irectly across the street from the chapel of my seminary was the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Now, if you’ve never heard of the Oriental Institute, you would be forgiven. Not many outside that South-side Chicago neighborhood have ever heard of it, much less stepped foot inside of it. But it is a true gem, a museum rivaling the greatest in the world for its expansive collection of artifacts from the Ancient Near East. Walking through its halls, you will see tablets, inscriptions, objects of everyday life, religious artifacts, and weapons from Egypt, the Babylonian and Assyrian Empires, as well as various other cultures that called this region home, including the ancient Israelites.
Once, while exploring the collection, I came across a small figurine, no bigger than my hand, made from hammered gold and other metals. It was an idol, for a fertility god, if I remember correctly. Looking at it, I was filled with awe. I was gazing upon something that had been wrought by flesh and blood like mine, flesh and blood like yours, some four thousand years ago. It had been held in hands like yours and mine, beheld by eyes like yours and mine, in a past so distant that it challenged the mind to comprehend.
Looking at it, I felt something else too. I felt sadness. This object, this idol, was created to bring hope. Perhaps it had sat in the home of a family hoping for many children. Maybe it resided in an agricultural community trying to ward off famine by ensuring an abundant crop or an increase in the herd. But this idol was so small. Its crude form was so frail that it was amazing that it had survived to the present day. More than that, it was empty, devoid of life. In our human desire to make something hallowed, we had made something hollow instead, and essential hollowness shared by all idols. For the first time, I understood the claim that Yahweh is the living God. This idol ached with deadness. It lacked everything that God is. This idol was not God.
When I hear the story from Exodus, I see in my mind that small idol, so small and helpless in the face of the world. Moses had climbed up the mountain to speak with God, while the people waited below. But forty days had passed, and now the people were feeling small and helpless before that mountain. They saw no sign of Moses, only the thunderous cloud that surrounded the mountaintop he had ascended.
They were afraid. Surely Moses must have perished in that constant storm. Who would lead them now? Yes, they followed Yahweh, but none of them had ever seen God face to face, for God had always been obscured from their sight: behind columns of fire, beneath the waves of a parted sea, within the manna that had fallen from heaven. With Moses gone, how would they know that it was Yahweh that they followed?
So, they went to Aaron, Moses’ brother and the future high priest of Israel, and beseeched him, “Make us an idol, that it might lead us through the wilderness.” And Aaron did. He gathered together their gold and with it formed the figure of a calf. And the people rejoiced. They prayed to it. They offered sacrifices to it. They reveled together before it. And here, revel is a euphemism in the ancient Hebrew for the biggest orgy anyone had seen. The golden calf watched over their revelry, the firelight gleaming in its golden eyes. But it saw nothing, for it was hollow. The golden calf was not God.
This story is different from other stories of idols in the ancient texts. After all, there would be other idols. God’s people would be tempted by other Gods. Though out the scriptures are stories, and hints of stories, of times when idols to foreign gods would be built in the Promised Land. But the golden calf was different. In it, Aaron had not formed and idol to a foreign god. With his own two hands, he wrought an idol to Yahweh.
In its golden form, the people had at last what they had never had before. Yahweh-who-is-always-hidden, now had a form the people could behold. Yahweh, whose voice was found in the still silence between thunder claps, now could be heard the people in the sweet metallic ringing of gold. Yahweh, who is always beyond human comprehension, was now something around which the people could wrap their hands and their minds. The people were comforted.
As you may know, I just returned from two weeks of vacation in Scotland and England, and the last of my jetlag is fading away. I was there with Matt as he is on his sabbatical. During this trip of his, he is visiting many different sites that were significant in the history of the Protestant Reformation.
While in Edinburgh, we stood in the house of John Knox, a leading figure in the reformation in Scotland, who helped to shape the Church of Scotland into the Presbyterian form it takes to this day. From the windows of his house, we could see the towering figure of St. Giles Church, where John Knox preached in the last years of his life. Just beyond St. Giles, we could see the hulking stonework of the Edinburgh Castle. Behind its fortress walls, in the time of John Knox, sat Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned. For Mary was Catholic, and Mary had tried to restore Catholicism to the land before being imprisoned by Elizabeth, her sister, the Queen of England.
While the conflict of the reformation was immensely more complicated and nuanced, for our purposes, the cause of the reformers was in part a cause against idolatry. They saw the Church in Rome as having created a new idol, formed not of gold, but of flesh and blood. In the form not of a calf, but of a Pope. The reformers saw this institution as standing between God and the people. They saw it as an attempt to grasp onto that which is fundamentally ungraspable; an attempt to control that which is uncontrollable. The Pope is not God.
