This morning’s story from Exodus has a weird number of parallels with teen movies from the eighties, for some reason. Do y’all recognize this basic plot structure? Parents are going to go away for an overnight trip or something, leaving the less-than-popular but responsible kid in charge. Somehow word gets out about it to the kid’s peers, and before you know it there’s a party. Responsible kid decides to join in because, hey, it’ll make him look cool. Then the parents get home early, find the party happening, and it hits the fan.
Now, I get the feeling that directors of those films weren’t looking to Exodus for an outline for their stories, but the parallels are there. But of course, this is Exodus, so there are a few more things going on than a plot to party while mom and dad are away. See, last week we got the first part of this story, and then we skipped the dozen chapters in between to get to this week’s reading. So what happened in between?
First, the people after hearing the Ten Commandments told Moses that God was waaay too terrifying to listen to, so he (Moses) should listen to God, and then tell the people what God said. It makes sense. So Moses went up to God on the mountain and listened to the whole Law, this covenant that God was making with the people of Israel that would tell them what their life together in the Promised Land would look like. After God told Moses all that, Moses came back down the mountain and told the Israelites everything God had said, and the Israelites promised to obey the whole thing. Everything in the Law, they would do—so they said.
Well, after all that, Moses was called up the mountain to dwell with God and get further instructions. Aaron is left in charge. Moses, it turns out, was gone a long time. Forty days, long time. And the people were getting nervous. What had happened to him? Did God kill him in that thundercloud that shook the mountain above? Who was going to lead them now? So they turned to Aaron, and immediately started breaking commandments.
“Make us gods!” they demanded. They were afraid and uncertain about what was going to happen next, and they needed gods they could see, gods they could touch, gods they could carry around and know with certainty that they were there. This would have been Aaron’s opportunity to remind them of the covenant they swore to obey just a month ago, maybe speak some words of patience or get everyone to calm down—but instead, Aaron immediately went along with it. He gathered up the gold and crafted a golden calf, and built an altar to it. And then he declared there would be a festival to the Lord! The people would have what they wanted, and Aaron could pretend this wasn’t really idolatry because the calf was helping the people worship God!
Yeah, it didn’t work out so well.
In a sudden scene change we’re back up at the top of the mountain where God interrupts whatever conversation was going on with Moses to tell him what was happening. But God does this weird thing. God calls the Israelites “your” people, whom “you” brought up out of Egypt. These people moved so quickly from promising to follow the covenant forever, to immediately breaking the very first commandment God gave them. What hope was there for them? God got so angry that God promised to absolutely destroy the people and start all over again with Moses.
It’s not a good look for God. And it’s probably uncomfortable for us, too, to read God talking like that. But maybe, let’s just go with it for now. Even if we’re not sure what to do with parts of scripture, we can still find God teaching us something in it.
Because this is the moment when Moses shines. Moses came a long way from the stuttering shepherd begging God to pick someone else to go to Egypt and lead the people out. Moses turned to God and did an amazing thing: he interceded on behalf of his people. He flipped the script on God, and told God to remember the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. He begged God not to destroy the people.
And then the craziest part happens. God relents. God, whose divine will was set on destroying Israel for its sins, heard Moses’ prayer and turned back. God let the pleas of a human being change God’s mind. God was willing to turn toward mercy because a human being asked God to. I think that’s a pretty amazing thing to witness, and an even bigger lesson for us to learn. See, we sometimes get caught on “the God of the Old Testament” as this angry, vengeful, hateful being ready to smite people. But look at what happens here! God’s mind can be changed! And it would happen again and again that God would show us that if we ask, God turns away from disaster.
Because if you think about it, we are a lot like the Israelites, down at the bottom of the mountain, dancing and reveling around our golden calf even though we’ve made promises to work toward God’s kingdom. We ignore God’s commands for us to love our neighbors and our enemies. We don’t extend the same dignity and worth to others that we expect for ourselves. We don’t extend forgiveness, opening the door to wholeness. We delight in revenge stories and strongman tactics; we are more concerned with whether our bank accounts are full than our neighbor’s bellies. And our sin isn’t limited to a little patch of ground at the bottom of some desert mountain. It’s all over the world.
So it would make sense if God wanted to blot us out of the book of life. It would make sense if God saw how we insult and demonize people we disagree with, how we think borders are limits to human compassion, how we close our eyes to suffering because it doesn’t affect us; how we take the world-changing power of God’s love and turn it into a purely spiritual and utterly detached hope—it would make sense if God saw all this and decided to wipe us all out and start over.
“God, remember your promises that you made.”
Christ shows us the fullness of who God is. Faced with the utterly horrific nature of our sin, how it has bent us completely out of shape, God came in Christ to show us what to do about it. God met our cruelty and disdain, our petty legalism and partiality to the rich and successful, our utter brokenness and self-centeredness, and met us with love and forgiveness. Jesus looked at the very men who nailed his wrists to a crossbeam and said “forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” In Christ, we see that the way God turned from bringing disaster on Israel because of Moses’ prayer wasn’t some anomaly in God’s character. This is God’s character.
God will always relent. God will always forgive. God will always reach down into the muck and pull us up again so we can try another day to get it right. God will always remember God’s promises, and that is always good news to us.
And because of that—remember what I said last week and the week before about how when God does something, we’re called to imitate? Well, we’re called to imitate here too. Where we want to react with anger and rage, where we want to meet insults with bigger blows, where we want to lash out so that we feel better, God shows us how to relent. As God has forgiven us, we are called to forgive. As God has turned from giving us what we deserve, so we’re called not to give others what they deserve.
Remember the promises God has made to you. And remember the promises you’ve made to God in your baptism. Let’s imitate God, and let that remembering change how we act so that goodness and hope and forgiveness can change the world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.