It’s often said “a leopard can’t change its spots.”
Meaning a person’s character is not really fluid. It’s fixed. They’re born this way. So, if someone is mean or miserly, they might be able to hide it for a while, but eventually their true selves will emerge.
This appears to be true, except for one species: the 40-year-old human male.
They call this transformation: “the mid-life crisis.”
Some even have a checklist. Did you get any of these recently?
Sports car. Plastic Surgery. Designer Clothes. Motorcycle. Tattoo.
Of course, it’s all tongue-in-cheek. It’s not considered a real medical condition.
But it’s common enough for many to notice it and write about it.
Why? What’s going on?
Notable Christian counsellor Dr Paul Tripp says, midlife crisis happens when the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves don’t match up with our reality.
Everyone has a running commentary of our lives going on in the background.
“By 18, you should be like this. By 20, you should have done that. By 30, you will have reached here. By 40, you will have achieved that.” And on and on it goes.
Except usually around our 40s and 50s, our stories slam into reality.
Our commentary and circumstances are out of synch.
It dawns on us that we’re fast running out of time.
If we haven’t done this or that by now, we might never get there.
What now? We’re lost in the middle of our own story.
The glorious ending we’ve foreseen doesn’t look very likely now.
That’s why, Dr Tripp says, some react by radically rewriting their life-script.
Whatever it is – regret, dashed dreams, dread – they now desperately want to reinvent themselves for the remaining half of the journey. So, they grab at whatever they can to make it happen.
The story in our Bible text today is actually about this as well.
It’s also about getting lost midway through a journey.
And it shows the things we’re foolishly tempted to do, to find our way back.
But wait. Can a 2,500-year old story about a golden calf really be relevant to us?
Yes, says Apostle Paul. He points to this same story in one of his letters:
Now these things occurred as examples to keep us setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.’ (1Cor. 10:6-7; cf. Ex. 32:6)
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us ... So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. (1Cor. 10:11-13)
So, this story has something profound to say about our human condition, as well as, what the Christian God will do in response.
Let’s first find our bearings in this story.
No story in the Bible is ever standalone.
It’s found within the context of a particular book.
And every book is part of a much bigger story about Jesus.
How so? The risen Jesus himself tells us so.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:27)
Whether it’s Abraham or Joseph or Moses, in the end, it’s actually all about Jesus. Jesus is the key that unlocks the ultimate meaning of every Bible story.
This story comes at the end of a bigger story of rescue in the Book of Exodus.
In the 31 chapters prior, we see God’s people cruelly enslaved by Pharaoh.
But God personally intervenes to rescue them. He picks out Moses.
He unleashes plagues. He spares the Israelites via a Passover Lamb.
One miracle pile on top of another, until the Egyptians practically beg them to leave.
(They even give them all their gold to send the Israelite slaves on their way.)
Then God summons Moses to a mountaintop meeting, face-to-face, to receive in essence a new national constitution, as well as, detailed instructions on how to build a tabernacle – a portable worship tent – so that God will be with them wherever they go.
This gets us to Exodus 32. If we didn’t read this early, we wouldn’t have guessed this is how the story unfolds. Consider this.
They’ve just experienced the most unbelievable display of divine power - up close and personal. They’ve achieved independence and prosperity overnight, after 400 years of slavery.
But instead of a national spiritual revival, they immediately regress into mass idol worship.
Why? What’s going on?
They got lost in the middle of their own story.
It all started with Moses away, up in the mountain.
Verse 1, “the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain.”
What’s taking him so long? When’s he coming back to lead us?
(We’re later told Moses was actually away 40 days.)
So, they decided to rewrite the script.
Rather than have Moses and God lead them, they went to Aaron and said (verse 2): “Come, make us gods who will go before us … this fellow Moses … we don’t know what has happened to him.”
“This fellow Moses”? Did you hear their dismissive tone?
“Let us make gods”? Did you see the plural? Not “god” singular. But “gods” plural.
Yet back in chapter 20, when they were all with Moses, at the foot of the mountain, they heard the 10 Commandments together.
“I am the LORD your God.” “You shall have no other gods before me.”
“Don’t make for yourself an image … to bow down and worship.” “I am jealous God.”
Only the LORD alone is truly God. He won’t share our worship with another.
Yet here we are. They want to have other gods. (Just like the Egyptians.)
They made an image. They bowed in worship. They had a drunken orgy. (“revelry”)
This was not ignorance. This was wilful disobedience. This was rebellious rejection.
So, they have no good excuse. Neither did Aaron. Aaron, Moses’ brother, the high priest, tries to deflect the blame with a lame story.
Verse 22: “Don’t be angry. You know how prone these people are to evil.”
Verse 24: “I threw the gold into the fire and out came this calf!”
What got them here was the people’s impatience.
They didn’t like how their life-story was developing. They started having doubts. Doubts became complaints. Complaints then led them to depart from God’s story.
This is not how the Exodus story was supposed to go.
It was supposed to go upward and onward. If only they kept to God’s script.
But they’re not happy with how things are turning out so far.
Isn’t this the course correction that some seem to make midlife?
That we’re not satisfied with how our life-story is working out.
Even though that’s the story God, our divine script-writer, has been working on.
What’s taking him so long to get to the good parts?
So, we want out. We take over. We re-write our life-stories instead.
We want control over how our story unfolds. We want to be our own gods.
That’s the connection with idolatry.
We construct gods of our own to worship, because we’re not happy with the God who is. We only want to bow down to gods that will give us what we want.
The Israelites made a golden calf (why?) “who will go before us.” (verse 1)
What they want is security, protection, guidance, blessings.
