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Golden Calves

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Text: Ex 32:1-14, 30-34

Theme: As Moses interceded for the Israelites, Jesus intercedes for us.

Doctrine: Intercession of Christ

Image: golden calf

Need: set their hearts on other things

Message: give up your golden calves

Golden Calves

Exodus 32:1-14, 30-34


Aaron scanned the camp as people prepared for dinner.  He was still elated over their escape from Egypt, and all the signs and wonders God had used against the Egyptians.  It had been three months and a bit now since they left Egypt, and here they were at Sinai.  They had set up a rather orderly camp, and people were beginning to get the hang of things.  A vast array of tents filled the valley and little white trails of smoke began to pop up everywhere he looked.  Turning from the camp, Aaron looked toward the mountain.  He still trembles when he looks at the mountain, though not like the first time he saw it.  Something scared him awake the morning of the third day of being camped below Mount Sinai.  Since Aaron woke up earlier than most people, it was normally quiet, but this morning there was lots of noise.  Thunder sounded so close that it shook the ground and nearly knocked him off his cot.  He stepped out of his tent and took at look at the mountain.  It was covered in a thick cloud and there was a very loud trumpet blast from somewhere on the mountain.  By now everyone had gotten out of their tents in various orders of disarray, and were staring, mouths open, at the mountain.  Everyone was trembling.  Moses led us all out of the camp to meet with God.  they gathered at the foot of the mountain, extremely curious about what was going on, but filled with dread at such an awesome sight.  As if the thunder and the trumpet weren't enough, suddenly a fire descended on the mountain and smoke began billowing up from it like it was a giant furnace or something.  The trumpet grew louder, and louder, until finally Moses spoke and God answered him.  God called Moses up to the mountain, but warned that none of the people were to go up with him.  That day we made a covenant with God, sealed with the blood of young bulls.  We committed ourselves to doing all that God had said, but who could blame us.  Most of our heads hurt from the noise and the smoke coming from the mountain.  Moses then went up the mountain to talk with God.  He just walked right into that thick cloud, and approached the fiery peak.  Well, that was all quite a while ago now.  Its been almost forty days since that happened. 

Page 1: Israelites make God in an image to their liking.

Since Moses had left Aaron in charge of the people at the base of the mountains things had gone rather well.  The camp had run smoothly, and there had been nothing much to complain about.  Moses had been gone for a long time though, and the people began to get restless.  It was surprising that they so quickly became used to the cloud, fire, and smoke on top of the mountain.  It had seemed so frightening to them the first time it happened that they were all shaking.  But for forty days and nights nothing had happened to them, so they began to discount it and get about the business of life.  Then one morning the people had had enough.  They were sick and tired of waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain.  He had been gone almost as long as he had been their leader, and they wanted something they could see.  They wanted something to lead them.  They were sick of waiting. 

So they all went to Aaron and gathered around him.  “Make us gods who will go before us,” they said.  “We don't know what has happened to Moses.  He left, and put you in charge, didn't he?  Now give us what we want.”  Aaron was now in a very awkward situation.  Did he give into the people's request and go against the law of God which had been given to them only 40 days earlier, or did he oppose them and risk losing his job or even his life.  He remembers some of the disputes the people had with Moses, those didn't end very well.  People usually ended up dying.  So this is what Aaron does.  He demands the gold earrings that the wives, sons and daughters were wearing, all the stuff which they had plundered Egypt for, he demands it be brought to him.  He does this hoping that this will be too much for their vanity to give up.  If they refuse his request then he doesn't have to make the calf, and the people can't blame him.  (Keil and Delitzsch) 

He goes about his work the rest of the day and forgets about the discussion, thinking he has solved his first major obstacle.  Low and behold, at the end of the day, when Aaron returned to his tent he finds that all the people had donated their jewellery, and placed it in a huge heap in front of his tent.  Now he is really stuck.  He had pretended like he was going to give them what they wanted, and now his plan has back fired.  Well, if he turns them down now the whole camp will probably break out against him, so he gives into their demands.  He builds a wooden image of a calf, he melts down all their gold and casts it into sheets.  He then took these sheets of gold and covered the wooden image with it.  When the golden calf was completed, the people gathered around Aaron's tent, eagerly awaiting the unveiling.  Aaron puled the calf out of his tent into the middle of the camp and when the cloth covering the calf is pulled off, the people gasp at the brilliance of the sun glinting off the gold of the idol.  “Here are your gods, who brought you out of Egypt.” 

