Idolatry: Bringing God Down

Exodus 32

(The Golden Calf)

Ascent March 3, 2002

Turn in your Bibles to Exodus.

How do you know that you are following the real Jesus?

Where do we stand in the story at this point?

Last week we saw the people at the foot of Mt Sinai. God gave specific instructions for how they should prepare themselves for this grand meeting - this was their chance to meet God. They get all prepared and God comes down in fire and smoke, lightning and thunder and then he thunders the 10 commandments.

What is the initial response of the people? Look with me at chapter 20:18

Exodus 20:18-23 NIV

"When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance {19} and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die."

They move away. God draws near and they move back. They don’t really want to hear from God. They ask Moses to stand in their place. Contrast that with Moses’ first meeting with God on this same mountain - he saw the fire and he drew near and said “I’m gonna check this out.”

Moses has profound words in response to the people:

{20} Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning."

Anybody see the tension?! It almost looks like a contradiction. “Don’t be afraid, God is just here to scare the wits out of you!” This is a wonderful verse. There is fear and then there is fear. There is a fear that comes from deep respect and there is a fear that comes when you think you are not safe; when you think you may get hurt. Moses is saying, God is not out to get you - he is only concerned for your good. He wants you to see his holiness so that you will be inspired to live up to his standards.

Have any of you ever gotten to meet a famous person that you deeply admired. EXAMPLE! You would be nervous - you would be afraid, but it would be an excitement and you would still want them to come. Having a “fear of God” is having great reverence for God - such that you are conscious of him, you don’t take Him lightly, He profoundly affects your life. As Moses said, “so that you will not sin.” When the president comes to your house, you are on your best behavior - [Story of glen in the car and how he honked at a member of the church and they flipped him off. Person was mortified.]

Think if we really believed or had a sense that God were here with us how it would change how we act in the every day. Again, not out of dread, but deep, heartfelt admiration and respect.

But these people do not have hearts that seek after God and so all they feel is dread. They don’t admire or respect God - they really don’t much like God. They don’t want God and to be near God; they want their own safety and comfort.

{21} The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.

That sums up the whole Exodus story - and that pretty much sums up the whole world. There are those who remain at a distance because they fear what they might lose and there are those who will pursue God at any price. This dividing line is not what separates Christians from the world, either - these people in Exodus are God’s people. Many of us keep our distance from God, fearing what may happen if we draw too close.

So here’s the people. Trembling; moving away from God at the moment he meets them. And what is it that God chooses to say first in response to this reaction?

{22} Then the LORD said to Moses, "Tell the Israelites this: 'You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: {23} Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold."

There’s a reason for this. The moment you draw away from the true God, you are one step away from accepting a cheap substitute: A God who suits you better; a God who isn’t so scary. We are, at all times, susceptible to idolatry, to the danger of trimming God down, taming him, fashioning him into our image. making him fit into our comfort zone. And that is what is about to happen here:

Believe it or not, our main text is all the way up in chapter 32! Wow. You may be asking what it is we are about to skip to get from chapter 20 to chapter 32. Well, don’t worry. This is what I call the first speed bump in the Bible. This is where most people who say, “ I am going to read the whole Bible” hit their first wall. Chapters 21-23 aren’t too bad. They are a bunch of laws. Then, in Chapter 24, a covenant is made between God and the people. It is a covenant made in blood:

(Exodus 24:8 NIV) "Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, "This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words."

The people once again pledge to do everything that they are told.

And then comes the end of chapter 24 (verse 17)

(Exodus 24:17-18 NIV) "To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. {18} Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights."

That’s their last impression of God and their last sight of Moses for the next 40 days. That’s trouble.

Now, what’s Moses doin’ up there for the next 40 days and 7 chapters?! My daughter got to this part and then felt guilty that she thought the Bible was “boring.” Here God goes on for 7 chapters giving all these intricate instructions for how to build and service this thing called the “tabernacle.” The best way to describe this thing is as a moveable temple. Here the people are moving through the desert so they can’t put down roots. But God wants them to have a kind of a tent-temple. Why? He says why in Exodus 29:45-46

"Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. {46} They will know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God."

People get to this part and just think, “what are all these tedious instructions?” “Why is this even in the Bible?” It is in this very spot in the Bible for a very good reason. For those 40 days, God is making preparations to come dwell among his people. You don’t need to get hung up on the details - when you read those 7 chapters of tedious descriptions of poles and tents and bowls and candles, and priestly garments, just keep in mind that this is meant to create an overall sense of the importance of the One who is coming and the specialness of his presence in their midst. It is basically 7 chapters of preparation for the presence of Almighty God.

With that in mind, we come upon a tragic irony in chapter 32. This is the story of the golden calf. While God is preparing to draw near, the people are making their own preparations for bringing God near. In the first 5 verses of chapter 32 we see 3 alarming qualities about the nature of idolatry.

1. It is our desire to feel God’s immediate presence that makes us susceptible to idolatry.

(Exodus 32:1) "When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt , we don't know what has happened to him.""

Moses was gone too long; God just felt too distant. Now I didn’t say that that desire for God to be near was a bad desire. It is a good desire. But we need to be very careful. The Bible in many places encourages us to “wait on the Lord” rather than try and bring him down.

We like a god we can see, feel and touch. God totally understands our desire to have Him close. But he warns us not to make him close by making him small. That’s what often happens when we try to picture Him, or capture Him, or contain Him. The moment we get our brains around Him or even our arms around Him we have reduced Him somewhat. That’s why he says not to make an image of Him, because that image is finite and He is infinite.

