Being a Christian means following Jesus. But that might not mean quite what you think. Sure, it means that we believe the Bible, adhere to the Creed, and worship in the way that he taught. But it means more than this, something deeper and more fundamental.
Being a Christian means that we are wanderers on this earth—sojourners—having Jesus as our guide. And so the lesson of the Israelites wandering in the desert is especially helpful to us
The Israelites spent 40 years following God’s servant Moses in the desert. To get to the Promised Land from the Red Sea takes about three weeks. So going from Point A to Point B does not explain the duration of their time in the Sinai wilderness.
They did not need that time to get to where they were going. They needed that time to become who God meant them to be.
They were becoming the People of God. As we will see, Jesus leads us through this life not only that we will reach our heavenly home. He uses our time following him on this earth to make us who God means us to be: the Children of God.
So let’s turn first to the Israelites, and then we will return to how Christ is guiding us to be who God means us to be.
In one respect of course the Israelites were already the people of God. They were the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Their DNA was right.
And for that matter, God was already committed to them. He made a covenant with Abraham and all his offspring. He had promised centuries before to bring Abraham’s offspring to a land of their own and to bless them to be a blessing to the whole world.
But their hearts and their minds were not right. That’s because there is more to being the People of God than DNA and God’s commitment.
The Israelites needed to learn who God is in order to learn his ways and to commit themselves to him.
And even though God is their Father, they have been in captivity and learned the ways of their captives. Ways contrary to their Father’s ways. So they have some things to unlearn. This will prove to be key in understanding the episode with the Golden Calf.
By way of explanation, let’s draw an analogy. Consider what it would be like to have been kidnapped
as an infant and to reunite with your family only as an adult. That is just what happened to Carlina White
23 years later, using websites that post photos of abducted children, she located her own biological parents.
Carlina said that she became suspicious when she couldn’t get a driver’s license and saw no resemblance between herself and the people she was living with. She said she felt different from her presumed family.
She called the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and said, “I do not know who I am.”
That must have been how the Israelites felt in Egypt. They felt different from the surrounding people, but did not know who they were. They had a feeling that they were someone special, but they did not know who.
Carlina learned the patterns and the rituals and the traditions of the family who abducted her: What foods they ate, holiday traditions, moral and religious values.
She put them on like a suit of clothes that were not hers and that did not fit her properly. But it was all she had to wear. She knew nothing at all about how her true family ate, celebrated holidays. Nothing about how they taught right from wrong or the shape of their devotion to God.
So too, the Israelites took upon themselves the ways of the Egyptians. Even though the Egyptian values and customs and religious practices fit them poorly, the Israelites adopted many of these life patterns. They became just as habitual for them as our way of doing things is habitual for us.
They were also completely ignorant of what we think of today of the typically Jewish patterns of following God. Think about it. The Law and Prophets—what we call the Old Testament—had not been written yet. They were about to live much of it!
The dietary laws, the festivals, the holiness code: this was all foreign to them. They had to learn them. And not just learn them the way we learn material for a test and forget it. They had to learn them as habitual patterns of life. Things they do without thinking about.
Moreover, they had to unlearn those patterns that just did not work as the People of God, and unlearning may be even harder than learning. And that brings us to the Golden Calf.
Polytheism and idol worship were among the patterns they had absorbed from their Egyptian masters. You might think that giving up a spiritual practice once you’ve learned that it is false would be easy. But it is not.
Spiritual practices are all about where we find safety in times of trial, what we habitually rely upon for our sense of significance, where we draw our strength in the midst of adversity.
In the heat of the moment, we fall back on our habitual patterns. Don’t believe me? How often have you found yourself driving to work without thinking about it, only to remember that you were supposed to be going to the store or the gym or some other less routine destination?
Well, in the time of trial, that is just what the Israelites did. Moses had ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God. He had been gone for forty days and the Israelites began to fear that they had been abandoned in the wilderness. They were like children lost in a department store.
And so in their fear they fell back on their old habits. They built an idol and they worshipped it. Notice carefully what they said after building the idol: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:8b)
“Gods.” Plural. Aaron tried to correct them by referring to the Lord (God singular), but to no avail.
In other words, their faith in the Lord was only skin deep. They were beginning to know what it is to be the People of God with their minds, but their deep habits of feeling and willing and desiring and even thinking were still far from the ways of God.
When the Israelites forged the Golden Calf, they were not turning to something foreign to them. They were revealing just how idolatrous they still were.
And their example goads us to ask just how idolatrous we are.
It may seem a stretch to compare us to that lot cavorting and debauching around a Golden Calf. After all, most of us were brought up in the church. We are baptized: marked as Christ’s own forever.
And here we are on Sunday worshipping God in the beauty of Anglican worship. Not a one of us would consider building monuments to some false god in our home or office.
But I want to challenge you to face our everyday struggle with idols. We don’t start with a Golden Calf, after all. We start with bits and pieces of gold that add up over time.
At first, they are so small that we hardly consider that we might be letting them take the place that only God can occupy in our lives.
So let me invite you to ask yourself some meddlesome questions.
Have I ever refused to speak up or do what I know was the right thing to do for fear of the disapproval I would gain and the admiration I would lose?
If I had to cut something out of my schedule, would I cut out worship, scripture study and personal prayer time before I cut out extra work for a promotion or maybe even leisure time?
Do I spend more money on eating out or going on vacation than I give to God as my tithe?
Our culture, like the Egyptian culture, worships idols. And that culture relentlessly promotes its gods.
We don’t have to consider the overtly anti-Christian tone of so much popular culture. In fact, I suspect that the ridicule and invective we Christians sometimes receive are just an outgrowth of a more subtle, more effective power.
None of them can resurrect the dead. But the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ can!
So let’s smash some idols today. Let’s recommit ourselves to follow Jesus in small things. Read a portion of Scripture every day. Worship every weekend. Make the tithe your first financial decision.
These are very small steps along our life’s road with Jesus. But the Israelites learned to devote themselves to God one step at a time. And so do we. We follow the infinite, eternal way of the Crucified and Risen Lord one small step at a time.
This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 9, 2011, at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport.
(This image above is Nicolas Poussin’s Adoration of the Golden Calf. You can see it at this link.)