The Most Pernicious Idol of All

Discovery-Kids-Eco-Friendly-Cardboard-Building-Blocks-Assorted-Colors-0Sermon presented at Centre Congregational Church, UCC (Brattleboro, VT)
September 28, 2014

Exodus 32:7-14  (NRSV): The Golden Calf

   Acts 16:11-15 (NRSV): Paul Establishes the Philippian Church
   Philippians 4:1-9 (NRSV): Paul Advises the Philippian Church

One thing I’ve noticed about my son, like most young children, is that when he plays, it’s about the process – or journey, if you will – not the goal.  For instance, when he’s building a tower with his blocks and it gets too high, he knocks them down and starts over again.

His play is not about being the biggest, nor the best, nor the tallest, nor any other human measure of success.  It’s about playing – about stacking blocks.  That’s where his fun is, that’s what makes it meaningful and valuable to him.  What’s more, his parents’ judgment of the value of his work is not important. …Well, at least not yet!  – But our participation in his play is important.

A couple of years ago we had a dinner for some of our friends and their toddlers at our home. Once everyone arrived, we all went into the room where the kids were playing, and … guess what …  … … The Dads saw the kids playing with AJ’s big cardboard blocks!

Well, as good fathers, we had to participate, didn’t we?

But, our play was very different.  We didn’t build towers just for the fun of building.  Noooo…  We had to build the BIGGEST tower.  And, so we built a HUGE tower, nearly touching the ceiling, which in that room is quite high.

The Moms held the kids back from participating while we worked, saying they didn’t want them to topple the tower; but I think they were more afraid that someone would get trampled in all that furious activity.

When the tower was done, we took a few pictures, congratulated ourselves, and then the Moms let the kids go.  … … A few seconds later, we had to act as human umbrellas to prevent our little ones from getting seriously bonked as that tower came tumbling down.

Great fun. We all laughed, and the children went back to building towers on their own, in imitation of what their Fathers had done.

It occurs to me that a childlike desire to do, rather than to win, underlies today’s story of the Golden Calf and also our reading from Philippians.

Let’s think about the children, for a moment.  For them, the fun was about being and doing, not owning.  They had no interest in building the biggest tower, until we did, although they sure liked building towers!  They had fun building, and knocking down, and then building again.  They enjoyed the process of building. It was about the journey, not any particular goal.

When the fathers entered the picture, we wanted to build the BIGGEST tower we could – a goal.  We were proud of our accomplishment (it was a REALLY BIG TOWER); but you see, we’d learned how to compete long ago, something they had not yet learned, and our focus on the goal we defined for ourselves prevented them from participating.

As we grow up, we learn that we are praised for being the best, or doing the best, or having the best.  And our wives (knowing their husbands all too well) made sure we got the praise we subconsciously desired for the making of our tower, the BIGGEST tower.   They understood that our accomplishment was a reflection of us – we were the best, because we had built the biggest.  We were really good tower builders!

As we mature, we learn to set and achieve goals for ourselves, and we learn to own them.  We learn to say “I did that” or “I own that” or “I am that.”  We all have learned to want to be (or have) the biggest, the best, or the fastest, and how to achieve such things; and there is nothing wrong with this.

But sometimes, we come to want something because in some way it magnifies or justifies US: who and what we are right now, or perhaps who or what we want to be.  When that line is crossed, a line we are rarely if ever aware of, we have begun making an idol of ourselves.

Any idol, … ANY IDOL, … is ultimately about us.  Anything we seek to possess as our own – whether a thing, or a status, or a prize, or the truth – becomes an idol when owning it magnifies, or preserves, our own sense of self worth.

The Golden Calf was an idol in the classic sense of the word: something you bestowed gifts and sacrifices upon; and you expected some benefit in return.  It was a transaction.  An idol’s value depends on its ability to fulfill its half of this sort of bargain.

Making a sacrifice to an idol is an attempt to control it.  This is why the Hebrew God has no name, and no likenesses.  Without a name, and without an idol, it is very clear that our God is a god that you cannot possess or control.  Our God is a god whose relationship with us is fundamentally different from the relationship we have with our idols.  Our God is a god who desires relationship with us for reasons that have nothing to do with human ambition or human effort, or human self-justification.

Our God isn’t about owning.  Our God gave us Creation.  Our God gave us the ability to freely choose.  Our God gave the Hebrews their freedom and a new land; our God gave the World that only child.  Our God is about giving – not owning; about freedom – not control; about growth – not constraint; about grace – not debts, about our journey together in relationship. That relationship is not about us owning God, or God owning us. God is not our idol.

