When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, "come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him." Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt." When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, "Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord." So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward, they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry. Then the Lord said to Moses, "Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed it and have said, 'These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.' "I have seen these people," the Lord said to Moses, "and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation." But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. "Lord," he said, "why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.'" Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. Exodus 32:1-14 (NIV) Read the whole chapter here.
I feel like this is one of the old cartoons that I used to watch. Where they have the narrator interject when last we saw such and such. We're revisiting the people of Israel on this Exodus journey. When last we saw the people of Israel, it was partway through chapter 18. A couple of weeks ago this was where God had said 'I'm going to go ahead of you. Come to the base of Mount Horeb. I'll be waiting for you. There'll be water there people will drink.' If we skim through Exodus, from that point on in chapter 20 is then where the first giving of the Ten Commandments is recorded. Then the chapters following that begin laying out the institution of this ritual, or Temple Worship. In which the people would offer their praises and sacrifices offerings to God.
In the middle of that there's a little bit of an interruption. That's what we find in chapter 32, an interruption to all of these things that were going on. You see when they were at Horeb in chapter 19 of Exodus, it talks about this dark cloud, almost like the smoke that comes out of a furnace or forge, that surrounded the mountain. God had instructed Moses, 'Don't let anybody step foot on the mountain. Any person or animal that steps foot on the mountain is going to drop dead.' So everybody put up the caution tape, 'We're going to stand back. We're going to avoid that place.' After the appropriate time when there was this blast of a trumpet sound, Moses by himself went up on the mountain to talk with God. It was there that God began giving Moses instructions and teaching. It's recorded right before chapter 32 that God gave Moses those two tablets that you see Charlton Heston carrying in the movies. It's God who gave those tablets that were written with God's own finger, or God's own hand, that Moses was to bring down.
But in the midst of all of this, we have at the base of the mountain, the people were getting restless. Moses had been gone for 40 days and 40 nights. People are saying, 'Yeah he's not coming back. God said if anybody goes up on that mountain they're going to die. That surely is what happened to Moses because he would have been back by now.' So the people are getting restless and saying Aaron, 'We need something. We need something to remind us that we have a God that is still with us, watching over us, guiding us, and taking care of us.' And so Aaron in a moment of panic, and a moment of wanting to appease the people, said, 'All right everybody, give me all that gold jewelry.' You know back earlier in Exodus where it said that they looted Egypt, when they left and the Egyptians said, 'Here take our jewelry, take our gold, just go and get out.' Aaron said, 'Give me that gold.' And it says he melted it down, he made a mold, and he cast a golden calf. And he said, 'Here's your God now.'
There are two ways that we could understand what's happening here. One way is that Aaron is offering up a substitute God, 'Yeah that God that did all those signs and wonders in Egypt, that God that led you through the Red Sea, that God that has fed you, provided for you, guided you, and giving you water. Yeah, this is a different God. So worship this one now.' The other possibility, and I think maybe the one that I would lean toward, is that Aaron is offering them something that is a more visible representation of the God that led them out of Egypt. Because by his own words, it says that Aaron told them, 'Here is the god who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. This is what he looks like. Forget the pillar of fire. Forget the smoke. Forget all those things going on up there on the mountain. This is your god.' The people were ready to receive it.
The thing is it's consistent with human nature. We like to be in control. We like to think that we're in charge. That we can make the decisions. So would you rather have a God who is this immense pillar of fire and smoke that you don't even want to go near? Or do you want this cute little gold calf that you can pick up, carry around, and take it where you want to go? It's safer, isn't it? It puts you in charge of that God. It allows you to kind of decide how, when, and what's going to happen with things. God takes notice from the mountaintop. I love how the story continues here. Because again it makes me laugh. Because it's so human and so relatable. The people have rebelled. God takes notice. God is getting upset saying, 'Well I told them what to do and what not to do and there they go.' So God says, 'Moses get down there and take care of your people.' He says, 'Your people. Your people that you let out of Egypt.' Now the reason this is relatable for me is if you didn't know Melissa and I have four kids. There are often conversations at our house that involve one of us saying that, 'They're not mine they're yours.' That's what God is saying in this moment. 'Moses, your people. Can you believe what they are doing down there? Moses, you need to go and do something. I'm too upset. I can't talk to them. I can't look at them right now.' So Moses speaks back and says 'God they're your people. Don't you remember you're the one that called me and said hey go get my people out of Egypt?' This back and forth takes place. God is righteously and justifiably upset. God says, 'You know what? Just...Moses, go. Let me sit here and stew in my anger. I'm going to pour out my wrath on them. Moses, I'm just gonna..you know what...you're it. Forget all these people. You're the one and out of you, I will make a great nation.' And Moses says 'God, you really need to rethink this.' He appeals to God on a couple of levels. First, he says, 'God what are the Egyptians going to think of you? They saw what you did in Egypt. They saw the demonstration of your power and all the things you did for your people. What are they going to think of you if you now bring these people out here and wipe them off the face of the Earth?' Then secondly, he says 'And don't you remember those covenants you made with their ancestors?' Moses' intercession makes a difference. And God changes his mind. Now again, God was righteously and justifiably angry at this moment. But how often do we find those stories where God's wrath becomes the mercy of God?
