Substitutes, Poor and Otherwise

Read Exodus 32:1-8 to start.

I’d like to start this morning with a question. Actually, there are two questions, one leads to the other. The first one is who here still eats toast? Between those who are on low carb, keto, or gluten free diets, probably lots of people don’t eat toast much anymore. I don’t eat toast all that often, it’s not my breakfast go-to, but my wife and a couple of my kids opt for toast fairly often. If you eat toast, or for that matter if you eat popcorn, or corn on the cob, or baked potatoes, or steamed carrots, odds are pretty good that you use butter on at least some of those foods. Maybe all of those foods. Maybe you use a little butter, maybe you use a lot.

Or maybe you don’t use butter at all. Maybe you use margarine.

When I was a kid, we generally had margarine in the house, and not too often did we have butter. We used it as a substitute for butter. We didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, and butter was more expensive, still is, in fact, probably averages about twice as much for a pound of butter versus a pound of margarine, although you can find butter on sale at a good price more often than you used to. And when I was a kid it was generally considered that margarine was the healthier choice, because saturated fats were the big bad of the day, and frankly, butter is about 50% saturated fat by weight, so if you want to cut out saturated fat, butter has to go.

Of course, the tables have turned, and lots of people have returned to butter, and some never left butter in the first place, as people are now more concerned that margarine is terrible for you, that the trans fats in some margarines are worse than the saturated fats ever were. And there’s the often repeated but entirely misleading notion that margarine is “one molecule” away from being plastic, which isn’t true, and doesn’t even make sense, but it does encourage people to turn back to butter. And there’s the simple fact that lots of people consider that butter just plain tastes better.

I’m not here this morning to convince you of which is better. Frankly, there are pros and cons to both products. Ultimately, one is made from milk fats, one from vegetable oils, and neither is especially good for you if consumed in large amounts. But the thing is that margarine only exists as a substitute for butter. No one “margarines” their toast. If our ancestors had not invented butter thousands of years ago, a French chemist would never have invented margarine in the mid-1800s. Not matter which of the two you might use more often, no matter which you might prefer, butter is the original, margarine is the substitute.

We live in a world that is filled with substitutes, some fairly good, some pretty terrible. There are substitutes all around us. Often we have good reasons for substitutions. I use sweetener in my coffee instead of sugar, because diabetes. My van uses synthetic motor oil, instead of something refined from crude oil, because of less engine wear. The light bulbs overhead, those are LEDs, so they use less electricity and last longer, even though they are made to look like the same incandescent lights not so different from what Thomas Edison patented in 1880. As prepared this very sermon I glanced at my flooring, in my front room/office are that is a laminate plank floor, but it’s designed to look like hardwood. The tiles in my kitchen look like marble. And the laminate flooring in my backroom resembles a different hardwood. They’re all pretending to be something else, even if obviously I don’t have a marble floor in my kitchen. If someday I get around to putting nice flooring upstairs, it’s not like I’m going to go out and get travertine or mahogany, I’ll be looking for something cost effective and durable. I’ll be looking for a substitute material.

 In the passage we read to start, the Israelites looked for a substitute. Not long before this, a few weeks as it happens, God had given them the Ten Commandments. He had proclaimed His law from Mount Sinai as the people all listened while keeping their distance in fear and reverence. Then after that Moses had gone up the mountain, and he had not come back down. He delayed to come down, verse 1 says. The people of Israel, though, they grew impatient. They wanted something they could see, something they could touch, something they could experience. A disembodied God and a missing leader? Those are not so easy to follow. So even though it was not even six weeks since they had received the law, they decided to throw out the second of the commandments, the one about making graven images.

We know what happened next. The people provided gold, and a golden calf was made. “These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt,” they said when they saw it.

We read that story and we shake our heads at the foolishness of the Israelites. How could they turn to idolatry so quickly? How could they forget that it was the Lord Jehovah who had brought the plagues upon Egypt, who had taken them through the Red Sea, who had provided a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day, who had instructed the destroying angel to pass over them when he saw the blood on their doorposts? How could they think that some metal figure, which was probably still warm from the smelter, had anything to do with that? We look at that as being ridiculous. And it is ridiculous. But that’s not what the Israelites were actually doing. Or at least it wasn’t what they intended. Listen to what Aaron says at verse 5: To morrow is a feast unto the Lord. That is the proper name of God, that the same word that we have in English as Jehovah. They made sacrifices to the golden calf much the same as they would to God without the presence of the image, they did burnt offerings and peace offerings. The intention of the Israelites was not to start worshipping some other gods, they did not think they were reverting to idolatry. They were not worshipping Baal or Osiris or Molech or some other false deity. Even as they bowed down to the golden calf, they thought they were still worshipping God, the God of Heaven. They wanted somewhere to direct their worship, and in Moses absence they quickly became impatient. They did not think they were rebelling against God. They had intended the calf as a substitute.

