They panicked pure and simple. There is no other way to account for it. Waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai the Israelites panicked. They acted out of fear rather than out of faith. And that is what I want you to remember this morning – they acted out of fear rather than faith.
The problem was Moses had been gone too long. This powerful man they counted on, who had called down great plagues and parted the Red Sea, seemed to have disappeared up the mountain. He had gone to talk with God, but the Israelites were impatient, they were afraid for their future, and they feared they wouldn’t make it to the Promised Land. Now, the truth was – they had nothing at all to fear, but they couldn’t see it. God had been with them every step of the way, but they couldn’t see it. When they were thirsty God gave them water right out of the rocks. When they were hungry God provided manna for them in the midst of the wilderness. When their diet required a little protein, God gave them quail to eat in the middle of the desert. Moses and his God had taken care of their every need. God’s grace never left them. But that can be hard to remember when you feel alone and frightened.
And so they panicked. But unlike some today who have panicked and given up all their stocks, the Israelites panicked and gave up their God. Turning to Aaron they said, “Come, make Gods for us…for this Moses…we do not know what has become of him.” (Exodus 32:1). So Aaron gathered together all their gold, melted it down, and formed it into a beautiful image of a calf, a golden calf, a tangible symbol of the divine. They couldn’t see or touch the God Moses had been telling them about, this God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But with the golden calf they had a god they could relate to, a god they could approach, a god they could literally carry with them.
Let’s look a little more closely at exactly what Aaron and the Israelites did that fateful day. In short, they made for themselves a graven image, a false god, thereby breaking the first two of the Ten Commandments that Moses would later bring down the mountain. But what interests me is how they did it. Aaron collected all the gold from amongst the people, taking their rings, earrings, bracelets, and other items. Notice, they didn’t go out and find gold to make the calf. They didn’t discover some unknown treasure and melt that down. They found no new source of wealth to create their idol. No, they took the gold they already had and transformed it into a false god. To put it another way, they took what they already had and change its importance in their lives. Let me say that again – they took what they already had and they changed its importance in their lives. They took items of value and made them into a god.
Gold was no less valuable to the ancient Israelites than it is today. Items of gold were prized possessions, especially for this rag tag group of former slaves who possessed little. In fact, the modest bits of gold they wore in their ears or on their fingers was probably all they had to barter or trade with. Sure, their gold was a valuable tool, but it was just a tool. What they did in their panic was they took this valuable tool and they elevated it to the level of god. Their gold was no longer just important; it literally became the object of their worship. Fear convinced them that if Moses’ God couldn’t save them then their golden calf would.
The Israelites acted out of fear rather than faith, and this, my friends, is the great temptation of these dark days we are experiencing at present. It is the temptation to place our wealth at the center of our lives because we are so afraid of losing it. It is the temptation to cling too tightly to what we have because we fear that we won’t have enough. It is the temptation to make our wealth into our god.
Well, if the near collapse of the financial markets should teach us anything it is the truth that our wealth can’t save us. It is all so fleeting, so fragile and vulnerable. Having it is important, very important; I realize that as much as the next person as I watch our family’s investments dwindle away. But it is not worthy of our ultimate allegiance. Our wealth is an important tool to aid our lives but we are only fooling ourselves if we take this tool and make it our god.
It didn’t have to be this way; the Israelites could have acted differently. When Moses was too long on the mountain, when the God who brought them out of Egypt seemed to have forsaken them, they could have made another choice. What if Aaron had said, “Now listen up people, I know you are scared. I’m scared too. Moses has been gone a long time and I know you are afraid you might die here in the desert. But we can make it through this scary time if we stick together. We don’t need a different god we need a stronger faith. The future is unknown but we can face it together. We can take care of one another. We can share what we have; we can use all our tools to help each other. A golden calf might make us feel better but it won’t make us any safer.”
By way of analogy, you could say that you and I are waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai. Our leaders seem a long way off and we are scared for our futures. But now is not the time to take our wealth, that wonderful tool, and cling so tightly to it that we make it our god. As I said the other night at the Feast, as followers of Jesus you and I are called to be people of hope, people of faith – not people of fear. So today we gather together in the spirit of hope to offer God some of the blessings of our lives, to literally place some of those blessings on the altar in the form of pledge cards. We give God thanks for everything and out of a sense of gratitude we give back so that God’s work can continue in our Church, in our city, and in the wider world. Always remember, we are not only a center of worship but also a center of hope, a community where anyone can find their place, where everyone is valued. Now is the time to take care of one another, to give to each other, to share what we have in the knowledge that together we can make it through anything. That’s what churches do. We proclaim God’s good news often in the midst of the world’s bad news. We work for God’s Kingdom most especially when our earthly kingdoms seem to be on shaky ground.
Thank you for the gifts that you bring today and for all the gifts you have given in the past. We have accomplished so much and in spite of anything in the news, I know we will continue to be an Easer people, a people who proclaim God’s love, God’s forgiveness, and God’s ever-constant promise of new life. In closing, listen to the words of St. Paul from Philippians this morning and listen to them well – “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy or praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:5-9). Amen.