About That Golden Calf

    Good morning!  You may have noticed that for much of the time since I’ve been appointed as Pastor of this great church, I have been preaching about Jesus’ parables, mostly from the Gospel of Matthew.  The parable of the two sons at work (or not) in the vineyard.  The parable of laborers who went out to work in the field at different times of the day.  The parable of the wedding guests.  It’s important that we understand the parables of Jesus and the way Jesus conducted his ministry to normal people in Galilee, Nazareth, and Jerusalem, as written in the Gospel of Matthew.
    But if you have been listening closely to our Old Testament scriptures each week for the past few months, you will see that we have also been spending a great deal of time with Moses:  We’ve heard about Moses’ birth in the reeds of the Nile River in Egypt.  We’ve heard about the enslavement of the Hebrew people for 400 years by the Egyptians.  We’ve heard about the 10 plagues that God cast upon the Egyptian Pharaoh.  We’ve heard about the deliverance of the Hebrews across the Red Sea.  And we’ve heard about the LONG, LONG, LONG sojourn of the Hebrews in the desert – 40 years of wandering -- quite some time.  So yes, we’ve heard a lot about the story of the Exodus, but we haven’t really dug deeply into the Exodus story until today.
    Today’s scriptures from Exodus and the Epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians need to be read together.  They are two halves of the same story.  A story that begins with the Great “SHEMA” prayed by the Hebrew people in the desert: “Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.”  “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  This is the FIRST of the Greatest Commandments – the SECOND comes from our old friend Matthew:  
Matthew 22:36-40 -- New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Taken together, Jesus Christ reduced all the 613 mitzvot, or Torah laws, which constitute the Hebrew law code, down to two laws:  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  That’s it.  That’s what the entire Bible boils down to.  Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Jesus Christ ushered in a new era, an era when a person’s relationship with God is governed, not by the strict observance of THE LAW – but by the radical hospitality of LOVE.   This is why we consider the Old Testament to be fundamental to our beliefs as Christians.  But as we see in today’s scriptures, loving God and loving our neighbor with all one’s heart and soul and mind is not as easy as it sounds.
Our first reading from Exodus is very straightforward.  The Israelites had been delivered from slavery in Egypt and then went on a long journey to the Promised Land.  But along the way, the Israelites became impatient waiting for Moses.  Moses had gone up to Mount Sinai to receive the 10 commandments.  After 3 weeks of waiting for Moses, the Hebrew people were getting impatient.  So quickly had their minds turned from THE GOD who delivered them from slavery, and so quickly had their minds forgotten that THEIR GOD, requires the GREAT SHEMA – the pledge to love only one GOD, THE ONLY TRUE GOD, with all their minds, all their souls, and all their hearts.  
    We know the Israelites had many highs and lows on their way from slavery to freedom.  The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, the giving of the manna and the quail, and the parting of the Red Sea were visible signs of God’s would be there with them and provide for them.  Now during a peaceful and calm time during their journey, they got impatient.  To these impatient Israelites, they grumbled that God wasn’t doing anything that they can visibly see, so they assumed that He was no longer there and they didn’t trust that He was still taking care of them.  They lost faith in Moses, and turned to Aaron for help.
    God had already given the Israelites the first commandment:  THE GREAT SHEMA – GOD IS ONE…there shall be no OTHER gods than God.  So, they already knew that that they were not to have any other gods and not to make any graven images.  Nevertheless, they broke this most basic commandment by asking Aaron to make them a god who they can see and touch.  And for this momentary lapse in his own faith in God, we shall learn later in Exodus that Aaron and most of that generation of Israelites who turned their backs to God, are denied entry into the Promised Land.
Aaron asks them to turn over their jewelry and he fashions a golden calf from their donations.  We know from Biblical history that the golden calf was not just some random idol.  The golden calf was, for ancient peoples such as the Canaanites, a representation of Baal, the Canaanite god of the harvest.  The rebellious Israelites then glorified the golden calf idol by saying “this was the god who had brought them up out of Egypt,” and Aaron built an altar in front of the golden calf and declared, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.”  But which “Lord?”  
The Lord that Aaron is talking about is the god of the Canaanites, the bull-god, Baal.  So, to this graven image, the Israelites sacrificed burnt offerings, ate and drank and reveled, just as the heathen nations around them like the Canaanites did when they worshipped their own pagan gods.
This was a practice called “Syncretism,” which the ancient Hebrews practiced frequently during their journey to the Promised Land.  Syncretism is the combining of different beliefs, and involves the merging or assimilation of several originally discrete religious traditions, like Judaism and paganism, into an amalgam of beliefs.  In this case, the ancient Hebrews were adopting a god of an entirely different religion, because they for whatever reason felt like their God had abandoned them.
