Do We Have Golden Calves?

“Do We Have Golden Calves?” – October 11, 2020

Exodus 32:1-14 (32:2-4)

We are living through great uncertainty. Look at the volatile weather during the past few months! Hurricanes, floods, wildfires, extremes in temperature. What about the COVID-19 pandemic? More than 210,000 people have died in the United States in the last six months, as many as died in all four years of the American Civil War. Added to those anxious statistics, we can name the recent racial tensions and the national political upheaval.

 When you or I are fearful or anxious or uncertain, what do we do? Where do we go for stability or comfort? What is all-important to each one, in such a tumultuous time?

As we consider the people of Israel, we might think of all of them being fearful and anxious, too. After all, they had just left Egypt not many weeks before. They were no longer slaves! Yet – they were also wandering in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula. A foreign land, with strangeness and uncertainty at every turn!

Their trusted leader Moses had gone on top of the mountain to talk to this God that he said was the God of their ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. An invisible God they could not see, touch or understand, unlike the Egyptian gods.

“Get up and make gods,” they shout, because this Moses has obviously left us alone to die, and we cannot last another day, another minute, without some sort of God or gods to lead us. As for that guy Moses, well, “we do not know what it is to him,” which I take to mean that they have completely forgotten that he told them he was going up the mountain to chat with YHWH and would return to bring them the divine news of the day. As far as they know, Moses and YHWH are engaged in a handball tournament or a solo beach volleyball game.” [1]

Could you understand the fear, uncertainty and anxiety of the people of Israel? No wonder they begged Moses’ brother Aaron for some tangible god, a god they could see, touch and understand, like the Egyptian gods they knew from their time of slavery in Egypt.  

Aaron knew just what to do. He gathered all the golden rings, earrings and ornaments, melted them into malleable metal, and formed a golden calf. An idol the Israelites could see, touch and understand. Something to give them comfort and stability.

When you or I are fearful or anxious or uncertain, what do we do? Where do we go for stability or comfort? What is all-important to each of us, in such a tumultuous time?

We might scoff at the people of Israel sacrificing to the golden calf. But –is there anything we would sacrifice our time for? How about our money or our health? Anything that is so important in our lives that we might make it an idol? Our own personal golden calf?

Our golden calves might take many forms. I have an acquaintance who I’ve known for a long time. She considers her house to be so important. Of course, it is beautiful, but she has poured money into that house and the large garden—and the coach house out back—for many, many years. I suspect that house might be a golden calf in her life.

Another acquaintance I have owns seven cars. Seven! He is so proud of them! He washes them, waxes them, and considers them to be very valuable possessions. I think we all know someone who has idolized something – or someone – or some substance so much that it has become a golden calf to them. Perhaps each of us may consider something all-important. Something we sacrifice for. More important than God, even?

When you and I think deeply about it, the idea of an invisible God can be scary! Can we blame the people of Israel for wanting a tangible god, one they could see and touch and understand? Of course they wanted Aaron to construct a physical idol. “It is easy to mistake our own creations for our God. It is tempting to shape our plundered riches, our wages, and even the reparations for our losses into an image that pleases our senses, mollifies our anxiety, and invites admiration from our neighbors. But that thing we have made from Egypt’s gold is not our god.” [2]

We heard what happened between Moses and God at the ruckus with the idol. God got angry at the people of Israel, but Moses convinced God to allow God’s anger to subside.

Golden calves or “idols lure us with powerful illusions and misplaced hopes. They make seductive promises. These false gods come in all sizes and shapes. They promise much but deliver little. We can idolize almost anything — career, race, gender, sex, wealth, age, and especially nation. Our personal gods are so petty and pathetic that they would be laughable if they weren’t so insidious and corrosive.” [3]

We can take this example as a warning to us. We need to ask God to forgive us for constructing idols in our lives, too.

However, we also have promises from the Lord. God is always with us, even though we may not see God. Like the sun behind dark clouds, the sun is always present. Even in times of stress, fear and anxiety – such as right now! Even at times when we cannot see the invisible God, God is right there, by our sides. Surely, it is God who saves all of us. Alleluia, amen.  


[1] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/2014/10/you-cant-have-it-both-ways-john-holbert-10-06-2014 

“You Can’t Have It Both Ways,” John C. Holbert, 2014.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3442

Commentary, Exodus 32:1-14, Anathea Portier-Young, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2017.

[3] https://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/2014/10/you-cant-have-it-both-ways-john-holbert-10-06-2014 

“You Can’t Have It Both Ways,” John C. Holbert, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

His Name: Emmanuel

“His Name: Emmanuel”

emmanuel-plainsong

Isaiah 7:10-14  – December 18, 2016

So many people love babies. Look at just about any gathering of people. Church congregation, senior center, exercise group, book club. When anyone mentions that someone has just had a baby, what happens? Lots of comments like, “What did she have? Boy or girl?” How big is the baby?” And, especially, “Oh, I hope mom and baby are happy and healthy!”

