"Chasing Idols"
Scripture - Exodus 32:1-14
Sermon preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, November 13, 2016

A colleague (John Vest) loves college football, especially the Southeastern Conference and he shares the first line of a book entitled God and Football. It reads: "Welcome to the American South, where God and football scrimmage daily for the people's hearts and minds."

The book highlights the importance of both football and religion to many Southerners by imagining what conclusions an alien would reach if he visited a college town in the South during football season. On Sunday morning, he would witness people walking into a building with a steeple where some sort of ceremony was occurring. The alien would note that many people mouthed the words to a few songs and then struggled to stay focused while one person spoke for 20 minutes. For the rest of the week, this place would not be on their minds, unless something tragic happened.

On Saturday, the alien would witness something entirely different. People would carefully choose an outfit based on the good fortune it had brought them in the past. They would drive, some for hours, to a place with large brick buildings and connecting sidewalks where some sort of ceremony was scheduled for later in the day. They would eat, drink, and enjoy the company of friends and strangers. Then, at the appointed time, all would enter a colossal shrine and join tens of thousands of similarly dressed and likeminded people. Inside, they would chant and sing until they lost their voices, and afterward they would celebrate as if they were at a wedding reception. After seeing this, what will the alien think? He will think he has found the true religion and convert on the spot.1

What is your true religion? What claims your ultimate allegiance? Who or what is your true God?

We return to the Moses saga, and today's episode is a familiar one. Moses has led the people from the crossing of the sea through the wilderness. Along the way they have encountered life-threatening events, but when they were thirsty, God provided water. When they were hungry, there was manna for meals. Their difficult journey continued until they reach Mount Sinai.

At the mountain, Moses leaves the people at its base while he treks to the summit for a meeting with God. The text indicates that God has descended from heaven and is on the mountain.

The details of the story remind us that it derives from ancient times when people envisioned a simple three-story universe with heaven just above the clouds, earth at the center of the universe and hell below it. Moreover, there is no concept of God permeating every crevice of creation. Rather, God is envisioned as a divine being who generally resides up in heaven but occasionally swoops down to earth to intervene in the natural flow of events.

If we take the details of this story literally, we render it unbelievable and insignificant, a relic of a world that no longer exists. However, if we approach it as historical drama, an account based on historical events but revealing common human experiences,2 we may be able to locate ourselves in the story and hear what we need to hear.

A quick recap of events leading up to this episode reminds us that out of a burning bush, God called Moses to return to Egypt to liberate his fellow Hebrews. Moses did not believe he was capable of such work and did a great deal of whining, but God assured him that he was the one. Like Moses, God calls us and we often respond by searching for a way out. Moses confronted Pharaoh and eventually Pharaoh relented. We, too, must find the courage to confront the Pharaohs of our own lives – especially the powers of greed and injustice. After the Hebrews had seemingly broken free from their slavery, Pharaoh had second thoughts. He gathered his army and pursued the Hebrews so that he might recapture them. We, too, can break free from the habits and thoughts that are killing us, only to discover that they are pursuing us once again. The Hebrews reached the sea with the oppressors bearing down on them. This became a liminal moment, when they crossed the boundary from slavery to freedom, from death to life. We too, face transition points where we can be liberated from demons intent on alienating us from one another and eroding the ties that bind us together.

Today, we wrestle with those moments when our journey toward the promised land is delayed. Such times can feel as if God has abandoned us, and we are tempted to forge our own path apart from God.

Moses has left Aaron in charge while he has hiked up the mountain to meet with God and ascertain guidance for the path forward. Days pass and Moses does not return. Weeks pass and still no sign of their leader.

They begin to wonder what has happened to the one who anchors their connection to God and mediates God's message to them. They begin to murmur: "What's keeping him? Doesn't he care about us? Do you think he might have slipped away in the darkness? Maybe he headed back to his father-in-law to tend sheep and left us here alone. If Moses has deserted us, perhaps God has, too."

There are times when God's presence is palpable. It could be a moment when we are awed by God's creation – a sunset that splatters the sky with salmon-colored clouds or we peer into the Grand Canyon and its vastness overwhelms us. God's Spirit may have blown through you when you were standing beside a hospital bed when a loved one finally opened her eyes after a deep coma. Or maybe God was palpable when a hauntingly beautiful piece of music struck chords deep within you or you held a newborn close to your chest and your face was damp with gratitude. God's love may have overtaken you when a broken relationship was mended or an act of kindness brought peace to someone who believed he was unworthy. God may have whispered to your soul in a fragment of Scripture or a line of a prayer that clarified what you needed to do. Or, moments before a loved one was gone, there were tender words and a soft embrace and God filled you with assurance that all will be well. There are occasions when God seems especially near and we cannot find the words to express our joy.

However, there are other times when God seems very far away. Feelings of insecurity or fear blanket us like a heavy shroud. There are times of disappointment when the fuel gage of our soul is pointing to empty and we become testy and cynical. There are times when sadness penetrates every fiber of our being and we feel weak and vulnerable. This might be what happened to the Hebrew people who gave up hope that Moses would return to them and guide them to a new home. They felt they had lost their link with God, so with the help of Moses' brother Aaron, they created a golden calf.

