Well Good morning everyone! This feels a bit weird, doesn’t it? Speaking to you from my office in the rafters, rather than downstairs in church.
I mean - somethings seem totally alien to our experience of life, don’t they? Like a global virus and having to do church like this.
Others however… are inevitable – they just seem to follow on naturally. Like being Welsh and liking rugby. Or being a child and loving ice cream. Or new parents acting as if their children are the most wonderful, amazing human beings to ever to go “goo-goo, gaa-gaa” – and toddle the planet.
But what about being human and worshipping idols? How does that seem to us?
I suspect for many of us as we read Exodus 32 earlier – it was tempting to view Israel’s lapse into paganism with a measure of patronising contempt. 'Oh those poor primitives! To think that you could deify bow down to a Golden Calf and worship it.'
I mean, have YOU ever done that? I don’t think many of us ever have!
But I want to suggest to you this morning that contemporary western society is just as much wedded to idolatry as the Israelites were. Perhaps more so!
Our intellectual development hasn’t led to the abandonment of the Golden Calf at all. We’ve simply exchanged it for other, more subtle forms of sacred cow.
So as we dive into this chapter of the Bible – let’s not do so as if it’s a million miles away from where we live today. No! Let’s get real about what this says about mini-gods and goddesses that we give our love and devotion to in our modern culture.
Let me ask four questions of this passage – and as I do so we will find four answers that should help us to know how this affects us – and how we should respond.
Here’s the first question:
1. What Motivates Idolatry?
There is a one-word answer – Insecurity. A feeling of insecurity.
Look at Exodus 32.1:
“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.’”
Can you see? The people were getting jittery. Moses – their leader – had been gone a long time. We’re told at the end of Exodus chapter 24 that he was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights – Anything could have happened to him in that time! Not least because it was not a safe place to be – it was more like a volcano than a mountain!
So they go to Aaron – Moses’ second in command – and you can feel the force of their argument as they crowd around him and say, 'Look Aaron we can’t just sit around forever waiting for Moses to come back. If he isn’t going to lead us, make us gods to go before us – to make us feel secure.'
You see – facing an uncertain future – Aaron and the people attempt to establish their own security. That’s what idolatry is.
And if I want to find out what your idols are, I just have to ask you: 'Where do you look to feel secure?' And once we’ve found where we look – then I’ve found your sacred cow. And you’ve found mine.
Or to put it another way – let me ask you: What one thing… if it were taken away from you… would make your world fall apart?
I guess a lot of us feel like the world IS falling apart at a time like this. And I hesitate to say this – but maybe that’s because this global pandemic is threatening our idols?
Please don’t mishear me – I’m not saying 'Yippee! Praise the Lord for Covid-19.' But I do think that where we look for our security as individuals – and as a society is – being revealed day by day at the moment. It is being fundamentally shaken.
So if we were to ask one another, 'What will give you peace of mind in the midst of this time of uncertainty?' I’m sure we’d give a range of answers, like:
- Freedom! Freedom of movement. Freedom to meet.
- Job security.
- My bank balance – The savings I’ve stashed away.
- Knowing my holiday will go ahead
- The pasta and toilet roll I’ve stock-piled!
- The schools reopening after Easter – we’re all going to go mad and kill one another otherwise!
- My health.
- The health of my family.
- A vaccine for the virus. So that we can all go back to the way things were and relax again. And feel secure.
These are the gods through which we seek our peace of mind, don’t we? – Exodus 32.1: “…these are the gods that go before us…” They are the things we hang onto – to make us feel safe.
Life is so uncertain – We know that at the moment more than, well maybe any other time in our lives. So if we’ve put our trust in anything else but God, then we will find ourselves becoming untethered when the storms of life hit.
Why do we worship false gods? Answer: Insecurity.
Here’s the second question:
2. How Is Idolatry Expressed?
Answer: The Misuse of the Imagination
Please look at verses 2-5:
“So Aaron said to them, 'Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.' So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!' When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, 'Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.'
