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Worship and Sermons
October 15, 2017

 

“A Golden Calf or God’s Glory?” by the Rev. Don Wahlig, October 15, 2017, Year A / Pentecost 19 – Exodus 31:18-32:11a, 14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-22, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

THEME:  Practice mindfulness of God’s love and goodness to live gratefully and generously.

 

 

          We all know from experience that when we get anxious, we tend to make poor decisions.  Did you ever wonder why that is?

          For a long time, neuroscientists thought the reason is that anxiety over-stimulates our brains. 

          But a new study at the University of Pittsburgh gives us a better answer.  It turns out that anxiety blocks off connections to an area of our brain called the prefrontal cortex.  This is the part of the brain that allows us to focus, to evaluate consequences, and to engage in higher order thinking and flexible decision-making.

          When this area is disengaged, our brains can no longer screen out irrelevant information.  We’re subject to every little emotional whim and physical impulse. 

          And that’s only the first half of the problem.  Anxiety also stimulates the older, animal parts of our brains.  These are the parts that put us into survival mode.  When we’re anxious, they get busy ramping up the production of stress hormones.  

          The combined result is that we make short-sighted decisions and we do rash things, without understanding their consequences.

          That is exactly what the Israelites are doing in our text from Exodus.

          The Israelites have been wandering in the desert for almost a year and a half after God led them out of bondage in Egypt.  They’ve complained to Moses every step of the way. But Moses has told them not to fear; but, rather, to trust that God would deliver them. 

          And God has delivered them.  Leading them in a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night, God has carved out for them a path to freedom through the Red Sea.  He’s made bitter waters sweet, showered them with meat and bread to eat, all the way to Mt. Sinai.

          There on Mt. Sinai, God has even let the people catch a glimpse of his glory.  They stood back in awe as the trumpet blared and Moses spoke with God, while God answered in thunder.

          Then, Moses left the people and ascended the mountain.  There, over a period of weeks, God lays down the rules for Moses to take back to the people. 

Number one:  No other Gods; just me, Yahweh.  Number two, no idols.  And so on.

          But while Moses is up there getting instructions from God, the Israelites are getting restless down below.

They’re worried.  “Have you seen Moses?”  “No, have you?”  “No. He’s been up on the mountain a really long time.”  “Maybe something happened to him.” 

          Since Moses is the one who mediates God’s presence, they begin to feel like they haven’t seen any sign of God, either.  Despite all God has done to deliver them from Egypt and provide for them thus far, well, they have short memories.

          It’s not long before their worry turns into anxiety.  Since Moses isn’t around, they go to his brother Aaron, the head priest and they make a demand.

          “Make gods for us, to lead us!” 

          Aaron, much to his shame, is only too quick to oblige.  He melts down their earrings to make a cast figure of a young bull.   This man-made idol becomes the focus of their worship. 

          As our Psalm says, “They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt.”

          And God’s not happy about that – not in the least.  In fact, if it weren’t for Moses intervening, God would have struck them all down and started afresh.

          The irony is the very thing they crave – the palpable presence of God – is already being prepared for them up on the mountain.  While they’re busy letting their anxiety lead them into idolatry, God is giving Moses detailed building instructions for the tabernacle, the house where God is planning to live among them. 

          We read this story and we’re maybe a little too quick to judge the Israelites.  But before we go pointing fingers, maybe we ought to look a little more closely at ourselves. 

          You and I may not be that different from them.  When we let our anxiety get the better of us, we do what the Israelites did: we swap manmade things for the real presence of God. 

          Instead of trusting our well-being to God, we put our trust in the accumulation of things, experiences, status markers, power and – most especially – money. 

          The truth is we’re all too quick to substitute these things for the promise of God’s provision.  Like the Israelites, we know God has delivered us in the past.  We know that, in Jesus Christ, he promises to guide us to life that really is life.  In fact, we’ve begun to experience that.  

But we tend to forget that, especially when we’ve lost our connection with God.  When that happens, we make decisions that are not at all pleasing to God.

          So, the question for you and me is how do we stop ourselves from doing that?

          The answer may be a technique at least as old as the Exodus story itself.   

          These days it’s called mindfulness.  It’s a kind of meditation, a way of cultivating awareness of God’s presence.  It’s like daydreaming, but with a focus on God and God’s love.

          Whatever name we give it, it works.  

          Scientists at Carnegie Mellon have shown that mindfulness counteracts anxiety.  It strengthens the brain’s capacity to think more clearly by filtering out emotional distractions.  It also dampens and reverses our brain’s stress response.

          That helps us limit the influence of things that don’t matter, so we can focus on things that are truly important. The result is we make better, more faithful decisions. 

Experts say as little as 5 minutes of mindfulness a day will help reduce anxiety and stress.  A much greater benefit comes at 25-30 minutes a day.

          Why don't you and I try this?   We can use that time to remind ourselves what the Israelites forgot.  It’s what our Psalm says, “O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.”

          Folks, there is no better way to begin this Season of Commitment, than with gratitude for God’s enduring goodness and love.

          You didn’t really think you were going to get out of here this morning without a stewardship sermon, did you?

          Any conversation about stewardship starts with gratitude and ends with generosity.

          Monday of this past week was Canadian Thanksgiving day.  It’s a harvest celebration.  If you know one thing about farming, it’s that you can take nothing for granted, least of all the weather.

          That’s the key to gratitude:  take nothing for granted. Not our health, not our bank accounts, not our family, not the roof over our heads or the food on our tables.  It’s all a gift from God.

          When we stop taking God’s blessings for granted, it changes the way we live.  The appropriate and faithful response to God’s goodness is not just to say thank you, but to live and love just as generously ourselves. 

          John F. Kennedy said it best.  On Thanksgiving Day 1963, he wrote “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

          So, what does that grateful living look like for you and me?

          It means we share freely our time, talent and money.  These are things we used to think of as ours, whether by right or by merit.  But God reminds us that they’re ours solely by his grace.

          But this is where anxiety and fear can lead us astray, just as they did the Israelites waiting nervously for Moses at the foot of Mt. Sinai.

          We, too, feel anxious about lots of things, maybe especially money.  I know I do.  But the message of our text from Exodus is a warning not to let our anxiety choke out our gratitude.  Few things displease God more than that.

          The way to protect ourselves from that pitfall, is to stay mindful of God’s goodness by cultivating the awareness of his love in our lives.  To remember how God has been with us before so we won’t take his blessings for granted now.

          The French have a proverb that says, “Gratitude is the heart’s memory.”

          And that is exactly right:  When we remember how God has loved us and blessed us Gratitude bubbles up inside us and overflows in generosity. 

          These are memories of the heart.  God wants us to recall them on a daily basis.

          So, let’s begin this Season of Commitment by being mindful of those memories and remembering above all else not to take God’s blessings for granted. 

          If we can manage that, then we won’t have any trouble responding the way he wants us to:  with love and generosity.

          May it be so.

 

Last Published: November 7, 2017 10:34 AM
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