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Misplacing Our Worship on Golden Calves

Robert Hampshire

Christianity.com Contributing Writer
Published: Apr 23, 2023
Misplacing Our Worship on Golden Calves

Christians, churches, and church leaders today may not worship golden calves or another kind of obvious idol, but we are just as guilty of losing our focus on what matters and placing it on that which God gave us to help us in our worship.

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Since I was a child, almost every year around January 1, I begin to make plans to read through the Bible in one year. And pretty much every year, I start off strong with my reading plan or Bible app at a good pace of two to four chapters every day.

But then, either because I was sick, slept in, was busy, or just forgot, I would get off track after a few days or a few weeks. Sadly, for many of those years, I never really got back on track. Thankfully that hasnt always been the case.

But whatever the outcome, I typically will get through at least the Book of Exodus. That means that I have probably read or listened to Genesis and Exodus more than any other book in the Bible! I cant say the same thing about Leviticus, though (because it is typically the book that I stop on).

Every time I read through Exodus, one passage, in particular, stands out to me. It is a passage that, on the one hand, is incredibly frustrating and even angering to read yet, on the other hand, it reminds me of the frailty of the human faith and ability to concentrate on what is important. But if I am being honest, this passage also acts as a mirror to my own often-misguided soul.

What Exactly Happened Here?

Throughout the Book of Exodus, God continues to do amazing works to provide for and protect his people, the Israelites. Not only that, but God meets with them (and especially Moses) in some magnificent ways that no one else has ever gotten to experience.

God delivered his people from the Egyptian army, led them through the Red Sea on dry ground, rained food down from heaven when they were hungry, and caused water to spring out of a rock when they were thirsty, he defeated other armies for them, and then in chapter 19, God initiates one of those special meetings with Moses up on top of a mountain.

At this meeting, God gives Moses all kinds of instructions on how to best lead his people. Then to end their time together, God gives Moses a gift: two tablets with 10 rules or commandments” inscribed on them by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18).

This was a pivotal moment not just for the Israelites but for all people throughout all of history. We still have those Ten Commandments” today.

However, during about 10-plus chapters, while God was meeting with Moses, all of the people down below that were seeing the lightning above them and smelling the smoke billowing off the mountain began to get anxious. Like young children, their attention spans had run out.

And in Exodus 32, the Children of Israel got tired of waiting on Moses to come back (but really, they got tired of waiting on God), and they began to take their religion into their own hands (quite literally). Here is what the Bible says:

So Aaron said to them, Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:2-4, ESV).

Out of fear that Moses wasnt coming back and what they would do without him, they forgot all about the miracles that God performed for them and let go of their allegiance to him.

In an event that mimics a worship service more than anything else, they recognized a higher power to go before” them, gathered everyone together, pin-pointed and followed a leader (Aaron), and put together some religious activity so they could feel like they were accomplishing something (by melting down their jewelry).

They got up extra early to do their religious duties and make offerings, had a feast together, then got up and went on about their day (or rose up to play”). This is one of the clearest forms of blatant idolatry in all of Scripture.

But sadly, this was not the only time something like this happened with Gods people. For example, we see a similar example of idolatry in 1 Kings 12:26-28, in Jeremiah, in Ezekiel, and more. And if we are honest, we must admit that we are often guilty of taking our focus off of God and placing it on something else, too.

How Does This Apply to Us Today?

Sometimes Christians treat physical, man-made tools or accessories as spiritual talismans (or even straight idols), just like the Israelites considered gold as something spiritual.

We might superstitiously treat buildings and facilities, music and art, textbooks and hymnals, jewelry (like beads or necklaces), Bible translations, and finances and resources that should be no more than tools of our worship as either the object of our worship or something that is imbued with some kind of religious or mystical element.

As the author Gordon MacDonald explains in his book Who Stole My Church, it is our human nature to attach spiritual significance to certain physical elements involved in our Christian worship (such as songbooks, pews, and buildings) in such an unhealthy way that one someone suggests removing or changing those elements, we feel like they are essentially trying to take away our Jesus.

