Last week when we read from the Book of Exodus, we read about the night that Yahweh passed over any house that had blood of a lamb on its doorpost, which instituted the remembrance of this night as the Festival of Passover. During the Seder dinner at a Passover meal, a child asks “what does this mean?” or “why is this night different than any other night?” The answer that is given is always “By strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” The Lord said as much to Moses when the Lord said “It (Passover) shall serve as a sign on your hand and as an emblem on your forehead that by strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.”
That was chapter 13. Since that time Yahweh has been leading the Israelites in the desert, constantly leading the Israelites to trust in Yahweh's faithfulness and Moses' leadership. Throughout the further struggles of the Israelites, the Lord provides manna, quail, changes bitter water into sweet water, brings forth water from a rock, and saves them from destruction from the Amelekites.
For today's story we have to go back to another time when Moses was on the mountain and brought the words of Yahweh to the Israelites. Back in chapter 19, Yahweh told Moses to say this to the people: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” This was the oracle of the Lord.
Moses did as God said, and all the people responded as one saying, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” This was the oath of the Israelites.
For the first time an oracle of Yahweh and an oath of Israel have been combined. “Together the oracle and the oath constitute the foundational acts of Israel's existence. In this moment, a new people is born into the world. Never before has such an oath been tendered to any people; never before has such an oath been taken.” (NIB, p.830)
A new community has been created. “A collection of erstwhile slaves, not identified by common blood, language, or territory, is formed into a community based solely on allegiance to the command of Yahweh.” (NIB, p. 830)
This was stunning. Out of the struggle and suffering and slavery in Egypt, is birthed something never before imagined. It is important to our story of the calf today, that we back up and take this in. It is important that we recall how recent and how dramatic the coming of Yahweh into the world of the people was. The people were awestruck. There was great personal preparation of cleanliness, and rules. God came to the mountain, that place where earth meets heaven. The drama was so great, a cloud and with such fanfare and earth trembling and thunder and darkness that only Moses was able to come close enough to hear. God's words directly to the people at that meeting (the 10 commandments) and that was that last time that Yahweh spoke directly to the Israelites.
It's as if there has been a Burning Man to beat all Burning Man, and already people have forgotten the whole purpose. Or a birthday party for a three year old, with all the unicorns and bouncy houses anyone can want, and the next day the child wants something else. The balloons haven't even deflated yet and already we move on.
I don't think today's story has anything to do with a calf or a false idol. I think it has to do with that curse within human nature that leaves us constantly hungry for more. We are not satiated. We feel empty even when we're full. We always want something more. We are afraid and anxious and insecure. This turns us into blind greedy people, who forget that God came to us! God came, there was preparation and drama, and glory, and a promise that we belonged to God. And way too soon, we are looking to the leader who just went out for a sandwich, and we want something to worship right now, can't wait until they get back. Gotta have it now. We know what it's like to get really anxious, and for some the anxiety is about eating, or shelter, or basic needs – the hunger for more is literally a need. And at the other end of the spectrum are those that have more than they'll ever need and don't even notice – they're always in that place where they need more, and more, and more.
So we look to the other person leading, in this case Aaron, and say, ok, you. "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." Not considering the big picture and taking on the urgency and anxiety of the people, Aaron says, ok, then, how about, um, I know. Let's build a thing. A thing that we can see and touch and feel and bow down to and give sacrifices to. We are even willing to give away what is of great value to us, and let the wrong person make that new thing for us. No matter what it is, we are so happy for a thing, in the absence of something, that we follow along, happily and energetically. “So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord." 6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
Ah, quite the dopamine hit. Instant gratification. Like buying Apple products. Isn't this a great phone? Isn't this one better? Or anything to do with technology. I'm right there with you. If they made better flutes year after year, I'd be hungry for them believe me! We already have something good, even great, maybe even the best, but we have that noisy annoying voice on our shoulder that says, “more, more more!”
Who are these people? What happened to those grateful Israelites? Who gave an oath in response to the oracle from Yahweh. Even Moses and God can't agree who these people belong to.
The Lord says to Moses, “7 The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" 9
And Moses says to God, "O Lord, 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?”
