Our Idols and God’s Mercy

Exodus 32: 1- 35

 

32 1When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” 11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. 15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.” 18 Moses replied: “It is not the sound of victory, it is not the sound of defeat; it is the sound of singing that I hear.” 19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it. 21 He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?” 22 “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” 25 Moses saw that the people were running wild and that Aaron had let them get out of control and so become a laughingstock to their enemies. 26 So he stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him. 27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.” 30 The next day Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses went back to the Lord and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” 33 The Lord replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.” 35 And the Lord struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.

            Let me take a few moments to set the scene before we get into the contents of chapter 32 of Exodus. So, from chapter 25 through chapter 31 Moses has been on the Mountain of God (AKA Mount Sinai) receiving instructions from God. He has received very detailed instructions regarding the design, layout, and construction of the Tabernacle and its contents. The Tabernacle was that mobile temple in the form of a tent that would serve as the meeting place for the Israelites and God as they traveled into the promise land. In chapter 31 God gives Moses the names of those artisans He has gifted to do all the work of building the Tabernacle and then in the second part of that chapter He instructs Moses to set apart one day a week and make it Holy. He calls it the Sabbath day which we have already learned about when we studied the ten commandments.

Now we come to that infamous incident of the Golden Calf. After reading it we ask what is idolatry?

          Is it something that only primitive people like the Israelites thousands of years ago would do? Surely with our modern minds and our understanding of the world, we would not fall for the thinking that an image, formed by the hands of men, could take the place of the almighty God. However, this chapter, especially, gets rid of the prideful thinking that, because we are modern, enlightened, and educated Christians, we would never fall prey to the temptation of idolatry.

 

          So, the first question we need to answer is the basic one. What made the Israelites and us fall into idolatry? I’m going to mention one word that will be our starting point as we look at this episode in the life of God’s chosen people. That word is ‘Insecurity’.

Look at verse 1: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

          The people were becoming anxious. They hadn’t seen Moses for 40 days. They didn’t know what had happened to him. He could be dead for all they knew, crushed under a rockslide or fallen into a crevice. The mountain was rumbling and shaking, fire and smoke were seen on the summit, so anything could have happened to Moses.

          In this heightened state of anxiety, they were probably imagining all sorts of scenarios of what could happen to them without their leader, out here in the wilderness, if they didn’t move out and leave this place. Maybe the Egyptian army would finally catch up to them and wipe them out. Or one of the other nearby nations would attack them. Their water supplies were getting low and they were running out of pasture for their animals. And their young men were getting restless.

          So, they turned to Aaron, their interim leader, and demanded he do something. You can just imagine a mob of people as it says “gathering around” Aaron maybe threatening some kind of rebellion if he didn’t do something or pushing and shoving him and making demands that he solve all their problems. The solution the crowd gave was to make ‘gods’ that would go before them as they moved on from this place. They wanted security in this place that was quickly feeling anything but secure.

          So that is the definition of idolatry. It is the attempt by people to achieve, by their own efforts, security. If I wanted to discover the idols that you have in your life, then I would only need to ask, where do you feel most secure? When you want to feel secure where do you look? When you find yourself in difficult circumstances when your anxiety starts to demand that you find some security, where do you look to find assurance?

          So, let me ask you: Do you look to your bank account balance? Is that what makes you feel secure? Or do you look to your home to your family? Or do you depend on your looks, or your health, or your career, or to your background? Where do you look to feel secure?

          Many people when they are asked what gives you peace of mind? They might answer well I’ve got a secure job or a secure home. These things become our gods. They are as Exodus 32:1 tells us, “the gods that go before us

          Unfortunately, the reality is that these things ultimately cannot deliver security. Are there any really secure jobs? Just ask the many unemployed people around the world who live day by day hand to mouth. The homes that we build will one day be lived in by other people. Money that we have saved in the bank can disappear overnight.

          I remember visiting The Former Soviet Union in 1992. And I heard some people describing what their life was like now that the Soviet Union had collapsed. This is what I heard repeated by many. During Soviet times we had everything we needed: Jobs, money, food, even a place to live. They were all provided by the State. Then one evening we went to bed, and when we woke up the next day, everything was gone. The money in our bank, our jobs at the factory, and we could no longer afford to live in our state-provided apartments. What made the situation worse was that there was no warning! Right up until the end the government had told them everything was going to be fine, don’t worry. Can you imagine the feelings and experience of that kind of insecurity? People were reduced to doing whatever they could to just survive. There was no food in the stores.