The Hebrews were not so simple that they worshiped an inanimate object fashioned with their own hands. The golden calf was a symbol of a god worshiped by the Egyptians. It represents their new choice of gods. Moses and the God who liberated them from slavery were fine for a time, but now that Moses has not returned and God seems absent, they switch their allegiance.

I fear the same can be true of us. When we do not feel close to God, we are susceptible to substitute gods: entertainment to distract us, glittering new possessions to cheer us, stock portfolios to reassure us. Of course, there is nothing wrong with these things in themselves; it is when they edge out God that trouble brews.

After the Hebrews have their hand-crafted idol, their behavior disintegrates and God erupts. God has just recently given them the 10 Commandments plus additional laws, and they have already broken the first two – have no other gods and make no idols.

The commandments are not given so that the people can be punished when they fail to uphold them, but rather to provide them with guidelines for living together. Before they reach their destination, they must learn how to foster a just and equitable community. They cannot steal, kill, lie, or covet. It cannot be every man for himself, or they will never achieve the kind of community God wants them to become.

Our passage includes a heated and somewhat amusing exchange between God and Moses. When God sees the idol and how the people are behaving, God says to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have been quick to turn away from the way that I commanded them...I have seen how stiff-necked these people are. Let me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them."

Moses responds, "Why does your wrath burn hot against your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt?" Then, Moses must convince God that it would be disastrous PR if God annihilated the people after liberating them.

Please do not take this comical exchange between God and Moses literally. It would reduce the Creator of the Cosmos to a petty deity who has anger management issues. It would portray God as an unforgiving judge who is far less understanding than the average human parent, and it would undermine the divine message that God liberates the oppressed. The point of this exchange is that God becomes exasperated when we fail to live as God has shown us.

This is a timeless message, but in the shadow of one of the ugliest presidential elections in history, it needs to be on the front burner with people of faith. Have we turned not only football, but also politics, into a religion?

Your candidate may have won or your candidate may have lost, but whether you are feeling elated or distraught, the campaign took a heavy toll. Our nation is sharply divided. One candidate won the Electoral College, the other received the most votes. Many are so angry they want to fight ill-will with more ill-will.

People of faith are called to oppose mean-spiritedness with kindness. We are called to oppose prejudice with acceptance. We are called to oppose disdain with respect, dishonesty with truth, and hostility with love.

We must resist the temptation to believe that we are totally virtuous and our opponents fully corrupt. We must fiercely oppose injustice for all people. We must strive for peaceful solutions, and for what is right – not in the eyes of one political party or another – but what is right and true and good in the eyes of God.

It will not be easy, but that cannot deter us. In every age, following the path of God has been challenging. As a nation, we have an enormous challenge. As citizens not only of our nation, but also God's kingdom, how will you respond?


  1. John Vest, "American Idols," July 29, 2012.
  2. Bernard Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1966), p.16.


Prayers of the People ~ Dr. Jones

Loving God, we come to you in prayer to remind ourselves that YOU are the Creator of heaven and earth and we are not. You are the source of energy that makes life possible, and you are the Spirit that sheds light in darkness.

Living Lord, we have ended one of the most rancorous elections in the history of our country. There are deep wounds, sharp divisions and profound distrust among the people of our nation. Help us to find common ground with those with whom we disagree so that we may work for the common good.

Gracious God, forgive us for thinking we can elevate our stature by looking at others with contempt. Free us from the temptation to cast dispersions on people of a different race, or a lower economic bracket or another religion or a different sexual orientation. Remind us that we draw closer to you when we respect one another, when we encourage one another and when we work not for individual gain at the expense of others, but rather when we throw our efforts into spreading your kingdom of compassion on earth.

Deeply caring God, you challenge us to become aware of and to care for the vulnerable and those who suffer. Forgive us for the times we are timid and lose faith in our ability to fulfill the mission you give us. When our light dims, we pray that you will inspire us to become beacons of light for a country turned cynical. God, we pray that you will create in us a deep desire to turn from selfishness to generosity, from bitter words to kindness, from revenge to forgiveness, from indifference to caring and from strife to peace.

Everlasting God, we pray that in following Christ, you will fill us with your passion for justice and your compassion for others, so that we may respond to the needs we encounter with a Christ-like spirit. Inspire us to be a friend to someone who is lonely. Empower us to share the weight of one who is suffering. Prompt us to be forgiving to one who has wronged us. Embolden us to resist prejudice and talk that demeans others. Help us to improve conditions for the hungry, the homeless, and the oppressed. Motivate us to preserve your creation for those who come after us.

Loving God, you have told us through the Scriptures that we do not exist for ourselves, but for the world. Help us to be agents of healing and guide us to the ways that we may use our strengths to promote health, wholeness and peace.

Now, hear us as we pray the prayer Christ taught us to pray together, saying, "Our Father..."