Of course, nothing is ever straightforward. Even as the Protestant movement was splitting irreversibly from the Church in Rome, it was also fracturing internally. As John Knox sat in his home watching the steeple of St. Giles and the castle walls which held his adversary, other reformers were watching him and those like him, and they were concerned. They watched this new emphasis among some reforms on scripture as the sole authority in all matters of faith. With foreboding, they warned that Knox and others were replacing one infallible authority with another. They worried that Knox and others were building a new idol to sit between the people and God. This one formed not of gold, but of paper and ink. They were attempting to give voice to that which is spoken only through silence. The Bible is not God.
When we think of idols, so often our minds go to the worship of other gods; we think that idols are used to worship something instead of our God. This story reminds us that, just as often, we find idols sitting between us and our God. Just like our ancestors, we are confronted by God, who remains always just beyond our grasp. It frightens us. There is a God-shaped emptiness in our world, a God-shaped emptiness within us. We long to fill it. So, we fashion endless idols to fill that emptiness. It was true back then. It is true now.
Sometimes those idols take the form of a church building, beloved by all. It starts as a place where we worship God, but becomes an idol of brick and stone, to which we sacrifice all our energy and all our resources. We begin to celebrate the building and make it our mission to perpetuate the building. We find it hard to imagine encountering God apart from the building. But the building is not God.
Sometimes we make an idol of the church’s history. I’ve certainly seen that in this region of the country! After all, in New England, we all know that the oldest church in a town holds a certain prestige over all the others. You can always tell when history has become an idol, because instead of hearing stories of what God is doing now, you hear stories of the church’s history. You can tell it is an idol when what has always been done becomes more important than what might be possible. Yes, history can anchor us, connect us to a place and an identity. But it becomes an idol when it supplants our connection to God and replaces God as our anchor. But history is not God.
But it is not just in churches, we make idols in our personal lives as well. We can make an idol of our success, whether it is academic, financial, or physical. We fall victim to the great Protestant fallacy that linked our success in this life to a sign of God’s favor, a sign of our salvation. How are we assured of God’s blessing and salvation? By our success. Why are we successful? Because God has smiled upon us; God has chosen us. So, we set our success between ourselves and God. We defend our success at all cost and sacrifice greatly to it. We look with judgment upon the poor and the suffering, assuring ourselves of their wickedness, deafening ourselves to God’s command to care for the least and lowest. But success is not God.
Even more pervasively in our society, we make an idol of country. In the face of the dangers of this world, we seek a sense of safety and identity in patriotism and nationalism. We pledge allegiance to God and country, as equals. We prefer to do the bombastic displays required by patriotism rather than to do what the Lord requires—namely justice, kindness, and humility. So, we set country between us and our God (sometimes quite literally), and we form an idol of thread and color. But the flag is not God.
Now, to be clear, none of these things are bad by themselves. Church buildings can be good. Stories shared in our church histories can be good. Success in this life can be good. And our country can be good. But we hunger for God, and we fashion these things, and many others, into idols. And we try to use them to fill the God-shaped emptiness within ourselves and within our world. We try, and try, and try, and try. But they are hollow things. They are insubstantial in the face of the world. They cannot hear our prayers and worship of them. They cannot smell the sacrifices we offer them. They cannot see our revelry before them. For they have no life within them. They, themselves, are empty.
The Good News, my friends, is that God calls us back from our idolatry. Time and again, we are tempted by idols which offer the concrete and knowable, and we are led astray. But God remains faithful, God calls us to set aside the idols we have placed between ourselves and our God, and God invites us back into relationship. And it is not an easy.
It is terrifying to leave that emptiness open within ourselves and within our world. It is the hard way of faith. As Anathea Portier-Young writes, “The hard way […] reckons with a divine presence that continues to elude our senses even as it fills and animates them. The hard way […] knows the pain of absence and doubt, but still chooses to follow cloud and fire through the desert…”
But it is only when we pursue the hard way of faith that we encounter the God whom we have sought and for whom we have hungered. When we pursue the hard way of faith, we at last hear God’s voice in the silent and still places. When we pursue the hard way of faith, we at last glimpse God’s self, moving through the hidden and the obscured. When we pursue the hard way of faith, we finally discover God filling the emptiness in ourselves and in our world. When we pursue the hard way of faith, we at last come face-to-face with our God, the living God, has sought us and longs for us.
Preached by Adam Yates