October 7, World Communion Sunday
“Hero-Worship and Idol-Making”
Text: Exodus 19-20, 32 (The Story, Ch. 5)
They say that history repeats itself. Certainly it does in the Bible. The story began on a high point and crashed immediately after. There’s a new beginning with Noah, but that doesn’t last long either. Things look up again with Abraham – for awhile.
Last week, we had another new beginning – probably the biggest “new beginning” of the Old Testament: the Exodus. A gaggle of slaves cried out in desperation, and God – the God who saved Noah from the flood waters – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – the God of new beginnings – God heard their cries. And God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, delivered them in miraculous fashion – and they gathered across the sea, protected by the waters that separate them from their enemies. And they become, by that act of deliverance, God’s people. They have been claimed!
“You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation,” God tells them.
Talk about a new beginning! These are slaves – people who had no identity, people who were nobodies, overlooked, ignored. And now they are called God’s treasured ones, set apart from all other peoples in the world to be God’s special, chosen people.
At this point, I imagine the Israelites feel like they have just won the lottery! They can hardly believe their good fortune! But like many who win the lottery, they are ill prepared for their new circumstances.
God knows, it seems, that left to their own devices these people have no hope of success. They are, after all, accustomed to taskmasters and daily quotas and all the written and unwritten rules of servanthood. They don’t understand how to be free, haven’t the slightest idea how to control their own affairs.
So God gathers the people around, and calls Moses into the cloud of God’s presence. And they have what might be called on some college campuses “a DTR.” You know – a “Define the Relationship” talk. This love affair between God and God’s people has rather quickly advanced into unknown territory, and it is time to talk it out, get on the same page, and define some ground rules.
God’s relationship-defining rules come in the form of the 10 Commandments (plus some 600 other laws!), that provide structure for the relationship between God and morals (the first four commandments) and between human beings (the remaining 6 commandments). God also provides structure to their days with a regular rhythm of Sabbath rest for both people and land. And perhaps most importantly, God gives them a guide – God’s own presence, housed in the tabernacle, ready to direct their path.
God has provided well for them. But they aren’t quite ready to reciprocate, apparently. So they say to Moses: “You speak, and we will listen. But don’t let God speak to us, or we will die!”
In other words – “Thanks, God, we really appreciate it and all, but…this is all just a little to much too soon. Back off a bit, would you? We’re not quite ready for all this intimacy.”
I understand the people’s desire to keep God at a distance here. To be “God’s people” but not really allow God to get up in their business. To be a Christian but keep God out of my checkbook. When God draws near, our lives have to change in response – and sometimes we don’t want to change. I get it.
So Moses does as they wish – he scales Mt. Sinai on their behalf, and disappears into the cloud of God’s presence.
But then, before long, the people decide that God has backed off too much. Or at least, Moses has. Exodus 32:1 tells us, “when the people saw that Moses was delayed in coming down from the mountain…” they mob Aaron and beg him to make them a god they can see. “For this Moses,” they say, “the man who brought us out of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him.”
Did you notice? Their first problem, here, is not making the calf – though we’ll get there soon enough. Their first problem is attributing to Moses what God has done. “This Moses…who brought us out of Egypt.” They have forgotten – or ignored – “I am the Lord your God, who brought you ought of Egypt.”
Don’t we do that? Don’t we set up leaders as our savior? We human beings, it seems, are prone to hero-worship. We make heroes of celebrities, sports figures, political candidates, our favorite teacher or even our grandmother. Maybe, like Moses, our heroes really have been with us “through the waters.” But they have not saved us; God has done that. We get that mixed up, and the result is too much pressure on the hero and not enough honor given to God.
There’s another result of hero-worship in Exodus: idol making. Because when we’re looking at our hero, we’re necessarily looking down – at our level. And we forget to look up, at the top of the mountain, where God is present. So we loose sight of God, and seek something to fill the God-sized hole inside of us. An idol. A golden calf.
Ah, doesn’t history repeats itself? No sooner have they heard God’s voice at Mt. Sinai than they form a golden calf to worship. They’ve gone from soaring on eagle’s wings to face-planted in the dirt before a metal statue. It is the Fall all over again.
We have to wonder, when we read the story of the 10 commandments and then fast-forward to the golden calf in Chapter 32, what in the world the people were thinking. It makes no sense, to me anyway, that anyone would actually want to worship something they created. It just seems too obvious, too ridiculous.
But if I’m honest, I get their desire to define how they want God to be. Maybe it is not so much that they wanted to create their own god, but that they wanted to be in control of their relationship to the true God. They wanted to write the script for how and when they would approach God. And so rather than wait it out – when it felt like God was being far too silent for far too long – they tried to summon God’s presence through frenzied worship. Rather than follow whenever and wherever the pillar of fire led, they created an image of God that they could carry where they wished.
Bowing down to a metal god seems a bit ridiculous, but longing for a more tangible presence when God seems distant doesn’t seem ridiculous at all. And trying to control God’s steps or force God’s hand in the direction that I think is right – if I’m honest, that is pretty familiar too.
History does repeat itself. And it continues to repeat itself in our lives, just as it did with the Israelites.
God knew the human heart then, and God knows ours now. And we see two things about God from this story of the golden calf: First, God cares enough about us to get angry when we turn our attention to other things. God’s anger burned against the Israelites, it says in Exdodus 32:10-11. God cared enough to be angry and hurt by their betrayal.
But then, God remembered. God remembered his promises to the people. And God kept those promises, and gave the people a second chance – and a third, and a fourth, and as many as it would take. God did not give up on them.
Today, as we come to the Communion table with God’s people all around our world, we begin with a time of confession – confessing the ways we try to keep God at arms-length and to create God in our own image. Confessing our need for God’s forgiveness and a new beginning.
And then we receive this cup – the blood of the new covenant, the blood of the Passover lamb – as a reminder that God keeps promises and gives second chances. We remember the God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, and who lifts us out of slavery to our own sinful tendencies.
And by God’s forgiveness, and because of God’s faithfulness, we are invited into God’s presence again. We are welcomed at the table.