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Exodus | The Golden Calf
June 9, 2012
Week 5 of Exodus

Exodus: Week 5

This is the fifth and the final week of our series called Exodus. This series might be my favorite one that we’ve ever had. I have been blown away by every single week in this series. And today, as we put a wrap on this series, God is going to show up again.

As you can see, our stage looks a little different today. When you walk into church and see things like a wedding dress and a motorcycle on stage, you know it’s going to be a little bit of a different morning. We have littered our stage with things that have the potential to be idols in our lives.

Our culture is like a modern day Athens. In Acts 17, the Bible says, “While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.” (Acts 17:16, NIV)

We live in Athens. We live in a culture that is full of idols. But worse than that, we live in families that are full of idols. We live in homes that are full of idols. We surround ourselves with people that are full of idols. Our lives are full of idols.

But the problem is that we don’t have a good understanding of idols and idolatry. We read stories in the Bible, like the one we’re going to explore today, that talk about people building statues and worshipping them. If that’s idolatry, then we’re ok because we don’t do that. When is the last time any of you built a statue and then worshipped it? But that creates a false sense of security.

We have to remember that anything that takes God’s rightful place in our lives is an idol. Any time we give our first love, devotion, and worship to anything or anyone other than God, we are idolaters. A lot of us have filled our lives with idols. We’re playing a deadly game. That’s really going to come to light as we explore the last story in our Exodus series.

Let me set the scene for us. God has rescued His people, the Israelites, from their slavery in Egypt. He miraculously parted the Red Sea and took His people to freedom. We talked about that last week.

Now, Israel’s leader, Moses, had climbed Mt. Sinai to meet with God. He received a ton of instructions from the Lord, including the Ten Commandments on that mountain.

But while he was on top of Sinai, the Israelites were all at the bottom of the mountain. And because Moses was away from them for over a month, they assumed that something had happened to him. Apparently he was dead.

That’s where we’re going to pick up the story in Exodus 32. It’s one of the saddest, most pathetic, most tragic stories in the entire Bible.

Starting in verse 1, the Bible says, “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool.

Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.”

So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” (Exodus 32:1-6, NIV)

Keep in mind that Moses is still on Mt. Sinai. He’s in the presence of God, receiving the Ten Commandments which God Himself wrote on two stone tablets. He’s receiving all kinds of encouragement and instructions for leading God’s people.

And at the same time, the Israelites made a statue of a calf out of gold and worshipped it. The fact that all this is happening concurrently is unbelievable, but it’s true. The leader was worshipping God and the people were worshipping an idol.

The truth is some of you would rather let leaders worship for you. When you come to church, you don’t come to participate in worship. You come to watch it.

You let the band worship for you. They are passionate. They give it their all. And you watch. You don’t worship. You just watch.

You let me, as your pastor, worship for you. I leave it all on the field every single week, and you leave unchanged. You are confronted with the move you need to make. You know what God is calling you to do when you hear the Word preached to you, but you ignore it. You’re content to let me worship for you.

Israel’s leader was on top of the mountain worshipping God. The people were at the bottom of the mountain worshipping an idol. And it’s scary how often that same scenario plays out in the church today.

I’m not here to worship for you. Our band is not here to worship for you. Our church leaders are not here to worship for you. We’re not here so you can watch us worship, while you yourself feel just fine about the presence of all the idols in your life. That’s not the way it works.

“But I’m ok. I don’t have any idols. I’m good.”

Are you sure? Really sure? Positively sure?

Our idols aren’t always as easy to see as a golden calf. The truth is, idolatry is an inside job. It comes out in visible ways, but it’s ultimately an inside job. Idolatry starts in your heart.

Look at how the idolatry of the Israelites began. In the Exodus 32:1, the Bible says, “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1, NIV)

This is how the golden calf got its start. It began because the people were feeling alone and desperate. They thought Moses was dead. And since he was their mediator to God, they thought that God had abandoned them too. They felt alone and angry and desperate…and that gave birth to an idol.

Idolatry is always an inside job. It’s always a matter of the heart. It’s never a matter of our stuff.

