Sometimes people will complain to their pastors, “Don’t give us a bunch of big ideas and fancy theology in your sermons. Make them practical. Come down out of the clouds and give us something in a sermon we can hold onto and take home with us from church!” Well, in today’s Bible story that’s exactly what a man named Aaron did. He gave the people something they could hold onto and take home from church all right— an idol, a golden calf. What that story has to say to us today may challenge us, even upset us, but it is a word we need to hear.
What happened that day with Aaron actually starts with Aaron’s brother, Moses. Most of us probably know the story of Moses and the burning bush. You remember, Moses was out in the wilderness minding his own business, tending sheep for his father-in-law, when suddenly a bush out there in the desert burst into flames — burning, hot, flames licking the sky — but amazingly the bush was not burned up by the fire. Then the voice of God called to Moses out of the fire, saying, “Moses, my people are suffering in Egypt. I have heard their cries. I want you to go to Pharaoh in Egypt and liberate my people.”
We know that part of the story, but we often forget what comes after that. The first thing that we forget is that Moses did not want to do what God said, really did not want to do it, to go to Pharaoh and to try to set the Israelites free. Who would? It was dangerous work; it was hard. Moses had a family, a good, settled life as a shepherd. He didn’t volunteer for this. So, he made every excuse to God he could think of…
“Who am I to do this?” Moses sputtered. “Get somebody else.” “You’re my servant; that’s who you are,” God replied, “and I will be with you.” “Yeah, but I don’t really even know who you are! And God said, “You want to know who I am? I am who I am! Tell the people of Israel ‘I am’ sent you.” “Ah,” said Moses. “This is crazy! Look, they’re never going to believe me!” God said, “You see that shepherd’s staff in your hand? Throw it on the ground.” Moses threw it on the ground, and it suddenly became a slithering snake. “Now, pick up the snake by the tail,” God said. Moses did so, and it became a wooden staff all over again. “With my power with you, they’ll believe you,” God said.
Moses was almost out of excuses. In fact, he had only one left, so he used it. “God,” he said, “Look, I’m a really lousy public speaker. If I’m going to confront Pharaoh and set the people free, I need to be a powerful speech maker, a good communicator, and that’s just not me.” Amazingly, this excuse worked, at least to a degree. God said, “OK, I get your point.” And this is where Aaron enters the picture. God said, “Well look, you see your brother Aaron over there? He’s a good talker. I’ll put you in charge of the vision, and Aaron will do the speaking. You’ll be the dreamer; Aaron will be the do-er, the practical guy. You stay close to me and my Word, and Aaron will speak to the people for you.”
So, that’s how Moses and Aaron got to be a ministry team: Moses the visionary, close to God; Aaron, the practical pastor, the great speaker, close to the people. For a while, that arrangement worked just fine. With God’s help, Moses and Aaron confronted Pharaoh, led the Hebrews out of slavery, through the Red Sea, and across the desert to Mount Sinai. But then it happened, and this is something else we tend to forget— Moses and Aaron got separated. God told Moses to climb to the top of the holy mountain, to draw close, to hear all of the commandments God had for the people. So, Moses went up, and Aaron stayed down in the valley with the people. The vision of God got separated from the practical things of life, and trouble erupted.
Since God had a lot to say to Moses up on that mountain, Moses was gone a long time – forty days. Down in the valley, the people began to grumble. “Moses has been gone forever,” they complained. “We don’t think he’s coming back. For all we know, he’s dead up there on that mountain. That would be sad, but we have to deal with it. We need to move on. We need a new god to lead us. Aaron, make us a god who will take us out of this desert.” Aaron was a practical man, so he bent to the pressure. “All right,” he said to the people, “give me all your gold jewelry.” Aaron took that gold, threw it into a furnace, and molded for the people a god, a golden calf. “Here’s a god you can touch and hold onto. Here’s a god you can take home with you from church.”
Now, this story of Aaron making a false god out there in the wilderness, a golden calf, may seem remote to us – who today worships a golden calf? But, actually, it is a story as fresh as the latest Instagram post or the breaking news on cable TV. Here is the way it always goes: we have a God who wants to take us from slavery to freedom, who wants to take us into the promised land of life, joy, full humanity, a just society, a land of milk and honey. But we get scared on the journey. God seems absent, distant from us, but also demanding. God’s commandments are too hard, and in our fear, we trade the living God for a more practical god, a god we can touch and see, a god who is smaller, closer, and more like us, you know.
In an interview on NPR recently, the editor of a Christian magazine told an unsettling story about a pastor who preached not long ago on Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about loving your enemies and turning the other cheek. After the service, someone came up to the preacher and scoffed, “I really hated what you said in your sermon this morning. Where’d you get all that ‘woke’ junk anyway?” When the preacher said, “I got it from Jesus. I was quoting Jesus Christ,” the response was, “Oh yeah, well that hogwash doesn’t work anymore. It’s weak.” [Scott Detrow, Gabriel J. Sánchez, and Sarah Handel, “He was a top church official who criticized Trump. He says Christianity is in Crisis,” [^1]
In other words, don’t give me the God of Jesus Christ who sets us free, who calls us to be fully human by loving even our enemies and turning away from retribution and violence. I want a god I can touch, a practical god, a tough god for hard times, a god more like me, a religion that works. Don’t give me Jesus; give me the golden calf.
