October 22, 2017: Idol by Rev. Beth Hayward (Exodus 22: 1-12)

God said “Now let me alone [with those stiff necked people], so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them!” (Exodus 32:10) I wouldn’t want to be left alone in a room with that God! Whoever wrote this down clearly never read Psalm 145 where it says: “The Lord is slow to anger… and rich in love.”

So often when I read the scriptures, particularly these tales from the Hebrew texts, there are things that make my jaw drop or my first rise. It’s not just that I don’t like the idea of a wrathful God, it simply doesn’t resonate with my experience. I’ve known God in moments when no way opens to an unimagined way. I’ve seen God when in the midst of a broken situation light somehow shines through. I’ve felt God in the arms of embrace when tears are flowing and in the wondrous beauty of another human, or a sunset and in the calming sound of ocean waves. But wrathful, that’s not my experience of the divine. Even when I imagine the wrath or the hate that countless marginalized groups have known by the hand of the church, I wouldn’t attribute that to God. I don’t feel like defending this God today, or explaining away the wrath in this text. I just want to name it and offer permission to test this divine image against your life experience.

Luckily for this stiff-necked bunch of Israelites, Moses intervenes like a scrappy peacekeeper before a barroom brawl breaks out. I suppose if you’re going to worship a God who gets mad there’s some comfort in knowing that this God is capable of a change of heart.

Moses has been on Mount Sinai, in a closed door meeting with God for forty days receiving divine wisdom. It seems when he first brought back the Ten Commandments they didn’t quite take so this time he’s gone to get them etched in stone. But he’s gone a long time and the people get anxious, and you can’t blame them because they have a history of feeling abandoned and let down. So they take matters into their own hands and demand that Aaron build them a god. I don’t know why Aaron agreed. Maybe he saw this as his chance to finally stop playing second fiddle to his younger brother Moses. Maybe he thought this was his big break, albeit in his eighties. Whatever the reason he gets to work gathering every last bit of gold he can find and molds it into a golden calf. They have a party and offer burnt offerings to the cow and God hears about it and then the whole “let me alone with them” incident erupts.

I’m guessing that you haven’t worshipped any golden cows lately. I expect you don’t believe that a cow is a god. I wonder if you can identify your own idols?

Mid-Twentieth Century theologian Paul Tillich said that your god is whatever you look to for ultimate fulfillment. Doesn’t matter if you are religious or not, we all have our god. Maybe it’s exercise and a healthy lifestyle; I mean exercise is certainly not my god but it may be yours. Maybe your god is success or material wellbeing; if I can just have more financial security I’ll be okay. As my colleague Lonnie pointed out to me this week, for some people these days it seems a flag and an anthem are god; if everyone just pledges loyalty things could be great again. Maybe your god looks a bit like mine: liberal values of inclusion, if everyone adopted them we could finally make the world a better place. We can’t open up a conversation like this without naming the golden calf in the room, so to speak, the allure of an entire global system that replaces our wonder with a longing for material things, more things, better things, bigger things.

What is your god? What do you look to for ultimate fulfilment? What do you think will save you?

I wonder: Is it really a healthy lifestyle that is your god or the underlying belief that healthy living alone can save you? Is it really financial security that is your god or the underlying worldview that says money can save you? Is it really a flag that is one’s god or the idea that blind loyalty to a narrow point of view will make things great again? Is it really my inclusive liberal values that are my god, or the underlying belief that if everyone adopted my values things would be all right? Is capitalism the god or the way we have allowed it to become so pervasive and all consuming?

It’s not the thing, the idea, the conviction itself that is the idol but the fact that we treat it like a saviour.

The fact is many a movement for the good has arisen because individuals chose to dedicate their lives to a cause. At risk youth aren’t going to have much chance of getting their lives together if no one relentlessly pursues it. The LGBTQ community won’t achieve equality in society unless communities risk putting their necks out to make it so. It’s not so much what we dedicate our lives to that is the problem, it’s when we begin to think our cause alone can save the world that we find ourselves worshipping a golden calf. The more fearful we become, the more we hold on to our idols for dear life.


The Israelites became increasingly anxious as Moses’ closed-door meetings with God went on and one. They must have thought that if God was up on the mountain with Moses, She couldn’t be down in the valley with them. They must have thought that God was a finite being, replicable with a finite object. I wonder if the whole idol problem arises when we start thinking that God can’t possibly be here, if God is there; not in this place, not in this circumstance. I wonder if we begin teaching our children how to contain God the moment we start replacing their inborn sense of wonder with expectations and explanations. I wonder if the mystics are on to something when they insist that: “God is not the object of our longing and love, but is the loving itself.”[1]

Maybe all that energy used building a golden calf could have been spent turning toward one another, caring for each other, opening up to wonder in a time of tremendous uncertainty. “God is not the object of our longing and love, but is the loving itself.” Is God revealed more in the letting go than the building up, letting go of your certain answers, loosening your grip on the things you’ve thought could save you. I wonder if God might be an expression of love rather than an object of salvation?

A few hundred years after the golden calf event, when the Israelites were still struggling with their idols, a new voice arose to help them open their hearts and minds and eyes to this truth that God can’t be contained and will be missed if we forget to turn around, loosen our grip and open up. This voice was that of the prophets.  A few of us have been exploring the wisdom of the prophets in bible study and we were blown away this week to hear theologian Walter Brueggemann say the church has been reading the prophets all wrong for far a long time.

According to Brueggemann conservative Christian have long thought that the prophets were predicting the coming of Jesus and liberals have claimed that they were social justice activists. Brueggemann says in fact the prophets were imaginers, “poets engaged in artistic playfulness that keeps opening and opening and opening.” They try to “stretch out the mystery of God.” Because they know “that God is so hidden and so holy that no one image or phrase will catch God.”[2] Prophets then and now come to remind us that we can’t catch God at the gym, or at the bank, or in a flag or at protest march, and we certainly can’t buy God at the mall. We might see glimpses in some of these things and places but they are just that, glimpses.

A while after those prophets another imaginer came along in Jesus of Nazareth and he said that you can be an imaginer too, because the holy light that birthed a universe, lives within you. It doesn’t matter if you’re standing in a field of golden calves. Even there you can choose to bend down on one knee and let the love flow.

God isn’t the object of our love, God is the loving, and that’s something we can practice anywhere.

We turn to our idols when we’ve lost trust in the faithfulness of God. It is such a long slow process that we don’t even notice it happening. We think that things can be a quick fix. All along we’ve been wired for wonder, we are imaginers, expressions of divine love called to be love. If we could only practice remembering this… Amen


[1] https://cac.org/exploring-the-mystics-with-cynthia-bourgeault-weekly-summary-2017-10-21/

[2] Tim Scorer. Embracing the Prophets in Contemporary Culture: Walter Brueggemann on Confronting Today’s “Pharaohs” Church Publishing, Inc., Jan 1, 2012