Facing Our Sacred Cows

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Pentecost 19/Proper 23
SCRIPTURE: Psalm 106: 1-6, 19-23 and Exodus 32: 1-14
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go down, because your people who you brought 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.”
Exodus 32: 7-8a (NIV)


Here we are at week five of our forty days of promise. We are, of course, mirroring the experience of the people of Israel as they made their forty year journey from the slavery of Egypt to the Promised Land. And each week as we travel with them we learn something more about what it means to trust God.

So let’s start with a bit of a review. In week one, the people thanked God for bringing them out of Egypt and placing them in the relative safety of the wilderness. In week two the people started to complain because they had no food. So God provided food in the form of manna and quails. In week three, the leadership complained because the people had no water. So God led Moses and the elders to a rock which provided water for the people and their livestock. Last week God gave the people the Ten Commandments and also gave them a great display of his power with thunder and lighting, trumpets adn smoke which is called a theophany. This showed the people that God was serious. Don’t toy with God. God gave them rules that they were expected to follow.

That was back in Exodus 20. Today we read from Exodus 32. So what happened in the intervening twelve chapters? First of all, the people didn’t go anywhere. They are still at the base of Mount Sinai where they were last week. Near the end of Exodus 20 after Moses gave the people the Ten Commandments, God called Moses back up onto the mountain because there were a lot more things that Moses needed to know. That’s what happens in the next twelve chapters. God gives Moses all of the other instructions that he expects the people to observe. There are instructions about property, social responsibility, Sabbath laws, when and how to celebrate festivals, how to make offerings, how to build the temple and it’s furnishings. There are instructions about the priesthood, what they are to wear and what they are to do. All of those little details are spelled out by God to Moses who is on the mountain all this time.

How long was Moses up there? We don’t know exactly but we know it must been quite some time because, all I can say is, “Holy cow, did the people are about to blow it in a big way.” Listen to what it says in Exodus 32:1 (NIV). The people are speaking to Aaron, Moses’ brother, who has been left in charge of the people while Moses is up on the mountain talking with God. “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 out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” They don’t know what has happened to Moses so they decide to take things into their own hands.

But they are making two crucial mistakes. The first one is when they asked Aaron to make them some gods. Do you recall what happened last week? Last week, God gave the people the Ten Commandments and then basically told them that he was quite serious about and not to fool around. Those commandments were to be kept or there were consequences to be paid.

Now do you recall the very first commandment? It says this: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 (NIV)). How does that fit with, “Aaron, we don’t know what’s happened to Moses so why not just make us some other gods”? It doesn’t fit. These people are so quick to forget. They were told that they were supposed to have no other gods before God and the very first thing we hear about them when Moses goes back up the mountain is that they want other gods. So, they break the first commandment.

Do you remember the second commandments? Here it is from Exodus 20:4-5a (NIV): “You shall not make for yourself an idol 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.” How does that fit with, “Aaron, we don’t know what happened to Moses so why not just make us some other gods?” Again, it doesn’t fit at all. The second commandment says to not make any things that are supposed to represent gods. But that’s exactly what the people are asking Aaron to do. They are asking him to make an image of something – that’s what an idol is – precisely because they want to bow down to worship it. That’s why people make idols, to worship them. So not only are the people breaking the first commandment, they are also breaking the second and they haven’t yet even moved away from the foot of the Mount Sinai. This is not good.

That’s the people’s first big mistake. They are already breaking the commandments. That is so obvious. Their second big mistake is more subtle but just as bad. We discover it in the last part of verse 1 which says, “As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” Do you see the problem? It’s actually in the first part of that sentence: As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt… Stop there. Who brought the people out of Egypt? Was it Moses? Did he bring them up out of Egypt? Of course, he didn’t. God did. Moses had a part in it in that he was the instrument that God used to fulfill his purpose. Moses didn’t do it. How could have done it? For those who may not know the story, a bunch of things happened that eventually caused Pharaoh to let the people go. They are called the ten plagues. One of them was frogs, frogs everywhere. Frogs in your kitchen, frogs in your bathroom. Frogs in your chariots and in you cloth closet. Then the same thing happened with ghats and flies. Bugs everywhere. And then the locusts came and ate all the crops but pharaoh would still not let the people go. Could Moses have done those things? Of course not. Then there was hail and then everyone got boils. Did Moses do that? No. Moses could also not cause the darkness that covered the land. And he could not have killed all the first born of every family on the same night during the Passover. Moses did not do any of it because he couldn’t but God could. We have to be clear that God did these things, not Moses because only God could do them.