But God did not abandon the Israelites.  The Israelites gave up on God.  The Israelites gave up on the Great Shema.  They consorted with false idols, false gods.  And they ascribed to the golden calf one of God’s greatest feats: the delivery of the Israelites from slavery.  They ascribed this feat to Baal, not to God.  How would we feel if our own children rejected us the way the Israelites rejected God!  God was upset to such a degree that He wanted to exterminate the Hebrews, just as he had done in the story of Noah, and the story of the Tower of Babel.  
And God would have done so if Moses hadn’t interceded on the Israelites behalf.  Moses reminds God of the commitments he had made to the Israelites – and Moses knew God – as a good God -- would be faithful to his commitment to be THE God of this Chosen People.
We see from Exodus that God relented and did not exterminate His people as He had threatened.  God left the door open to mercy when He allowed Moses to stand in between and the sure destruction of the Israelites.  God knew the people were like children who needed to be taught repeatedly what the “rules” were.  They couldn’t be slaves one day and heroes of the faith in the next.  They had to grow in faith and knowledge of God.  Moses wouldn’t give up on them and neither would God.  
    Now as we look at our Gospel reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we notice a different people, at a different time, are struggling with what it means to be “God’s People.”  Paul sensed that many of the churches that he founded were starting to wander from the orthodox belief in Jesus Christ was their Lord and Savior.  The early Christians, as we know, had a hard time staying true to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  They were persecuted by the Romans AND the Jews, they were publicly executed for their beliefs, and some found it difficult – 30 to 40 years after the death of Jesus – to remain steadfast. Paul tells “his people” to remain as “Christ’s people” by standing firm.  They must resist the attacks of the enemy on their faith and their commitment, writes Paul.
    By this point in his illustrious career, Paul had started churches across the Mediterranean, from Rome to Galatia, from Thessalonica to Philippi.  Paul started churches across the known world and he kept in constant communication with them to ensure that they would adhere to the proper worship of God.  Paul knew that unhappiness and discord among the early Christians, much like the unhappiness and discord shown by the Israelites in the desert, can steal the joy of serving and knowing the Lord. Paul tells the people of Philippi that they carry the joy of the Lord in their hearts, and that should give them the strength to stay the course and follow Jesus Christ, even though doing so might cost them their lives. 
    Paul tells the church in Philippi that they their love of God and their love of their neighbors distinguish them as “God’s people.”  Paul instructs that their gentleness should be known to all.  By “gentleness” Paul also means graciousness, moderation and patience.  Paul wants the followers of Jesus to be fair-minded and not fanatics who were rigid and impatient with others.  As people of God, they should not apply the letter of the law, but show love and mercy instead, because the Lord is “near.”
    Let’s compare the people of Philippi with the impatient Israelites sojourning in the desert.  The Israelites were impatient and had no concept of the Lord being “near” to them and knowing their actions.  And yet God showed mercy and, thanks to Moses, God had patience with them.  As God’s people, we must forgive each other and show mercy as well.
    Paul goes on to say that the early Christians should not be anxious about anything and to pray about everything.  We need to understand that to be troubled, to be worrisome, to be fearful, or fretful often means that we do not trust God.  But Paul reminds us that GOD IS NEAR.  If we believe in God’s sovereignty, God’s wisdom, God’s faithfulness, and God’s goodness – we are delivered from fear and anxiety, because we worship a God whom we know will never leave us.  The Israelites doubted God, lost the feeling of HIS presence, and ultimately lost their faith to syncretism.  Paul wrote to the Philippians because he did not want this to happen again.
    As we bring the Exodus story forward to the time of Paul, Moses is now Jesus.  Jesus stands as our intercessor always pleading our cause, just as Moses pleaded the case for the ancient Israelites.  Moses had not participated in the disobedience that the Israelites had displayed during the golden calf episode.  And God accepted Moses’ prayer for God’s chosen people.  In much the same way, we look to Jesus Christ as our deliverer and as our intercessor.  Our faith in Jesus Christ must never waiver.  As we sojourn in our own desert – as we face the deep challenges of life today, from natural disasters, to terroristic threats, to food insecurity, and ultimately, to doubt – we must keep our sights fixed on the True Vine.  We cannot doubt for one moment, as the Israelites did, that God is with us through the hardest times.  He is there for us.  And he was there for the ancient Israelites.  But they doubted God…and we must never doubt God.  We must never feel God is angry at us or that we have sinned so greatly that we cannot receive HIS forgiveness and mercy.
    Finally, Paul says that we must elevate our thoughts to what is true, honorable, just, pleasing, and praiseworthy.  In other words, Paul is telling us to think positively, because we have Jesus Christ in our lives.  Eliminate negative thinking and worry.  For Jesus Christ is near.  Whatever you are worried about, talk it over with Jesus and then go on in peace with the understanding that Jesus will take care of you.  Paul says, do what is right and honest and just.  For Jesus Christ is near.  Get rid of everything that would debase your soul.  For Jesus Christ is near.  Love those who need God’s love – those who are sick, less fortunate, and even those who may wish you harm.  For Jesus Christ is near.  Be for others the living presence of the God who fills your soul.  And know that God will never fail you.   For Jesus Christ is near.
May it be so.