by David Baer, October 9, 2016
Text: Exodus 32:1-14
What do you do when somebody you care about is making a mistake? What do you do when someone you love is making terrible choices? Maybe it’s your child or an older parent. Maybe it’s an old friend of many years. You see them burning bridges with unkind words to others, like you, who care about them. You see them acting impulsively in a way that you know is going to hurt them down the road—pursuing a love interest who’s going to break their heart, or quitting a job they need. Maybe you see them in the grip of something so much stronger than they are, than you are—anxiety, depression, substance abuse. And the whole thing unfolds like a slow-motion train wreck that you’re powerless to stop. Have you ever felt like this?
If you have, then you know something about what Moses is feeling in our story this morning. Last week we heard the Passover story, where God battered Egypt with plagues, with the last, most terrible plague being the angel of death that took the life of every human and animal firstborn. Finally, the Pharaoh consented to let God’s people go free. Then, inexplicably, he changed his mind, sending his heavy chariots in pursuit through the desert. God made a way for the people to escape through the sea, and then let the waters roll back over the Egyptian army. All this is to say that this is a people God has acted miraculously and powerfully to free and to save.
But this God comes across as being a bit scary too. When Moses goes up the mountain to receive God’s Teaching, or “Torah” in Hebrew, he’s gone a long time—forty days and nights. The people look up the mountain, and they see the whole top of it shrouded in clouds, with lightning dancing around it, and booming thunder echoing through the wilderness. They’ve been told that if any of them so much as touches the sacred mountain, if any of them comes too close to God’s holy presence, they’ll be burned up, consumed as though it were a raging wildfire. They’re terrified. They’re seeing a God who exists apart from them, above them, who could squish them in an instant. They don’t think they put their trust in that kind of God.
I once met a fellow minister who told me that when he was little his church wouldn’t allow the children to sing, “Jesus Loves Me,” because they couldn’t be certain that all of the children were part of God’s Elect, chosen by God to be saved. My grandmother told me her religious upbringing was all about teaching her rules of behavior and consequences for breaking them. I’m grateful that wasn’t the kind of God my parents and my church showed me. But there are some people, even today, who have come to see God as someone you can be afraid of but never fully love.
If you’re afraid of God, because God can’t be counted on not to destroy you, then maybe you need a God you can literally get your arms around. Maybe you need a God you can not only touch, but carry with you. So the people come to Aaron, the poor guy that Moses left in charge. (Can you imagine having that job?) They say, “Look, Aaron, there’s no use beating around the bush: Moses isn’t coming back. This God he told us so much about has probably slaughtered him up on that mountain. Who needs a scary God like that? We need a God we can relate to, one that we can see and touch.” Now, in the ancient world, everybody knew that gods were physically real. They had bodies. How many statues or carvings or paintings of Egyptian gods had they seen when they were slaves? Obviously the Egyptians were doing something right, since they were the mighty empire, and the Israelites were now desert wanderers. Maybe it was time they got themselves a real god, like the Egyptians had.
So Aaron tells the people to take off their gold jewelry. They bring all the gold to him, which they had plundered from the Egyptians on their way out (Exodus 12:35-36). It’s an impressive offering. It’s generous. It’s sacrificial, each family giving up their wealth, so that it can be melted down and formed into the shape of a calf or bull. Then they organize a religious festival, where they present additional sacrificial offerings of grain and meat to the golden calf. And then there’s a big party, with lots of eating and drinking and dancing and music.
I just want to point something out. When Aaron presents the calf he’s made to the people, he points to it and says, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” This is what I imagine must have broken God’s heart. God saved them from their enemies. God gave them food and water to sustain them in the wilderness. God protected them on every side. And now God’s people turn around and give all the credit to this… thing that they’ve made, the creation of their own resources.
God’s heartbreak here, though, is not just about vanity, about needing to take credit. The Hebrew people are still on a journey, still in danger. There’s no guarantee that they can make it through the wilderness, or that they can take possession of the promised land once they reach it. And there’s still so much for them to learn about how to live together with each other and with God—that’s why God was in the process of giving Moses the Teaching. By transferring their trust to a god they themselves have made, they’ve cut themselves off from God’s infinite creativity and power and love which come from outside of them, and they’ve decided to rely instead only on their own resources. Without God they don’t stand a chance.
