Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mould, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
This image of the Golden Calf is from The Nuremberg Chronicle Notes: "Written by Hartmann Schedel, with 1,809 illustrative woodcuts from the workshop of Michel Wolgemut, this incunabulum, or book printed before 1500, is a tour de force of early printing. The book is an illustrated world history, the first few sections derived from the biblical account. This woodcut of the dance around the Golden Calf from Exodus, is a particularly fine example." http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54273
Changing God's Mind: Exodus 32:1-14
Moses sure is taking a while. To be fair, he and God have had a lot to talk about. The people who are intermittently afraid of, and annoyed with, God have asked him to mediate their relationship with God, a role that he has already kinda been doing. God mostly speaks to the people through Moses, though God seems able to hear the people's complaints without Moses passing them along. God and the people have set up a covenant, a promise they both have committed to. God has demonstrated God's commitment by saving them from slavery and leading them through the desert. The people of God will live into their covenant by orienting their lives in accordance with God's priorities.
God gave them, though Moses, a set of instructions on how to build this holy life, this holy nation. You've probably heard some of these instructions before: You shall have no other God's before me. You shall not misuse my name. You shall take a day of Sabbath for rest and worship. You shall not take money, property, relationships, or the lives of others. You shall not endanger others for you own gain. God promises to be present with them, to never leave. God even instructs them to build a home for God, called a tabernacle, a space where God may dwell among them. The covenant between the people and God is powerful and is supposed to remain at the center of their common life. They promise to live as God directs and God promises to be with them. Moses is right in the middle of all of this, acting as a conduit for God and ears for the people.
Then, Moses stays away for forty days and forty nights. I have been told by my biblical studies teachers that when we read that something happens for 40 days or 40 years, we don't need to think that it happened exactly those amounts of days or years. Mostly, if you have 40 of something, it simply means you have a lot of it. To say that Moses has been away for forty days means Moses has been gone a really, really long time... Like the four to six months officials are estimating it will take to restore power to Puerto Rico or the 1268 days it's been since Flint, Michigan has had clean water... Long enough that we should expect the people to both worry and be angry. If its been a long time since the people have seen Moses, that also means it's been a really long time since they've heard from God. It probably shouldn't surprise us when they begin to take drastic measures.
The people had grown accustomed to mysterious, but ever-present, reminders of God. Pillars of cloud and fire had led them away from Egypt. Bread and birds were provided for them to eat, delicious signs of God's provision for them. They had seen a foreboding darkness at the top of the mountain and knew that God was in it, and they had heard peals of thunder and cracks of lightning and knew God was speaking to Moses. But, this time, for a really long time, they'd heard nothing and seen nothing. How could they be sure that Moses was even coming back. God had promised to be there as part of the covenant, yet they could see no signs that God was there... or, at least not enough signs to keep them from being afraid. So, they demanded that Aaron build them a sign, a symbol, something they could see, feel, and touch to help them be unafraid. They demanded that Aaron build them a god they could see, not one that hid away in a terrifying cloud. So, Aaron did.
Is anyone else surprised that Aaron so easily acquiesced to their demands? If there was any human outside of Moses who should have trusted that God was still invested in their lives, it should have been Aaron. He knew the power and vitality of the God they had followed across the sea in a way that most of the Israelites could hardly imagine. I still don't understand how he could so easily, it seems, begin to build new gods for his frightened people. Maybe the time away from his brother has softened his resolved, and pushed him towards the same fear that had shaken his people. Maybe he was simply an overwhelmed second in command who was just trying to figure out how to placate a bunch of angry and scared people. Maybe building a golden calf was the easiest way to get them to calm down until Moses and God could get back and straighten everything out.
One of the scholars I read this week pointed out something I hadn't realized about the jewelry the Israelites used to create their new gods. As slaves, the Israelites probably would not have much golden jewelry of their own. If we look back at chapter 12 of Exodus, we can see that this jewelry came from the Egyptians themselves as a kind of pay off to the Israelites. On the heels of an increasingly terrifying cavalcade of plagues, the Egyptians practically begged them to leave (even in the Pharoah wasn't ready to do so). "Get out of our land before you kill us all." Moses told the Israelites not to leave empty handed: "Ask for gold and silver Jewelry and clothes to cover your backs." The Egyptians, having witnessed the terrible miracles of the plagues, gave the Israelites whatever they asked for, including golden rings, earrings, and necklaces, just so they'd leave.
The Egyptians could afford gold, in part, because they had built their empire with so much unpaid labor. Every bit of gold was a reminder of their enslavement. The Israelites would carry these signs of their former lives away from their captors, towards the new life that God was leading them into. They would use these tangible symbols of their bondage to create tangible and nonthreatening gods to shore up their fear. In so doing, they would break their promise to God. They would choose a god they could hold in their hands over the all-consuming, overwhelming, and mysterious God who had been making promises to them. They could count on gold. Who knew if they could count on God?
As you might expect, God is angry about all this. Even while Moses and God have been hidden away, making plans to create a tangible space for God, the real God, to feel present with the Israelites, God was still paying attention to what was going on in the desert. God saw them break their promise. It's not clear whether or not God realized that the people thought God had already forgotten God's part of the promise. What is clear is that God is ready to snap and destroy them with the same flourish that God destroyed the Egyptian soldiers. God tells Moses to leave so God can get on with the smiting. But, Moses doesn't leave. Moses, who has been God's voice to the people, suddenly becomes the people's advocate to God.
For all of his frustration with his people, Moses cannot bear to think they will be destroyed. Moses, who was once so afraid, has found a bravery that allows him to stand up to God Godself. So many people have inherited a vision of God that shows God to be unchanging and always right. We have been told that if scripture shows God taking an action, it must be right because God is always right. We have been told that God is now as God always once was, and in our chaotic world, the one thing that we can count on is God not changing. Those descriptions of God are common, but they are not rooted in the God we meet in this particular story. Because in this story, Moses thinks God is wrong and Moses sets out change God's mind. The miraculous thing is that Moses succeeds. Moses talks God down from God's anger and convinces God to not completely destroy the people. Now, this isn't the end of the story. Moses gets pretty mad at them and communicates God's anger to them. The story tells us that there is a still smiting that happens. But, there is not utter destruction. There is not total demolition of the covenant. Their relationship does survive, precisely because Moses is willing to stand up for a people who literally have no one left on their side.
So, church, what is the good word for us, modern day people, in this story? I think there's probably a cautionary tale about confusing gold for the presence of God. There's probably also a reminder that just because God isn't appearing to us in ways we demand, it doesn't mean God is not present and attentive to our lives. I hope we can also hear a call to stand up to the powerful, especially to God, when we see a people facing utter destruction. I mean, if Moses can do it, we probably can, too. But, mostly, I hope we can see the power of on-going relationship. Had Moses not valued his relationship with his people, he would not have risked standing up to God. Had God not valued God's relationship with Moses, God would not have listened to him when he asked for mercy. How can we nurture the relationship that help us be both more brave and more merciful? I have a hunch that we'll always be tempted to create a god that we can manage with our own two hands. May we have the bravery to remember that this God responds to our heart.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Miguel De La Torre, "Proper 23," from Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Anathea Portier-Young: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3442
Callie Plunket-Brewton: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2248
Carla Suomala: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=168
The timeline for Puerto Rico's recovery: http://www.latimes.com/visuals/framework/la-na-puerto-rico-unfurled-timeline-20171013-htmlstory.html
Two articles that remind us that Flint, Michigan still doesn't have clean water:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.