Sunday, October 12, 2014

God Under Control -- A Sermon for Pentecost 18A

"The Adoration of the Golden Calf” – Nicolas Poussin (1633-4)

Exodus 32:1-14

Last Sunday Rick preached on the Ten Commandments – the biblical ones, not the movie! According to the Exodus story, these commandments define God’s covenant expectations. In making the covenant with Israel, God said to them – I will bless you, but this is what I expect of you in return. The commandments begin with this proclamation:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (Ex. 20:1-4).
The point being – there is just one God, and don’t make images of God.

With these new Laws in hand, it still didn’t take long for the people to mess things up. When Moses went up the mountain to receive further instructions from God, Aaron and the elders went back to work taking care of God’s people. You might say that Moses took a sabbatical and left his associate and the elders in charge, and unlike last fall – things didn’t go well.  

Moses took longer to return than they expected, and the people got anxious. This wasn’t new. All along the route fear had been their biggest enemy, and fear was again raising its ugly head. As we often do, they began to think the worst. Maybe Moses died up on the mountain! Maybe Moses got in an argument with God, and God decided to kill him. Whatever was the case, it was time to try something new.  So they went to Aaron and asked Aaron to take over.

Maybe a new manager will get the team to the World Series. Maybe a new coach will get the team back to winning the Big 10 championship. Maybe a new President or a new Congress can bring back the good old days.  Aaron might have been thinking the same thing, because he was ready with a solution.

Now this wasn’t the first time they’d lost confidence in Moses.  Remember when they got trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s army? Or what about when they got hungry or thirsty in the desert?  How did they react then?  Didn’t they complain?  Didn’t they want to go back to Egypt? Didn’t Moses worry about the people trying to stone him to death? It’s true, each time God came through, but maybe this time was different.  Maybe this God whom Moses represented had lured them into the desert to murder them.  Yes, now that it was too late to turn back, God had killed Moses and would soon be coming after them.

Yes, it was time for a change, so they went to Aaron and asked for new gods who would do what they wanted. Even though God said don’t make images, they decided that they needed gods they could see and touch. They wanted gods they could command and manipulate. And Aaron was more than willing to comply. Why was that?  After all, he’d been with Moses almost from the beginning. He’d seen all that God had done for Israel. So why did he join the people in this coup?  

Frederick Buechner offers us one possibility. If you don’t know Buechner, he is a preacher and a provocative writer, whose book Peculiar Treasures describes biblical characters like Aaron.  According to Buechner, like many other older brothers who get lost in the shadow of a more charismatic younger brother, Aaron was looking for a chance to shine.  He writes of Aaron:  
[He] went quietly off into the ministry where in the long run he didn’t do so badly either except that the only people who know about it were the ones who turned to the religion section on the back pages. Moses, on the other hand, was forever making the cover.  The pay-off came around the time Moses hit eighty and out of a burning bush God himself voted him Man of the Year.  As usual, Aaron had to be content with playing second fiddle, which he did well enough until he got the break he’d been waiting for at last, and he blew it.
Despite his theological training and time spent at the denominational headquarters, he gave in to the people and agreed to their demands for a different god.  Buechner concludes:
Nobody knows whether this was Aaron’s way of getting even with his kid brother for all those years of eating humble pie, or whether he actually believed with the rest of mankind that a God in the hand is worth two in the bush. [Peculiar Treasures, pp. 1-2]
With Moses out there somewhere, perhaps dead, Aaron was now in charge. He decided he would give them what they wanted. After all, he wanted their love and esteem. So he directed them to gather up all the gold jewelry and bring it to him so he could melt it down and create an image. When he presented  the golden calf to the people, they said: “These are our gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the Land of Egypt.” Aaron liked what he saw, and so he built an altar and called the worship and the fellowship committees together and planned a celebration. 

They all thought that having a festival was a great idea, so they brought their offerings and sacrifices to the altar, and then they “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.”  This wasn’t just any ordinary potluck supper, this was their celebration of having gods they could control. And they got drunk!  

Not everyone was happy.  Think about how God felt after seeing this rebellion take place on the desert floor. It would be an understatement to say that God got a bit perturbed. God began to think that it had been a mistake liberating this “stiff-necked people” from slavery. What is interesting here is that God and Moses have a disagreement about who these people are.  Maybe this company of vagabonds isn’t God’s responsibility – it’s Moses’ problem. These are his people, not God’s!  So God tells Moses – “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.”  Do something about it!
Does this sound at all familiar. When a child acts up, parents often say to each other – “your child acted up.”  Yes, “your child smashed up the car;” “your child wrote on the wall;” “you’re child flunked the semester in school.”  Yes, it’s your child who is at fault, not mine, so take care of the mess.

Not only does God try to pass off responsibility to Moses, God begins to think about wiping out this “stiff-necked” people, and starting over.  Since Moses is a descendant of Abraham and Sarah, God could start with him and still fulfill the covenant God made with them, even if this meant wiping out a group of malcontents who “exchanged the glory of God for an image of an ox that eats grass” (Psalm 106:20).     
Luckily for Israel, Moses stepped in and intervened on their behalf. Moses reminded God that it wouldn’t look good if God brought the people out of Egypt only to kill them.  What would the Egyptians think?  What kind of reputation would God have after this?  Thankfully, God gave in to Moses’ pleas, and changed his mind.

Despite this change of mind, can you understand God’s frustration? After all, don’t we humans have a tendency to want gods whom we can create in our own image and therefore control?  As theologian Miguel de la Torre puts it: “Would we not be more secure if we were to rely on a god made of gold, or in reality, in gold alone?”  That is, are we stiff-necked people who choose “mammon over God,” and “risk being consumed by their own greed?” [Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A, p. 431]

The good news is this – despite our ongoing attempts to create gods whom we can control, the message of scripture is that God is patient and long suffering.  God is merciful and loving. Like children often do with their parents, we can test God’s patience, but God is faithful to the covenant, even when we are not.  Thanks be to God!!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 18A
October 12, 2014

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