That’s the problem with the people thinking that Moses brought them out of Egypt. They had forgotten God’s role in their deliverance from slavery so very quickly.

That’s a good reminder for us. It’s important to remember the role that God plays in our lives to set us free when no one else can. God may use other people to do it. Others may listen to God’s voice and obediently do what God calls them to do – just like Moses did – but never forget God’s role in your life. For as we read in 1 Corinthians 3:7, one person plants the seeds and another person waters them but it is God who makes them grow.


So what happens next? Let’s find out. Exodus 32:2-4 (NIV) says this:

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 he said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.”

This is so wrong on so many levels. Do you remember the first two commandments that the people wanted to break; not to put any gods before God and not to make any images and bow down to worship them? Not only did the people ask Aaron, Moses’ brother, to do this, he actually did it. He gathered gold from all the people. He collected their earrings and cast them in the shape of a calf. We don’t know how big the calf is because we don’t know how it was made. We know that there was a decent quantity of gold involved since there were six hundred clans of people offering their earrings. But we don’t know if it was solid gold – which would have meant that it was still pretty small – or whether it was made of something else and then gold plated which would mean that it could be much larger. But the point is that, large or small, it was supposed to represent the gods who brought the people out of Egypt.

One good question is this: Why did Aaron agree to all of this? There’s a simple answer to that question. It was just easier. I think he was just tired of fighting with the people over every little thing and he didn’t have enough confidence in his own leadership and so he gave in and did what they wanted him to do. It was just easier. That provides a warning to leaders in the church. We need to resist the temptation to do what the people want us to do just because it’s easier. We need to lead the people to do the right things even if that way is harder and even if it sometimes creates opposition. Aaron would eventually get there but he wasn’t there yet in Exodus 32. He still didn’t trust God enough.

But the story continues in Exodus 32:5-6 (NIV):

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. Afterwards they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

It’s getting worse, isn’t it? Aaron now builds an altar and announces that there be a festival to the LORD the very next day. This raises an interesting point that we can miss if we don’t pause. Who is the festival supposed to be for? It’s for the LORD. Who is the LORD? The LORD is God. Which brings us to a rather odd conclusion. Who is the calf supposed to represent? It is supposed to represent God. But who said that God looked like a calf? When you think about God, isn’t cow the very first image that comes to your mind? Of course it’s not. None of us think that God looks like a cow.

So why did Aaron make a calf? The answer is that that’s what the people would recognize. Remember that they had just come out of Egypt where they had lived their whole lives. They were very used to Egyptian ways and customs. They also knew that one of the primary gods in the Egyptian pantheon of gods was a god named Apis. Guess what the Egyptians used to as an image of Apis? An ox or, if it was a young ox, a calf. The calf was what the people would recognize as a god and so Aaron gave them a calf.

And the people worshipped it. They got up early and sacrificed burnt offerings to the calf and then they had a big party. And they were all happy except that they had broken the first two commandments. Remember also something else that we said last week. We said that God knows all, sees all, hears all which means that God would certainly have known what was going on at the foot of Mount Sinai while he was giving Moses the rest of the laws for the people.


And now comes what in my opinion is the strangest verse in the Bible. Exodus 32:7 (NIV) says this: “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down, because your people, whom you brought out of Egypt, have become corrupt.’” Do you see the irony in this sentence? Up until now, every time God had talked about Israel, he referred to them as his people whom he brought out of Egypt. But now, all of a sudden, they are Moses’ people whom Moses brought out of Egypt.

