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Modern Golden Calves

Moses had delayed coming down the mountain. The Bible tells us in Exodus that it had been forty days and forty nights since Moses left the people to go up on the top of the mountain and receive from God his commandment and his covenant for them. And Moses being gone these forty days and forty nights created an atmosphere of frightened impatience in the people.

In this situation, we need to look at what's behind the idol worship because, you see, the people had happened on hard times prior to this. They had gotten themselves out in the desert and crossed the Red Sea. They had run out of water and food and complained, but this is the first instance that something happened that was so significant that they turned their attention towards worshiping another god. Moses had been gone too long, and the fear that they had been left alone began to grow. Their faith began to wane, and God's presence seemed withdrawn from them. In response to this situation, they turned their attachment to something else.

Have you ever felt that way—felt that God's presence was gone, that no matter how hard you reached out for it, you couldn't find it? And when you have, have you ever felt tempted to turn to something else other than God? If so, you like me are guilty of idolatry. When times of stress or fear or boredom or crisis come, and God seems far away, what is it that you turn to? Because the truth about you and I is that we all have a golden calf. You and I have an idol. And some of us, if we're absolutely truthful, have a whole herd of golden calves. But, we are Christians, and everyone knows that Christians aren't supposed to have golden calves. So we hide them and paint them a different color and put them in the garage. And then when someone dares to point out the obvious we are quick to say, "Oh that? Why, that's not a cow. That's a dog. It's my pet. You see, I'm a Christian and Christians don't have idols."

Exodus is very clear in chapter 32 that it was God's people that had a golden calf. In chapter 32, God's anger wasn't burning against the heathen and their idols. It was burning against his people who gave him up for a visible idol. And I think that you and I would do well, then, to stop protesting for a just a moment about the identity of the golden calf in the garage and just pause to consider for a moment what idols we worship and what makes something an idol.

What makes an idol?

I would like to very quickly go through four ways that we can distinguish if something has become an idol. And then we will turn our attention to what are the top four or five things that we worship nowadays. At that time, I'd like you to apply the four distinguishing elements to the top things that are worshiped, to see if they've crossed over the line for you into the realm of idol worship. Legitimate things become illegitimate things when they turn into idols. What makes something an idol? When does it cross the line from being something good to something consuming? Four things.

The first thing that makes something an idol is that it often reflects the culture that you live in. The image of the calf was not far removed for the children of Israel from their life in Egypt. They turned their attention immediately to that which they knew when they assumed God had forsaken them—something in their culture that they were familiar with that the heathens worshiped. You don't have to look too far in your life to find out what idols are for you because it's probably the same answer to the question What is it that the non-Christ followers in my culture worship? We turn to the familiar to fill our needs, and that makes it an idol. With idolatry you and I become like those who don't know God. But as Christians we're very good at doing it obscurely enough and just in small enough amounts so that we can get away with it, and we build acceptable idols. So, it often reflects the culture.

The second thing that makes something an idol is there is a repetitive nature to it. We find that when stress or crisis or boredom creeps in on our lives, we're driven back to this thing over and over again. Chapter 32:4-6 describes what the Israelites did around this calf. They molded it. They built an altar to it. They ran a festival around it. They sacrificed to it. It was something that was repetitive over and over again. The Old Testament is full of the story of Israel leaving God and repeatedly going to the idols. There's often an addictive nature to idols. They're not easy to let go of.

I've shared before that my father struggled with alcoholism, and I can't tell you how many times in discussions with our family my father would very firmly say, "I can quit any time I want." I don't know if he believed that, but I know that nobody else in the family did. Because we knew what the truth was—that he wasn't willing to give it up and he was driven by the repetitive nature of this thing that had become an idol to him.

A third thing that makes something an idol is the very obvious—that it obscures and competes with who God is. Verse 8 of chapter 32 tells us that God's voice of punishment on the people was that "they are quick to turn aside from me and quick to worship another god." We can be quick to turn our attention away from God and onto something else.