Sometimes church leaders passively allow misguided, carnally minded people to influence them to lose focus off of God, just like Aaron allowed the crowd to influence him. We might become busy with events and activities instead of being still in Gods presence.

We might choose songs for worship because of peoples’ preferences instead of the truthfulness of the lyrics. We might avoid certain passages of Scripture (or even change how we approach them) because we know it will make someone uncomfortable or offended.

We might ignore someones sin because we are afraid of what they will say or do in response (such as stop giving or leave the church). We might set visions for our churches or even lives based on what others think we should do instead of what God has told us to do.

Sometimes church congregations heroize their pastor and make him the focus of their church, just like the Israelites heroized Moses for delivering them from the Egyptians and then blamed him for their difficulties.

We might praise our leaders’ talent and ingenuity for a churchs success instead of giving God glory. We might blame a leader’s perceived faults for a churchs or ministrys decline instead of listening to what God is telling us about ourselves.

This has been a problem in churches of all shapes and sizes for decades — but is even clearer today in our celebrity culture.” It is our human nature to look for a physical person to praise or blame depending on how we think things are going.

Christians, churches, and church leaders today may not worship golden calves or another kind of obvious idol, but we are just as guilty of losing our focus on what matters (which is the person, teaching, and life of Jesus) and placing it on that which God gave us to help us in our worship.

We all struggle with this because we are prone to wander… prone to leave the God [we] love,” as the song Come Thou Fount” by Robert Robinson declares.

We get sidetracked by secondary, tertiary, or even potentially unimportant topics such as the clothes we wear to worship services, whether or not we should songs from certain artists, the volume of our music and singing, what time the service should start, what kind of room to meet in (and what kind of seats are acceptable when we get into that room), and so much more.

All of these topics might matter, but not as much as we often make them, and often in a completely different way than we might treat them.

How do we know if we have misplaced our worship? One way we can tell is by examining our hearts and taking notice of what produces strong emotions in us — especially the emotion of anger. Our emotions are great barometers” of what is going on in our hearts.

What breaks our heart” or puts us over the edge?” When someone starts talking about certain kinds of music or styles of worship, do we get emotional? When someone rearranges our worship space or takes our normal seat, so we get angry?

Who in our life causes us to fear (other than God)? What element or tool of our worship, if we lost it, would bring us extreme sadness? Do unreached people groups, broken families in our community, and dying churches move us to become emotional, or do we get bent out of shape over trivial matters (such as someone moving the piano — yes, that really happened)?

As I wrote about in another article, we are so easily swayed to forget who Jesus is and what he has done for us, emphasizing the created thing more than the Creator. In fact, this is the ultimate reason historically why God has gotten angry has his people — because:

Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things (Romans 1:21-22, ESV).

Why Does This Matter?

So, what do we do about this? We must recognize our sin of idolatry, remember who God has revealed himself to be (which is clearly seen in nature according to Romans 1 and in Gods Word), repent or turn from our sin, and go back to worshiping our first love” (Revelation 2:4).

Worship is not just a noun, and it is not just something that we go to — it is something we intentionally do daily. If our worship has been misplaced, then refocus it back on God today.

For further reading:

What Was the Golden Calf and What Can We Learn from this Bible Story?

Who Was Aaron in the Bible?

Can Being True to Ourselves Become an Idol?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/rudall30

Robert Hampshire is a pastor, teacher, writer, and leader. He has been married to Rebecca since 2008 and has three children, Brooklyn, Bryson, and Abram. Robert attended North Greenville University in South Carolina for his undergraduate and Liberty University in Virginia for his Masters. He has served in a variety of roles as a worship pastor, youth pastor, family pastor, church planter, and now Pastor of Worship and Discipleship at Cheraw First Baptist Church in South Carolina. He furthers his ministry through his blog site, Faithful Thinking, and his YouTube channel. His life goal is to serve God and His Church by reaching the lost with the gospel, making devoted disciples, equipping and empowering others to go further in their faith and calling, and leading a culture of multiplication for the glory of God. Find out more about him here.

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