In our story, the problem wasn’t the gold that the Israelites owned. Their earrings weren’t the problem. The problem is what they turned those gold earrings into.

All this stuff on stage isn’t the problem. The problem is not when we have stuff. The problem is when stuff has us. The problem is when things go awry inside us and we start looking to stuff to fulfill us; when we start looking to something or someone other than God to give us joy and purpose.

Is there anything evil about this motorcycle? No. Anything inherently wrong with these golf clubs? No. In fact, almost everything on this stage is not evil or wrong. (There are exceptions, like porn.)

The problem is not this stuff. The problem is us. Idolatry is an inside job. The problem is when these things become our focus. Our obsession. When these things get the attention and devotion and love that is meant for God alone, we cross a deadly line.

And it’s not just things. It’s also people. There’s a reason we have things like a wedding dress and a baby stroller on stage. Some of us look to our spouse as our savior and our kids as our god. We depend on them to complete us because we don’t believe that God completes us. And we place a burden on them that they aren’t equipped to carry.

Ladies, your husband is not your savior. He’s just not. And when you live like he is, you put a burden on his shoulders that he simply can’t carry. And when he disappoints you…because he’s, you know, human…it devastates you because your savior should never disappoint you.

Men, same goes for you. The Bible calls you to treat your wife with gentleness and respect…but not worship. She’s not designed for that. She can’t carry that. Don’t expect her to live up to those perfect expectations, because it’s crushing to her.

Moms and dads, your children are not your salvation. I know you love them. I know you would do anything for them. But they cannot be your entire world. Before you were ever a mom or a dad, you were a wife or a husband. That relationship has to take precedence because the kids will eventually move out. You have to make sure that your marriage doesn’t leave when the kids do.

And before you were a husband or a wife, you were a child of God. Your spouse won’t be with you forever. I know that’s tough. I hate to even think about this because I adore my wife. But we have to face the reality that there is only one relationship in our lives that will remain forever unbroken…our relationship with Jesus.

Who is getting your devotion and your worship? What is receiving your time and attention and love? This stage is full of stuff that can be perfectly innocent. Much of it can even be good. There are things on this stage that represent people we love. There are things that represent material blessings we’ve been given. But there is nothing on this stage that is worth idolizing.

The problem is not our relationships. The problem is not our stuff. The problem is when we allow things in our hearts to get out of order. Idolatry is always an inside job.

Something else that we can pull out of the golden calf story…idolatry assumes God will share.

How many parents feel like your kids will never, ever learn to share? That’s awesome! It means I’m not the only one.

Anybody who has more than one child has felt that way. These kids will never learn to share. It’s one argument after another. When I had one child, I was a father. When I had two children, I became a referee.

Here’s something that we have to understand about God…He will never learn to share. Never. Ever. Not because He is a child. Not because He is spoiled. But because He is God.

But we live like we believe He’ll understand. He’ll be okay with sharing. And if He’s not, eventually He’ll learn.

That’s where the Israelites were. Look at our story again. Starting in verse 2, “Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool.

Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” (Exodus 32:2-5, NIV)

Aaron took all the people’s gold earrings. Used them to create this golden calf. The people declare that this calf is the god that brought them out of Egypt. And then, catch this, Aaron declares that the next day will be a festival to the Lord! Not to the calf, but to the Lord.

The people thought that they could have their God and they could have their idol, both at the same time.

They didn’t reject the Lord outright. They didn’t just disown God. They just added something else to their worship.

That is the real danger in idolatry. Most of us will not reject God outright, but many of us will ask Him to share His throne in our lives with something or someone else. And we just assume He’ll be okay with that.

Here’s the truth…He’s not okay with that. He’ll never be okay with that.

In Exodus 20, as part of the Ten Commandments, God said, “You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.” (Exodus 20:4-5a, NLT)

God is a jealous God. He is jealous for you. He is jealous for your love and affection and devotion. And He will not tolerate anything else competing for it.

