Almost all of us have experienced our text’s Aaron’s feelings at one time or another. He’s caught, after all, quite literally between a rock and a hard place. Aaron is trapped between a glorious past and an uncertain future.
Israel’s memories of her escape from Egyptian slavery remain as clear as a dry, cool night in the desert. However, Israel’s future is as hazy as the dense cloud that cover’s Sinai with God’s awesome presence.
Aaron is also trapped between God’s unmistakable presence and Israel’s spiritually amnesiac people. Just days after God freed them from Egypt, they mumbled and grumbled at the Lord in the desert of Sin. And just after God graciously and miraculously fed the Israelites with manna in the desert, they quarreled at Rephidim.
Yet that grumbling and mumbling seemed to vanish, along with the pillar of cloud that had been leading them through the desert, at Sinai’s base. For some time, far ahead of them, the Israelites had seen what looked like smoke rising from a stony hill. As they moved ahead, that smoking hill seemed to grow on the horizon.
Within a week that smoky mountain filled the entire southern sky. However, it also seemed to fill the Israelites with new confidence in their God. After all, when they heard God speak to them through Moses, they’d promised, twice, to “do everything the Lord has said.”
However, Israel’s newfound confidence seemed to vanish not long after their leader Moses did. So there stands Exodus 32’s Aaron, surrounded by people who’d promised to do everything the Lord said but who now seem to have forgotten what God had said.
We suspect that initially the complaining voices were the small children’s. Eventually, however, adults’ voices joined the grumpy chorus. “Where’s Moses?” they whined. “When’s he coming back?” Perhaps the adults’ voices eventually bury the children’s under a landslide of anger. The voices that had promised to do everything the Lord said may begin to scream: “Moses! What are you doing up there? Don’t you know that you’ve got important responsibilities down here? You brought us here! Now come back down and help us get out of here!”
Finally a sense of panic seems to suffocate the Israelites’ anger. “He’s dead,” they probably whimper. “Now we’re all alone out here.” Little children probably tremble as their parents groan and cry out loud. “Where is God? Where is Yahweh’s pillar to lead us? Where is the Lord’s right arm now?”
Then, ironically at almost the exact same time as God gives Moses the tables of the law, the Israelites completely lose all patience with both God and their leader. Ominous threats hover in the air as they close in on Aaron. Israel bitterly demands that Aaron provide some visible leadership. To them that means he must take what they call “this fellow” Moses’ place. However it also means that the people who’d just promised to worship only the invisible Lord now demand Aaron produce some gods they can actually see.
Yet we don’t sense that Aaron, at least, actually wants to replace the living Lord. In fact, in the face of rampant Israelite polytheism, he calls for what verse 5 calls “a festival to the Lord.” Later Aaron will also claim that he just threw gold into the fire and a calf miraculously popped out. It’s tempting to suspect he was just trying to soothe the Israelites’ frayed nerves.
But if Aaron really wants only to help the Israelites worship the living God, he does a lousy job of it. After all, when he lifts up the golden calf he shaped from the their jewelry, the voices that had promised to do everything the Lord said scream, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt.”
So on that day of the sixth week of their loneliness, the Israelites no longer feel lonely. Getting up early, they sacrifice, laugh and dance to their boisterous songs again. While a divine peace seems to rest on the mountain, restlessness in the valley boils over into a frenzied religious orgy.
However, verses 7 and following report that all this “religious” activity infuriates the real God. Israel has so completely corrupted herself by worshipping false gods that God’s ready to simply destroy her. Because she has knocked down the first two words of the Ten Words that are foundation of the rest of the commandments, God wants nothing more to do with her.
In fact, verse 10 indicates that the Lord decides to simply start over with Moses by making him alone into a great nation, just as God had done with Abraham. God, in fact, proposes to annihilate Israel. In response to Moses’ mediation on stubborn Israel’s behalf, however, God mercifully relents. While the Lord won’t leave the guilty Israelites unpunished, for the sake of God’s covenant with her ancestors God won’t completely destroy them.
The Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday is, in many ways, pivotal in salvation’s story. Israel’s idolatrous disobedience in it causes such a deep rupture between herself and God that it poses a deep threat to Israel’s future. It’s a rupture that will arguably always shadow Israel’s relationship with Yahweh.
After all, in spite of God’s miraculous liberation of her from Egyptian slavery and God’s majestic display at Sinai, Israel stubbornly and repeatedly rebels against God. In fact, instead of being a solitary event, the saga of the golden calf is typical of Israel’s rebellious character. It’s merely one of the stories that show that while God is determined to graciously save God’s people, they’re almost as determined to resist God.
The Apostle Paul uses this and other stories from Israel’s desert wanderings to warn the church not to repeat Israel’s failures. God’s Church, after all, shares many of the spiritual blessings God gave Israel. Israel, however, responded to those blessings by repeatedly caving in to the temptation to worship other gods.
So will the Church repeat Israel’s mistakes? The temptations to idolatry remain strong, after all. So much demands our ultimate loyalty. However, as Paul insists in I Corinthians 10:13, God always provides a way to resist the temptation to worship those other gods.
Yet it may be hard for God’s adopted sons and daughters to understand why God reacts so harshly to Israel’s succumbing to temptation. It may be hard for us to understand why God had the Levites slaughter three thousand people. Christians might think God should have responded more gently than striking the Israelites with a plague for worshipping the golden calf. We might even wish God hadn’t let all the disobedient Israelites die in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land.
Exodus 32’s preachers and teachers risk losing all credibility if we simply ignore those concerns. Yet we can humbly say that God’s punishment of the Israelites unmistakably reminds us that God hates sin. God is, as Reformed Christians confess in the Heidelberg Catechism, “terribly angry about the sin we are born with as well as the sins we personally commit. As a just judge he punishes them now and in eternity.”
There is, however, hope, for both rebellious Israel and God’s sinful Church. The Scriptures as well as the creeds and confessions remind us God is “certainly merciful.” Israel and the church have a future. Yet that future doesn’t hinge on our saintliness. God’s people always have been, are and always will be God’s forgiven and restored people. You and I live in hope and joy because God has made a new covenant based on God’s divine mercy through the work of Jesus Christ.
Thankfully God always puts a mediator between God’s holy self and God’s rebellious people. For Israel, Moses the prophet is also Moses the priest who intercedes before God for his people. He tries to shield Israel from the full force of God’s wrath that he knows so well. He begs God to be merciful to Israel.
But, of course, finally even Moses is a flawed mediator. In fact, eventually his own rebellion against God and God’s good purposes leads to his death just short of, but not in the Promised Land. God’s Old Testament people, then, awaited a mediator who is, as Reformed Christians confess, “truly human and truly divine.”
We need “our Lord Jesus Christ, who was given us to set us completely free and to make us right with God.” His death was the atoning sacrifice that both paid for our sins and earned for us righteousness and life. So even when we dance around our own kinds of golden calves, Christ, our Mediator, “speaks to the Father in our defense.”
In the intriguing book, The Romanovs, Simon Sebag Montefiore writes about Peter the Great’s dissolution of the Russian patriarchate. The tsar transformed the central administration of the Russian Orthodox Church into a department of the Russian state that called itself the “Holy Governing Synod.”
Montefiore notes that in doing so, “The [Romanov] dynasty could present itself almost as a theocracy. The autocracy was consecrated at the moment of anointment, during coronations. That presented the tsar as the transcendent link between God and man (italics added).” In other words, the Russian tsars thought of themselves as and made themselves rather than Jesus Christ or the Church out to be mediators between God and the Russian people.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 15, 2017
Exodus 32:1-14 Commentary