Lisa Hines Oct. 9 Sermon: No Other Gods but Me
It’s hard to read the story in Exodus of the golden calf without picturing the lurid scene of debauchery in the fifties movie, The Ten Commandments. In the Bible, we are told that after the people make a golden calf to represent the gods who brought them out of Egypt, they offer sacrifices to the Lord, and then, in the words of the King James version, “rise up to play.”
In other words, they dance as part of a religious feast. But in the movie, crafting the idol of a calf from the gold earrings of the Israelites releases every wild and wonton impulse of the people. It’s as if the director of the movie didn’t think that making a gold calf to represent the Lord were in itself enough to justify God’s wrath. Surely only great immorality by the people of Israel could call forth such anger. Neither the movie maker nor the movie goer in 1957 could take seriously the idea of worshiping a statue fresh out of a mold. Could anyone really be so silly to think they could make a god, just like that?
The book of Exodus takes the sin of idolatry seriously, so seriously that it poses the real possibility that the Lord may respond to the sin by taking back all the promises he made to Israel and wiping out his people in the desert right then and there. In the argument Moses has with God about how God will respond to the unfaithfulness of his people, we have the storyteller’s way of showing us both the gravity of the people’s error and the Lord’s willingness, in the end, to remain faithful to Israel.
The question for us when we read this text is whether or not we take idolatry seriously. Let’s face it, when we read the Ten Commandments, don’t we tend to give ourselves a ride on the first two, the ones dealing with idolatry? “You shall have no other gods before me. Check. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” Check. No problem. It’s when we get a little further down the list that we get a little nervous, to commandments like “You shall not covet” and “You shall honor your father and mother.”
But there’s a reason why the first two commandments address idolatry. If we accept the usual definition of sin as what comes between us and God, then idolatry heads the list. And if worshiping a golden calf is laughable to us, it’s only because our understanding and perception of the relationship of images to reality is different from that of the ancients. But idolatry has never really gone out of style. It remains the most dangerous temptation to lead us far from our creator.
What Christian and Jewish sciptures call idolatry isn’t limited to making golden idols. It means ascribing independent reality to what we have in fact made. It means projecting reality and substance onto things that don’t have them. That definition can take us far from what we regard as primitive religious rites. It includes any definition of God that is not open-ended, that isn’t humble enough to acknowledge our limited understanding, that doesn’t leave room for God to destroy or exceed our fantasies about him.
But idolatry also includes allowing forces that we would never call “God” to push aside the call of God upon our lives. An easy example from history is the worship of the Third Reich in the twentieth century. Although the Third Reich publicly paid lip service to the God of Abraham and Christ, it actually created a god that would fulfill no purposes but those of the Reich. It replaced God with the Furor.
Another, more subtle, example of modern idolatry is the way we regard market forces. We talk about them as if they have a life of their own for which we cannot be held responsible, as if the market actually had a reality independent of the millions of individual human choices that comprise it. When we ignore our responsibility for our economic choices, market forces become dangerous, even demonic in their destructive power.
Similarly, social class systems, in the modern world no less than in the ancient, are idolatrous insofar as we treat them as eternal truths instead of as projections of our own fears and prejudices. We can protest that we don’t worship the market or social class systems, but anything that causes us to abdicate our responsibility to serve only God is an idol. And if we allow the values of the market or a class system to rule us as if their reality were absolute, then we have just pushed God aside as the only absolute claim on our being.
Let’s get back to the story of Moses and the Israelites in the desert. The people demand from Aaron something that they can see and touch to contain the awesome reality of the Lord and to go before them on their journey. While Moses is with them, they are willing to let Moses be a witness to the God they cannot see or control. But when Moses stays so long hidden in the clouds of Mount Sinai, the people panic and demand an image, something they can treat with reverence and honor, something they can point to as proof of God’s presence with them. On one level, it’s hard to see the harm in it—a little childish to us, maybe, something like a security blanket to hold onto in the wilderness.
But as I have said, the danger of idolatry can’t be dismissed so easily. Exodus speaks of the Lord as a jealous God, but it’s not God’s ego that is on the line. It’s our connection to our creator, someone whose reality is not dependent on our own and upon whom we must depend. Idolatry undermines that connection in many ways, some subtle, some not so subtle. Once we allow something to stand in for God, whether it is a golden calf or our wealth or our privilege, we begin to forget that what we have made has no reality beyond us. We become our own god, closing ourselves off from the love and energy that flow from the God who made us. We become trapped in the “sterile closed circle of ourselves, our plans, our projects and expectations.” In our attempt to manage reality, to spin it to suit our purposes, we risk weaving a fabric of our own that is so tightly made that the hand of God can barely begin to tear through to reach us. That is the tragedy, the damnation of idolatry.
The wildfires have set all of us questioning the meaning of our experiences. We want to understand why they happened on a level far beyond that of physical cause and effect. We want a God who will answer that question for us. If we knew why our plans have been so disrupted, our lives so turned upside down, then maybe we would feel more in control, or at least, would have the comfort of knowing someone is in control. We don’t like too much mystery in the universe. We think we’d sleep better if we could pin down the God who promises to be with us. We could put him in a place of honor, say the right prayers, make the right sacrifices, dance the right dances, and all would be well.
Or maybe we want a God who is a rigid set of moral rules, one who rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked according to those rules. That, too, offers us an illusion of control over what happens. We want a God who won’t rock our boats.
But a tidy, predictable God is not the God revealed to us through Christ. The God we encounter in Christ is utterly free, free to love what is unlovable and sinful, free to create out of chaos without requiring our understanding, free to manifest himself in any way God chooses, even in the terrible suffering of an innocent man on the cross. He calls us to freedom from idolatrous forces that turn us back on ourselves instead of opening us to the endless possibilities of God. All idols fail us in the end. After the fire, after the destruction of our plans and illusions of control, only God remains. If we can bear to remain in God’s mysterious presence, open to receive what God offers without demanding guarantees, who knows? We just may find that God will lead us through the wilderness. Amen.