We All Worship Something

Introduction to the Text

For the last few weeks, we’ve been hearing the story of the Exodus – God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt under Pharaoh’s rule, and their complicated journey to a new land. Our first scripture reading from Psalm 105 rehearses that story, from how the people got to be in Egypt in the first place, through God’s care for them in the wilderness with manna, water, and quail.

Our second reading tells the story of their impatience, and what happens when they take things into their own hands. Moses has gone back up the mountain to meet with God, and the people are waiting down below with Aaron, Moses’ brother. And they’re growing restless. 

Listen for the Word of God. 

Exodus 32:1-8 (CEB)

The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.”

Aaron said to them, “All right, take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. He collected them and tied them up in a cloth. Then he made a metal image of a bull calf, and the people declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Then Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!” They got up early the next day and offered up entirely burned offerings and brought well-being sacrifices. The people sat down to eat and drink and then got up to celebrate.

The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything! They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. They have made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and declared, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 

* * * *

Last week in The Christian Century there was an article that really caught my attention. It told about a course at Yale University, called “The Life Worth Living.” Over the semester, students look at eight different approaches to life, from traditional religions like Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to philosophical schools of thought, like Marxism, scientific naturalism, utilitarianism, and Nietzsche.

Of course, there’s nothing unusual about university students studying different religions or philosophies. That’s part of a good liberal arts education. What’s different in this class is its purpose, its goal. These students are asked to take these options seriously as real choices, thinking about their own lives and how different they might be depending on which world-view they live in. 

The founder of the class, theologian Miroslov Volf, says it is about “ultimate ends, or the… values by which we judge what is desirable and what is not.” One student describes it this way: “The stakes of the class felt far greater than any I had taken. We were asking questions about how we live every day and why we are doing it?” Another student posed the questions this way: “What do you want in life, and is that worth wanting?”   [David Heim, “Learning how to live: The Life Worth Living course at Yale,” The Christian Century, November 2, 2018, 32-34.]

And I thought to myself, that’s the kind of work that takes a lifetime. That’s the work of our lives.

“What do you want in life, and is that worth wanting?”

In our scripture this morning, we find the people of God facing those same kinds of questions. Their leader Moses is back up on the mountain talking to God, and they’ve grown impatient waiting. They’re ready to get on with it. Moses’ brother Aaron has stayed with them, so it’s he they turn to with their frustration and demands. 

“Make us gods who can lead us!” they tell Aaron. It doesn’t matter that God brought them out of Egypt. It doesn’t matter that God has promised to bring them to a new land, a land flowing with milk and honey. It doesn’t matter that God has warned them against worshiping false idols. All they know is that they’re stuck in the wilderness. And they’re ready to take things into their own hands. 

So Aaron gives them exactly what they want. A golden calf. A sacred cow. A god just like they knew before they were freed. Something beautiful, and impressive. Something they can put their hands on. 

As Eugene Peterson describes it, what they wanted was something that satisfied their desire for novelty and excitement, something that turned out to be pretty much a reflection of the gaudy Egyptian world in which they had so recently been oppressed but which they also lusted after and envied.

And, he says, “It nearly destroyed them.” 

“What do you want in life, and is that worth wanting?” 

That’s not so different than asking, “What is it you worship? And is it worth it?”

A few years ago David Foster Wallace gave the commencement address at Kenyon, and it became something of legend. It’s funny and droll and every time I hear it, it cuts me to the quick. I listened to it again when I was driving down to Nashville week before last. And you know, what he says sounds an awful lot like the course on life taught at Yale. He talks about the decisions we all have to make about what’s at the center of our own lives.

This is how he puts it:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship… 

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story…

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. 

But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing…

Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom… But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious to you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways ever day.
— David Foster Wallace, “This Is Water,” Farnam Street, https://fs.blog/2012/04/david-foster-wallace-this-is-water/ accessed November 4, 2018.

That’s what we have to decide, isn’t it? What will we worship. What is worth worshiping. That’s what we all have to decide. 

I don’t know that I would ever have picked this scripture for Annual Stewardship Sunday. When Joe Leithauser made the call to have our dedication today, I went to our worship planning page to see what scripture we had lined up in our series on Exodus. Lo and behold, it was this one: Aaron asking the people to give him all their sliver and gold. The irony did not escape my attention. 

And then I thought, no, that’s perfect. It’s really perfect. 

Because it’s not a question of whether you’re giving your silver and gold to something, it’s where you’re investing your life. It’s not a question of whether you’ll worship, it’s what you are going to worship. It’s not a question of having something at the center of your life, it’s whether you’re going to settle for something less than God. Are you going to settle for whatever unconscious default mode the world has offered to you?

These are the very questions we ask at baptism:  Who is your Lord and Savior? Do you trust in him? Will you be his faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love? Will you support and encourage each other to be faithful Christians?

When you bring your pledges up, when you make your promise to God and to each other to give your silver and gold here, you’re doing something so basic and so ordinary: you’re supporting this church so we can help children like Louise grow up knowing the love Jesus has for her, and help her to decide which god she will worship. Because she’s going to worship something. 

And when you walk this aisle, and offer up your pledge, you’re declaring where your own life is centered. Which god you worship. 

May it be the One who redeemed you from slavery, all kinds of slavery, and gives you freedom, freedom to truly care for other people. 

May it be the One who gives you life.