God says to Moses, they're YOUR people. Moses says to God, they're YOUR people. One commentator I listened to said it reminded her of arguments couples have when they want the other one to take the blame for bad children's behavior. “Look what your children did!”
Moses even uses the “what will the neighbors think?” argument. He says to Yahweh, “12 Why should the Egyptians say, "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'?”
And here in the story, Moses shares with us, the perfect antidote to anxiety, restlessness, fear and worry. He implores Yahwah to remember. “13 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 forever.'”
With all the rage and fury and destruction that God is capable of that we read about in so many stories, it would be perfectly reasonable although unfortunate if God said, Look, I just claimed you as my people and you made an oath, and my last direct words to you were commands about how to behave and how we would move forward as a new people, and we made a pretty big deal about it. Did you forget all that? And in a move that only emotionally manipulative people might use some would add, “Do I mean that little to you?”
But God does none of the above. Because from the beginning God has been seeking and hungry for a relationship based on trust, shared goals and desires, and a willingness for us to listen. We promised! We took an oath. Remembering God's faithfulness, God changed his mind and did not let his wrath burn against the Israelites.
Today's story is not really about Aaron, or the Israelites, or even the bad behavior. That rendering leads us down the path of blame and shame. For a million reasons, God's newly formed community did not remember and believe God's promise. The fear of not being taken care of is a trauma response. The worry that love won't last, that love comes at too steep a price, that food and shelter will not be here tomorrow – those are natural feelings that happen to communities as well as individuals. Wanting more, never being satisfied, constant worry, all combined are a trauma response. Also, the relationship with Yahweh had never been created before so the people didn't have a model to go by, they didn't have a pattern to look for, and they had no way to imagine that because of God's promise they would continue moving forward.
Christians believe a deep promise also. When we want to draw closer to God we ask ourselves to remember. Our two sacraments repeat this request. When we serve the Lord's Supper we repeat Jesus' words, “Do this remembering me.” When we baptize someone we ask everyone to remember their own baptism and the promises that were made then.
When we want to get through a particularly hard period we are resilient if we are able to remember a time when we got through something like that before. The most important lesson I learned in music was from a time when I totally screwed up a blind audition and none of the accolades came my way – but the judge said “Good recovery.” I use that story all the time because I need it so much!
I'm not about to equate Aaron's bad behavior at any level to any of our behaviors. But Americans are anxious right now. And we're angry, and confused, and feel betrayed, abandoned, and we're scared. I believe that the state our country is in right now is a perfect storm of situations we never could have imagined. COVID is almost the easy part because it's nature and science, and it's not caused by humans. The continuation of it, the eradication of it, and the way we will get past it is all reliant on humans. But the destruction of civility, endless loss of justice, and the continual incomprehensible and truly extraordinary level of discourse from one human to another, and the destruction of our planet is caused by humans. As an aside, a scientist being interviewed on 60 Minutes about the greater scientific community's consensus about humanly caused global warming “there is about as much international scientific consensus about it as there is for gravity.” Our collective anxiety in this country is a trauma response.
We need now, to remember all those times that God has been there for us, and what the promise of Jesus means to us. We need to hang on to that promise. I believe that this story of Aaron and the Israelites choosing the lesser path in the absence of what they truly wanted, is because they could not imagine, could not conceive of what they had never seen before – God who deeply needed a relationship with creation. We have a God who will do, and has done, everything, in order to have a relationship with us. We aren't called to love God, follow God, and listen to God out of guilt. We are called to love and follow and listen to God because God first loved us. We love and follow and listen from an outpouring of love. 1 John says “19 We love because he first loved us.”
I think the newness and incomprehensible place we find ourselves in in this country is just like the new place the Israelites found themselves in. Everyone is in that new place. There is no one who is not affected by the state of this country. With unbelievable, with new, comes opportunity to bring our greatest hopes to life because the promise from Exodus, is continued in the promise of Christ. We have been told, “17…if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17)
Never have the words from Isaiah felt more true: “18 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19I am about to do a new thing.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)
To God be the glory.
Whose People Are They?
Reverend Debra McGuire
October 11, 2020