Sammy is going through the developmental phase where he learns about “permanence,” which is that something can still exist even if he can’t see it. He is discovering that Sam and I are still in the apartment even if we aren’t in the room, that when we leave him at the babysitter’s, we haven’t left his life. Now we can say, “Awww, isn’t that so sweet, little baby is learning.” But this is not something that only babies need to learn. There is a developmental phase of faith that grown up Christians where we learn about God’s permanence, where we trust that God is still present even though we can’t feel it. The story we are going to hear this morning is a story of what can happen when people regress in their development, back to not trusting in God’s permanence.
“Last week we heard about the Passover meal that the Israelites observed the night before they escaped from Egypt. After that night, they travelled to, and through, the sea, and then into the desert, with God leading them in a pillar of fire to light the way at night and a pillar of cloud to show the way in the daytime. When they arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses made several trips up the mountain to speak with God, receiving the ten commandments and many other laws and instructions for how the people should organize their lives as a religious, social, and economic community. The story we will hear today happens during the fourth trip Moses makes up the mountain, which lasted 40 days and 40 nights as God and Moses spoke. Among the instructions given to Moses on this occasion were the instructions for the building of a tabernacle—a moveable temple where God could dwell with the people wherever they were. As God is finishing up giving the law and instructions and Moses is preparing to take the tablets down to the people, today’s story takes place. It is from Exodus chapter 32, verses 1-14.
Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Get up, make us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what’s become of him!”
So Aaron said to them, “Break off the golden rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people broke off the golden rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He received them from their hand, and made a molten calf, fashioned with a chiseling tool.
Then they said, “This is your god, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
When Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. Then Aaron made a proclamation saying, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the Lord God.” They rose up early the next morning, sacrificed burnt offerings and brought fellowship offerings. The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to make merry.
Then Lord God said to Moses, “Go down! For your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have become debased. They quickly turned aside from the path that I commanded for them. They have made a molten calf, worshipped it, and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’”
The Lord God said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore, leave Me alone, so My wrath may burn hot against them, and so I may consume them—and make from you a great nation!”
Then Moses sought the Lord his God and said, “Lord God, why should Your wrath burn hot against Your people, whom You have brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He brought them out to do evil, to slay them in the mountains, and to annihilate them from the face of the earth?’ Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this destruction against Your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of I will give to your offspring, and they will inherit it forever.’”
So the Lord God relented from the destruction that He said He would do to His people.Exodus 32:1-14, Tree of Life Version
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
One of the best things about the Bible is that throughout our lives, all of these stories are our stories. Often we can relate to what’s happening, because it’s happened to us, because we’ve done it. I feel that way about this story. Before we jump too quickly to condemn these Israelites, let’s think for a moment about their feelings and their needs. Moses has disappeared up the mountain. We know it’s for 40 days, but the people don’t know it. They just know he’s gone. They have left the bondage of Egypt but haven’t yet arrived in their new home. They are in limbo, in between the past and the future, waiting without knowing what’s going to happen next. Sound familiar at all? They are feeling afraid. They are feeling insecure. They need structure, they need stability, they need reassurance. They need some sense of permanence in their lives. The problem is that they go looking for it in the wrong place.
In the first place, they are confused about who is responsible for their deliverance. In last week’s story, they all affirmed that it was God who brought them out of Egypt. Now this week, they start out by saying Moses brought them out of Egypt. But he’s disappeared, and they can no longer handle being in limbo, so they are going to take matters into their own hands. Sound familiar at all?
If they can’t have Moses, then God will be a good second-best. But not the true and living God, just the gods they can handle. Literally. Despite what is depicted in the movie The 10 Commandments, the oldest surviving bull statue we have from the ancient world is only 2 feet tall. That’s shorter than Sammy. Pretty small for something to worship. The people want reassurance, but they want to decide what kind of reassurance it is. We often assume that this golden calf was supposed to replace God, that it was supposed to be a different God than the that Moses was speaking to. It wasn’t. After Aaron makes the golden calf and the people say, “These are your gods who brought you out of Egypt,” they proceed to have a festival to the Lord. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who had brought them out of Egypt. The problem wasn’t that the people were trying to replace God. The problem was that the people would only worship as much God as they could handle. They wanted life on their terms instead of being will to keep trusting as they lived through God’s mystery. They would only accept a God who showed up how and when and where they wanted, otherwise they wouldn’t believe. Sound familiar at all?
