“by Fr. Travis O’Brian”
Pentecost 20 (A) October 22, 2017
IDOLATRY AND DISCIPLESHIP: AFTER THE CALF
Today’s lesson from Exodus takes place after the Israel’s fall into idolatry, making and worshipping the golden calf. It is a difficult lesson: God having to teach his people (again) what it means to be ‘the chosen people of God;’ what their faith demands. Israel needs to learn (again) that to be blessed, anointed, by God has much more to do with being sent by God than it has to do with receiving a prize, a distinction from God. Or if it has to do with distinction, with being set-aside from other peoples, then it is to be set aside not for its own sake, but so that through its witness, through the life of its faith, it might be an example and a blessing for the world.
The golden calf proved that Israel misunderstood what it means to be the ‘chosen people of God.’ They mistakenly believed that to be ‘chosen’ means the “Lord their God” is on their side, to privilege them, to drive away their enemies, to preserve them in long life in the land, to distinguish them and play favourites. The golden calf, as all idols, represents the human desire for gods who we agree to serve because they serve us: provide for our wants, secure us from our fears, privilege and comfort us and ensure that we prosper – according, of course, to how we define ‘our wants,’ how we define ‘prosperity,’ how we understand ‘comfort.’ In the last Anglican Journal there was an advertisement: a fund-raising effort by the Anglican Foundation, encouraging us to buy cuddly teddy bears dressed sacramental vestments. This is idolatry. Not because there is any danger of us worshipping the teddy bear, but because of the image of God it implies we worship at the altar: a God who is comforting and domesticated, cut down to serve our image; a God who is mute, so we might put our words in its mouth. My friends, if we still believe in the relevance of the Church in and for our times, then it is this image of God, this idolatry, we must renounce.
Let us return to Moses at Mount Sinai. After Israel bowed down to the golden calf, Moses interceded on behalf of the people, that God not destroy them in His anger. God relents, and directs Moses to leave the haven of Sinai. Israel must now resume her pilgrimage through the dangers of the desert. Furthermore, whereas God had previously always travelled with them, now, God now says to Moses, “I will not go among you.” “You are a stiff-necked people.” But Moses pleads once again, “Go with us, (otherwise) how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight . . . unless you go with us? In this way we shall be distinct . . . from every people on the face of the earth” (v.16).
Once again, God agrees to do as Moses has asked. But he is going to change the terms on which he does so. He will go with them, but no longer will he speak to Moses as he once did, “face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (v.11). Now when Moses asks to see his face, God covers Moses’ eyes, and shows him only his back. Worshipping the golden calf, the Israelites had mistaken the meaning of God’s earlier intimacy with them. Now God agrees to go with Israel to assure her that she is indeed ‘blessed,’ that she is indeed ‘set aside’ from other nations in his sight, but he nevertheless turns his back on them as a sign that his blessing, his anointing of Israel is not for Israel, but for Israel to be a witness of his love for the whole world. “I will go with you,” God says to Moses, but don’t mistake what this means. I am not god at your service. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (v.19). I do not belong to you, but you belong to me. Here I am. But not to serve your hopes for yourself. God turns his back as a sign that he is indeed with them, they are set aside, but they are set aside to follow him, follow even into places that are not safe, comforting, or privileged: places they would not choose to go.
Idolatry is an ever-present danger. When we reach out to Jesus as “my personal saviour,” for example, Jesus as the one who guarantees my hopes and fulfills my needs, we are very close to casting a golden calf. He offers comfort, yes, but we cannot truly know the meaning of his comfort unless we follow Him along that road which, to our human eyes, seems void of comfort. It is, in the end, only by following him that we begin to learn what hope truly is – not ‘my’ hope, but God’s hope for us.
More than this, to follow does not mean always to know where we are heading. God lead Israel into the desert, into dangerous places. God lead his son on the Cross, and lead Peter where Peter did not wish to go. But when we learn to obey, in faith, his command, “follow me,” then we learn what it means to be God’s elect, his chosen people, set aside, called out of the world. This blessing distinguishes the church, but distinguishes it as the people called to relinquish ‘distinction.’ Just as “Israel’s election means that it is called to be servant and witness of the Lord for all nations, not to be ruler of the nations,”1 so the Church is set aside – not as those who are kept safe in the ‘inner sanctum,’ but as those sent out into the darkness of the world to bear witness to the world of the light beyond our human lights, the hope beyond any hope we can imagine for ourselves.
We live in a world where golden calves abound – gods such as wealth, individualism, technological progress – idols we serve in the belief that they serve us in our own understanding of human flourishing. In the midst of this world, the question urgently facing us is how to follow God back into the desert, trusting in him, trusting that where our idols of self-privilege lead only to death, Christ – who demands we take up our Cross – is the life of the world. We are beginning, as a parish, to ask this question. In discussions of the Elder’s Network, at Theology on Tap, at Parish Council, and most especially gathering to worship here, we are asking, what does it mean to be ‘set aside’ to witness Christ in our world? What does it mean to follow in his way, to know that our lives do not belong to ourselves, but to him? How can we, together, follow him into places we are afraid to go? If we still believe in the relevance of the Church in and for our times, we must learn to renounce our idols. And in renouncing them, receive Christ’s word to his chosen ones of his infinite comfort, infinite hope: “Take heart. I am. Do not be afraid” (Matt.14:27).
1 Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret, rev. ed (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1995), 73.