When I was a little girl growing up, I went to a backyard Bible club one time. And we sang the song Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus. And the flannelgraph picture that was up there had a picture of Jesus in the center, and all around the picture were very clear images of those things that compete for our attention. The picture and the song told that Jesus is at the center of the focus, but sometimes we get our focus off the center and we begin to focus on the things that compete for his attention.

Matthew 6:22-24 set it up this way for us, "Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, but store up for yourself treasures in heaven; for where your treasure is there will your heart be also." And then, using the same idea of the heart as the center of us, he turns to the picture of the eye as the lamp of the body. "If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness." And then he goes on to talk about, "No one can serve two masters because you will grow to love one and hate another. You cannot serve God and wealth." Idols will compete for our attention, and will affect how clearly we see who God is, when they obscure and compete for our view.

How can I tell if something is obscuring and competing for God's attention in my life? I worship it. I give it attention and time and money. I build an altar to it and I sacrifice the very best part of who I am to that thing. The Old Testament is very clear in the sacrificial system that the children of Israel were supposed to bring the very best animal to God, that which was pure and perfect. When I turn my attention to an idol—something other than God—and I give it the very best of who I am, that tells me that it is obscuring and competing in my relationship with God.

Ezekiel 16 uses a very harsh analogy of harlotry for the children of Israel when they are torn away from God and put their attention onto idols. Ezekiel 16 says, "You give all of your gifts, all of your best to these lovers." So something that is an idol is something that obscures and competes with God in our lives.

And then finally a fourth thing. To understand what makes something an idol, what moves it out of the arena of just something that we have in our lives and over into something which becomes an idol is that we'll surround the topic with rationalizations and excuses. It will be surrounded by rationalizations and excuses.

Listen to what Aaron said when Moses confronted him on what he had done. The same chapter, verses 22 and 24. In verse 22, Aaron said, "Don't let your anger burn against me. You know the people. They're bent on evil. They made me do it, Moses. I didn't want to do it." And then verse 24, which has such a comical aspect to it, "I took the gold and threw it into the fire and, wow, out came this calf!"

Ludicrous story, but that's what Aaron told Moses. We laugh at it, but the truth is that our idols are wrapped in rationalizations and excuses. When you heard what today's topic was, what was the first thing that popped into your mind that you thought, Ooh, maybe that could be my idol? And now, you're probably battling in your mind with all kinds of reasons why it's not your idol. That thing is probably your idol. You have wrapped it in a cocoon of excuses; and I know because that's what I do.

I want you to keep those four things in mind as we go through what are the top modern day golden calves that you and I might be guilty of worship, and help yourself decide Is this in my life become an idol?

Today's golden calves.

I think it would be obvious neglect if the very first thing I mentioned wasn't the golden calf of materialism. It is so prevalent in our society, the accumulation of things and the storing up of money. To those of you who have your wallets with you tonight, I want you to take out a bill—a dollar bill, a five dollar bill—I'm not going to be like my husband and ask you to give it to the person next to you. I'm just going to ask you to look at it. So just get it out and hold onto it tightly.

It's not a prerequisite to be poor or wealthy in order to be caught up in the idol of materialism. It is just finding security in wrapping and insolating ourselves with things. You and I live in a culture that worships materialism. And every day in many different ways we are bombarded with the need to buy things—catalogues and junk mail, TV, radios, telephones, billboards. It is a slow and insidious seduction.

What does it say across the top of your bill? It says In God we trust. Now why, of all the things that you and I have in our lives over the course of a day, our government thought that it might be a good idea to print on money that four-word little phrase In God we trust? Because it is with that bill in your hand that you are most tempted not to trust in God. Every time you spend a bill let your eyes drop to those four words as a reminder of it is in God that we trust.

John Whyte, a Christian writer and a physician, writes this about materialism and Christians.

We are no longer God's creatures accepting and distributing the goodness that he pours on us. But we have become the feverish and slavish worshipers of abundance itself. We need the newest model. We need the trendiest stuff. Whether it applies to clothes or furniture or vacations or toys like motorcycles and cars and boats, we are devoted to things that are perishable.

