A sermon on Exodus 32 given by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on November 15, 2020 the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost. This sermon is part of a series on the book of Exodus, entitled “Exodus: The Big Read.”
I. The Sacred Cow Story
You may have heard the phrase, “sacred cow.” That is, an idea or a custom which is held to be above criticism. Well, our passage today is, partly, where that phrase comes from. It’s the origin story, you might say, for the phrase.
As we’ve learned in the past weeks, chapters 25-31 of Exodus describe, in detail, the worship of God in his house, the tabernacle. Chapters 35-40 detail the implementation of those instructions, culminating in God’s glory descending onto the tabernacle at the end of Exodus.
Chapters 32-34, are, to put it lightly, a bit of an interruption to that story. As Tim Chester puts it, “We have been with Moses on the mountain, with God; now we find out what is going on down below with the people.” (Exodus for You, pg. 215) It ain’t good.
In our time today, I’d like to look at what happened (to them), what happens (to us), and the antidote we have in Jesus Christ.
II. What Happened: Israel’s Idolatry
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods 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. (v. 1)
First, their idolatry is born out of insecurity and impatience. Perhaps the people think, Maybe Moses died on mountain! He didn’t take enough food with him to last forty days, right?
And this is true of all idolatry. All idolatry is born out attempting to be secure in something or someone other than God.
The contemporary music group Beautiful Eulogy captures the heart of idolatry in their single “Messiah”:
Whatever it is that gives that feeling that we can’t live without
The joys we try to get that only God can give we highly doubt
What allures and arouses the heart we can’t figure out
But it’s the quickest way to account for what we prize and are most proud about
These “gods” make promises but always lie to us
The kind of lies that says they’ll keep us safe and satisfy us
We blame the lies outside of us
But it’s the lie that lies inside that captures the depth of desires and false messiahs
We seek pleasure in anything, we overestimate everything
Endlessly trusting in empty entities
Second, their idolatry is born out of a failure of leadership.
The great irony of the golden calf incident is that it is approved and led by Aaron. In the chapters leading up to this incident, it’s made clear by the Lord that Aaron and his sons are to be set apart to do what? Lead the worship of God’s people.
Something very interesting here is that Israel’s idolatry parallels Adam and Eve’s fall. Aaron’s words in verse 24 are very close to Adam and Even’s words in Genesis 3. I don’t know what happened! I threw the gold into the oven, and out popped this idol! It was a miracle! You see the downplaying and the shifting of responsibility.
Friends, leadership can never make compromises with idolatry. That’s not the way it works. Idols cannot be entertained – they must be smashed.
The leaders in the church of Jesus must smash her idols, too! Our gods must go. We cannot make gods out of relevance, out of the world’s opinion of us, or out of technology.
Likewise, fathers and mothers in home must know this: that you will either smash idols in your homeor contribute to the worship of the same. There is no other choice. Look carefully to the stewarding and shepherding of your home, and we’ll talk more about that in a moment.
Thirdly, the outcome is that every one of the Ten Commandments is broken upon delivery and Israel’s vision of God is reduced (really, replaced).
Tim Chester writes, “The choice of the idol-shape is not arbitrary. The word translated “calf” need not mean a young cow, and Psalm 106 describes it as a bull. A bull was a common symbol of strength and fertility in surrounding nations. It still is. [For instance] We talk about a “bull market” to describe a rising market. … Israel is co-opting the images of the surrounding cultures to re-imagine God.” (Exodus for You, pgs. 219-220)
Re-imagining God. Ah, how that is happening today.
In idolatry, the infinite is exchanged for the finite, the Creator for the creature, and wellspring of true joy for broken cisterns. Psalm 106:20-21 captures this account by describing Israel’s idolatry like this: “Thus they exchanged their glory for the image of a calf that feeds on hay. And they forgot God their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt.”
III. What Happens: Our Idolatry
One of the problems with really addressing idolatry today is that is sounds so quaint (although outright paganism is actually resurging). While most of us don’t have metal images, we do have, in Tim Chester’s words, mental images.
