The God Who Shows Mercy
Exodus 32:1-14 October 12, 2014
Rev. David J. Clark
The Hebrew’s generation-long journey through the wilderness reveals truths about what happens for most of us on our spiritual journeys. For example, we have seen how like us, they are consumed with anxiety whenever adversity hits. They get caught between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army and they declare that God doesn’t exist and turn on their leader and each other. The same thing happens when food stores are depleted and when they run out of water. Every time God provides. The lesson seems to be: watch out in times of adversity–it is a time to take steps forward in faith instead of shrinking away from it. God has been with you time and again and will not abandon you now even if you are up against the toughest stuff of life: a bad diagnosis, a job loss, a broken heart or even the results of your own mistakes finally catching up to you. Learn from the Israelites; trust in the God who makes a way out of no way, who provides when all seems lost, who surprises you with unexpected blessings.
When God Seems Absent
Moses had been on the mountain with God for forty days receiving all the instructions we read about between Exodus 21 and 31. A lot of the material includes mind-numbing details such as what to do if your ox should gore your neighbor and how priests should dress and wash their feet. Moses had been gone so long getting these instructions that the people thought maybe he’d died up there and God had abandoned them at the foot of this strange glowing and heaving mountain.
Don’t be surprised if on your spiritual journey there are long periods when you don’t feel the presence of God, when Spirit seems distant, remote, inaccessible, when you don’t seem to be getting much out of your spiritual efforts and you become convinced that continuing on in faith is foolish and you should look for something else to feed your spirit. I’m sure if you’ve been at this for any period of time, you know what I’m talking about. It feels like your prayers bounce off the ceiling and go nowhere. You are crying out to God so you do everything you know to do such as praying and going to church and making sacrifices and trying everything you can to be a good person and it doesn’t seem to matter, you just can’t whomp up that feeling of spiritual closeness. It is a natural and normal part of the journey. Just don’t quit the journey because you have entered into one of these patches; hang in there.
Mother Teresa had one mystical experience that called her into service and for the rest of her life, she longed for another one. She prayed, she felt a lack of spiritual feeling, but she kept on working and serving. Her private thoughts often went to despair about the absence of God; yet she hung in there and God was so present in her work ministering to the least of least, caring for the dying and giving healing of body and soul. To all of us, it was obvious that God was so present in her life, but to her God felt absent–she just had a hard time seeing it.
The God who promises to never leave you will sometimes feel absent, you will have a hard time sensing anything or feeling anything; but hang in there. When you are faithful, God can work amazing things in your life, helping people, inspiring them, leading them, even when God doesn’t feel close at the moment. Maybe if you learn to see with fresh eyes, you will discover that you’ve never been alone. As long as you remain in relationship to community, you are not alone; God is with you.
Fashioning a god Who Obeys You
When God feels absent, the people approach Moses’ brother, Aaron, begging for something to worship and inexplicably he caves in to their demands without a hint of resistance. Seeking to please the crowd instead of doing what is right, he violates the first and second commandments and fashions a calf from people’s melted jewelry and the people declare “these are our gods.” Somehow they look at one calf and say “These are our gods,” making it plural. Perhaps this underscores the notion that what they are really resisting is the notion of one God who makes demands of them.
One cannot miss the point that very soon after God starts issuing commandments the people bailed on this God in search of a new one; one who wouldn’t demand anything of them, one who wouldn’t call upon them to lead a life that is concerned with the well-being of others. They wanted a god they could control, that would be at their beck and call, who was there simply to serve them and make their lives better without making a single demand on their lives. What Aaron came up with was the golden calf, a baby bull. Seems to me that faith that makes God your servant instead of you being God’s servant is going to be a lot of bull.