And then we see how God reacts to that. I think this section is pretty funny actually. God and Moses sound like two parents arguing about who responsible for the behavior of their child. God takes the people at their word and says to Moses, “Look at your people, who you brought out of Egypt, how they have corrupted themselves.” And Moses argues back to God, “Why does your anger burn hot against YOUR people, who YOU brought out of Egypt?” But although this section is funny, it reminds me that sometimes there’s a difference between whose people we say we are and whose people we act like we are. Whose people are we? Are we Biden’s people or Trump’s people? Are we Fox News’s people or CNN’s people or NPR’s people? Are we Nadia Bolz Webber’s people or Mark Driscoll’s people? Are you Pastor Beth’s people or some other pastor’s people? Who do we actually listen to? Who do we actually trust? Who are we allowing to shape our perception of reality? Who are we actually following? Because as the Israelites discovered, it’s actually hard to follow just God. It’s hard for us to listen to a voice we can’t hear and follow a leader we can’t see. It just is. We can do it, but it’s hard. And so all too often and all to easily, we fall into the trap of following someone else instead. Sound familiar at all? The gift of this story is that it allows us to see ourselves from another perspective and remember again, “Oh, yes, we do want to be God’s people. Even though it’s hard. That’s who we really want to be.”
Now if someone we loved, someone who had committed themself to us, if that person betrayed us, we would be pretty upset. This story depicts God as getting pretty upset. So upset that God sounds like a grumpy teenage saying to Moses, “Now let me alone so I can do what I want to do.” But in this moment Moses does not obey God. In fact, Moses argues with God. Moses pulls out all the stops to try to convince God to take a different course. Moses says that God’s reputation is at stake: what will the Egyptians say if God kills all the people? And then the kicker: Moses asks God to keep God’s own promise. The promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was to make them into a great nation and give them a home. That ain’t gonna happen if you kill them all off in the desert. And here is one of my favorite verses in the Bible: “So the Lord repented, changed his mind, and turned away from the evil that he said he would do to his people.” <Whaaaaaat?!>
God changed his mind. That’s what the Bible says. And this is not the only time. There are others. But there are also verses that say God doesn’t change his mind. So which is it? <shrug> And before you rush to explain it away or make all the verses agree with each other, I invite you to just sit with a possibility of God that you may not have considered before. Because ultimately, this whole exodus story is rooted the revelation that God is a being we will never fully understand. When Moses recognizes God in the burning bush and asks for God’s name, God replies with a single word that defies translation. In English we pronounce that word as Yahweh, and we consider it to be God’s proper name. Whenever you see Lord in small caps in your Bible, what’s really written there in the original language is this proper name for God. Jews don’t pronounce the word at all. They even write the word in all consonants, without any vowels in it, just so they won’t even try to pronounce it.
At best this proper name of Yahweh— and remember that all gods in the ancient world had proper names—at best this name means “I will be who or what or where I will be.” In other words, “I’ll be there, for sure, but in my own way, and you may not be able to predict it.” It’s a promise and a little bit of caution: the promise is God will be there, the caution is for us not to assume we are going to understand how or when or where God is.
You need to hear today that the God who brought you this far has not abandoned you. Your experience of not being able to see something or not being able to feel something doesn’t mean it’s not there. In the season of history when we are experiencing profound dissonance about what it means to be present and what it means to be absent, God wants us to remember that God IS present, always, everywhere, in every moment, in all places. Like those Israelites waiting at the bottom of the mountain, the work of our faith in this moment is to keep trusting. When God takes us somewhere we’ve never been before, when we have to learn to do everything differently, when none of our decisions feel good, when we have no idea what’s coming next, when we are tempted to take matters into our own hands because then at least we’d feel like we had some control— in all of those desperate moments, the strong word of God to us is “HOLD ON. I am. I was with you when life was normal. I am with you in limbo. And I have already gone ahead of you to what’s coming next. You might not understand, and that’s OK. I am holding it all. So hold on to me.” May we receive God’s words of comfort and caution and together, courageously, move into the mystery of God’s future. Amen.