John and I have some very good friends that live out on the East Coast, and for the last two years they have been in the process of building a home. Now, does building a home automatically mean that it is an idol to you? Absolutely not. For these people I think John and I could safely tell you it has become an idol to them. It consumes almost every conversation that we have with them. It consumes an enormous amount of their time, energy, and money. It takes away time from that which is important, and it gives it to that which is perishable. As soon as they got it done, they began to redecorate it. And I'm guessing as soon as they redecorate it they will begin scouting for a vacation home.

Psalm 107:19-20 reflects back on this story that we read in Exodus 32 and say this, "They made a calf at Mount Horeb, and they worshiped a calf's image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass." The psalmist looks back at these people and says, How idiotic that they would exchange that which is most valuable in God for an animal that eats grass. How silly. But you see, the god of materialism is always a cheat, and it's always an uneven exchange. Luke 16 says, "You cannot serve God and wealth." It's like the monkey with his little first in the peanut jar. You can't have it all. And some of us worship the idol of materialism.

Some of us are a little more subtle in what it is that we worship, and some of us have a different kind of golden calf in our lives. And I call that golden calf winning or success. It's not about money or things so much anymore, because people that worship the golden calf of winning and success have very little time to enjoy the money and the things that they accumulate. It's about the competition. It's about the win, and it's about moving on to the next victory.

Let me tell you something that troubled me as I prepared for this message. I found myself woefully lacking in delightful and fun illustrations. You know why? Because every illustration I could think of would let you off the hook. If I tell you about Donald Trump and his need to acquire, or Michael Milliken and his junk bond venture, what are you going to say about the god of winning and success? You're going to say that you don't bow down to it. But you don't need to be at the far end, you don't have to be extreme, to have winning/success as your god. And so I'm having a hard time illustrating it without letting you laugh and let yourself off the hook, or letting you compare and let yourself off the hook. Because when I read my illustrations, I thought, Gee, I'm off the hook. And that still small voice inside of me told me, No, you're not.

Loren Shanks has written a fabulous book called The Hunger for More. He said, as a result of his surveys and studies, that the bottom line is: More is never enough; the win is never enough; and there are only two scores in the winning and the success game—win or lose at any cost. Some of us bow at the altar that we have built to success, and in turn we worship other people who have succeeded. You can see it very clearly in the celebrity cult that the world has created—but we do it in the church too. We worship the success stories. We bow our heads and we sacrifice our best to the god of success.

There's another god that we worship—especially in this day and age—and it is the god of self or body, me. There are different components to this god, but it is always about me. This idol can take on a variety of different forms. It can look like the god of comfort or leisure seeking, where I go through my week but I live for the weekend. I go through my career, but I live for retirement. I live for television. I live for recreation. I surround and insolate myself in substances that alter my mood, like drugs and alcohol. It's about me and what feels good to me, and that's where my altar is built.

This god of self or body can also take on the form of preoccupation with outward appearance, and its song becomes "Mirror, Mirror on the wall," and the altar becomes the closet and the gym. Time magazine's cover story this week, and ten-page article inside, says in big bold letters across the cover, "Forever Young: How science is searching for ways for you and I to stay young."

There's another god that you and I worship that is a modern-day golden calf, and it is the god of relationships. There is another person in your life, real or imagined, to which you give an inordinate amount of your time and thought and energy and attention. Because the truth is, that even in the most satisfying martial relationship we still ought to hunger deeply for God. I adore my husband. If I ever worship him to where he competes with and obscures who God is in my life, then I am guilty of idolatry. We mistakenly think that a relationship will satisfy us in a way that only God can; and you can do that if you're married and you can do that if you're single.

If you're married and your marriage isn't good and there's trouble, you can fantasize about an ideal lifestyle. You can think to yourself, If only I had this different person, my life would be different. You can be in a good marriage and allow thinking about a fantasy person to consume your time. It could take a turn where it's not fantasy and it's something like pornography, and it's got such a grip on you that you know full well it is an idol for you. And you don't know how to get it out of your life, and it competes and it obscures who God is.

Listen to what C. S. Lewis wrote on the subject.

You can get a large audience together for a striptease act—that is, to watch a girl undress on a stage. Now, suppose you went to a country where you could fill a theater simply by bringing a covered plate onto the stage, and then slowly lifting the cover so that everyone could see just before the lights went out that it contained a lamb chop or a bit of bacon. Would you not think that something had gone wrong in that country and their appetite for food?

