The Fire and the Calf

A pulpit message from Phillips Brooks, London, May 27, 1883

“So they gave it (the gold) to me; then I cast it into the fire and there came out this calf” (Exodus 32:24)


In the story from which these words are taken we see Moses go up into the mountain to hold communion with God. While he is gone, the Israelites begin to murmur and complain. They want other gods, gods of their own. Aaron, the brother of Moses, was their priest. He yielded to the people, and when they brought him their golden earrings, he made out of them a golden calf for worship.

When Moses came down from the mountain, he found the people deep in their idolatry. He was indignant. First he destroyed the idol: “He burnt it in the fire and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.” Then he turned to Aaron: “What did this people unto thee,” he said, “that thou hast brought this great sin upon them?” And Aaron meanly answered: “Let not the anger of my lord wax hot: thou knowest the people that they are set on mischief. For they said unto me, “˜make us gods which shall go before us’ “¦ and I said unto them, “˜whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off.’ So they gave it to me; then I cast it into the fire and there came out this calf” (Exodus 32:20-24).

That was his reply. The real story of what actually happened had been written earlier in the chapter. When the people brought Aaron their golden earrings, “he received them at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, after he made it a molten calf; and they said, “˜These be they gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt'” (Exodus 32:4). That was what really happened, and this is the description which Aaron gave of it to Moses: “So they gave it to me; then I cast it into the fire and there came out this calf”

Aaron was frightened at what he had done. He was afraid of the act itself, and he was afraid of what Moses would say about it. Like all timid men, he trembled before the storm which he had raised. And so he tried to persuade Moses, and perhaps in some degree even to persuade himself that it was not he that had done this thing. He lays the blame upon the furnace. “The fire did it,” he declares. He will not blankly face his sin, and yet he will not tell a lie in words. He tells what is literally true. He cast the earrings into the fire, and this calf had come out. But he leaves out the one important point: his own personal agency in it all””the fact that he had molded the earrings into the calf’s shape, and that he had taken it out and set it on a pedestal for the people to adore. He tells it so that it shall all look automatic. It is a curious, ingenious, but transparent lie.

Let us look at Aaron’s speech a little while and see what it represents, for it does represent something. There never was a speech more true to one disposition of our human nature. We are all ready to lay the blame on the furnaces. “The fire did it,” we are all of us ready enough to say.


People Like Aaron

Here is a man all gross and sensual, a man still young who has lost the freshness and the glory and the purity of youth “¦ Suppose you question that man about his life. You expect him to be ashamed, to be repentant. There is not a sign of anything like that! He says, “I am the victim of circumstances. What a corrupt, licentious, profane age this is in which we live! When I was in college, I got in a bad set. When I was in business, I was surrounded by bad influences. When I grew rich, men flattered me. When I grew poor, men bullied me. The world has made me what I am, this fiery, passionate, wicked world. I had in my hands the gold of my boyhood which God gave me. Then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.” And so the poor, wronged, miserable creature looks into your face with his bleary eyes and asks your pity.

Another man is not a profligate, but is a miser, or a mere business machine. “What can you ask of me?” he says. “This is a company. The businessman who does not attend to his business goes broke. I am what this intense commercial life has made me. I put my life in there and out came this.” And then he gazes fondly at his golden calf, and his knees bend under him with the old, long habit of worshiping it, and he loves it still, even while he abuses and disowns it.

And so with the woman of society. “The fire made me this,” she says of her frivolity and pride. And so of the politician and his selfishness and partisanship. “I put my principles into the furnace and this came out.” And so of the bigot and his bigotry, the one-sided conservative with his stubborn resistance to all progress, and the one-sided radical with his ruthless iconoclasm. So of all the partial and fanatical men. “The furnace made us,” they are ready to declare. “These times compel us to be this. In better times, we might have been better, broader men; but now, behold, God put us into the fire, and we came out this.” It is what one is perpetually hearing about disbelief. “The times have made me skeptical. How is it possible for a man to live in days like these and yet believe in God and Jesus and the resurrection? You ask me how I, who was brought up in the faith and in the church, became a disbeliever. Oh, you remember that I lived five years here, or three years there. You know that I have been very much thrown with this set or with that. You know the temper of our own town. I cast myself into the fire and I came out this””¦

(Indeed), our age – our society – is what we have been calling it: It is the furnace. Its fire can set and fix and fasten what the man puts into it. But properly speaking, it can create no character. It can make no truly faithful doubter. It never did. It never can.


