No carved gods of any size, shape, or form of anything whatever, whether of things that fly or walk or swim. Don’t bow down to them and don’t serve them because I am God, your God, and I’m a most jealous God, punishing the children for any sins their parents pass on to them to the third, and yes, even to the fourth generation of those who hate me. But I’m unswervingly loyal to the thousands who love me and keep my commandments. (The Message, Exodus 20:4-6)
[This is Week 3 of the Ten Words series. For the previous week, click here.]
In Hindiusm, cows are sacred. They provide life through their milk, through their use of butter for making lamps, and their dung for making fuel. It is still illegal to kill a cow in India. The Whopper is not on the menu.
But in the 19th century, a phrase originated in the United States about the sacred cow. It meant “an individual, organization, institution, etc., considered to be exempt from criticism or questioning.”
Now, as a toddler, my parents used to put me in the car and drive me around to look at cows when I got cranky. As an adult, I understand that when people feel like their sacred cows are threatened, they get cranky!
What are our sacred cows? What are the things we consider indisputable, unchangeable, the things we get offended about when others challenge them?
Our politics? Our family? Our religious beliefs?
How do those things impact what we believe and how we act? How do we determine what’s real and what’s the image of the real? Why are they so important to us?
In our Scripture today from Exodus 32, the Israelites are fresh off an epic liberation by God. They know they’ve seen the miraculous in the twelve plagues, and they experienced the parting of the Red Sea. They went from absolutely incapacitated by slavery to free in the matter of a month.
And yet, while their leader and their God are up on Mount Sinai having a conversation, suddenly they decide that isn’t enough. Hadn’t they just been freed from Egypt by that same God?
I think they got scared. I think they doubted. I think they panicked. I think the freedom from slavery combined with their presence in an unknown land, an unknown situation, won out. I think they longed for something they could touch; they wanted the comfortability of an icon, an idol, a thing, like what they’d seen the Egyptians worship.
Here we are again, back in a situation where the Israelites are more comfortable with the devil they know than the God they don’t.
They couldn’t see Moses; he was up the mountain having Starbucks and scones with God. But Aaron, Aaron was available.
The Israelites longed for something they could hold onto, something they could wrap their minds around, something that seemed more real.
People make idols when what they worship doesn’t seem tangible enough, when they want to make something they can wrap their senses around.
So the people ask Aaron to make something they can see and touch because maybe Moses isn’t coming back.
That’s the other reason why they made the idol: they were afraid. Afraid like little kids in the dark, searching for their safety blanket, wanting the light left on, worried about what they can’t see around the corner.
Aaron tells them to take off the gold they have, their material wealth- it’s actually jewelry they stole from the Egyptians on the way out the door, and he irons it in the fire.
They are literally about to worship a cow made of gold. McDonalds, eat your heart out.
And Aaron takes it a step further and presents the golden calf, saying, “These are the gods who saved you from Egypt.”
God did that, but they can’t see God. Moses spoke for God but they can’t see Moses. So, in one felled swoop, they take this calf and put it in the spot that God actually created by freeing them, and they give an inanimate object for the glory and thanks that should have been God’s.
While God and Moses are talking about “you shall not have any other gods but me,” and “you shall not make any graven images.”
Sure, God is jealous, passionate, and wants to be worshipped, but this idol making moment isn’t healthy. The Israelites just gave up their financial flexibility, the gold they had as their first real property; they just bought into worshipping an object not a living, power; they just willfully allowed themselves to be deluded into rewriting history and ‘forgetting’ their heritage. (Some scholars say that the calf-worshipping celebration also included an orgy, so they dishonored themselves through their bodies and relationships further.)
Fastforward a few hours of partying, and Moses returns with the first set of Ten Words. His is mad. He breaks the set of tablets, he burns the calf in the fire, and he makes them drink it.
Moses literally takes their idol and says, “you want it to fill up the hole in you? You want to be one with the idol? Then take it in! Drink it up. Poison yourselves with it.” What a visual, physical image of their betrayal.
It must have really hurt Moses, to have gone through everything he had to set the people free from Egypt, to find out that they couldn’t be patient, couldn’t be faithful, for a whole day.
But you know, when you experience pain, it’s often because of those closest to you. Moses turns to his brother, the one who had spoken for him before Pharaoh. He asks why Aaron would’ve done that, made the calf. And Aaron gives the stupidest, most impossible excuse since I tried to fib to my parents when I was six…
“I threw [the gold] into the fire, and out came this calf!”
Isn’t that the way it is with us? We’ve probably never taken a thing, an inanimate object, and made an image out of it, forged it in the fire But sometimes, those things sneak their way in.
Sometimes, we let ourselves think or believe what we want to believe. We fool ourselves into focusing on the parts we want to and not on the parts that really are.
We convince ourselves that there are acceptable reasons to neglect our family, neglect our relationship with God, neglect taking care of ourselves.
Like working late…
Like being frustrated with life and seeking solace in people we shouldn’t, places we shouldn’t, or things we shouldn’t.
Like pursuing things that aren’t ours, in the wrong time.
And making excuses for those poor decisions.
We say things with a straight face, like “I threw those bracelets and earrings into the fire, and out walked a cow!”
We’re in good company.
A few years ago, my friend Chris pulled me aside and said, “I’ve got a confession to make.” I wasn’t his pastor, but he had something to get off his chest. Chris drove all over the state for work, spending hours in his car everyday, listening to the radio. He told me he’d realized that listening to NPR was detrimentally impacting his faith walk.
