The Exchange

The Exchange

There is a story in the Old Testament
that some of you may remember from Sunday School
when you were younger.
It’s one of those stories we can miss the point on rather easily
because we are so far removed from its context.
It becomes difficult to relate to just what is happening
and why it really matters.

The story I am thinking about for today
is the story of the Golden Calf.

It begins with Israel being freed from slavery in Egypt.
God had promised Moses that as a sign of God’s faithfulness
when Moses had brought the people out of Egypt,
they would all worship on Mt. Sinai,
where God had spoken to Moses in the burning bush.
So as the children of Israel left Egypt
it was with this very specific destination in mind.

When they arrived at Mt. Sinai,
they didn’t really know what to do.
There was no codified religion yet.
It was a whole lot of doing what they had seen
their ancestors do, and that varied greatly.
So once they arrived,
God began by speaking to the people
and gave them the ten commandments.

Do you all remember the first two commandments?
1. You shall have… no other god’s before me.
and the second?
2. You shall not make for yourselves…. graven images. Right!

The people, having heard the commandments,
agreed to live in them, in covenant with God.
Their religion had begun to have structure.
Aaron was made the high priest.
But the people were terrified
at having heard the voice of God
and elected Moses to be the one
through whom God communicated.

And it turns out that those ten commandments
were just the beginning –
a basic structure of life
that is centered on right relationships with God
and with other people.

But God wanted to give even more shape
to that way of life,
so it wasn’t too long until Moses
was called up to the top of the mountain
and God began to lay out the plans for their faith.

How the tent of meeting would be constructed.
What the holy vessels would be made of.
What the altars would be for,
and what the the Ark of the Covenant was all about.

So God and Moses are up on the mountain,
hashing out all the details –
and then something happens.

You know, how like one minute,
the children are off playing quietly together,
and then the next one of them
is kicking up a fit that rivals the last big thunderstorm?

Well, that happens.
Moses and God are quietly working together,
putting together a system of worship for a nation of priests,
when all of the sudden, the wrath of God is revealed.
And, as the saying goes, all hell breaks loose.

Moses obviously wants to know what is wrong,
and in a thundering fit of temper, God tells him.

Those people at the bottom of the mountain
have already strayed.
They have already showed their infidelity.
Just a few days in, and they have broken the covenant.

See, while Moses and God were up on the mountain,
Aaron was confronted by the people.
Apparently they were getting a bit impatient
waiting for Moses to come back down.

Some thought, perhaps, Moses was gone for good,
and they felt awfully vulnerable out there in the wilderness,
unable to go back, uncertain what the future holds and so they convinced Aaron to “make gods” for them,
in other words, to create an idol they can worship,
a center for their community,
an anchor to hold them together…
And a rather blatant and direct violation
of commandments one and two.

But Aaron did it.
He succumbed to the pressure of the people.
He collected a bunch of gold from them,
and he melted it down and cast it into the form of a calf.

They built an altar
and made animal sacrifices to the golden calf.
And Aaron declared that this image,
made of gold collected from the people
and cast into the image of a beast,
this was the god that brought them up out of Egypt.

The god who had turned water to blood
and sent a plague of locusts
and slaughtered the firstborn of Egypt.

The god who led them in the pillar of cloud
and the pillar of fire.
The god who parted the Red Sea.
Aaron told them that this was the god
who created the universe with a word,
and that word was “Moo!”

I know I’m joking – but God, the real God, God wasn’t.
God was furious… which is understandable.

He’s had enough of this whiny unfaithful mess of a people.
He’s ready to take his toys and go –
so he tells Moses that he is going to destroy the people
and start over with Moses.
Moses will be the father of a great nation.
But Moses doesn’t like that idea.

Moses is sick of these people, too,
but he’s also fought for them.
Or maybe he’s just already invested so much
that he doesn’t want to start over…
but I like to think that it’s because he loves this people,
stiff-necked though they may be, so he intercedes.
He stays God’s hand.
He rushes down the mountain
and destroys the golden calf and saves the day.

It turns out,
that as you study the history of Israel in the scriptures,
you are going to find that this “worshiping other gods thing”
and the “graven images thing” are a normal part of their life.

And for us to truly understand
what this idol worship is about
we need to understand worship, period.

We tend to think of God’s people as unique,
but the thing is, all of the other nations around Israel
were also religious. They also worshiped.

For most of them, though, there was a pantheon of gods.
Coming from Egypt,
the people of Israel would have been acquainted
with Ra and Apophis, with Baal and Nerti, and Seth.

In those cultures,
there were large temples for corporate worship,
but each home also had a personal altar or temple.
A place set aside for what we call “household gods”.

