4 And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.”
The scene of Israel worshipping the golden calf is one of those moments from the Old Testament that many Christians have been taught since children’s Sunday School. It is familiar. And, we are glad to know that we are not like those people who did all that stuff. We are glad to know that we would never make a golden calf and worship it in place of God.
Of course, you likely also know that many will take this story as an opportunity to talk to Christians about their modern idols. We love self, fame, pleasure, money, reputation, success, leisure, or something else to the point of distraction. If we are not careful, we will bow down to our own little idols. This is almost always applicable teaching for the idols of the heart.
But I want to take this account in one other direction this morning as I think it through. The words of Aaron and the people in the passage above have my attention. They are terrifying. After the people give their gold and the golden calves are fashioned, they declare that these are the gods who brought the people up out of Egypt. That has always really bothered me. But then, Aaron declares something else that totally stuns me. Aaron says that tomorrow, the people are going to celebrate a feast to the Lord.
Do you get what just happened? Aaron is presenting the calves, the idols, the golden statues as the Lord. This is worse than I used to imagine. I used to simply see in this story that the people were taking the credit rightly due to God for leading them out of Egypt and giving it to the statues. Now, however, I see that Aaron is taking the statues and declaring them to be the Lord. This is not the people redistributing the credit for getting them out of Egypt; this is Aaron redefining who God is for the people.
Now, if we grasp that a major part of what is going on here is that Aaron and the people are bowing to a created and falsified picture of who or what God is, we see a much better application for our lives than simply not to let career or sex be idols for us. The application that I am seeing here is that it is a terrible thing to give people a false picture of who the Lord is. Not only is it terrible, it is tempting. However to do so is to dishonor God greatly.
When you depict God for others, how do you picture him? Do you picture him as a strong bull? Do you emphasize his strength, his anger, and his toughness? Do you tell people that God is somebody you had better get to serving and not make excuses? Do you show fellow Christians that they are never pleasing him and are in danger of having him trample them? If so, you may have fashioned a golden calf.
Or, perhaps you depict a God who is very shiny and sleek. Perhaps you are showing people a picture of God as someone who is full of wealth and desperately desirous of giving that wealth to them if they will only have the confidence to claim it. Perhaps your picture of God is one who is truly golden and ready to share if only they will put on a big enough smile or pray with enough conviction or give first so that they can receive in return.
Perhaps the picture that you have painted for others of God is one of the bull’s horns. There is harshness and hardness. You cannot just ask such a God for help, you must beg. You cannot just serve such a God, you must bleed. You cannot love him without doing more and more and more.
You know what the problem is with these pictures, they are neither all wrong or all right. The people chose golden calves likely because those animals made them think of the strength of the deity who led them out of Egypt. They had seen God trample over Pharaoh and his chariots. They knew him to be strong and fierce. Golden calves seemed about right. And, they had a piece of the truth in them.
The problem is, golden calves are not nearly enough to depict God. God is mighty and fierce. He is also the God who is so loving toward sinners that he sent his only Son to die to pay the price for people who would never and could never live up to his standards. This is the God who loved children enough to let them come to him even when the disciples tried to push them away. This is also the God who was calm enough to sleep during a raging storm on the lake. And it is the God who was fierce enough to turn over tables in the temple and who was fiery enough in his stare not to have anyone try to stop him. This is the God who raised the dead son of a widow simply because it was the kind thing to do. This was the god who made extra wine at a wedding feast to keep the family from being shamed. This was the God who destroyed all life except a remnant in a flood. This is the God who will return to earth on a white war horse with a sword in his teeth and blood on his robe. This is the God who also said of Nineveh that he did not wish to destroy so many people who were so ignorant, even though his own prophet hated their guts—and with good reason.
No, a bull or a calf does not do enough to depict God. But you know what, neither do many of our own descriptions of God. If we are not careful, we will paint for others a picture of God that is so flawed as to be no better than a golden calf. Let us be cautioned, especially those of us who preach and teach. Let us tremble at what picture of God we may bring. Let us never depict him apart from holiness and power and wrath and mercy and grace and whatever else the word of God has shown us. Let us be faithful to the text of Scripture as we show the people who hear us a portrait of the Lord we worship.