In that light, we might be half inclined to excuse their behaviour. It can almost be rationalized. You can almost hear the apologists arguing “Oh, they weren’t meaning to do anything bad, they didn’t understand what they were doing, and God was overly harsh in judging the people for making a golden calf.”

We live in a world of substitutes, and we live in a world of excuses. We look at secondary options and assume they are acceptable, or maybe we perceive them as perfectly adequate alternatives, or maybe “just good enough.” The original is too costly, or too hard to get, or requires too much effort, or some other excuse. Sometimes that’s good enough, but often it’s not.

We hear excuses all the time for all sorts of things. I hear them from my children, and usually they hold as much water as a bag of oranges. (I know, I know, oranges usually come in a mesh bag. That’s the point). I couldn’t find the broom to sweep the floor. I forgot to wipe the table. It was too hard to put the dishes away. I was tired and I slept in.

I hear excuses at work as well, and sometimes I make excuses at work. There were too many things to do, so I didn’t get everything done. The shipment didn’t come in because of weather delays. The part was defective and had to be replaced. Sometimes our excuses feel entirely legitimate. Sometimes they are legitimate. After all, there’s nothing I can do when the weather is bad and the Confederation Bridge is closed so an order doesn’t come in.  But sometimes, excuses are just that, excuses. We make excuses all the time. We shouldn’t be so quick to try and excuse ourselves to the creator of the universe, though.

If we read the rest of Exodus chapter 32, we would see some excuses. In verse 22 Aaron makes excuses for the people, you know the people, he says, they are set on mischief. And in verse 24, he excuses himself for making the golden calf, I put gold into the fire and out came this calf, because that’s how metalworking goes, of course. If you believe that, then I have not just a bridge to sell you, but a belief system that says that all life on this earth happened by chance with no direction or design whatsoever, but that’s another topic for another day. Excuses were made, but God was not so easily put off.

What was so wrong with the golden calf? I’m sure it was a perfectly lovely depiction of a barnyard animal, but the problem is what it represented. God had instructed the people of Israel not to make any graven images. They disobeyed that, because this was clearly a graven image. He had told them not to have any gods before Him, and while they may have called this golden calf by the name of God, still it was made a as god, formed by human hands. That’s two specific commandments, the first two, both broken. To obey is better than sacrifice we could read in 1 Samuel chapter 15. God takes obedience very seriously, and the Israelites had fallen short.

Disobedience was bad enough. But it didn’t end with that. Their behaviour, they fact that the chapter says that they ate and drank, and rose up to play, does not suggest that they were practicing worship in any sort of serious or respectful manner. The word we have in English as play, the Hebrew word is Tsachaq (tsaw-KHAK), which is elsewhere translated as laugh, or mock, or sport. When the Philistines had blinded Samson brought out so that they could make sport with him, that’s the same word. This was anything but holy worship. This was boisterous, casual, and offensive to God, and likely had far more in common with the manner of idol worship as the Israelites had known in Egypt. This was not how one worships the God of Heaven, not the God who spoke from a pillar of fire.

The twin failures of disobedience and disrespect doomed the people of Israel on that day. They should have known better, but they substituted their own judgement for God’s instructions. They substituted a golden calf for the God of all creation. And they probably didn’t even realize they were doing something wrong until Moses came down from the mountain and boy, did he look upset.  

How did they not realize they were making a mistake? God had clearly told them what not to do, but they went ahead and did it anyway, thinking they were doing the right thing. How much of that was wilful disobedience, and how much of it was lack of understanding I do not know, but clearly there was a disconnect there. The Israelites did not consider that worshipping the golden calf was a problem, even though God had distinctly told them that it was.

The children of Israel had lived in Egypt for centuries. They had seen how the Egyptians worshipped, they had seen no doubt countless idols and temples. Perhaps some of them had worshipped there as well. No doubt they thought that was normal, that was acceptable, that was how you worshipped your god.