Aaron himself was somewhat amazed at how the thing had turned out, now that he could see it in the sunshine.  Seeing the reaction of the people, he decided that he had better make sure the people still worshipped the right God.  So he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the LORD, to Yahweh.”  So the next day, all the people got up early, hardly able to contain their enthusiasm.  They remembered the festivals that the Egyptians had to their gods, and this was their opportunity to do the same.  They sacrificed offerings to the calf and they sat down to eat and drink.  Then they got up and engaged in all the immoral acts of the pagans in their worship. 

The people were not satisfied with the recent memory of the events of the Exodus, nor were they satisfied with the incredible fireworks display going off 24/7 on the top of the mountain above them.  They were not satisfied with the words of God which they had received.  They wanted something else.  They wanted to change God into something they could understand, into something they could more easily worship, into something they were more comfortable with.  The Israelites wanted something they could see, something they could feel, to go before them, to lead them, to give them hope and confidence for what lay ahead.  They wanted to have some surety of the future, of what was coming next.  They turned away from the true God who was revealing his glorious presence to them, toward this block of wood covered in gold.  They turned away from the God who had led them out of Egypt, to an inanimate object which could lead them nowhere. 

Meanwhile, at the top of the mountain, God told Moses, “Go down from this mountain, because your people, the people you brought up from Egypt have become corrupt.  They have made an idol, they have sacrificed to it, and they have bowed down to it.  Leave me alone so that I can destroy them.  I will fulfil my promises to Abraham through you, but these people have broken my covenant, and they must pay.  They are a stiff-necked people.  They are stubborn, the refuse to respect my authority. ” 

Page 2: We make God in an image to our liking. 

We too are stubborn, we are obstinate, we are rebellious against the authority of God over our lives.  We like to live our lives as if we could mould God to any image we please.  Some people have problems with thinking about God as a person, and so they think he is some kind of spiritual force which permeates all of existence.  Others have problems thinking about God as a Trinity.  They cannot understand how three can be one, and one can be three, so they claim that Jesus was just a man helped by God, and that the Holy Spirit is really just God.  “There is only one person, not three,” they say.  Various others have difficulties with how God has revealed himself in the scriptures, and so they try to cast God into an image more their liking.  This is very dangerous.  Too often we attach things to God which are not as he has revealed himself.  God has revealed himself to us in the scriptures, and we ought to do all that we can to try to understand him as he has revealed himself, not as we imagine him. 

Just like the Israelites, we want something to go before us, something to tell us of what will happen next, something to give us a way to plan for the future.  Rather than trusting God to provide for our daily needs, we want to know the future.  People are anxious to know what lies ahead, good or ill, and they are willing to pay for predictions.  Palm readers, psychics, numerologists, and other assorted diviners all have devout followings, as do Ouija boards, and even the lowly tea leaves.  Astrology is enjoying an unprecedented boom according to the American Federation of Astrologers: which boasts a thousand active members.  Meanwhile, the gypsy fortune-tellers have been joined by government-sponsored think tanks with names like Rand Corporation and Hudson Institute.  Industry and academia have lent respectability to star-gazing with such organizations as the Commission on the Year 2000, sponsored by the prestigious American Association of Arts and Sciences, and the Institute for the Future, formed by a consortium of companies including Monsanto, Du Pont, and Chase Manhattan.  Abroad, the Club of Rome, the Futuribles of France, and Britain’s Committee on the Next Thirty Years earnestly prognosticate.  Crystal balls have been replaced by computers, and instead of soothsayers making prophecies, we get systems theorists with world models, statistical projections, and extrapolated scenarios.

All these things are designed to go before us into the unknown.  They are designed to give us hope for the future, or at least a method to deal with it.  All of these go against God's command to worry only about today.  We are so wrapped up in next week, in next month, in next year, in the next decade, that we forget to trust God for his daily provision.  When God looks down and sees all that we trust in instead of him, his is shocked and saddened. 

Page 3: Moses interceded for Israelites.

When God told Moses what was going on in the camp, he was shocked too.  How could the people turn away so quickly?  Could they not see the glory of God on the mountain?  Could they not see the smoke?  Did they not tremble 40 days earlier when faced with God's glory?  Did they not promise to do all which the Lord commanded them?  Why had they turned away so quickly?  Now they are trying to worship Yahweh through some calf.  Moses could not understand it, and now God was talking about wiping the whole lot out and starting over with Moses.  Well, he had every right to.  The Israelites had broken his covenant, and he could still keep his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through Moses.   But Moses sought the favour of the Lord.  He tried to get God to change his mind.  He knew what the people deserved, but he wanted God to show mercy. 

