Looking for Answers in All the Wrong Places

Pastor Kim Gilliland
Pentecost 19
SCRIPTURE: Exodus 32: 1-14
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.”
Exodus 32:4 (NIV)

INTRODUCTION

This morning is Thanksgiving Sunday, a day that we set aside every year to give thanks for all that we are and all that we have. To be honest, most of us – but not all – are blessed abundantly. I know that this Thanksgiving weekend is somewhat different for many families. That’s certainly the case for our clan. Last year was more normal for us. Two of our children live in London, in the same house actually. Our son Andrew and his family live in Charing Cross and our son John lives in Toronto. Last year we all met in London which is half way between Cottam and Toronto so it worked out well. We had a great time together. Everyone brought something and it became a family meal with all eleven of us.

This year is very different. We’ve been asked by the province to modify our behaviour in the wake of the second wave of Covid-19. That means that we can’t all get together. First of all, if we did, that would be at least eleven people which is one more that the ten maximum. And second, because we haven’t been together with Stephen’s family and John since the beginning of Covid and they are simply not part of our bubble. That means that we aren’t all getting together this weekend and our usual boisterous family celebration will be muted.

Are we happy about that? No we aren’t but we also understand the need for such sacrifices and understand that, in the midst of those sacrifices, there is still much for which we can be thankful, even if we sometimes tempted to gripe a little.

AARON’S ACTIONS

It’s always easy to complain about life. It’s always easy to focus on what we want rather than what we have. We have been discovering that reality as we have travelled with the people of Israel from the slavery of Egypt to the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.

You’ll remember that God has already shown himself to be faithful. When they needed safety, God parted the Red Sea and allowed them to escape the army of Pharaoh. When they needed food, God sent manna and quail. When they needed water, God had Moses strike a rock in the desert and water flowed from it, enough to meet the needs of all of the people and their livestock as well.

Today’s story from Exodus 32 finds them at the foot of Mount Sinai at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula. It has been three months since they left Egypt. And the people are starting to grumble again. They haven’t seen Moses for a while. Way back in Exodus 20, Moses ascended Mount Sinai the first time and God gave him the Ten Commandments. He brought these down to the people and told them that these are the general rules that they have to live by. But God called Moses back up to the mountain to give him more details about how to live out the Ten Commandments. That was twelve chapters ago in the book of Exodus. We don’t know how long it was chronologically but it must have been a while because the people are restless. Let’s pick up the story in Exodus 32:1 (NIV) which says, “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.’”

Moses isn’t there so the people grumble to Aaron, Moses’ brother: “So where is your brother? He went up on the mountain and we haven’t seen hide nor hair of him since.” Is Aaron feeling pressure? You bet he is. Moses is the real leader. Aaron is only the second in command and he doesn’t quite know what to do in the face of another potential revolt. And so what he does is try to placate the people by giving them a questionable course of actions. we read about it in Exodus 32:2-4 (NIV):

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.”

What does Aaron do? Rather than being a real leader he caves and gives the people what they want, a false god in the form of a golden calf to guide them. Is this significant? You get it is. You’ll recall that the people have already demonstrated that they still miss some of the things in Egypt and there are more than a few who’d really like to go back where there was lots of food and water and safety too as long as you did what you were told.

This calf is yet another reminder of the “good old days” in Egypt when they were enslaved and oppressed by their Egyptian masters. Once again, Aaron has given them something familiar from Egypt. The calf probably represents the Egyptian bull god Apis who was the primordial god of strength and fertility. When you’re wandering around lost in the desert and your leader climbs up a mountain and hasn’t been seen for a while, a little strength and fertility are not a bad thing. Maybe that accounts for the people’s reaction to the calf. They see it and proclaim that this false idol represented by the golden calf is the god who brought them out of Egypt. The only problem, of course, is that the golden calf had nothing to do with rescuing the people from Egypt. That was God, the very same God who Moses is talking to up on the mountain.

But Aaron sees their reaction. They aren’t complaining anymore and they seem to like the golden calf so he takes it one step further by adding injury to insult. We read about that 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. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.

Aaron builds an altar and makes sacrifices to this new calf god. And then the people sit down, eat, drink and indulge in revelry. By the way, that’s the nice way of saying what they did. A more accurate reading is that they feasted, overate and had a drunken orgy.

GOD’S RESPONSE

God, as you can imagine, is not pleased. His response to all of this in really quite predictable. Exodus 32:7-10 (NIV):

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. 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.”

God is not happy. The people have just received the Ten Commandments. Does anyone know the very first commandment? It is, “You shall have no other gods before me.” They sort of blown that one, haven’t they by setting up this fake golden calf and thinking that it is this thing that brought them out of Egypt. So, what does God do? God tells Moses that he is going to destroy these people but will save Moses and make him into a great nation.

This does not bode well for the people. But then Moses responds to God in Exodus 32:11-14 (NIV):

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? 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. 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.’” Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.

What Moses is basically saying to God is this: I know you’re angry God and you probably have a right to be angry but there is a very good reason why you can’t destroy the people. It’s because you’re God and if you destroy them, then you will be doing exactly the opposite of what you said you’d do. And the Egyptians will know that you are not who you say you are.

That’s a pretty bold statement by Moses since he was talking to the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, eternal God of the universe who created all things. But Moses gets away with it because he’s right. So, God relents and does not destroy the people as he said he would.

ASKING FOR ANSWERS

How does all of this relate to Thanksgiving? It relates very well. Think about what the people of Israel have already received. God has provided them with safety and security. God has provided them with food and water. God has even given the Ten Commandments, the rules to live by. God has given them everything they need for their journey to the Promised Land. You’d think they’d be thankful but are they? I don’t know. It’s hard to tell.

What is clear is that despite all that God has given them, they still want more. What do they want in this story? They want answers. Answers? What do I mean by that? Look at what they do. In this story, their lives are consumed with uncertainty. They don’t know where they are going or where the Promised Land was. They haven’t seen their leader Moses in quite some time. He climbed the mountain and failed to return. The God who has provided for them seemed to be gone with Moses. They are both missing in action.

Their response to this uncertainty is to demand that Aaron become their leader to replace Moses and that his first act of leadership be to create a golden calf to take the place of God who brought them out of Egypt.

It’s understandable in some ways because in times of uncertainty people often seek that which is transcendent. I see it all the times with people going through difficult circumstances. Look at what happens when someone experiences a significant death. I do lots of funerals and while I don’t use funerals to push my faith on others, I also know that it is a time when people are open to discussions about God and spirituality in a way that they often are not at other times. The way I phrase it is that grieving people are in a place where they willing to discuss the ultimate question of life, questions like: “Where is my loved one now and will I ever see them again?” “Is there an afterlife, and if there is, then how do I get there?” “Is there really a God who loves me and how can I be sure of that?” These are the ultimate questions in life, the tough ones that all people eventually ask.

There are other ultimate questions that we ask when looking for answers. What is the purpose of life? What really gives life meaning? Why am I even here? I think that all of ask those questions from time to time. And when we ask them, we’re usually looking for answers.

The people of Israel have good reason to ask those ultimate questions. They are in a new and foreign environment, not at all sure where they are going and uncertain of how to get there. If ever they needed a God, it is now. But God and Moses seem absent. So, in their need for a god, they decide to create their own.

But does anyone think that a golden calf will answer their questions? No, it won’t. In fact, it won’t give them any answers at all. It won’t provide safety and security. It can’t give them food or water. And it certainly doesn’t know the way to the Promised Land. They can bow down to this god as much as they want. They can build an altar to it and offer sacrifices but, ultimately, all of this is for naught. While the people of Israel are looking for answers, all they get is a shiny golden trinket that has no wisdom, no strength and no answers.

Many people in this world are guilty of making the same mistakes as the people of Israel. In times of difficulty and uncertainty, they look for answers in the wrong places. Where do we see that? Clearly, we look for answers in money and so we accumulate wealth. We build up our RRSPs and we invest and pay off our debts. And while those are all good things to do, are we going to find any real answers to life in our money? While it is true that having more money gives us more options in life, money does not provide answers to tough questions.

When money doesn’t work, we look for answers in stuff. And so we spend the money that we’ve saved or we max out our credit cards to purchase things that we hope will provide answers to our questions. But does our stuff do that? No. Stuff is just stuff.

When money and stuff don’t work, we can turn to education. Is education good? Absolutely. And education really can answer a lot of our questions or, at least, it can teach us how to find the answers. But does it offer answers to those ultimate questions? No, because public education is not equipped to even deal with those questions.

When money and stuff and education don’t work we might turn to relationships to answer all of our questions. But while relationships offer lots of positive things in life, if we are asking about the ultimate question in life, we’re best to seek a relationship with the only true God who can answer the ultimate questions.

These are the gods that we make for ourselves. The really silly thing about this is that none of these things are bad. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with wealth or stuff or education or relationship. In fact, all of these are good things but we risk getting into real trouble if we set them up as our gods because, ultimately, they will not answer the ultimate questions and they will not satisfy our deepest longing.

It is in God, the God of the Bible, the one who brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, the one who gave them food to eat and water to drink and rules to live by. It is that same God to whom we turn when we feel like we are lost in the wilderness. He is the one who can guide us. He is the one who will provide for our needs. He is the one who will lead us to the Promised Land if only we will trust and follow him.

But here is something else that we need to understand. While we want answers, just as the people of Israel wanted answers, those answers are not always as forthcoming as we would like. Sometimes God answers our question in a very clear way. But sometimes the answers don’t come. Maybe we’re not ready to hear them. Maybe God knows that now is not the right time to give them. Maybe God knows that we won’t like the answer even if he gave it to us. And maybe, just maybe, God has already provided the answer but we have not opened our eyes wide enough to see or our ears to hear.

Sometimes the answers are not forthcoming and, when that happens we need to learn to be comfortable with the questions. That’s not easy to do in an era where we expect to be able to just Google whatever we want and find the answer. But God is not on Google so the answers to the ultimate questions are not always at our fingertips.

Because they were not comfortable with the question, the people of Israel looked for answers in a god of their own making. The results were not good. Had it not been for some wise intervention by Moses, God may have destroyed Israel and started over with plan B.

They had so much for which to be thankful. God had given them all that they needed to survive and thrive and yet they still found it hard to be thankful.

Let us resist the temptation to be like them. Let us look at the abundance that is around us. Let us thankful for it and let us ask God for the generosity to share it with those who do not have as much so that all of us can have enough.

It is to this God, the one and only God, that we give our thanks and praise.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

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

As we come to Thanksgiving, 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 the family and friends of Oswald Bullock who died this past week. Thank you for his life and thank you that he is reunited with Barb with whom he spent so many years of marriage. Thank you that they are now together for eternity.

We pray for those who are sick or recovering at home or in hospital; especially Richard, Cole, Gary and Bob. Bless them with a special measure of your Healing Spirit.

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.

WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE

October 11, 2020 / Pentecost 19

SCRIPTURE

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

CALL TO WORSHIP

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.

PRAYER OF APPROACH

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.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

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.

ASSURANCE OF PARDON

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.

DEDICATION OF OFFERING

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.

COMMISSIONING

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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