Readings Exodus 32:7-14 , Luke 15:1-10

Sermon – Rev. Kate McFarlane

The golden calf as described in the book of Exodus

My sermon today has been such a struggle. There were points where I doubted whether you’d get one at all. At first sight the readings didn’t seem too bad; the lost coin, the lost sheep. They’re good stories, old favourites, but then…what new can you say about them? But for me an even bigger obstacle was today’s Exodus reading. What a text!

Don’t get me wrong, this scripture did speak to me. I immediately heard a startling challenge here. God’s people, whom God has rescued, set free, liberated from their slavery in Egypt, promptly turn away from him and cast for themselves an image of a calf to worship and sacrifice to.

Straight away I felt stirred to question, what idols have I set up? In what do I put my trust? What do I ‘worship’, in my life, above all else? Achievements, security, money, appearance, family, football!? Many, many things and very often not God.

I could phrase the question, ‘With what am I obsessed?’ What besieges my thoughts? What besieges your thoughts?

We can ask this of ourselves as individuals but also of our country.

Could we not say that different political groupings in our country have been setting up their own tribal gods for us to worship? The golden calf of Brexit, the ‘god’ which will set us free from foreign domination and interference, the ‘god’ will bring us up, not out of the land of Egypt, but out of Europe! What is being sacrificed to the worship of that god?

Or, and I speak as a profoundly committed Remainer, the golden calf of Remain, if that’s a stance which says ‘I have no need of change; I live comfortably: travel comfortably: I am happy in my middle-class, liberal bubble.’

In Britain we have been busy setting up these idols, and have become obsessed with them above all else, signing ourselves up to worship them, to sacrifice at their altars. We have come to see only heresy and blasphemy in all those who do not agree with us or worship as we do. In our different tribes we cement in place our different gods and we entrench ourselves in hostility and antagonism.

So, for me, the golden calf is a powerful and provocative image which speaks to us, today, out of ancient scripture, but God himself remained my insuperable problem, as I struggled to write this sermon.

I can’t bear the God of Exodus! What on earth do we make of this wrathful, ranting, petulant deity who has to be reminded of the commitments he’s made, an almighty creator who has to be calmed down and brought to his senses by the mere mortal, Moses.

‘Let me alone so that my wrath may grow hot against them and I may consume them’. ‘Leave me alone.’ It’s the tone of a sulky, and in this case exceedingly dangerous teenager. Forgive me, teenagers in the room. I’m coming back to that.

We read Jesus’ story of the lost sheep and may well feel this simply isn’t the same God. Here is a God who will risk everything to go out searching for a single soul, a shepherd who’ll leave everything else to seek unceasingly after the one that is lost.

And notice, sheep aren’t big on repentance! The sheep hasn’t repented its folly. It hasn’t penitently asked the shepherd to come. The sheep does nothing but get itself lost, yet the shepherd seeks until it is found, lays it tenderly on his shoulders and takes it home rejoicing.

This is the image we want of God, gently seeking us out, in the midst of whatever mess we have got ourselves into and lovingly carrying us home. So how ‘on earth’ can this be the same God as the one in Exodus? I was very tempted to dismiss our Old Testament passage and cling to the cosier image of today’s Gospel, but that, I knew, would be a cop out and do a disservice to both.

As I hope my comments on the golden calf showed, there is much for us still to learn from these ancient texts and truth to be found there. I believe that the God we find in both the Old and New testaments reflects people’s on-going struggle to explain who God is, to discover his nature, his character and how he works, doing it through their own human experiences of victory and defeat, suffering, betrayal and exile. As we have searched for God we have found new facets to our creator with the key moment, of course, being the revelation of God through Jesus himself, that pivotal point when God walked among us.

But while our understanding of God has grown, developed and changed, I begin to see there’s also a continuity, even between todays’ apparently diametrically opposed readings, and it’s all about love, obsessive, uncompromising love.

I said I’d come back to teenagers. Those of us who passed that time of life some time ago, remember, for a moment, how you felt as a teenager. Maybe it wasn’t the case for you, but I remember things mattering desperately, obsessively. Compromise wasn’t good enough.

Relationships were particularly intense; family relationships, peer relationships, the first experiences of love. Jealousy was fierce. A bad experience was the end of the world; life wasn’t worth living. In a relationship which went wrong I preferred never to see the person again rather than feel the pain of them being there but not caring about me. Sound familiar; ‘Let me alone, so my wrath may burn hot against them.’

Perhaps here, we can see this as our ‘teenage’ perspective on a God who loves so passionately, so intensely, so obsessively he cannot bear that we should look to anyone other than him.

And in Luke’s Gospel, I begin to realise, it’s that very same uncompromising, obsessive love in action; the parable starts ‘which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine and go after the one?’ Well actually, many of us wouldn’t. You’d only act if that 1 besieged your thoughts, if that single individual mattered so much to you that your life couldn’t possibly be complete without them.

Exodus and Luke present us with an obsessive God, a God whose love is so powerful he cannot bear the loss of us. He will not accept the loss of us. God’s thoughts are besieged by us! Our creator will not consider life complete if one of his people is missing. Today’s muddled scriptures together tell us, show us, that God loves each one of us with a consuming, jealous desire and with tender, endlessly persevering commitment.

We reject this love when we turn away to worship our own creations in place of our creator, the golden calves of different political ideologies or the more personal idols we may start to obsess over or become besieged by, anything which leads us to wander away from God and causes us to forget that we are God’s people.

Today’s good news is that however lost we may have become, personally, or as a country, our God is out searching for us with that utterly obsessive love which never gives up.