This week our Torah portion focuses on the story of the Golden Calf. To get the most out of this narrative, we must go back to Exodus 24 and read about the great covenantal ceremony when the whole nation spoke with one voice and promised to obey God. We read in 24:7, “Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!’” Then, in verse 17, “And to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a consuming fire on the mountain top”. They had the best of intentions. They wanted to obey God, and it was truly an amazing moment of their lives to experience the presence of God and his Word.
But after Moses went up the mountain for a long time, the people became concerned. They no longer saw the presence of God on the mountain, and Moses, who was the spokesperson for God was absent. It was as if God had disappeared. The truth was that God was quite active, and Moses had not really disappeared. Moses was meeting with God on top of the mountain in the clouds. But the people felt abandoned and therefore they needed a substitute. They resorted to the cultural norms in which they lived. The Israelites did not drop down out of heaven. They were a real people living in the world of that time. What God had given them in his Word, and in his very being, was an alternative way of life and worship. We could call it a “radical way of life and worship”. When they could no longer see or feel God, they resorted to what they knew. According to the culture of the day, building a Golden Calf was the normal way of getting the attention of the gods. But God had given them a better way!
This passage raises important questions for us today. Do we, even as Messiah followers, try to fill a void if it seems that God is absent? In our culture, it is easy to find substitutes for God. We may not actually build a statue, but we find substitutes in institutions, relationships, possessions, and ideas. When we lose our focus on God, we look for love and satisfaction in varieties of ways. What is it that makes us feel good? What makes us feel worthy and meaningful, satisfied and secure? For some people, a career becomes a source of meaning and significance. Material possessions make many people feel good. The accumulation of things—whatever they may be—can be a source of satisfaction and security. Political beliefs, sports teams, marriage, and a myriad of other things can easily serve as substitutes for a strong relationship with God. We may not realize it, but even for the most well-meaning of us, Yeshua becomes just another planet in our universe. We add Yeshua to everything else to make a full life. This was the view of our ancestors when they built the Golden Calf. They were not declaring their independence from the God of Israel, but the calf was their way of filling the void. The sad truth is that no matter how much we try, the void is never filled!
But a deeper question to ask is, “Why do we feel that God is ever absent”? It is because we have certain expectations of God, and when they are not met we declare the absence of God? When circumstances in life seem unfair or impossible, do we wonder where God is? When we have not taken the time to be filled with the Word and fellowship with God, it can seem that God is far off. But just like in the days of the Golden Calf, God is not absent! God is aways at work and nearby.
Yeshua makes that promise to always be at work and nearby. He does not promise an easy or fair life. Rather, he promises that we can stay above the fray and not fall apart or sink into the quicksand. He promises an eternal future in this world. Like the days of the wilderness, God got the people through an exceedingly difficult period to reach the Promised Land. In the Book of Hebrews, we read about people of great faith who never saw the fulfillment of the promise in their lives. However, they died knowing that God was present and the promise was still true!
When we forget that God is ever present and active, we will turn to tangible things to meet our human need for meaning, significance, and satisfaction. But, remember that having a career, material possessions, relationships, and varieties of passions (depending on what they are) can be used to glorify God and serve others! Just last week, I spoke to a successful businessperson who told me that they feel that the work that they do is not primarily to earn money but to serve clients. What a fantastic attitude! This attitude keeps people from building golden calves and focused on serving and worshipping God. Material possessions are not evil, but we should live within limits and recognize that we are stewards of God’s wealth. Marriages and all relationships can be a major source of joy and demonstrate the love and service of God. However, we build a Golden Calf when we assume that my significant other is there to make me happy. When we neglect our spiritual growth, or do not take enough time to reflect and get rejuvenated, we can burn out and build Golden Calves.
The key is to always know that God is present and active. Stay in the Word of God and take time for prayer! Take time for your own spiritual growth and development. Remember that Paul told Timothy to pay close attention to himself as well as the work that God had given him to do (see 1 Timothy 4:16). Every moment of every day of our life is an act of worship and service! Let us return and recalibrate our lives, and repent of the Golden Calves. Let us be restored to the loyal steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness of God, and drink deeply from the wells of salvation.