to start. I know I do. It feels like the last 10 years of my life have been one big lesson in waiting and somehow I still haven’t learned it well. The waiting is hard and we don’t know what comes next or what it will require of us or what to in the meantime. So we take something, something innocuous or even good and twist it and change it until it looks like what we think God might look like and then we slap a sticker on it claiming that this thing is our God. This thing is what has saved us and this thing is what will go before us. Maybe you’re waiting for a time when you don’t have to worry about money any more, and your bank account and your 401k and the promise of a safe and a secure future becomes your idol. Maybe you’re waiting for your marriage to get better, you turn your children into an idol, or your home, or someone else. Maybe in waiting for America to be Great Again or for America to be a more just place, you turn your political party or a certain candidate into something to be worshipped and call it god with a capital G. 

See, the thing is, their jewelry and gold earrings were not bad. Not in their proper context, but when removed from that context and twisted into something that they worshiped in place of God, they are toxic. But that’s what’s so insidious about the golden calves, right? They don’t seem like idols to us. They seem like the God who rescued us, or fixed the situation, or made this or that happen. We don’t think we are worshiping an idol, we think we are worshiping God. When in fact, it is simply a god of our own making, crafted and carved out of our fears and our pride and our need to control things. 

I wonder if that’s not what was going on in the Philippians text. It seems that two influential church leaders, Euodia and Syntyche were arguing about something and Paul writes urging them to put the gospel before their disagreements. My guess is that their argument was important, that it mattered to them and that it had implications for how they lived and worshiped and shared life together. And their side of the argument, their need to be right, became an idol to them, something that became more important than the Good News of the Risen Christ. 

It’s hard not to think of the North American church when I read these words, especially in the context of our Exodus passage. I hear folks on both sides of the aisle claiming that one cannot be a Christian if one votes a certain way. How can you vote for so and so, don’t you know that he supports—- fill in the blank. To be blunt, many of us have turned American politics into a golden calf- claiming that this is what has freed us and what has giving us life and life abundantly.  Friends, [pause] the gospel has never and will never be dependent on your candidate being in office. The church around the world has always found a way to participate with God in setting the captive free, in loving their enemies, in caring for the oppressed, in siding with the marginalized and in proclaiming thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Regardless of which Caesar was on the throne, regardless of which president was in the oval office, and regardless of which superpower was dominating the world. And one thing our Gospel for today text is  clear on, is that we aren’t the ones who get to decide who is on the guest list. It’s not our party and if we are showing up to it thinking that this celebration is about us or showing without having been changed into something new then we are at the wrong party. 

Please don’t hear me say that we shouldn’t vote or that we shouldn’t take action . We should – absolutely. We should work to make this world better for all those made in  the image of God, and that includes caring about how our systems treat others. We should vote. We should protest.  We should call the leaders of our country to be kind and decent. We should work to implement policies that end oppression. This is right and good. But when our side becomes the good side and the other the bad side. When our arguments and our surety that we are right comes before how we treat a sister and fellow laborer of the Gospel we have turned our earrings into a calf. We have made our politics our idol and looked at it and said, look, here is the image of God that has saved us. 

Many scholars think that the reason God was so adamant that God’s people not attempt to make graven images of God to worship is that God had already placed God’s image in the world. When we start worshipping idols of our own creation we forget that God’s image is in the eyes of the person right in front of you. When your idol is your political party or candidate of choice, you forget that God’s image is stamped on the hearts of those who vote differently, too. When your idol is the certainty that your way is right and everyone else is wrong, it gets harder to see the glimmer of divine dust in the ones you call “other.” When your idol is serenity, and safety, and comfort, then it justifies oppressing the image of God in the ones who have less so that you can have more. 

There is a group called Preemptive Love Coalition whose main goal is to unmake war. They know that what starts war is seeing another group as totally one dimensional. Your own group is all good and the other group is all bad. Thus this bad group is worthy of destruction and death. They also know that the way to unmake war is to love first. To love when it’s hard. To love those we disagree with. To seek to understand instead of seeking to argue. To listen to really hear instead of listening to formulate a rebuttal. And I think the only way that we can do this is to lay aside our golden calves and turn to the God who created us through love and for love.  

So friends, as we wait today. As we wonder where God might be in all of the pain and confusion and mess of right now, don’t settle for a golden calf when you can have the God of the Universe. Don’t cling so hard to your ideas and your need to be right that you lose sight of the Gospel. The gospel which proclaims freedom for the captive and sight to the blind and comfort to the brokenhearted and life eternal is a lot bigger than our little idols. The kingdom of God will far outlast the kingdoms of this world. 

So finally, brother and sisters, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;  do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 4:4-7) Amen. 



2 Responses to “Golden Calves–Then and Now”

  1.   Randall Says:

    Amen.

  2.   Bruce Bates Says:

    wow, this is good preaching!!

    Indicting us all and welcoming us all back to the Gospel.

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