Sunday’s sermon: Trying to Fill the Void

Text used – Exodus 32:1-14

  • You may have heard that the Nobel Committee is starting to release the names of this year’s Nobel Prize winners in various categories. One of the most interesting awards this year comes in the category of physics.
    • This year’s physics award[1]
      • Honors decades of research about black holes
      • Shared by 3 people:
        • Half to Roger Penrose (University of Oxford) → showed mathematically that black holes could exist
        • Half shared by Reinhard Genzel (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and UC Berkeley) and Andrea Ghez (UCLA) → provided the most convincing evidence that the black hole at the center of our very own Milky Way galaxy does, in fact, exist
    • So what’s the deal with black holes, anyway? What are they?
      • From an article in The Atlantic this week: Black holes are among the most mysterious phenomena in the universe. Forged from the cores of dead stars, they are so dense that nothing can escape their gravitational pull, not even light, which renders them invisible. Entire stars, once luminous, can be extinguished if they cross a black hole’s boundary, and pass the point of no return.[2]
      • Same Atlantic article included a paragraph that really intrigued me
        • Mentions recent research (published in Jan. 2020) that revealed scientists had found the closest known black hole to Earth – only 1,000 lightyears away and located in the Telescopium constellation: That nearby black hole is no threat to Earth. No known black hole is. If anything, we benefit from their existence. The stellar explosions that produce black holes also spew elements such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen into space. The collisions of black holes and neutron stars help spread heavier elements, such as gold and platinum. These elements make up our Earth, and our own selves.[3] → And the idea that stuff of our every day – our planet, our atmosphere, our homes, even our very bodies – were quite possibly spun from the vast void of a black hole resonated in a powerful way with me this week as I thought about this morning’s Scripture – a story about a golden calf and the void that the Israelites were trying to fill … and the voids that we try to fill in our hearts and souls and lives today.
  • So let’s talk about the Israelites and that golden calf.
    • Uncomfortable story on a number of levels
    • Grand Story of Scripture up to this point
      • Israelites have been led out of Egypt by Moses (accompanied by his brother Aaron, his right-hand man)
      • Despite Pharaoh’s sudden and violent change of heart, Israelites managed to evade the pursuing Egyptian army when God parted the waters and Moses led the Israelites across
      • Israelites have begun to wander in the wilderness … and have begun to get sick of wandering → already doing some grumbling and doubting
      • Most recently: Israelites have arrived at Mount Sinai → Moses has gone up on the mountain to speak to God
        • While on the mountain, Moses is receiving instructions from God → 10 commandments[4], instructions on all sorts of other instructions (about proper worship, proper sacrifice, proper treatment of others, proper festivals, proper construction of the tabernacle, about observing the sabbath, and so on)
  • Problem: this discussion between God and Moses was taking a long time! → That’s where today’s reading comes in: 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.”[5]
    • First reason that this Scripture is uncomfortable: the anxiety level of the Israelites → Here they are in the middle of the wilderness having followed this Moses fellow out of Egypt … and how he’s gone and disappeared. He’s disappeared up the mountain claiming to be talking to God, but all that the people at the base of the mountain can see are clouds and lightning. All they can hear is thunder. And all they can feel is the absence – the absence of Moses and, by association, the absence of God. And that absence has made them anxious. It’s made them fearful. It’s filled them with so much doubt that they start casting about frantically for something else – anything else! – to worship. They feel that deep, dark void within themselves, and they are desperate to fill it in whatever way they can.
      • Even more uncomfortable because maybe this hits a little close to home, especially in these crazy, mixed-up, contentious, separated times in which we’re living right now → we are …
        • Anxious about COVID
        • Anxious about social and economic ramifications of the pandemic
        • Anxious about blatant and violent racism rampant in our society today
        • Anxious about the political contention and unrest
        • Anxious about all of the other things that we would normally be anxious about if the world weren’t totally upside-down
          • Relationships
          • Finances
          • Raising children
          • Loved ones’ wellbeing
          • Future plans
      • And all that anxiety sort of hollows us out. It exhausts us and wears us down until we feel that void within us, too, doesn’t it? And when it does, very often, we aren’t so different from the Israelites in our story.