I wonder if you know the story of the little boy who is painting a picture. And his teacher asks him, “What are you painting?” “I’m painting a picture of God,” says the boy. “Silly,” says the teacher, “No one knows what God looks like.” To which the lad says, “Oh, well they will know when I’ve finished the painting.”
Folks, I’m sorry that’s a cheesy story I know. But it’s exactly what Aaron does here. He makes up in his own imagination a picture of God.
And the key is this – he is not consciously committing idolatry.
You see Aaron was far too committed to the God of Moses to ever consider the worship of pagan deities. Aaron would never do that!
No! This was intended to be an image of the One True God. That’s why we read in verse 5 that Aaron built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a fest to...” – Who? To Baal? To Krishna? To Allah? No! It doesn’t say that, does it? “To the LORD.”
The tragedy of this situation is that if you were to ask Aaron if he had abandoned the Lord God – he would have said, 'Heaven forbid!'
He was not breaking the 1st commandment – which says, “You shall have no other Gods before me.” No! He was breaking the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything in heaven above or earth beneath – You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” That was his sin.
Now let’s just relate this. As I think this relates massively to us. I’m sure you’ve heard people say this: 'Well I think God is like this…' And then they go on to describe God as they imagine him to be:
- 'My God is a God of love, he would never send anybody to hell – not my God. Never!'
- 'My God believes in free-love, he doesn’t want to suffocate anyone with things like marriage or sexual self-control.'
- 'My God doesn’t need me to be part of a church – I can just worship God in my own way.'
But the true God, the God of the Bible says, 'You must not make gods to your own personal taste. You may not dream up what I am like because I have revealed myself to you in my word, by my Spirit.'
Think of it like this – I’ve often been asked over the years how we know there really is a God and what he’s like. I usually say, 'Well if I was to say to you that I have a brother, how would you know whether I did and if I did – what he’s like?'
I wonder how you’d answer that? Well let’s go through the options: I could show you a photo. I could phone him up and let you speak to him. I could show you letters, birthday cards, messages on my phone from him. But you’d only really know if he walked in the door of and you could see him and meet him face to face – or at least face to video camera! As he says 'Hello, I’m Stuart, I’m Kenneth’s brother.'
You see, you can only really know anyone when they reveal themselves to you.
And folks, Christianity is a revealed religion. Not of human speculation, but of divine declaration. Or to put it another way, theology is a science not an art. It is a study based on data – and here is the data. Which is why we study this book. Rather than compose our own.
Because in it are the stories of God stepping in through the door of human history – revealing himself to people down through the ages – till he ultimately comes in the form of a man – Jesus Christ, and shows us that he’s really there, and shows us what he’s really like, and tells us how we should really live.
So I can no more say 'I like to think of God like this or that…' than you can say that you like to think of me with a ginger hair, or I can say I like to think of you all watching this sat in your dressing gowns. It’s not true! I don’t have ginger hair and I’m pretty sure that at least some of you have managed to get dressed this morning.
But you see, when we put God’s word on one side and start to imagine what God is like we step into the realm of idolatry, don’t we?
If we insist on doing that – as Aaron did – we must live with the consequences. And that takes us to our third question…
3. What Are the Results of Idolatry?
BOY, OH BOY! There are so many results and they are catastrophic! So hold onto your seats while I run you through them:
i. Idolatry leads to debauchery. End of verse 6 – it’s a tame translation, but the word for “play” is not the kind of play your pre-school kids get up to. It has strong overtones of sexual immorality.
ii. Then verse 7 – the LORD says that they “have corrupted themselves.” And all the language in the rest of the chapter about them being “stiff-necked” and “running wild” makes them seem more like animals acting on impulse, rather than human beings made in the image of God. They are becoming less than they were made to be.
iii. Then verse 10 – God is rightly angry with this.
iv. Here’s where it gets distinctly uncomfortable as in verse 27 that anger is expressed in judgement. And what follows are probably some of the most distressing, disturbing verses anywhere in the Old Testament – As God gets Moses to assemble an execution squad! 3,000 people are cut down.
v. Then in verse 35 – the LORD sends a plague on the survivors. I know! A plague!
