Synod Sermon, Exodus 32.1-6, 19-24

15 September 2019

So the people are in the wilderness. They have arrived at Sinai and Moses has ascended the mountain. But he is a long time coming down again. The people grow impatient and thy look elsewhere for help. Aaron directs the men to get their wives and children to hand over their gold (note not the men!) and he creates for them a golden calf. He then declares that these are the gods that brought them out of slavery in Egypt. The people then lose all moral compass because the writer tells us that they sat down, ate and drank, and rose up to revel. The commentators tell us that the original term indicates that it was somewhat bacchanalian – a wild, wine-soaked rowdy affair often becoming something of an orgy.

These first six verses of the chapter have much to teach us!

It was Voltaire who said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. This is what the people are doing at Sinai. In the perceived absence of the LORD they make their own gods. And in the absence of their trusted leader they seek the guidance of another – it is a misplaced trust. For the leader then offers the people fake news. He rewrites history. According to Aaron it wasn’t the LORD who had led the people out of slavery but the gods symbolised by the golden calf.

Interesting that he pluralises the term – gods – not God. In other words the people have abandoned their monotheism and re-embraced polytheism. Despite all the examples of the LORD’s supreme power they had not let go of their past superstitions. How quickly they reverted when the going got tough and the opportunities arose.

And it all ends in a bit of a mess.

It doesn’t take a great exegete to ask who our golden calves are today.

From the humorous poster I once saw in Manchester Piccadilly Railway Station:

Welcome to Manchester. While here visit the temples of worship: Pictures of a church, Old Trafford football ground and a Boddington’s pub.

To more serious examples:

  • the trust placed in social media, where opinions are valued more than the facts presented by experts,
  • or the admiration some have for ‘here- today- gone-tomorrow’ celebrities,
  • or indeed simplistic political ideologies.

We have created golden calves.

In addition, like the people at Sinai in difficult circumstances, many are prone to forget the lessons of the past and how it was that those before us extricated themselves out of previous crises.

I am currently reviewing Tony Bayfield’s latest book and am finding it fascinating. It is clearly his legacy, his definitive account of his accumulated insight and understanding of his faith after more than half a century as a rabbi and teacher. Every now and then there is a sentence or two, often in the form of a question, printed in bold. At first I thought it was the editor’s comments as I had only a pre-publication copy. But it wasn’t the editor’s comments. It was the voice of God: Questioning. Probing. Cajoling. Admonishing. Quirky but fascinating.

We are often unable to detect the voice of God in the clamour about us. We often miss God’s presence in the narrowing down of focus during difficult times. But I suggest that it is precisely then that God can be detected most clearly for the open and receptive, the willing and faithful.

  • The pricking of conscience
  • The gentle and sometimes not so gentle nudging
  • The awareness of consequences
  • These and other occasions re-alert us to G in our lives and W.

Tony Bayfield’s book doesn’t have a very good title in my opinion, Being Jewish Today, will limit the readership. Had I been asked I might have suggested another, or at least a sub-title – The God who won’t leave us alone.

You see the people may have been in the wilderness and bereft at the foot of the mountain, they may have sought help from those who would do much harm, they may have even had a good time in wine, dance and sex, but it was all short-lived.

Moses descends the mountain and the people are ashamed. So much so that Aaron displays his inadequacies as a leader: he firstly blames the people for his own initiative, ‘they told me to do it, I was only doing what they asked me to do it’ and then goes on to make one of the weakest excuses in the whole of scripture: he claims that he merely took the gold, threw it into the fire and out came the calf, hey presto! Not exactly what was recorded earlier?

Let’s go back to Voltaire. He said that if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. All too many think negatively of this quote. They see within it an Enlightenment philosopher who might be disposing of God. But nothing could be further from the truth – it was act not meant to be anything other than a retort to atheists.

The full quote goes:

If the heavens, stripped of his noble imprint,
Could ever cease to attest to his being,
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
Let the wise man announce him and kings fear him.
Kings, if you oppress me, if your eminencies disdain
The tears of the innocent that you cause to flow,
My avenger is in the heavens: learn to tremble.
Such, at least, is the fruit of a useful creed.

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