Last week we talked about the Passover as the meal signifying Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt. Remember the way the rabbi described it? “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!.” The story of Passover is a microcosm of the larger liberation project God launched for the whole creation, summed up in Jesus’ meal with his disciples. In the communion meal, Jesus announces deliverance from human slavery to sin and death through the shedding of his own blood—the lamb given for his people. That’s how we summed up the Christian message: “They killed him, he won, let’s eat!”
But while we talked last week about what God frees his people from, this week’s text is really about what God frees his people for. What is freedom for?
For the answer, we have to go back a little further. Remember the beginning of the story, when God created humans and gave them the vocation of being his co-regents of creation, to be priests in the temple he has created, mediating and taking care of the creation. That was their mission and they were free to take express it in any way they saw fit, so long as they did not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and circumvent God’s wisdom, which is only given to human beings through relationship with him. They were “naked and unashamed” – which is like the freedom a toddler has when he strips naked in the front yard and runs through the sprinklers – a joyous freedom to experience the life God intends in its fullness.
But the humans abused the freedom God gave them and ate that which was forbidden to them. Instead of being free, they became enslaved to sin and death. But God set about the task of redeeming them by starting over with another family – the family of Abraham. God made a covenant with old Abraham, that his descendants would be numerous, a “great nation” and that through his family all the families of the earth would be blessed. God offered Abraham a deal – a chance to be his agent in setting the whole creation free – and Abraham took it.
We then read the Joseph story together, the story of how Israel survived in Egypt because of Joseph and then settled there, fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham by becoming numerous. But their numbers became a threat for Pharaoh, and he ordered genocide as population control. God sent Moses, a child saved from certain death, to be their liberator and lead them to freedom. The drama of the Passover meal recounts their flight from slavery to freedom through the sea and into the wilderness.
In short, what we’ve seen so far is that God is keeping his promises. He sets his people free so that they can fulfill the mission they were created for—to be God’s covenant people, the people through whom God will redeem his whole creation. They are, in other words, set free for a mission – to be God’s chosen people, a light to the other nations of the world, and the family through whom all the nations would be blessed and brought back into God’s covenant family.
In Exodus 19, God grants the covenant promise to the Israelites at Mount Sinai (19:4) – “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagle’s 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. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” In other words, they will be what God created them to be! Real freedom found in obedience to the God who set them free!
In chapter 20, God gives them the ten commandments – the outline of the covenant. The commandments mark them as God’s people – they are to be faithful to God and faithful to one another (which is the basic outline of the commandments). These are the boundaries, but within them there is great freedom to live out their vocation.
But that brings us to chapter 32 – which is a real crisis moment in the story. What will Israel do with its newfound freedom? If only the story had stopped with Israel running to freedom through the Red Sea and into the sunset, happily ever after. That would be the made for Hollywood version – a free people enjoying their freedom. It would be a very satisfying American ending.
But in today’s text we learn that the first thing the Israelites do, like Adam and Eve long before them, is to abuse the freedom God gave them and, like Adam and Eve, they make gods of and for themselves. Moses has been up on the mountain getting the commandments from God and he’s been gone a long time – 40 days and nights. The people had relied on Moses to be their messenger from God, to intercede for them, but in his long absence they began to get restless. They go to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and say, “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 don’t know what has happened to him.”
Notice that they give Moses the credit! In my research on this text, one of the things that struck me was that I used to think they were simply replacing worship of God with worship of an idol. Verse 5, however, indicates that Aaron called to people to have a “festival to the Lord” (to YHWH).
What is actually taking place here? The people have equated Moses with God. The implication, then is that when he is missing, God is missing. In their impatience, they want to elevate another messenger to lead them. So, they make a golden bull or calf to “go before” them and bow down to it. They haven’t even read the first and second commandments yet, and they are already violating them. They need a tangible representative of God and they exercise their freedom to create one.
God had given Israel access to his very presence – a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead them. Like Adam and Eve, they were literally walking with God beside them. In fact, God was at that very moment giving Moses instructions to build a tabernacle so that they would have God’s presence with them always. God had invited Israel into a relationship, to be his family, his people.
But instead of becoming attached to God, Israel became too attached to a human leader and now, in his absence, they became attached to a thing. They created a substitute for the real God – a golden calf, a symbol widely used for pagan gods in Egypt and Canaan. With Moses absent, his brother Aaron steps into the limelight and acts like the kind of leader the people want (interesting that they preferred a golden calf over Aaron himself as the new messenger, but that’s a study for another time!). “Bring me all your gold,” Aaron commands the israelites – gold that they had plundered from Egypt as a sign of God’s favor – and the people get exactly what they want—the god of their choosing.
The freedom to worship and be in relationship with the God who had saved them had been surrendered for a cheap substitute. We’re still doing it today. We have a tendency as humans to become attached to leaders and things, imbuing them with divine qualities and ignoring their flaws. We make an idol of the messenger instead of listening to the one who gave the message in the first place. It’s the culture of celebrity and we begin to think that the messenger has the ability to save us.