Moses noticed how God had called the Israelites his people, Moses's people.  God said, “Your people, who you brought out have Egypt have turned away.”  But Moses wanted to remind God that they were not his people.  He had been very reluctant to go and do what God had asked him to do in the first place.  He did not want to go to Egypt and get the people out.  It was only after much complaining that he finally went.  He says, “Why should you become angry against your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt with great power and might.  You showed the Egyptians many signs and wonders, and forced them to let your people go.  If you destroy them all now, the Egyptians will think that you brought them out with evil intent.  That you wanted to destroy them out in the mountains.  That you are not a good and just God, but an evil vindictive God.  That is what the Egyptians will think of you.  You have already granted the promise to Abraham that his descendants would be numerous, why do you want to start over?  Please God, do not do this.  Do not wipe the people out.”  So God responded to Moses intercession and did not wipe out the people. 

Moses went down the mountain to see what the people had done.  When he and Joshua approached the camp, they were shocked by the sight.  While they were standing in the gate the glint of the sun off the golden calf caught their attention.  They could see the Israelites engaged in all sorts of despicable acts.  They were cavorting around the calf in the middle of the camp, and disgracing themselves to it.  He stormed into the middle of the camp, piled firewood around the idol, and set it on fire.  After the wood of the calf had been burned away, Moses took the gold, he ground it into a fine powder, he spread it out on the water, and made the people drink it.  Doing this, Moses symbolised that the people were responsible for the punishment they would receive.  They were in the wrong, they would be held accountable. 

After this, Moses went back up the mountain to intercede for the Israelites again.  God had agreed not to wipe them all out then and there, but Moses realised the people still had to pay for what they had done.  There were consequences to their sin.  They had now broken the covenant they had with God, and all they could do now was beg for mercy.  Moses pleads with God, “Please God, forgive their sin.  Bring them back into fellowship with you.  Renew your covenant with them.  If you will not do this, then take my life in payment.  If you must punish someone, punish me.” 

“Those who have sinned against me will die,” replied God.  “I will punish them.  Lead the people to the land I have promised you.  When the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them.”  God does not let the people off scot free.  Nor does he accept the offering of Moses to bear their sin on himself.  He knows that Moses cannot do so.  He can't bear his own sinfulness, let alone that of a whole nation.  He is not perfect, and is unable to bear the burden of the Israelites.  But there will come a time when God will punish them.  The time of God's punishment was when Christ died on the cross. 

Moses had offered to bear the burden of Israel's sin, but Christ actually did it.  God came down, became human, to bear the punishment which he required, but no one could bear.  He wanted to have a relationship with his people again.  He wanted to bring them back into his presence, into his love, but he could not do so without fulfilling his justice.  God is perfect love, but his is also perfect justice.  He cannot let evil go unpunished, and so he sent his only son to bear the punishment of Israel's sin. 

Page 4: Jesus intercedes for us.

Jesus bore the punishment of our sin as well.  Though we try to make God into an image which does not fit him, we are forgiven by God, because Christ bears our punishment.  Christ stands in the throne room of God, interceding on our behalf.  The priests of the covenant at Sinai offered intercession for the people with the blood of animals, but Christ offers intercession with his own blood.  As the writer to the Hebrews explains. “Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant. Now there have been many of those priests [of the Sinai covenant], since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.  Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” (Heb 7:22-25) 

See, no matter what we have done, Christ has already born our punishment.  All we have to do is believe that he did so.  All we have to do is recognise our own sinfulness, and accept his offer of payment.  When we try to follow something of our own creation, we fail at following the true God.  When we mix law with gospel, as the Judaizers were doing, we forfeit the free gift of grace, and we are no better than the Israelites who broke the Sinai covenant.  But Christ has provided us with the promise of salvation.  We no longer have to follow the commands and decrees of God in order for him to be our God, and for us to be his people.  We are now God's people because Christ bore the punishment for our guilt. 


Just as the Israelites turned away from the true God by worshipping something they had created to go before them, so too, we turn away from God when we put our hope and trust in something other than God and try to form him into an image of our liking.  But, just as Moses interceded for the Israelites, and God relented from the disaster which the people had brought upon themselves, Christ intercedes for us.  He bore the burden of our guilt so that we are no longer subject to the disaster which we had brought upon ourselves. 

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