Main point: Idolatry is a sin against God, so we must destroy the idols in our hearts that try to replace God. Jesus has taken our sins as a perfect sacrifice so that we will not be blot out of the Book of Life like the Israelites in the wilderness.
There is a famous bronze sculpture at Manhattan in New York called the “Charging Bull”. It is a powerful allegory of Wall Street market optimism, and it has become the symbol of Wall Street and the Financial District. So if a company’s share price goes up sharply, it is a bull. The statue attracts millions of tourists every year in New York. Today people might not worship the golden bull as a god. But they are still worshipping wealth and economy. To these people living in the financial sector, the global market is life and death to them. Their idolatry of wealth and possession is graphically portrayed in the statue of the golden bull. The share market consumes their minds and all of their energy week after week, month after month, year after year. It literally eat up their time and life. Human behaviours have never changed since the days of Moses. We wants to replace God with something else that would give us satisfaction and instant gravitation. The Israelites in Exodus had also created a golden calf like this in the wilderness. But what would God do about it?
1) The golden calf of idolatry
In chapter 32 of Exodus, Moses was delayed to come down from the mountain, stilling hearing the instructions from the LORD to build the tabernacle and learning how to worship God, but the people of Israel couldn’t wait for Moses’ return. They are getting restless. So they gathered and said to Moses’ brother Aaron, the second person-in-charge of the camp:
“Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
And Aaron listened to the people’s voice. It sounds like democracy for the people’s choice. But many times proved in history, the decision made by the majority of the people is not necessary to be a right choice. Especially when what they want is to make themselves gods against God’s holy words. Aaron asked the congregation to strip off their golden earrings, and there at the bottom of the mountain, the Israelites made an idol in the shape of a golden calf as their god. And they worshipped it, giving it offerings that should belong to God alone, and eat and drink and indulge themselves for great fun, partying hard. As soon as Aaron made their unholy cow of idol worship, the next day the camp had degenerated from a holy people separated for the LORD to pagan debauchery. The sin of idolatry is a great sin of disobedience to God’s will.
It is not that people didn’t know God’s law. Moses had just told them the ten commandments in chapter 24, but now they have broken the first and the second command of God’s ten commandments all together in a single move.
How easy it is to tell God that we will never do something ever again, and then go right ahead and do it. This is especially true with sins of addiction. We might ask, why do people do this? And in one way or another, we all do it. We all struggle to overcome patterns of habitual sin. We keep getting tempted to commit the same sin again and again. The reason we struggle is that the sin is in our hearts. Why did the Israelites worship a cow? It’s because they had never totally forsaken the gods and idols of Egypt. They had promised to serve the Lord their God alone, but in their hearts, they still cherished their old idolatries.
As Stephen spoke in Acts 7:39, “Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt”.
And you know what? We do the same thing. Too often in our struggle against sin, we focus almost exclusively on our actions. We think we can overcome sin just by stopping doing something. But what our outward sins reveal is the real inward condition of our hearts. Sin is not so much what we do as what we are. Unless we get to the root of the problem and put sin to death in the heart, we fall right back into the same old sins, doing the very things we swore to God that we would never do again.
To break this pattern, we need to identify and eliminate the idols in our hearts, no matter it is money, sex, and power; greed, lust, and especially pride. We need to remember the warnings from the Bible and keep ourselves away from idols. We need to replace our idolatrous attachments with genuine affection for our one true God.
When we turn away from the true God the LORD, we crave ourselves a false one. The only way to reduce our craving false gods of any kind is to fill our hearts with the Holy Spirit, so that we think more about God and fill our passion to serve him only.
We often fall into sin when we do not trust God to know what he’s doing. Sin is distrust as well as disobedience. If the Israelites trust God and wait patiently for God’s instruction on worship, they would not fall into this great sin. They sinned because they did not trust God, and they disobey God’s words. They were too impatient. They knew what they wanted, and they wanted it now! We often come up with our strategies for making life work the way we want it to work.
Even they saw what God was doing: God brought them out of Egypt. God saved them in the desert. God gave them his law. Every day God provides bread from Heaven, God was right there with them in their situation. But yet, they doubted. As the weeks passed, and Moses failed to come back down, they started getting anxious. And as they had so often done in the past, they began to grumble against God, and they decided that they couldn’t take it any longer. If God was going to abandon them, they might as well find some other god to lead them out of the wilderness. And that causes the sin of the golden calf, because of Israel’s impatience with God, and they are unwilling to trust God in his timing.
And this is how sin happens. We fall into sin when we fail to trust that God knows what he is doing and try to work things out on our own. Instead of waiting for God to do something according to his own time frame, we try to speed things up. By setting the agenda, what we are really trying to do is wrestling our control from God, when what we ought to do instead is wait for him to work.
Like the Israelites, we are tempted to be impatient. We get impatient for God to heal us or provide for our needs. We get impatient for him to bring spiritual change, either in our own lives or in the lives of others. We get impatient for him to lead us out of the wilderness. But sometimes, for our own benefit, God doesn’t want to bring us out of the wilderness. Not yet, anyway. And if the wilderness is where God wants us right now, that’s where we need to stay, trusting in his goodness and waiting for His timing. This is the lesson for all of us. To be patient in God’s timing so that we do not sin like the Israelites and try to replace God with something else. Nothing in this world can fulfil our spiritual needs other than Jesus. As we are filled with the Spirit, we will be able to strip off the golden calves in our lives, so that we no longer worship these things from the world.
2) Putting idolatry to death
Our God is a jealous God. He will not share his glory to a craved human-made idol in the shape of a domestic animal. God was so unpleased that he wanted to destroy them and make a new nation out of Moses. But Moses sought the favour of God and asked for forgiveness on behalf of the people who sinned against him. Moses interceded on behalf of the people as the mediator between man and God, and he asked the Lord to remember his promises to the ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And because of God’s character and faithfulness to his words, he listened and turned aside his anger, not to destroy the entire camp.
