We are out here in the wilderness with the Israelites…still. It probably would have been appropriate to preach Exodus every Sunday from September until Advent begins in December, since the Israelites are stuck out in the wilderness for so very long. Forty years out there, wandering, occasionally interacting with the God who liberated them but more often than not struggling to find meaning, purpose and hold onto faith. The wilderness lasts a LONG TIME. That’s sort of why it’s called…the wilderness.
And, like last week, I continue to identify with the Israelites out here in our American wilderness. I suspect that many of us are harboring a hope that things will snap back to “normal” on November 4 or January 20, that this presidential election will be the escape hatch from this season of chaos and cruelty that we are wandering through. I also suspect that we are more like the Israelites than we know, and that we should be preparing ourselves for a much longer season of uncertainty than we would like.
You know what the Israelites have been doing. Moses has been holding conferences with God, since the Israelites themselves are terrified of meeting God face to face. Moses is going up and down Mt. Sinai, acting as the prophet and the pastor, the go-between and envoy. Moses has been up and received the ten commandments, and the entire law that follows. He has been down to introduce the people to the new covenant.
God calls Moses back up, in order to give him stone tablets with the commands inscribed on them. Moses tells the people that he’s going back up into the cloud that is covering the mountain where God is dwelling, that they should stay here, at the base of the mountain and wait for him to return. In the meantime, Moses says, let Aaron know if you’ve got a problem.
Moses ascends back up into the Presence of the Lord, where God spends FORTY DAYS describing to Moses exactly how to build the tent where He can dwell on earth with the people. FORTY DAYS of exquisite detail about lampstands, altars, curtains, what kind and color of cloth to make the tent out of, what kind of olives to use to make the oil for the lamps, specifications for the robes that priests will wear, instructions for ordination ceremonies – including several kinds of bread to be included in the communion service during the ordination, and exactly how to burn a burnt offering on the specially carved and treated altar.
FORTY DAYS Moses was up there receiving these specifications.
Forty days is a long time under any circumstances, but for your leader to leave you for forty days in the middle of receiving a brand new covenant from the God who has liberated you from slavery and led you out here to the middle of nowhere on the way to some promised land…forty days in the middle of chaos and confusion, forty days just as you were beginning to get some traction on this liberation thing, forty days with nothing but quail and daily manna to eat, forty days when you’ve just agreed to a new way of life, just barely gotten sober…well, forty days of waiting at THIS particular juncture proved to be too much for the people.
The people got restless – and understandably so. When they saw that Moses was taking so long, they decided to take matters into their own hands. As instructed, they took their grievance to Aaron, and begged him to “make us a god who shall go before us because that MAN, Moses, has disappeared.”
Surely Aaron knew that what the people asked for would be in violation of the Ten Commandment covenant that they had just signed. Surely he, having been entrusted with caring for the people in his brother’s absence, knew that this was dangerous territory. He’d seen what happened with the manna, hadn’t he? He’d heard Moses dictate the new commandments to have no other gods and make no graven images, right?
But Aaron was stuck in a very hard place: the people were demanding action, and telling them to calm down and wait a little longer just wasn’t going to cut it. So, Aaron tries to compromise:
“Okay,” he says. “Remember all that gold you took with you on our way out of Egypt? The gold that belonged to your slave masters? Bring it all to me, and we will melt it down and turn it into a big golden BULL.” And that’s what they did. When the people saw the magnificent golden bull created out of the wealth of their former captors, they declared “THIS is our God, who brought us out of Egypt!”
Ironic, isn’t it, that the people claimed that the bull made of their captors’ own gold was the God who liberated them from those very chains?
Aaron seems like he has realized what a bad idea this was, and so he tries to mediate the clear violation of both Commandment #1 and Commandment #2 by declaring that this new golden bull was ACTUALLY a tribute to the REAL God. He built an altar before it and planned a big festival for the next day, trying to convince the people (and himself?) that they were actually worshiping the Lord and not some golden calf made of stolen gold from their slave masters.
The next morning, the people, delighted with this development, brought sacrifices, burnt offerings and food, and sang and danced all day long. Their boredom and restlessness had been relieved! They had something tangible to worship! Who cared if it was just something they’d smashed together from the remnants of their old lives? Who cared if this golden bull was nothing more than crumbs from the table of their Egyptian masters? The idol and the feast and the dancing sure did distract them from this infernal WAITING on Moses and God to work out the details of their new lives. If they were gathering gold and melting it down and building an altar and singing and dancing and creating this display of pious worship then they didn’t have to think about the unending wait and the infernal wilderness. Relief, finally!