They substituted a glittery model of a bull who eats grass for the architect of the universe. They even revised their story to make it fit: “This bull brought us out of Egypt.” Sort of like the bull people tell us about being a self-made person. It’s a bunch of bull on every level. He didn’t call himself into being. He benefited from caregivers, providers, teachers, the sacrifices of people who made their society and culture one where he has the opportunity to flourish. And a God who makes all life possible, all love, all beauty. So don’t go around revising the story that cuts God out because all you are going to wind up with is a bunch of bull.
Worship of the shiny, gold. Jesus later say cannot worship gold and God. Shiny gets our attention instead of substance. Imbue it with magical powers but God is more about substance of relationships, of peace of mind.
Fred Craddock is one of my favorite preachers. He talked once about greyhound dogs, the kind that chase after those mechanical rabbits at the races. Fred said that his niece buys some of those dogs after they are finished racing. One day he saw a dog lying in the den. There was a toddler in the family just pulling on its tail, and another kid who had his head on that dog’s stomach, using it for a pillow. The dog just seemed so happy. Fred started talking to the dog. “Are you still racing?”
“No. No,” the dog said, “I don’t race anymore.”
Fred said, “Do you miss the glitter and excitement of the track?”
”No.” said the dog.
“Well, what was the matter? Did you get too old to race?”
“No, I still had some race in me.”
“Well, what then? Did you not win?” I asked.
“I won over a million dollars for my owner.”
”Well, what was it? Bad treatment?”
“Oh no,” the dog replied, “they treated us royally when we were racing.”
“Did you get crippled?”
He said, “I quit.”
“Yes,” he said, “I quit.”
“Why did you quit?”
“I discovered that what I was chasing not really a rabbit and I quit.”
He looked at me and said, “All that running and running and running and running, and what was I chasing? It wasn’t even real.”
Are the things you spend your life chasing after real or are they glittery golden calves? Will they endure beyond your last breaths on this earth? Are the things you are pursuing with your time, your thoughts, and your energy real or are you caught up in a game of trivial pursuits? Are you working on your soul so that you can have joy and peace no matter your circumstances?
No Zap Button
Yahweh is hurt and upset by the way the people strayed after this idol of their own creation and God’s finger starts inching closer to the delete button on the entire project and threatens to wipe the people out. God and Moses sound like parents upset with a wayward child. God says to Moses, “Your people that you brought out of Egypt” have gone astray. But Moses intervenes on their behalf; “No, your people whom you have led out of Egypt have gone astray, but don’t let it all end here, this way.” Moses changed God’s mind. Wait, what? I was taught that God is unchanging. I was told that God had everything that ever happens all scripted out from the beginning of time. But clearly, what I was told doesn’t jive with the way God is presented in scripture. What we learn from this is that there isn’t a script but a flow that God works with no matter what happens and the orientation of this God is ultimately toward grace and mercy instead of vengeance and punishment. That is, when we mess up, the Almighty isn’t going to press the button that zaps us, God is going to say, “Okay, that was bad, but if you want to get back on the right track, here is a way forward. God’s not into your destruction, but your redemption.
When Moses comes down from the mountain he discovers the horrors of just how far his people have deviated in such a short period of time. Not only had they abandoned Yahweh, they had abandoned morality.
Moses confronts Aaron brother to brother. “How did this happen; I left you in charge?” “Moses, you know how evil these people are—what else could I have done”? Then Aaron adds insult to injury by lying to his brother: “Moses, they threw the gold into the fire and out jumped the calf.” Here was the moment for personal integrity– owning up to the truth—and Aaron missed the moment. Aaron lets fear take over his life.
My friend Bill says that there are moments of personal integrity that test who we are–denied, they cast a long shadow on the rest of life. We do not have to be afraid of the truth. Have we all had the experience of failing to tell the truth, and experiencing how that very thing clouds our lives, and locks us into a story we know is false. Have we also experienced how it feels finally to have things out in the open?—truth does prevail, even if the initial consequences feel harsh. I find it helpful to learn from this story that we follow the God who gives people another chance after they’ve messed up; if only we could follow suit.