Last week as I was doing some sermon prep, I came across a new take on an old story and it got me thinking. What if our familiar sanctuary and the liturgy I love have become idols?
Let me back up a little. The story is the one about the Israelites fashioning an idol in the shape of a calf. You can find the whole story in Exodus 34, but here’s the short version. Moses was called up to the mountaintop to meet God; there he would receive the Ten Commandments. He was delayed in coming down and the people got impatient. So, they melted down their gold jewelry to make an image of a god.
I can still picture my childhood Sunday School leaflets that showed that idol in the shape of a calf resting down on its haunches. The point always was that the Israelites had made a false god that they were now worshiping.
In a Sermon Brainwave podcast, Old Testament scholar Rolf Jacobson suggests that the Israelites were not making an image of a false god; they were making a false image of the true God. Per Jacobson, the Hebrew is a bit different than what usually gets translated. The Hebrew reads, “This (the image of the calf) brought you out of Egypt.” Aaron then built an altar in front of the image, and proclaimed, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to Yahweh.” The announcement of a festival to Yahweh only makes sense if the Israelites believed they were making an image of Yahweh, not one of the false gods of the Canaanites. So, again, not an image of a false god, but a false image of the true God.
Oh, how very human to recast the living, invisible God into something we can see, something familiar and understandable and tangible. How very human to recast the living God in our own image. The Israelites are a case study in how hard it is to follow an invisible God, especially when you’re in the wilderness.
It makes me think about how hard it is to be the church right now in the time of pandemic. We are in our own wilderness. The old ways of worship and gathering (the familiar life that we had back in Egypt) are gone at least for the time being. And the longer this pandemic goes on, the more impatient we get for the familiar.
And it makes me think about how tempting it is to replace the worship of an unseen God with the familiar things we long for. For instance, the sanctuary.
Our congregation’s sanctuary is stunning. The chancel furnishings were expertly crafted by a member of the congregation. We have a gorgeous tracker pipe organ that not only sounds fabulous, but is an imposing figure of beauty in our sanctuary. We have not one, but two Steinway grand pianos; both sound and look fabulous. Behind the altar is a plain white wall with an imposing backlit cross, and at both ends of that wall are floor to ceiling clear windows that provide a stunning view of Door County beauty. In the summer tourist season, we have 40-50 people singing in a choir and another 200 people in the sanctuary. When we sing, accompanied by both organ and piano, it is something to experience. I love it.
We can’t do that right now and how tempting it is to want to hurry back to that experience rather than to recognize that we can still worship without the room that has become so important to us. How tempting it is to turn that room into the very essence of our worship life. In effect, the room becoming the idol.
Here’s another one. I love the liturgy, the high church liturgy, the liturgy full of formal ritual. Shoot, I’d use incense every week if it were up to me. And I confess that I miss it. A lot. And I confess that in the past, there have been times when I have been way too stubborn and rigid about the celebration of that liturgy, making the liturgy itself and the degree of excellence of its celebration into the thing that was more important than the God the liturgy is supposed to help us to worship.
We’re doing drive-in church now, which is by far the most casual of worship experiences that I have ever planned and led. And I can say that it feels way more like worship than I ever expected it to. I think it has helped me to see that those trappings that I have too often turned into golden calves are just that – trappings. 125-plus people and 70-80 cars keep showing up, not just members of the congregation, not just tourists in for the weekend, but folks from the community who either have never been connected to our congregation, or who haven’t been for a very long time.
All of this has exposed my idols and has become a reminder to me of how easy it is to substitute relatively minor personal preferences or aesthetic sensibilities or the way we’ve always done it, for the true God. The symbols of our faith are important; and they are not all-important.
God promises to visit God’s people not only in the room we love, not only in the liturgy that I love, but wherever, whenever, and however two or three are gathered in Christ’s name. I hope I can remember that lesson even when we return to something that looks and feels a little more normal and familiar.