However, when Moses went down from the mountain, he was so angry against the idol worshipers who are dancing and partying around the golden calf that he threw the tablets of God’s law into pieces on the foot of the mountain.
His brother Aaron tried to use excuses to shift his responsibilities as the leader. He blamed the people who gave him the gold, telling Moses that he threw the gold into the fire, and Voila! Came out a golden calf. Is that a confession of sin? No, far from it. He did not deal honestly with the sin before God.
Whether we admit our sin or not, God always holds us accountable for it. He knows that sin is not something that just happens or that other people make us do. It is what we choose to do out of the idolatry of our own sinful hearts.
This is the picture of our human condition. The same happening now as it was 4000 years ago in Moses’ time. God has written out his law so we can know how he wants us to live. He has sent a Saviour to come down and reveal his will. And what have we been busy doing? We have been breaking God’s law, making idols, worshipping our own gods, throwing wild parties, and basically living any way we please. We want to be in charge of our lives and have fun whenever we can, putting God out of the picture. Have you been walking with God, or have you been doing your own thing and hoping that God wouldn’t notice?
But sin cannot be left unpunished. Sooner or later, God will confront our sin, just as Moses confronted the Israelites’ sin of idolatry. Because of his covenant to his people, God had already decided not to destroy the Israelites. However, their sin still needed to be dealt with in a godly way, and this meant that they were going to have to face its consequences. This is always necessary. Forgiveness removes the guilt of sin but not its consequences. God uses the consequences of our sin in a sanctifying way, teaching us never to do the same thing again.
However, some Christians believe in immediate sanctification. They assume that all they need to do is confess their sins, and then everything can return to normal. Although it is true that as soon as we confess our sins, we are fully and freely forgiven. But this does not mean that we are immune from the consequences of our sin. Sin does real damage, and often we bear its scars for a long time after the guilt of sin has been taken away. Sin also requires discipline, and the more serious the sin, the more likely it is that God will need to correct us. The ongoing process of sanctification needs to take place. After confessing the sin and we are forgiven by the grace of God through Jesus, the sin has to be dealt with in a godly way that leads to real progress in godliness.
To deal with sin effectively takes the kind of godly leadership that Moses gave to Israel. As soon as he saw what the people were doing, he took actions. He threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces, and burned the golden calf in the fire, then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the people drink it.
He broke the tablet into pieces, symbolising the relationship of the Israelites and God has been broken because of their sin of idolatry. The idol amongst the people must be destroyed, instead of destroying the entire camp. Then the people had to swallow their ungodliness in the form of gold water. They had to taste the bitterness of their idol worship.
The important thing was to get rid of the idol once and for all. The golden calf is wholly destroyed, and never to be made again.
When we look at this story, we need to think about it in our lives: Is there anything that displaces God in our hearts? Is there anything that competes with God for our attention? What do we desire? What do we praise? What do we think about all the time? What do we pursue in life? These are the things that replace God in our hearts, and the only safe way to deal with them is the get rid of them altogether.
So many times that Christians try to do deals with their idolatries by putting them in the closet, hiding them rather than taking them out with the trash. We pretend that we have cleaned house, spiritually speaking. But in fact, sin is still lurking in the cupboard, ready to come out the next time we are tempted to open the door. The lustful man goes back to look at his pornography; the gossip starts telling rumours again; the greedy man cheats a little on another deal; the unhappy woman goes on another indulge of food or alcohol or drugs or shopping. Moses never gave the Israelites a chance to go back to the golden calf. In the same way, we need to keep grinding our idols down until they turn to dust. Don’t keep playing with idols; destroy them completely.
3) Blotting out of the book of the LORD
Then in verse 33, “The LORD replied to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, when the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin.” 35 And the LORD struck the people with a plague because of what they did with the calf Aaron had made.”
In the end, the people and Aaron had sinned against God. God had already promised not to destroy them, so He will still lead their descendants to the Promised Land. But they would still have to suffer the punishment due to their sins. This whole generation of Israelites would never reach the Promised Land. They died in the wilderness. The people had to bear the punishment for their sin. They could not escape God’s judgment by transferring their guilt over to Moses.
Their leader Moses could not die for his people’s sin because Moses himself was a sinner. But to make atonement for Israel’s sin, the person had to be perfect. The only sacrifice that God can accept is a perfect sacrifice, unstained by sin. Moses couldn’t do it. Even he was close to God, but he was still a sinner like all of us. He could not make atonement for sin. No one could be perfect and blameless to make this sacrifice for sin unless God come to rescue them in the personhood of Jesus. Jesus Christ is born without sin as the Son of God incarnate, and he lived a perfect life so that he is qualified to offer himself as the sacrifice to take away our sins. Then he died for us on the cross and be raised in God’s glory three days later, giving eternal life to all who believe.
We are so fortunate to have Jesus as our mediator but not Moses, because the generation that worshipped the golden calf had been blotted out of God’s book of life, they were dead in the wilderness without seeing the promised land. Their relationship with God was over. They are being cut off from the fellowship with God. But we have a better mediator – Jesus, he is the Son of God. He died our deserved death so that we can receive his salvation of eternal life. We who put our trust in Jesus, our names are written in the Book of Life, and blessed are those who’s name are not blotted from his book.
Let us give thanks to God for keeping us in His book, let us repent from idolatry in life so that we will completely worship with all our hearts to praise God for who he is, and what he has done for us. Let us learn from the mistakes of the Israelites and never repeat the sin again. Let us pray.