But the Lord Jehovah is not the same as the false gods of the Egyptians. He is not the same as the gods of the Canaanites, or of Ur of the Chaldees, because He is real, and all the others are fake, they are stand-ins, they are substitutes. Poor substitutes, as it happens. There is one God, one true God, and one alone. The Israelites did perhaps not see so clearly the difference, not at that point at least.

We do not have so many false gods in our society today, at least not such as are labelled as gods. We do not live in Egypt or Canaan, our neighbours do not worship Baal or Zeus, that is not much of a temptation for us. Not something we need to worry about. But finding a different kind of false god, or choosing a poor substitute for the Lord Jesus Christ, that is something very real that happens all the time. People select alternatives instead of choosing Christ, instead of salvation through His blood and the finished work of the cross, and they do so every day.

How many people try good works in order to find some sort of salvation? They work and they strive to make this world a better place, to help others, to make themselves better people, to do more, to be better, but of course all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

How many people try logic, instead of Christ? They assume that they can only trust what they can mathematically prove, what they can reason out in their own minds, or what some other scholar can teach them, and they leave any thought of the eternal out of their equations? They rage against a God whom they claim is not real, when of course we know that the fool has said in his heart there is no God.

How many people try pleasure and enjoyment, striving to wring every last drop of fun out of this short life before shuffling off the mortal coil, and making certain to give no thought to what else there might be? They are given to amusements, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God. The very word amuse, it means to not think. If you don’t think about what happens after this life, then you need not be troubled by it. And being troubled is no fun, no fun at all.

How many people try chemicals and substances, or try possessions and goods, the gathering up of stuff, or try relationships and family, or try experiences and enrichment, all in an effort to find some substitute for the salvation that can only come from one place? There is none other name under heaven given among men by whom we must be saved. That name is the name of Christ, who was known while He lived on this earth as Jesus of Nazareth, the son of the carpenter, and the Son of God, and in His name alone is there salvation. None other name is given. There is no substitute for Him.

There are some things that you cannot substitute, not without consequences. You can’t put some other liquid into your car instead of gasoline, like diesel or kerosene or Diet Coke, and expect it to operate normally. You can’t wear a pair of pants as a shirt, although I’ve seen my kids try. If you’ve been injured and need a blood transfusion, it has to be blood, and the right blood type, that they give you. If you are O negative, they can’t give you A positive or AB negative or Mountain Dew or fresh squeezed orange juice, because you will most certainly die.

If Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners, which He most certainly did, then you can’t expect some other person, or some other procedure to actually be able to provide salvation. If there was another way, then Christ would not have needed to come, much less to die, and He certainly would not have. You don’t willingly die in the place of someone else, in the place of someone who has rebelled against you, defied your authority, and disobeyed continually, if there is another solution. You don’t intentionally die for the benefit of your enemies. The fact that He did speaks to the fact that there was no other way.

Yet we still we are reluctant to embrace the gift of God, the eternal life paid for through Christ’s blood, we are hesitant to throw all our trust upon that, when there is no other valid option. There is no substitute.

But still we delay, we flip-flop, we hold back, when we should be fully leaning upon His finished work. By grace we are saved, through faith, these verses we know. Even those of us who know the Lord, who have come to Him for salvation, at times we may not act much like it. We know that we are saved by grace and only through faith, or we should know, but perhaps we don’t always live it like we should.

Even as believers we may pick poor substitutes. We might choose tradition over truth, and there are many who do so, who look for ritual and rote and think that those hold the key to their salvation, that doing things in a certain way at a certain time is how we please God. Some might go the other way and opt for innovation and modernity instead of faith, but in either case we have substituted something else for truth. We might look for experiences over understanding. We might, and this is one that I have seen and heard many times, we might trust emotions over faith.

We all have emotions, although certainly some people express them more noticeably than others. Emotions come and go, you might be happy one day and sad the next, based on any number of factors. But emotions change. They are not consistent. They are not dependable. They are not something upon which to base your belief.

