Sermons from San Diego

All God Wants is Love: Not Idols of the Past

October 15, 2023 Mission Hills UCC - United Church of Christ Season 1 Episode 11
All God Wants is Love: Not Idols of the Past
Sermons from San Diego
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Sermons from San Diego
All God Wants is Love: Not Idols of the Past
Oct 15, 2023 Season 1 Episode 11
Mission Hills UCC - United Church of Christ

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If this sermon was meaningful to you, learn more about the rest of our church at You are invited to support the ministry of Mission Hills United Church of Christ with a one time or recurring contribution -

Sermons from 

Mission Hills UCC

San Diego, California



Rev. Dr. David Bahr


October 15, 2023


“All God Wants is Love”





Exodus 32: 1-14Common English Bible

The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods[a] who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.”

2 Aaron said to them, “All right, take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He collected them and tied them up in a cloth.[b] Then he made a metal image of a bull calf, and the people declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Then Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!” 6 They got up early the next day and offered up entirely burned offerings and brought well-being sacrifices. The people sat down to eat and drink and then got up to celebrate.

7 The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry up and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything! 8 They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. They have made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and declared, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen how stubborn they are. 10 Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you.”

11 But Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, “Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and amazing force? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He had an evil plan to take the people out and kill them in the mountains and so wipe them off the earth’? Calm down your fierce anger. Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, whom you yourself promised, ‘I’ll make your descendants as many as the stars in the sky. And I’ve promised to give your descendants this whole land to possess for all time.’” 14 Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.


A couple of days ago.  That’s all it was.  A couple of days ago, the mountain they were camped below was pounded over and over by lightning so hard that it was covered in smoke.  And in that haze of smoke, loud horns blaring and getting louder.  Pounding and blaring and pounding and blaring.  And then it all stopped.  Just the sound of sheer silence.  The people looked around nervously.  What would happen next, like maybe an earthquake or violent windstorm.  After witnessing 10 plagues involving frogs and bugs as well as blood and death, literally anything could happen.  But what happened had never happened before and, they hoped, would never happen again.  The smoke cleared and behind it was a dark cloud and from the cloud they heard a voice.  Not a voice in their heads, but they collectively stood there and heard, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.  You must have no other gods before me.  Do not make an idol for yourself.”


Yes, the ten commandments.  But commandment number two isn’t just “Do not make an idol for yourself.”  It goes on and explains in greater detail:

  • “Do not make an idol for yourself – no form whatsoever – of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters of the earth.  Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God.”


That’s the second commandment, not to be confused with the second amendment, which, come to think of it, needs to be amended with the second commandment since it appears the problem we have with guns is the problem of idolatry.


Anyway, the voice of God continues and finally #10:  “Don’t desire what isn’t yours – your neighbor’s house, wife, servants, animals and anything else that belongs to your neighbor.”


But they didn’t know that commandment number 10 was the end.  After about a minute, someone asked, is he done yet?  The people stood around and marveled at what had just happened.  Someone spoke up, “well, I don’t know what the big deal is.  That’s just common sense.  Why all the pounding and blaring and drama?”  Someone else chirped in, “yeah, and did they all have to be so negative?”  There was a chorus of yeah, yeah…  “And how about what we should do instead of what thou shalt not?”  “Let’s make our own list.”


Someone found some newsprint and markers that smelled like their color – you know, purple smells like grapes, red like strawberries.  One by one, people called out what they thought were more hopeful and positive suggestions, like:

  • “Be mindful of God in all things.”
  • Someone said, how about “Be truthful in all things,” not just about false testimony.
  • And not just don’t kill – “Commit to non-violence.”
  • One of the people studying Buddhism, which didn’t yet exist for another thousand years, suggested – “Let go of possessing all things or they will possess you.”
  • A free spirit said, “Take time to let yourself be, without having anything to do.”  Also known as Sabbath.
  • A mystic added, “God is mystery; beware of thinking that you understand or that you can control God.”


While Moses appreciated their enthusiasm, he shook his head and started climbing back up the mountain.  He had a lot of details to work out with God and it would take a while.  The group discussion, however, kept going, one suggestion shouted out after another, but unfortunately this didn’t make it into scripture because the scribe in charge of the newsprint lost it and no one could remember what they had said and so the whole thing is gone from the historical record.  Well, not really, but why not.  It’s a story and the Bible is not historical fact.  


As I’ve said before, these are stories that search for meaning.  Who are we?  Why do humans do what we do?  How should we treat one another?   Like the mystic’s suggestion written on newsprint with the grape-smelling purple marker, tragically forever lost:  Beware of thinking that you understand or that you can control God.


But then.  Moses wasn’t gone for more than a couple of days, if that, when the people began to panic, fear took over, and they started pressuring Aaron to do something, anything.  Well, actually, they weren’t just asking for anything.  They were quite specific.  “Come on, man.  Make us some gods who can lead us.”  They said, who knows what happened to that Moses fellow?


So, Aaron gathered together all the gold from the people, the gold the Egyptians had handed over when the people were rushing out of town.  He melted it down and formed it into a bull calf and the people were ecstatic and declared this to be their gods “who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”  What a sad, sad betrayal.  Just a couple of days more than three months after their miraculous escape through the sea.  


Aaron saw what was happening and set up an altar in front of the golden calf.  Now, was it an altar to the calf or by putting the altar in front of the calf, was he trying in any way he could think of to put the Lord first?  It’s bad either way.  And God wasn’t happy.  I wouldn’t be either!  


