The Nineteenth Sunday after the Pentecost; Year A
[Texts: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14]
That Sounds Like a Load of Bull
Please pray with me:
O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thee. Amen.
I can always tell when Megan is watching one of her cooking shows,
even if I’m in the other room,
because she yells at the TV like most people do during a football game.
Someone’s biscuits are burning,
or they’ve left an ingredient out,
or they’re going to attempt to make a risotto in twenty minutes.
(I’m not entirely clear on what risotto is, but I’ve heard Megan yell about it enough times to know that you can’t make one in twenty minutes.)
I think the reason she gets so worked up
is because she’s watching someone do something really, really stupid–
something with potentially dire consequences–
and there is nothing she can do about it.
It’s like when you watch those movies where the house is clearly haunted
but of course the idiot characters insist on going inside anyway,
“just to check it out”.
That’s how I felt this week as I was reading through our text from Exodus.
I wanted to jump out of my chair and yell at Aaron and the Israelites.
I mean, come on. Seriously?
Moses leaves them unattended for a couple of hours
and by the time he gets back,
They’ve built this giant golden thing
and they’re worshiping it.
You just can’t take these people anywhere.
The giant golden thing, by the way, is usually referred to as a golden calf.
But the word in Hebrew– עֵגֶּל (ay-GHELL)– means something closer to bull.
When it does refer to a calf, it means a male calf who’s really close to being fully grown.
So, for all intents and purposes, “bull” might be a better translation.
This thing is a golden bull.
Which led me to wonder… why a bull?
There are a couple of plausible explanations.
For example, fertility gods were common in the Ancient Near East.
Just about every culture had at least one,
often represented by a cow or bull.
They may have even gotten the idea from the Egyptians.
They have a major goddess, Hathor, who is often represented as a cow.
Her son, Hapis, represented by a bull, is a fertility god.
If you were looking to hedge your bets with the gods
as a small, struggling nation looking to populate this land you’ve been promised,
it makes sense that you’d want a fertility god on your side.
Then there’s Aaron’s explanation.
Aaron, as you might recall, is Moses’s biological brother.
(He had an older brother named Aaron and an older sister named Miriam.)
Aaron was left in charge of the group while Moses went up on the mountain,
and when he was questioned about the bull,
he explained that, when he melted down all the gold,
the statue just came out of the fire that way.
If you’ll pardon the pun, that sounds like a bunch of bull.
I have my own theory as to why they chose a bull.
I think it’s because bulls look powerful.
I think it’s because bulls look powerful, but at the same time, they’re not wild animals.
Bulls– cows in general– are domesticated. They’re farm animals.
You can train them to do things for you.
You can put a nose ring in their noses and lead them around by it.
You can hitch them up to a plow and they’ll pull it.
Cows may be physically powerful, but they aren’t very smart.
And they’re tame.
I think this is what the Israelites were looking for in a deity:
something that looks cool,
and is theoretically very strong,
but tends to behave in pretty predictable ways,
doesn’t mind being domesticated,
and doesn’t give them any lip when they try and tell it what to do.
And if that’s what they’re looking for, they’ve made a covenant with the wrong deity.
Because that, my sisters and brothers, is not the God of Abraham.
If that’s what we’re looking for, we’re in trouble, too.
I am reminded of the scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by the brilliant Anglican theologian C. S. Lewis,
when Susan, the older sister, asks Mr. Beaver about Aslan, the character who represents Jesus in the story.
Susan had heard a little about Aslan, she had mistakenly assumed he must be a human being.
Mr. Beaver corrects her, telling her Aslan is not a man but a lion– the great lion.
This worries Susan. She says, “Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
To this, Mr. Beaver responds:
“Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King.”
And so it is with our God.
We worship a God who is a lot of things:
(Just to name a few.)
But our God is not tame.
Our God is not safe.
And, in dealing with our God,
we are not in control.
I think this is why idolatry– worshiping things of our own making– can be so appealing.
We want security.
We want to call the shots.
We want to be in charge.
We want to know that God is going to love us and protect us, sure,
but we also want to be sure He isn’t going to do anything too crazy,
like ask us to do things we aren’t comfortable with,
or give up things that make us feel safe,
or leave behind familiar places,
or make any real sacrifices at all.
We love the idea of a God who would go to Calvary for us,
but we freak out when He tells us to take up our cross and lay down our lives for each other.
We want a safe God.
We want a tame God.
And so often, we find things that are safe, and tame, and predictable,
and put our trust in those things instead.
Here’s the problem with that:
A god who never did anything unpredictable
wouldn’t have parted the seas.
A god who always made sense
wouldn’t have been born of a Virgin.
A god who played by our rules
wouldn’t have been crucified.
A god without the power to surprise us
wouldn’t have risen from the dead.
A god who isn’t wild and untameable
wouldn’t be God.
Plain and simple.
We are human beings, designed with free will.
We can put our trust in whatever we like.
We can worship whatever we like.
But if we do resign ourselves to worshiping something safe,
something we can domesticate,
something that fits neatly into a box of our own making,
we can rest assured that whatever we’re worshiping isn’t God.
Whenever we put God in a box,
we have stopped worshiping God.
We are worshiping the box.
We are worshiping something of our own making,
not unlike the עֵגֶּל הַזָהָב, the golden bull,
that we just read about in Exodus.
We are children of Adam.
We are אֲדָמָה (aw-daw-mah)– earthlings, dirt creatures.
We are human. We are dust.
We are creative, yes, and resourceful,
and, at times, we even pass for intelligent.
But we are not God.
We are not the Creator of the Universe,
the Author and Giver of life,
the Judge of all men,
the Source of all being.
We never will be.
And nothing we make for ourselves,
no matter how shiny or well-intentioned,
will ever come close to the glory of God.
So we have before us a choice:
Do we worship what feels comfortable and safe?
Or do we worship the One who has the power to save?
We can’t have it both ways.
There’s no two ways about it.
And any theology that tries to tell you otherwise,
(if you’ll excuse just one more bad pun)
is probably a load of bull.