What’s going on here? On one level, we could say God is getting frustrated. After all that God has done, after rescuing them through the Red Sea, after giving them manna and quails when they had no food, after giving them water from a rock when they had no water, after giving them the Ten Commandments when they had no direction, they still turned away from God and did their own thing the moment things didn’t go quite the way they thought they should. God had done everything for them, he had provided for all of their needs and still they did not trust him. So God seems frustrated, almost angry, almost as though he doesn’t want to have anything more to do with them. They just aren’t getting it. No matter what God does, they still will not trust him. So from our standpoint, God seems frustrated which isn’t exactly the image of what think God should be like.

But that’s not it. God isn’t frustrated. As we shall see in a few moments, God is actually testing Moses one more time to see if he is the leader God needs him to be to take the people to the Promised Land. In fact, he is challenging Moses to trust him even when the people don’t because that is the leader that God needs him to be. We will see this as the story continues in Exodus 32:8-10 (NIV):

“… 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, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.” “I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 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.”

What God is doing here is calling a spade a spade. Remember that God knows what’s going on at the foot of the mountain because God is all seeing and all knowing. But Moses doesn’t know. He’s only human. So God is letting him know. And then God does something interesting. He threatens to destroy the very same people whom he has just brought out of Egypt. After everything he has done for them, after bringing them this far and supplying all of their needs God tells Moses that he’s thinking of destroying them and replacing them with Moses and his descendants because they are a stiff-necked people and just aren’t getting it. Time for a change.


How is Moses, the leader of the people, going to respond to this? The people have turned away from God. They have sinned and broken two of the commandments. Moses’ brother Aaron in complicit in the sins of the nation. God sounds frustrated and things are hanging on the edge and Moses is the only one standing between the people and their annihilation. All of the pressure is on him and, as the leader of the people, how he responds is vitally important.

Let’s hear what he says in Exodus 32:11 (NIV):

But Moses sought the favour of the LORD his God. “O LORD,” he said, “why should you anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?”

Right here, Moses is beginning to turn the tide. The first thing he does is correct God. God had said that Israel was Moses’ people whom Moses brought out of Egypt. But Moses corrects God. “No,” he says, “They aren’t my people whom I brought out of Egypt. I couldn’t do that. But you could. They are your people whom you brought out of Egypt.”

Moses has just passed the test. He has seen through what God said to him and responded with the right answer: “No God, they aren’t my people; they’re yours. And no I did not bring them out of Egypt; you did.” The point of this was not to discover if God knew the truth. The point was did Moses know it. He did.

But then Moses continues in Exodus 32:12-13 (NIV):

Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill then 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. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Jacob 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.”

This is very interesting because you know what Moses has just done? He has said, “You can’t do that God. You can’t destroy the people.” And his rational for challenging God is really quite intriguing. What he’s saying is, “You can’t do that God – why? – because you’re God.”

Ingenious, is it not? And Moses is also quite right. God has already said that he will save the people. He will guide them to the Promised Land. But if he destroys them, he would be going against everything he previously pledged to do. What would become of God’s promise to make Israel into a great nation? And just imagine how the Egyptians would laugh when they learned that God had destroyed the very people he had promised to save. Then who would trust God? One of the main reasons for the Exodus journey was so that the people would learn to trust God. But if God than turns around and undoes everything that he said he was going to do, than God would show that he is not trustworthy. But Moses has learned to trust God. In fact, he trusts God so much that he trust God to not do what God has just said he was going to do. The people may not be getting it as they make their golden calf and worship it but Moses gets it. He has come to a place of trust in God and he has passed God’s test.

Here is the result. Exodus 32:14 (NIV) says, “Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” It worked. God did not destroy the people. It’s not that they are going to bear the consequences of their sin. They will but they will not be destroyed and they will eventually enter the Promised Land as the people of Israel, God’s Chosen People.

