Sermon for Williamstown
15th of October 2017, Pentecost 23
The God who is portrayed in today’s story from the Hebrew Scriptures is quite terrifying; an apparently angry and unforgiving God, eager to punish his sinning people with total annihilation. Admittedly, their sin in the today’s reading is quite extreme. Last week we heard the Ten Commandments, gifts to the people of Israel from the God who had rescued them from Egypt. The response of the people to those commandments was: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do,’ and almost instantly the people have broken the commandments that they welcomed. In response to their rejection of God, God rejects them, saying to Moses: ‘Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely …’
The character YHWH in today’s reading from Exodus isn’t simply the same as the God we worship, and neither is the king in Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel reading. In both cases we have stories which teach us something about God, about our relationship with God, and about ourselves, but which aren’t straight-forward descriptions of the ways in which God acts. They need to be interpreted. So let’s do that. What does this story of the golden calf have to say to us today?
To begin with, this is a story about the importance of patience or, perhaps even more strongly, about the dangers of impatience. Moses is on the mountain talking with God; the people are at the bottom of the mountain under the leadership of Aaron. And ‘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.”’ Moses had been the one who, under God, rescued them from slavery and has brought them safely to the mountain to encounter God, and now because he’s taken a while to return to them from his communion with God the people turn from him.
This isn’t the first time the people have become impatient and complained that things aren’t happening fast enough for their liking. It started pretty much from the moment the Israelites left their homes in Egypt and headed down to the sea-shore on their way to the wilderness. As Pharaoh’s army chased them the people cried: ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?’ Then, when they came to Marah and found the water bitter they complained against Moses, saying, ‘What shall we drink?’ Next, they complained of hunger, and said, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ And so it went on, and on. Each time God provided the people with what they needed, but this didn’t stop them from complaining about something new. No wonder that when they demanded a golden god to worship, Yahweh lost his temper with them completely and described them as ‘stiff-necked’, wanting to consume them in his wrath.
The story of the golden calf is usually seen as a story about idolatry, about the danger of us making gods for ourselves. But it is equally a story about the importance of patience, about the need to wait for the revelation of God, to have faith that what needs to happen will happen in God’s good time. That’s a lesson the people of Israel learned over forty long years, as they wandered in the wilderness. Sometimes we do need to wait upon the Lord.
The story of the golden calf is also a story of leadership. We are given two leaders in this story, Moses and Aaron. They behave in very different ways. Aaron is the ultimate poll-driven leader. When the people approach him and ask him to make gods for them, he agrees immediately. No suggestion to the people that what they demand might not be good or even that it might lead them into problems further down the track. Aaron is the patron of all leaders who are swayed by the acclaim of their people, and give into popular prejudices against their own best judgement. In particular, Aaron creates for his people a god who is more accessible and easier to comprehend and control than the transcendent, numinous God who is always beyond human comprehension. It might make him a popular leader, but it doesn’t make him a good one.
In contrast is Moses. Moses in this story is given a great temptation. God does not threaten to kill him. Instead, God offers to make Moses the new Abraham – ‘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 isn’t willing to save himself at his people’s expense. He acts as a good shepherd, protecting his people from their threatened annihilation. And he does it very cleverly. First he reminds God that the people are in fact God’s people, repeating to God what God said to him: ‘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?’ Then he appeals to God’s concern for his reputation; if God kills the people of Israel the people of Egypt will be able to mock; ‘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’. Finally, Moses reminds God of the promises that he made: ‘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.”’ He reminds God of his relationship with the patriarchs and the covenants he made with them. He reminds God of who God is. And in response to Moses’ skilful arguing, ‘the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people’.
Moses provides the people with the leadership they need. It might not be particularly popular; it might not give them everything they demand; but it does provide them with what they need. And Moses’ good leadership gives God the chance to repent of his wrath. I can imagine that God would later be grateful to Moses for saving him from wiping out the people God had claimed as his own. To people who lead, this story gives advice and a warning: be Moses, not Aaron. To people who follow, the advice and warning is similar; be wary of the leader who gives you exactly what you demand.
At the beginning of this sermon I said that the character YHWH in today’s reading from Exodus isn’t straight-forwardly the God we worship. We do not believe that we worship a God willing to wipe us out when we sin. But we do see the God we worship, the Creator of the cosmos and the Father of our Lord Jesus, in the God who remembers his commitment to Abraham, Isaac and Israel and fulfils the covenant made with them. This God is faithful, freeing the people from slavery, providing them with food and water when they need it, leading them to the Promised Land, and forgiving them when they fall – after some wise words from Moses. Ultimately, this is a story of God’s care for God’s people – which comes in God’s own good time.
May we remember God’s faithfulness to us, and not be as impatient as the people were when Moses’ return to them was delayed. May we be able to wait on the Lord, be of good courage, and take heart. Amen.