These would be the gods
selected from the pantheon
that were of special importance to the individual family.

And those often took the form of statues, idols,
little knickknacks created by human hands
and worshiped by human beings.
Again, animal sacrifices were made.
Prayers were offered. Time, attention, and care given.
The idol itself revered as divine.

When we think of worship today,
we think of what we are doing here right now.
We have gathered together.
We have sung songs to the one true God.
We have prayed and will continue to pray prayers to God. We have heard God’s word read aloud.
And now we are hearing it preached.
We will, in short order,
partake in a two thousand year old ritual
of sharing bread and cup.
And we will receive a blessing before we part.

That, for the most part,
is what comes to our minds when we think of worship.
And so, we aren’t idolaters right?
We don’t sacrifice animals to statues in our homes.
We don’t sing songs to the sun god.
We don’t acknowledge other divine beings.

But the reality is,
worship is not only about what we do here.
And idolatry goes far beyond worshiping statues.

If we go way back,
all the way back to the beginning.
To the first story of humanity.
Long before Moses and Israel.
Long before the law, before the prophets.

God told the only two people on the planet
to avoid the fruit of the tree of the knowledge
of good and evil, and while we can try to chalk up
the sin of eating the fruit to disobedience,
the reality is,
the temptation they were hit with by the serpent,
was that if they ate the fruit
they would know good and evil and be LIKE GOD.

The very first idol,
the one that began the whole thing,
was not carved of wood or covered in gold,
but rather was humanity deciding that they could be divinity. We don’t need God; we can be like gods ourselves.

When we think of idol worship
as merely sacrificing an animal to a golden calf
or some other carved or created statue,
it is easy to think that idolatry
isn’t a huge problem these days.
But when you consider
all of the other forms idolatry can take…
well, that is a whole different story.

In our most basic understanding
an idol can be anything that we devote our time
and attention to over and above God.

For example,
while I am sure none of us worship our cell phones
in the traditional sense.
i.e. we don’t make burnt offerings to them
or sing hymns of praise to them.

We do take extra special care of them.
We adorn them with fancy cases.
We make sure we have the latest styles.
We make sure to feed them every day,
and check in regularly to make sure
they’re well fed and happy.
Heck, a lot of us don’t even go to sleep without our phones.
We may not call it a god,
or worship it in a building,
but we do devote a lot of time and effort and money to it. And there are a lot of other areas in our lives
that would be in that same category.

Our cars or our motorcycles.
Our fishing boats. Our jobs or careers or callings.
All good things – but not supposed to be “god” things.

Even our families
can become so much a focus of our time and effort
that God, the God we love, the God we trust,
the God who saves us ends up not even taking a back seat,
but riding in the trunk,
or in some cases running to try and catch up with us.

Paul’s letter to the Romans covers a wide range of topics,
but it begins with the problem of idolatry.

It may not be an exaggeration
to say that Romans is one of the most formative
and important books in the New Testament;
Paul’s words here have shaped how we understand God
and Christ and the Christian faith.
Romans has had a profound influence
on the lives of people like Martin Luther
and John Wesley and many, many others.

When we begin studying the letters and books in the bible,
it is important to take note of where the author begins.
This will usually give us a clue
as to the theme and tone of the writing.

Where the writer chooses to start their story
or their instruction will help us to understand
what the rest of the letter is about,
and how it all hangs together.

In the case of Romans,
everything seems to hang on the sin of idolatry.
Listen again to verses 22 and 23:

“Claiming to be wise, they became fools;
and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God
for images resembling a mortal human being
or birds or four footed animals or reptiles.”

As we discussed,
idolatry can take all sorts of different forms
from golden calves to cellphones to our callings,
to our very selves.
It doesn’t really matter what the idol is but THAT it is.
That it exists at all.

We become idolaters
whenever we exchange our relationship
with the immortal God for ANYTHING else.

This happened all the time in ancient Israel,
and it happens all the time today
and if we are to avoid it,
it is important for us to understand why we do it.
Why it is that we so often exchange
the glory of the immortal God
for images that resemble ourselves.

We do it, because following God,
truly worshiping, the one true God, is not an easy endeavor.

It is a constant challenge
to try and understand what God is doing.
It is a constant struggle to place ourselves
wherever God is so that we are working
where God is working.

It requires study and prayer and discipline.
It requires us to listen and be patient.
And those things are hard.
Discipline, becoming a disciple takes time.
It takes effort.

And the return,
what we get in exchange for all of that time and effort
is not always immediate.
In fact, sometimes it takes years of study and practice
to fully realize the benefit.