But they want it now. They want it on their own terms.
No need for moral laws or worship rituals.
Just the good stuff without any of the obligations.
Isn’t that the promise of all idol worship?
Satisfy them so that they might satisfy me?
Idols are a physical substitute for a spiritual god.
This spiritual-to-physical shift happens all the time, says Dr David Tripp.
Commitment to spiritual health gives way to focus on physical health.
Contentment with spiritual riches gives way to desire for physical riches.
Desire for spiritual sustenance gives way to attention to physical food.
Nurturing spiritual character gives way to obsession over physical appearance.
Again-and-again we happily substitute the spiritual with the physical.
But not all idols are equally obvious.
Remember, idols are essentially man-made god-substitutes.
We go to them in the hope of getting what only a true God can give.
Love. Joy. Peace. Security. Identity. Purpose.
That’s what we’re really after.
Of course, some find it from a physical idol.
Others find it in money, career, relationship, etc.
Rev Dr Tim Keller, a New York City Presbyterian minister, has a short-hand ‘idol detector’ test.
(Please don’t misunderstand. Keller is not saying you definitely have this idol based on his test. But it certainly warrants a more thorough spiritual check-up if any of these red flags appear.)
Complete the second half of this sentence.
Which one best describes you?
“Life only has meaning or I only have worth if …”
1 Paul David Tripp, Lost in the Middle: Midlife and the Grace of God, p.243
Notice, none of these are in-and-of themselves bad things.
Like the gold jewellery the Egyptians gave Israel, they are all good things.
It’s only when good things become ultimate things that it crosses the line.
How can you tell?
Pay attention to how you feel about them.
Monitor how often you think about them.
Do you think about these things all the time?
Work. Wealth. Kids. Health.
How do you feel at the possibly losing them?
Sadness? That’s normal.
Paralysing, suicidal, devastation? That’s idolatry.
Why does this matter?
As German Reformation theologian Martin Luther profoundly observed, idolatry is the first step in the slippery slope toward all other sins.
Break the first commandment, Luther says, all others will soon follow.
In other words, people steal or lie not simply because they’re greedy or dishonest.
We steal because we’re looking at things, rather than God, to be happy, to be secure.
We lie because we’re looking at people, rather than God, for approval, for affirmation of our worth.
We see this pattern also in our text.
Replace God with a golden calf, and the lying, false worship, revelry, all soon followed.
What hope do we have? Who can save us from our self-made idols?
Our sinful inclinations toward god-substitutes are hard to uproot.
Consider what Israel here has seen and experienced with God.
None of us would have even a fraction of what they had.
A good and just God will have to punish sin, else he wouldn’t be good nor just.
That’s why later we find three thousand Israelites died that day. (verse 28)
The rest of the people were spared (for now). Why?
We see the reason in verses 11-14. Moses was pleading for them.
See how God speaks about Israel in verse 9.
“They are a stiff-necked people.”
“My anger burns against them … I will destroy them.”
“I will make you into a great nation.”
Actually, we’ve seen this before. Back in Genesis 6.
Mankind’s wickedness then, was so deep and pervasive, that God decided to destroy all humanity, except one, in a radical makeover. This looks a re-run of that all over again.
Except this time, Moses will be Noah 2.0.
But Moses refused God’s offer. He pleads for God’s people instead.
Even though they’ve all failed God spectacularly.
Unlike Abraham’s prayer for Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. Gen. 18:16-33), Moses doesn’t even bargain with God to spare the city if he could just name a few righteous men.
(Moses probably knew there was not a single one righteous.)
So instead, Moses appeals to God’s fatherly affection.
“Why should your anger burn against your people?” (verse 11)
They’re your people, God. You’ve already done so much for them.
Moses appeals to God’s reputation.
“Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent he brought them out.’” (verse 12) Moses cared more about God’s reputation and glory, than his own.
Moses appeals to God’s everlasting promises.
“Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore.” (verse 13)
You promised Abraham a great nation.
You promised world-wide blessings through his line.
You repeated these promises to Isaac and Jacob.
Later, Moses goes even further. Verse 30 he says to Israel:
You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.
When he meets with God, Moses says in verse 32:
Please forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out from the book you have written.
What’s Moses saying? Moses knows such a great sin must be punished.
But instead of everyone else dying, Moses is willing to take their place.
God turns Moses down here. Why? Moses himself was sinful.
His substitute death is not enough to pay for their worship of a substitute god.
But God takes up the offer later when someone greater than Moses appears.
Remember, ultimately every story in the Bible ultimately points to Jesus.
Hebrews 7:23-26 says:
… but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need – one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens …
While 1 John 2:1-2 says:
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sins but also for the sins of the whole world.
So, you see: Jesus is the true and better Moses, who lives to intercede for his people, pleading for mercy for his people, and dying in their place so that we might live.
Just as Jesus is the true and better Abraham, who left his home to bless a new people of God.
The true and better David, who killed a giant (sin) on our behalf and won everlasting peace as King forever.
The true and better Jonah, who died and rises again 3 days later to preach the good news of salvation.
Actually, all those stories and more – including ours today of Moses and the Golden Calf – are but dress rehearsals for the true star to come.
Where are you in your life-story? Are you lost in the middle?
Not happy with the good parts missing?
Replacing the true God with fake idols in the hope of getting what you want?
It’s a slippery slope. Break the first commandment – “You shall have no other gods” – and all the others will inevitably follow.
You can’t save yourself from this hell-bound spiral.
Your only hope is to find someone worthy enough to intercede for you, to make atonement for you – to bear the punishment in your stead – so that you can truly live.
Find Jesus in this story. Find yourself in Jesus’ story. Amen.