(I preached this sermon three years ago at my church, and was tempted to preach it again. But then I sat down and thought about who all was present then and is still here now, and I decided, I'll redo this one when this lectionary text rolls back around in 2014.)
Have you every stood in line and watched the rollercoaster as it slowly climbs the big hill before going over into the abyss. The line you’re in while waiting for your turn creeps along as slowly as a steamy, tired July afternoon. First there’s boredom. Time passes. As you get closer; thoughts race through your mind. It seems that the hill is higher than it was at a distance. It takes about a day to get through that line. It’s just long enough for you to realize you want to be anywhere but on that rollercoaster. But you can’t back out – what weenie you would be. So, you face the executioner with much less courage than you’re showing. He fastens your safety bar over you and you and the 13-year-old behind you who is screaming bloody murder even though the ride has barely begun and everyone else gets buckled and begins the ascent. This is when time stops. You creep along, higher, and higher. You see the rest of the amusement park as it gets smaller and smaller below you. Creeping higher and higher, you enter the cloud bank. O when will we get over the summit, crash down to earth, die and be done with it. Higher, … oh … we’ve reached the top. The car up at the front goes over. It disappears. And then the next; only two more to our car. The next one disappears over the great expanse. When will this end. Could this go any slower?
What’s it like to wait for something?
In little baseball, I would look at the batting order taped to the fence. One, two, three … going down … ah nine – Tennant. Forever and day and a number of innings that seemed mathematically impossible went by. It was plenty of time to size up the opposing pitcher. It’s hard to believe a 12-year-old could be 7 ½ feet tall and throw a baseball 150mph. You’d think Sports Illustrated would have discovered him. I was unnerved when they had a ready made hole in the ground to bury the kids he hit in the head with one his frequent wild pitches. Up they go, and down. He seems to be getting faster and bigger. “Tennant you’re on deck.” O S---- (nope, can’t say that in church). Why does this bat feel like it weighs 40 lbs? And what’s that racket – oh, just my knees. Finally, the kid ahead of me strikes out. It seemed like three pitches would take less time. But, now, I am standing there staring at Nolan Ryan and I remember I insulted this kid in science class and he told me I’d get mine on the ball field, right below the chin. Does he recognize me in this helmet? When is he going to throw the ball? I can’t move a muscle. I am petrified.
What’s it like to wait for something?
What’s it like to be in a holding pattern? In basic training, we went to the reception station where we picked up uniforms, shined our boots, marched in formation and heard stories of how bad it was going to be when we went “down range.” They were going to introduce us to new experiences of pain. And we couldn’t wait to get there, and get it over with. But we had to wait. Worse. The hospital waiting room – waiting for the report from the surgeon. Success or failure? Will his face tell? Oh, how longer must we wait?
What’s it like to wait for something? What’s it like to go from childhood to old age in slavery, waiting for God to send a deliverer? The descendants of Jacob’s 12 sons whom we meet in the book of Genesis, the 1st book in the Bible, settled in Egypt. Those 12 families multiplied the way families do and prospered economically in Egypt. A couple of generations passed and the large family grew to be a small, rich nation. There was no waiting.
When all is good, we don’t wait for things. We’re caught up in success, joy, and prosperity. But, the new Pharaoh was not caught up in anything. He was Egyptian and he had no thought for Hebrew opulence. He took the small country, the people descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God’s chosen people. Pharaoh took their riches, and enslaved them and worked them in brutal conditions. All they could do was cry out to God and wait. How long oh Lord? This is the anguished cry of faith.
They found out how long, when God sent a deliverer – Moses. This stuttering, second brother performed mighty works of God including the parting of the ocean, and they weren’t waiting any more. They were moving. They followed him through the Red Sea. They followed him into the Sinai wilderness. They were on the go, headed to the Promised Land!
But you know what? Even when we’re moving, we can find ourselves waiting. After the thrilling victories, the bizarre wonders of the plagues and the spectacle of God’s parting of the sea, what came next was a whole lot of walking. Put down the left foot and then the right. Repeat. Haven’t we done this 10,000 times? Is today any different than yesterday? Nope. More walking. The nation of God’s chosen people became an eight-year-old on a long car trip. “Are we there yet?” What’s worse than slowly plodding along with countless miles ahead? Coming to a full stop with countless miles ahead. The interstate becomes a parking lot.
Moses said, “OK everybody, you wait here. I am going up on the mountain to talk to God, and I’ll come back down and tell you what he said.” Moses went up on the mountain. There were flashes of lightning and bellowing thunder. Nobody in Israel’s camp was bored. Nobody was waiting. Everyone was terrified. Then Moses came back, his face aglow, and there were important ceremonies. Some of the other leaders got to get closer to God. Everyone heard as Moses read the 10 commandments and everyone pledged to obey all the Lord had said. Then Moses went back up to get more instruction from the Lord. The cloud of the Lord’s presence covered the mountain. It was like a devouring fire. Oh no, no one was bored. No one felt the monotony of waiting. This was awesome and spectacular. How many people in history have seen something like this? They would be happy to stay down and wait and hear what Moses had to say. And that’s what they did. They sat at the foot of the mountain and waited. And waited. And Moses was gone for 40 days. Over a month, they waited.
