The people are on their journey from slavery in Egypt to life in a Promised Land. They are following Moses and God, and have been protected and blessed. Now they are at the foot of Mt Sinai. Moses has come down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments which God has given the people to follow as a society, and they have agreed to follow God's way.
But when Moses goes back up the mountain for another 40 days and nights of conversation with God, the people grow anxious about not seeing either God or Moses for longer than they expected. In their anxiety they ask Aaron, the second-in-command, to make them a more accessible god.
It doesn’t take much to make a golden calf.
What does the story say? When asked to make a god to guide the people through the wilderness, Aaron asked for “the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters.” And it was this – their ear rings, that he melted down to make the calf.
Gold ear rings. It was part of the jewelry the people of Israel had asked for, and were given by their old neighbours back in Egypt when God started to send plagues against the Egyptians, and the Egyptians were happy to try to win the Israelites’ favour. The ear rings were part of the blessing of their journey with God. And that’s what they used to make a golden calf – a god to guide them through what remained of the wilderness, a god to set up against the fear they felt when Moses and God disappeared for longer than they liked, a god to guard against the emptiness they felt within their own souls as they looked at the uncharted territory and long journey ahead of them.
It’s always nice to have a god we can see, and touch, and carry with us, and feel comfortable with. And it doesn’t take much to make one.
And I don’t think we should be too hard on the Israelites for doing this.
In the story, God of course is infuriated. That’s the way the people saw God for a long time. And on one level God’s anger is understandable – that after freeing the people from slavery, leading them through the Red Sea, saving them from the Pharaoh’s army, providing them meat and bread and water along the way, giving them Ten Commandments to help them live as a truly human and godly society on Earth, and promising them a land to live that way in – that after doing all that for the people, as soon as God and Moses disappear up the mountain for 40 more days and nights of leadership chats, the people should so quickly turn from the God of their salvation and healing, and make another god – a Golden Calf of the ear rings God helped them get! It really is enough to make a true God mad.
But on another level – the level that Moses helps God remember, and that according to the story God increasingly lives into, it’s understandable. The wilderness is scary. The future is uncharted territory. The Promised Land is unknown and far away. The task of living well and in good relation to everything along the way is a big one. To know that life has good meaning and real purpose is sometimes more than we can cope with. Especially when God and Moses and clear answers and firm direction from on high seem to disappear, and we feel left alone with our anxieties and emptiness.
And Moses understood this. Remember it was Moses who wasn’t sure of the whole venture right from the beginning, and who didn’t feel up to the task. All along the way Moses needed and was given help and support, was shown signs of God’s power and might, said at one point – even after seeing the power of God at the Red Sea, that he still would not go one more step in the way God told him to go unless God would promise to go with him every step of the way. “No angel, God; no divine messenger; no intermediary or subordinate power,” Moses said. “It has to be you, God, yourself, or I will not go one more step in leading these people anywhere.” And God said okay, because it was not an unreasonable request.
How can we go ahead into the wilderness, how can we feel comfortable in life, how can we face the mystery of everything and our own emptiness in the face of it, without God … or, because God sometimes seems too hard to see, some kind of god that at least we can understand and feel comfortable with?
And we all do it. It’s human and natural and universal. We all have our golden ear rings that we are blessed with somewhere along the way, and that we turn into a golden calf to guide us and guard us against our anxieties.
Sometimes it really is the trinkets and treasures of life – the bling and the look of success in the eyes of the world that, once achieved, so easily becomes the purpose of life, what we reassure ourselves with, and what we work for and find comfort in. And as long as we can maintain the look and keep stocking the bling, we feel okay and that our life is on track.
It might be awards, honours and prizes … for anything, really – in school for academic achievement, in sports, in business, in who knows what? The awards and honours start out as a blessing – a sign and affirmation of some gift, or maybe of perseverance and commitment, and the ability to be able to do something good to make a difference for others in the world. But at what point for some folks do the awards and honours and prizes become themselves the reason for being, and the way that they have of staving off fear of their own emptiness and need for reassurance against the mystery of a meaningful life?
It happens to communities – even communities of faith. A community of faith is planted in a new and wilderness spot to make a difference for good in that part of the world. It grows and flourishes and in time is blessed with people, resources, a building, a history of faithful ministry and mission. But life is long, history is never-ending, and the mystery of faithful mission and purpose is great. At what point do the blessings along the way – the budget and the numbers of members and the building itself, become the god instead so that as long as these things are served and maintained, all is thought to be well.
It happens to countries – that a people come to land different than what they have known, they encounter people and customs different than they understand, and they are called into the mystery of learning to live well in relation to things beyond their experience and understanding. And they begin in that direction, but then as soon as they manage to create a confederation of provinces and tie together a string of settlements from coast to coast to make a country that they understand and control, how easy is it for that creation of their own hands to become a god, a guard against the mystery of all else that is around them, a way of boiling the wildness and fullness of reality down to something they can understand and feel comfortable with?
It’s understandable. We do it all the time.
Life, though, has a way of breaking through, and breaking down whatever false gods we fall into following and trusting – the way that Moses, when he came down from the mountain and saw what the people had done, as much as he understood why they did it, still did the only thing he could for their good. He “took the calf they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.” Wow! What a bitter lesson that must have been!
But sometimes life does that. And it can be cruel. It can be hard and tragic.
I think of stories from Fort McMurray last year, and this year from BC and the Caribbean and the Gulf Coastal states of people who have lost almost everything they have had in the world to fires and to floods and to the extreme force of hurricanes. They have had to flee – like the people of Israel, like refugees, with only what they could carry in their car. And how often have they said, “It’s only stuff. What matters is that we’re alive, and that we have one another. Thank God for what we have.”
Not that God sent the fires or caused the floods or directed the hurricanes. I don’t believe that. But is it maybe that in the midst of these things, as the blessings of life and of the journey we are on are taken away, and as the gods we sometimes make of them are knocked off their pedestals, that the true God behind and within, and above and beyond all things is there ready and waiting to catch us, ready and waiting to be found again, ready and waiting to help us rediscover and continue a journey and a life of real meaning and purpose?
Is that maybe what’s happening in Canada these days with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and with the way that some of our illusory myths and idolatries about ourselves as a nation are being shaken, and broken down, and shown to be false? Is it maybe a chance to regain some measure of the real journey we are called to be on as a people, to face again the Mystery of what we might yet be as a nation, and to commit once again to God’s commands of living in right relations with all that is?
Is this maybe what every church is up against, each time we stop and really ask ourselves, what is it we are here for? What are we really about? Are we just a budget and numbers of members and a building? Or are these merely tools and blessings we have along the way, as we serve a larger purpose, and follow a greater goal – a goal that is nothing less than God’s will for the healing and enlightening of all who are here in this part of the world where we have been planted?
It doesn’t take much to make a golden calf – to turn the blessings we have along the way into a god.
The wilderness and the journey and the call of God, as well as the emptiness and inadequacy and powerlessness we feel within ourselves can be scary.
But God is always there – ready and waiting to catch us when we leap or even just stumble into the unknown, ready and waiting to be found again … and again … and again as our God, ready and waiting to lead us as we are willing on a journey of deep and holy meaning and purpose towards a good and glorious land we have not yet seen.