For Anyone Making Excuses for Sin

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.)

It wasn't the Wall Street one. But it could have looked like it, right?

Okay, it wasn’t the Wall Street one. But it could have looked like it, right?

“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.

9 comments

  1. Yes, “our God is a consuming fire”, a fearsome and terrible God.

    But our lectionary passage this morning for this morning shows us Moses’s first encounter with this ferocious blaze that is the living God: “and yet the bush was not consumed.”

    I want to take comfort from this reminder, and from what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians: We will not be tempted beyond what we can endure, because “God is faithful … and will offer us a way out.”

    Alas, in the Gospel reading for this morning (the parable of the fig tree from Luke), Jesus warns us that the “way out” may be seem even worse: to have our roots dug up, and to have, er, “manure” dumped on us for a year.

    And the good Lord knows that’s about as an accurate a description as I can think of for my last year or so.

    If I had been given the choice, I think I would have picked the consuming fire…

    (Sorry for the long digression. That’s what happens when you insist on posting such thought-provoking essays)

    1. It was a very interesting digression, so no need for apologies! 🙂 I agree that almost any promise for the Christian life, like a way out of temptation, doesn’t always work out the way we’d like, since the end goal isn’t our happiness. Even though I know that in my head, I will still grumble my way through it sometimes.

  2. Wonderfully said! Taking responsibility instead of excusing “it just happened” choices is a big thing in the journey of life, and really helps to get your further along. Of course, it’s terribly difficult, and no one wants to hear it said, ha ha. Anyway, great post. 🙂

  3. Heh. That line about blaming your personality… your Myers-Briggs type… yeah, I totally know what you’re talking about. I admit that it became an idol at one point. I had to be the best ISTJ, the most “textbook” case, to the neglect of God’s commands to love others sacrificially or to be hospitable. But having any ideal other than Christ Himself is just another form of idolatry! Thanks for a thoughtful reminder of that.

    1. You’re welcome, Elizabeth! I find personality tests only helpful for where they point out weaknesses I need to work on. Otherwise I can focus on how great they tell me I am! 🙂

  4. I just finished “Shadow of the Storm” yesterday for Bethany House and was blown away by the details of this story that I had either forgotten or never knew. Fascinating, to say the least, but also humbling. We all make our own “idols”, don’t we?

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