Tag Archives: Golden Calf


A Sermon for 15 October 2017

A reading from Exodus 32:1-14.  Listen for God’s word to us as we hear one more Sunday about the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt.  Listen.

“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”  Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron.  He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”  When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”  They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.  The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once!  Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’”  The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.  10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”  11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?  12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?’  Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.  13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”  14 And the Lord changed the LORD’s mind about the disaster that the LORD planned to bring on the people.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!


Have you ever seen one of those stage plays where the audience is involved in picking the ending?  Usually something like a murder mystery, the actors have rehearsed all sorts of ways to finish the plot.  Was it Ms. Scarlett in the Library with the wrench?  Or Mr. Green in the Kitchen with the lead pipe?  Once the audience chooses which way it will go, the actors spring back into action, as if never missing a beat, to show how the story unfolds.  It never goes quite the same way twice.  Alternate endings are possible depending on the will of the people.

We forgot we have the power, in pretty much every situation, to influence how things will unfold.  So often we feel as if only one way is possible in the story of our lives; but it is not so.  Fear often holds us back.  Literally moving us out of the higher realms of our brain’s ability to imagine alternate endings.  Fear leaves us operating out of what’s often referred to as our “Lizard brain” – the oldest part of our brains that develops first in the womb.  It’s an important part of who we are so we can instinctually act when our lives really are in danger.  But allowing ourselves to daily live out of our lowest, lizard brains is the last thing needed from human beings by this planet.  God gifted us with frontal lobes, the most complex part of the human brain where impulse control, consideration of actions’ effect on others, even reasoning about consequences can take place.  The goal is to use the amazing heads we’ve been given so that we can envision possibility number one.  Or possibility number two.  And even possibility number three, four, five, six, and seven.  Endless alternative options in any given situation.

I wish the Israelites at Sinai would have taken some collective deep breaths.  To move from operating out of their lizard brains into the higher realms of conscious ability.  If we’ve ever given up something we really love for Lent, then we might understand how long 40 days can feel.  Moses, the one who has guided them miraculously into freedom, and God, the One who has been present to them all the way, convene forty days on the mountain.  And the people below panic.  They’ve just been given the commands of God for how they can live connected rightly to God and each other.  In awe they saw the thick cloud envelop the mountain.  They heard the thunder roll and witnessed the lightening flash.  They heard command number one:  have NO OTHER GOD’s before me.  And command number two:  MAKE NO IDOLS!  The either have really short memories, or refused to listen in the first place.  Maybe it even shows that the commands of God foreshadowed what anyone studying human behavior could guess would happen.

Afraid Moses had been torn to pieces by some wild animal on that mountain, or maybe convinced the ole’ fool at last was smothered by the thick cloud of God; the people demand brother Aaron do something concrete in their midst.  They want something tangible to show them the way.  Impatient with the wait.  Anger certainly on the rise.  And afraid they’ve been abandoned.  They beg for a god to be made that can lead them out of that harsh desert.  The salt in the wound is that even as Aaron collects all their gold for the calf, God had been describing to Moses a sanctuary where a LORD who seems to be passionately in love with the people could dwell among them forever.  According to Exodus 25, step one was to begin with “an offering; for all whose hearts prompt them to give.”  Specifically, it would be an offering to God of “gold, silver, and bronze; blue, purple, and crimson yarns.  Fine linen, goat’s hair, tanned rams’ skins, (and) fine leather; acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breast piece” (Exodus 25:2-7).  God wants the finest of all they have for a sanctuary in which the people would be able to lift up their hearts in gratitude to God.  Meanwhile . . . the people circle Aaron to demand some new deity immediately!

Tragic.  So tragic when our fear demands our one and only imaginable way.

How else might the story unfold?  If the people hadn’t let their fear get the best of them, if they could have held on just a bit longer; what other options might had they imagined together?

Our other reading for today offers an alternative.  “Rejoice in the LORD always,” the Christians of Philippi are instructed.  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The LORD is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:4-6).  Wow!  If the people could have kept back their fear.  If they could have remained a bit more patient; then imagine the party they could have enjoyed!  They could have sang and danced at the mountain’s edge.  Remembering the LORD God always is near, they could have built a fire as a sign of the fiery column that had led them.  They could have sat down to rehearse with one another the first time God provided for their thirst.  They could have told tales of the remarkable double manna portion waiting them every sixth morning on the desert floor.  They could have taken out a few of the quail feathers and swopped stories of how good it tasted when first they arrived in a rush from Egypt.  And Egypt:  that flight they finally made?!  Aaron might have taken the opportunity to remind them to pour out their requests once again to God.  God heard and acted every time in the past.  What makes them think this time will be any different?  Maybe allow a little gratitude to mingle with their concern just to remember that the One to whom they pray their prayers is nearer than their very own breath.  It would have been a completely different unfolding of their story . . .  it can be a totally alternate way for our own as well.

