The golden calf

Sermon at St James, 15 October 2023

Exodus 32: 1-14

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

The teacher has been called unexpectedly from the classroom and gradually the children start to talk and one or two of them try to fly a dart or two whilst others move about freely. When the cat’s away the mice will play. We’ve all been there.

Is that what was happening in our Old Testament lesson this morning? The Israelites find themselves in no-man’s land, the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan. They have been brought out of abject slavery by Moses, their leader, and he has now decided to go off on his own to seek God’s guidance about what to do next. But he seems to have gone for a long time and the people become restless and argumentative. Moses is on his own in the mountains thinking and praying and the people are working themselves up into a mood that demands some action. Poor old Aaron, Moses’s number two, finds himself having to quell the rebellion.

The people tell Aaron that they wonder if Moses has deserted them – “we do not know what has become of him.” They also decide that they want a god or gods to go before them as they travel. An invisible god is not good enough for them. They want a god to see and feel and worship. So Aaron gives in and to cut the story short he gathers gold rings, gold ornaments and earrings and melts them down to make a golden calf – perhaps not very big and probably a bull calf – and sets up an altar in front of it where the people hold a festival. We are then told of God’s anger and Moses pleading on behalf of his people.

It has always been thought that seeing is believing. People want to see or imagine their god. If God would only appear before me or bring some miracle of healing to take place then I will believe in him. This is entirely natural and we can sympathise with the Israelites. What Aaron does is to give them an image of God which was known throughout the middle east, the image of a bull. The Egyptians worshipped Apis and the local people, the Canaanites, worshipped Baal and both were represented by an image of a bull, a symbol of fertility.

Such was Moses’ anger that he ground the golden calf to powder, scattered it on the water and made the people drink it. You can hear the long lecture of the returning teacher can’t you. I just have to leave you for a few moments and you misbehave like that and I am so disappointed in you – and so on.

Since that time the Jews have never pictured God in any form. After all, the second of the Ten Commandments makes it clear “Thou shalt not make to thyself any graven image”. It would be blasphemy to represent God. Interestingly the Islamic faith many years later has also been adamant about this, but the Christian faith has not been so clear.

Think of that wonderful image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome by Michelangelo of God creating Adam. God is portrayed as a muscular old man with a fluffy beard reaching out from heaven with his fingertip just touching Adam’s. It’s a great picture but at the same time probably a dangerous one because it portrays God as an old man up in the sky. Not helpful.

You may remember a conversation between Jesus and Philip, one of his apostles in John’s gospel. It goes like this. Philip says to Jesus, “Lord show us the Father and we will be satisfied”. Jesus replies “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and yet you still do not know who I am? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”

It is the great joy of our faith that Jesus is the human embodiment of God and is as near as we can get to an image of God. God is spirit, the one who is, the great I am of the universe, beyond our understanding, beyond our knowing and beyond pictures and statues.

We need to remember something which Aaron obviously missed – “God is a spirit and those who worship him should worship him in spirit and in truth”