a sermon on Exodus 32:1-14
The people were frustrated, and Aaron didn’t know what to do. His brother Moses had left him in charge while he went up on the mountain to sort things out with God, but Moses was taking longer than anyone thought, and people were starting to think that he—and God—had forgotten about them.
They had put a lot of trust in Moses and his God, after all. They had uprooted themselves from their homes in Egypt to follow this man who had come back to rescue them after a vision from his God in a burning bush. Things in Egypt may not have been perfect, but at least the situation there was known and understood. It was no wonder they thought that he had abandoned them!
So Aaron tried to make the best of things out in the wilderness and looked for a way to calm them all down as they waited for Moses to return. He remembered what his brother had done before he went up on the mountain in gathering the riches of the people to create the ark of the covenant, so he called the people again to bring him their gold jewelry to create another symbol of what had rescued them from Egypt, figuring that this would calm them down a bit. He then melted all their gold down and made it into a golden calf, which he placed before the people as a reminder of all that they had been through.
“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” he proclaimed. This gold, taken from the ears of your wives, sons, and daughters, made your departure possible. This golden calf, created by human hands, saved you from the tyranny of the Pharaoh. The riches of this world can have all the glory for where we are and where we are going.
To bring his master plan of calming everyone down to a close, he declared that the next day would “be a festival to the Lord,” and so they set aside their grumbling and complaining and replaced it with burnt offerings, sacrifices of well-being, fine food and drink, and general revelry and happiness, seemingly directed at God.
We can be frustrated and feel abandoned too, and we too struggle with what to do. There are many people with deep faith who still find themselves distant from their understanding of God for one reason or another. In these moments, our impatience so easily shows, too: we try to move the Holy Spirit along; we get Jesus to hurry up and come back; we wonder why God’s ways are so complex and take so long to become clear to us.
While we don’t often craft golden calfs to be the objects of our worship and adoration amidst our frustration about God’s delay, there are still plenty of times when we misunderstand the source of our gifts and give glory to ourselves or other people rather than to God. In these kinds of moments, we too are guilty of the kind of idolatry that we can so clearly identify in this story from Exodus, even if we aren’t taking our gold rings and turning them into objects of worship. We still have a “human tendency to idolatry and tyranny,” as our Book of Order puts it, a desire to place our human ways above God’s ways, a feeling that we can make it on our own without God’s help, a certainty that we have all the answers figured out for ourselves.
This idolatry has much less to do with any particular images of God and everything to do with all the things that we try to substitute for God in our world when God seems distant or we are frustrated. This idolatry is not about any fancy gold items in our midst that might be intended to enhance worship but rather about the ways in which we, like the Israelites, think that we can save ourselves. And like the Israelites, our idolatry is not resolved simply by setting aside a graven image but by reordering our lives so that we honor and glorify God for all the gifts that God has given us.
Now when God saw what was going on down in the wilderness while Moses was up on the mountain, God was not at all pleased. If the frustration of the Israelites in this moment ranked at an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, God’s anger and frustration toward them was at 11! When God saw their perverse actions, their disobedience, their idolatry, and their glorification of other gods, God was ready to destroy them, and so God turned to Moses and instructed him to immediately go back down the mountain. The divine tirade ended with a commitment to a different way with them:
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.
Even after all that God had done to bring them out of Egypt and into the wilderness, God was ready to leave the Israelites wandering in the wilderness and start from scratch with Moses.
Moses, on the other hand, had other feelings about all this. After hearing this divine temper tantrum, Moses pleaded with God to rethink this planned abandonment of the people of Israel. Moses didn’t seem to have mercy at the center of his mindset here—I suspect he was as frustrated as anyone with their behavior! Moses instead appealed to God’s sense of honor and God’s memory of the generations who had come before. What would people say about this God who had brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt only to get angry at them and abandon them in the wilderness? How would anyone else, even Moses, ever trust this God’s promises to anyone else if God gave up on the promises that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?
In response to Moses, God “changed [God’s] mind about the disaster that [God] planned to bring on [the] people,” giving them a reprieve from the destruction they might have faced, demonstrating a moment of openness to human intercession, defending God’s own sense of honor in the world, and showing a bit of grace and mercy to a people who had seen so much already.
This strange and unexpected demonstration of God’s anger and grace here gives us a deeper vision of who God is and how God relates with God’s people in all times and places. Here we see God both angry and gracious, demonstrating an incredible mix of emotions in God’s interactions with God’s people. Here we get a glimpse of how deeply God is hurt when God’s people go astray, because only deep love could stand behind such deep hurt. And here we see God responding to human pleas to take a different approach, giving us confidence and hope that God will hear our prayers and respond with similar grace.
So this story gives us both a warning about the dangers of idolatry in our world and a promise of God’s steadfast love and faithful grace. We are rightfully warned about God’s jealous nature even as we are reminded of the depth of God’s grace. We are reminded that we are called to place our trust in nothing other than God as we are reminded of how trustworthy God truly is. And even amidst our missteps we are given hope that God will hear our prayers to give us a reprieve and show us the way to new life. This story calls us to renewed faithfulness in moments when we are frustrated and feel distant from God’s presence, to a way of life that acknowledges the sovereignty of God in all of life and living when we are tempted to make gods of other things in our life and living, to respond to the idolatry and tyranny we see in the world with actions that “work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.” And this story calls us to deeper confidence in God’s promises, to renewed trust in the mercy and compassion of God, to a new understanding of how God’s grace takes shape and form amidst our missteps along the way.
So may we hear both the warning and the promise of God in this story—a warning against disobedience and idolatry that deny the sovereignty and goodness of our God in our world and a promise of deep grace that responds to our intercessions and shows us a new and different way every day—so that we might give all glory to God as all things are made new. Thanks be to God! Amen.