Was there an idol within the Philippian church?

In Philippians, Paul writes of being “in Christ” – of the importance of being united, of working together and of focusing on Christ; and not being discouraged when things get hard.  He emphasizes the great confidence he has in the Philippians.  He knows they love God, and that they are mature Christians: earnest, devoted to the Good News, and carrying the Holy Spirit within themselves.  So, where’s the problem?

You see it in the second verse of chapter 4, which reads “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”  Who were these women?  Why did he single them out by name near the end of his letter?  Why did he then go on to say “Yes, and I ask you  … help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.

Paul knows that Euodia and Syntyche are godly people.  He loves them.  They are clearly leaders within the church, and may have worked closely with Paul to establish it, 10 or 15 years earlier. But, that time is past: it seems the church’s founder, Lydia, is dead; and I imagine that many of those who worked beside her and Paul are now gone. Paul himself is in a prison far away.  The congregation’s original inspiration and enthusiasm have vanished.  New challenges have arisen, and the people are discouraged and confused. The future is no longer clear or bright. Euodia and Syntyche, once allies, are now on opposite sides of a controversy over the path their church (THEIR church) should take.

I’m sure Paul knew of the controversy and saw that these two whom he loved were now crossing the line.  Their own sense of validity and self worth had become tied up in this battle over who was right; over who “owned” the church, over who owned the truth.  In other words, they had made idols of their Church, idols of themselves and idols of their own particular understanding and relationship with God.

Paul doesn’t try to settle the quarrel, and doesn’t pick sides.  There is no need for Moses or (anyone else) to come down and intercede on their behalf because they already have all the tools they need resolve the issue.  The solution is not to judge who is right or who is wrong.  The church is not theirs. The scriptures are not theirs. It is all Christ’s; which is why Paul says they must come together and seek the mind of Christ.

The solution does not lie with them.  They must find Christ’s way in humility and with an openness to learn and be corrected. The solution is to abandon idols, all idols, including that most pernicious idol of all, the idol of themselves.

Paul closes his letter by saying “beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Paul is urging the Philippians to not think of themselves, but to “think of these things” that are already right there in front of them, that are excellent and worthy of praise.  He is also talking about doing, not owning.

He is saying they should be like the children.  After all, we are all children of God. Don’t worry about whose tower is taller or “better.” Instead, rejoice in Christ working through us to build that tower, or that church, or our family, or our nation.  Joy will be found only in the building and in the ministry that we engage in – together – as followers in the footsteps of Christ.  The Joy and Peace of Christ cannot be found in reaching some human-defined goal, or in creating a golden calf all our own.

Paul doesn’t mention the specifics of the quarrel between these two because he doesn’t need to: it is not important.  The issue is not about whether Christ is blessing one or the other.  The challenge is how to come together in seeking Christ’s will.  This is the only way the controversy, and the pain and hurt in the Philippian church, will be resolved.

Author Anne Lamott is often quoted as saying “The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.” Let’s think about that for a moment.

If we have certainty, if there is no doubt, then where is our faith? Faith is irrelevant, useless, if certainty exists.

To put it another way, when we start defending or pronouncing the perspective we currently have as the right one, we may be seeking to put where we currently stand beyond doubt; taking it out of the realm of faith and making it into an idol. Once we have an idol, there is no need to listen to the other, or have faith in them, and so we risk turning them from one who journeys with us in faith, into an opponent.

When we defend where we are, and what we believe we need to take care to not become immovable, remembering what is said in the very first chapter of Matthew, where we are told that Jesus shall be known as Immanuel – God with Us – the God who walks at our side through life. It is our relationship and participation in this journey of faith, that matters to God, just as it is when we play with our own children. Being open to the process of change that occurs in response to the voice and move of God in us, and in those around us, is essential to our journey of faith.

We are called to participate in our relationship with God, and that is always a two way street. Even God, at the end of our reading from Exodus, shows us that relationship requires listening and response. God responds to Moses’ plea. And so, we know that God listens to us, and changes, just as we are called to listen to God, and be changed.

God wants to participate with his children, not be idolized by them.



Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved.  I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)

Author: Allen

A would-be historian turned IT Professional who responded to the call to the Ministry, and is now focused on social justice and community service. He is the proud father of a daughter and son, and enjoys life with his wife near Boston. You can follow Pastor Allen on Facebook at

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