There is a war going on for our worship. Being humans, by nature we will worship something. The question is, will we worship the God who made us in His image or something we make in ours?
Make no mistake: you are in a spiritual battle. The pull of old idols can be powerful. We must not underestimate the gravitational force of feelings and fears on our hearts. How, then, can we respond wisely in the midst of this battle?
1. Beware the pull of old idolatries under new circumstances. (Ex 32:1-6)
In Exodus 32 we see Moses up on Mount Sinai, and when he doesn’t come down quickly, the Israelites panic and take matters into their own hands. They make a golden calf to worship. They say they want God to go before them, but they’re looking back to Egypt, to the calf that represented strength and power. The people are returning to their familiar gods.
This is a new circumstance, but an old idolatry. They tell Aaron they want to make a feast to the Lord. They didn’t think they were turning away from the Lord. They were just adding something to their faith in God. They didn’t want the Golden Calf instead of the Lord. They wanted the Golden Calf in addition to the Lord.
Idolatries come in all kinds of forms, and sometimes, they come not in your rejection of God but in your embrace of wrong ideas about God. A. W. Tozer wrote:
“The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him.”
The Israelites thought God would be fine with them worshipping both Him and this idol, and what’s worse, they threw their gold—the jewelry that God gifted them from the Egyptians—into the fire in order to make the calf. J.D. Greear says this would be like your wife taking your wedding ring and selling it so she can afford a hotel in which to have an affair.
You may not be tempted to bow down before a golden calf. But what happens when life goes crazy, when you feel scared and disoriented? Often your fears lead you back to old habits and sins. Like Israel, you’re not saying you reject God; you wouldn’t want to leave Him or rebel against Him. You just turn to God and something else; you just trust God and the old idols and habits that bring you comfort. Perhaps it’s alcohol, food, or drugs. Or maybe your job, because you find your identity there. Some hold more tightly to their possessions—their money. Some turn to sex. Others take comfort in their status or reputation.
Sometimes, in times of crisis, the things you turn to are the very things God has blessed you with. God has given you your possessions. He has given you the people around you. He has given you your career or your reputation. But like the children of Israel, we take the gold that God has given us and craft an idol in our hearts and put our trust in it. Learning from the Israelites’ example, we need to beware of old idolatries that show up in new circumstances.
2. Behold the greater vision of God’s glory in showing mercy. (Ex 32:7-14)
As the narrative unfolds, we see God’s anger against the Israelites’ idolatry. He threatens to destroy them and make a new nation out of Moses. But Moses begs God to show mercy to the people. Why? Because Moses had beheld a vision greater than himself. He had encountered the Great I Am. Moses was captivated by the glory and fame of God, not the glory and fame of his own name. Moses could have said, “Destroy them, Lord, and lift me up.” But he didn’t go that route.
Moses understands what’s at stake here as he pleads with God. Moses is concerned about God’s name and fame. When Moses responds, he is saying, “Lord, Your Name would be affected if You were to destroy the Israelites.” In other words, “Lord, I’m not appealing to Your mercy or compassion right now. I know You love your people. I’m appealing to something even deeper: Your love for the glory of Your great name. Do not let Your name become a laughingstock to the rest of the world. For the sake of Your great name, show compassion to these people.”
Moses’ example is difficult for us. We are inclined to think of ourselves at the center of the universe, to maximize our sincerity and to minimize our sins. We think that we are valuable and important and that’s why God loves us. But God is the most wonderful, most glorious Being in the universe, and He is at the center of everything. He is all about His glory because in the display of His glory, He demonstrates His great love.
We need this vision of God in all of His wondrous power, and we need to pray for our church this way. We need to pray for our families this way, and for our country. God, for the sake of Your great name, have mercy! God, for the sake of Your great name, bring my son back from a wandering path! God, for the sake of Your great name, heal us, change us, redeem us, renew us! We don’t ask only for us and for our good, but for Your glory!
3. Believe that God’s judgment of sin is righteous. (Ex. 32:15-35)
It is easy to shift blame when confronted about your sin. When Moses returns to the people, Aaron shifted blame, like Adam in the Garden of Eden. “Don’t be enraged, my lord,” Aaron replied. “You yourself know that the people are intent on evil” (Ex. 32:22).You know how you can tell if you’re in the grip of idols? Do you repent or blame when you’re confronted? That’s a clear sign. God wants to eliminate our sin; we would rather excuse it. God wants to redeem us from our sin; we would rather redefine it.
Though God didn’t destroy the Israelites as a whole, judgment did come. Moses made some of the people drink the gold from the calf. A gruesome reminder that our idols, when we ingest them, will kill us. They are false gods. They are poison. It is only God who will satisfy. God executed this as a sign of judgment to show just how severe their sin was, and in this, He was righteous.
The battle for our worship is real. God wants our complete worship because He deserves our complete worship. He is not to be trifled with, and He is enough to satisfy. To add on anything else is nothing more than idolatry. Let’s not make idols; let’s worship the one true God in all His glory.