SERMON: The Fire And The Calf by Phillips Brooks

The Fire And The Calf by Phillips Brooks

So they gave it 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 them to 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 strewed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.”  Then he turned to Aaron: “What did this people unto thee that thou hast brought 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 me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.”  That was his mean reply.  The real story of what 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 had made it a molten calf; and they said, These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.”  That was what really happened, and this is the description which Aaron gave of it to Moses: “So they gave it 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 of what Moses would say.  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 had 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 its 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 this morning and see what it represents, for it does represent something.  There never was a speech more true to our human nature.  We are all ready to lay the blame upon the furnaces.  “The fire did it,” we are all of us ready to say.  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.  He is profane; he is cruel; he is licentious; all his brightness has grown lurid; all his wit is ribaldry.  You know the man.  As far as a man can be, he is a brute.  Suppose you question him about his life.  You expect him to be ashamed, repentant.  There is not a sign of anything like that!  He says, “I am the victim of circumstances.  What a corrupt, licentious, profane age is this in which we live!  When I was in college I got into a bad set.  When I went into 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.”  So the poor wronged miserable creature looks into your face with his bleared eyes and asks your pity.  Another man is not a profligate, but a miser, or a mere business machine, “What can you ask of me?” he says.  “This is a mercantile community.  The business man who does not attend to his business goes to the wall.   I am what this intense commercial life has made me.  I put my life in there, and it came out this.”  And he gazes fondly at his golden calf and his knees bend under him with the old habit of worshiping it, and he loves it still, even when 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, the one-sided radical with his ruthless iconoclasm.  So of all partial and fanatical men.  “The furnace made us,” they are ready to declare.  “These things 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 I have been very much thrown with this set or with that.  You know the temper of our town.  I cast myself into the fire, and I came out this.”  One is all ready to understand, my friends, how the true soul, struggling for truth, seems often to be worsted in the struggle.  One is ready to have tolerance, respect, and hope for any man who, reaching after God, is awed by God’s immensity and his own littleness, and falls back crushed and doubtful.  His is a doubt which is born in the secret chambers of his own personal conscientiousness.  It is independent of his circumstances and surroundings.  The soul which has truly come to a personal doubt finds it hard to conceive of any ages of the most implicit faith in which it could have lived in which that doubt would not have been in it.  It faces its doubt in a solitude where there is none but it and God.  All that one understands, and the more he understands it the more unintelligible does it seem to him, that any earnest soul can really lay its doubt upon the age, the set, or the society it lives in. No; our age, our society is what, with this figure taken out of the old story of Exodus, 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 soul and doubter.  It never did.  It never can.

Remember that the subtlety 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.  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 own 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.”

You see, I am sure, how perpetual a thing the temper of Aaron is, how his excuse is heard everywhere and always.  I need not multiply illustrations.  But now, if all the world is full of it, the next question is, What does it mean?  Is it mere pure deception, or is there also delusion, self-deception in it?  Take Aaron’s case.  Was he simply telling a lie to Moses and trying to hide the truth from his brother whom he dreaded, when he said, “I cast the earrings into the fire, and this calf came out”?  Or was he in some dim degree, in some half-conscious way, deceiving himself?  Was he allowing himself to attribute some power to the furnace in the making of the calf?  Perhaps as we read the verse above in which it is so distinctly said that Aaron fashioned the idol with a graving tool, any such supposition seems incredible.  But yet I cannot but think that some degree, however dim, of such self-deception was in Aaron’s heart.  The fire was mysterious.  He was a priest.  Who could say that some strange creative power had not been at work in the heart of the furnace which had done for him what he seemed to do for himself.  There was a human heart under that ancient ephod, and it is hard to think that Aaron did not succeed in bringing himself to be somewhat imposed upon by his own words, and hiding his responsibility in the heart of the hot furnace.  But however it may have been with Aaron, there can be no doubt in almost all cases this is so.  Very rarely indeed does a man excuse himself to other men and yet remain absolutely unexcused in his own eyes.  When Pilate stands washing the responsibility of Christ’s murder from his hands before the people, was he not feeling himself as if his hands grew cleaner while he washed?  When Shakespeare paints Macbeth with the guilty ambition which was to be his ruin first rising in his heart, you remember how he makes him hide his new-born purpose to be king even from himself, and pretend, that he is willing to accept the kingdom only if it shall come to him out of the working of things, for which he is not responsible, without an effort of his own.

If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,
Without my stir.