          I recall one time when, as we were driving in a car, I saw people cueing up for what seemed like hundreds of metres. When I asked my interpreter what they were cueing up for he answered, “probably bread”. He then told me that, if he saw a line-up of people, he would just join it. He might not even know what was being sold and neither would people in front of him. He just knew that something was, and if he bought it but didn’t need it, then maybe he could trade it for something he did need later.

          So, that is the foundation for idolatry, insecurity. Then as we look at verse 2-5 we will see what is the usual way we express our insecurity. We make compromises and that is what is presented to us here in Exodus 32: 2-5, “Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.”

          Whenever we compromise on God’s Word the result is sin. Now Aaron’s sin here was not breaking the 1st commandment, “You shall have no other God’s before me”. No, his sin was breaking commandment #2, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them”. Because that is what Aaron does here, he presents to the Israelites his picture of God.                                                                                                                   If anything, Aaron was a believer in the One true God. He had been with Moses long enough to know that God was the real deal. So, in his mind, he was not giving the Israelites other gods to follow. Just his own idea of what God looked like. Also notice in verse 5 Aaron announces, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” He was still trying to place the focus of their worship on the One true God who brought His people out of Egypt.

          Unfortunately, Aaron’s compromise resulted in the fashioning of a golden calf. Actually, it probably looked more like a bull as that would have been the symbol of power that the Israelites were familiar with. Then in verse 6, we read that, “So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry”. This all sounds innocent enough. But the Hebrew expression that is translated as ‘revelry’ does not give the image of a party atmosphere but of a wild, drunken, orgy of the sort that was thought, in pagan cultures, to release the power of the god who the idol represented.

 

          What is most revealing about this passage in Exodus is that this type of compromise is not beyond God’s people today. Think about it, the Israelites had just been warned by God, whose presence they had been experiencing since their escape from Egypt, which He brought about. He had just forbidden them through the ten commandments in Exodus 20:4, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them;” There is no ambiguity here, God is very clear, very adamant that, His people should not take part in idolatry. Even after they had pledged themselves to these ten commandments by saying what? do you remember? In Exodus 24:3, “When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the Lord has said we will do.” Even after that, God’s people still compromised.

          The question for us this morning is, ‘is it still possible for Christians to faithlessly turn their backs on God and move into idolatry? Now, I‘m not suggesting that there needs to be wild dancing or orgies in the chapel area or sacrificing to an image of an animal. If we saw that we would quickly recognize it and condemn it as idolatry. No, idolatry in the church today comes in much more subtle forms.

          So, what are some of our idols, some of our substitute gods. And by ‘us’ I mean you and me here this morning. What is it that matters deep down in our hearts? Is it Jesus Christ leading and directing our lives? Or is it a relationship that is lived out in the way we want it rather than the way God wants it. Is it my success or my studies? Or is it my reputation, what others think about me. What is it that matters most to me? What or who is at the centre of my life?

          And what about Christian leaders? We also are not immune to compromise. Just look at Aaron. In verse 24 he gives what is probably the weakest excuse ever for his compromise, “Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”. Here Aaron totally ignores His responsibility to stand for God’s truth. I don’t just mean pastors, although they are certainly included, but I mean anybody in a leadership position who is a Christian. Do we stand for the truth of God always, at all times, no matter what?

          This also applies to me as well. I’m not just pointing my finger at you. I have no reason to do that to anyone specifically here this morning. But God’s Word here in Exodus 32 demands that we take a long hard look at ourselves and consider where our relationship is with the living God.

          The slaughter of 3,000 men by the Levites on the very day of this incident with the Golden Calf illustrates for us the fact that God will judge by His standards of right and wrong. In the teaching of the Old Testament, blessings, as well as judgement, are presented in ways that are very clearly seen.

          Madam Jenny never ceases to remind me that sometimes my sermons are too focused on the “doom and gloom” aspects of the Bible. So, let me say that there are also very many things to encourage us here in this passage. There is good news! Apart from the lesson that we are prone to the failure of compromise when it comes to God’s Word. There is also the teaching on the compassion of God. In the book of Daniel 9:9, we find a short verse which tells us, “The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him;”

          I always find myself asking the question, “How can a Holy God forgive the sin of His very own people who have rebelled against Him? The answer I find here in our passage in verse 13, which is part of Moses prayer to God, seeking, even after all that is happened, to forgive the Israelites and turn away from his anger. Moses prays, “Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky…’”

          Moses makes his appeal to the covenant. Moses is basing his prayer on the fact that God has promised Himself to this people, to take them as His own possession and make atonement for them. That has been the whole point of the instructions for the Tabernacle and the system of sacrifices that it makes possible. Now, look at God’s answer in verse 14, “Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened” This shows us very clearly that God is also a God of compassion. Just as ‘compromise’ is something that we do, ‘having compassion’ is something that God does.