We have that expression that people will declare sometimes when things go very awry, 'Lord have mercy.' Lord, have mercy in this moment. Lord, have mercy for everything that's going on. Moses didn't exactly use those words. But basically Moses appealed to God and said, 'Lord, have mercy on these people. Lord, have mercy for the mistakes they've made. Lord, have mercy for the times that they've turned away from you. Lord, have mercy for the fact that they thought that this golden calf would somehow be the God that you were and that they defied you.' So Moses goes down and confronts them. In fact, later on in this story, Moses goes so far we're told as to take this golden calf, break it up, grit it up, mix it with water, and make the people drink it. Moses wanted to send the message that 'This is no God, look you're consuming it.'
And Moses then confronts Aaron. Aaron was to be the leader. He was the one who came to keep things together and he gave into what the people wanted. And then Aaron tried to pass the buck. You remember how we heard in that story that he took the gold. He asked people to collect it, then he melted it down, poured it into this mold that he'd made, and cast his golden calf. When Moses confronts him about it, Aaron's response is 'You wouldn't believe it. They gave me the gold. I just threw it into the fire and that calf came walking right out.'
In this story that is so far removed from us and in many ways difficult for us to make sense of, there are still connections that we can and should make with this. Because it's often difficult to put ourselves in the shoes of the people in this story against whom God's anger and wrath is burning. But we probably have more in common with the people of Israel than we'd like to admit. How often have we turned to a God that is of our manufacturing? A God that we can control and say, 'This is my God. I want to be able to pick it up and carry it around and be in charge.' Lord, have mercy because we too go astray. How often are we like Aaron, quick to make excuses, to dodge blame, to pass the buck. Lord, have mercy because we're a lot like him as well.
This story is one in which the people of Israel had an opportunity to be shaped and to be formed. It's one that stuck with them because even in the Psalms, Psalm 106, we find this Exodus story being lifted up in song. Particularly in verse 19 of Psalm 106, it says 'they made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for an image of an ox that eats grass.' They forgot their God. Forgot God their Savior who had done great things in Egypt. We at times are willing to exchange that glory of God for something less than God. We at times forget all the glorious and wonderful things that God has done. We like the people of Israel want some tangible, visible evidence and proof that's before our eyes that God is indeed there and God is still with us.
Lord, have mercy for our short-sightedness, for our lack of trust, for the doubts that creep in, in the times that we go astray. Lord, have mercy on us. Lord, have mercy when we're willing to settle for an ox that eats grass instead of the full splendor and glory of the God who created everything. And yet we are a part of the covenant that was renewed through Jesus Christ because God recognized that there are times when we need something to relate to. When we need something before us that reminds us that God is there and present and we're not alone. So in Jesus Christ, God took on human flesh, died on a cross, and rose again. Friends, through that empty tomb God has declared to us, 'Here is your God. Here is the one who has saved you. Here is the one who has delivered you from sin and death. Here is the one who offers you life everlasting.' We need that mercy of God in our lives and thanks be to God that even though we stumble and even though we too fall short, God's judgment and God's wrath are often turned to God's mercy. There are times that we are unaware of our need for mercy. In those moments, Lord, have mercy.
There are times when we are aware that we stumble and fall short. In Luke chapter 18 verse 13, there's the story of the rich man and the poor man who have gone to the altar to pray. The rich man goes in and sees the poor man over there offering his prayers and says, 'Thank you God that I am not a sinner like that guy.' But yet, the person that Jesus lifts up in the story is that very sinner who is over there humbly praying, 'Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.' Sometimes we do become aware and acknowledge and confess that sin. God's mercy floods into our lives. God's mercy is what offers us that hope, that redemption, that opportunity to be put back on our feet and as we are set right with him.
There's a prayer that's an ancient prayer going back to the fifth or sixth century. It was very prominent in the Eastern church, the Orthodox church, and has become more accepted I guess in the last century among western Christians. It's called the Jesus prayer. And I know that we've got some people here who use prayer beads when they pray. Often that's the way in which people keep track of this prayer. But it's a short repeated prayer. It says, 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. Have mercy on me a sinner.' And it's a prayer that's repeated again and again. In some traditions, the suggestion is to pray it 33 times. The number of years that Jesus lived. But to repeat this prayer, to center our hearts and our minds on this message that God has shown us mercy through his son Jesus Christ, that we are sinners. That we have fallen short. We've gone astray like the people of Israel. God could be and probably should be upset. And yet, that mercy is offered nonetheless.
So may we be a people who embrace and accept the fact that we need that mercy each and every day. That God's mercy abounds. That for each of us though we are sinners, we can confidently call upon the Lord and say: Lord, have mercy.