It is said that the Bible is the most-printed and the least-read book of all.
When we do read it, it’s often solely out of a sense of duty. We engage with the Bible in much the same way as we mark Remembrance Day each year: briefly and at a respectful distance. But, like remembrance, there are better reasons for engaging with the Bible’s potted history of God and humanity: we remember the past because it shines a light on our present.
Getting up close and wrestling with the successes and failures of those who have gone before us, and their experiences of God, is not an easy path. But it is the path we’re called to take.
This is illustrated perfectly with the incident of the golden calf in Exodus 32. God had rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and Moses now met with God on top of Mount Sinai, receiving the laws that would define the nation. Meanwhile, the Israelites waited below.
But it turned out there were quite a lot of laws to receive, and the people became restless. They demanded Aaron provide them with gods to follow, which he promptly did: by making a golden calf out of melted down jewellery. The people worshipped the calf, God and Moses got angry, and things got seriously messy.
So what are we to make of this tale? What light does this millennia-old, shameful episode shine on our lives today?
We could think of it as a story about waiting. There are times when we find ourselves waiting for God – having to baton down the hatches or soldier on, waiting on God to answer prayer or to intervene in our lives. Perhaps this is an encouragement not to give up on a faithful God?
We could think of this as a story about returning to old habits. The image of a calf would have reminded the people of Apis – a bull-god worshipped in Egypt, the very land God had rescued the Israelites from. Disappointed with God, the Israelites may have found strange comfort in the idols of their former oppressors. Perhaps this is a warning not to return to a pursuit of money, power, status, popularity, sex – or any of the other modern-day idols we’re called to leave behind?
But I think there’s a subtler message here. If you read the passage closely it’s not so much that the Israelites are giving up on God with the golden calf, but rather that they’re taking matters into their own hands. A close reading of verses 4 and 5 implies that far from believing the golden calf to be an alternative to Yahweh, the one true God, instead they believed that it was Yahweh.
They created an image of God to help them get on with the religious rituals they knew and loved. But in doing so, they substituted God for second best. Moses stood up on the mountaintop surrounded by the holy presence of God, while the people made do with worshipping a cow.
On the mountaintops
It sounds ridiculous, but it’s a trap that’s just as easy for us to fall into today.
As Christians – particularly those of us who have been Christians for a while – we construct our own image of God and what it means to follow him, and then settle down to a familiar pattern of worship. We settle for a golden calf version of God.
The appeal is obvious: this version of God is safe; contained; static; easily understood. He fits neatly into pre-conceived ideas of what ‘religion’ should be like; a pretty little statue sat conveniently on a pedestal somewhere in the landscape of our lives. And so we become complacent – following familiar rituals, showing up to the right meetings, opening God’s word simply out of duty.
But the alternative is to climb up onto the mountaintops alongside Moses. There we find a God who is vast; unexplored; perilous; and powerful. A God whose nature encompasses calm snowy plateaus, sheer rocky cliffs, and vibrant gushing mountain streams. At once solid, unmoving; and yet alive, and ever active. A God of surprises, who took the ultimate step of sending his own son, Jesus, to fix a broken world; and who through a senseless, violent death, reset the whole relationship between God and humankind.
It’s time to get back onto those mountain tops. It’s time to delve back into God’s word, and mine it for fresh revelation. It’s time to take risks again – stepping out for God, trusting in his faithfulness, re-imagining what it means to be His people. It might be with our finances; or bringing God into family life or the work place; it might be drawing a line under destructive habits which bubble below the surface; or resetting our expectations of God in prayer and worship.
If not for our own sake, then for the sake of those around us. Because even if we can’t see how silly the golden calf looks, then others around us will. And they will naturally reject a statue-on-a-pedestal of a God, if that’s the only God anyone seems to be living for. But at the top of the mountain, the true and living God is still there to be discovered.
Just as acts of remembrance must reach out from formality and ceremony and into our present day lives, God cannot simply be held at a distance, respected through the occasional minute or two of silence.
I will not settle for a pale imitation of God. I will pursue him on the mountaintops.
This blog post first appeared as a sermon at the Bullbrook congregation of Warfield Church. For more information visit www.warfield.org.uk