Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The first lesson designated for this Lord’s Day begins on a discouraging note. Last time we heard God speaking to the people from the mountain. He spoke to them the ten commandments. Jewish tradition calls this event at Sinai the great revelation. By this term it means that God came out of hiddenness to speak directly to the people. He declared himself to be God, their God, the God who brought them out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

We saw further that God made a covenant with them. He wants to be their God and he wants them to be his people. To belong to the Lord of the universe as his very own people! Can we imagine a greater privilege? There is no greater privilege. But even before Moses descends from the mountain, even before he presents to them the two stone tablets on which the ten commandments have been inscribed with God’s own finger, they want out. In popular idiom, we may say: even before the ink is dry, they want to tear up the documents. How did something so promising, so auspicious, go so terribly wrong?

We’ve noted before that the events that happened in Israel’s past were written down as warnings for us. This episode in Israel’s past should certainly be counted as one of them. It is worthwhile for us to consider it, because what it shows us about the hearts of the people of Israel gives us insight into our own hearts. And in arriving at those insights, we see come to see our need for God’s grace, for the grace that heals our hearts.    

The people are left by themselves. Moses, the one who has been leading them, has gone. He is on top of Mount Sinai receiving the law from God. But the longer he is away, the more anxious they become. Finally, they go to Aaron, Moses’ brother and next in command, and in their anxiety say: “You have to help us. We’ve been waiting for this Moses fellow. But we don’t know what happened to him.” We can almost hear the quavering in their voices.   

We know that a child that is left by itself becomes distressed. It soon begins to cry. It is insecure without the presence of its mother. Only when the mother returns, reassures the child with her smile, and embraces it in her arms is the child comforted again.

There is in fact an arresting passage in Isaiah that depicts salvation in just this way. “In all their distress, he too was distressed, and he saved them. In his love and compassion for them, he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them all the days of old” (63:9).

To be sure, the distress of her child does distress the mother. But it does not overwhelm her. She can respond to it effectively and restore calm to the child. But the people of Israel do not wait long enough for Moses to return to discover this about their God. They demand a surrogate, and they demand it now. And they look to Aaron to provide it for them.

Several years ago, author Edwin Friedman was very popular for his books on leadership. What distinguishes a good leader, an effective leader, from a bad and ineffective one? If we were asked this question, our response may be: confidence, courage, conviction, emotional intelligence, vision, among other traits. And those are all good answers. But according to Friedman, the most important trait of a good leader is this: he is able to regulate his own anxiety. When a group or organization is in crisis, anxiety spreads. Anxiety is a highly contagious emotion. An effective leader is sensitive to it, but is careful not to catch it. For he has to be the non-anxious presence the people need in times of crisis.

Based on Friedman’s criteria, Aaron fails miserably. He does not prove to be the non-anxious presence the people need. On the contrary, he allows himself to be infected by their anxiety. As a result, he cannot act decisively, but can only react. He can do nothing else than to capitulate to their demand.

We have all seen bad leaders run an organization into the ground. We have seen some bring their people to ruin. What Aaron does in giving in to the demand of the people is to expose them to grave danger. Recall the first two commandments: “You shall have no other gods besides me.” “You shall not make for yourself an idol.” And yet Aaron asks the people to give to him their gold jewelry, so that he can melt it, form it into a mold, and cast it into an idol. He then presents to them the surrogate they demanded in the form of a golden calf.  Perhaps it is a symbol of Apis, the Egyptian bull god. Whatever it is, by worshipping it, the people of Israel broke the first, second and possibly the third and the seventh commandment. And not only is Aaron complicit in the sin of the people, but actively and deliberately leads them into it. In the words of the Psalmist: “They exchanged their glorious God for an image of a bull, which eats grass” (106:20).

