Clevedon Presbyterian Church
Kawakawa Bay
Clevedon Kidz

Avoding the Gold Calves

October 11, 2020
Martin Baker

11 October 2020          Avoiding the Gold Calves          Martin Baker

Exodus 32:1-14

1 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." 2 Aaron 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." 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mould, 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!" 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord." 6 They 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. 7 The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they 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!'" 9 The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now 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." 11 But 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? 12 Why 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. 13 Remember 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.'" 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

I want to ask you a strange sort of question:

And I am conscious this morning that Heather, who we are ordaining, is a teacher and former principal of some significant standing.

Did any of you ever misbehave when the teacher was out of the room?

And my next question – if anyone answered yes to the first one – my next question is, why? What was it about the presence or absence of the teacher that changed your behaviour?  

I have plenty of memories to draw from on this subject.

One time the teacher was out of the room for some reason, and we decided to start throwing the blackboard dusters around the room. Maybe at each other as well. A little bit painful perhaps. As they were wooden on one side and felt on the other.

And I remember quite specifically a very misguided throw that saw the duster fly through the air high and strike one of the long neon classroom lights.

They’re made of that quite thin glass aren’t they?

Anyway in quite a spectacular way this light smashed, almost exploded in my teenager memory and all that glass crashed down across the desks.

And when something like that happens there is a certain pause. Do you know that special kind of pause that happens when something like that takes place?

And of course in the next second all those involved were brought together by an overwhelming force to hide what had happened. This effort to hide these millions of shards of neon light glass in Chris Jones’ school bag.

And the teacher, returning into a now rather more dimly lit classroom, and commenting on how quiet and good the boys were at waiting.

But that simple question - what would you do in the absence of anyone to hold you to account?

Go a little bit faster down the Clevedon Kawakawa Bay Road, if you knew that you would not be caught.

But then we think about much more serious things. The fishing boats which have plundered the Hauraki Gulf resisting having cameras on board.  

The corrupt lawyer, the trusted doctor, the Prime Minister or President who acts in a way that suggests that they have no accountability to anyone.

And we have these words that begin our reading today:

1 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

It’s an ancient, but such contemporary scenario.

We might all agree that laws are about protection and safety and order. But all laws depend on some more or less common acceptance of their legitimacy and their authority and their enforceability.

Remember Jesus tells us that he fulfils the law, but not by making more laws. Insisting instead the love of God, ourselves our neighbour -  these are the ways in which the law is fulfilled.

So Moses is absent up on Mount Sinai communing with God. Sorting out the Ten Commandments.

And then we hear what fills this absence.  

2 Aaron 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." 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mould, 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!"

The worship of idols fills this space where there is a sense of God being absent or not trusted or not present.

Moses is absent so we make gods.

So that ancient and modern question. It shifts from do you believe in God, to what God do you believe in?  What do we use our precious things to craft?

The God who brought you out of slavery? Or the gold calf that you have made and worshipped?

The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they 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!'

So let’s focus for a minute on this phrase “from the land of Egypt” – it occurs 5 times in this passage

Obviously something very important in this phrase.

Biblical scholars tell us that it raises three questions:

Who led the people out of Egypt?

Things don’t happen by chance in scripture.  A man called Moses goes from herding sheep, encounters God in a burning bush, then finds the courage and vision to gather this community and lead them out of slavery.

The history of our faith has never been based on abstract ideas, or a simple set of values or concepts.   It is the story of people, often people who were quite ordinary doing things. Inspired by God to do hard things. To speak words, go to places, inspire, encourage, sacrifice.  

Who leads us into a deeper relationship with Christ. Who inspires us to seek justice.  To do tough things.

Our faith is based  on naming people time’s places.  These things happen. And for us, on Jesus, on all he did and said, his death, his resurrection.  Not things we’ve made up ourselves.

And the second question. What it means to have left the land of Egypt.

What separates us now from the life we knew there?. What stops us going back. We are hearing about events that change the lives of people. Sometimes we want to go back to the land of Egypt. Sometimes the old ways of slavery can seem familiar, almost comforting. But once you’ve known freedom and love and grace. Those things change people. Change us. What has happened in our lives that are signs for us of growth, development, a deepening relationship with God?

Our faith is never about something stagnant.  In 1 Peter we can read 2 Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. 2 Like new-born infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— 3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.

So the second question is about looking back and seeing the signs of growth, movement, change.

And the third question. How will they move forward into the land of promise?

The movement away from slavery and oppression doesn’t stop. Every day we can celebrate the fact that we are no longer slaves, but every day that pillar of fire calls us onward. Forward. The promise, but not yet the arrival. We may find ourselves living in the desert wondering what tomorrow will bring. But we don’t dwell there.  The desert is not our permanent home. There is a promise that leads us.

The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.

Keshe - orep .

Think of a horse that is stiff necked.

Do you know any people that are stiff necked?  Obstinate. Churlish. They can’t look around and see what is happening around them. They have escaped Egypt. Oppression, slavery, they have been led by this fiery pillar, this cloud. By Moses.  

And they can’t see it. Moses isn’t here, let’s build a gold calf in the desert. Just like the ones they had back in Egypt. And worship that, Apis was the name of the bull they worshipped back in Egypt. Let’s go have one of those.

We can be focused but that doesn’t mean to be stiff necked. We’ve got an election coming up. What does it mean to be stiff necked about who and what we vote for ?  To look around, to think, to consider, to discern. How do we reflect our faith in Jesus and the decisions we make at the ballot box?  

God says to Moses

10 Now 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."

So Moses is given the opportunity of a lifetime. All the bad calf worship people got rid of, and a promise that he will be the new Abraham the new first father of a great nation.

Those idol worshippers over there those people who have got it so wrong, wouldn’t it be good to be just done with them and let faithful Moses become the new starting point?

But Moses doesn’t take up this opportunity, instead he says:

"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.  Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember 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.'" 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

So in such stark contrast to this worship of the golden calf idol we have Moses in the conversation with God.

This sense of this deep personal relationship. This engagement. This God who not only listens, but remembers.

As we come to the end of our reading there are some challenges and some reassurances.

There is a desert; there are questions, and this divine presence. Beyond our full understanding but also calling us forward.

There are times when we know the pain of absence and doubt, but there is always the choice to follow this cloud and fire through the desert-landscape of freedom.

And finally this relationship with God.  We can seek and receive forgiveness.  We can ask for and find God’s enduring presence among us,  and  we can move on with a certainty.  The fulfilment of every promise God has made to us. AMEN