Our reading from Exodus is very well known. While Moses was up on the mountain getting the torah from God, the people of Israel rebelled. What is worse, the rebellion seems awfully quick in our minds. Not too long ago, God delivered Israel and destroyed the chariots of Pharaoh. Heck, in the verses right before our reading this week, God is sharing the instructions of the tabernacle. How in the world do we go from such heights of deliverance by and communion with God to such sinful behavior so quickly?
One of the problems that we face when confronting our reading this week is that it is cut off from the rest of its narrative. In truth, the story that we read this week belongs in an extended section that includes all of chapter 32, chapter 33, and chapter 34. Those three chapters, in an amazing way, teach us about rebellion, mediation, and restoration. And when we think of the reading in the context of that story, we perhaps get a better insight as to the questions of how and why Israel did what it did.
For starters, Moses, at least until this point in the story, has been the only source of contact with God, and he has failed to return. So they come to Aaron with the request to make a golden calf. To be sure, what they did was wrong. God will punish them for their sin. In fact, they will be forced to drink from the gall of their sin and be killed. But what is their sin? You and I might quickly be tempted to say “the creation of the calf.” But the creation of the calf is not as wild an idea in their context as it might seem to us. Calves and bulls were thought to be pedestals for the gods they represented. In other words, it is likely that Israel did not picture God in their mind as a calf or bull; rather, they probably thought that the calf drew God closer to them. Certainly, the text seems clear that they understand that God delivered them. Further, the day of celebration after Aaron complete the calf is dedicated to God. Perhaps the fact that the calf is made from gold suggests that they thought the calf like the ark, a way to stay connected even better with Yahweh, because the calf enthrones Him and associates Him with them, as if God was not always with them and did not always hear them. What they have done is to violate the second commandment, not the first.
God, of course, is enraged, and rightfully so. Though He is meeting with Moses, He is fully aware of what the people are doing. Time and time again they have questioned God. What will we eat? Can't we get something better than manna? How will we ever escape Pharoah? He tells Moses that He will destroy them all and create His nation from the offspring of Moses. Technically, of course, the covenant with Abraham is still enforced by God. Moses was a descendant of Abraham; so, were God to execute His judgement and "start over" with Moses, He would still be keeping His word to Abraham. Thankfully, Moses steps into the breach. He intercedes on behalf of Israel and asks God to remember His promise (as if He could forget) and to remember His glory. If Israel is destroyed by God, the Egyptians and the rest of the world will not be in awe of Him. Instead, they will point to the fact that God needed to lead His people into the wilderness to die because of a shortage of graves in Egypt. In a world which believed that the order on Earth represented the outcome of the spiritual battles in heaven, such an idea makes sense. Moses is telling God that Egypt and others will draw from the destruction of Israel the idea that Yahweh had lost to Ra. Moses’ plea, of course, is successful. God relents of the total destruction of Israel, which would have been righteous judgment, and sends Moses back down the mountain, where Moses, we might say, does not take his own advice.
What follows, though riddled with many deaths, is eventually a good story. God’s people are eventually restored. Though their rebellion merited death, the mediation of one individual and the grace of God allows for restoration of God's people. Perhaps that is a story that sounds familiar to you? It should.
The truth is, this story in its redemptive arc, ought to give us hope. Too often you and I encounter people who think, by reason of their particular situation or sin, that they cannot possibly be loved by God. Maybe we even think it about ourselves. So many people keep buried, hidden from view, those sins which make them unlovable in their own eyes and, in their view, in God’s. Yet think on our story this week. The predominating sin was a question of trust: was God with them? Clearly, they were worried. Certainly their motivations were understandable. Yet their actions and behavior testified to the fact that they believed Him no longer with them--they could not trust Him. Though He had promised and kept the covenant, in amazing ways culminating in the experience of the Red Sea, they felt the need to take matters into their own hands. Perhaps, in that way, they are not so different from us. Though we live this side of the cross and empty tomb, how often are we or people we know seduced by the Enemy’s suggestion that we are not worth of God’s love nor His redemption? How often are we drawn to "earn" our way onto God's good side by performing those good works mentioned in our collect this week? And how often do we and others despair when we come to the realization that we can never balance our sins.
It is precisely then, brothers and sisters, that the hope and the promise of the Gospel ought to come shining forth in our lives and in our hearts. When we get to that level, when we begin to understand our failings in all honesty and all humility, that is when we really allow God to go to work on us. It is only then that we can begin to realize the love that God has for each one of us and for all those whom we encounter in our lives and in our works. Often, as Christians, we focus on the cross and the fact that Jesus died for us. But how often do we focus on the fact that He did all that knowing your and my secret sins, those things we hide from one another and the world? Think of the love He must have for each one of us. He knew us better than anyone, and still He thought each one of us, and everyone else, worth saving. If your reflection of that simply truth, brothers and sisters, does not drive you to shed a tear or two in joyful thanksgiving, there is something wrong with your heart.
Brothers and sisters, this story written some three millenia ago really is for us. So often we judge our failures and our sins in our own eyes and in our own hearts, forgetting that amazing work which He has done for us, despite knowing us intimately, the good and the bad. But such is His grace that there nothing in our past or future cannot be repented of, and such is His power that nothing cannot be accomplished for His glory! From time to time, that is a truth worth remembering and always a hope and joy worth sharing!