“Our Invented Deities”

October 12, 2014
Jonathan Rumburg
Exodus 32:1-14

The 20th century brought us remarkable technologies.

Among the most notable were the automobile; rockets, lunar landers, the space shuttle; and, for better or worse, the Internet.

And while there is a long list of incredible, world changing inventions, there is an equally long, if not longer, list of inventions that, well, they just probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

Consider, for example, Venetian Blind Sunglasses, which came out in 1950.

They were, as the name suggests, eyeglasses with Venetian blind slats that could be opened or closed as the wearer wished. They are exactly what we need: glasses that render us sightless.

Cigarettes inspired several inventions. In 1955, someone created a holder that allows you to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes all at once.

That same year, someone else designed a two-person holder so that you and your sweetie could both smoke the same cigarette.
In 1968 a man named Ron Hubbard introduced the Hubbard Electrometer, created to determine whether tomatoes experience pain.

It led him to conclude that tomatoes “scream when sliced.”

Like I said, these are just a few of the long list of bad inventions for the 20th Century.

But bad inventions are not bound to the 20th Century alone.

Long before these bad inventions were many others—and some are even found in the Bible.

And probably the worst bad invention in the Bible is that of the Golden Calf.

 

As we know, God had called and commissioned Moses to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.

God’s presence with them was amply confirmed by a pillar of cloud that led them by day and a pillar of fire that led them by night.

But apparently for the Israelites such a stark and impressive visual was not good enough, and because it wasn’t, the first time Moses leaves the camp to meet with God, the people turned to Moses’ brother Aaron and said, “Come make gods for us.”

The keyword here is “make” because it tells us that the Israelites were looking for an invented god—an invented deity that they could see and even touch.

Upon hearing that word Aaron should have run for the hills to get Moses, but inexplicably he agrees without a single word of protest.

He collects gold jewelry from the people, melts it down and casts a golden calf.

Then, when the people see the calf in all is awful glory, they proclaim, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” and then proceeded to worship it.

An invented deity—talk about dumb inventions! ***

Now to their credit, the Israelites were worshiping it by using the approved rites and rituals for the worship of the invisible God.

They offered burnt sacrifices and well-being offerings just as prescribed for the worship of Yahweh.

Eventually, however, this bad invention got worse.

Following the sacrifices, “the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.”

In some uses “revel” can mean that people are engaging in something as inoffensive as dancing, but in this context, it more likely refers to some unholy carryings on.

Whatever was going on, it profaned the worship of God, and it greatly displeased God.
Of course the question seems to be then, “Well, what else is new?”

Look at God’s people today, and the argument can easily be made that like the Israelites of the Exodus, we too have our own invented deities that we worship.

 

We humans have been inventing our own gods for as long as we’ve been around, and then tailoring our worship to match our invention.

Who here has said, or heard someone say something like this: “Well, if God is a God of love, surely God wants me to be happy and won’t condemn me for ____blank_____.”

That blank is usually filled in with some self-centered behavior that God probably wouldn’t condone.

When we do that, we’re talking about a god of our own creation.

Like the god of spending money on things that will not last.

The god of idolizing athletes, actors, singers and celebrities.

The god of trying to please everyone.

The god of trying to control everything.

We invent these gods because they are ones we can see and touch. They are gods that will give us something—entertainment, good times, gossip, a sense of purpose, perhaps even power.

And the reason we do this is because of the same reason the Israelites invented their golden calf god.

We either believe that our one true God is not present to us, or that God is putting too many restrictions and judgments on us. A sort of “taxation without representation” kind of thought process.

We imagine a god who is mostly judgmental—a cosmic scorekeeper— or one who is so distant from us that God doesn’t care about us individually, or one whose main expectation of us is that we just be nice to one another and all get along.

It makes us all quite willing to worship our invented deities, because we have convinced ourselves that we know what’s best for us.

It all begs for an answer to the question: Have we forgotten who God is?

 

The God of the Bible, our God, is a multiplicity—meaning God is an array of diversity—even when it comes to how God acts and responds.

And this story of the golden calf gives us a picture of how that diversity is played out.

After the people of Israel have worshiped the golden calf, God, who is of course aware of it, tells Moses to head down from the mountain to deal with it.

The language God uses suggests that God is disowning God’s chosen ones, saying to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them.”

God then speaks about a hot wrath that God will use to “consume them” and then start over, making a new nation from Moses’ line.

And while this idea is certainly justified, Moses intervenes on behalf of the people.

Moses reasons with God using language that reconnects the people to God, saying: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?”

Moses then reminds God of God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their descendants— the people who are camped at the foot of the mountain.

It is in what happens next that we see who God truly is.

God relents and does not bring red hot wrath down on the people.

God holds fast to the promises and covenants that God has made.

So instead of God, Moses heads down to clean up the mess.

*******

At first this exchange between Moses and God may seem insignificant, but it can actually help us in our quest to know God.

On one level, it presents God as one who is as anger-driven and changeable as we are.

But when we consider this story further, we see something much different.

Moses recounts that God, whose first inclination was to punish, ends up not sending God’s wrath down on Israel.

God, who has good reason and every right to do what God was thinking about doing, doesn’t.

Author Frank Anthony Spina unpacks God casting aside God’s plan to destroy the people when he writes, “This startling behavior on God’s part was not a function of divine weakness, but rather of divine grace. In short, God’s grace got the best of God’s justifiable anger. This is part of a biblical pattern, that judgment is never God’s final word.”
What this means then, is that in our quest to know God, it is crucial to view grace, not judgment, as one of God’s primary characteristics.

God stays God’s own hand, and by God’s grace, the people of Israel eventually arrive at, and enter, the land God has promised to them.

God always remains true to the promises of God, even when God has good reason not to.

All because our God is a God of grace.

 

The concept of grace is tough for us to understand. In contrast, judgment is much easier.

Grace is rightly defined as unmerited favor.

And grace is what God offers.

It is the startling act of God working on behalf of the very ones who have violated God’s covenant by inventing and worshiping our own deities.

But this is how God acts. It is how God sees us—with eyes full of grace.

*******

Writer Kathleen Norris tells of being at an airport departure gate one day where she noticed a young couple with an infant. The baby was staring intently at other people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter if it were young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking, the baby boy would respond with absolute delight.

Norris writes:

“It was beautiful to see. Our drab departure gate had become the gate of heaven. And as I watched that baby play with any adult who would play with him, I realized that this is how God looks as us—staring into our faces in order to be delighted, to see the creature He made and called good. It was as Psalm 139 puts it: Darkness is as nothing to God, who can look right through whatever evil we’ve done in our lives, and see the creature made in the divine image.”

Norris concludes, saying; “Possibly only God, and well-loved infants, can see this way.”

*******

Yes, within our faith there’s judgment, yes, there’s accountability.

But when it comes to God there’s also grace, and any image of God that leaves out grace is no more than a calf of gold.

 

We have all invented our fair share of golden calves.

Fortunately for us—like the long list of bad inventions, they never altered life so much that all would be lost or negate the possibility that something better would come about.

God is always looking at us—looking right through our failures, our agonies, our phoniness, our invented deities, and our sins, and sees the blessed invention that is each one of us.

*******

So may we, like the Israelites, stop trying to replace our one true God with our invented deities.

And instead, may we see ourselves as God’s invention who are destined for greatness.

Because truly, anything that God invents is always good, and will last forever. Amen.

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