Thats why people end up with idols.
Idols are easier because they are not real.
They give us a near immediate return on our investment,
like putting a dollar bill into a change machine
and getting 4 quarters back.
Because we are really only investing in ourselves,
in the idol we have made.

We hear people say things like
“I can worship God on the golf course”
or “on a hike in the woods” or “out on my boat”.

Those things, the golf course, the hikes,
the boating excursions, the sporting events on Sundays,
all of them are easy in comparison to being a disciple,
to seeking after God, to chasing after the infinite.

All of those things give us nearly instant satisfaction
for a small amount of effort.
And that feeling of satisfaction,
that instant gratification, becomes our gods, our idols. Because they are easy.

We can even get a sense of how it makes God feel.
For instance have you ever had someone
take an idea of yours and claim it was theirs?
As a way for them to advance
or been seen as better than they are?
How did that make you feel? Probably pretty ticked off, right.

You did the work.
You found the inspiration,
but someone else took the credit.
Someone else is getting the accolades
or the promotion or the glory for your work.

That is merely a taste
of what it must be like for God
to give us this beautiful world,
this strange and wonderful universe,
and have us turn around
and worship ourselves as though we created it,
or to worship another created thing
be it a sports car or an xbox or a golden calf.

Everything in the rest of the letter,
the sin that is spoken of,
the evil that we do to each other, all of it,
stems from our decision to pursue easier gods.
Our decision to walk away from the Creator
and to run towards the creature.

Because as powerful as God is,
as much as God will always be there,
and is always trying to get our attention,
and get us to come back, God doesn’t force the issue.

God allows us to run after the wind.
To worship our little stick figure gods
because eventually, God knows, they will let us down.

They will not be enough.
And we will have to turn around and do the hard work.
We will have to come back to the true and living God.
And accept the challenge of pursuing God’s heart.
Of knowing God and being known by God.

Our culture has not done us any favors.
Everything is instant these days.
Fast food. Instant noodles. Instant coffee.
Movies on demand in our own home theaters
or in our pockets.
We don’t have to wait for anything anymore
and when we do it annoys us to know end.

But friends, discipleship,
getting to know the living and eternal God,
is not something instant.
You cannot get it at a drive-thru
(they always get the order wrong anyway).
You can only get it by doing the hard work.

I am going to assume that many of you
have never been to Annual Conference before.
It is pretty much what you would expect
from a bunch of Methodist pastors and church leaders.
Lots of meetings and talk of hearts strangely warmed.

But there is a dark side to Annual Conference.
There is a single room every year
dedicated to danger
and for many a pastor to an idolatry
that weighs heavy on the soul.

I am speaking of course, about the Cokesbury room.
I’m talking about the Annual Conference bookstore.

A room, with table after table filled with books,
all about theology and methodist-y things.
It is dangerous because
it is all to easy to spend a lot of money there.

In fact, I got a text from Bri yesterday
after she opened up our credit card statement
wanting to know if the figure charged at Cokesbury
was the right one or if they got something wrong.
It was right.
A far smaller figure than in past years…
but still more than enough.

On one of the tables
I saw something that disturbed me though.
A title that I still has me wondering and a bit sad.

For a long time there has been a curriculum called “Disciple”.
It is a long term bible study.
It takes a great deal of time and devotion.
And each section can last a year or more.

Well this year, the book that disturbed me the most,
was a new on from the Disciple family of study materials
called “Disciple Fast Track”.

Now I didn’t buy it.
Nor did I stand at the table and read it.
It is probably a great study resource; they usually are.
And I am sure it is geared for people
that are too busy to commit to the longer term series.

But that is the point. Right?
You cannot do this quickly.
When we try to get to the end as fast as we can,
when we try to get the right feeling
or the right result more quickly,
we are missing the point.
Becoming a disciple, making disciples,
is not accomplished in a 6 week study.
It is practiced over a lifetime.

It is our commitment to follow Jesus.
A commitment that lasts our entire life through.
A commitment we must choose every day.

This week,
I hope that you will take some time
to prayerfully consider what idols might be in your life:
what is it that’s getting in between you and God?

What is it that’s consuming your time
and demanding your energy,
so that your faith gets pushed onto the back burner?

It may be a thing – a hobby – an activity – a worldview –
it may even be that your idol,
the thing you need to let go of,
is your own image of yourself.

Whatever you find that’s getting in your way,
pray that God will help you to put your life
and yourself back in order.

Be intentional about putting God first;
ask yourself, always,
“How does this help me love God?
How does this help me love others as I love myself?”
And if the answer is, it doesn’t –
pray that God will help you let it go.

May God set us free from all of our false idols,
so that we can live fully, full of grace and truth,
full of the love of the God who created us
and loved us first. Amen? Amen.

Romans 1:16-23

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