Casting Off Responsibility

Remember that the subtly and attractiveness of this excuse, this plausible attributing of power to inanimate things and exterior conditions to create what only man can make, extends not only to the results which we see coming forth in ourselves. It covers also the fortunes of those for whom we are responsible.

For example, the father says of his profligate son whom he has never done one wise or vigorous thing to make a noble and pure-minded man: “I cannot tell how it has come. It has not been my fault. I put him into the world and this came out.” The father whose faith has been mean and selfish says the same of his boy who is a skeptic. Everywhere there is this cowardly casting off of responsibilities upon the dead circumstances around us. It is a very hard treatment of the poor, dumb, helpless world which cannot answer to defend itself. It takes us as we give ourselves to it. It is our minister fulfilling our commissions for us upon our souls. If we say to it “make us noble,” it does make us noble. If we say to it “make us mean” it does make us mean. And then we take the nobility and say “behold how noble I have made myself.” And we take the meanness and say “see how mean the world has made me” “¦


Sailing with the Current

Often it takes this form. Often the way to help us achieve a result that we have set before ourselves is just to put ourselves into a current which is sweeping on that way, and then lie still and let the current do the rest. In all such cases, it is so easy to ignore or to forget the first step, which was that we chose that current for our resting place, and so to say that it is only the drift of the current which is to blame for the dreary shore on which at last out lives are cast up by the stream.

Suppose you are today a scornful man, a man case-hardened in conceit and full of disbelief in anything generous or supernatural, destitute of all enthusiasm, contemptuous, supercilious. You say the time in which you live has made you so. You point to one large tendency in the community which always sets that way. You parade the specimens of enthusiastic people whom you have known who have been fanatical and silly. You tell me what your favorite journal has been saying in your ears every week for years. You bid me catch the tone of the brightest people whom you live among, and then you turn to me and say, “How could one live in such an atmosphere and not grow cynical? Behold, my times have made me what I am.”

What does this mean? Are you trying to hide from me – or are you also hiding from yourself – the certain fact that you have chosen that special current to launch your boat upon, that you have given your whole attention to certain kinds of facts and shut your eyes to certain others? “¦

There are always currents flowing in all bad directions. There is a perpetual river flowing toward sensuality and vice. There is a river flowing perpetually toward hypocrisy and skepticism and infidelity. And when you once have given yourself up to one of these rivers, (it is easy to forget) that you are there by your own will.


Self-Pity or Self-Reproach?

Suppose there is a man here this morning who committed a fraud in business yesterday. He did it in a hurry. He did not stop to think about it then. But now, here, in this quiet church, with everything calm and peaceful around him, with the words of prayer which have taken God for granted sinking into his ears, he has been thinking it over. How does it look to him? Is he not certainly sitting in the mixture of self-pity and self-reproach of which I spoke? He did the sin, and he is sorry as a sinner. The sin did itself, and he is sorry as a victim.

Perhaps in the next pew to him, or in the same pew””or even in the same body””there is sitting a man who means to do a fraud tomorrow. In him is there not the same confusion? One moment he looks it right in the face and says, “Tomorrow night I shall despise myself.” The next moment he is quietly thinking that the sin will do itself and give him all its advantage, and he need not interfere “¦ Both thoughts are in his mind, and if he has listened to our service, it is likely enough that he has found something in it””something even in the words of the Bible””for each thought to feed upon.


