This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/11/20, at Berkeley Friends Church (via videoconference). The scripture readings for this sermon were: 1 Exodus 32:1-14. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
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We are living in a golden age of TV. I’m old enough to remember back when you actually had to turn the television on at a particular time if you wanted to catch your favorite show. And if you missed it, you’d have to wait until it was on reruns.
Now, everything is at your fingertips. Netflix, Prime, Hulu, Disney+ – everything streaming, on-demand, immediate.
And it’s so good. Let’s be real. There’s more good TV coming out every year or two right now than came out in whole decades in the age of traditional TV.
We are living in a golden age of TV, and I’m loving it. Especially during this pandemic. I’m probably spending an average of an hour or two a night streaming a show or a movie. After work is done and the kids are off to bed, it’s such a relief to just turn my mind off, lay back on the couch and watch some of the best entertainment the world has ever seen.
Entertainment is the name of the game. It’s not just TV and movies. Social media, of course, is an extremely potent and addictive form of entertainment. How many of us have found ourselves scrolling through your social media feed, liking and sharing things, flitting from post to post, only to wake up an hour later, astonished at the time that has just disappeared?
Entertainment. That’s where it’s at. Video games. When I was a kid in the mid to late nineties, the best video games were things like Super Mario Brothers on Nintendo and Sim City 2000 on PC. Those games were amazing, and consumed countless hours of my childhood. But they look like digital chicken scratch by comparison with the depth and quality and sheer number of digital titles we have access to today.
Video games today are deeply immersive. Some of them feel like being inside a movie. Others are social, and become like a second job for many of the players. It’s easy to spend twenty hours a week in the game world, and many of us spend far, far more than that. Especially now, in an age of economic desperation, chronic unemployment and under-employment, millions of people are getting their sense of place, their sense of accomplishment and status, from massive multiplayer online video games.
Entertainment. It’s amazing. It’s so good. We love it, right? Who doesn’t have their favorite delivery system? Who among us can live without the sweet release of digital entertainment?
Certainly not me.
Have any of you read the book or watched the movie Ready Player One? It’s set in the near-future, in 2045, where the earth is a sprawling wasteland of ecological destruction and growing poverty, while the super-rich gate themselves away in fortified enclaves.
In this world of climate destruction, massive income inequality, and loss of any meaningful government beyond profit motives of corporations, most regular people spend their lives plugged into virtual reality. The real world is a total nightmare, so billions of people – everyone who can possibly afford to – escapes to a better world, inside a digital fantasy land called the OASIS.
I remember when I first read the book shortly after it came out, back in 2011, the author’s vision seemed a little far-fetched. Certainly on the wacky side of the possible.
Doesn’t sound too implausible now, does it? Sounds downright prophetic to me.
Our society is falling apart – politically, economically, ecologically – and billions of us spend our leisure time plugged into various modes of electronic entertainment, engaged with ersatz worlds that are easier, more beautiful, and more satisfying than the real world we inhabit.
When was the last time you felt sustained boredom? Not just for a minute, but for hours, or even days?
I remember boredom. I remember it vividly. It was one of the primary experiences of my childhood. I was bored all the time. I was constantly looking for some outlet, some way to engage my frustrated imagination and express myself. To discover, to explore the world around me. To make sense of it all and gain a sense of mastery over my environment.
I read tons of fiction and non-fiction. I sketched. I made music. I wrote poetry. I tried to write a novel at the age of 12. (It was awful.) I got politically engaged and worked to get a socialist candidate for president on the ballot in Kansas. I yearned. It hurt.
I haven’t been bored in a long time. I can’t remember the last time I endured boredom for an entire hour, much less a day. Always at my fingertips are streaming entertainment, social media, an endless series of pithy articles to read, immersive video games to play.
The moment the itch of boredom sets in on me, I can reach for my phone. My laptop. The TV remote. The OASIS is at my beck and call. I don’t have to endure this world we live in, with its slow progress and frustrations. Out here, I am so weak and small, but in the OASIS, in the digital world, I can be whoever I want. I don’t have to feel bad. I don’t have to ask permission. I don’t have to wait. I can have it all now.
When Moses went up on Mount Sinai to meet with God, he was gone for forty days and forty nights. That is to say, he was away for a really long time.
Moses was the leader of the Hebrews. He was their prophet. He was the messenger from God who told them what they needed to do and where they should go. It was Moses who spoke on their behalf to Pharaoh. It was Moses who led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness of Sinai.
But now Moses was gone. Not just for a day or two, but for a long time – more than a month. People started getting nervous. People’s minds started to wander. People got bored.
So they went to Aaron, the man that Moses had left in charge while he was away. And they said to Aaron:
“Hey, Aaron: Moses has been away for a really long time. We’re not sure where he’s off to, but that storm has been raging on top of the mountain since before he left. Maybe he fell off a cliff. Maybe God struck him with lightning Zeus-style. Maybe he ran away. We don’t know. But bottom line is, we’ve got to do something.
We’re aimless. We don’t have a sense of direction anymore. We’re bored. So we’ve got an idea. Since we don’t have Moses to follow anymore, why don’t we make some images of gods to lead us forward. They can show us the way, just like Moses did. If Moses can mediate God to us, maybe some beautiful images can do the same.
We know the Caananites have Baal, the bull god. That seems to be working out pretty well for them. Maybe you can make us a bull, too. Bulls are a sign of strength, and we need some strength right now, if we are going to make it through the wilderness.
So make us some gods, Aaron, to show us how to follow the LORD. Moses is gone, and we’re bored. Give us something to do!”