The problem is, however, that when the people are the ones who make the messenger, the messenger tends to speak only what the people want to hear. They substitute the word of the messenger for the Word of God. The freedom to be in relationship with God ourselves is sacrificed and we begin to live our faith vicariously through the messenger we created.
We see this all the time. A celebrity preacher gains a massive following by telling people what they want to hear. He can’t ever speak the real truth of God, however, because he will lose followers. A congregation gets too attached to their pastor and when he or she leaves they leave the church behind, believing that they can only get God’s Word through him or her. People then church hop until they find another golden preacher who will tickle their ears. We devote ourselves to various gurus and authors who tell us what they think the Bible says and we hold them in such high esteem that we don’t feel the need to read it for ourselves. It’s seductive for those golden leaders, too. We can begin to believe we’re all that and a bag of chips.
God won’t have it, however. God set his people free for a reason and it is to God that our true loyalty and allegiance belongs. He is the one who delivered us from slavery and in him alone is our hope found. Idols always disappoint because they are false gods, prone to tumble off of pedestals and eventually ground into powder like that calf would be. God invites his people to use their freedom to commune directly with him—to accept no substitutes!
And that brings us to Moses. While his people have been impatient and want to fill in the gap left by their absent leader, Moses demonstrates what a true messenger of God looks like—one who remembers the covenant. He has been up on the mountain for 40 days and nights—a very long time—receiving the Law (which is more than the 10 commandments, but instructions for building the tabernacle and community life). Moses is communing with God virtually face to face. They are engaging in a dialogue with give and take, just like Moses had done when he was called at the burning bush. They know each other well, and can there be any better qualification for a leader than knowing God well?
“Go down the mountain at once,” God says to Moses. Your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted badly.” Notice the word play – same attitude as that of the people—it’s all on Moses. It kind of reminds me of what parents do: when a kid does something well, he’s “my son,” when it’s something bad, “It’s your son.”
But then God says, “Let me alone so that my anger might burn hot against them. As for you,” he says to Moses, “I will make of you a great nation.” God offers Moses the same deal he gave Abraham – a chance to start over without the hassle of leading these stubbornly sinful Israelites.
It had to have been a tempting deal. We wouldn’t blame Moses if he had taken it—plenty of messengers have done so. When it gets tough, when it seems like the situation won’t change, it’s easy to think of greener grass with different people.
But Moses is not that kind of messenger—Psalm 106:6 says that God would have destroyed the people, “had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before him, to turn away [God’s] wrath from destroying them.”
Moses turns the tables on God, quoting back to him his own words. “O Lord, why does your anger burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt?” He appeals to God’s reputation: What will the Egyptians say if you brought these people out here just to kill them? But lastly, and most importantly, Moses reminds God of the covenant – “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how you swore to them by your own self…” And then, in a stunning statement, Exodus says, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on his people.”
Amazingly, God is open to what Moses has to say. God takes the relationship seriously (same as Abraham). His prayer is effective. God responded to the priestly intercession of one of his people. The messenger is not only bringing God’s Word before his people, he also brings his people before God. He stands in the gap, which is the mission for which God frees his people.
It’s not an easy place to be. Being a bridge between God and his people is a difficult calling. Remember, after all, bridges are made to be walked on and driven over! But, in effect, Moses demonstrates that this is the kind of priestly intercession that God’s people were made for. This people whom God had released from slavery were free to now be the conduit of blessing and intercession between God and the nations of the earth. It would not be easy, but God’s faithfulness would insure the mission would be carried out from them to Jesus to us, his church. We’ve been set free to stand in the gap.
The true messengers of God do this difficult work. They stand in the gap for their families, their friends, their churches, their nation, even for their enemies. They stand in the gap by praying like Moses, pleading for their people while enhancing God’s reputation. They are more often on their knees than anywhere else.
People are looking at our country, our denomination, our culture and are manufacturing all kinds of messengers, messengers like Aaron, that will assuage their impatience and anxiety. But God invites his people to prayer – the kind of prayer that is born out of a deep relationship with God and that enters into a dialogue with the creator. It’s the kind of prayer where God looks you in the eyes and says, “We are friends.”
This story really got to me while I was working on it. I took a couple of days up at the Bauman’s cabin to study and I had a whole day with it—a very powerful day. As I read this story, I began to think—you know, unlike Moses I am pretty good with words. I am really good at bringing the Word of God down from the mountain, down from the pulpit. I kind of like it when people talk about me in terms of endearment, like the golden calf. Sometimes, like Moses, however, I can get angry and want to force people to choke on their idolatry.
But have I stood in the gap for my people? Have I committed my life to prayer for you, for this church, for our world? See, like Moses, everything begins with the leader. You can’t lead people where you yourself haven’t been. My prayers have been too small. My relationship with God has been more boss to worker than friend to friend. Moses came back from his meetings with God with his face shining from the encounter. That’s the kind of messenger I want to be—one who is constantly in the gap.
To get there, I am committing myself to more concentrated times of prayer. In this season of uncertainty in the country and in the wider Church, it’s the best I can do. I am committing myself to stand in the gap for you, for my family, even for the denomination which makes me furious at times.
I wonder if you will join me?
Narrative Lectionary Podcast Episode 235, “The Golden Calf”