Sermon, Pentecost 17A
Sunday October 9, 2011.
We are in two places at once this morning. We are witness to the extended meeting of the Lord with Moses on the top of the mountain and also down in the valley with Aaron and the people.
In the one place there is intimacy between a human being and the Lord as the Lord speaks, Moses speaks and the foundation for a new nation of holy people called to be priests. In the other place there is an absence of the Lord’s presence and word which leads to a lot of trouble.
If one thing is on show here it is the very nature of our human condition and how we can at our very best moments also be at our worst. God has every right to judge this duplicity of allegiance and weak commitment to him – especially after all that he has done and still does for us. In this text he actually decides to do just that – judge his people and destroy them!
Moses, the great mediator intervenes. He intercedes for the people and amazingly God “repents” of his will to destroy the people.
Sin is serious and it is always related to the golden calf – the things of stone, wood and metal we replace God with in our hearts because when we turn away from trusting that he is present, caring or capable.
Today we ponder our idolatrous heart, God’s judgement on this rejection of him, Jesus, the One who intercedes for us and how we get to live in God’s continued grace and love as his priesthood of all believers now!
We begin in the valley with God’s people under the leadership of their 2IC, Aaron. Moses is up on the mountain wit the Lord again. He has been going up and down this mountain for a while now. It has not just been him either.
There was a great moment of the Lord’s faithfulness and his affirmation of his commitment to his people happens before our text. Moses, Aaron and his two sons (Nadab and Abihu) and the 70 Elders of the community ascended with Moses to the summit. These people “saw God” (24:10). The Lord’s feet were resting on something like a pavement of pure sapphire stone……They ate and drank together with the Lord. What a moment!
As well as this, Moses and his entourage are instructed to read the “Book of the Covenant” (The treaty the Lord made earlier) to the people. Animals are slaughtered in a great show of thanksgiving and affirmation to the Lord’s covenant. The people say en mass, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey” (Ex 24:7). Everything looks sweet!
But, we know what is coming. Isn’t it always the way that with our best moments come with our worst! Israel’s worst moment in this desert journey with the Lord is about to happen. It will always be a reminder that sin will always be a problem to be watched carefully. It will always be a reminder that the human heart has its dark side and is capable of idolatry – trusting anything and anyone other then the Lord who has created and saved us and who loves us for our well being and our future.
The seed of idolatry seems to be a lack of tangible presence of God in people’s lives. The beginning of trouble is tied up with Moses being absent a long time. Moses is up on the mountain in an extended meeting of great closeness with the Lord. He is the mediator, priest, shepherd and representative of the Lord among this people and when there is no tangible presence of the Lord (through Moses), the human heart wanders away.
I wonder whether this is why the Lord graced us with those magnificent tangible signs of is presence – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; even the whole ancient liturgy or pattern of worship of the Church? Did he know that unless we could see him, taste him, feel him, hear him in these very physical, concrete signs of his very presence, we would wonder off from him completely?
Aaron does not fare well in the dark episode. In verse 1 he may as well be on a rugby pitch! He is the last man on the Try line facing a hostile group of people pushing him backwards. He is surrounded by a scrum of very demanding people. The Hebrew language is strong. This is a full-on demand, and it is many against one. Aaron the leader is under great pressure.
“Make gods for us, Aaron”, they demand. They, like us, need visible signs that the Lord is still with us as we journey on from day to day in this life. The gods they want Aaron to make are that – a symbol or sign of the gods being on our side – Lady Luck, or “The Universe” or “Mother Nature”, or “Yin and Yang”, the gods of reincarnation, the planets are lining up for us……
Aaron makes the error (although understandable) of caving in to the demand for a sign of divine presence and blessing. He tells them to bring their things of gold to him (things the Lord gave them as they fled Egypt!) and he himself fashions either a wooden calf overlayed with gold or a pure gold calf. The calf is a universal sign of fertility and prosperity of the gods in these ancient people’s culture.
The people show their idolatrous heart when they make the bold declaration, in verse 4, “These are the gods, O Israel, who bought you out of Egypt!” What a total rejection of all that has happened so far on the journey of faith!