This is the same as the misdirected use of relationships and sex in our lives.

And if you're single, you might be tempted to put your trust into a relationship, real or imagined, instead of putting your trust in God. Some day, if God would only give you that person—then you would worship him, then you would spend time with him, then you would do what he wants you to. Some of you in your single walk with God are in a relationship, and that relationship has become an idol to you. And some of you have slipped over into inappropriate premarital sexual behavior because that person is so important to you, and you're wrapped in a cocoon of excuses.

I have a cousin out in California who is like a brother to me, and has given me permission to briefly share the story of his return to God. In a nutshell, this last year has been hell for him. He has been in prison, and I have visited him there. He is now out of prison. He found God in prison, which has been a remarkable turn in his life. And he's trying to put a relationship back together, within which there have been children involved but never a marriage. He was convicted in his soul that he needed to move out of the house with this woman, get counseling, seek God's guidance, and put his life together. He felt the need to refocus on God and get out of the sexual relationship he had with this woman, in order to put the relationship back together. For him, he would say, this relationship had become his god. He had put all of his trust in her instead of God.

And then, finally, there's a fifth god that you and I sometimes build an altar to. I want to be very careful how I say this one, because I want you to understand what I do mean and what I don't mean. But some of us have built an altar to the god of religion. In their book, Steve Arterburn and Felton talk about toxic faith, and that the kind of addictive behavior that we can have when we begin to worship religion and not God. We can develop a devotion to a false god, and then our lives begin to focus on the religion and not on God.

Do you remember the group of people that Jesus accused of this while he was on earth? The Pharisees, whose idol and object of worship was clearly their religious rule. The people around them could fall to the wayside and be hurting, and it didn't matter because they worshiped their religion. Their need to be affirmed and accepted and valued was more important than being transformed.

It is the story of the pastor's wife who says, "My husband's mistress is the church, and how can I compete?" It is the story of the woman whose marriage is unhappy and so six nights a week she is at the church. This dependency on the religious practice removes the need for dependence on God; it buries itself in compulsive acts, and peace is found in the activity—not in the relationship.

Those are the top five. Any of them strike a chord with you? There are certainly others, and right now I want you to think of one in your mind that you think, Maybe. I'm not sure. I'm not committing to it yet. I'm not going to say it's an idol but I think it's possibility. I'll consider it. And I want to look real briefly at what the antidotes are to idolatry, to modern day calf worship.

The antidotes to idolatry.

The antidote in Exodus 32 was incredibly fast and severe. It says that "Moses burned the calf and grounded the powder and scattered it in the water and made the Israelites drink it." You know why I think he made them drink it? I think he was saying to them, You think this satisfies and fills your hunger. All right, eat it and tell me. Does it satisfy your hunger the way God does?

There's a call for cleansing. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul revisits this whole story of Exodus, and after he revisits the story comes that famous verse in 1 Corinthians 10:13, "There is no testing that has taken you that is not common to everyone, but God is faithful and he will not allow you to be tested beyond your strength but will with the testing also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it."

And immediately on the heels of that verse, "Therefore, my friends, flee from the worship of idols." Flee from the worship of idols. This verse clarifies verse 13 so much what we get mixed up. Verse 13 said, "There's no temptation taken you that God will not provide a way for you to escape." Now this is probably one of the most misquoted verses in Scripture. It's often applied to suffering. And Christians will try to comfort other Christians by saying, "Don't worry about everything that you're going through right now. God knows that you can handle this and won't give you more than you can handle."

This verse is not about suffering. God often gives people more than they can handle, because when we have more than we can handle, we turn to God and say, "I have more than I can handle. Will you be in me what I can't be, and will you help me?" This verse is about the temptation to idolatry and God's promise that there is always a way to flee it—always. This is what that verse straightens out. We get it mixed up, and think that this idol has a grip on us. But God says, Open your eyes. It is your grip on the idol that needs to be loosened.