Remember, God wants to draw near; he wants us to experience his presence - remember, that’s what he’s doing with Moses - but it is on His terms - we draw near to Him, and then he draws near to us. He has to do it - we can’t pull Him down. All of this in Exodus is a mere whisper of what was to come. God is here planning to literally “pitch a tent” among the Israelites. God becoming man in Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of this picture and is the hugest miracle. It blows the mind. John 1:14 says, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father." The word "dwelt" literally means "tabernacled" or "pitched his tent" among us. It is a direct reference to what is going on here in Exodus. God is into drawing near. But it isn’t up to us. He had to perform the miracle of becoming a man.

What does it look like when we “pull God down” to us?

2. Idolatry is fashioning an image of God out of what we value and into what we want.

(Exodus 32:2-4) "Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." {3} So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. {4} He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt .""

The idol was made out of their gold and it was made into a calf, a symbol of fertility and virility. These are the people who have been so concerned about food and survival. Perhaps the calf symbolized agricultural fertility, a god who would supply their needs. It was made out of what they valued and made into what they desired. Whether the calf symbolized some kind of sexual virility or just agricultural fertility is not the point. Either way, it symbolized their desire. It was a god who would fulfill their wants and needs.

We don’t make idols out of gold and we don’t fashion them into young bulls. But if you want to get at what idols you may be tempted to make, ask yourself what you value most or ask yourself what you think you need most in life. Then ask how much you have made God fit into your mold. Do we serve God or does he serve us? Is Sigmund Freud right? Is God just a projection of what we long for? Did you ever wonder that? Freud started with the assumption that there is no God, and that’s how he explained religion. But just because there is a God, doesn’t mean that people aren’t doing just what Freud described. And that brings us to our last point...

3. The most dangerous form of idolatry is when we have the right name on the wrong god.

(Exodus 32:4-5) "He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt ." {5} When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD.""

Unfortunately, here is where the NIV doesn’t quite capture it again. In verse 4, the word used for gods is Elohim, which is the word for “God.” It’s a plural word, but it is used to refer to God, to YHWH. So some translations read, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up....” I think that translation makes more sense, first because there is only one calf, and second because of verse 5 where Aaron declares a festival to who? To YHWH (spelled LORD). You see, people read this story and they think that the people totally abandoned YHWH, that they just out and out switched gods, dumping the Lord God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and going for some Egyptian cow god with a different name. No, Aaron is saying, "here is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I've brought him to you, I've brought him near and I've delivered Him up just like you want Him." This is a god they can live with. Not that stormy, fiery God up on the mountain with all those commandments.

Do we do this? We say we follow Jesus, but how distorted is our view? Have we tamed Jesus? Does he look surprising like a middle class Protestant? Brian Berry said it last Tuesday, "if you are comfortable with Jesus, then you should be concerned." Have we taken what we value and foisted it on Him? The real Jesus was constantly challenging people, including his disciples, those nearest to Him.

For some of us, God has become the ultimate justification for our own choices. We may pray, "thy will be done" but we really aren't too interested in His will. What we really want is for him to bless our plans, our will.

Brian gave a great example of this kind of cultural blindness when he pointed out that religious people, Christians, justified slavery and discrimination. Their God allowed it because that's what they wanted their god to allow.

What does our god allow that the God of the Bible challenges?

Now these questions will drive you crazy. Me asking these questions is like asking a blind person what he can't see. So lest you melt down in morbid introspection, you need to keep these things in mind:

1. Trust God to draw near. God is faithful and He'll show his people where they're missing the boat, especially if you ask. He did it here - boy did he do it here! Moses comes down all ticked off, throws the two tablets of the law at them and it's not pretty. But they weren't asking. God promised that if you really seek him, you will find Him, the real Him. And that's next week. Next week is a much more encouraging message or you can take your tithes back! God reveals Himself to those who seek him.

(Hebrews 11:6) "And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him." (Phil 3:15)

2. Let God be God. The way to attack this problem is to re-read the Bible, the Gospels and the letters in particular, looking for the more challenging stuff instead of dashing past them or explaining them away.

So when you read about Jesus telling the rich young ruler to sell all he has and give it to the poor, don't be too quick to explain it away and tame it down. I'm not saying that you necessarily should go and apply that passage literally to yourself, but my suspicion is, and I think you will agree with me, that too many of the wrong people have applied it to themselves and too many of the right people haven't!

When Jesus says to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth, consider, I mean really consider, how you are going to fulfill that in your life. That is the Great Commission - it's huge! It's not just for an elite class of missionaries – it is for all of us. How it plays out for each of us, I can't say - but, have you seriously struggled with the implications of that commission? Have you said, "Lord, here am I, send me."?

When Jesus says that if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away, do you just say, "oh, that's hyperbole" and move on? Don't! Yes, it's hyperbole, but that's the point - Jesus is saying do something drastic with sin in your life. Are you addicted to internet porn? Maybe you shouldn't own a computer. It's amazing how unthinkable that option is to people - getting rid of their computer is like losing a limb! But you know what? It would wreak havoc on your life but it’s do-able and what Jesus is saying in that passage is that it is worth it. But is it worth it to you?

And those are the "big" areas. Last week we talked about how God calls us to be different. If we as the people of God find ourselves pretty much indistinguishable from the world, then that is a direct reflection on the God we say we serve. If we are just like the world, then our God has been fashioned by us and he is just a mirror of our culture.

We need to seek God's face and be willing to be radically transformed.