Now, you would expect Aaron, as Mose’s right-hand man, to put up some sort of objection. But to our surprise, he immediately goes along with the demands of the people. He tells them to gather up all their valuables made out of gold, all the petty wealth they had brought with them out of Egypt. Aaron fashions it into a golden calf. A bull. A sign of power and strength.
And Aaron unveiled the golden calf to the people and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” And he built an altar for the calf – a site where the people could come and worship – and he declared that the next day would be a festival to the LORD.
I find this really interesting. Because most of us, when we think of the story of the golden calf, we imagine that this was a complete abandonment of God by the Hebrews in the desert. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Aaron made the calf, and set it up at a site for worship, but then announced a festival to the LORD, the same LORD that Moses had gone to meet up on Mount Sinai.
It seems that the calf wasn’t really meant to be a replacement for God, it was meant to be a replacement for Moses.
The calf was more exciting than Moses. It was present while he was absent. It offered them a chance to perform tasks and religious ritual. The calf relieved anxiety and boredom. It told them that everything would be OK, and it gave them agency to be able to improve their situation without having to wait for Moses endlessly in the wilderness.
And so it says that the people, “rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” And it seems the the word that is translated here as “to play” or “to revel” has a sexual connotation. It is very likely that this is referring to sexual orgies, which were quite common in Canaanite religious practice in those days.
Who says worship can’t be fun? Am I right?
This is really interesting. Because this means that Aaron and the people thought they could worship God while ignoring God’s plan. They thought they could create a world of their own choosing, a world that was more psychologically safe for them, a world of bulls and strength, a world of wealth and fertility and sexualized religious rites. A world where they could make God in their own image.
And we can relate to this, can’t we? Because we, too, like to be entertained. We, too, believe that we can follow the God of Moses and Jesus while also conforming ourselves to the practices of the culture around us. We think we are Christians, followers of Jesus, inheritors of the promise, lovers of God. But where is the evidence in how we spend our time?
If I were to do a quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation, I would say I spend probably two to three times more time watching streaming TV than I do reading the Bible and participating in worship. If I were to count all of the entertainment activities that I engage in – TV, social media, games, entertainment masquerading as “news” – the ratio would be much worse.
Are you in the same boat as me? Am I an outlier? Are the rest of you spending more time in prayer and Bible study than you are in entertainment? If that’s the case, then praise God, and pray for me!
But I don’t think so. I think most of us are a lot like the Hebrews in the wilderness. We’re in uncomfortable, unfamiliar territory. We’ve been forced out of the familiarity of Egypt: America-as-usual. We’re looking for anything to hold onto.
In these circumstances, we are very susceptible to the lure of the Canaanite culture around us. The golden bull of Wall Street. The orgies of Netflix and Facebook. Pouring our wealth and attention into frivolous things rather than the service of God and neighbor. “These are your gods, O Israel.”
We are a lot like the Hebrews. We think that we can embrace both God and the calf. Both the way of Jesus and the culture that surrounds us. We think that we can walk that line. We say, with the little girl from the El Paso hard and soft taco commercial, Por qué no los dos? Why not have both?
Moses is here this morning to tell us that we cannot hide behind our entertainments any longer. The LORD is here this morning to say that we have to choose between the illusions of this world and the reality that God sees. We are called to embrace the discomfort and boredom that comes from living in the wilderness with God. Because that’s what it means to live as finite creatures in the real world.
George Fox is here with us this morning, too. The early Quakers had something to say about entertainment and distraction.
A lot of us today are familiar with the Peace Testimony, and the values of simplicity, equality, integrity, stewardship, community, and so on. But the old Quakers had a lot more testimonies than these, and they weren’t general principles. They got very specific.
One of these testimonies was their testimony against vain and worldly amusements. Early Quakers would not attend plays. They would not gamble. They would not participate in sporting events. They most definitely would not have watched Netflix.
Now, that’s not to say that we all need to stop watching any TV, or playing any games, or participating in any sports. The early Quakers weren’t right about everything. And you’ve probably noticed that this sermon is full of movie references. There is room in God’s world for creativity, art, theater, and fun.
But we can’t allow these things to distract us from the truth. We must not fall into the trap that the surrounding culture has laid for us, to draw us into entertainment as an alternative reality to be immersed in.
God gave us creativity so that we could engage more fully with the cosmos that God has made, so that we could become co-creators with him. Unfortunately, this society that we live in has twisted our God-given creativity, using it to construct a false reality that numbs our hearts and blinds us to the truth.
God is calling us to turn away from the systems of entertainment that this world uses to keep us pacified. The rulers of this world have created a whole system of entertainment to keep us disconnected and powerless. They’ve forged a new sort of golden calf to provide us with false comfort, to keep us plugged into the Matrix and ignorant of the Desert of the Real.
Whether we like it or not, we do live in that desert. The golden trinkets of vain and worldly amusements have no power to deliver, only to distract and diminish.
This morning, we stand at the foot of Mount Sinai. We’re waiting to hear God’s word together. And even now, the temptation to distraction is with us. Our hands itch for our telephones, and all our false gods.
What would it mean for us to wait on Moses to come back down the mountain? What would it look like for us to reject the false idols of passive entertainment? What would it look like to turn away from syncretism and compromise with the surrounding culture; the voice that insists that we can follow God while also participating in the false worships of this world?
The good news is, we are not alone in this wilderness. If we will look up from our false gods for a moment. If we put away the screens. If we will turn off the stream of easy wins, dopamine hits, and fantasies, we will see real people – our brothers and sisters in Israel – standing here with us. We will see life as it really is, and say together with God who created it: “This is good.”