Psalm 106: 1-6, 19-23 (NRSV)
1 Praise the Lord!
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Who can utter the mighty doings of the Lord,
or declare all his praise?
3 Happy are those who observe justice,
who do righteousness at all times.
4 Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people;
help me when you deliver them;
5 that I may see the prosperity of your chosen ones,
that I may rejoice in the gladness of your nation,
that I may glory in your heritage.
6 Both we and our ancestors have sinned;
we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.
19 They made a calf at Horeb
and worshiped a cast image.
20 They exchanged the glory of God
for the image of an ox that eats grass.
21 They forgot God, their Savior,
who had done great things in Egypt,
22 wondrous works in the land of Ham,
and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
23 Therefore he said he would destroy them—
had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
to turn away his wrath from destroying them.
The psalmist was still pondering the golden calf incident and how the Hebrew people had exchanged the glory of their God, ‘for the image of an ox that eats grass!’, hundreds of years later. The expression ‘golden calf’ has come to mean an unworthy or inappropriate object of worship, possibly but not always, a material item. We may think this has little relevance to us who preach from the pulpit or sit in the pews, but we are likely to be mistaken. There’s the music we love to sing; the new audio-visual system we have prized; the pattern of worship we prefer or the refurbished church building itself. All of these are fine in themselves, but each (and many similar) has the potential to become the thing that is worshipped, instead of the living God.
The consequence of a golden calf mentality is a self-serving church community. Numerical growth is likely to be slow: why would it be otherwise if there is little stimulus to mission from an inward-looking congregation? Spiritual growth will be similarly hindered when a congregation is principally interested in maintenance, instead of seeking to reflect the glory of God in the world.
COVID-19, cruel though it is, gives us a chance to reflect, to realign our beliefs, values and goals. Its shocking fallout is prompting all of us in the Church to ask in-depth questions about ministry and mission along the lines of these: What’s gone well (in spite of everything)? What do we need to respond to and how? What’s been lost or should be reduced or even abandoned? What’s positive, new, and emerging and requires development and resourcing?
The Hebrews’ sin was to forget God and instead allow other things to divert and draw them away from true worship. Let’s not make the same mistake.
God of renewal, we’re not good at changing schedules, adapting to change, starting again. Help us to discern through this crisis what’s distracting us and holding us back from true worship, and how best we can serve you in today’s world. Amen.