When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us godswho will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf,fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
-from Exodus 32
Last week, we left our happy band on the far side of the Sea of Reeds. They had been divinely rescued from Pharaoh’s hand. They were delivered from slavery by a God who demonstrated power over frogs and lice, and darkness and the sea, and even over life itself.
Having been given so much evidence of God’s might and good will toward them, the Israelite people marched on to the Promised Land with nary a murmur or complaint. They just walked straight on through, singing hymns and reminding each other how awesome this God is.
You don’t have to be very familiar with the Bible to catch where I got that one wrong. There was whining. There was quarreling. There was rebellion.
There are all sorts of reasons for that, but let me focus on one this morning: uncertainty.
At first, the Israelites weren’t even headed to the Promised Land. They had told Pharaoh that they wanted to go worship their God at this special mountain called Mt Sinai, and that’s what they were setting out to do.
The people arrived at Mt Sinai, and so did the presence of God- as a huge, dark, unforgettable cloud. There was thunder, and lightning, and a loud blast on a trumpet. The people were terrified by this, just as you or I might be.
Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently.
As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. From the midst of all this smoke and thunder, God boomed out the commandments that we read together this morning.
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. Moses spent 40 days on the mountain with God, receiving God’s law.
40 here is a symbolic number that generally points to a period of testing or trial. Jonah preached in Nineveh for 40 days. Jesus was tested for 40 days in the wilderness and appeared for 40 days after the resurrection.
So Moses is on the mountain for 40 days, but he isn’t the one on the hot seat. It’s the people who are on trial. They’ve witnessed some powerful lessons, and it’s time for the test.
Pretty much the only thing they have to do here is not, you know, build a giant idol and worship it with some sort of cultic party. That’s it. So, what do they do?
They build a giant idol and worship it with some sort of cultic party, obviously. Wouldn’t you?
I mean that question honestly, in a sense, because I think their choice is a predictably human choice.
The immediate and obvious question that this passage raises is why. The people have seen powerful plagues, walked through a parted sea, eaten food that fell from the sky. They’ve made it to Mt. Sinai, where dark clouds gathered around the peak of the mountain, where a voice that causes earthquakes shouted commandments at them to form a covenant.
But this is what we do. Give us enough uncertainty, and we’ll trade in all of our treasures in order to have something safe and familiar to worship.
Sure, something divine was happening on the mountain, but it was all uncontrollable. They were alone and terrified. So they made themselves a nice little golden calf, something familiar, the kind of God that they’d seen before, right in the shadow of God’s cloud of glory.
I have to wonder if they weren’t falling over in relief as much as worship, when they started their festival. It may not work, but at least we understand it, right?
Mark and I went over to the bank a few weeks ago to look into socially responsible investing, and the end of the conversation turned political. It was fascinating, and I told Mark as we left that I would happily subscribe to a podcast of thoughtful bankers discussing politics
The thing that stood out to me the most, though, was that they didn’t talk about any particular policies at all.
They measured the effects of various candidates on the market, not by what they would do, but by how much uncertainty they would cause. “The market doesn’t like uncertainty,” they said over and over. Rock the boat, and the market goes down.
I don’t know beans about the market, so I can’t really evaluate that statement except to say that it sounds thoroughly human to me.
Most of you know that my husband is a hospice chaplain. You may have heard him mention before that some people get really interested in apocalypse stories as they are facing death. Their world is ending, so they start thinking about the end of the world.
It’s not that they’re worried about heaven and hell as much as they just want to know what’s coming. Doesn’t matter how bad it’s going to be, just so long as we know.
You can see the same pattern in economic downturns, in social revolutions, and in times of war. Our own Quaker tradition traces back to the English Civil War, in which people were introduced to the idea of not having a king and found it so disturbing that they assumed Jesus must be coming back soon.
I’m working my way through a book called This Republic of Suffering, which goes through ways in which the American Civil War changed our nation’s understanding of death. A great deal of the focus of the book, so far, is on the difficulty of getting soldiers’ bodies home, and how hard it was for people to accept the death of a loved one without a body to see.
People would hire investigators, spend fortunes on embalming, write desperate letters and take out newspaper ads- not with the hope of finding a relative alive, really, but just wanting to know for sure. And strangers would go out of their way to write letters to people they’d never met, letters that might not ever even be delivered, just to tell another person how their son or daughter died.
They used an older sense of the word realize to describe the problem. In the absence of a body to tend and bury, people were unable to realize the loved one’s death- they couldn’t make it real.
We are not a species that handles uncertainty well.
So here are these Israelites lost in a wilderness, and as far as they can tell, their leader has just been eaten by a bossy Smoke Monster. Can you blame them for wanting something familiar?
It’s easy to focus on the sin, in a story like this. The Israelites broke the law. We slap their hands and call them bad, and then maybe talk about how loving Jesus means that we’ll never do anything of the sort.
But that’s totally not true. Losing certainty is like a blow to the back of the knees- and while you might not be prone to fall before a shiny bovine statue, you’ll fall before something.
When we fall, we don’t need to be reminded of our failure. We need to be reminded of love.
In that light, I think the most important part of this morning’s story occurs just after what Chad read.
Moses is still up with God, so he doesn’t know about the whole cow party going on at the base of the mountain. So the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’
They just heard the rules! They were shouted down from the mountain, with the thunder and the smoke and the trumpet. Don’t make idols. Don’t worship anything other than God. How is this so hard?
Remember when I said that Moses was gone for 40 days but it was the people who were being tested? You might want to reconsider that, because the Lord is about to make Moses a really sweet offer.
“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
This isn’t exactly far-fetched. God already became heartbroken enough at the havoc being wrought by humans that he destroyed almost all of them in a flood and started over with Noah’s family. There’s precedent, here. Moses might be the new Noah, if he plays his cards right.
But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?” Moses reminded God of the covenant with Abraham, of the promises God had made.
Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
Moses could have grabbed for the golden ring and become a great patriarch. Instead, he argued on behalf of a people that infuriated him at times, interceding for their welfare. He remembered and told stories of love.
That’s the faithful response to uncertainty: remembering and telling how deeply we are loved. It doesn’t remove the uncertainty, but it does enable us to move forward with hope.
Much later in the story, after the people of God have come into their land and set up a kingdom, we have the story of King Jehoshaphat who ruled when Jerusalem was under attack. The king prayed a long prayer that you can find in 2 Chronicles, chapter 20, if you’re interested.
For our purposes this morning, though, here is his final statement: We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.
They were facing uncertain times, but their king reminded them to focus their eyes on God. And we face uncertain times, too, because all times are uncertain, but the refrain of the people of God remains the same: We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.
We say this with hope, faith, and love enough to believe that no matter how uncertain this time is, we can still resist the urge to worship the familiar. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you. We understand that everything is subordinate to God’s love.
I’m going to close with a quote from Richard Rohr: “The farther we go on the journey of faith, the more faith has to do with trust and self-surrender. The kingdom of God leaves none of us in our own little kingdom where we decide what happens. God leads us all, like Abraham, out into a new country.”