The first line of the Scripture for today is “When the people saw that Moses was delayed….” Isn’t this true for all of us: when we are feeling idle, we have a tendency to lean toward our idols. When we drift into idleness, we tend towards “idolness” – grasping at things that cause us to feel safe in the wilderness of life. We fall back on things. We seek easy comfort instead of pressing on. Tension and anxiety can either push us to new heights or it can pull us to old gods that do not really satisfy.
It is hard to know what to do, where to turn, when things are not working out as planned, when your hopes are slow to develop, when you are in the midst of the wilderness.
So what’s happening here in these verses in Exodus? Moses is up on the mountain with God and they are doing a new thing. Kind of like, maybe Steve Jobs coming up with a new IPhone – changing the way we think about things. Or the way we’re trying to transition to a sustainable, green economy for the future. Perhaps even the way you try to figure out your next step, your next job.
Moses is getting ready to come down with tablets expressing the foundations of a people: who they are going to be, and what they are going to be defined by. God is all excited about the plans for a new sanctuary. The new people need a new place to worship – to be in community in praise. God and the Israelites working together in an example of a new relationship between the Divine and humanity that will be a sign for all people – this will transform the world!
All things are working for good for those who love the Lord and who are called according to his purposes. God will provide! God gives details, elaborate, loving details – painstakingly present to Moses. There is a balance of worship and justice.
And then all hell breaks loose.
Aaron, a good man, selected by Moses to be the priest, is back down there with the people. They are idle, waiting for Moses. But people don’t do well in a vacuum of waiting. I know it makes me nervous to wait, to see how things play out. There are too many voices saying, “Do this,” or “Do that” and we get to the point where we no longer can wait. We need something to cling to, to give us meaning.
What can Aaron do? When the people lead the leaders follow. Leaders need to do something to let people know that something is happening.
And so they did what we tend to do – we get busy, we build something. With overnight efficiency we produce. In the midst of a wilderness all of a sudden everybody is bringing out their riches – a lot of gold. (Where did the slaves of Egypt get so much wealth? I’m just saying.)
We all need something tangible to do when we’re idle. And so the Israelites begin to party.
And way up on the mountain, God becomes aware. “Moses, get back there…YOUR people!” (Notice they’re not MY people any longer, they’ve become YOUR people!)
Red hot with anger is God – so angry he’s about to do a NOAH. “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.”
It is times like this, that I get the mind of God. I recognize God. Like when parents go away for a much-needed weekend, leaving the kids at home, and the kids throw a party and make a mess. And you just want to kill them. You look at your spouse and you say, “They’re YOUR children. That’s YOUR DNA.”
And then, in one of those scripture scenes that turns everything inside out, Moses talks God down off the ledge. “MY people? What are you talking about? You’re the one who chose them. They’re YOUR people. And besides all that, (and here I really like Moses’ approach – stroking God’s pride, his self-interest, God’s identity) what will the Egyptians say?”
I remember trying to put up Christmas lights on the house one year. They looked really horrible. And Deanne agreed. So I went out and ripped them all off. I was simply furious. And the neighbors on both sides were outside and you could tell they thought I’d gone crazy (which I had.) And it was the thought that neighbors might think me dangerous that helped me slow down and cool down a bit!
“Remember, you once said…” Moses has to remind God about his own covenant. It is a mess. Here’s Moses…quoting God to God. I hate that when people do that to me: “Remember, you once said….”
And God changes God’s mind! That blows my mind. God adjusts to reach the goal of universal transformation, redemption, salvation. God adjusts to put up with you and me – loving us beyond imagination – even while getting so frustrated, hurt even that we don’t love God back.
God is all about flesh and blood relationship – and we make and worship inanimate objects.
God is all about creative ambiguity – his very name, YHWH, suggests that “I Am Who I Will Be” -but we just want answers, certainty, not ambiguity.
God wants passionate response, engagement, creativity – and we crave passionless direction. “Just tell me what to do, I don’t want to have to think.”
