It is said that when Augustine preached, in his role as the Bishop of Hippo, that he preached for two hours or so at the time. Within the length of his sermon, he would have smaller sermons that were directed at different people who might be gathered in the congregation. He would preach to people who were just hearing of the faith. He would preach to the catecumenate, the people preparing for baptism. He would preach to those feeling lost and to those who were a long time in the faith. Everyone sat through all of the sermons, absorbing the lesson aimed at them and the lessons that swirled over them.
I have been thinking about Augustine this week as this text of the Golden Calf turned over in my mind. There are at least six sermons here. All of them do not apply to all of you. I think I can cover three of them and keep my time under two hours.
The first group to whom I will speak today are those who would consider themselves young in faith, those who still feel raw and uncertain. If you feel a little shaky about your Bible knowledge or confused as to why we do what and when, this is for you. You know why the idols were built.
The story of the Golden Calf takes place after the Israelites have been freed from Egyptian slavery, after they have seen the violent death of Pharaoh’s army in the Sea of Reeds, after God has led them with a pillar of clouds by day and a pillar of fire by night, after they’ve received food from the heavens, and after the Israelites have been gifted with the Ten Commandments, which begin with “You shall have no other gods before me.”
The Israelites did not make it to this place on their own, but each step has been an overwhelming confirmation of God’s presence with them and God’s guidance through their leader, Moses. Even though the Israelites know their history, each day is a new experiment in trust. They are totally dependent on God and God’s providence. While the goal of living by faith is their ideal, sometimes it requires too much.
You may find yourself relating well to the Israelites in this situation, oh people of new faith. It turns out to be harder than expected. The glories of those first days of freedom and revelation are strengthening, but the need for new confirmation each day is tough. It is hard to say that to those around you, those who share your tent, those who sit around the table with you. But you must. The Israelites missed the chance to hold one another up when they grumbled to themselves and then despaired. Sometimes the constant re-telling of the stories of freedom and hope are what keep the flame burning until new wood, experience, confirmation, depth of wisdom in Christ, is added. For you receiving this first sermon, I encourage you to tell your story- share the breath of God that is in you. Let the Spirit be the wind that parts the waters of doubt for you and those around you and lets you pass through on dry land.
The second sermon is for those of you who have been faithful for years. If you have heard this story as a child and as an adult, if you feel like the facts are familiar, if you are listening and making a to-do list in your head at the same time- this is the sermon portion for you.
It is you, beloved second group who do much of the work of the church and, yet, are at the greatest risk of imitating the Hebrew people of this story. It is you who know the story so well who may overlook the two reasons the Golden Calf gets built. When the people lament that Moses has been gone too long, they gather around his brother, Aaron, and beg him to help them make an idol.
If you remember, Aaron was Moses’s spokesman in front of Pharaoh. Aaron knows EXACTLY what has happened between God and the people. And yet, he collects up the jewelry, melts it down, and makes a golden calf- a common shape for worship in the Mesopotamian region. Representing food, milk, clothing, and potential livelihood, as idols go, the calf is not unreasonable. And yet, it is not appropriate for people who have been saved by the God of their ancestors and who are yet covered by the same promises made to those ancestors.
The people may have made the idol because they needed a concrete image to worship. Perhaps the God of freedom who acted unseen was too much of a strain. Perhaps they were trying to make an image of this God and this is what they came up with. Regardless, Moses is up on the mountain receiving instructions for how to build the tabernacle, a place for God’s Spirit to dwell in the encampment, and down below the people are trying to make a concrete image to worship, from which to seek guidance, to praise for all that has happened to them.
People of faithful years, this is too easy to do. We live in a world that craves newness and, in newness, concreteness. Our sports teams, our gadgets, our cars, our clothing, our patriotic idealism, our financial worries, our hobbies, our families, our work, our health, our church programs, our history, our future… these all can and do become our idols. They become the images that absorb our concentration, our energy, and our focus. The place where we push the most focus becomes our god. It may not be sparkly and shiny, but we can have it built and receiving the offerings of our time and our talents faster than we expect.
What is the first thing you think of when you wake up? Is it your baptism in Christ? Is it the taste of communion? Is it the powerful conversation with your neighbor about God’s providence? As you go to sleep, were you praying? Was your prayer, “Lord, how will I get everything done tomorrow?” or “Lord, thank you for today”?
We look down on the builders of the Golden Calf, but we often forget the idols that crop up around us- idols that demand our attention, our money, and our devotion. Oh, people of years of faith, beware the siren call of new things, of crammed schedules, of political promises and hope anchored in quicksand. Think on what is truth- the gifts of God in Christ, communion, community, and consolation. Dwell on these things and other idols will tarnish and crumble, because they cannot stand.
Lastly, I will speak to you who have lived faithful lives of many decades. You know why the idols were built. The Israelites, in waiting for Moses’s return, believed that God had grown silent. Despite their earlier experiences, they found themselves without a prophet. They prayed and felt no answer. They wept and felt no consolation. They ate and they drank food from heaven and, yet, they felt empty.
You, elders in faith, know this feeling. None of us wish to speak of this dark night of the soul, but you know of the words poured forth in grief, in anger, and in frustration that seemed to go unheard, because you have waited for a response that has not yet seemed to come. You feel a kinship with the Israelites, who lift their eyes to the mountain and say, “It is well and good for Moses to talk to the Lord, but what about me? What about what I have to say? What about what I need to hear?” You understand that sometimes idols are made, not because of disobedient nature or confusion, but out of the sheer need to hold onto something- grief, relief, memory, control.
You, people in this third group, know too well what it is like to proceed through the valley of the shadow and to feel like the sun doesn’t always make down to where you are. And, yet, you have walked. You have walked through the silence, you have waded through the depths, you have remembered Egypt and you have said, “That was nothing.”
And, in your walking, you have also become prophetic. You read this story and you know God didn’t change the plan. You know that God had no intentions of destroying the people of the promise again. Instead, you look at this Scripture through eyes of wisdom and you see God coaching Moses into his role as prophet. You see God stirring up fear and frustration in Moses until Moses is finally responding with the strength and the nerve that God knows is in him, “These are your people, Lord! The people you led out of slavery! Would you have others say that it was they would die in the wilderness? Would you have their children say that you are God who does not keep promises?”
With decades of experience, you all see the God pulling Moses along because you’ve been there. You’ve been in the spot of negotiating with God on one side, only to realize you were handed a new and different task. And you’ve done this trick yourself. With your years of experience, you know that other idols crumble, but they remain tempting when it seems God is silent or, conversely, when it seems that all you can hear is God calling you into a new and scary place of relationship and prophetic living.
People of Hope, whichever group you are in, you know why those idols were built. You have done it yourself and we will do it again. And yet, we know that we have a God who forgives, who relents, who comes among us in Jesus to show us, ultimately, that there is nothing this world can offer that cannot be trumped by what God gives- hope in the face of doubt, strength in the place of insecurity, freedom in the place of enslavement, life where death would have the last word.
We all long for the concreteness of idols, but our hearts are made by God and long for God. Whichever you find yourself in today, here are words from St. Augustine to God, which could be from any of us: “Thou madest me for thyself and my heart is restless until it finds repose in thee.”
Thou madest me for thyself, and my heart is restless until it finds repose in thee.
No idol offers that kind of repose.