Sovereignty and Forgiveness

A sermon for Proper 23: Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

A lot has happened since Moses received the 10 Commandments. Moses, Aaron, and some others go to a meeting with God. Since then God seems to have gone away. Now Moses has been gone for 40 days or so. And so Israel does as she always does when challenged, she grumbles. Only this time she grumbles to Aaron. “Where is Moses?” “Is he dead?” “Now we are all alone (Bratt)!” “You do something for us, something we can see (Portier-Young).”

We know what happens. Aaron takes gold from Israel, perhaps the same gold given to them as a tribute as they left Egypt. He casts a golden calf, an idol. The people make a burnt offering, offer a sacrifice, and then a raucous celebration breaks out. God is furious. Moses isn’t down the mountain yet and already Israel has broken the 1st, and 2nd commandments and who knows what else. In fierce anger, God is going to destroy Israel and make Moses into a great nation. Using God’s words as his argument Moses challenges God:

“Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.”

“Remember your promise ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven.’”

“Do you really want to give Egypt a reason to speak evil of you.”

Moses calls Israel “your people.” As Israel’s defense lawyer he pleads “Do not do this.” And God changes the divine mind.

There are two scenes in this story 1. the making of the idol and celebration that follows and 2. God’s response, and Moses plea. Let’s take a closer look.

Yes, Aaron casts a golden calf. But is it really an idol, is it really another god? After the idol is made Aaron says: “These are your gods.” Notice ‘gods’ is plural; why plural if there is only one casting? Is the calf envisioned as an animal mount, perhaps a divine one, with a god, or even the Lord riding upon it? Such iconography is common in the ancient Near East (Gaventa and Petersen). Nowhere in the Old Testament do we find an explanation about the calf (Brueggemann). And there is the kappōret (Leviticus 16:6) or footstool build for God’s use in the Tabernacle (Kaiser Jr.). Perhaps the calf is the kappōret. Aaron also says, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” Note ‘Lord’ is all caps, if you go to the Hebrew it reads ‘Yahweh’ which indicates the feast and celebration is for or to God! Aaron also does what has been authorized to do! Back in chapter 20, an altar has been authorized, burnt offerings have been described, and offerings of well-being are defined (Exodus 20:24), these are exactly what wayward Israel is offering. On top of this in chapter 29 Aaron and his sons are consecrated as Priest to serve God and Israel. So Aaron is just doing what he has been ordained to do!

All this is a bit like a murder mystery. The story looks like it flows from front to back. However, some scenes that are connected are interrupted by other scenes, sometimes whole chapters. It is up to the reader to figure out what the sequence is.

Here there are two choices. The first is that this scene follows the fuller story of the ten commandments we read last week, which is followed by Israel’s consecration, so we have a real existential threat, Israel has simply broken her covenant with God. If this is the case then this may be a precursor of Israel’s behavior. In 2 Kings 23 (4-25) Josiah, one of the few faithful Kings of Israel, sets out to reform Israel. He destroys the idols, alters, holy poles, and priest of: Baal and Asherah, the gods of the sun, moon, and constellations, Molech, Astarte, Chemosh, Milconm, in places from Geba to Beer-sheba, Wadi Kidron, Topheth, Bethel, and Samaria. That is a lot.  Josiah commanded that the Passover be kept; which had not been done since the time of the Judges. Which means that not a single King of Israel, not one, not even David or Solomon, observed Passover!

The second choice is that this scene follows Aaron’s consecration, which emphasizes all the power, prestige, splendor, and wealth of the his newly established office. Which suggest that Aaron falls to the temptations of his office.

It is also possible to read the conflict as Moses vs. Aaron. This is a conflict that repeats throughout Israel’s history. We read about conflicts between Levites vs. Zadokites, torah priests vs. temple priests, Pharisees vs Sadducees, and Jews vs Greeks (Brueggemann).

Both stories have a common theme we should pay attention to. Israel is impatient with God, and Aaron seemingly goes down a path of pledging allegiance to God and the other gods who happen to be available. It sets in motion a behavior we see through all of Israel’s history. It ends with the complete destruction of the ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom. They have never been heard from or seen since. Later comes the exile of the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom; who do return to their homeland, but who live in an occupied land from then all the way until after the Second World War.

The competition between Moses and Aaron sets up a competition that is also seen throughout all Israel’s history until the 2nd complete destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. The Temple has never been rebuilt.

Both story lines are a warning about how decisions leaders and peoples make can have consequences that last not just three or four generation, but thousands of generations. These are stories that that rebuke any thought “Well this leader won’t be here for long, we can pick up again after this mess is over.” Neither story line is particularly hopeful.

Even Moses changing God’s mind reveals a continuing tension. We want, many people want, God to be infallible, and unchangeable. But what we have here in this story is a clear example of Moses changing God’s mind. Throughout all the Bible God is a strong demanding God, with no tolerance for foolishness, continually sentencing people to lots of fire, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth. God is a God of “sovereignty that will not be mocked.” At the same time, throughout the Bible we witness God’s unexpected, incomprehensible grace and mercy. God is a God of “mercy that forgives (Brueggemann).” A God who is infallible and unchangeable is easier to follow. You know the rules and rest is up to God, we aren’t responsible for anything. On the other hand, a merciful forgiving God calls us to be merciful and forgiving; and that makes us responsible for our inflexible sovereignty and how we give mercy away, or don’t.

