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. 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.” 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? 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. 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.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
One of my mother’s stories about me – and, you must understand that as my mother grew older her memory became very creative – was about a time when my parents took me to dinner at a Howard Johnson’s. Do Howard Johnson’s still exist, with their orange roofs and fried clams? That restaurant’s great claim to fame back in the day was that they offered twenty-eight flavors of ice cream. So, after the main course, the waitress asked us if we would like some dessert, and my parents extolled the wonders of twenty-eight flavors of ice cream. “Go ahead,” my mother insisted, “get some ice cream!” So, I asked the waitress what flavors they had. She went through the entire twenty-eight item list, and said, “So, what would you like?” After a long pause, I answered “Vanilla.”
Sometimes, when we are confronted with too many choices, or when we’re in unfamiliar territory and have no idea where to turn, all we can do is pull out something familiar. How else do you explain McDonald’s restaurants in downtown Paris or New York or San Francisco – or even Carytown, where there are hundreds of amazing places to eat? We complain about elected officials, but over the years the average rate of re-election of incumbents is well over 80%. The average American household receives 130 TV channels, but only watches 15 per week. In 1980, the average American supermarket stocked 15,000 different items. Now the average number is 50,000. How many new and different items do you buy every week? When we feel like we have lost our way and are overwhelmed by the choices, we turn to what we know, to what is familiar, to what seemed valuable in the past.
Moses had been up on Mount Sinai talking to God, according to Exodus 24, for forty days and nights. As if that’s not long enough, remember that in the Bible, forty means a lot. Maybe it really was six weeks, maybe it was even longer, but the Hebrews were left at the foot of the mountain without their leader, in hostile territory, without any instructions. It’s pretty much the way those of us who are Apple Computer fans feel this week after the death of Steve Jobs. When you’re lost in the wilderness and your leader disappears, you need some comfort, some direction, and some certainty in your life. So, the Hebrews went to Moses’ brother and second-in-command, Aaron, and demanded that he make some gods for them to worship. Maybe this mountain God Moses had led them away from their homes and jobs and all that was familiar was just a hoax. Maybe Moses was dead, or had skipped town. Let’s go back to something we can see, something we can touch, something that’s familiar and certain. Make us some gods, Aaron.
Aaron, politician that he is, reads the polls of a hostile electorate and gives the people what all good politicians give – not what they need, but what they want. This, of course, requires a contribution from the people, so Moses asks them for their gold. They surrender their gold to their leader, who makes a mold in the shape of a calf, melts the gold and pours it in the mold, then opens the mold and presents this thing made he has made from the people’s jewelry as a divinity: These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!
A thousand years later, the prophet Isaiah would ridicule the whole process of idolatry. In Isaiah 44, he talks about a man who plants a tree and watches it grow, then cuts it down, and with half of it he makes a fire to warm himself while he carves the other half into an idol and then bows down and worships this thing he knows is anything but eternal and divine. But it’s familiar. And, of course, being something that he has made, it’s less than himself. Which is ever so much the point.
When we’re in the wilderness, when life seems out of control, when everything that once seemed safe and secure and familiar has disappeared, it’s a natural thing for us to want some small sense of certainty and control in our lives. A child takes a favorite toy or stuffed animal on a trip. We put pictures of our families on our desks or in our suitcases or wallets when we travel. When we are ill, we want comfort food that is familiar and soothing. In crises, we want to be surrounded by our home and family and friends.
Or, when we feels as though life is out of control, we want some small sign, somewhere, that we are still in control of something, anything. This is why sometimes people whose lives are falling apart become obsessive about some small thing that seems to make no sense, except that it’s still something they can control. I remember a woman who was dying of lung cancer probably caused by her lifelong cigarette habit, who insisted to the day she died that she was going to continue to smoke. It wasn’t just that she was addicted; it was that even if it killed her, this was something she was going to do because she could. It was the last thing left in her life over which she had any control, even though, ironically, it was controlling her. But that’s not the way it seemed to her.
We all have sources of familiarity and comfort that we turn to when everything seems out of control. But if, as was the case with the Hebrews at the foot of Mount Sinai, we attach ultimate meaning to something we have made with our own hands or minds or hearts, then that thing separates us from the new world that God is trying to bring us to on the other side of the Wilderness. In the Bible, that’s always the purpose of Wilderness, whether Abraham’s journeys, or Isaac’s, or Jacob’s; or the flood for Noah and his family; or the Babylonian captivity for the Jews; or the temptations in the desert for Jesus: on the other side there’s a new identity, a new relationship with God, a new and better reality waiting. In the wilderness, in the desert, in the trials and tribulations and confusion, God’s people have to leave their old values, their old ways of thinking and being and understanding behind before they can receive the new life, new call, new identity waiting for them on the other side. When they take their old values and turn them into idols and worship them, giving them ultimate meaning and purpose, it is impossible for the people to be free to enter the new world into which God is bringing them. That is why very few who crossed the Red Sea crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land forty years later.
Our world seems to be in a wilderness. Our nation seems to be in a wilderness. The church seems to be in a wilderness. And many of us, insecure about jobs and health and family and meaning and purpose, feel as if we’re lost in a wilderness. It’s uncharted territory, and we’re not certain about our leaders. But the story of the golden calf tells us that while it may be the most tempting thing to do, the worst thing we can do when we feel lost is to invent our own securities, just so we have something we can understand and control. The worst thing we can do is go back to Egypt.
Instead, we have to live in this uncomfortable place, holding tightly to each other and to the word from the mountain. God is taking us to a new place, a place we’ve never been before. There are some new instructions coming from the mountain, and we have to wait for them, not invent our own. And, when we follow the fire and the smoke, when we eat the manna God has given us just for today, when we keep the instructions we have and not invent new ones for ourselves, then miracles happen, and new worlds open before our eyes.
We all want to make our own gods, whether they look like calves, or more likely, like mirrors. But the God who is beyond our control has something planned for us so much greater than all our schemings.