I’m reading through Exodus right now and just got to the Israelites making the golden calf, aka one of the most tragically amusing stories in the Bible.
Can you picture how this happens? Moses is up on Mount Sinai, talking to God, getting a divinely transcribed copy of all the laws the people already agreed to obey—the first and second items on the list being not worshiping idols. So he climbs down from the mountain…and he finds the people worshiping a golden calf. (Full story in Exodus 32.)
“Guys, I was gone for, like, a month! Will someone please explain what happened here?”
And Aaron shuffles forward and blurts out the first thing that comes to mind: “They said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us.’ So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” (That, my friends, is a word-for-word ESV quote. Didn’t even have to exaggerate that one.)
Awkward silence. Moses stares at his brother. Aaron starts to sweat a little. Then Moses Hulk-smashes the Ten Commandments and goes on an idol-destroying rampage that includes a plague, a Levite posse, and making the people eat the ground-up ashes of their own idol. Seriously.
Here’s what we learn from this story, guys (besides the fact that you should never tick Moses off):
Idols don’t just happen.
It’s easy to make fun of Aaron and his whole “I just tossed the gold in and out came a golden calf!” routine. But I do the exact same thing.
“I just made a pan of brownies and set it out in front of me while I watched a movie. Wasn’t expecting to eat so many.”
“I just logged on to Facebook, and whoa, an hour went by and now I don’t have time to do my devotions. How’d that happen?”
“I just decided to bring up that sore topic when I was hungry and tired” “I just clicked on a book blog that sometimes has excerpts of erotica” “I just sent the email while I was angry, just wanted to fit in, just skipped church so I wouldn’t have to be around the people who most want to help me…”
“Who knew it would end so badly?”
You did, Amy. In each of those situations, you absolutely knew. Don’t give yourself—and others and God—the line that your choices just sort of happened. That’s a lie, and a dangerous one.
We make the idols we worship. It’s true of individual temptations like the ones I listed above, and it’s true of the idols we keep coming back to over and over: the approval of others, a position at the top of the corporate ladder, a need for control, perfectly behaved kids and a spotless house, our stuff, our free time, our desires, our dreams.
You don’t just throw your gold earrings into the fire and come out with an idol. You take what is most precious to you and shape it into an idol. It takes deliberate effort on your part, on my part. We give the idols our time, our focus, our attention. We put our hopes on them. We turn to them when we’re at our lowest. We use them to numb pain or distract us or make us feel like we’ve accomplished something meaningful.
It seems like a good idea at the time. But in the end, it’s only ash in our mouths, and we remember that, once—it feels like a long time ago—we promised to worship God alone.
Sometimes, I play the victim card. I blame my personality, my surroundings, my Myers-Briggs type, or my sin nature in general for the things I struggle with. There are ongoing sins that I shrug at and figure I can’t change, and pop-up, occasional sins I pretend were one-time incidents I didn’t really have any control over. That’s as much as a lie as Aaron’s excuse to Moses.
The first step to tearing down idols is calling them what they are and taking ownership for both creating and worshiping them.
The second is valuing God more. It’s keeping your treasures in their proper place instead of melting them down into an idol. It’s honoring the covenant you made to put God first, above anything else, even good things. It’s waiting, during those wilderness times when Moses is up on the mountain and you haven’t heard from God in a while and you wonder if either of them are ever coming back. Waiting in faith. And we can only do that by the grace of God.
Hebrews 12 shows us the very same mountain, with the glory of God at its peak and golden calf at its base, but from a different point of view, one that takes place after the cross: “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest.”
So where have we come?
The passage goes on to say we’ve come to God, to Jesus, who mediates a new covenant that “speaks a better word.”
I never really understood Hebrews 12, or at least, what it meant for my life, until I saw myself and my idols, until I put myself at the foot of the mountain and looked up. Here’s the application: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.”
Idols don’t just happen. And they don’t just go away either. We have to destroy them and replace them with the only one worthy of our worship: God himself.