The story of the golden calf is one I’m very familiar with, and yet something I’d never noticed before suddenly leapt at me off the page when I re-read it recently, and it was this: it all happened “when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain” – these people, who had only recently committed themselves to following God faithfully, seem to have got Moses mixed up with God or something.
They had seen God perform amazing miracles, they had seen God come down as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead them, and just recently they had seen God come down to give them the Ten Commandments, but that’s the point when they got so scared that they begged Moses to be an intermediary.
And I wonder if there’s a lesson here about what can happen when people rely on an intermediary instead of direct communication with God – a certain level of awe is healthy when you’re dealing with the Creator of the Universe, but the Israelites at Mount Sinai went further and said: we don’t want God to speak to us, we want to hear him through Moses. And so when Moses wasn’t there, and was taking a long time to come back, they felt as though God wasn’t there. Only recently they had heard God himself speak to them and remind them that he is the one who brought them out of Egypt, but now they’re saying to Aaron: “as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (Exodus 32:1, emphasis mine) And next they’re looking at a golden calf made out of their own jewellery and saying: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”(Exodus 32:4)
Oh, but we wouldn’t be that foolish, would we? We wouldn’t worship a thing made of gold or silver or wood, a thing that we know couldn’t possibly… oh, wait, but people do, they don’t call it worship but they assign powers to things, to good luck charms for example – how is that different? If you claim to believe in God, the Creator of the Universe, the one who says you shouldn’t have any other gods, the one who says you shouldn’t make a thing and worship it – if you claim to follow him then don’t be like my silly ancestors at Mount Sinai, who said they’d obey God but then turned to idol worship because the man they chose to listen to instead of listening to God, the man they were using as an intermediary, had delayed to come down from the mountain, and so they felt as though God was absent and didn’t know what to do.
God is there all the time. Wherever you are, whatever you’re going through, he is there. And you can talk to him. He’s never too busy to listen. If you get into the habit of communicating with him, then you’ll know what to do when things go wrong. But if you don’t, if you never talk to God and never listen to him yourself, if you appoint some human being as an intermediary and rely on that person instead of direct communication with God, then what will you do when that person isn’t there?