  • So even as we feel that anxiety along with the Israelites, we witness them try to fill that void: appeal to Moses’ brother, Aaron, for “gods who can lead us” → Aaron relents (seemingly without any qualms??) and instructs the Israelites to give him all the gold they have → Aaron melts down all their gold and cast the golden calf → Aaron builds an altar to the calf → Israelites get up early the next morning to have a worshipful festival for the calf[6]
    • Major, inexcusable mistake that Aaron makes – text: When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Then Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!”[7] → Heb. that Aaron uses for “Lord” is, in fact, the most holy name for God … the name that the Israelites use only for God and God alone … the name that is so special, so sacred that when they encounter it when reading Scripture, they don’t even say the name → This is the name Yahweh. This is the most holy and precious name for God. And Aaron has used it not speaking of the God who made sacred covenants with their ancestors Abraham and Isaac and Jacob … not speaking of the God who has led them out of slavery and through danger … not speaking of the God who has called them God’s own beloved and treasured, chosen people … but of the golden calf. The false god. The inexcusable, completely incomparable, wholly inadequate substitute.
    • Ways we try to fill that void = not so different from the Israelites
      • Purchases: cars and “big toys,” clothes and shoes and jewelry, knick knacks and home décor and things that fill up our spaces
      • Relationships – some healthy, some not
      • Addictions – alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc.
      • We try to fill that void within us with whatever we think might bring us happiness and peace … and maybe they do for a moment as we feel that dopamine hit. But that euphoria doesn’t last, and before long, we’re back where we started: anxious and wanting for more. → feel like there’s a black hole inside us and try to elevate all sorts of things to “false god” level … but false gods, they remain.
  • Not surprisingly, God’s reaction to this major transgression on the part of the Israelites is not good. → this is the other uncomfortable portion of this text
    • God’s reaction is swift and fierce – text: The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry up 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!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen who stubborn they are. Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you.”[8]
      • Definitely an uncomfortable impression of God
        • A God who is offended
        • A God who is hurt
        • A God who is frustrated
        • A God who is feeling slighted
    • But it’s crucial for us to look at the story as a whole, not just these verses isolated in and of themselves.
      • What comes next? → Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites[9]
        • Intercedes for the lives of the people
        • Intercedes for the covenant that hangs by a thread
        • Intercedes by recalling the words that we read only a few weeks ago – God’s covenant with Abram that God would make his descendants “as many as the stars in the sky”[10]
      • Result of Moses’ intercessions – text: Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.[11]
    • As a whole, even in the face of the discomfort that this whole story stirs within us, we’re reminded of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
      • Heb. “changed his mind” is much more nuanced than we can grasp in the English translation = connotations of compassion, comfort, and allowing oneself to be sorry → This is the picture of God that we are left with in this story. So often, we talk about how we as humans are created in God’s own image, and when we do that, we tend to talk about the happy, heart-warming, exciting parts of being human: creativity, love, joy, and so on. But today’s story shows us that being created in God’s image also includes a compassion born out of altercation and struggle. It shows us that being created in God’s image includes comfort in the face of some really difficult, contentious, painful circumstances. And it shows us that being created in God’s image includes the capacity for forgiveness – both seeking it and giving it, frequently at the same time.
        • Brings it around to Jesus’ role in the Grand Story of faith and declares the good news of the gospel for us
          • That Jesus makes that intercession for us first, foremost, and forever
          • That the grace extended to us through the life and death and resurrection of Christ bridges even the most contentious moments in our lives
          • That we are only made truly whole – that the only thing that can truly fill that void within us gnawed out by anxiety and doubt and fear and frustration – is the love of God
            • A God who has been there
            • A God who knows all about our mishaps and loves us still
            • A God whose forgiveness is greater than we can even begin to imagine
            • Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Marina Koren. “What Earth Owes to Black Holes” in The Atlantic. Posted Oct. 7, 2020, accessed Oct. 10, 2020.

[2] Koren.

[3] Koren.

[4] Ex 20:1-21.

[5] Ex 32:1.

[6] Ex 32:2-7.

[7] Ex 32:5.

[8] Ex 32:7-10.

[9] Ex 32:11-13.

[10] Ex 32:13.

[11] Ex 32:14.

One response to “Sunday’s sermon: Trying to Fill the Void

  1. Pingback: Sunday’s sermon: Prayer is Complicated | Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

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