In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
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 gone. They gave up on him even though the Lord had chosen him to lead them. They decided that the Word of the Lord they had heard wasn’t enough; they wanted to have a god or an image which they could see to go before them, something more like what they were used to from their Egyptian background 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 wasn’t a faithful pastor. 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 they liked.
Aaron knew deep down, though, that this wasn’t right. 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.” In other words, he tried mix two things together, using 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. 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 like the golden calf, indulgence leading to immorality. That’s one way to keep the people happy.
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 wonder if it’s ever really going to happen, and in the meantime 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. Boring.” The Scriptures urge us to wait on the Lord and to devote ourselves to His teaching and preaching. But we want 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. We want worship to be what we’re comfortable with and interested in and entertained by.
And so pastors and congregations can be tempted to try to mix the church and the world in their worship. But we learn from Aaron’s experience here that even though you call it the worship of the Lord, in the end it turns out to be idolatry. For instance, mix the teaching of Jesus with political ideology–socialism, captalism, libertarianism, communism, fascism–and you end up with idolatry, where the true God becomes less important than social agendas or national unity or material prosperity. The Lord isn’t the focus but merely a means to achieve those ends. Or mix the teaching of Jesus with pop psychology, and you get pastors whose main strength isn’t preaching the truth about sin and the cross but telling humorous stories and delivering sermons about “7 steps toward better relationships” or “Biblical dieting” or “How to be the best version of yourself.” Again, the Lord isn’t central but just part of the formula for some supposedly greater goal. Or mix the true worship of the Lord with the ways of cultural media, and you end up with screens in church that inevitably distract from the cross and the altar, with drama performances and singers who give the impression that the front of the church is a stage rather than a holy space where God is truly present in His words and sacraments. The goal is not communion with the true God, but achieving spiritual and religious “feels.” That’s really our cultural idol today, anything that gives you all the right feels. Like the children of Israel, we tend to want what we’re used to in the world, with the emphasis more on visuals than on the Word, on emotion than on truth. That’s what we’re willing to give up a little gold for. Go ahead and keep the Lutheran substance, but give me a little worldly style. The problem is that the worldly style almost always drowns out the Word of truth.
And I should point out that this works in the opposite direction, too, where we invest worldly things with almost sacred significance. Sporting events have their own liturgy of when to do what and how to show reverence to the game, and God forbid if anyone messes with it. Fans engage in the rituals of their team with great fervor, where even Christians are often much more willing to talk about the things of the sport than the things of the Gospel, exhibiting more passion for the events of Sunday afternoon than Sunday morning. And the same sorts of things can be said about much of our entertainment–concerts and performances and events–where the goal is to create a communal experience that fulfills the need for something mystical and even spiritual.
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. They will have to drink the cup of 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, 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 but on what is eternal, what lasts for all times and places and even 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 meant to be not like the culture and the world, but like heaven. Church is where heaven and earth intersect, where Christ Himself is truly present among us in His preaching and body and blood. That’s why in the liturgy we sing the songs of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. Going into church is to be like stepping into another world. 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.
Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “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 in your midst.” Faith isn’t all that impressed with what can be seen with the eyes; faith relies on the ears. We don’t put our confidence in what is visually appealing, but what appeals to our hearing, the true and pure Word of God. The kingdom of God is truly in our midst because Christ the King Himself is truly among us right here, even though He remains unseen to ordinary sight. The kingdom of God is wherever the flesh-and-blood Jesus is–wherever He is speaking His words to His people and giving Himself to them in order that they may have His forgiveness and share in His life. Being joined to Christ through faith, we have entrance already here on earth into the heavenly kingdom of God.
Jesus brings to perfect fulfillment for us what Moses did for Israel on the mountain. Remember that 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 and the disaster He was going to do to His people, and He did not do it.
Isn’t that exactly what Jesus has done for you? When God’s wrath was burning hot against you and the whole world because of sin, the Son of God stepped in the way of that wrath and took it all for you in His own body on the cross. When Jesus was crucified, He suffered hell for you so that you would be spared and set free. In Jesus God the Father relents from giving you what you deserve and instead gives you forgiveness and life through faith in Him.
Even now Jesus is still stepping in and interceding and speaking up in your defense. He is your greater Moses, pointing to the blood He shed on your behalf that declares you “not guilty,” calling to mind the divine promises that have been applied to you, that the name of the Holy Trinity is upon you, that you believe and are baptized. 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.” And Romans 8 says, “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”
So let us then wait patiently for the return of Christ, even if it seems like it’s taking forever. Let us look forward to the Last Day, not dreading it as a day of doom that we need to fear, but as something to look forward to and eagerly desire. For our judgment day already occurred almost 2000 years ago at Calvary. God took care of your judgment on the cross. It’s over and done with. Believe in that truth. All that remains for you now is mercy and life. Jesus tells you to look up and lift up your heads and watch for His return. For your salvation is nearer now than when you first believed. You who 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