Over these past many weeks, we have been moving through the Hebrew scriptures under the theme, Promises Made, Promises Broken. We have learned about the great promises that God has made to humanity. And ways in which humankind has made and often broken promises, both to God and to one another.
Sunday, October 25, 2020
Tuesday, October 13, 2020
Before today’s reading, we have both some catching up to do from last week’s story. Plus, a little remembering.
When we left off last week, the Pharaoh had finally agreed after the tenth plague and the Hebrew Passover to let God’s people go. In the intervening chapters, we read the story of Israel’s journey to freedom. Their passage through the Red Sea and God saving them from the Egyptian army.
Israel is led by Moses into the wilderness and eventually to the foot of Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai is also known as Mount Horeb, which, coincidence or not, is where Moses was first called by God to lead Israel out of slavery. It is on Mount Sinai where God comes down to be with God’s new people, Israel.
Now before we move on, we need to remember back to Genesis and to the Garden of Eden. It was in Eden that humanity was in the presence of God - in a close and good relationship with God. Access to God’s presence, though, was eventually lost because of the rebellion of humanity. It was then that God came to Abraham and made him a promise - that through him God would bring blessing to all of the nations. But, there was a second promise to Abraham. That through him the relationship with God would be restored along with access to God’s presence.
Which brings us back to Sinai. God come down to the top of Mount Sinai. But God’s presence is anything but comforting. So, the people send Moses up the mountain to meet with God.
Up until now, God hasn’t asked anything of Israel. But now, God invites them back into relationship - into covenant. And with this, God is going to ask them now to do something, giving them a whole set of laws, beginning with the ten commandments. The idea is that if Israel obeys the terms of the covenant, they will be so shaped and formed by God’s laws, teaching and justice that they will become a kingdom of priests to show all the nations what God is truly like. The people accept this invitation eagerly.
So, Moses goes up a second time to meet God and to receive all of these laws, along with lengthy and detailed instructions on the building of a tent. It is this tent that will be the tabernacle, where access to God will be restored and Israel and God can live together in peace.
But, then, something goes seriously wrong, which is where our story today picks up.
The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.”
Aaron said to them, “All right, take out the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took out the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aaron. He collected them and tied them up in a cloth. Then he made a metal image of a bull calf, and the people declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf. Then Aaron announced, “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord!” They got up early the next day and offered up entirely burned offerings and brought well-being sacrifices. The people sat down to eat and drink and then got up to celebrate.
The Lord spoke to Moses: “Hurry up and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything! They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. They have made a metal bull calf for themselves. They’ve bowed down to it and offered sacrifices to it and declared, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I’ve been watching these people, and I’ve seen how stubborn they are. Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you.”
But Moses pleaded with the Lord his God, “Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and amazing force? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He had an evil plan to take the people out and kill them in the mountains and so wipe them off the earth’? Calm down your fierce anger. Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, whom you yourself promised, ‘I’ll make your descendants as many as the stars in the sky. And I’ve promised to give your descendants this whole land to possess for all time.’” Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people. Exodus 32:1-14 (CEB)
It’s interesting, isn’t it, what happens when fear kicks in. Up to this point, Moses has for the people been the representation of God. But, as he is delayed in coming back down from the mountain, the people begin to be afraid. As they wait at the bottom of the mountain, their anxiety builds. These people who have been traumatized by lives lived under slavery, who have been liberated in an amazing, yet terrifying, way by God, begin to be afraid. Then, when Moses doesn’t return, day after day, one can only wonder what they are thinking. That this God had brought them out of slavery, that Moses has abandoned them, and that they will simply perish in the wilderness.
So, they turn to the one remaining representative of God in their midst. Aaron. Our English translation doesn’t give it justice. In fact the language in the original Hebrew suggests that they confront Aaron angrily and demand that he do something. Israel had just agreed to the rules and they immediately mess them up. Even as Aaron tries to bring them back in, it is impossible. Because the fear has taken hold of them.
I wonder how often this happens to us. How often fear takes hold of us and we allow it pull us away from God and from who God wants us to be. And if you say that this never happens to you, perhaps you are the one most living in fear.
Up on the mountain, we see a God who is angry and who wants to destroy the people. “Your people,” God says to Moses. “Your people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt - they are ruining everything.”
God then proposes a backup plan - that God will destroy the people and make a new nation from Moses. It’s not clear whether God is completely fed up with Israel or whether this is just some kind of test for Moses. But, then, God tells Moses to leave - to give God some space so that God’s anger can burn hot.
It’s an uncomfortable image of God for us, isn’t it? It messes with our concept of a God who is tender and compassionate and reframes it to remember that there is this ferocious side to God who doesn’t abide people doing things in violation of God’s covenant. It makes us a little uncomfortable, doesn’t it? But, isn’t it true that, if we have tamed God then we, too, have begun to worship a false god like Israel? And, perhaps, need to be reminded that God is a power that is not to be trifled with?
Moses responds. His approach is interesting here - perhaps a little bit of reverse psychology. He figures out what will matter to God and then helps God remember. First, he appeals to God’s reputation. “This will look bad for you. You brought Israel out with such power. How will this look to all the nations?” Then, Moses appeals to God’s character and reminds God of God’s obligation under the covenant. “Remember the patriarchs and your promise to them? Do you want to break that promise?”
Then, our story tells us, “the LORD changed his mind.”
This entire mountaintop scene may make us a little uneasy. It may make us struggle between a biblical understanding and a philosophical understanding of God. Isn’t God, after all, unchangeable? Steadfast? Faithful?
Yet, the twist to this story is that, by its end, Moses has helped God to remain unchanged - by keeping God’s covenant with Israel. By sticking with the original plan. God was about to change, but Moses has talked God into keeping God’s original promise. Unchanged. Steadfast. Faithful to God’s own promises.
This is the God we know, the God we trust. The God described just a couple of chapters later: The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in covenant faithfulness. Forgiving sin, but not leaving the wicked unpunished. (Ex. 34:6-7)
Perhaps that’s the most important message for us in this text today. We, who are followers of Jesus, God’s Son sent to us to redeem us. To restore us back into relationship and into the presence of God. No matter how many times we mess up. No matter how often our fear drives us away to other gods. God continues to seek us out. Relentlessly. Steadfastly. With covenantal faithfulness.
May this give us comfort in times of fear. In times of anxiety. And at every time in our lives. Amen.
Sunday, October 4, 2020
Today, we are transported forward in time. Last week, we heard the story of Joseph and his brothers and how, in the midst of an evil committed against Joseph, God used this and turned it to good. Eventually preserving Jacob, Joseph’s father, and the entire clan from famine. At the end of last week’s story, we heard that Joseph and his brothers and all of their families remained in Egypt.
Today’s story is some 400 years later. It comes from the book of Exodus. It’s important to note that this book begins with these words: “Now a new pharaoh came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph.” In the chapters that precede today’s texts, we learn that this new Pharaoh is concerned with the growing power of Israel in his country. He fears that they may take over, because they have grown to be a large number of people. And so, to prevent this, the Pharaoh enslaves Israel.
Eventually, God calls Moses to lead Israel out of slavery to freedom. He will impose a series of plagues on Egypt - nine, in fact - to convince the pharaoh to let Israel go. None of them work. The pharaoh refuses to release them.
So, God plans a tenth and final plague. It is here, where our story today begins, in Exodus, chapter 12.
The Lord said to Moses: Dedicate to me all your oldest children. Each first offspring from any Israelite womb belongs to me, whether human or animal.