Hurt and angry, God told Moses to do something about “your” people, like you and I might say to our spouse.  Look what your child has done.  And then God offered to start all over and make a great nation out of Moses instead of all the generations that had come before – abandoning Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Joseph and his 11 brothers and on down the line for hundreds of years.  


But Moses didn’t fall for the flattery and turned it around and reminded God, wait a minute, these are your people.  And you don’t want to get a bad reputation with the Egyptians, do you?  You don’t want them saying bad things about your intentions, do you?  And then Moses actually dared to tell God, “Calm down!”  He worked every angle until he finally changed God’s mind.  


Having relented and, exhausted from all the emotion, God fell on the couch and curled up in a ball and asked Moses for a cup of tea to calm the nerves.  Moses replied, “personally, I need something a little stronger than tea after all of that.”  Again, we’re not talking about historical fact but trying to relate to the emotional impact.  And understood this way, I love how human God is in this story.  Relatable in so many ways.  Not a supreme being, cold and hard, without emotion.  


We can imagine the pain God felt at being betrayed.  God responded to their cries to escape the cruelty of Egypt, did everything possible to get Pharaoh to free them, provided everything they needed on the journey through the wilderness, and just a couple of days before provided instructions to set them on a path toward their freedom…  I feel like I understand this God.


But that’s also dangerous.  To make God so small as to think we can possibly understand and then assign to God such human qualities as pettiness and rage and vengeance.  Is God really that human?  And with that comes the danger, for example, that we think surely God hates the same people we hate.  And God holds a grudge so I can hold a grudge too, etc. and on.  Eventually we stop having a god and rather we have a mascot.  God domesticated into a form we can control.  And what’s that called?  An idol. 


If I dare say it, God doesn’t want idols nor does God want to be an idol either.  A thing to admire and put on a shelf and pull out when we want something.  I think the biblical record consistently shows that God has always just wanted a relationship of mutual love.  All God wants is love.  Instead, over and over, we betray that love by following after anything shiny and new, leaving the God of great love heartbroken.  Why do we do that when all God wants is love?


First, let’s talk about Aaron.  We might think of Aaron as weak-willed.  He immediately caved in to their demands.  Why didn’t he stand up and remind the people what they just heard from God’s own mouth?  And yes, I have just assigned to God the human attribute of having a mouth and speaking.  That’s how challenging it is to think of and speak about a mystery as grand as God!  


But as weak-willed as Aaron might have been, the poor guy was being confronted by people acting out of fear.  On the other hand, he might also have been quite clever.  You know how they kept saying they missed being in the land of free cucumbers and leeks and onions and watermelons, where they could die in comfort.  And, oh yeah, back where they were enslaved.  


Well, what did Aaron make out of their gold jewelry?  Aaron fashioned out of gold a bull calf, an Egyptian fertility god named Apis.  They would have seen it in Egypt many times before.  Was Aaron trying to shock them into this realization?  Those would have been familiar times, but violent.  Toxic memories, but familiar.  In their ecstasy, however, they worshiped the past, which wasn’t even their past, and yearned for a time when they weren’t free.    


And therefore, it was necessary to spend the next 40 years in the wilderness.  It wasn’t a punishment, though it would seem there was plenty of justification for that.  But those 40 years were a time to free themselves of the desire to go back.  And it wasn’t until the last of the generation of those enslaved had died that they finally crossed over into the Promised Land.  That seems sad to me.  And it feels real.


Worshiping the past instead of trusting and following God into the future.  Worshiping memories, distorted memories, frightened of the future.  How do we appreciate the past without making it into an idol?  


I want to commend you and this church.  Last week you gave unanimous consent to a major rewrite of our bylaws.  New bylaws may not seem like that much of a great accomplishment, but good bylaws give space for doing great things.  We went from having everything specified in great detail – great detail – to a structure characterized by lots of flexibility.  You voted for a model that embraces “we’ll figure it out” and approached the process with curiosity, not fear.  Well done.  And going forward we’ll have a lot more questions about how we get things done, but we can do so without fear.  I’m not sure you can appreciate how extraordinary that is during a time in which churches are being shaken to their core – when, for many, their best days are clearly behind.  So why not worship the past?


This church respects our history, loves this beautiful sanctuary, treasures the organ that will turn 100 years old next year while at the same time enthusiastically singing music written in this century – of many more styles than ever before.  The expanded selection of music has been an adjustment for some as much as it has been welcomed by some, but the consistent response has been to learn to sing new music because it’s for the sake of our future.  And that future, our future, is hopeful.  We have to keep trusting God with our future.


The Christian church in general is in serious decline, but last week we received our 17th new member this year.  Our church is full of kids running around and actually excited to be in church.  In a nod to our history, next weekend 75 people will be at the Pilgrim Pines camp, including nearly every family with children in the church – deepening our faith and our relationships as we seek to have an even greater impact as a church.


Our pledge drive for 2024 starts in two weeks.  I know churches that are cutting their budgets before they even ask, fearful of diminishing contributions, fearful of even asking for increased generosity.  I’m not afraid.  We have something astonishing going on here, God is doing astonishing things here, to which I know you can’t help but say, I want to be a part of that future.  And thankfully the people in our past provided for us when the need is greater than our resources.  And you’re not afraid to use them.  Not touching money in some churches is the biggest idol of them all.


Throughout history, all God has ever wanted from people is love.  Mutual love.  And for God’s people to love each other.  That’s what makes this church special.  It’s all you want too and you show it in so many ways every day.  It’s not flattery if all I’m doing is telling the truth.