The Incompleteness of Self-Deception

Such self-deception almost never is absolutely complete. We feel its incompleteness the moment anyone else attempts to excuse us with the same excuse which we have excused ourselves. Suppose one of the Israelites who stood by had spoken up in Aaron’s behalf and said to Moses, “Oh, he did not do it. It was not his act. He only cast the gold into the fire and there came out this calf.” Must not Aaron as he listened have felt the wretchedness of such a telling of the story and been ashamed, and even cried out and claimed his responsibility and his sin? Very often it is good for us to imagine someone saying aloud on our behalf what we are silently saying to ourselves in self-apology. We see its thinness when another hand-holds it up against the sun and we stand off and look at it”¦


The Cure

And this brings me to my last point, which I must not longer delay to reach. If the world is thus full of the Aaron spirit””of the disposition to throw the blame of wrongdoing upon other things and other people, to represent to others and to our own souls that our sins do themselves””what is the real spiritual source of such tendency, and where are we to look for its cure? I have just intimated what seems to me to be its source: It is a vague and defective sense of personality. Anything which makes less clear to a man that he, standing here on his few inches of earth, is a distinct, separate being with his own soul, his own character, his own responsibilities, distinct and separate from any other man’s in the world “¦ opens the door to endless self-excuses. And you know, surely, how many tendencies there are today which are doing just that for men”¦

Once it was hard to conceive of “man” because the personalities were so distinct. Once people found it hard, as the old saying was, to see the forest for the trees. Now it is just the opposite. To many people it is almost impossible to see the trees for the forest. “Man” is so clear that “men” become obscure…

And if this is the trouble, where, then, is the help? If this is the disease, where is the cure? I cannot look for it anywhere short of that great assertion of the human personality which is made when a man personally enters into the power of Jesus Christ. Think of it! Here is some Aaron of our modern life trying to cover up some sin which he has done. The fact of the sin is clear enough. There is no possibility of concealing that. It stands out wholly undisputed. It is not by denying that the thing was done, but by beclouding that he did it with his own hands, with his own will. Thus it is that the man would cover up his sin. He has been nothing but an agent, nothing but a victim; so he assures his fellow men and so he assures himself.

Suppose that while he is doing that, the great change comes to the man by which he is made a disciple and a servant of Jesus Christ. It becomes known to him as a certain fact that God loves him individually, and is educating him with a separate personal education which is all his own. The clear individuality of Jesus stands out distinctly and says to him, “Follow me!””¦ He is called separately, and separately he does give himself to Christ. Jesus stops in front of where he is working just as evidently “¦ calling him (in the same way that he) stopped in front of the booth where Matthew was collecting taxes, and says “Follow me!” The man is called separately, and separately he does give himself to Christ “¦

What will be the attitude of this man, with his newly-awakened selfhood, towards that sin which he has been telling himself that his hands did but that he did not do? May we not say that he will need that sin for his self-identification? Who is he? A being whom Christ has forgiven and then, in virtue of that forgiveness, is made His servant. All his new life dates from and begins with his sin. He cannot afford to find his consciousness of himself only in the noble parts of his life, which it makes him proud and happy to remember “¦ No! Out of his sin, out of the bad, base, cowardly acts which are truly his””out of the weak and wretched passages of his life which it makes him ashamed to remember, but which he forces himself to recollect and own””out of these he sees himself astray with self-will, which he then brings to Christ and offers in submission and obedience to His perfect will.

You try to tell some soul””one who is rejoicing that his sins have been forgiven””that his sins were not truly his, and see what strange thing comes. He will draw back from your assurance as if, if it were true, he would be robbed of all his surest confidence and brightest hope. You meant to comfort the poor penitent, but he looks into your face as if you were striking him a blow. And you can imagine what such a strange sight means: It is not that the poor man loves those sins or is glad that he did them, or dreams for an instant of ever doing them again. It is only that through those sins, which are the real experience he has had, he has found himself and in finding himself, he has found his Savior and the new life.

So the only hope for any of us is in a perfectly honest manliness to claim our sins. “I did it, I did it,” let me say of all my wickedness. Let me refuse to listen for one moment to any voice which would make my sins less mine. It is the only honest and only hopeful way, the only way to know and be ourselves. When we have done that, then we are ready for the Gospel, ready for all that Christ wants to show us that we may become, and for all the powerful grace by which He wants to make us.

Phillips Brooks (1835 – 1893) was a noted American clergyman and author who served as Bishop of Massachusetts in the Episcopal Church during the early 1890s. To give some perspective on his influence, consider this: his death was a major event in the history of Boston. One observer reported: “They buried him like a king. Harvard students carried his body on their shoulders. All barriers of denomination were down. Roman Catholics and Unitarians felt that a great man had fallen.”

Today, in addition to his powerful sermons, he is probably best known for authoring the Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem.