Title: Images of God
Date: October 11, 2008
Author: Isaac Villegas
Texts: Ex 32:1-14; Ps 106:1-6, 19-23; Phil 4:1-9; Matt 22:1-14
Moses is taking a while up on the mountain. The people of Israel are tired of waiting. They approach Aaron, Moses’ right hand man. “Do something,” they say, “We want God.” It’s a very spiritual request. And Aaron acts decisively; he acts like he knows exactly what to do. He makes a golden calf.
It looks like Aaron may suffer from Male Answer Syndrome. Have you heard about this syndrome? I’m sure you know people with it, or may even suffer from it. Male Answer Syndrome is a tendency for some men to answer a question even when they don’t know the answer. That’s a definition directly from my Internet search.
Here’s an example. Yesterday Katie and I were talking about whether or not you can get a tan when it’s a cloudy day. I found myself talking extensively about UV rays. But what do I know about UV rays? Nothing. I realized that I was simply stringing together bits and pieces of hearsay—making tenuous connections. I guess I just had to have something to say. That’s the Male Answer Syndrome—you have to have an answer, a solution, to give people what they want. Now, it’s probably sexist to assume that only men can suffer from the syndrome.
Sure, Male Answer Syndrome is mostly a joke. But it gets at something in story of the golden calf. You see, it feels good to know exactly what to do. It feels good to be needed. Israel wants something, and Aaron delivers. He’s a man who can take charge—a born leader, decisive. It’s just too bad he leads everyone in absolutely the wrong direction. Aaron gives the people what they want, and ends up breaking the second commandment: “Thou shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth below…” (20:4).
Aaron shows the people how to commit idolatry—but he doesn’t means to. He’s just trying to do and say the right things. He wants to give the people what they want. The golden calf episode shows us that idolatry is slippery, it’s subtle, a temptation rooted in something good.
Usually when I hear warnings in Scripture against idolatry, I shrug it off as something that’s obviously wrong—it’s so obviously wrong that it’s not worth talking about. Sacrificing things to gods is bad, bowing down before idols is wrong. It’s obvious.
The next move is to make the ancient condemnation of idolatry contemporary. That practice is not a temptation for us. We don’t go around and make sacrifices to images of gods and bow down these days—at least most of us wouldn’t know where to go and do such things. It’s not really a temptation.
So we make idolatry hit home by naming some modern practices or things as idols: a hobby, a job, a person, fill in the blank. A contemporary idol is something or someone that replaces God in our lives. They displace God’s primary position in our lives. We set something else in God’s place. Idols replace God. That’s how we typically talk about idolatry.
But it’s not the way the story of the golden calf describes idolatry. God isn’t displaced or replaced with the image of the golden calf. This isn’t a story about replacement. There’s something else going on. Here’s where it gets interesting.
At his request, the people give up all their golden jewelry. Aaron melts it down and forms a calf. But the calf doesn’t replace the God of Israel. That’s not what happens at all. Instead, the people receive the calf as a way to worship the God who has been with Israel all along. This is what they say when they see it: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (32:4). The calf isn’t a substitute for God; rather, it helps the people worship the true God. The calf functions as a mediator—it mediates God’s presence, it’s a focal image for God’s presence.
And Aaron is very clear about this. He’s a priest of the Lord and would never lead the people to worship another god. There is only one God for Aaron. So he says to the people in verse 5, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” Aaron uses the divine name, the special name that God gave to Moses at the burning bush—the Tetragrammaton, the unpronounceable 4 Hebrew letters, YHWH. It’s God’s special name. This golden calf is supposed to help Israel worship the true God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…the God who saved Israel from Egyptian slavery.
Aaron isn’t a priest for hire, willing to serve whichever God is most convenient or offers the best benefits. Aaron serves only one God—the Lord of Israel. The calf is simply creative aid for the worship of the Lord; it helps make God present, tangible, real.
But making God present through the calf is idolatry, it’s unfaithfulness, it’s a deception, it’s false worship of the true God. That’s what idolatry is: false worship of the true God. The people aren’t going around looking for another god. No. They’re looking for a way to get in contact with the true God. They are good spiritual people. They want to worship God. That’s good, right?
This is what is so startling about this story. It looks like Aaron and the people have the best intentions. They just want to be near God. But their religious desires lead them astray. There’s something about idolatry that looks and feels like the right thing to do. There’s something about idolatry that looks and feels like true worship.
If we are too quick to condemn Aaron and Israel for making this golden calf, then we miss why idolatry can also be a temptation for us. Put yourself in their position. All that you have known has been stripped away. Egypt is gone. And that’s a good thing. Slavery isn’t a pleasant experience. But if slavery is all you know, if Egypt is all you know, then liberation from slavery is also disorienting. How do you go on when everything is strange and new?
Nothing makes sense anymore. You wander around. Everything is disordered. There is no order to life. What are you supposed to do with yourself? Where are you supposed to go? Complete and utter freedom is scary business because it means that you can’t count on anything anymore. Nothing is predicable. It’s impossible to manage.
And now you slowly feel empty—a nagging emptiness in your gut. You’ve been living off adrenaline every since the excitement in Egypt. God showed up—no doubt about it. Set you free. God did wonders. When it looked like Pharaoh’s army would destroy you, God made a way through the Red Sea. When it seemed like you were going to die of hunger and thirst, God provided manna from heaven and water from a rock. You saw wonder after glorious wonder of God’s presence.
Now you are in the wilderness and the adrenaline rush is beginning to wear off. Moses, your fearless leader went up the mountain to see God, and you’re left with nothing. You feel distant from God. You long for that God of the past to be present just like before. Isn’t there a way to satisfy your longing? What are you supposed to do with that nagging void in your gut? It’s hard to figure out how any of this wandering and waiting is meaningful. The landscape of the desert echoes the landscape of your soul—disordered emptiness.
What do you do? You ask Aaron to do something. He becomes the provider. He knows what to do. Aaron gives you a chance to satisfy your spiritual hunger. But it’s costly—you give up all your gold. It’s a sacrifice; you give up your wealth, call it sacrificial giving. It’s your sacrifice of praise, your pleasing offering to the Lord. Call it discipleship: you know it’s the right thing to do because it hurts a little. But it’s worth it. You need to see God. You need the comfort and order that only religion can provide. You need a ritual to hang on to and help you adjust to this crazy world—some order out of the chaos.
And, behold, the golden calf emerges before your eyes like “a little miracle” (Barth, CD IV/1: 429). It’s spectacular—fashionable, even…made out of fancy jewelry. A feast for your senses. The aesthetics are just right. Such creativity has to be the mark of God’s hand—creation out of nothing. Now you can celebrate God’s presence. Now you can know that God is still with you. God feels near when you look at this beautiful image. Your eyes can’t lie.
Now you know where to go when you want to feel close to God. You join the rest of the crowd and are overcome with the excitement of worship. It’s just what you wanted…No, it’s just what you needed. Something to cure the doldrums, an event to help you forget about all the problems, something to make the wilderness a little more exciting.
That is idolatry. You found a way to guarantee God’s presence, to make God obvious, tangible, certainly here, beyond argument. God now has a place in the world. You’ve rescued God from obscurity. God makes sense. God fits, has a place in your world. You know what to do and where to go to find him.
But all of this is not true worship. It’s idolatry. It distracts you from God. It’s an exciting spectacle that distracts you from the God who is always present, who is always near you, who will never leave you nor forsake you. You worship a God who will not be alienated from you. You worship a God who will not distract you from God’s true image. The sensational production of the calf is the distraction of idolatry.
But God’s image is not a dumb calf—that has nothing to do with God’s presence, that kind of image is a product of fashion and comfort. Your sensationalist worship at that kind of altar is idolatry, even if you think you are worshiping the true God.
What is the true image of God? We were told at the very beginning, Genesis 1: “‘Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’… So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
Where do you go to find God’s image? Where do you go to find God’s presence? Where do you go to know that God has not abandoned you in the wilderness? You don’t have to go anywhere. Turn to your neighbor. That’s how close God is.
True worship isn’t a spectacle. True worship takes much longer than that. True worship is a life-long education in how to dwell in and with God at every moment of your life. True worship isn’t an enthusiastic moment of escape from the wilderness; instead, true worship teaches us how to be present, truly present, deeply present, and sometimes painfully present, to a world held in existence by God’s grace. True worship is a slow, patient path of discovery where we come to see people, even strange people, difficult people, as God’s beautiful presence.
True worship teaches us how to be grateful, not desperate. Gratitude is how we experience all of life as God’s gift, all of life as shot through with God’s grace. Gratitude makes it possible to receive Paul’s words from Philippians 4:
Therefore my sisters and brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved…. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near…. The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.