          Now unless we think that Moses changed God’s mind by his prayer, and then find ourselves teaching and believing all sorts of nonsense. This simply reveals that by his prayer, Moses enters deeply into the will of compassion and love that God has for His people. The will of God is always to have mercy and forgiveness because of His covenant. It is not that God needs to be ‘reminded’ of what he has declared, or that He needs to ‘repent’ as some have translated the word that the NIV translates as ‘relent’. That is just human language used to describe God.

          So, what is the truth here? It is this, God is always prepared to put into action another course of events that is different from what His people deserve and that is because of the covenant He has made with them. And we know what that other course of events is when it comes to our sin, our willful disobedience that deserves only God’s anger. Because a substitute for sin has been provided. There is a sinless, perfect saviour Jesus Christ, God the Son, who was crucified for us the righteous for the unrighteous. The One who reconciles us with God. Our God is merciful, He is forgiving even though we have rebelled against Him.

         

          Throughout our sermons on the Book of Exodus, we have seen how the Old Testament applies to us, as God’s Holy infallible Word, even though we are under the new covenant. Jesus Himself said in Luke 24:44, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” There is another verse in the New Testament that teaches us that the Old Testament, as God’s Word, is just as applicable to us today. It is found in the letter of 1 John 2:1, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sinBut if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.

          This incident of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32 is written to remind us that we must not sin. Compromise is something that God’s people can fall into very easily. But if we do sin, if we have compromised, then compassion and mercy is found in God. According to 1 John 2:1 that I just quoted we have an advocate with the father. Jesus Christ the righteous One.

          This chapter in Exodus 32 is a difficult one to hear and apply. Only you know what God has said to you personally and individually through His word today. Maybe He is calling you to repentance. Maybe he is telling you to get rid of some idols in your life. Maybe He is telling you, once again, to let Him be the centre, the Lord of your life.

          I was reminded this week of a debate amongst Christians in the 1980’s and 90’s between two understandings of salvation. The two opposing understandings were called Easy Believism and Lordship Salvation. In summary, the debate was in response to the following questions:

          Is it possible to be a Christian and live a life where you still get to enjoy the pleasures of sin while never seeking to glorify the Lord who died for you? Can you, a sinner, ignore the lordship of Christ but still claim Him as your Savior? Can you pray a “sinner’s prayer” and go about your life as if nothing had happened and still call yourself a “Christian”? Those who believe that salvation was just the acceptance of some facts said “yes”. This was given the term Easy Believism and these people where called Carnal Christians

          On the other side of the debate were the proponents of Lordship Salvation. They countered that if you, a sinner, refuse to repent then you are not saved. Because you cannot cling to your sin and the Savior at the same time. True faith involves a surrender to God therefore you do not have saving faith if you reject Christ’s authority. That is why the gospel requires that a sinner make more than an intellectual decision or repeat a prayer. The true gospel is a call to discipleship. The sheep will follow their Shepherd in submissive obedience.

          I am on the side of those who argue for Lordship Salvation. I say let’s not give unrepentant sinners false hope, but instead declare the whole Word of God: “You must be born again” (John 3:7).

How can I be saved? What do I need to do?
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). God has already done all of the work. All you must do is receive, in faith, the salvation God offers (Ephesians 2:8-9). Fully trust in Jesus alone as the payment for your sins. Believe in Him, and you will not perish (John 3:16). God is offering you salvation as a gift. All you have to do is accept it. Jesus is the way of salvation (John 14:6).

 

          The Word of God here in Exodus 32 is that the Lord our God is merciful, He is forgiving even when we rebel against Him. Having Him as the Lord and following Him alone, as the Lord of our lives, is the only way to banish the uncertainty that we face without Him at the centre.

         

          Let’s Pray: Take a few moments to still your heart and bring your life before God asking Him to search it. Father, you know what is in each one of our hearts, the hurt, the anger, the confusion. Your Word this morning makes it very clear that we like the Israelites are prone to compromise when life is uncertain. We confess that we are always straying from your ways and removing you from the centre of our lives. We thank You that in Christ we have a saviour that offers us mercy and forgiveness. Help those of us who need to make changes in the way we live to let you be the leader of our lives. Give us the resolve to restore you to the centre so that you are truly our Master and Lord. We ask that you may use us as a people who live for your glory. In Jesus name, we pray.