worshiping the gift instead of the Giver

The story of God’s people in the Old Testament unfolds in what, from an earthly standpoint, is a disaster.  No matter the miracles, graces, or new starts the people have, as a nation they do not ever choose to live a life faithful to God for longer than perhaps a generation.

But one of the most startling errors they make, something that almost defies description, is what happens between the enemy land and the Promised Land.

In Egypt, the enemy land, God’s people had been driven into demoralizing, back-breaking slavery.  Their young boys were slaughtered by a heartless ruler, in an attempt to decrease their population.  Long forgotten was Egypt’s indebtedness to this bondaged, nation-less people living withing their borders.  Segregated, violently misused, and driven to early deaths, God’s people were forced into the labor of brick-making and had no rights whatsoever.

But God had not forgotten them.  He saw their mistreatment and flipped the religious-political realm of power upside-down in Egypt.  He promised to delivered His people, with an incredulous bonus: the Egyptians would be so fearful of the God of their slaves that they would give them all kinds of parting gifts to send them on their way.

Imagine that you went to Bed, Bath, & Beyond to register for housewarming gifts.  Then you ask for printouts of your registry.  You program your GPS with the addresses of your worst enemies, and at each stop, you deliver them a copy of your registry.

And at each stop, your enemies immediately rush out to the store and return carrying neatly wrapped packages of housewarming gifts with the famous BB&B purple tissue paper.  Astonishing?

Now, the Egyptians didn’t have a Bed, Bath & Beyond store to visit to give gifts to their once-slaves, but they did have the motivation of the fear of GOD in them, and whatever the slaves asked for, they received immediately from the people who had once disregarded them, beaten them, and tried to smear them into the dust.

The Egyptians urged the people to hurry and leave the country. “For otherwise,” they said, “we will all die!” So the people took their dough before the yeast was added, and carried it on their shoulders in kneading troughs wrapped in clothing. The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians. (Exodus 12:33-36, NIV)

All this sounds beyond marvelous.  But coming up is one of the most inexplicable, inexcusable betrays imaginable.

Soon after God’s people leave Egypt with all of their new goodies . . they intentionally forget about Him.  When He speaks directly to their leader on the mountain, they’re not sure if He’s coming back soon.  So what do they do?

They use the gold that they received from God’s work in their lives, and turn it into an unfathomably stupid idol.

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. (Exodus 32:1-6, NIV)

Who was supposed to be one of their godly leaders, Aaron, tried to ‘manage’ the situation by attributing the gold calf as someone being part of worship to GOD.  God was not impressed, and great judgement fell on His people because of their betrayal of His gift.  They used what He had given against Him.

We can look at that, and think, How could anybody be so stupid?

But is it really different today?

If you live in America, you live in the top bracket of the world’s wealth.  But that’s not the half of it.  Don’t forget the job opportunities & benefits, government assistance programs, minimum wage laws, education opportunities, housing, charitable & relief organizations, insurance opportunities, multiple-means access to food, many possessions (clothes, furniture, accessories, etc.), and freedoms you have in America.  Even if you feel like things aren’t going the way you’d like, you are still in the richest of the rich in all of these things compared to the majority of the world’s population.

And more than that, think of all the gifts God has given you in the last . . week.

The gift of time.  Did you breathe this week?  So did I.  Did your heart beat?  So did mine.

The gift of income.  For nearly all of us, the gift of a paycheck or another source of income like unemployment or welfare or social security.  Even if you think you’re not getting enough, you are getting far more than most of the world’s population.

And what about the far more important gift of relationships?  Not just the ones we usually think about, but what about the relationship opportunities you had this past week at the gas station, grocery store, baseball game, hospital waiting room, car line at your child’s school, sitting in the mechanic’s shop, and on and on . .

And how much more should we count the gifts of the many relationships we have been given for generous, long scoops of time?  Are we grateful for the day we’ve had with close friends and/or family?  The week?  The month?  The year?

What about the friendships and family ties God has gifted us with that have lasted half, most, or maybe even all of our lives?  Have you and I been treating these people as the gift of God that they are?  Have we brought these relationships before God for His glory . . or have we used the very relationships He gave us as idols (or as a means to fulfill idolatrous cravings)?

Answering these questions honestly, I see I am not so far removed from God’s Old Testament people as I would like.  The very graces He has given me can easily turn into sins to wield against Him.

The question isn’t whether or not we can relate to God’s people in the Old Testament.  The question is rather,

What is our golden calf?

What has God given us, as a gift, that we have used against Him?

We all sin in this way.  All of us have had blessing after blessing from God.  But it’s not hopeless.  Although we have all gravely sinned against Him by taking His gifts and betraying Him with them, we all also have hope through Jesus Christ . . because Jesus was betrayed by thirty pieces of His own silver, silver He had created in the ore He Himself designed, from deep in the earth that He Himself spoke into being.

Jesus paid for our betrayal of Him on the cross.  And now we who believe in Him and stake our lives and eternities on Him can start over with how we use His gifts.  We can unwrap them once more, with new eyes, and, this time, use them for Him.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:7, NIV)

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