Wait, NPR? National Public Radio?
Chris shared that on Sunday, when the pastor at his church shared something that sounded different than what the commentators on NPR said, he tended to believe NPR. When NPR shared a different take on finance or the death penalty or welfare or health care, he ignored what the preacher had to say.
But after awhile, he realized that the preacher was sharing what Jesus had said, what God wanted. He came to understand for himself that he’d put NPR in the ‘god spot,’ instead of God.
The thing is, there’s a hole in our lives, in our hearts, that’s a God-sized hole. It’s too big for anything else to fit in, but like the Israelites, we try to jam other things in there to fill it up.
We might not worship the golden calf, but we make our sacred cows into something like an idol.
The truth is that even something good can become an idol. Like the Ten Words. When we use them to judge others, when they represent justice that goes unfulfilled in the lives of those around us.
We articulate them differently, but they happen, even in church.
“We’ve never done it that way” or “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
“What if we don’t have enough? We don’t have any more to give.”
“We can’t help out, there’s just no time in the schedule.”
“These are the songs that God wants us to sing.”
“These are our people; those others out there, aren’t.”
“I’m sure God has someone else in mind who could do that.”
“God doesn’t really expect me to do that, right?”
Or better yet: we forget about God in the first place.
This year, it struck me forcefully that the same people who cheered Jesus on a Sunday, as he entered Jerusalem on the day of palms, were also the same ones calling for him to be executed on the cross on Good Friday.
Just like that, they’d forgotten who they worshipped, who they revered, who they’d placed their hope in, and they replaced it with something else.
The leadership and direction of the Pharisees was more tangible than the metaphysical, prophesied coming kingdom that this Messiah, Jesus, proclaimed.
When Jesus didn’t ride in like they expected and lead an armed revolution against the Romans, the people defaulted to thinking that what the Pharisees promised was the best that it could be.
It was easier to hold onto what they knew, the life they could count on even if they weren’t happy, than to embrace in faith what could be.
Rather than judge them, I think it’s wise for us to recognize that we’re that fickle sometimes, that we need to recognize that anything that isn’t God, isn’t of God, can become that idol to us.
Bob Dylan sang:
“But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
Too often, we don’t always recognize that what we serve isn’t obvious. That we become slaves to what we worship. That what we worship causes us to cut corners in other places.
We become slaves to the grind of our jobs, to perform, to accomplish, to rise in status or earnings. We cut corners to make the budget meet or rise to achieve our dream faster.
We become slaves to the almighty dollar, to get more, to make more, to have more. We ignore those in need and fail to be generous in a way that improves our relationships and community.
We become slaves, worshipping the relationships that make us feel good. (Have you ever considered that Facebook could be an idol?) We find ways to make relationships work for us rather than experiencing friendship in a way that makes us grow and helps support others.
We become slaves because, like the Israelites, we wrestle with our insecurity, impatience, fear, and selfishness, and try to solve them on our own.
The prophet Micah proclaimed this good news to the people of Israel, that still holds hope for us. It’s a story not of destruction and hell raining down, but a place where God has become so central that everything and everybody is at peace.
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and peoples will stream to it. Many nations will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken“(Micah 4:1-4).
Micah looks forward to that day when everyone will worship God, and everything else will fall into its right place, when life will be in the right perspective. There will be “balance in the Force,” there will be the people of God restored to their right relationship with God.
In a world where we’re so concerned with our own personal rights—everyone else gets raw deal, who cares– it’s time we put our personal and community sacred cows to sleep. That’s nowhere near as important as it is in church. We need to recognize that we can’t hold or box God in; we can’t let our understanding of God (however simplified) get in the way of worshipping the one, true God.
We’ve got to work toward the balance, toward the kingdom, toward putting our lives in the right order, with God in the center God spot, where only God belongs.
Sean Gladding wrote that the “opposite of faith is certainty.” We need to know that God is bigger and greater than even what we imagine. We can’t go expecting God just to look like what we think, expect, or want to find. We can’t get fooled into thinking that a calf could possibly stand in the place of God.
We need to stop being afraid. We need to stop worrying that our relevance is tied up in our 401ks, our “Protestant work ethic” (that has dropped the Protestant all together!), our relationships, and our unknowns.
We need to recognize that God showed up while the Israelites were still slaves to tell them to not be afraid. He didn’t first liberate them and then tell them who he was; no, he said he was with them and then he set them free.
Over and over again throughout the Bible, God told people through his own words, through angels, “do not be afraid.” It’s the first thing we should cling to when we want to start believing that maybe an idol would be better, maybe something we can control could actually make us feel whole, could actually save us.
We need to dive into the mystery, like kids jumping off the platform that seems too high or the diving board that seems too wobbly, into the mystery. Into the experience. Into the joy.
We need to meet God in our everyday lives, in the smoke on Mount Sinai, in the person of Jesus, and recognize that what God wants for us is so much more. That God is so much more. And that we don’t need anything else to take God’s place.
It’s time that we put to death our personal and corporate sacred cows. In the immortal words of Wendy, “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.”
I am indebted to the work of my fellow Asbury Seminary alum, Sean Gladding, for reminding me of the beauty and necessity of the Ten Commandments in his book, Ten, available now.