You ever wonder why Aaron made a golden calf instead of, say, a golden camel or a golden eagle or a golden fish? It wasn’t a random choice. No, the golden calf was like the religious statues they remembered from their time as slaves in Egypt. It was like one of the gods Egypt worshipped. That’s the thing about golden calves, about false gods. They don’t take us to the promised land, they don’t take us to freedom; they take us back to Egypt, back to slavery.
I was talking recently with a neighbor who is a high school guidance counselor. She said that this past school year had been the hardest of her career. I asked her why. She said there were a lot of reasons, but then she gave me one. She said, “The kids aren’t really present even when they are physically there in the classroom. They aren’t present to the teachers, to each other, not even to themselves. They don’t attend to what is around them but instead are captivated by their smart phones. They spend all day staring into their screens, mesmerized.” I said, “Yeah, I can see where their phones could be a distraction all right.” “No,” she replied, “not just a distraction. Their phones are more than that. They’re an addiction.”
The Bible understands that; it always happens. We take our gold, throw it into the furnace, and out comes a golden calf, this time in the form of phones and tablets. They don’t look dangerous. No, they are very practical, very useful, brilliant inventions, they know everything, just Google it, they’re god-like, and they promise to serve our needs. But then they want more from us; they want our full attention, our devotion, our worship. They demand we break off human relationships to pay attention to them and them only. Greedy and manipulative people get control of the social media on these instruments and feed us lies and delusions, make us think things and desire things that lessen our humanity, making us slaves in Egypt all over again.
But the good news of the gospel is that God will not let us go, will not hand us over to the false gods of our own making, but keeps coming to us, taking us by the hand and leading us again and again out of the wilderness and toward freedom.
In St. Magnus Cathedral in the Scottish Orkney Islands, there is a series of large paintings of major events from the Bible. They were all painted by the Norwegian artist, Haakon Gullveig.They are hanging in the nave, the main area, of the cathedral, several paintings on the left and several on the right, two rows, facing each other. Sometimes the paintings on the left and the right seem to be speaking to each other. For example, on the left is a painting of the Tower of Babel, people building a haughty tower to the heavens. On the right is a painting of Jesus being lifted up on the cross. On one side, a tower lifted high in arrogance and pride, on the other side a man lifted high on a cross in suffering love and compassion.
One of the other paintings on the left is of the golden calf. There it is, its eyes staring straight ahead, but strangely the calf seems to be looking at nothing. The golden calf has no expression and gazes with a blank and void stare. The golden calf doesn’t care about you, doesn’t even see you. On the other side, in contrast, is a painting of the Agnus Dei, the lamb of God, the image of Jesus, and as you gaze at this painting, the eyes of the lamb are searching, looking at you with love and mercy.
The God who heard the cries of God’s people in Egypt, the God who came to them to set them free and to take them to the land of joy and promise continues to come to us in Jesus Christ. Even when we make our golden calves and allow ourselves to be enslaved all over again, the lamb of God comes to seek, to liberate, to forgive, and to save. Only in that kind of love do we have the freedom to let go of all of the false gods that weigh us down and to follow Jesus into the life that really is life.
On a trip recently, the writer Sean Dietrich was relaxing by the hotel swimming pool, when he noticed two boys, two brothers, beside the pool. “One of them was named Ben,” wrote Dietrich. “I know this because Ben’s little brother kept shouting it. It was always ‘Ben!’ this and ‘Ben!’ that.”
Dietrich saw that the little brother was impaired. He was missing both arms at the elbow joints, and one of his legs was distorted and in a brace. Ben carefully removed his little brother’s brace and left it with their towels. Then he helped his tiny brother into the pool, and Dietrich describes what happened: “I’m scared, Ben!” said the younger brother. “Don’t worry,” said Ben. “I’ve got you.” Ben had his arms wrapped around the little boy, bear hugging him from behind. He was carrying him. When they eased into the water, Ben was still embracing his little brother tightly, and his brother was freaking out. “Don’t let me go, Ben!” “I won’t.” “Promise?” “Promise.” So, Ben held his brother even tighter. In the pool, Ben carried the little boy around the shallow end until his brother calmed down. And when Ben’s brother was relaxed, Ben taught him to float on his back. “Don’t let go of me, Ben!” said the little boy who had no arms. “I won’t,” said Ben, supporting his brother from beneath. “I have you. I’m not going anywhere.” [^2]
In an even more profound way, Jesus Christ, the expression of the living and true God, comes down in the valley to find us. Even when we are so afraid, we have turned away from him to serve our idols and false gods, Jesus Christ comes to free us from our fear and faithlessness, and to save us. He wraps his arms around us and will never let us go. “I promise,” he says. “I will be with you always. I promise.”
[^1]: (August 8, 2023), https://www.npr.org/2023/08/08/1192663920/southern-baptist-convention-donald-trump- christianity]
[^2]: [Sean Dietrich, “A Kid Named Ben,” (July 31, 2023), https://seandietrich.com/a- kid-named-ben/]