Common, everyday occurrences, like young women getting pregnant and babies being born. That is exactly what the prophet spoke of in our passage today. The prophet gave a lot of background, but he finished this passage by talking about the clear promise from God. Let’s go back to the beginning of the passage from the prophet: “Again the Lord spoke to King Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” It sounds like the Lord God wants to give King Ahaz a really big message. But, wait. Why is this stuff happening?

A little backstory. The kings of Syria and Israel (Northern Kingdom) join together to go to war with the Assyrians. They ask King Ahaz of Judah (Southern Kingdom) to join with them, but Ahaz refuses. Both countries send armies to march on Jerusalem to dethrone Ahaz and put a puppet king on the throne.

We have big political intrigue going on in Jerusalem at this time! Remember, it’s about seven centuries before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. The Lord sends Isaiah to Ahaz a second time, this time offering to give Ahaz a sign so that he will believe God. From Isaiah 7: “12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test,” and once again Ahaz refuses.

One of the commentators I consulted said, “King Ahaz received an oracle from Yahweh, directing him to ask for a sign as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven. This may refer to a sign announced by an earthquake or in lightning. With seeming piety, Ahaz refuses to ask for a sign lest it put Yahweh to a test. Isaiah, however, treats his answer as a refusal to trust God and announces that God will give him a sign anyway.” [1]

What is this sign? A common, everyday sign. There may have likely been just a young woman who was at Ahaz’s court, to whom Isaiah could literally point a finger and say, “Look, she’s pregnant. She’s going to have a son. That birth is the sign that God is with us.” We can see this as a sign that God is in the common, everyday things, the simple, ordinary passages of life.

Do the simple, small things that come into our lives change our course? These verses give us an interesting image. God would save the people of Israel through the sign of something so common and ordinary as a pregnant woman. Isaiah began by offering the opportunity for a great big, splashy sign, but instead gave the king a common image of everyday, ordinary happenings.

The sign was certainly not for the mighty and powerful. Rejected by those in power, God would work wonders among the humble and lowly. In other words, the simple common folk. The original reference for Isaiah was to a child born in his time, and in the near future. For the prophet, the message is that in a few years, both the kingdoms threatening Judah will be no longer a problem. This indeed is historically what happened.

Some centuries pass. The Book of Isaiah was originally written in Hebrew, which was the common language of Israel during the 700’s BCE. By the time we arrive at 300 BCE, there has been a huge turnover in the world. Now, the Greeks under Alexander the Great have conquered most of the known world, and they have spread the Greek language far and wide. Plus, the Jewish people had been scattered all over the Middle East and into Asia Minor.

Many of the scattered Jewish people could hardly read and understand their own Scriptures any more! So, a large group of Jewish scholars translated the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek. It is that translation that Matthew uses when he says, “22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

Believers from the time of Matthew’s gospel have pointed to these verses as Messianic prophecies. Yes, there is a technical difference between “young woman” and “virgin.” This tension is evident if we closely examine the difference between the Hebrew words and the Greek translation. Yet—what is the same? It is a message of God’s caring and love that sees pregnancy and birth—simple, everyday happenings—as signs of God’s care and concern for God’s people.

Emmanuel. God with us. Was that true in Isaiah’s day, with the Assyrian armies breathing down the necks of the people of Israel? Of course! Isaiah gave the king a special oracle to let him know so. Emmanuel. God with us. Was that true in the time of Jesus’s birth, with the occupying Roman armies breathing down the necks of the people of Israel? Of course it was!

God has always had concern and love for God’s people, no matter where and no matter when. No matter if the persecuted Christians were running from the Romans, or being chased and persecuted by any one of the occupying forces in the centuries in between.

Jesus came from humble origins. Yet, He changed the world. Likewise, the birth of this child, was a sign that even in the midst of the chaos and destruction surrounding Jerusalem in the uncertain time of Isaiah and the uncertain time of the baby Jesus, God was still with them. Life still did go on. In a very real sense, that was (and is!) a miracle.

What is the simple message we receive from these words of the prophet? God will be with us, no matter what. That is the message to King Ahaz and the people of Israel, that is the message to occupied Israel in the newborn Jesus’s day. And, it’s the message we can take home with us this day.

“Look, she’s pregnant. She’s going to have a son. That birth is the sign that God is with us.” We can see this as a joyful sign that God is in the common, everyday things, like the simple, ordinary passages of life. Like a baby being born, displayed to all of us as a wonderful sign from the Lord God. Praise God! God is concerned about the smallest and every day and ordinary, like babies and new moms and children, like you and like me.

Alleluia, amen!

[1] http://fontes.lstc.edu/~rklein/Documents/adventa.htm#Advent4, Studies on Old Testament texts from Series A, Ralph W. Klein, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2016: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)