At times we may substitute emotion for faith. We feel a certain way, and so we act a certain way, that can modify behaviour, but it’s not the same as actual belief. It’s not truly faith when it is driven only by an emotional response. If you hear a fire and brimstone sermon and you are frightened by the prospect of spending an eternity in hell, that is a sound reaction. If you ask God to save you then and there, that is well and good, but if a few hours later you no longer feel any concern whatsoever about the fate of your eternal soul, then how much actual faith was involved there? Perhaps not much at all. I have known people who have gone to a youth retreat or a revival meeting or a similar event, maybe with a particularly dynamic speaker. They have felt strong emotions, a heavy conviction of sin and a desire to be saved, and have made a profession of faith. I have seen this be real, and lead to an actual change in a person’s life. And I have seen it when there is no change whatsoever, a week or a month passes and whatever emotional response there was has faded away. The once-moved person has resumed life as if nothing happened, because emotions are not a substitute for belief.

Some people chase the emotional high, they find that they need to feel something all the time, or they quickly descend into doubt and despair. They might seek inspiration, or enthusiastic and loud music, or some manner of signs-and-wonders experiences. There are no shortage of all of those available today for people who are looking for them, and I’m not going to say that I have a problem with churches who wish to have a praise band, or in just having drums and guitars on Sunday morning, but if that becomes a substitute for sound teaching, for depth, for truth, then it’s a big problem. And likewise, while I have little time personally for speaking in tongues, prophecy, or healings, I will not say that those cannot be of God. We see clearly in the NT that those gifts can be used mightily by the Lord. But they can also be used as a substitute for true faith. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, as we read in Hebrews 11, verse 1. When your belief is based on people doing showy performances and wonders under the general heading of the power of the Holy Spirit, that does not seem much like “things not seen” to me. It seems quite the opposite. And what happens when those things should cease? Signs and wonders, music and dancing, all are a poor substitute for faith.

Sometimes we don’t even realize that something is a substitute, a replacement, is not the original, because the fake is the only one we know. As a child, we had macaroni and cheese from time to time, but it was always from a box, typically a blue box that said Kraft on it. I don’t know that mom ever made macaroni and cheese from noodles and actual cheese, but my wife makes that on occasion, and it’s so much better than the boxed stuff that you can’t even compare the two. But when that was all I had experienced, I was just fine with the KD, I didn’t know any better.

Sadly, there are many who don’t even know the difference, not between Kraft Dinner and homemade macaroni and cheese, but between faith and playing church. They see Christianity as a system of rituals and rules, or maybe instead as a rowdy and raucous musical event, and so they don’t realize that neither one is what faith in Christ is actually about. Faith is not a ritual and it is not an emotional peak. Faith in Christ is a relationship with Him. It is not about completing steps or feeling a certain way, it is about prayer, and study of God’s word, and it’s about obedience. As Christ said in John chapter 14, if a man love me, he will keep my words. And you can look far and wide throughout the scriptures and you will not find a verse where Christ tells those who would follow Him to have praise bands, or to have large buildings and events, or to have pomp and pageantry and stained glass, or to have all sorts of programs. We substitute what we think is best, or what we like, for what Christ said. Take up thy cross and follow me, He said. Go and sin no more, He said. If you love me, keep my commandments, He said.

We don’t always like what Christ said. Because it’s hard to do that, it requires that we don’t put our wants and wishes ahead of what God has said, and we don’t like dying to self. We like our substitutes. We’re often convinced that our substitutes are pretty good, or maybe we like them better than the original. After all, the Compliments brand cornflakes from Sobeys are far superior to what you get in the Kellogg’s box with a rooster on it. But why eat cornflakes for breakfast when you could have pancakes and bacon? It’s all just a substitute for something real, something true, something substantial.

You might be under the impression that I’m saying that every substitute is terrible. Maybe you’ve heard the expression “accept no substitutes,” but that is not what I’m saying this morning. Sometimes a substitute is necessary. When you were in school, no doubt you had a substitute teacher from time to time. What alternative would there be to that? The teacher is ill so all the kids get to stay home? That’s hardly reasonable. Sometimes substitutes are necessary.

Even the system of sacrifices that the Israelites were given, and the law as written down by Moses, was in essence a substitute. It was a temporary measure, established to point people toward God, and to demonstrate how the human race needs salvation from sin, how we are unable to save ourselves by all our efforts. As well, animal sacrifices foreshadowed Christ’s death on the cross.

He is the one substitute that we all need, the one substitute that we cannot do without. Christ Jesus died as your substitute, as my substitute. The wages of sin are death, but He paid the price for your sins, for my sins, for the sins of the entire world, so you did not have to, because you could not. He put Himself in your place, sealing your pardon with His blood, as your substitute. By acting as the ultimate substitute, He broke the power of sin.

That is one substitution that I am more than happy to accept.