What’s it like to wait for something?
Let’s leave Israel there at the foot of the mountain for a moment. They’re not doing anything anyway. They’re just waiting. They’ve done that before. We all have. Let’s talk about God.
When he put Adam in the Garden, he did so out of creative love. God was creating and admiring what he made. He made the ocean and saw that it was good. He made the plants and animals – oh, it was good! Then God said, “Let’s make human kind in our image.” That, my friends, was described by God as very good. Creative Love!
Then God invited the man he had made to join him in creation. God created the animals, and had Adam name them. Adam could make no claims about anything. He was a created being. Yet God invited him into a partnership. This was collaborative love. God includes people in His plan.
God also considers our needs. He saw that Adam was lonely. Adam had animals under his leadership. He had untainted fellowship with God. But he needed more, so God took his rib, and gave a partner. God, out his compassionate love for the man, created woman. Creative Love; collaborative love; compassionate love. Even after Adam and Eve sinned, God made a way for them. Even after their son Cain killed their son Abel, God protected him. Even after every human being turned away, except Noah and his family, God preserved the human race. Can God be defined, contained, captured, or summed up with a few words? I don’t know. Can love be defined, contained, captured, or summed up? Any love story will include some bumps and some pain. Any story of God is a love story because God is love. In his relationship with us, we ignore Him, reject Him, and turn from Him. He hurts because he loves us and sees how our sins bring us suffering.
Don’t miss the fact that in His love, God gets very angry. He did send the flood that wiped out life on earth. Following the story through Genesis and Exodus, we see numerous examples of how severe God’s punishment can be. God is harsh enough that we would fear Him and judge Him to be cruel. We must though remember that His anger is connected to and related to His love. From Eden to the flood to the tower of Babel to the Sinai wilderness and the traveling, waiting Israelites, God displays passionate love for people.
Speaking of those Israelites, let’s get back to them because they got tired of waiting. Moses must have gotten too close to God and died. Something happened. It had been 40 days. They were not going to wait anymore. Their impatience awakened in them just enough boldness to confront Moses’ weak-willed second in command, Aaron. He had no defense against the rush of the mob action. “We don’t know what’s happened to Moses. So, you make a god for us.”
Does that make any sense to you? The people did not have the educational framework to interpret their situation in scientific or logical terms. I don’t know that we do today. Our best and brightest logicians and physicists will be hard pressed to explain the whole Red Sea miracle. So, rational thought was not a resource. They had been slaves. They were led out of bondage by a poorly-spoken miracle worker. They walked through an ocean that conveniently parted for them and then swallowed their pursuers. Now, they were at a standstill in the desert waiting for the aforementioned mumbling Moses on whom they were completely dependant. And he had been gone for over a month.
If logic wouldn’t work – and it wouldn’t – they would turn to religion. But it had to be a religion of their own making. They had tried faith. In faith they followed Moses. In faith they committed to obey all the word he said God had given him up on the mountain. In faith, they were now here waiting. Just waiting. No more! They didn’t know about reason or scientific advancements, and faith had failed them. So, they’d create religion based on whatever god Aaron created for them.
His wellspring of creativity was dry and shallow. He collected everyone’s gold and fashioned a calf that looked remarkably like Egypt’s sacred bull and Canaan’s fertility gods. Thick as he was Aaron provided ample confirmations of his dimwittedness. Later on when Moses would confront him about being the point man in this direct violation of the first two of the Ten Commandments, his well-crafted excuse was “I dropped the gold in the fire and this calf popped out.” The people wrested control of their fate away from God and set up Aaron to be their fall guy because it was so obvious that he was a nincompoop.
Then the people partied!
Do you remember what we said about God? God is a passionately devoted lover of His people. When he gave the 10 commandments and led Moses to share them with the leaders and the people, food was also provided.[i] There is similar language used to describe this golden calf party. The people didn’t have a golden statue. They had the word of God. And they were invited to look at God. They were invited have dinner with God. It’s right there in Exodus 24. “They saw God. Under his feet was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. God did not lay his hands on the chief men of the people of Israel. They [saw] God and they ate and drank.”[ii] Fast forward ahead to the motley crew intimidating poor Aaron; they too ate and drank, but the verbs indicate a self-indulgent party. Previously, they ate and looked upon the face God. The meal was a holy experience; an act of worship. This time, staring at their statue of a baby cow, they were partying and celebrating their own ingenuity. No science; no faith; they would live with a religion of their own making that they could fully control.
Every love story includes some heartbreak. God was giving this law as a gift of his love, so His people whom he cherished would have peace, order, and prosperity. At the same time he was raging with righteous anger because he saw everything they did. God loves us too much to ignore us. He doesn’t always intercede the way we want Him to or when we want Him to. But, he always sees us. He’s always aware of our lives and interested in our lives. God broke off his dictation to Moses. His fury was piqued.
“Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they 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![iii]
Analysts make much of God’s pronouns. He calls Israel “your” people indicating that Moses is their leader. Why would God be so wishy-washy? When he recruited Moses for this job, he called Israel “My people.” Now, they’ve messed up, and they are Moses’ people. It’s like when a mom is fed up with her rambunctious, head-strong boy, she says to her husband, “Do you know what your son did today?” It’s not ‘our’ son; when he’s naughty, he’s ‘yours;’ when he’s adorable, he’s ‘ours,’ or maybe even ‘mine.’ God called Israel Moses’ people. He said, ‘I have seen how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation” (32:9-10).
Moses didn’t like that plan. It was a repeat of how God re-created when his people were mired in sin in the days of Noah. He started over with Noah’s family. Moses did not want to be this generation’s progenitor. He, if I may say it plainly, sets God straight.
“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? 12Why 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’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember 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.’“
What’s more out of bounds, arguing with God, or winning the argument? First, Moses reminds God that these are God’s people. They do not belong to Moses. Once he’s got the pronouns straight, Moses reminds God of Egypt. Because of course, God is terribly concerned about what the Egyptians think of him. His divine reputation is at stake and Moses doesn’t want to hear any Egyptian gloating and he knows God doesn’t want that either. Third, Moses reminds God that he made a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He’s got to keep his word. He is after all, God! How could God forget all of this? It’s a good thing Moses was there. He functioned as God’s personal assistant.
This all sounds inane, but it has been the fodder of Bible commentators for ages on end. Some think God was testing Moses to see if he would stand in the gap. God all along knew what he was going to do, but he wanted to see if Moses would speak on behalf of the people. Other scholars paint a picture of a capricious, diabolical God who intended evil until the real hero of the story, Moses interceded. There are theories beyond that.
This is a troubling narrative. If God is all-knowing, why did he need Moses to remind him of things? If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever – immutable as the theologians say – why does it say in Exodus 32:14 that he repented and changed his plans based on Moses’ impassioned argument? I hope you won’t be too frustrated when I state that I do not know those answers. Often, I read the Bible, pause, think, wonder, pray, and close it unsure of the answers to all my questions. This story would be for me one of those cases.
Even with that confession that I can’t answer all of the questions of the Golden Calf narrative, I do walk away with some conclusions. First, a big part of our faith is waiting. What we do while we wait, reveals what kind of faith we have. God’s people had been through a number of disorienting ordeals. But, they had also seen the evidence of God like few people in history. They knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was in control, that God heard their prayers, and that God loved them. They knew it, but it wasn’t enough. They wanted to dictate the terms of the relationship. Fed up with waiting, they broke the very first two rules God gave. If they were trying to force God’s hand, it worked. He did not destroy them as he said he wanted to do. But, he punished them severely. Many did die. The rest had to eat the golden calf. It was ground into dust and they were forced to consume it.
One of the lesser known figures in the New Testament is an old, righteous man named Simeon. His story is told in Luke 2:25-25. The Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he saw the Messiah with his own eyes. When Mary and Joseph brought their little boy Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to be blessed, the Spirit nudged old Simeon and said now is the time. He never questioned that the salvation of Israel was this little baby he held in his arms. Through tear-filled eyes, he said, “Master now you are dismissing your servant in peace … for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29-30a). After Jesus rose from the grave, and ascended to Heaven, the disciples huddled together in Jerusalem and waited. For 40 days, they waited – the same amount time the Israelites waited at the foot of the mountain. However, the disciples didn’t create a golden calf, they prayed. And after 40 days, at Pentecost, they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
A second conclusion I walk away with after reading of Moses and God and the golden calf is that God cannot be contained, explained, or controlled. God is real dynamic, unpredictable, relational, passionate, and interested in us. God knows what’s going on in our lives. Just as we are waiting for Him to step in, He’s waiting for us to invite him. He wants us to turn our attention off ourselves and toward Him.
Look at the two activities that took place in periods of waiting. Those who followed Moses saw more miracles and more spectacle than anyone before or since. It didn’t produce faith. Instead of trusting God they, decided to displace God. God responded with harsh punishment because His loving heart for them had been rejected. The disciples in the same period of waiting prayed and worshipped. God responded with a violent rush of wind that filled them with the Holy Spirit and empowered them to share the gospel and establish the first churches in history. God loves us and responds to us. That’s the kind of God He is.
This leads to a third conclusion. What we do, how we spend our waiting time, has an impact on the life we have with God. Those who grow in faith through prayer and worship in times of uncertainty will be filled with the love God. Those who dismiss God and turn away and reject Him fall are punished. I think most of the time he simply lets us suffer the consequence of his absence and our own mistakes. What if God had done nothing with the Israelites when they made that calf? They would have been overrun by Egypt or enslaved by one of the other powerful nomadic that dominated Sinai. As rough as their discipline seems, when it ended, they were still God’s people headed to the Promised Land. I believe the reason it went that way is as angry as God was, he still loved them.
He loves us. Sometimes in our walk, we have to wait upon the Lord. The period of waiting is our opportunity to worship, pray, and grow. When we take that opportunity we are ready for whatever God has next. Even as we wait, He sees, He loves, and He plans grand things for us. Together, in faith and trust, let us wait upon the Lord.