Moses is delayed. That’s where the problem starts. You can trace the origin of the golden calf to the fact that Moses is late coming down from the mountain.
He is more than late. He has been missing for forty days.
To understand the anxiety bordering on terror that is erupting among the people, think of it like this: Moses is their guide. Leading them through a foreign and hostile land. None of them speak the language. None are familiar with the geography or topography. It is Moses who has the map, the compass, the translation book, and it is he who knows how to secure food. And he is gone missing.
With each passing day the leaderless people of Israel grow more and more distressed. And they wonder: And where is he? Why he is taking so long? Have we been abandoned?
Which is pretty much the questions most of us ask of God when we are in distress. Where is God? Why is God taking so long? Have I been abandoned?
I can sympathize with the peoples’ agitation. They call all kinds of meetings and do their best to come up with a plan. But they are flailing. They are hungry, tired, agitated and frightened, and they are not thinking their best thoughts.
They do what they know they should not do. What they have vowed never to do: they abandon God and Moses and strike out on their own,
With their own hands they presume to create a god, a golden calf, an idol.
And then, because food and drink can take the edge off, they party … they indulge.
Let me step back for a minute: if you were here Sunday, you heard the story of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments: ten simple, sure-fire ways to keep ourselves in good stead with God and with each other. Ten practices to keep us from wandering … to keep us on the straight and narrow.
But the Ten Commandments are only the first step: Step One of a Two Step Process.
God knows we do not have the stuff—the discipline, the self-will—to keep the Ten Commandments on our own. We do not, most of us. We do not.
Which, ironically, explains and excuses Moses’ long absence: You see, Moses is delayed because God is conveying to Moses, Step Two.
Step One: Keep the Ten Commandments. All ten, all the time, and you will be in good stead with God and with each other.
But, because God knows we will fail at this, because the Ten Commandments, while clear and simple in their presentation are terribly difficult in their execution: Enter, Step Two: Build a church.
That is what Moses and God are on about up the mountain. The building of a church, a sanctuary, a house for God.
Moses’ is delayed because he and God are pouring over the architectural drawings, the blue prints. God is conveying to Moses the designs for the church … in vivid and exquisite detail … details so exquisite and vivid they take up six entire chapters of the Book of Exodus chapters 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, and 30 … six chapters in which God details the sanctuary: its dimensions, the materials from which it is to be made, the interior furniture and finishes, the lamp, the table, plates and chalices, the carvings and decorations, the materials and fabrics, the basin for water, the curtains. And, not least, the work of the priests … how they shall dress, how they shall preside.
Let me step outside of this story for a minute to share with you a heavenly fact. Heavenly fact: there are no churches in heaven. No churches in heaven. (Source: the Book of Revelation)
Why? Because God is God’s own temple. Because in heaven one has access to God: intimate, direct, immediate and awesome.
But here, east of Eden … here, on earth where not everything is, as it is in heaven; here, now, in this life, churches are necessary, they are Step Two of a two Step process.
First Step: Memorize and study and keep the Ten Commandments. But, on the off chance that we might not manage that, there’s Step Two: Build a house for God and go there, often, regularly.
There will be no image of God there, no golden calf, no icon or likeness of God. Nothing made by human hands that stands-in for God. No surrogates or proxies for God. No Golden Calves or carved Vishnu’s or marble statues of Zeus or Athena.
What is there then? What is here? The divine presence. Just that! The majestic presence of God. That is what God is promising Moses up there on Sinai: that if we build God a house, we will know God’s presence here. We will meet God here.
Churches like this matter: it matters, deeply matters that among the tall, gleaming edifices to industry and commerce, to entertainment, the arts and government, there is a building whose sole purpose is to bridge the chasm between heaven and earth ...a building capable of absorbing the grief of bombings at the Marathon Finish Line, a building in which we gather to mourn the dead, comfort the suffering and grieve the loss of innocence.
A house in which we are trained and formed for love. A house dedicated to the ways of peace amidst the world’s propensity for violence.
It matters that this house of God is kept open seven-days-a week free to the public ...that anyone and everyone is welcome here to pray and meditate, weep and rejoice.
It matter that here we give witness to the power of mercy, study the difficult practice of forgiveness, and learn the art of reconciliation.
This house of God matters. It is no easy feat to keep it open, clean, safe and beautiful. It is a commitment, a sacred obligation, a ministry of time and resources, of holy hospitality and radical welcome.
This House of God matters. Because, when we get it right, God’s spirit is redolent here. The exuberance of God’s love is here. Goodness is here ... and comfort ...and peace.
You’re wondering … I know you are: You are wondering if you can worship God on the mountain. For the record: Yes. Sure. Why not?
But mountains, no matter how beautiful and inspired, no matter how awesome the handiwork of God, they will not help you to keep the Ten Commandments.
Churches will. Churches like this. Sanctuaries dedicated to the worship of the living God … and a people, like the people around you: people dedicated and resolved to the hard, sweet work of keeping in good stead with God and with each other and all the others on this earth.
The Christian life is a life of habits and practices; it is the Olympic swimmer’s repetition of turning at the wall, over and over, until the turn back home is smooth and effortless.
The Christian life is a life of habits and practices: it is the professional golfer who practices getting out of the rough and weeds, because she knows she will find herself there. It is only a matter of time … and it is there, in the weeds, that the hazards are so great.
The Christian life is a life of habits and practices. It is also a life lived in community, among coaches and mentors and cheerleaders and those who will weep when you are weeping and rejoice with you when you are rejoicing.
Moses was delayed. But what was keeping him is the very thing that can save us: sanctuaries like this.
When you lose your way, when you can’t find God anymore ...when you are on your knees, begging:
Where is God?
Why is God taking so long?
Have I been abandoned?
Do not melt you jewelry.
Do not take to binging on food and drink.
Instead, come to church. Approach the presence of the Divine.
If you cannot pray, we will pray for you… until you can pray again.
If you cannot sing, we will sing for you … until you can sing again.
If you cannot believe, we will believe for you… for as long as it takes.
We have been coming to church, steeping ourselves in a place redolent with God’s presence…
We have been practicing ... we have been working on Step Two.