“Yahweh, God, said to Moses, ‘Go down from the mountain now! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves, acted perversely; in a very short time they have been quick to turn from the way I have given them; they have made for themselves, cast for themselves an image of a calf. They have worshiped it and made sacrifice to it and said, ‘O Israel! This is your god, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” — Exodus 32:7-8.
Those of you who know my wife, Bonnie, know she has an outstanding sense of humor. It’s one of the reasons I love her and one of the many reasons I asked her to marry me. And the fact that she agreed to marry me proves she has an outstanding sense of humor.
To be clear, it’s not that she says funny things. Rather, she says things funny— much more difficult and, indeed, a trait I treasure.
As a proof of that, back when I first entered Seminary she would be asked ‘Why did Joe decide to go to Seminary?’ but never offered what was, perhaps, the socially acceptable answer— something like, “Joe heard the call to ministry.” Instead Bonnie would respond, “Well, he needed to find some way to justify his collection of Bibles.”
If truth be told, I had an interest in Scripture way before I had a large enough number of Bibles to call it a collection. By the time I was in my early twenties I had read a lot about the Bible and its origins. That gave me a fairly good grasp of what happened in the course of the thousand years plus it took for the collection of writings to come together which form the work we today commonly call the Bible.
So, please note— despite its outward appearance, what it physically looks like— the Bible is not one book, one work. It’s a collection of books, works and, as I indicated, written and edited over the course of a thousand plus years. So, by definition, it was written and edited by multiple authors and editors at different times.
Further, within those books there are many forms of writing— poetry, prose, lyrics, parables, history, ritual, story-telling to name a few. Each of these forms comes with its own stylistic and linguistic parameters and, therefore, its own stylistic and linguistic parameters baggage.
All this comes back to the thought that I knew this information before coming anywhere near a Seminary. So this is not some kind of specialized knowledge which comes only with earning a Master of Divinity Degree.
Indeed, this is common knowledge, accessible to anyone interested in discovering it, willing to do the work to discover it. It’s actually the kind information you might get in an undergraduate course in the Bible as literature.
All that brings me to a story about my time Seminary. I first arrived at Bangor Theological Seminary in January and registered for the Spring semester. Of course, nine months later, in September, a new crop of students arrived for the Fall.
So, when Fall rolled around I was an old timer. I knew the ropes. I took one fellow who was about my age, also a second career person as was I, under my wing.
A short time after the semester started I got an emergency call from him. He had just left his first Hebrew Scriptures class, shocked beyond words. Why? The professor had said what I just said about the Bible— a thousand years, multiple authors.
It was a revelation to him. He said he had never heard it before. (Slight pause.)
I want to suggest he had actually heard all this information before, maybe even in church. But what I said about Scripture— a thousand years, multiple authors, etc.— does not fit our cultural picture of Scripture.
And because that description does not fit the cultural picture, it’s not that we don’t know it or have never heard it. Many people ignore that information or refuse to process it or cannot process it.
Thereby, it’s not the reality of these facts that gets rejected. The facts are not even heard because of our cultural blinders. The facts get replaced by the falsehood of cultural preference.
To be clear, perhaps because it’s simple, easy to grasp for many a cultural picture of Scripture— one book, one writer, inerrant, etc., etc., etc., can be and maybe even is emotionally satisfying— but it’s just not true. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Exodus: “Yahweh, God, said to Moses, ‘Go down from the mountain now! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves, acted perversely; in a very short time they have been quick to turn from the way I have given them; they have made for themselves, cast for themselves an image of a calf. They have worshiped it and made sacrifice to it and said, ‘O Israel! This is your god, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” (Slight pause.)
This episode of the golden calf comes quickly on the heels of the Exodus event. Scholars often name the Exodus event as the central episode of the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, as this passage states, the One Who brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt is Yahweh, God.
Do note, popular culture would say the central episode of the Hebrew Scriptures is Moses receiving the so called “ten commandments” on Sinai. It is not. To reiterate, God leading the Israelites out of Egypt, the Exodus, is the central event.
In fact, what our culture calls the “ten commandments”— the central event of the Hebrew Scriptures— are known in Hebrew as the ten words. The Hebrew language does not even have a command tense.
Now, the story of the golden calf reflects an image of a god which would have been common in that era and in that part of the world. That’s one reason the Israelites would have readily (quote:) “…worshiped it and made sacrifice to it…” The calf is a cultural god, a familiar god, a common god in that time and place. And it is, of course, a false god.
The problem with false gods, cultural gods, is they do not reflect any kind of true, accurate, deep or spiritual reality. On the other hand, what makes false gods so attractive, tenacious and even emotionally satisfying is they do reflect cultural reality.
So what I’m also suggesting is, from a Biblical perspective, a cultural god is, at best and most of the time, suspect. Why? Cultural gods point toward a “what,”— a calf for instance— not toward Who. Scripture points toward Who. God is Who.
God is, you see, the One with Whom we are in relationship. If we are in relationship with God we, by definition, trust God.
After all, what kind of relationship can we have with a calf, golden or otherwise? How can we trust a calf, golden or otherwise? And since we cannot trust false gods, when we worship false gods— and by the way we do worship false gods— that lack of trust produces one thing and one thing only— fear.
You see, the biggest calf, the most important and sinister calf for the Israelites and for us— the most important and sinister false god for the Israelites and for us and is the calf called fear. Indeed, why were the Israelites worshiping a golden calf? Fear— Moses, you see, had disappeared onto the mountain and they suddenly were worried their leader would not come back.
Thinking of Moses rather than of God as their leader led them down a path toward fear. And to make anyone— in this case Moses— more important than God is in fact to worship of a cultural god. This initial lack of trust in God eventually but always translates into fear. (Slight pause.)
Let me say two things about trust and love and how they intertwine. First, sometimes psychologists say the opposite of love is not hate but apathy— apathy— you don’t even care enough to hate. I want to suggest the opposite of love is neither hate nor is it apathy. The opposite of love is fear.
And if you read the newspapers or listen to media it should be obvious to you we live in a society wracked with fear. Fear is rampant in our culture. I think fear is rampant in our culture because we worship calves, false gods— a lot of them.
Indeed, the list of false gods in our culture is long one. The Bible, itself, is often a false God. Some people worship the Bible rather than God revealed therein.
And it’s easy to add to that list— sports, television, teams, politics, politicians, security— false gods all— I am sure you can each supply your own list of false gods. I don’t need to create one for you.
The second thing I need to say about love and trust is that love and rust are intertwined. You cannot love without trust. You cannot trust without love. (Slight pause.)
In the covenant promises of the wedding ceremony I use the partners promise to one another that they will love in each other what they already know and they will trust what they do not yet know. Love and trust— by definition intertwined.
All of which is to say, the real false god, the most prevalent false god in our world is fear. And there are a lot of people out there sending that message: you need to be afraid. And, of course, the real true God is love. My, what a novel idea— God is love. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch writer, a Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Holocaust during World War II. Her most famous book is The Hiding Place. This is a quote from her writings. ‘Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.’”
BENEDICTION: Eternal God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our striving for justice and truth, to confront one another in love, and to work together with mutual patience, acceptance and respect. Send us out, sure in Your grace and Your peace with surpasses understanding, to live faithfully. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.