Below is the manuscript of a sermon I preached on October 15, 2017 (19th Sunday after Pentecost) at Coker Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Coker, AL, just west of Tuscaloosa. As with all the manuscripts I post, the actual sermon varied in places.
Image credit: Outset Ministry
Sermon Text – Exodus 32:1-14
When we gather as church, whose promise do we trust?
God’s? Or our own?
The people of Israel had seen God’s promise in action, in ways that were so dramatic their children’s children’s children would still tell the stories. It is the same story that we, their spiritual children, are still telling 3,500 years later. They were in bondage in Egypt – and the Lord God miraculously set them free. They were chased by a Pharaoh whose heart was hardened, by an army they could not hope to defeat – until the Lord God parted a sea, and they walked over the dry land. And when they turned back to look from the far bank, they saw the Egyptian army swallowed by the collapsing walls of the sea and drowned. They were hungry in the wilderness, and the Lord God caused mana, bread from heaven, to appear on the ground for them to eat. They only had to gather it up. When they were thirsty in the parched desert, the Lord God gave them water springing out of a bone-dry rock. When they were lost, the presence of the Lord God appeared to them in pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to show them the way. And when they lacked instruction, the Lord God gave them the Ten Commandments, made an lasting covenant with them, and the people said with a single voice, “We will do everything that the Lord has commanded.”
But God calls them a “stiff-necked” people.
They complain about the food that they’re provided. Before the Lord provides it through the rock, they complain about the lack of water. They complain about their deliverance; they wish that they were still alive and slaves in Egypt rather than die in the desert.
And now, at Mount Sinai, at the mountain where God is making more promises to them and giving them more instruction – they reject him. Moses is on the mountain for forty days, and they’re getting restless. They’re anxious. They’re afraid – even after all that they had seen. Because Moses had not come back, and even though they should know where he is – on the mountain! – and what he’s doing – communing with their God! – they claim they do not know what has happened to him. Their lives in Egypt as slaves were so regimented, their daily tasks all laid out by overseers, that now in their freedom any symptom of uncertainty spreads as an epidemic. The evidences of God’s presence is still around them – they saw what was going on at Sinai; they were still daily gathering the mana!
Yet their own disbelief had taken hold. “Make us gods!” they tell Aaron.
It’s not that this god they demand Aaron to make is easier to serve. They rip rings off the ears of their wives and their children and give them up freely, en masse to build it. This god they make requires sacrifice, and they willing make this sacrifice for one reason: this god is a god they can control.
This god is a god made by them.
And when the god of the golden calf is made, and they make their sacrifices, their anxiety is relieved. They “worship” – at least they think they’re worshiping. They eat. They drink. They play games. They revel.
They no longer have to wait for a God they can’t control. They’ve made a god themselves. They no longer have to wait for a leader to come down from the mountain. They have complete sway over another leader, a leader who should know better, but who follows the wills of the people rather than the will of God. Their anxieties are lifted because they’ve broken away from the God who demands they follow, and they are now eagerly charting out their own path, a path – as we see in the rest of this passage – that leads to death. They have abandoned the promise of God for the promises they’ve made to themselves.
When we gather as church, whose promise do we trust?
God’s? Or our own?
Are we less stiff-necked than they are?
There’s no doubt we have anxiety in the American church today. We look at numbers that have been declining since the 1960s. At our presbytery meeting on Friday, the moderator for the General Assembly of our denomination, the Rev. Dr. David Lancaster, pointed out this anxiety by bringing our attention to a less looked at statistic. Every year churches report numbers to the denomination, and almost every year, under the column heading for “confessions of faith,” the numbers remain “one” or “zero” for most churches. The anxiety is how are we going to “survive” when we aren’t proclaiming the gospel to the lost.
I know you feel that anxiety here, because like many churches in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, you are without a pastor. I’ve been a member of churches without pastors. I’ve sat on a pastoral nominating committee. I know the anxiety that comes without knowing who will lead the church. I know the anxiety that comes with wondering what directions the church I love will take in the future. It’s a difficult time for any body of faith. You wonder, “What will the future of Coker Cumberland Presbyterian Church be?” We wonder, “What will the future of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church be?” We wonder, “What will the future of the Church be?”
Sisters and brothers, the hard truth of this passage for us is this: beware this anxiety that we feel. It leads to idolatry. And idolatry leads to death.
It is tempting for us to say in our uncertainty, “What should we do?!” But truth is everything that is required for us to do has been spelled out for us. And in asking that question, we want to make ourselves masters of the church’s destiny, not Christ, our bridegroom. And that is idolatry.