It’s been a rough go these past few months.  Starting with Harvey, intensifying with Irma, and Maria too.  Finding out in the narthex after worship that a church across town was being shot up.  And just a week later, the most horrendous mass shooting our country has known.  Fires rage out of control in California again.  Now more than ever, an alternate way is needed.  . . .  A heart-felt reflection offered by one of our denomination’s current General Assembly Co-moderators, included these words this week:  “Are these tragedies changing the way we live now?  Are we giving up a Starbucks or two so that we’ll have some loose change to send to a disaster relief organization?  Are we talking in our churches about ways we can do more as congregations?  . . .  How does our faith in God manifest itself in these days?” (https://achurchforstarvingartists.wordpress.com/2017/10/12/what-a-difference-a-tragedy-makes/).

We can get caught up in the fear – there’s enough of it out there.  We can grow weary and impatient and even angry during such difficulties.  . . .  Or we can turn to God.  Rejoice in all the ways we see the will of God being lived out as neighbor helps neighbor and compassion is given more room to grow.  We can rehearse all the ways we see provisions are being made.  And instead of wringing our hands in worry, we can live in gratitude for the gift of each day – for another opportunity to embody God’s ways among this world.  We have the power to significantly influence the outcome of these days.  How it all unfolds can radically be impacted for good by us.  . . .  Breathe deep, brothers and sisters of Christ.  Through us, let the story unfold another way.

In the name of the life-giving father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2017  (All rights reserved.)

12 October 2014 sermon — Psalm 106 & Exodus 32

Dying or Pregnant?
DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!
12 October 2014 – 18th Sunday after Pentecost

Click here to read scripture first: Psalm 106:1-7 (NRS)
Psalm 106:19-22 (NRS)
Exodus 32:1-14 (NRS)

This week a blog post entitled “Transition Hurts” (achurchforstarvingartists@wordpress.com) contained a link to a very insightful video. In 2011, The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana, a pastor of a small, vibrant church near Washington D.C., created a video response to refute a letter to the PCUSA in which several pastors diagnosed us as deathly ill (We Are Presbyterian 2011 – A New “Diagnosis” for the Church at: vimeo.com). They had all the numerical facts: declining membership, dilapidated buildings, fewer adult baptisms, etc., etc., etc. Rev. Dana admitted that she had no desire to argue with their facts. Instead, she questioned their diagnosis. When she considers our churches, she doesn’t see the metaphor of death with all the symptoms that go with it. And even if she did, would that be so bad? We’re the Easter people who worship the living God whose final surprise comes only after death. In God’s hands, it’s all going to be all right. Nonetheless, Rev. Dana likens what she sees among us not to death, but as a time in which we are pregnant. Gestating. Awaiting the birth of something new. Now, Rev. Dana was sensitive to the fact that not all of us will resonate with this metaphor. Some of us, or our spouses, never have been pregnant out of choice or heart-breaking circumstances. Some of us may not want to be pregnant – facing the birth of something new. Some of us grieve the loss of a child or are trying right now to give birth to something new in our lives. We need a sensitivity with one another about our experiences around pregnancy. Still, Rev. Dana jumped in to compare what she’s seeing among so many Presbyterian churches not to death, but to being pregnant.

Think about it. Fatigue is typical in pregnancy – something many churches are feeling these days. We know we have fewer people among us than we might have had at the height of American Presbyterianism in the 1950s and 1960s when people flocked to our sanctuaries each week. Many churches tire themselves out as they try to do and be what they did and were some 50 years ago. It’s exhausting trying to keep on being something we no longer are – which is something quite common to pregnancy when major changes are growing within a body. . . . Dana reminds that queasiness is a part of pregnancy – also known as morning sickness. She pinpoints this in the church. Our stomachs might be churning when we think about how we are to relate to this changing world. Everything from younger generations whose choices we can’t always understand, to technology we’re not quite sure how to utilize in order to reach them, to cultural values we believe to be contrary to the gospel. It can make us sick to our stomachs as we wonder how we are to live in this world without being co-opted by the ways of it? How we are to keep on giving witness to the good news of Jesus Christ among families, friends, neighbors, and strangers who seem to be so very different from us? And of course the anxiety. What parent really is ready for the birth of their baby? Will we be able to bring this new thing to life? Will we respond well to its needs? Are we able to guide this new thing into the fullness of its being as God intends? Every parent experiences at least a little angst along the way as many of us might be feeling these days about the future of the church. Pregnancy is a leap into the unknown – God alone being the One who knows what is being brought to life. . . . Considering the evidence, it just might be that we as a church aren’t deathly ill as so many fear in our death-phobic society. Perhaps instead, we are pregnant.