There are two lessons here. The first one is that the leaders of the people have to be willing to trust God. That does not mean that everything will always be rosy and there will never be any problems. But it does mean that God is faithful and God is trustworthy and that even when we don’t know where things are going, God does. The leaders are called to lead the people away from their sin and to bring them back in line with the ministry that God has called us corporately to do and lives that we are called to live individually.

Here’s the second lesson. Sometimes God tests us just like God tested Moses. There are times – and we don’t like to think about this – when God backs us into a corner. The purpose is not to push us away but rather it is to bring us closer, to see if we are the people that God has called us to be. It is in those times when we often grow in faith and truly learn to trust God because sometimes in those times, that is all that is left to us. It is when we realize that on our own we cannot make the changes that we know need to be made. We cannot do the things that we know need to be done. We cannot say the things that we know need to be said. Those are the very times when we make the leaps of faith that we need to make if we are to be the people that God has created and called us to be. It is in those times when we learn to trust God in the fullest sense.


God of the Ages, hear our prayers. Look upon us with your eternal love and remind us our your constant presence.

As we come, we offer our thanks. The fields are being gleaned the gardens gathered, the harvest is coming in for another year. We give thanks that we have enough to eat. We thank you for plentiful food and grocery stores. We give thanks for farmers and processors and transportation. We give thanks for the great variety of foods that we enjoy every day. By them, you feed our bodies and fuel our missions for your Kingdom.

We offer our thanks for our other blessings. For freedom and peace, warm homes and affordable clothing, family and friendship. If we were to count our blessings, we would spend all day remembering what you have done for us. Perhaps on this day, we will be reminded that all things come from you. Perhaps as we use an article of clothing, a piece of furniture, or an electrical appliance, we will remember to offer thanks for the abundant resources of your Creation. In the midst of our thanks, we are keenly aware that there are those who do not have enough. Turn us around as individuals, as a church and as a community, that all people may share in what you have given to your children.

We pray for those who are sick at home or in hospital, especially for Sharon, Millicent, Jacqui, Don, Helen and Lou-Anne. Bless them with a special measure of your Healing Spirit.

Be with us as nation as we seek to do your will. There is so much turmoil in the world with threats and violence and the divisions caused by identity politics. We ask that you would work through all of the O God to bring unity and peace this this the world of your creating.

Finally, we pray for ourselves, tossed by the winds of change, inspired by the acts of kindness shown by others, encouraged to share your Good News, enlivened by your love. What more can we ask then what we already have? You are a Great and Awesome God and into your hands, we commit and recommit our lives in Jesus’ name. Amen.


October 15, 2017 / Pentecost 19 / Proper 23


Exodus 32:1–14; Psalm 106:1–6, 19–23; Isaiah 25:1–9; Matthew 22:1–14; Philippians 4:1–9


ONE:         Give thanks to God for God is good!

ALL:         God’s love endures forever!

ONE:         Give thanks to God for God is good!

ALL:         Let us lift our voices in praise!

ONE:         Come, let us give thanks for the gifts that we have been given.

ALL:         Let us come and worship God.


Loving God, we gather to worship and offer our praise. You are good and your love truly does last forever. In our weakness, you make us strong. In our moments of fear, you give us courage. You replace our doubt with a faith that can move mountains. How great and holy you are, O God of Creation. Your works are wonderful and your blessings are abundant. We praise your name and give you glory.


Merciful God, forgive us when we forget your goodness. When we try to take matters into our own hands, remind us of our sinfulness. When we try to control our own future, remind us that you alone know what tomorrow brings. When we turn away from serving you, turn us back to serve others. Thank you that in the midst of our sinfulness, your love and forgiveness abound. In Jesus, our Brother, we are able to walk by your side.


Give thanks to God, for God is good! God’s love endures forever! It is a love that transcends the darkness of our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Be assured that through faith in Christ, we are one with God.


We offer our thanks for your many blessings to us. May our tithes and our lives invite others to your Table where both gifts and burdens are laid down, in Jesus’ name.


Give thanks to God for God is good. God’s love endures forever. Let us share that love with those whom we meet. May our lives be an example of the Good News working within us.

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