This is like one of us simply wiping out all memory of God’s speaking, doing and blessing for us in our life so far and just going head long into what ever turns us on and helps us believe that we will be fine without any spiritual connection to the Creator of all things.
Aaron can see that this is getting out of hand. He does try to salvage the situation somewhat by adding to the calf, an altar – not to the calf but to the Lord. He also calls a feast day the next day – not to the calf, but to the Lord (v5-6).
It does not work. In the Hebrew, it literally says, “The people rose early next morning and “came out to play”! They did not come out to play ring-a-ring-a-rosy, or duck-duck-goose! They came out to engage in full-on booze, substance abuse, sex and probably worse. Idolatry and immorality always go together. One leads to and feeds the other.
Back up on the quiet mountain Someone is very aware of what is happening below. God breaks off the business of giving Moses the gifts of the Covenant relationship he has been imparting to Moses.
God sums up the situation when he says that the people are perverse; God recounts word for word (with 32:1-6) the nature of their sin. It is as if every word of the people has sunk into the divine heart and stabbed it. And so, God tells Moses that “they have cast for themselves an image of a calf” and that they have “worshiped it and sacrificed to it” (v. 8). It is as if God has been sitting on the sidelines in amazement watching the performance of the heedless people.
This turning away by the people has broken the divine heart. The Lord reaches a conclusion about the people. They are a “stiff-necked” people, a stubborn people, people who really are not worthy of the love God has showered up on them.
The Lord decides to destroy them. Verse 10 is interesting because it tells us that God wants Moses to go down to the people for two reasons–to see for himself exactly what has happened but also to leave God alone. God wants to be alone when the terrible judgment is executed. Like some military General sitting in some technical nerve centre controlling satellites and a “targeted hit” on some town or compound of suspected terrorists, God does not want to see the destruction. He wants to leave the room and be alone in his grief and sorrow.
But even here, even in the resolve to destroy is a sense that mercy can triumph. In this case God makes a promise to Moses that He will not destroy him with the people. Moses will continue to be special, and Moses will be the foundational person for God’s next “great work.” But notice what has happened.
In giving these last words God has left the divine open for negotiation and intercession. It is not as if God is giving Moses an invitation to talk back, but there are ideas now floating “out there” that are more than just anger, stubbornness and destruction. God will “save” Moses. Moses will take this verse as an opening to respond to God.
Moses does what Aaron didn’t. Moses prays in faith. He trusts that the Lord could handle this situation and will listen to him. He trusts that in the anger and judgement there is still a greater heart of mercy and love for these rogues!
Moses says three things about God’s decision to judge this people as he “stands in the gap” between the righteous wrath of the Lord and an idolatrous people.
- Lord, you created and saved this people.
- Lord, your reputation as a compassionate God of steadfast love who is faithful to your promises will laughed at by your enemies if you destroy these sinful people
- Lord, you promised things to these people way back in Abraham’s time.
The Hebrew words say that the Lord “repented” of the judgement he was about to carry out on his people. The Lord, at Moses’ bold praying, changed his mind and remained faithful and trustworthy when completely rejected by a loveless people.
Friends, we have this idolatrous heart.
And yet we have tangible signs of God’s continued presence and love to keep us true to him. We need to stick to where God has shown us he is there for us – physically and in every other way. Depend on your baptism. Reflect on it and own it because in it God owned you and loves you. Come to the altar regularly and get the hope and assurance you need for life’s journey, whatever the temptations and fears.
We have a role too. We are called to be Moses for people.
- Jesus, the One greater than Moses who stood in our place and intercedes for us still, pleads our case and bridges the gap between our holy and perfectly loving Lord and our idol factory within.
- With him we can confess our idols, burn them and depend on his word to see us through to wellbeing now and in God’s eternal future – already guaranteed by the blood of the Lamb and Saviour of our souls.
- And then we mediate his grace and love for others, helping them name their idols, repent of them, receive God’s gifts and walk with Jesus into their future with him.
Philippians 4:1-9, Closing Appeal for Steadfastness and Unity
1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! …..
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.