Moses and the Golden Calf
RUMC 22 October 2017
Pastor Paul R. O’Neil
Mrs. Reed, who had been a member of the Little Brown Christian church for more than fifty years, loved to hear a fiery sermon. She would rock back and forth in the front pew to the rhythm of the minister’s cadences; take a dip of snuff and cry “Aaamen” at every denunciation of sin. When the minister spoke harshly of premarital sex, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, movies, and dancing she approved heartily and would take a dip of some snuff at each admonition while she shouted her enthusiastic “Aaamen.” Then there was one unforgettable Sunday when the minister said, “now let me talk about another vicious habit.” It was the deplorable practice of dipping snuff. Whereupon Mrs. Reed bolted upright in her seat and muttered under her breath, “Wouldn’t you know it? He’s stopped preaching and begun meddling.”
This morning, I want to move away from some of the vices that Mrs. Reed easily recognized and talk about something that is not so obvious: how some will take some of the good things of this life and make them into our personal god.
My text comes from Exodus 32:1-19; it is how the Jewish people worshipped the golden calf instead of the Lord. The question we all need to ponder is this. Do we worship the Lord? Or do we take the good things of this life and make them into the object of our affections?
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.” 2Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, 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!” 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
7The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
11But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
15Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. 17When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18But he said, “It is not the sound made by victors, or the sound made by losers; it is the sound of revelers that I hear.”
19As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain.
After Moses and the Jewish people had miraculously crossed the Red Sea, they traveled many days through the harsh and barren desert until finally reaching Mt. Sinai. After the 12 tribes set up camp and got settled, Moses climbed 7400 feet to the top of the mountain in a space of 2 ½ to 3 hours. He did this to commune with God and receive the commandments.
While Moses was with the Lord above, the people of Israel became concerned about Moses’ absence. You see, Moses was supposed to go up to the top of the mountain, commune with God, and then come back down. But he didn’t. He was delayed. Since he had been away for such a long period of time, the people grew impatient and feared that he might be dead, and I suppose if I lived back then, I might have though the same thing.
Amid the rumors of Moses’ death, Aaron gave into the demands of the people. He melted gold earrings, poured the liquefied metal into a mold, and made the golden calf that became their god.
I believe the message for the people of God, both past and present, is that the Lord is to be worshipped alone.
It is highly unlikely that anyone around here would worship a golden religious relic. In our day, the golden calf becomes a symbolic object representing how we invest a lot of our time on obsessions that become our new objects of worship. There are a lot of things that would fall into that category.
One that jumps to the top of the list is SPORTS. Our UCONN and professional sports teams provide relief from the daily grind for many, and I enjoy them as well. However when it becomes an obsession and takes the place of our relationship with the living God, then our pastime becomes a golden calf.
I subscribe to a weekly newspaper from my home town of Quincy, MA; it is called the Quincy Sun. The first place I always check is the obituary pages. I have noticed there are quite a number of the deceased who were devout or passionate followers of the Red Sox, Patriots, Bruins and Celtics sports teams. However there is often no mention of God or church, and this causes me to wonder.
I find the professional athletes who give their testimony of faith inspirational. Since we are in the football season, let me share one.
Matthew Slater, special teams captain for the New England Patriots, said in an interview, “Before I knew Christ, I was a sinner; after I’ve known Christ, I’m still a sinner. I understand that I have many flaws in my life and have made many mistakes, but it is by the grace of God that I am where I am and I’ve been forgiven and restored.”
I don’t know if you have ever seen this on television, but after every NFL game a small group of players from both teams will get together on bended knee to say a prayer. Sometimes you can see this for about 2-3 seconds before they show an interview or cut into a commercial. Those players are giving honor to God.
Another golden calf is the love of money. 1 Timothy 6:10 says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” When a person loves or depends on the security of money, it has the potential to become a golden calf.
The next golden calf would be certain hobbies. Once I worked with an individual who was obsessed with golf. He brought golf magazines to work. He watched the golf channel to the early hours of the morning. He practiced his swing in the office. He went to the driving range, and his conversation with the staff and patients revolved around golf. His wife even complained that she was a golf widow.
Once we golfed together, and I beat him in a match. Now I am not that good, and I just play for the fun of it. My co-worker was frustrated that he lost to a person who didn’t care. He really thought if he practiced hard enough, there was a future for him in golf.
Relationships can become another golden calf. If we are not careful, we could put our spouses, children, grandchildren- as great as they are–on a high pedestal.
You might never expect this to be a golden calf, but consider church work. As children of God, we need to guard against this particular golden calf. You see, it is easy to become so busy in the work of the Lord—teaching, visiting, helping, assisting at the altar, serving committees—that we could neglect our relationship with the Lord. Seminary students soon find out that theology classes and sermon preparation are poor substitutes for personal prayer and devotion; in the long run, they do not satisfy. If we don’t nurture our spiritual lives, the joy of service will go away.
Jesus told us in Matthew 22:37 that the greatest command is to “Love the Lord your god with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Our relationship with God doesn’t work too well when we have other things that compete for his attention.
Jesus also said in Matthew 6:33. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, then all things will be added to you.” So as long as we worship God and keep him first in our lives, he will take care of the other things.
Let me ask: Do we have any golden calves that we might struggle with? Is our relationship with Christ as strong as it could be? In this day and age, it is not too difficult to be lured away by the golden calves of this world because we are surrounded by a multitude of things which cry out for our devotion.
There is a legend that when the Old Testament Patriarch Abraham started on his journey to the Promised Land, he saw the stars in the heavens and said, “I will worship the stars,” but then the stars set later that night. Then Abraham saw the constellations of Ursa Major and Minor and said, “I will worship the constellations.” However they set for the night and early morning. Then Abraham saw the moon sailing high in the heavens and said, “I will worship the moon,” but as the night wore on, the moon also vanished. Abraham looked at the sun in all of its majesty, but saw that it began to sink on the western horizon. Then Abraham said, “I will worship God, for he abides forever.” That is the correct attitude of worship.
Jesus said in John 4:24, “A time is coming and has now come when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” They are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit and his worshippers must worship in Spirit and in truth.
Let me close. Just as Mrs. Reed from the Little Brown Christian church didn’t recognize her sin as harmful to her spiritual walk, there is a sin that is not so easily recognized: the worship of the “golden calf.” As we go forth, let us worship God in spirit and in truth and not allow the good things of life to take precedence over Him.