There is nothing wrong with church programs, especially for church programs aimed at evangelism and discipleship. But when you make the mistake of thinking those programs are going to save the church, you make them into an idol. There is nothing wrong with a more contemporary style of worship. But when you think that if you don’t put up screens, or if you don’t buy a drum-set, or if you don’t make an effort to look hip or cool that the church will die! – then you’ve made that form of worship an idol.
There is nothing wrong with desiring and praying for a godly pastor to lead your church. If it were, I’d be out of job! But when you think a pastor is going to come and save your church, you’ve made a pastor your idol, and you’ve denied that your church already has a savior. I’ve seen the job descriptions churches make for pastors – I haven’t seen yours, so it may not apply here! – but I’ve seen plenty to know that the savior-pastor is exactly what so many churches are looking for. The list of requirements is long, diverse, and so much of what the church should do and must do collectively is put individually on the pastor.
And this is idolatry. These things are idolatry because, like the golden calf, it takes away the hard work of waiting, of being dependent on a God who is not you, and it allows you to be free from anxiety because you are the one who can do the work. If you follow this church-growth plan, if you change your worship style in this way, if you hire this pastor, if you build this building – all of your problems about the future of the church will have hope . . .
. . . not godly hope . . .
. . . but a hope that we can manufacture ourselves.
And hope that we can control is always the hope that we prefer – even at the expense of the true hope we have in Jesus Christ.
Church of Christ, we must not dare replace the hope we have in the promise of Christ for the hope we manufacture ourselves. Changes in style, in leadership, in method to reach a contemporary culture are not in-and-of themselves evil. I am not advocating that the Cumberland Presbyterian Church or this church here at Coker keep doing things the same way! There are many places in which I’d argue the opposite. Israel’s gold was not itself evil. The tabernacle had golden objects all over it. The rings of gold were fine when they were on the wives and children of Israel. But the minute changes in the church become the objects of our hope, we commit idolatry. And idolatry leads to death.
The last portion of this passage is notoriously difficult to understand. And I think in some ways it’s meant to be – so, I hope to let some of the tension in this passage remain. What we see in the interchange between God and Moses is a demonstration of a God who is both just and gracious. He is both righteous and loving. He is both holy and intimately connected to his people.
Their turning away should prompt him to turn away. That’s why in verse 8, God tells Moses that they are your people . . . Moses’ people . . . not God’s. The righteous requirement of God compels him to stamp out evil, to destroy it, to obliterate it because even in the very sight of the holiness and the provision of God, the people have turned inward to worship themselves.
This is certainly a time of testing for Moses, just as these are times of testing for leaders in our church.
And Moses’ response – which is so unlike most of our responses to our current problems – is to pray.
His first instinct isn’t to go down on his own. His first instinct isn’t to set things right. It isn’t to fire Aaron and hire a new priest. His first instinct isn’t to find new ways to incorporate this idolatry in their worship so that he won’t lose members. His first instinct is to pray.
He prays reminding God of God’s own promises. And I think he prays them not so much to remind God but to remind himself. In this testing of Moses’ faith, Moses is compelled to remember God’s character. God is the righteous judge who passes the correct sentence of destruction for an idolatrous people – and then suspends the sentence. There is a dance going on here between Moses and God – a God who is indeed eternal and unchanging – that forces Moses to remember who God is and shows Moses that God truly does hear our requests. And when they are in accordance with God’s will – as Jesus taught us to pray – God’s will is indeed done.
And we know God’s will for the church.
Individual churches will close. Whole denominations will die. But Christ’s church will last forever because Christ wills it to! And the knowledge of this promise does not compel us to sit tight, but to work productively. To work in faithfulness. To rest, even as we work, in the full sufficiency of Jesus Christ. The saving of souls is God’s business, and God’s alone. And by his grace we are given the privilege of participating – people in pulpits and pews alike – by preaching the gospel. When he sends us out, he does not send us out alone, but God’s very Spirit dwells within us and is compelling those to whom we preach.
And when we fail, when our churches close, when we worry about the future, Christ still intercedes for us. Our Lord Jesus Christ, though he has ascended to the heavenly mountaintop, is surely coming again! Come, Lord Jesus! When we fail and follow idols, his pierced hands and feet cry out for us and on our behalf: “Look. I have bought these people, my church, for the price of my precious blood. They are mine. And the gates of hell shall not prevail.”