But God – even though She’s up there in the cloud, immersed in architectural details and interior design for the Tabernacle – is still paying attention. And God is not pleased.
“MOSES!” God says, “do you SEE what your people are doing down there?” God does the thing that parents do when their kid is acting out: “that’s YOUR child!” God says to Moses: “hurry down, for YOUR people, whom YOU brought out fo the land of Egypt, are showing themselves. We JUST agreed on this covenant and I turn my back for one second (which apparently equals forty days in human time) and they go and violate it! Get down there and fix this. I’m so mad I could annihilate those Israelites here on the spot! What good is having an entire people I call my own if this is how they’re going to behave? I’m going to destroy them. Come on, Moses, I’ve raised up a great people before – remember Abraham and Sarah? I’ll just do that again with you. Let me destroy this batch and we’ll start fresh.”
Moses, though, argues for the Israelites and reminds God that if God destroys the Israelites for violating the Covenant then God would, ahem, ALSO be violating that covenant. “Let not your anger blaze forth against your people, God,” Moses says. And the Lord changed His mind.
Did you catch that bit? God changed God’s mind.
I love that the way Moses convinces God to forgive the Israelites and persist in this new relationship is to remind God that a covenant requires commitment from both parties. I love that God gets so angry, and I love that God chooses relationship over annihilation. I love that God could have – could still – done otherwise but chooses, over and over and over and over again to be faithful and forgive, to persist in attempting to be in communion.
Because we sure do keep testing God’s patience.
How many times have God’s people gotten restless, needed a distraction, and created idols out of the leftovers of evil? How often do we choose to worship things we’ve made instead of God, who made us?
I’ve been reading about Confederate monuments and the evil ways that white Americans have imbued them with Christian importance. Christian ministers blessed and commemorated flags and statues and stained glass windows. In the National Cathedral, until just a couple of years ago, Confederate Generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee – men who spent their lives fighting to keep human beings enslaved – were depicted in ways that evoked both Moses and Jesus. Leftovers of evil, enshrined in our places of worship.
I’ve been listening to friends and family explain why they are voting for Donald Trump and excited about Amy Barrett as the Supreme Court nominee – willing to bow down at the altar of ego and evil in order to protect laws against abortion. Instead of worshiping the God who made us, selling our souls in order to worship a political system of our own making.
Idols aren’t always so obvious, though. What Aaron did – wrapping the idolatry of the golden calf in pious language and festival, pretending that it was simply an innovative way to worship God – is still real, today.
I wonder if this kind of painting over our human infidelity with propaganda is what we do when we value worship rituals over God’s commands to love our neighbors.
I wonder if we are actually practicing idolatry when we spend our money on capital improvements instead of making sure the hungry are fed.
I wonder if we are melting old evil down into golden bulls when we spend more time watching and obsessing and dissecting the current political theater than we do keeping sabbath, spending time in prayer, or honoring our elders.
Idolatry is slippery – that’s why it’s so hard to avoid. And we are in the wilderness, nearly desperate for some distraction from our confusion and pain. We are restless and prone to immediate gratification. It’s part of being human.
Thank God, then, that our Creator, the one with whom we live in Covenant, the one who brings us out of bondage and promises us freedom, abundance and eternal life chooses, over and over, to forgive, to persist, to make this relationship work instead of annihilating us and starting over.
When Moses and God do finally come down from the mountain, God announces God’s self in this way:
“The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin…”
Thank God, this God, a God who is compassionate and gracious and slow to anger and abounding in kindness. Thank God that THIS is the God with whom we live in covenant relationship. Because we are not great at wandering in the wilderness, not great at waiting, not great at entrusting our existence to something other than of our own making.
Here we are in the wilderness of today, tempted to melt down the evils of our past and keep worshiping them, keep being bound by them. Thank God that even when we give in, even when we cannot handle one more day of waiting and watching, even when we break the covenant…that God has decided to forgive us, to re-direct us, to invite us, again, to join in this newness of life together where we worship God and God alone.
May it be so. Amen.