You see, the human heart can never truly be engaged from worship. In Bob Dylan’s words, You Gotta Serve Somebody – even if that somebody is yourself.
So what are some of the idols of the Modern Western world, and where do we need to examine ourselves? Here are some examples:
First, materialism and money.
Christians are always in danger of accepting the idea that our status in life is tied to how much we have. Brooke and I used to laugh (and still do laugh) and old the Lending Tree commercial featuring Stanley Johnson. “I’m Stanley Johnson. I’ve got a great family. I’ve got a four-bedroom house in a great community. Like my car? It’s new. How do I do it? I’m in debt up to my eyeballs!”
We are always in danger or accepting the idolatrous belief that are live above our means as Christians! Non-sense. We are to strive to live within even beneath our means, reflecting that our money serves God. That our money is a good from God, not a god itself.
Serious question: are you addicted to your smartphone? Could you go a day without it? In your day-to-day life, are you interacting more with “friends” you’ve never met than you are with your family and real-life friendships?
As Christians, our relationship with technology should be radically different than the world around us. I believe that one of the best things that we can do for our children is to teach how to relate to others interpersonally apart from a smartphone. Online, we tend to devalue others. We tend to devalue words. It’s harder to do that in person.
Let me just explain here first – I do not have anything against sports. My children have participated in jiu-jitsu in the past and we’re thinking about signing up Copeland for baseball in 2021.
But if culture’s devotion to sports, especially as regards our children, does not approach idolatry, then I do not know what does.
Will give all for the sake of a sport, or in some cases, multiple sports. We will run ourselves and our kids ragged, we will neglect our marriage, settle for erratic church attendance and discipleship, all while expecting our kids to turn out as mature Christians with little or no investment in their faith.
We’re talking about this right now in our Catechism class. The idea that one should study for years a trade or vocation (or, a sport) is deemed worthy of respect and honor. But the idea that one should study and receive regular instruction in the Faith over an extended amount of time is seen as too much to ask.
All three of these are ways in which we can replace or reduce the Living God. They are ways in which we say to God, you don’t seem particularly near to me in the ways that I want you to, so I’m give all I have to this, that, or the other.
IV. The Antidote: Destroying Idols Through the Supreme Worth of Jesus Christ
Let me end with this: Do not let idols destroy you! For, as Psalm 115 says, “Those who make them are like them, and so are all who put their trust in them.”
Where idolatry persists, destruction is close at hand. That’s one of the lessons of Exodus 32-34. Every idol places us on path which inevitably ends in bitterness. Health will fail us. Wealth will fail us. Youth will fail us. Success will fail us. It’s not if, it’s when.
What’s most insidious about idolatry is that it takes aim at the heart of God. It says of God, “you don’t love me, and you don’t have my best interests in mind. You are not to be trusted.”
And this gets us to the heart of how we destroy idols. We destroy idols not through simply vowing to be more obedient, or through a great sense of duty (not through more Law), but through seeing the supreme worth and beauty of Jesus Christ given to us through the Gospel.
At the offertory, we’re going to hear the hymn Hast Thou Heard Him, Seen Him, Known Him? by Ora Rowan. Here’s her second verse:
What can strip the seeming beauty,
From the idols of the earth?
Not a sense of right or duty,
But the sight of peerless worth.
You see, it’s the sight of peerless worth that destroys idols. In verses 11-14 of our passage, Moses plays the central role of being intercessor for the people of Israel. V. 32 actually goes further. Moses says this to the Lord, “But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” Here, Moses’ intercession should be seen as an expression of the heart of God, not as being truly at odds with God. His intercession is invited by God. His words anticipate Christ Jesus. He goes far as to say, “Take me out instead!”
God does relent from destroying Israel, but he does not destroy Moses. Here is the surpassing worth of Jesus Christ above every idol of man. He was blotted out for us! He satisfied the wrath of God for sin, reconciled us to our Father and made us sons and daughters in him! The sight of peerless worth. That’s what saves from idols. Don’t leave this place today without examining yourself before the living God.