In fact, check this out in Exodus 34. “Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” (Exodus 34:14, NIV)

The Bible gives several different Names for God. One of those Names is Jealous. Did you know that? So the next time you pray, instead of saying, “Dear God,” you could say, “Dear Jealous,” and you’d be 100% right!

Richard L. Strauss noted that, “God’s name is the epitome of who and what He is, and He says His name is Jealous. Jealousy is not merely a passing mood with God. It is the essence of His person. He cannot be [anything] other than jealous.”

He tells us in Isaiah, “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols.” (Isaiah 42:8, NIV)

Here is where the Israelites made their fatal error. They misunderstood the jealousy of God. They didn’t see a problem with worshipping God, and at the same time worshipping a golden calf.

God is jealous of our worship. He is jealous of our devotion. He is jealous because our worship and devotion are rightfully his. When they are given to something or someone else, God’s jealousy comes out.

Think about it this way. The Bible often pictures our connection to Jesus like a marriage. The church is the Bride of Christ.

In a godly marriage, there is always jealousy. Not the suspicious, always-looking-over-their-shoulder kind of jealousy. But a godly jealousy.

If I see another man talking to my wife, I have no need to be jealous. But, if I see another man flirting with my wife, if I see another man trying to make time with my wife, then jealousy is a right and godly response. That guy is messing with something that is rightfully mine. And I will take care of business. Seriously, don’t do it, bro. I will ground and pound you. I will become the pastor of disaster. Am I jealous for her? You’d better believe it. I am hers. She is mine. And nobody else gets to mess with that.

God feels the same way about you and me. Nothing and no one else gets our worship and our devotion. Our hearts are His. And when something else steps on His turf, His holy jealousy flares up and it’s on.

Go back to our story in Exodus 32. Moses is up on the mountain worshipping God. Down the mountain, the people are going crazy with the calf.

The Bible tells us, “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people [did you notice that God no longer referred to them as MY people…He told Moses, “They are YOUR people.”], whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. [Why a calf? Because the calf was the idol that was worshipped in many cultures that surrounded the Israelites. They adopted a cultural idol.]

They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’

“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. [which is just a way of saying that they were stubborn and obstinate.]

Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7-10, NIV)

While Moses is worshipping God on top of the mountain, God tells him what is going on at the bottom. The people had turned to an idol. And because of His holy jealousy, God said that He would destroy them. God isn’t messing around here.

But Moses falls on his face, begging God to relent. He pleaded with God not to destroy the Israelites. And God relented. God did not immediately destroy them like He said. But that doesn’t mean that there wouldn’t be consequences.

Go to verse 15. “Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.

When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.”

Moses replied: “It is not the sound of victory, it is not the sound of defeat; it is the sound of singing that I hear.” (Exodus 32:15-18, NIV)

Moses is walking down the mountain. He’s got the tablets with the Ten Commandments in his hands. Tablets that had been inscribed by the very hand of God. And on his way down the mountain, Joshua joins him. As they get close to the Israelite camp, they can hear what’s going on. Joshua said, “It sounds like war.”

Moses said, “No, it sounds like singing. There’s a party going on.”

That’s because idolatry brings joy…temporarily.

Here’s a truth that you probably don’t hear very often. Sin is fun. It’s fun. It feels good. It brings pleasure. It makes you happy. If it didn’t, we’d never do it!

Idolatry brings initial joy. Look at some verses from our story.

When Aaron made the golden calf, the Bible says, “Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” (Exodus 32:6b, NIV)

You know what revelry means in this context? It means an orgy. It means drinking, and partying, and lots and lots of sexing.

When Moses was heading down the mountain, he told Joshua, “it is the sound of singing that I hear.” (Exodus 32:18b, NIV)

The DJ was off the hook. The people were dancing. It was a party like you’ve never seen.

In verse 25, the Bible says, “Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies.” (Exodus 32:25, NIV)

Think spring break on steroids. Think Jerry Springer meets Jersey Shore. This thing had spiraled so far out of control. The people were having more fun than they knew what to do with, but it was all temporary.

And that’s the thing about idols. They always bring joy, but it’s always temporary. There are always consequences. Idolatry comes with a price tag attached.

I talked about this on my blog this week. I wrote a post about the consequences of sexual sin, but it really applies to any form of idolatry. If we could see the consequences upfront, we would never bow down to an idol. We would never allow anything to take God’s place. We would never offer our devotion and worship to anything or anyone else.

But the consequences aren’t obvious upfront. In fact, all we see upfront is the joy. The pleasure. The fun. But eventually the consequences catch up. Our God’s Name is Jealous, and He’s not in a sharing mood. That’s why idolatry comes with consequences.

Ultimately, idolatry leaves us empty.

Idols are never what they seem to be. They always overpromise and underdeliver.

Even the golden calf wasn’t solid gold. It couldn’t have been. Aaron couldn’t have fashioned an entire statue just out of the gold he got from the peoples’ earrings. It wouldn’t have been nearly enough gold.

Instead, most scholars believe it was a wooden statue, overlaid in gold leaf. In other words, it had a shiny golden coating, but the inside was just plain ordinary wood.

Idols are never what they seem to be. And they never do what they promise to do. Instead, they leave us empty.

In our story, starting in verse 19, the Bible says, “When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain.

And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.

He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?” [We talked about how our connection to God is often pictured like a marriage. When Moses referred to this “great sin,” he actually used a legal phrase that was normally applied to adultery cases.]

“Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ [Aaron blames the people instead of taking responsibility himself.]

So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”(Exodus 32:19-24, NIV)

Really? That’s the best you’ve got? I threw all these earrings into the fire and out popped this calf? So first you blamed the people. And now you’re blaming the fire?

At this point, Aaron is grasping at anything because he knows there are consequences coming. The party is officially over.

Let’s finish the story. Starting in verse 25, “Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.

Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.

Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”

The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”

So Moses went back to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. But now, please forgive their sin —but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”

The Lord replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.”

And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.” (Exodus 32:25-35, NIV)

The party is over. The joy proved to be temporary, and now there is only consequences. Their idol left them empty, because that’s ultimately what idols do.

Look at the consequences that followed their idolatry. 3,000 people were killed. To put that in perspective, that’s the same number of people who died on 9/11. It was a sweeping, brutal punishment.

And then the Lord struck them with a plague. Some people believe this plague came from drinking the water that had been tainted after Moses ground up the golden calf.

No more parties. No more dancing. No more getting their freak on. The people were left desolate and empty.

Listen to what God said in Jeremiah 2. “Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols. Be appalled at this, you heavens, and shudder with great horror,” declares the LORD.

“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:11-13, NIV)

Living water…hope, fulfillment, joy, peace, eternity…it’s found in Jesus Christ. No idol can quench that thirst. Every idol is just an empty, broken cistern. There’s no water in it. It’s going to leave you dry and thirsty and empty.

Is your idol represented on this stage? Whether or not you can look up here and see your idol, you know what it is, don’t you? You know what gets your money, your time, your love, your devotion, your worship.

I may not know your specific idol, but I know it’s a broken cistern. I know there’s no water there. I know it’s going to leave you empty.

In Jonah 2, the Bible says it so simply. “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.” (Jonah 2:8, NIV)

Today absolutely has to be the day when we say, “No more! I’m not turning away anymore! I’m not turning away from God’s love for me because no idol could die for me. No idol could rise for me. And no idol will always love me. I am going to submit to Jesus, and to Jesus alone!”

In John 4, Jesus was talking to a Samaritan woman at a well. He told her, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:12-13, NIV)

He’s telling us the same thing. He’s telling us, “Your idols are going to leave you dry. If you keep looking to stuff…if you depend on someone else to complete you…if you’re always looking for the next new toy to fill what’s empty in you…you’re always going to be thirsty. Come to me. Let me fill you. Let me quench your thirst. Give me the throne in your life, and you’ll be amazed how everything else just falls into place.”

That’s what you have a chance to do today. That’s why we give you a chance to respond to the gospel each week. Because nothing and no one can give you what Jesus can. That’s why we’re inviting you to come to Him today.

Mike Edmisten

Tags: Exodus, golden calf, idolatry

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