We often treat the Bible this way. It is the living Word – it needs to be interpreted, wrestled with. But many Christians make it a dead collection of inerrant do’s and don’ts, scientific text book, historic text book – lest we anger God. Truthfully, I don’t think anything angers God more than making the Bible an idol.
What do you do, when things are delayed, not working out as you thought? When the kids aren’t moving in the direction you had planned. When God seems very distant from your practical, on-the-ground, in-real-time situation.
I can see, I guess, why God gets angry. But come on, God – throw us a bone! Please! Show me something other than sand and mile upon mile of desert – because I am feeling left behind, stuck, in the middle, over my head.
You and Moses are up on the mountain, getting all creative, and sharing the excitement of doing a new thing, but I don’t see it – yet.
This metaphor of a wilderness journey is so full of import. There is this antsy-ness to do something, anything! And sometimes that’s ok, but sometimes…you have to wait, sometimes you have to trust, sometimes you have to stay put and let things unfold. And it’s always hard to know precisely how to identify those times: when you’re in the middle of waiting, how do you know when you are supposed to move and when you are supposed to stay put.
You can’t help but try to form an idol, to build a “Tower of Babel” by leaning back on institutional attitudes. “THIS is how it has always been done.” Nostalgia. Let’s just return to the past.
It is so easy to judge the Israelites in the wilderness. It is so easy to say that I would have called the police on Jerry Sandusky.
And yet, time and time again, it is in our make-up to react to the unknown, the uncomfortable, and the unsure with idols, cover-up and finger pointing. It is so easy to succumb to the mob mentality, the crowds.
This is why you and I need to continue to cultivate the necessary attitudes on the journey.
Despite divine anger – God will be faithful to God’s covenant. Sometimes the thought that God is like a parent really helps. Because when I was a kid, I got into a lot of trouble and heard a lot of justifiable parental anger. But the parental anger always subsided. (At least until the next time.) And even as a kid, I claimed the love more than the fear!
Do I trust that? Do you? In the midst of the wilderness, in the midst of striving to make meaning for ourselves, and to busy ourselves with almost anything to deaden the fear, do you trust that you are beloved? Not some kind of romantic, naïve trust – but a dogged determination not to give up in the face of the evidence that you are all alone, stuck.
We have to learn discernment – to take the time – in community. To wait. To listen.
Perhaps it would have helped if Aaron, instead of appeasing the people by calling for gold to make a golden calf, might have encouraged them to remember how far they had already come: out of slavery, through the waters, with the manna. Because sometimes you have to remember the times of gracious mercy – the love, the vows, the peace, the joy – and let that carry you through the waiting.
Maybe each night before you go to bed, you should take a moment to consider where you had witnessed something beautiful during the day, some small act of kindness that caught your attention, some appreciative word that meant so much. Because we have to ground ourselves sometimes in the little things to get through the big things.
I remember my father in the midst of the wilderness of watching his son, my brother, die of cancer, reading Miss Mapp and Lucia stories by EF Benson – crazy tales of early 20th century small town Britain. That’s what kept him sane.
I guess this is why we come together to read the scriptures – to keep us sane and remind us that we are not the first people to wander and wonder. We are not the first people to make idols and dance around to ease the pain, the fear, the longing. We are not the first and we will not be the last.
And the story we read is that God, although on the brink, does indeed remembers the covenant. And always restores, and is always reminded, and always doing something new.
Here we are, about to enter the season of Advent – anticipating and waiting for God to take on flesh and dwell among us – and we simply can’t get rid of the God who pursues us into our very wilderness. Because despite the idols we make, and despite the distance we create, and despite our yearning for a representation – God offers the real thing in community.
And so we have to remember to cling to our baptisms and speak out and stay connected.
I must admit that is not how I thought this sermon was going to go. The Golden Bull of Wall Street seemed such an obvious idol – and indeed it is: the prophetic voice will judge us accordingly and call us to remember.
But this story of Moses is less judgmental than descriptive – describing a relationship broken, disappointment in all directions, a wilderness journey with little to look forward to – and yet…we press on.
Because there is no time to be idle.
For “grace has brought us safe thus far….and grace will bring us home.”