So we’ve seen two images of God. On the one hand, there’s a “God” who’s powerful enough to save you, to lead you, to transform you, but too scary and distant to trust. On the other hand, there’s a “God” you can see and touch without fear, but which has nothing to offer that you don’t already know, that you can’t already do for yourself; and it can never save you, can never bring you out of whatever’s oppressing you to the place where you will flourish.
And then, between these two images emerges the God of Moses. God is outraged that the people have so quickly forgotten what God has done for them. God says, “Hey, Moses! You need to get down from the mountain right now. Your people…”—notice God doesn’t say “my people”—“have acted perversely.” And then God says, “Look, I can’t work with this people. They’re too stubborn. Let me just wipe them out, and then you and I can go off and find another people to save.” How tempting that must have been for Moses! God isn’t telling him anything he didn’t already know—he’s endured years of grumbling, backstabbing, and ingratitude from this people. Maybe they did deserve to be destroyed. “Now,” says God, “let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…” “Let me alone,” says God. The only thing standing between the people and certain destruction is… Moses. And Moses speaks up for them. He doesn’t defend their behavior at all. Instead, Moses reminds God of who God has chosen to be. Moses reminds God that when they first met, when God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush, God introduced God’s self as the one who was going to save the Hebrew people and bring them into the land God had promised to their ancestors. And not just for their benefit, either—this was supposed to be a demonstration to the Egyptians and the rest of the world about what kind of God God is. God’s essential character is bound up in the promise that God made. “Turn from your fierce wrath,” Moses pleads, “change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.” The words he is using can also be translated: “repent.” Moses is telling God to repent. Moses is calling God to account.
Because God isn’t sitting up there beyond our reach. God becomes accessible to us, addressable by us, touchable by us—even, in the way that Moses does it, accountable to us—in the act of making these promises. It’s not on our terms. God can’t be led around by the nose like a golden calf. But there’s a promise God has made to us. It gets phrased a little differently in different times and places, but what it boils down to is this: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” And just because we screw up at being God’s people doesn’t nullify the promise. We are still God’s people, and God is still our God. We can’t just walk away, and neither will God. All we can do is call one another to account, to keep those promises.
This promise-keeping isn’t just about us and God, though. God’s faithfulness, God’s determination to continue being our God no matter what, is the pattern for the way we are meant to live out our relationships with one another. What do you do when someone you care about is making a royal mess of things? Let’s say this is a situation where the person being primarily hurt is not you, but the loved one you care about, and that it’s safe for you, personally, to continue to be in relationship with this person. You do what it takes to be a friend—not compromising your own integrity, not shielding them from the natural consequences of their poor choices, but not walking away either. You’re not called to be a distant judge set apart. You’re not called to be a rubber stamp for someone else’s mistakes either. “Here’s what I see happening to you. I don’t understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. But I’m here for you, because I care about you. I’ll listen to you. I’ll be honest with you. But I’m not going anywhere.” God shows us how to live in the middle with flawed, anxious people who make poor choices. Sometimes those flawed, anxious people are us—sometimes we’re the ones who need a friend with integrity, honesty, and patience.
I don’t know where you are in your particular journey with God this morning. Maybe you’re in the middle of a difficult transition, like the Israelites on their desert odyssey. Maybe you feel like you’re still trapped in Egypt. Maybe, like Moses, you’ve got someone in your life you’re trying to help through a period of confusing change where the right path isn’t clear. I can’t speak to the particular direction of your journey, but I’d like to offer you this story as a reminder that you have a partner. Maybe at times that partner seems distant or frightening, like the thundering on the mountain. Maybe at times what you think you need, instead of a partner, is a pliable guide or a tool you can control. What you have is a God who will listen to you when you remember promises made to each other, promises that get strained along a difficult journey. What you have is a God who will never cease to be God—a powerful, independent force for good and liberation—but who will also never leave you, who will stand with you until you make it to the promised land. Amen.