This morning's passages are Exodus 32:1-10 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-22.
Throw Away Your Watch
Both of these passages we read this morning seem a bit grim. The people are severely scolded for idolatry. The Israelites for having made a golden calf while Moses was away, the Corinthians are warned harshly against all sorts of idolatry – RUN AWAY from it, says Paul. It seems like a real change of tone for him. But if we dig in, we can see a glint of hope – the positive piece in this seemingly angry passage of this letter. Verse 6 says to take the folly of those before – their screw ups and punishments as examples. Take their example, he tells the church. You don’t have to learn this all the hard way by falling on your faces. Looking at those before us and how they have fallen into idolatry can be our motivation for avoiding it ourselves. That’s not to say any of us are immune from it, but it’s helpful to see it around us to realize how pervasive it is.
And oddly, it’s in this strange story about the golden calf that we can begin to see the goodness in both of these passages. When we look a little further into Exodus than we read this morning, we read that in spite of their giant goof, the Isralites were still God’s chosen people. There was no way that they could be un-chosen. God didn’t let them off the hook easily for turning away from him in their impatience, but they also didn’t lose their status as God’s special people.
What is it that would cause God’s chosen people to turn to idols anyway?
Paul warns the church in Corinth that the biggest stumbling block is something that in the gospels Jesus calls serving two masters. It’s putting trust in anything that is not God. In the case of the Corinthian church, it was primarily the culture around them. This is something that comes up time and time again in this letter to them. At the heart of the issue, it doesn’t matter if they eat the idol meat or not, but they have to be careful to remember that it holds no power. They have to be mindful that not everyone around them has such an easy time avoiding the idolatry around them.
In the case of Israel, the crux of the problem was good old fashioned impatience that led to fear. The first idol they made was not their Golden Calf, but their own agenda and their own idea of when and how God should do things. Moses said, “OK, guys. Wait here. I’m going to go talk to God, and I’ll be back.” Then he hiked up the mountain and after a while things got a bit antsy in the camp down below. So much for Moses, the people thought. So much for this so-called-God, this great deliverer. “It’s time to take things into our own hands.” So they did.
The people who had been delivered from Egypt by giant, miraculous deeds despaired that they’d been left alone in the wilderness. The people who had seen the sea part for their crossing, then crash back down, crushing the army that pursued them believed that God had abandoned them. The people who had been promised time and time again entry into a great land flowing with milk and honey gave up on God when God’s timing wasn’t quick enough for them. They took matters into their own hands. Unsurprisingly, God was not pleased. It wasn’t just the act of idolatry that upset God. It was that the people didn’t trust God their deliverer, the one who led them through the sea, who guided them by a cloud, who protected them from their pursuers. After all that, they still didn’t trust God when things didn’t happen on their timetable. They were afraid that God had gone and their fear overwhelmed them. So they fashioned a golden security blanket.
I’ve been reading a great deal of fiction this summer. One of the books I just read is an interesting book called, “A. D. 30.” It’s about a Bedouin woman who lives at the time of Jesus. She has a few encounters with Jesus and witnesses a couple of his miracles. Her life is changed by meeting Jesus. But as she goes about on her journeys separate from his actual physical presence, she begins to doubt both Jesus and herself. All through the book, she struggles with fear. Fear of the unknown and fear that there is no god really looking out for her.
A trusted friend she’s traveling with tells her a story about a woman traveling alone in the wilderness. Suddenly, the woman is confronted by a terrible beast that is trying to eat her. She runs from it, but she comes to a cliff and sees no place else to go. She jumps over the edge and grabs on to a vine. Hanging there, over the edge of the cliff, clinging to the vine, the beast cannot reach her. But as she goes to climb further down, she looks into the ravine and sees that at the bottom waits another beast eager to eat her. Glancing up again, she sees two small mice, a black one and a white one, chewing away at the vine. She can’t climb up because of the beast above. She can’t climb down because of the beast below. She can’t stay put because the mice will chew through the vine, sending her plummeting to her death. She begins to panic and can see nothing but the beast below, the beast above, and the mice gnawing away at her lifeline. She prays that God will give her a way out. And God opens her eyes to something she hadn’t seen before. . . right beside her, growing out of the side of the cliff are the most beautiful strawberries she’s ever seen. In spite of the beasts threatening to eat her and the mice chewing away at the vine, she stops and she thanks God for the strawberries and enjoys them.
There is no miraculous salvation at the end of the story. In fact, that’s where it leaves off. The point is that God doesn’t always intervene in our time or in the way we expect. But if we trust God, even when there is no apparent way out, we are free from the fear that leads us to idolatry – which is at its core a lack of trust in God. And freedom from fear, trust in God, leads to the sweet things in the midst of chaos that we might otherwise miss out on. God does not always work the way we expect or want or think that God should work. And in those times and places where God is not working how we expect, we need to let go of our fear, our impatience, whatever we’re focused on – whatever it is that we’re desperately asking God to do in our way – and find the strawberries. Where IS God moving?
Even in our fear and impatience, there is nothing we can do that can make us “unchosen” by God. Which is good, because we all fall into idolatry every day. We trust more in our own timetables and plans and ideas than in God’s timing and plans and suggestions. I think it’s interesting that the 1 Corinthians passage this morning says that God will never allow us to be tempted by more than we can bear. We’re often tempted by more than we want to bear or more than we think we can bear, but never more than we can, because if we are truly trusting in God to handle things for us, then we have to admit that there is nothing too big for God to handle.
So friends, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to play a song and while it’s playing, I want you to pray a prayer of release. The rocks that the kids passed out during the children’s sermon symbolize our fears and insecurities – our idols – this morning. As the song plays and you pray, please just come drop your rock in the basket at the foot of the cross up here. If you’re unable to walk up here all the way, that’s ok. You can send your rock up with someone else. That’s why we have community. Sometimes we need someone else to help us set our burdens down at the feet of Jesus. Sometimes, we just need a friend to help us put down our idols and pick up our cross.
After the song I play is finished, Tim will start playing our next hymn: Be Thou My Vision and then we’ll appropriately move right into our time of spoken prayer together for one another, for our community, and for our friends and loved ones. Let us pray.