Exodus 31:18 – 32:14
We’re back, but we’re different. That’s painfully obvious to every one of us this morning. And, truth be known, we are probably going to have to be different for quite a while, now; perhaps even for a very long time. We just don’t know. Just about everything in our daily lives has changed dramatically since about the middle of March. And since then, all of us have become just a little bit testy and irritable, and we are all a little bit anxious about the future and what it might hold. Over the years, we have grown quite comfortable in predicting our futures, mostly, because up until now, our pasts have been pretty reliable indicators of future performance. All of that has changed.
In his epistle, James has made it quite clear that past performance does not indicate future results. He said, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town, and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. Anyone then, who knows the right thing to do and fails to do it commits sin.” (James 4:13ff)
James’ advice has been generally disregarded by all of us. It is a tad irrelevant. We do not conduct our lives in this manner. Most of the time we do not even think about it. And while we would never deny that what James says is true, we can hardly be bothered to put it into regular practice. It has, however, suddenly become quite relevant.
In our passage today, God’s people are struggling with this business of predicting a known or secure future. They are in the desert, on their way to the Promised Land. It has not been a pleasant journey for anyone. The people have grumbled and complained at every step along the way. They have been pathetically nostalgic, even pining for the luxuries that they enjoyed in Egypt. (Which, of course, were completely imaginary.) There were no luxuries in Egypt. They had forgotten that they had been miserably oppressed, that they had been horribly abused, and that they had been the victims of what is euphemistically known in our world today as “ethnic cleansing.” In Egypt, they were slaves, they were possessions, they were helpless victims of institutionalized racism; they had no one to defend their cause, they were nothing. But God heard their cry, and God delivered them.
And in the desert, they were the children of God, lovingly cared for, gently embraced in the strong arms of their Savior. In the desert, every need was addressed, every hunger and thirst was satisfied. And God was visibly present with them at every single moment. While they did not realize it at the time, and nor did they even begin to appreciate it, they were living absolute luxury in the desert. This certainly challenges us to re-think our own definitions of luxury. And yet, in spite of all of the wonder and the glory and the luxury that surrounded them daily, God’s people were dissatisfied. They were dissatisfied with life, and they were anxious and fearful about the future. Perhaps it seemed to them that God’s promises were wearing thin. No one had yet laid eyes on the Promised Land. Perhaps it seems to us that God’s promises are wearing thin also, for no one has yet laid eyes on our own promised land, either.
And to complicate matters some, the leader of God’s people, of nearly 40 years, has gone missing. We know where Moses is, and so do they, but he’s been gone for a long time now. And it is natural to wonder if he is even or ever going to be coming back.
And so there’s a general rebellion among God’s people, and they say to Aaron, Moses’ brother, “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.” We don’t know what has become of him…hmm.
Most of us know what happens in this story. Aaron crafted a golden calf, the people worshiped it, and the whole sordid event became known, throughout the rest of the Scriptures, as an example and as a warning about the absolute anarchy that results when people degrade themselves into states of idolatry and unfaithfulness.
Sometimes, though, when we come to the Scriptures, what is not written in a passage is sometimes just as important as what is written. And what is absolutely frightening in this passage, but only implied by the writer, is that after 40 difficult, but glorious years in the wilderness, with the daily presence and activity of a loving and providing God in their midst, the people of God seemed to have learned nothing about the nature of God. In spite of an abundance of daily provision and care, in spite of repetitive lessons about God’s abiding presence among them, nothing seems to be sinking into their hearts and minds! And apparently, nothing ever has!
Just take a look at the confusion in their minds between God and Moses! Moses is God’s representative, but he is certainly not their god, or anyone’s god. Moses is away from them, but with Moses gone, the people have also have become convinced that God has gone missing, too! Perhaps the two of them have run off together, never to be seen again! And now they want Aaron to make them a new god, or, more accurately, a new set of gods. Have they suddenly devolved into polytheists? Do they really believe that Moses the shepherd was also God the creator? What are these people thinking? What evil confusion has addled their minds?
In retrospect, Aaron could have done a better job of it. He could have corrected their misguided notions about God, and he could have called the people to repentance. He could have demanded that the people renew their relationship with God. He could have thundered at them that it was God, not Moses, who brought them up out of Egypt. But he did none of that. Instead, he took up a collection. He bowed to pressure. He caved in, and he submitted to the people’s demand. We could speculate all day about why Aaron capitulated to the people’s demands, but in my mind, it all boils down to fear. Aaron has become overcome with the same fear that has paralyzed the people.
When fear settles into us, it has the power to call into question, and maybe even to make void everything that we know and trust about God. I don’t know why or how this happens, I just know that it does. The Scriptures are replete with examples of this.
It is clear that Aaron’s failure to lead in Moses’ absence can be attributed to fear. Throughout the entire Exodus, Aaron had been designated and assigned by God to be a co-leader with Moses. In Moses’ absence, Aaron was indisputably the leader. But it is quite obvious from the text, that Aaron’s authority as the leader, has been supplanted. A new, mysterious leader has arisen among the people. This new leader, unnamed and even unmentioned, has somehow managed to arouse and to organize and to capitalize on the fears of the people. And this new leader is now acting in the role of the evil spokesperson, bringing the demands of the people to Aaron. And it is obvious that Aaron is afraid. He is afraid of the power of a people in rebellion, which can indeed be a formidable power. And Aaron is afraid of the one who has organized God’s people into this rebellious state. And so Aaron forgoes invoking the power of Almighty God, and he provides for the rebellious crowd, a new set of gods.
We have been in a bit of a wilderness ourselves. But God has not been absent. God has not gone missing. God is as present and as powerful now as he was in the wilderness of old. Do we know what tomorrow will bring? No, we do not, and truth be told, we never have known, we just thought that we did. But like the people of old, perhaps we have willed ourselves into believing that we can expect tomorrow to be as secure as today is. We have seen what God’s people did in the desert when their lives and livelihood became less predictable. We have seen that they allowed their own fears to steal away that which they knew to be true about God. And when that which they knew to be true about God was gone, they went off seeking other gods. This pattern of faithlessness has been repeated over and over, again and again in the history of God’s people both Hebrew and Christian. It ought not to be repeated among us.