AND folks, if you’re anything like me at this point, you’re wondering: 'What on earth is going on here?! I mean what sort of God is this?!'
Well, I guess one of the reasons our stomach churns at this is because we know how valuable human life is.
But I think the other reason for our disgust is because we fail to remember – as Romans 6.23 tells us – that: “The wages of sin is death…”
Like us, God had given them – life – as a gift, not a divine right – He’d breathed life into them; rescued them from slavery in Egypt; saved them from the pursuing Egyptian army, parting the red sea and leading them through it. He’s fed them and given them water in the desert – He’s saved their lives time and time again!
Yet still they fail to trust him. They still seek security from idols instead of him. Indulging in immorality – and refusing to repent.
Because that’s the other thing we need to realise here. It is that God had given them plenty of opportunities to turn back to him and be forgiven. What’s the second half of Romans 6.23: “The wages of sin is death, But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It is thought that Moses must have led anything between 60 thousand and 140 thousand people through the wilderness. So clearly if 3,000 fell then tens of thousands who also deserved death were spared through God’s mercy.
And folks – I can’t say whether this Coronavirus outbreak is a plague sent by the LORD. BUT surely we should hope and pray that God uses it as a wake-up call for so many in our society – who are worshipping idols and sleepwalking towards his final judgement.
C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia books, once wrote: “…pain insists on being attended to: God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but he shouts in our pain. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”
Suffering is not always – but sometimes is – a megaphone to reminding us that all is not well with the human race. But we are not good listeners, are we? So let me beg you please to let God’s megaphone rouse you to turn to him and accept his mercy.
For without his mercy we will one day – sooner or later have to face the consequences of our sin.
And for those of us who are still feeling uncomfortable about all this – let me encourage you to respond like Moses. As here’s our fourth and final question:
4. What Should Be Our Response to Idolatry?
Well, I think we should take inspiration from Moses example – who responds firstly in:
i. Intercession – As he prays for the people. Do you see that at the end of verse 12 – Moses implores the LORD God to: “…turn from your burning anger and relent!” And verse 14 – guess what? The LORD does!
God had every right to wipe out all of the people of Israel. And yet we are told here that he relents because of one man’s prayers.
Do you see what we learn here? We are being told that intercessory prayer works! That when we pray in line with God’s merciful character – our prayers don’t just bounce off the ceiling they actually it goes through to the very throne room of God.
So will we pray at this time? This isn’t just a time for hunkering down to watch Netflix. We shouldn’t have any more excuses. No! We must pray for our world, for our nation, for our colleagues, for those we love. We must pray for God to show them his mercy.
Then we must also mirror Moses second response, which is:
Please look at verses 31 and 32 – which I have to say are some of the most moving verses in all of scripture. Verse 31:
“So Moses returned to the Lord and said, 'Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.'”
Now Moses also gets really worked up with the people – we haven’t got time to get into that just now. But some of us actually might find that all too easy. We get worked up – but then stand aloof and distant from the culture condemning it.
But no! Alongside indignation must come a compassion for the society in which we live. And Moses for all the rage he demonstrates to the Israelites on God’s behalf – He loves them!
Do you see what he says? “If not... blot me out of the book you have written.” He would rather see himself perish than them destroyed. And so must we.
You see it is insecurity that drives people to idolatry. And they need the divine word that we have.
And in its absence if we don’t communicate it, they will be – as Jesus said, “Like sheep without a shepherd.” Turning to numerous idolatrous substitutes that do not deliver and destroy them. It is heartbreaking!
Which is why we must pray, and we must preach and we must live it. And we must do so as Moses did –and Jesus too – who Moses points forward to – with compassion in our hearts and tears in our eyes.
Let’s pray together…
Exodus 32.32: “But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.”
“Father God, we pray that you would give us the love and compassion that we see in Moses. I love the would rather perish ourselves than see the godless destroyed. Father we tell you we are a long way from that – please give us that love. And then please help us to pray for these people - and model and teach what it is to live without idols - to live under the security of your divine name. Father please help us to do that. We cannot do that alone. Amen.”