This is an amazing story. God had rescued the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. God had worked great miracles to save the Israelites.
• He had brought plagues upon the Egyptians.
• He had opened the waters of the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape.
• He had provided a cloud to guide the Israelites by day, and a tower of fire to guide them by night.
• He had provided manna—bread from heaven—to feed them.
You would think that, when God had taken such good care of them, that they would trust him. Having received God’s help in the past, they could expect God’s help in the future.
But that isn’t how it worked. When Moses didn’t return from Mount Sinai for forty days, the people got restless. Perhaps Moses was dead. Perhaps God had abandoned them.
They persuaded Aaron to make a Golden Calf, and they “rose up in revel”—that is how the author of Exodus describes it—they “rose up in revel.” Can you imagine what that meant! They had a good, old-fashioned orgy! Moses had been gone forty days, and the Israelites fell apart. They just fell apart.
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The story would seem unbelievable, except that it is so familiar. One commentator writes:
“The Hebrews are so unbelievably—American.
They have experienced miracle after miracle.
They have been given deliverance and freedom.
They have received so much.
Yet they want more.
Nothing, it seems,
will ever be good enough for them.”
Isn’t that true! We seldom give thought to what God did for us yesterday. We just want to tell him what we need today.
It is all too easy, when we read the story of the Golden Calf, to wonder how anyone could be so foolish, and to doubt that this story has anything to do with us. After all, we would never worship a statue. How could anyone worship a statue? Some people worship statues, but not us. We are too sophisticated to worship an idol.
Or are we? Do we worship idols? In preparation for this sermon, I did some reading about idolatry. I found that idolatry might be more of a problem than we might think. Theodore Parker, a minister from the last century, said:
“To know whom you worship,
let me see you in your shop,
let me hear you in your trade,
let me know how you…got your money,
how you kept it,
and how you spent it.”
“To know whom you worship…, let me know how you… got your money, how you kept it, and how you spent it.” That’s an acid test, isn’t it! Wouldn’t it be interesting to go through our cancelled checks and MasterCard bills to see whom we really worship. What would they tell us? What do we really care about?
But modern idolatry has to do with more than money. Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Newsweek and the Washington Post. She says:
“The old taboos were religious.
Ours are medical.
Our ancestors talked about risks to the soul,
and we talk about risks to our bodies.
They kept faith with tradition;
we put faith in “the best scientific evidence.”
But our focus on these matters
is religious in its intensity.”
Note that Ellen Goodman is not a preacher. I don’t even know that she is a Christian. But she tells us that our focus on our health is “religious in its intensity.” What she means is that health has become a new idolatry in America.
Isn’t that true! “The old taboos were religious. Ours are medical.” We used to think that God could save us. Now we hope that our doctors can save us. We used to hope for heaven; now we hope for health.
I must admit some ambivalence at this point. I am delighted that we are health-conscious. We need to be good stewards of our physical bodies. However, I am concerned when health becomes our god. Even the healthiest among us will die. If health is our god, how will it help us then?
Of course, some idolatries are more clearly idolatrous. In his book, The Christian’s Attitude Toward World Religion, Ajith Fernando says:
“One who trusts in Christ alone
will completely give up idols (and) horoscopes.”
Horoscopes! What’s wrong with horoscopes?
Twenty-five years ago, astrology became popular in America. People started thinking about the sign under which they were born. People started reading horoscopes to see how their day would go. Today, people use crystals as religious objects. As I drive around town, I see signs for palm-readers and tarot cards.
Is there anything wrong with those things? There is! It is the same thing that was wrong with the Golden Calf. Astrology, signs, horoscopes, crystals, and tarot cards are simply modern versions of the Golden Calf—substitutes for God. Astrology tells us that the stars control our destiny. The Bible tells us that God controls our destiny.
And then there is voodoo. An article in Newsweek reports that John Ralston, the coach of the San Jose State University football team, is looking for the woman he believe can put a curse on the competition. He says:
“We don’t want anybody injured.
We just want somebody to put a hex on the other team.”
Ralston is looking for Josephine Canicatti, 83, who reportedly cost the Yankees the 1955 World Series by casting her “evil eye” on Casey Stengel. Nobody seems to know if she is still alive, but Ralston is looking.
We might think of voodoo and astrology and horoscopes and crystals as harmless diversions. That is certainly how the Israelites thought of the Golden Calf—a harmless diversion. But God didn’t think it harmless. He punished the Israelites for the Golden Calf. We should not imagine that he will take our horoscopes less seriously.
When we make too much of things, we will make too little of God. When we let “things” push God from the center of our hearts, the results are bound to disappoint us.
In a Broadway Play entitled “Inherit the Wind,” a character relates a childhood incident. He tells of a time long ago, when he was seven years old. A local store had a rocking horse by the name of Golden Dancer in the window, and that boy wanted that rocking horse more than anything in the world. It was impossible, though. The rocking horse cost a princely sum, and the boy’s father was a working man.
But then one morning—a birthday, perhaps—the boy woke up to find Golden Dancer at the foot of his bed. His parents had made untold sacrifices to put together the money to buy the rocking horse that was so dear to their son’s heart.
But then the boy jumped into the saddle and began to rock, and Golden Dancer split in two. It had been built of rotten wood. The boy commented:
“The whole thing was put together
with spit and sealing wax!
All shine and no substance!”
Turning to another character on stage he says,
“Bert, whenever you see something
bright, shining and perfect-seeming—
all gold with purple spots—
look behind the paint.”
Look behind the paint.” Good advice. The things that we are tempted to put in God’s place are …put together with spit and sealing wax!
All shine and no substance. And they are bound to break when we put our weight on them. But God doesn’t break when we put our weight on him. He is honest and true, and he loves us. In his love, he has given us himself. He asks only that we give him ourselves in return.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.