"Golden Calf or Lamb of God?"
Third Last Sunday in the Church Year, November 9, 2004
Pastor Aaron A. Koch
Mt. Zion Lutheran Church
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Several years ago I read a book entitled, Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman. In this book the author wrote about which American cities have been representative of our country over its history. At our nation's beginning, Boston was the city that was the microcosm of America, with its spirit of revolution and independence. Later because of all of the immigration that was taking place, New York City was the picture of our country, the ethnic melting pot. After that, Chicago came to be the city that best represented the United States, with its emerging industrial muscle. Today, Postman writes, the city that best portrays our country is Las Vegas. For our culture today is all about entertainment and pleasure and fun. And Las Vegas certainly typifies that.
I bring this up because the church is always affected and pressured by the prevailing attitudes of the culture in which she lives. Every age presents its temptations to God's people to accommodate to the world and follow its ways; and that's certainly true still today. The church is under tremendous pressure to change its ways in order to stay "relevant" in our entertainment oriented society. A few months ago, I was reading an article entitled, "Growing in Relevance," about a Lutheran congregation in Missouri. The picture of the chancel of the church showed no visible altar or crucifix. Instead the front of the church looked more like a stage with various props and people on it acting out some drama. Two big screens were up in front. Of their six services, the one that is growing most in popularity is the one they call the "warehouse interactive" format. Future building plans include a large worship area with a musical performance stage, and retail stores that appeal to Generation Xers, including a coffee shop, bread store, and a combination music, video, and bookstore.
Now it's true that we should be always looking for new opportunities to reach out to others with the Gospel of Christ. But in Romans 12 St. Paul writes, "Do not be conformed to this world." Conformity with the world is a denial of the Gospel we seek to proclaim. For the Gospel is always contrary to the culture and calling it to repentance. It's an age old allure that God's people have faced, to fit in with the prevailing attitudes of the day in order to be growing and "relevant" and popular.
We saw an example of this in the Old Testament reading. The people of Israel got impatient waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain. It had been more than a month that he was up there. So they got together and had themselves a meeting. They decided that the Word of the Lord spoken to them wasn't enough; they wanted to have a god or an image they could see to go before them, something more like what they were used to from their Egyptian culture when they were slaves. They grew bored with the mighty acts the Lord had done for them in the Passover and the Red Sea. They wanted something visually stimulating that fit in more with the culture of the day, something that met their needs right now.
Aaron gave in to the will of the people. He told them to bring their gold earrings to him, he melted the gold down, and made a golden calf from it. A golden calf was a sign of fertility, of growth and success. Then the people said, "This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!" This was the kind of worship and spirituality they liked.
Aaron knew deep down, though, that this wasn't right. And so he tried to make things kosher. He built an altar before the golden calf and made a proclamation: "Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord." He tried mix the two together, using this image, this calf, as part of the worship of the Lord. He had what you might call a blended service. He wasn't abandoning the faith, he thought; he was just combining the faith with what was socially acceptable, that's all. His plan was to use the style of the image, but godly substance. He tried to please the people and to please the Lord at the same time.
But that didn't work too well, did it? It says here that the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play. The "play" that is mentioned is the kind of play you would expect to have in the presence of a fertility god.
We are of the same stock as the children of Israel. We have the same fallen nature that they did. And so we also can be tempted to grow impatient as we wait for the Lord to come down from heaven, to return for the final judgment on the Last Day. We too can begin to grow bored with the mighty acts the Lord has done for us in His death and resurrection and in our baptism. "Yeah, I've heard it all before. Whatever. Give me something new." The Scriptures urge us to wait on the Lord and to devote ourselves to His teaching and preaching. But the old Adam in us wants something immediately gratifying, that will make us feel the way we want to feel and get us where we want to be in life and meet our needs right now, preferably in an easy and entertaining way.
And so pastors and congregations can be tempted to try to mix the church and the world in their worship. Give me a guy who can tell some good jokes in his message and keep things light. Not too much of the serious sin and cross stuff, give me a Dr. Phil style sermon like "7 steps toward better relationships" or "Biblical dieting." And make it visually entertaining. Use big screens and acted out skits and singers on a stage. That's what I'm used to out in the world. I'd be willing to give up a little gold if you do that. Go ahead and keep the Lutheran substance, but give me a little worldly style.
We all would do well to pay attention to what happened when Moses came down from the mountain and saw what was going on. He became hot with anger, ground the calf which they had made into powder, scattered it on the water, and made the children of Israel drink it. Their false god was destroyed, and they were forced to drink up and share in that destruction. So it will be also on the Day of Christ's return for all those who have turned their hearts away from Him to other things. Such will have to drink in the eternal judgment that is fitting for their idolatrous loves.
Let this portion of the Scriptures, then, be a call to repentance for all of us. For whether it has to do with worship or other aspects of our lives, we all know the temptation to go along with the crowd like Aaron did; we all know the desire to conform to the world's ways of thinking and doing things. Let us rather be transformed by the renewing of our minds, setting our hearts on things above where Jesus is, seated at the right hand of God. Let us not simply focus on what is temporary, what is with the times, but rather on what is eternal, what lasts for all time and beyond time. Seek the treasures of Christ, which cannot be ground to powder or destroyed but which are indestructible and endure forever.
Those treasures of Christ are the real and proper focus of divine service. Church is not meant to be like the culture but like heaven. Church is not meant to be more of the same manipulative electronic media you get every day in the world but rather the deep unseen mysteries of Christ. Jesus said, "The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, 'See here!' or 'See there!' For indeed, the kingdom of God is among you." That is so because Christ the King Himself is among you in His words and body and blood. Heaven and earth intersect in the liturgy. That's why we sing the songs of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven: "Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will to men." "Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of your glory." Divine service is to be like stepping into a different world, a transcendent, heavenly one. And that occurs not primarily through what we see but through what we hear, as it is written, "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God." That Word of Jesus, the Lamb who was slain and raised again, is the constant center of our attention in worship.
And the fact of the matter is that Jesus is at the center of the golden calf account, quite literally. For consider what Moses does before He comes down from the mountain, right in the middle of the reading. God's wrath was burning hot against the Israelites because of their idolatry, and He said to Moses that He was going to destroy them all. But Moses spoke up and interceded for Israel. He called to mind God's salvation of Israel and the promises that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses stepped in the way of God's wrath in order to save Israel. And the Lord relented from the harm He was going to do to His people and did not do it.
Isn't that exactly what Jesus has done for you? When God's wrath was burning hot against your sin and the sin of the world, the Son of God stepped in the way of that wrath and took it all for you in His own body on the cross. The full judgment that stood against us pummeled Him as He hung there. He received it all in our place, as our stand-in, willingly and out of immeasurable love for us. That's why Jesus said in the Gospel that "He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation." His love compelled Him to do it in order to redeem us from our idols and purchase us as His own and win for us the entire forgiveness of all our sin.
Even now Jesus is still stepping in and speaking up in your defense. It is written in I John, "If anyone sins we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins." When the devil or your own conscience accuses you, Jesus is your Defender before the Father who intercedes on your behalf. And the Father hears Jesus' prayers and has mercy on you.
So don't fear Judgment Day. The Last Day, rather, is something to look forward to and eagerly desire. For your judgment day already occurred back at the cross; it's over and done with. Now, as the epistle says, we comfort one another with the words of Jesus' return and the sure hope of our resurrection from the dead with Him. As the close of this age draws near, so also your redemption is drawing near in Christ. You who believe and are baptized are not those of the golden calf; you are those of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
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