That was the first stage of the growing crime which finally was murder.  Often it takes this form.  Often the very way to help ourselves most to a result which 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; and 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 our 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 you live in 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 who I am.”  What does that mean?  Are you merely 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, that you have constantly valued the brightness which went to the depreciation of humanity and despised the urgency with which a healthier spirit has argued for the good in man and for his everlasting hope?  Is it not evident that you yourself have been able to half forget all this, and so when the stream on which you launched your boat at last drives it upon the beach to which it has been flowing all the time, there is a certain lurking genuineness in the innocent surprise with which you look around upon the desolate shore on which you land, and say to yourself, “How unhappy I am that I should have fallen upon these evil days, in which it is impossible that a man should genuinely respect or love his fellowmen”?

For there are currents flowing always in all bad directions.  There is a perpetual river flowing towards sensuality and vice.  There is a river flowing perpetually towards skepticism and infidelity.  And when you once have given yourself up to either of these rivers, then there is quite enough in the continual pressure, in that great movement like a fate beneath your keel, to make you lose the sense and remembrance that it is by your own will that you are there, and only think of the resistless flow of the river which is always in your eyes and ears.  This is the mysterious, bewildering mixture of the consciousness of guilt and the consciousness of misery in all our sin.  We live in a perpetual confusion of self-pity and self-blame.  We go up to the scaffolds where we are to suffer, half like culprits crawling to the gallows and half like martyrs proudly striding to their stakes.  When we think of what sort of reception is to meet us in the other world as the sum and judgment of the life we have been living here, we find ourselves ready, according to the moment’s mood, either for the bitterest denunciation, as of souls who have lived in deliberate sin; or for tender petting and refreshment, as of souls who have been buffeted and knocked about by all the storms of time, and for whom now there ought to be soft beds in eternity.  The confusion of men’s minds about the judgments of the eternal world is only the echo of their confusion about the responsibilities of the life which they are living now.

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, in this quiet church with everything calm and peaceful round 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. Nay, perhaps in the next pew to him, or perhaps in the same pew, or perhaps in the same body, there is sitting a man who means to do a fraud tomorrow. In him too 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. “If chance will make me cheat, why chance may crown me, without my stir.” 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 – even in the words of the Bible – for each thought to feed upon.

I own this freely, and yet do I believe, and I call you to bear me witness, that such self-deception almost never is absolutely complete.  We feel its incompleteness the moment anyone else attempts to excuse us with the same excuse with which we have excused ourselves.  Suppose that some 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 in 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.  If I might turn again to Shakespeare and his wonderful treasury of human character, there is a scene in Hamlet which exactly illustrates what I mean.  The king has determined that Hamlet must die, and is just sending him off upon the voyage from which he means that he is never to return.  And the king has fully explained the act of his own conscience, and accepted the crime as a necessity.  And then he meets the courtiers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are to have the execution of the base commission.  And they, like courtiers, try to repeat to the king the arguments with which he has convinced himself.  One says –

Most holy and religious fear it is
To keep those many many bodies safe
That live and feed upon your majesty.

And the other takes up the strain and says –

The single and peculiar life is bound,
With all the strength and armor of the mind,
To keep itself from ‘noyance; but much more
That spirit upon whose weal depend and rest
The lives of many.

They are the king’s own arguments.  With them he has persuaded his own soul to tolerate the murder.  But when they come to him from these other lips, he will none of them.  He cuts them short.  He cannot hear from others what he has said over and over to himself.

Arm you, I pray you, to this speedy voyage.

So he cries out and interrupts them.  Let the deed be done, but let not these echoes of his self-excuse parade before him the way in which he is trifling with his own soul.

So it is always.  I think of the mysterious judgment day, and sometimes it appears to me as if our souls would need no more than merely that voices outside ourselves should utter in our ears the very selfsame pleas and apologies with which we, here upon the Earth, have extenuated our own wickedness.  They of themselves, heard in the open air of eternity, would let us see how weak they were, and so we should be judged.  Is not that partly the reason why we hate the scene of some old sin?  The room in which we did it seems to ring forever with the sophistries by which we persuaded ourselves that it was right, and will not let us live in comfortable delusion.  Our life there is an anticipated judgment day.

I doubt not that this tendency to self-deception and apology with reference to the sins which they commit differs exceedingly with different men.  Men differ, perhaps, nowhere else more than in their disposition to face the acts of their lives and to recognize their own personal part and responsibility for the things they do.  Look, for instance, at this Aaron and his brother Moses.  The two men are characterized by their own sins.  The sin of Aaron was a denial or concealment of his own personal agency: “I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.”  The sin of Moses, you remember, was just the opposite.  As he stood with his thirsty people in front of the rock of Horeb, he intruded his personal agency where it had no right.  “Hear now, ye rebels; must we fetch water out of this rock?”  To be sure, in the case of Moses it was a good act of mercy to which he put his claim, while in Aaron’s case it was a wicked act whose responsibility he desired to avoid.  And men are always ready to claim the good deeds in which they have the slightest share, even when they try to disown the sins which are entirely their own.  But still the actions seem to mark the men.  Moses is the franker, manlier, braver man.  In Aaron the priest there is something of that oversubtle, artificial, complicated character, that power of being morally confused even in the midst of pious feeling, that lack of simplicity, and of the disposition to look at things frankly in the eye; in a word, that vague and defective sense of personality and its responsibilities which has often in the history of religion made the very name of priestcraft a reproach.  Moses is the prophet.  His distinct mission is the utterance of truth.  He is always simple; never more simple than when he is most profound; never more sure of the fundamental principles of right and wrong, of honesty and truth, than when he is deepest in the mystery of God; never more conscious of himself and his responsibilities than when he is most conscious of God and his power.

