The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once to your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a golden calf and worshipping it, sacrificing to it and crying out, ‘This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.'”
Jesus said, “How can you believe, when you accept praise from one another, and do not seek the praise that comes only from God?”
Someone brought a hermit who was a leper some money and said, “Take this to spend, for you are old and ill.” He replied, “Are you going to take me away from Him who has fed me and given me what I need?” He would not accept it.
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There is more here, in the passage from Exodus, then I have seen before. I have always thought of this episode in the history of Israel as a turning away from God, the true God. But they still recognise God’s actions as being the mark of their God. God has forbidden the marking of idols–this is “the way…pointed out to them.” And the temptation to make an idol always seems inscrutable to us. How will that possibly help?
I suppose the question is, what do the Israelites want from their idol? I am not a biblical scholar, but I suspect that the general answer “security” would answer the question. The Israelites have experienced the care of God. They know that God has brought them out of the land of Egypt. So they maintain that this One, the One who has accomplished these things ian the past is their God. So far, so good. But where is God now? And what is Moses up to on that mountain?
Waiting on God’s next move is a difficult process, and it is in the times between those moments of security in God’s providential love that the tempation to fashion a golden calf strikes. We experience a need to know exactly what God will do; we look for some leverage, some way to influence God, so that God will intervene on our behalf—even if that intervention is as simple as one of those small, ordinary graces that reassure us of God’s presence with us.
The trouble is, God is not offered as an object to be known by us, nor is God a big vending machine. We can neither know God completely, so as to know God’s mind or predict God’s next move, nor can we calculate the necessary sum and offer to God the ‘price’ for the miracle we require, big or small. The golden calf, being an object presented for view, offered the Israelites a concrete measure of ‘presence’: Where’s God? Right here. Here is a God we can see, who can ‘hear’ us and ‘receive’ our worship. Idols of this kind are a known quantity: they require sacrifice and worship before they will respond to our petitions.
Idols give us something to do.
Waiting on God is hard. God seems absent, uncaring, or just too busy to bother with us. And yet we need God. As the Psalmist writes, “As the hart longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for thee, O God. / My soul thirsts for God, the living God” (Psalm 42.1). These are the words of a soul in exile, and we often experience the same sense of distance form God on our journey to the new Jerusalem. We want milestones, a map—a GPS, even. How much longer? We want to know, want to navigate, to know how long the wait will be. It’s the Psalmist’s next sentence: “When shall I come and behold the face of God?”
Lent is about the waiting. We know that Jesus has redeemed us, has made the way back to “the face of God” possible for us. And we struggle to believe it. To participate fully in the church’s observance of this penitential season, we concentrate on the waiting, we focus on the suffering that accompanies anticipation, and we hope, gain strength, for all the moments of exile along the way.