So what is the antidote? The first thing is: don't allow the altar to be built. 1 Corinthians 10:14 says "Flee. Get away from it." Some of you have such an addiction to your idol that the first thing you need to do is to absolutely remove yourself from it. As you begin to see those first little bricks being laid and the mortar going up in between them to solidify the altar that you are building to worship this idol, you need to go to somebody who knows you and say to them It's not going away. When the rationalizations and the behavior begin there needs to be somebody, some other Christ follower in your life, with whom you have community and that knows you so well that you can say, It's back again. We need to live in truth telling relationships and not in secret, because when the idol is beginning to win, that's when we need community. Don't allow the altar to be built. When the first bricks are being set, you need to run somebody that knows you that is a Christ follower that will help you to flee from it.

Next, you need to begin to do whatever it takes to replace that idol with God, to re-enthrone God and to refocus the view that has been obscured. I mentioned earlier that in that backyard Bible club I went to, the song we used to sing was Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus. The words are so wonderful. We would sing: "Turn your eyes upon Jesus. Look full into this wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace." The backyard Bible teacher would take that picture of Jesus, which had a very clear border of all the things that compete for our attention, and she would flip it. And as we sang, the next picture would be Jesus' face clear, and all of those obscuring things that framed his face were blurry. You couldn't see them any more. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim.

The best way and the best place to replace your idols with God is your solid commitment to Christian community. I believe that with all of my heart. You know why? Because mostly what gets these idols enthroned in our lives is we just forget. Or we get scared like the children of Israel did in Exodus, and we forget that even though God feels far away that's not reality. Do you realize that in chapter 32, when the people saw that Moses had delayed in coming down, they interpreted it as: Moses was gone, and God's presence was gone? But how wrong were they? They were so wrong that at the very moment they were thinking that God's presence was being withdrawn; God was giving Moses directions for the covenant that would forever lead them to God. How wrong were they? They were completely wrong. They needed somebody to refocus reality for them and say, "It may feel like God's presence is gone, but that's not true." Where else in your week are you going to get that kind of refocusing except within Christian community, where people can come around you and remind you?

John Whyte says this again in his book The Golden Calf: "We have overvalued these calves that we worship, and we have underestimated, taken for granted and forgotten the God of power that we love and profess to worship." We need to come here to remember that God's presence is not far away. It is here, and when he feels far away he is still near. Psalm 106:21 says, "They worshiped the golden calf because they forgot God." They forgot God. All through Scripture in Nehemiah, in Psalms, in Corinthians, in Isaiah, the story is told to remember, to remember. The call of the Old Testament is to put down stones and to come back often to remind yourself of what we forget so easily. What we forget can be refocused, when we come into Christian community.

Finally, the third antidote to idol worship—the first place that we have to start—is dealt with in the whole end of chapter 32, and it is forgiveness and it is cleansing. We need to do the honest work before God to say, Stripped of my rationalizations and excuses, and understanding how this obscures and competes with who you are in my life, God, I know that this is an idol. And I will do with this idol what Moses did with the calf and the stone—I will throw them down at your feet to break them. I need forgiveness, and I need cleansing.

The cleansing that came in chapter 32 was swift, and it was strong. But it was a restored people in the covenant that ends chapter 32. We have to remember that the feeling that God's presence is gone is what sets the stage for idolatry. When that presence seems to leave, we are quick to say, "Okay, well if he's gone then I'll take the god behind Door #2. That will do. That will be okay." Instead we need to say that I will stay at the foot of Mt. Sinai. When I am tempted to put my trust in something else, I will stay. And I will be honest enough to ask for the kind of forgiveness and cleansing that requires that I admit it is an idol.

It is easy to read the story in chapter 32 and think Oh, those silly Israelites. But in Nehemiah and in Psalms and in 1 Corinthians, the writers of Scripture come back to that story and remind those of us who follow Christ that we too are in danger of idolatry.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

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Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

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Sermon Outline:


We often believe that Christians aren't supposed to have idols, and so we ignore or try to hide the idols that we have.

I. What makes an idol?

II. Today's golden calves.

III. The antidotes to idolatry.


This story is told often in Scripture, to remind those of us who follow Christ that we, too, are in danger of idolatry.