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 wrong-doing upon other things and other people, to represent to others, and to our own souls, that our sins do themselves, what is the spiritual source of such a tendency, and where are we to look to find its cure?  I have j It is a vague and defective sense of personality.  Anything which makes less clear to a man the fact that he, standing here on  his few inches of the Earth, is a distinct separate being, in whom is lodged a unit of life, with his own soul, his own character, his own chances, his own responsibilities, distinct and separate from any other man’s in all the world; anything that makes all that less clear demoralizes a man, and opens the door to endless self-excuses.  And you know, surely, how many tendencies there are today which are doing just that for men.  Every man’s personality, in his clear sense of himself, seems to be standing where almost all the live forces of the time are making their attacks upon it.  It is like a tree in the open field from which every bird carries away some fruit.  The enlargement of our knowledge of the world, the growing tendency of men to work in large companies, the increased despotism of the social life, the interesting studies of hereditation, the externality of a large part of our action, the rush and competition for the prizes which represent the most material sort of success, the spread of knowledge by which at once all men are seen to know much, and, at the same time, no man is seen to know everything; all these causes enfeeble the sense of personality.  The very prominence of the truth of a universal humanity, in which our philanthropy justly glories, obscures the clearness of the individual human life.  Once it was hard to conceive of man, because the personalities of men were so distinct.  Once people found it hard, as the old saying was, to see the forest for the trees.  Now it is the opposite.  To hundreds of people it is almost impossible to see the trees for the forest.  Man is so clear that men become obscure.  As the Laureate of the century sings of the time which he so well knows: “The individual withers and the race is more and more.”  These are the special causes, working in our time, of that which has its general causes in our human nature working everywhere and always.

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.  It stands out wholly undisputed.  It is not by denying that the thing was done but by beclouding the fact that he did it with his own hands, with his own will; thus it is that the man would cover up hi sin.  He has been nothing but an agent, nothing but a victim; so he assures his fellowmen, so he assures himself.  And now suppose that while he is doing that, the great change comes to that man by which he is made a disciple and 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 distinctly out and says to him, “Follow me!”  Jesus stops in front of where he is working just as evidently as he stopped in front of the booth where Matthew was sitting collecting taxes, and says, “Follow me.”  He is called separately, and separately he does give himself to Christ.  Remember all that is essential to a Christian faith.  You cannot blur it all into indistinctness and generality.  In the true light of the redeeming Incarnation, every man in the multitude stands out as every blade of grass on the hillside stands distinct from every other when the sun has risen.  In this sense, as in many another, this is the true light which lighteneth every man that cometh into the world.

The Bible calls it a new birth, and in that name too there are many meanings.  And among other meanings in it must there not be this – the separateness and personality of every soul in Christ?  Birth is the moment of distinctness.  The meanest child in the poorest hovel of the city, who by and by is to be lost in the great whirlpool of human life, here at the outset where his being comes, a new fact, into the crowded world, is felt in his distinctness, has his own personal tending, excites his own personal emotion.  When he is born and when he dies, but perhaps most of all when he is born, the commonest, the most commonplace and undistinguished of mankind asserts the fact of privilege of his separateness.  And so when the possession of the soul by Christ is called the “New Birth,” one of the meanings of that name is this, that then there is a reassertion of personality, and the soul which had lost itself in the slavery of the multitude finds itself again in the obedience of Christ.

And now 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 he not almost 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 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.  There is not enough of that to make for him a complete and continuous personality.  It will have great gaps if he disowns the wicked demonstrations of his selfhood and says, “It was not I,” wherever he has done wrong.  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 gathers the consciousness of a self all 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 rejoicing in the Lord’s salvation that the sins over whose forgiveness by its Lord it is gratefully rejoicing, were not truly its; and see what strange thing comes.  The soul seems to draw back from your assurance as if, if it were true, it would be robbed of all its surest confidence and brightest hope.  You meant to comfort the poor penitent, and he looks into your face as if you were striking him a blow.  And you can see what such a strange sight means.  It is not that the poor creature 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 all the real experience he has had, he has found himself, and finding himself 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 the 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 be it perfectly.


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