I think it was Karl Barth who said that we should do our daily reading with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. Sometimes it’s almost spooky the ways in which they overlap. This week my Bible was open to Exodus and the story of ‘the golden calf,’ while news headlines where dominated by images of the bronze bull that stands near Wall Street.
The pictures of Wall Street’s bull this week of course had protestors lying beneath it or, later, barricades around it with police officers standing guard. The Occupy Wall Street movement actually began a few weeks ago, but it has somewhat unexpectedly picked up steam this week and people are taking notice. And as people take notice, one of the things that people are wondering is what exactly these protestors want. Protests that we’ve seen before have had identified spokespersons, clear goals, and practicable demands. This movement seems to lack all of the above. Instead, this protest seems to be more of an expression of dissatisfaction and uncertainty. It may be that the protestors are so uncertain that they can’t even quite put their finger on what would make the situation better. So, they’ve gathered around the bull in search of some direction, or a leader, or a solution.
Interestingly, the bull itself was erected amidst uncertainty. A New York artist created the bull in response to the 1987 stock market crash. He said it was a testament to “the strength, power and hope of the American people.”
I guess there’s something deep within humans that says when in doubt make a bovine statue, because the Hebrews, too, decided to construct a bull and hold a rally. And they, too, did it amidst uncertainty. Moses had led them out of Egypt and into the wilderness and they had been in the wilderness for some time. Now Moses had gone up to the mountain where he was receiving the covenant and the law. He’d been gone for a while and the people are growing restless. “Is he coming back? Where did he go exactly? And why? Are we left here without a leader? Are we just going to camp here and wait for him forever? And where is God? I thought God was going to take us to a great and fertile land, but here we sit in the middle of nowhere. When is God going to do something?”
The people are uncertain and it is this uncertainty that makes them begin to act strangely. They gather around Aaron and they make an interesting request. “Make gods for us, who shall go before us.” Now surely even ancient people understood that you just can’t decide at the drop of a hat to “make” a god. You can fashion an idol or an icon, but that icon refers to something beyond itself, something transcendent that already exists. You can’t just “make” a god.
But the people are desperate. They’re scared. They’re uncertain. They want something tangible. They want some assurances. And who can blame them? It indeed can be frustrating to worship an intangible God. It can be scary to try to follow God who is invisible. We too find ourselves asking, “Where did God go?” When we lose a job, we ask, “Where did God go?” When the economy is tanking we ask, “When is God going to do something?” When tragedy strikes, we ask, “Where is God?” When we’re in the wilderness and not sure what the future holds, it’s almost natural to ask “Where did God go?”
Aaron must empathize with the people’s desperation and frustration, because without objection he quickly commences fashioning the calf out of gold. And notice what happens next. When the calf is done, the people say, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Now that’s a classic statement of idolatry. It’s almost a definition. The people have put something that is not God in God’s place. But keep reading. Aaron hears this and builds an altar and calls for a festival. But notice what he says, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” The Hebrew reads, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to Yahweh.”
When we think of idolatry we usually think of someone turning their back on God and devoting themselves to something else. But here the gods that Aaron fashioned have not replaced Yahweh. Instead they are set beside Yahweh. And this may be how most folks engage in idolatry. I suspect that this is the way that we church folks usually engage in idolatry. We don’t completely turn our backs on God, but we may from time to time set something along side of God. We hedge our bets. In God we trust, but maybe we could also hold on to some things that are a little more tangible.
I remember very vividly the Sunday after 9-11-2001. We had held a short, impromptu prayer service on the evening of the disaster. But by Sunday things had settled in our minds a little more and we were all struggling to come to terms with these events. I was very nervous about my sermon, because I knew people would want some help in making sense of it all.
I remember entering the church at the back of the sanctuary and seeing immediately that the American flag had been brought forward and placed right next to the pulpit. My whole being cringed. In my mind, whoever moved that flag was hedging their bets. They had placed the flag, a symbol of national pride, next to God.
Now don’t hear me wrong. I’m not saying that we can’t be religious and patriotic, too. I’m not saying that the flag itself is an idol. I’m not saying that all nationalism or national pride is idolatrous. What I am saying is that we need to remember that we are a nation under God. What I am saying is that it is “In God we Trust,” not in the United States of America. What I am saying is that we may take great pride in who we are as a nation, but as soon as we set nation alongside God, we are dangerously flirting with idolatry. When we set economic boon alongside God, we are dangerously flirting with idolatry. When we set our own success or happiness alongside God, we are flirting dangerously with idolatry. When we set anything alongside God, we are flirting with idolatry.
Paul Tillich, the great theologian of the 20th Century, wrote “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned…” Faith is centering your life on something. Faith is placing something at the center of your life around which everything else orbits. And Tillich warned that the danger is that we may find ourselves ultimately concerned with something that is not ultimate. This is idolatry. Idolatry is putting your faith in finite things. It’s centering your life on something that is not ultimate, not eternal, not lasting, not from above, not Godly. Idolatry is placing something limited and passing at the center of your life.
And when we do this, we may very well feel God’s wrath. In our story, God’s wrath is characterized in narrative form. God gets angry and mocks the people. He says, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.” God tells Moses, “Step aside! Stay out of my way, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”
This is a powerful scene. But we can see the results of God’s wrath even without imagining such a heavenly conversation. You see… nations rise and fall. Economies boom and bust. Jobs begin and end. Love is fleeting. Happiness passes. And this is why we cannot center our lives on such things. We see the tyrant fall with the state. We’ve seen one too many stock-broker or vice-president commit suicide when the stuff hits the fan. We see people lose their sense of self-worth when they lose their job. We see that divorce not only breaks homes, but often breaks people. We see this because what we’ve done in all of these cases is centered our lives on something finite. We’ve put our faith in something that is passing. And when that thing is no more, then we are crushed. We’re lost. We’re consumed by God and feel the heat of God’s wrath.
But, thanks be to God, this is not the end of the story. Moses intercedes. He starts begging for God’s mercy on behalf of the people. He asks God to remember. First, he asks God to remember all the good that God has done for the people already, how God delivered them from Egypt and brought them through the wilderness this far. Then, he suggests that God consider what others would think, if God were to bring them this far only to destroy them. Finally, Moses asks God to remember the promises that God made to Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob and all the people of Israel. And God does remember. God remembers the works, and the people and the promises and God repents. God’s mind has changed. God chooses to remember rather than destroy.
And the psalmist is quick to point out the irony. The people forgot, but God remembered. When enslaved in Egypt, the people forgot God’s love and power. But God remembered and delivered them from the hands of their oppressors. The people forgot again in the wilderness and grumbled against Moses and God. But God remembered and gave them manna to eat and water to drink from the rock. The people forgot and exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. But God remembered, had mercy on them and brought them into the Promised Land.
We forget, but God remembers. When things go badly and we feel uncertain, we forget and so we start to hedge our bets. We put our faith in finite things and center our lives on that which is passing. But God remembers. God remembers, breaks down our idols and breaks loose our chains. God has mercy upon us and forgives us for forgetting. When we forget, God remembers. Thanks be to God.
 Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, (New York: HarperOne, 1957), p. 1.