We stand aghast at the spectacle of God’s people worshipping the golden calf. We are indignant at them for turning away from their God to offer sacrifices to an idol. How could they break faith with their glorious God like this? Is this how they repay God after all that God had done for them? But let us pause to reflect on our own lives: are we really all that different from them? When God seems absent, when God delays in coming down from the mountain to meet us in our need, do we not also go in search of a surrogate? Do we not also turn to something else than God to self-soothe in our most anxious moments? The temptation to search for surrogates remains constant throughout our lives. In succumbing to it, we too are committing the sin of idolatry, just as the people of Israel in our lesson. But God wants us to bring our anxieties to him. God wants to be the source of our comfort and peace. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” as the Apostle Paul tells us in Philippians 4:6-7.     

God does indeed come down from the mountain, only it is not to comfort the people, but to threaten his wrath against them. The great Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel has defined God’s wrath as wounded love. However else we may understand God’s wrath, it certainly at least includes that. Indeed, we can hear this woundedness in God’s heart in the language he uses to refer to the people. He turns to Moses and says: Go down, Moses, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt have become corrupt.” Notice your and not my. The people have not been loyal to God. They have not wanted to be God’s people, and God is only acknowledging it here. They are stiff-necked, which means they are fundamentally rebellious. And God has had enough. He commands Moses to leave him alone so that his wrath may burn against them and destroy them. Then he will begin anew with Moses and his descendants, making out of them a people for himself.

It is a strange, not to say disturbing, speech we hear from God. What are we to make of it? Old Testament professor Jason DeRouchie sees the command as an indirect means God uses to call Moses to pray. Moses is a prophet, and in the Bible God called the prophets to perform two functions: to preach to the people for God, and to pray for the people to God. With the words, “let me alone, that I may consume them,” God is asking Moses to do what God himself promised never to do: “He will not leave you or destroy you” (Deut. 4:31). It rouses Moses to action. Moses stands in the breach before God, to turn away his wrath from destroying Israel (Ps. 106:23). Even when God commanded him not to intercede for the people, Moses is unrelenting in the discharge of his prophetic function, and the result is mercy.

Mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas. 2:13). That is good for us, because strict divine justice would mean the end of God’s people. But the good news is that God is faithful to his promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And we never have to fear that he will not fulfill them. Jesus Christ is our pledge and guarantee here. He stands in the breach for us. He is able to save completely those who go to God through him, because he lives forever to make intercession for them (Heb. 7:25).                

Nevertheless, there is a warning to which we have to be careful to listen here. We learn that delay is a problem for God’s people. We can put up with it, at least for a while. But when it lasts longer than we consider to be reasonable, we react. But delay is more than a problem for us. It’s a source of spiritual danger, as we have seen. In this regard, we are reminded of a parable that Jesus tells in Luke 12. There the master of the house goes on a long journey and tells his manager to look after his servants. The manager waited patiently for his return, at least at first. But there is a delay. The manager begins to think to himself: “my master is surely taking a long time.” He then begins to beat the servants and get drunk. But then the master returns at a day when the manager does not expect him, and he paid the consequences.  

Or consider the parable that Jesus tells in our gospel lesson today. There is a period of delay between the day when the king sent out the invitations and the day of the wedding banquet itself. But when the servants went out to escort the guests to the banquet, they find them doing other things, one on his farm, another at his business. These recipients of the king’s invitation did not put up with the delay, and they paid the consequences.    

No doubt many of us are in a state in which we find the people of Israel today. Certainly, the pandemic has made this state common among very many. There has been a delay. God has not come down from the mountain to meet us in our need, and we don’t know where he is. And we feel in our hearts the tug to go in search of a surrogate to comfort us in our anxiety, to fortify us in our fear and insecurity.

There is an old saying: knowing the real enemy is half the battle won. Our hearts are inconstant, unstable, easily pulled and lured away from God, especially when we are unsure of where he is, when he does not seem to be there when or in the way we demand him to be. When we know this about our hearts, we are more inclined to see our need for God’s grace, for the grace that heals our hearts. Amen.  

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