Sermon from October 12th, 2014. Continuing with September’s theme of Exodus, the text was Exodus 32:1-14.
The Making of a God
and the Making of a People
I’d say that the Hebrews camped at the bottom of Mt. Sinai were getting antsy, but the truth is that they were long past that. Moses told them that God would be with them where ever they would go, but where was God now? Moses had been up on Mt. Sinai for near 40 days and 40 nights. And they’d heard nary a word from anyone. They were long past antsy. They were fed up with this God who dragged them around the desert and then went off on a mountaintop for weeks at a time. Who even knew if God was in that cloud anymore? God could be long gone by now. They needed a new God. So they asked Aaron to make one for them.
They lived at a time when new Gods were as easy to find as shaping them out of clay or stone. And near every nation had not just one but a pantheon of gods, and families did too. Individuals had personal Gods, Households had household Gods, nations had national Gods and then pantheons of associated international Gods. They lived in a God-saturated society. Praying to one God wasn’t working for you? Go pray to a new one. Don’t feel like your god has the skill set you need to deal with a problem? Borrow your neighbor’s. So when God dumps the Hebrews at the bottom of the mountain to talk to Moses about how many cubits wide the tabernacle should be, the people dump God in favor of a golden calf.
To the modern ear the idea of choosing your God seems a little ridiculous. But it’s not foreign to the reality of spiritual life in the 21st century. The great revolution of the second half of the 21st century has been a sea change in the number of choices available to us. We have more choices than ever before. In most areas of life that’s a good thing. I certainly want my daughter to have the choices afforded to women now as opposed to the ones, say, her great-grandmother had. And people complain about having a lot of channels, but I don’t mind. Even if I do only end up watching about five of them.
Even when it comes to church we have more options than ever before. If you don’t like the preacher on the TV, you just change the channel. If you don’t like your church, there’s another one across the street. And the thing about this explosion of choices is that it puts all the power in the customer’s hands. Because we have so many choices we want everything to be shaped perfectly to please us. And if something doesn’t please us we go choose something else. More than ever, the things we consume and interact with are shaped to give us exactly what we want. If something isn’t what we want, we just change the channel.
And that’s exactly what Aaron did for the people. God stopped giving them what they wanted, so Aaron makes them a new god. Aaron takes their earrings and rings and money and presents them with a golden calf made of all their wealth. This is bad religion at its most obvious. It takes all your wealth and what do you get in return? Something pretty but ultimately meaningless.
But the people loved the statue anyways. They even pretended that the calf brought them out of Egypt, showing humanity’s ever-present capacity for self-deception. They loved the golden calf because it was the opposite of the God who dragged them all over the wilderness. The statue of the calf wasn’t going anywhere. With Moses’ God they had to follow the pillars of cloud and fire. But it didn’t matter where they went, the calf would follow them.
That’s the problem with the customer-driven channel surfing spiritual model. The tail starts to wag the dog. The most successful TV preacher is not the one who most faithfully describes what God wants us to hear, but the one who most faithfully tells us what we want to hear. Churches compete with each other to see how little they can ask of their members. People go to church and ask, how does this church fulfill my needs, and not how can I fulfill God’s kingdom. And the end result is that instead of believing in the God of pillar and flame, the I am who I am, who is dangerous to touch and who takes us out of our comfort zones, we get the Golden calf, who takes everything we have and leaves us in the wilderness. Instead of following God we make ourselves a God who follows us.
We make golden calves for ourselves because the God we have isn’t always the God we want. But the God we want isn’t always the God we need. We need a God who pushes and challenges us to be something more than what we are. We might say that’s what we want but we gravitate towards the opposite. There’s a fellow named Howard Moskowitz who used to work for coffee companies to do customer research. When you ask someone what kind of coffee they like they’ll tell you they like a dark, rich, hearty roast. But Howard did taste tests. What percent of people actually prefer a dark, rich, hearty roast? Somewhere between 25 and 27 percent. Most people, most of us, like milky weak coffee. But no one will ever tell an interviewer that they want milky weak coffee.
Whether or not they were willing to admit it, the Hebrews in the wilderness wanted a milky, weak God. One who would give much and demand little. Look at what happened. All God said to them was, “wait here” and they’re off making themselves another God. And more often than not that’s what we want too. But the God we want isn’t the God we get.
And what’s interesting about the second half of this story, the crazy thing about the second half of this story, is that we may not get the God that we want. But God, God didn’t get the people God wanted either. God and Moses are up on Mt. Sinai and God says, “You better get down there, Moses, look at what your people are doing.” That’s the way this sort of thing goes, when they’re doing something good, they’re mine, when they’re doing something bad, they’re yours. My dog, knows how to play dead. Your dog peed on the carpet again.
And God says to Moses, “Let’s just start over. Let’s get rid of these people and I will shape a new people, a people worthy of my love. We’ll start from you, and I will make a new people.” And in this one moment, what the people are doing and what God is doing are the exact same thing. The people are unsatisfied with God and so they make a new people. And God is unsatisfied with the people so God wants to make a new people.
But Moses, thank God for Moses. Moses talks God down. He says think of what the Egyptians will say. You destroyed an army of chariots to save these people only to wipe them out in the desert. And look at all the work you’ve put into this people. Do you want all that to go to waste? Look at all the things you can do through these people, and the promises you made. Do you want to throw that out?
And finally God says, “Okay.” Okay I will work with these people. They will be my people and I will be their God. As God has promised so many times in scripture. And what that tells us is that this thing we’ve got going with God. It’s not a one-way thing. This is a relationship. This isn’t a God-gives, we get relationship. Nor is it a we give and God gets relationship. It’s a two-way street. It’s push and it’s pull. It’s up and down.
We get from God, we receive from God, but we also give. We offer ourselves to God. And God asks of us, God commands us, God demands from us. But God also promises to us.
And what the story tells us about this promise is that in the midst of this weird relationship. In the midst of this “You’re not who I want and I’m not who you want,” we will find that each of us is what we need them to be. And the promise, is that if we can hang on. If we can stop fashioning, shaping Gods to follow us around, then God will shape us into a people who can follow.
 Gladwell, M. (February 2004). Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, Happiness, and Spaghetti Sauce. Retrieved from: http://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_on_spaghetti_sauce/transcript?language=en#t-28000