I can’t help but see the Israelites in the wilderness in this way. God is trying to make them into a new thing. Trying to make a covenant community out of a tribe of folks who had been slaves in Egypt. God wants them to be free for worship and service as they shine to bring light to all nations. They wander in the wilderness for 40 years – a lot longer pregnancy than any of us ever hope to undergo. But there they are those forty years in order to be made into a people who joyfully, gratefully rely upon the LORD God as their Sovereign, not Pharaoh. As a people they are in a time of pregnancy – awaiting the birth of the new thing they will become through the work of God among them. . . . Psalm 106 lets it be known that they would not allow God to be up to that work. Again and again in their trek to freedom, they fear death. They cry out against Moses and Aaron on more than one occasion. They whine that it was better back in Egypt. They even go so far as to do what they do as recorded in Exodus 32. A great lesson to us of what NOT to do when you are expecting. When Moses goes to be with God to hear what they need to know from God to be who God is making them to be, what do they do? They panic. They let their anxiety get the best of them. In fear they turn on Aaron in order to demand something now that they can see and hold and put in their midst in order to cling ever so tightly to it. It’s like they’re not willing to wait any longer for an obscure God and an absent leader. The Psalm puts it this way: “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, awesome deeds by the Red Sea” (Ps. 106:20-22). The LORD God has been working tirelessly for their benefit; to make them into something beautiful for the sake of God’s will for this world. But they mis-diagnosis their situation. Demanding instead a golden calf, they do not allow the space for God’s good work to be brought to fruition.

It brings us back to Rev. Dana’s diagnosis. Pregnancy. Gestation. This time of awaiting the birth of God’s something new. . . . A few of us walked a Labyrinth this week. It’s an ancient tool for prayer. A circular path with a way in, a center for stillness, and a way back out. In case you missed it, NaCoMe has one, or this one we went to is outdoors and always available for use. The thing that struck me in walking the Labyrinth this week is that the path unfolds before you. You don’t have to worry that you’ll get lost along the way in a Labyrinth. All you have to do is follow, step by step, the path that unfolds before you. It helps to keep yourself attuned to the present moment: alert. Watching for the turns. Noticing those walking the path with you. Not rushing forward to get to the center before it’s time. Not running out to get away from it all. Just step by step. Follow the path as it unfolds. . . . Pregnancy works kinda like that, right? Step by step. We have no control over the process. Once that spark of the new life begins, it grows as it will.

Of course, there are things we can do when pregnant to ensure a healthy new life – practices we can be about as we wait. For the pregnant church, prayer seems key during our pregnancy. And I’m not just talking about the kind of prayer where we do all the talking to God. But prayer where we as the body of Christ today listen for God’s word to us. Hear how God desires to unite us with God’s will for the world around us. It’s like Mother Mary’s pondering. All the things God speaks to our hearts regarding the new life God desires to bring into being today. . . . And, in contrast to the impatient golden-calf-making-folks, we can remember. They forgot, but we must remember. Rehearse with one another the marvelous ways God has set us free from our bondage – free from our enslavement to lives void of purpose. Free from ways that keep us separated from God and one another. What if we began telling one another the stories of how God somehow made a way in our lives – individually and collectively as a congregation? I mean how many of us have been to those places where we felt totally shattered due to the death of our loved one, or the end of a relationship, or the loss of a job. All seemed a painful, joy-less end. Yet here we are. Somehow, thanks be to God, we’re still gathered to give God praise. We must remember – not only the stories of how God worked through our faith ancestors as recorded in scripture, but also how the living God has worked through our lives making a way when there seemed to be none. . . . That’s our way to have hope. To rest assured that all shall be well. Indeed pregnancy can be scary – so many things can go wrong. But what a time of joy. What a time of waiting to greet the birth of this new thing growing within whatever it turns out to be. What a time of hope for all the ways God will work through us yet in being the light of love in a world ensnared by hate. In being the light of unity among people who desire division. In being a people of joy in the midst of a world pandering for more, and more, and more. . . . Something new awaits its birth among us, O church. Let us be ready to greet it in great joy!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2014  (All rights reserved.)