Now, I want to be perfectly clear, there is no hidden implication here. I am not accusing any political leader or party of being self-sovereign or lacking in mercy and forgiveness. I am saying all political leaders and parties are; and have been. Moses, is no pure character. Born a slave, he is raised privileged, in the Egyptian royal house. He bravely returns to his people. Then he murders an Egyptian over lord. Instead of facing the corrupt repressive Egyptian system he flees to Midian. When God calls him to go back to help he people his favorite phrases are “Who am I?” and “Your people” which sound just like an exasperated parent speaking to their returning spouse “Do you know what your children did today!” In addition to all the political leaders, I am accusing all the people. In this story and throughout all of scripture in one way or another the people of Israel regularly break every commandment, starting by worshiping other gods all the way through violating Sabbath to coveting anybody’s everything. I include me; and I include you. We are all the wayward children of Israel and her kings, who do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.

The frightening vision is that we are living in dangerous times. Not because there are disagreements, but because we are more and more segregating ourselves into like thinking camps. We are less and less willing to put aside our differences and work for the good of all God’s people. Except for violence towards others, which some of many camps have demonstrated, ultra-liberal students literally shouting down an invited conservative speaker are no better than ultra-conservatives protesting the removal of their beloved but controversial monuments. If we cannot listen to someone who believes what we think is offensive we cannot learn the hardest lessons of life, that are so often spoken by the people we call “other.”

The hopeful vision is that Moses spoke up. Moses dared to argue with the most sovereign of all that is sovereign. The result was forgiveness and mercy. We too can speak up. We can risk arguing with our leaders. We can contribute to changing hearts. We can contribute to the restoration of forgiveness and mercy. The hopeful vision is we are still here. God has not abandoned us. Even though we may be walking through dark shadows we are not alone; the great shepherd is always with us. Look carefully, listen closely and you can see the signs. There are exhausted firemen continuing to fight massive wildfires to save homes and lives. There are police who run towards gun fire. There is the Paramedic sitting with a mortally wounded victim, unprotected from gun fire, so she will not die alone. There a stranger paying it forward for a single mother who is short at the grocery store checkout. There are stories of high school students who go out of their way to honor a somehow disable classmate. There the vagrant who sees someone drop a wallet, picks it up, sees it has a couple of hundred dollars in it, and traces the owner down and returns the wallet. There is much good in this world and it worth fighting for (Tolkien).

Like today’s story I think we are lead into a sort of tension; we are called to be aware of the opportunity to confront to sovereignty that will not be mocked and speak; and we are called to be aware of mercy that forgives and celebrate. And at all times we are to trust that our Lord really is right here, right now, and will be forever.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 23 A Exodus 32:1-14. 15 10 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Brueggemann, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Kaiser Jr., Walter C. New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary The Book of Leviticus. Vol. I. Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. Olivetree App.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Portier-Young, Anathea. Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14. 15 10 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

 

Remember

A sermon for Proper 23

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

It’s been devastating. Nothing, has gone as expected. Nothing, is as it should have been. Everything is gone; what was, is no more. What’s to be is worse than imagined, its unknowable. Shackled, he kneels in the ashes of annihilation; his bound shaman, marching out with other captives, falls to the ground; as he is crudely pulled up the Shaman whispers “Remember.”

For us, the last week has been about remembering. Last Sunday at 10:41 am Lilly Grace was born. I rejoiced in her birth; as I remembered her mother’s birth. Late Thursday afternoon we learned Michelle, Russell and Lilly Grace were at LeBohneur. Lilly Grace was not eating well, nor showing the results of feeding. By the time we arrive, she was getting fluids for dehydration, and IV antibiotics for as suspected urinary tract infection, and had a spinal tap, protocol to eliminate meningitis. Now it was time to intentionally remember. Even with some specifics, much was unknown, and generating all sorts of fearful imaginations. It was time to remember what was known; time to remember that in the midst of the unknown that in the midst of deep-deep fear you are never alone. It was time to remember that I, that we, that Michelle and Russell that Lilly Grace are beloved of God. As of Friday evening Lilly Grace was eating, and peeing and pooping. As of Saturday noon, her culture was still clear and a plan for discharge was formulating. As of this morning, they are home. It is still time to remember and give thanks for all the support and prayers; time to remember the once and future dreams of Sunday past, as fragile as they may seem. It is time remember.

This morning’s reading from Exodus, falls neatly into two parts: the making of an idol, and divine repentance. Both are stories of remembering, or not.

Last week, we heard the delivery of the Ten Commandments, and we left Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai as Moses goes to God’s presence for them, because they were so afraid of the thunder and lightning of the divine presence. In the intervening chapters, we read about all sort of laws and the divine instructions for: the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, the table for the bread of the Presence, lamp-stands, curtains, hangings, the bronze basin, additional lamps and oil. We read about priestly vestments: the Ephod, Breastplate, etc. We read about liturgy: ordination, daily offerings, incense, and so on. We read about a half shekel offering for ransom. Finally, we read about the calling of Bezalel and Ohiliab who are to use their skills to craft all God has given to Moses. There is a lot here. And all of it is given to Moses so Israel will remember that God is in their presence. Which sounds kind of odd, because one would think the pillar of cloud and fire, the crossing at the sea, sweet water, manna and dove and more water from the rock at Horeb would be easy to remember. You’d think they’d remember that Moses is on the mountain alone because Israel is terrified of being too close to God. Apparently not, after 40 days, that would be all the way back to September 2, the day after Labor Day, (Hoezee) Israel decides to take their future into their own hands.

So, they go to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and second in command, and ask him to “make gods for us, to go before us, because we don’t know what’s happened to Moses.” Aaron tells them to give him the gold they got from the Egyptians, as they were being freed from slavery.  (Fretheim 2972) He carves an image of a bull-calf, a symbol of Canaanite fertility, and an effort to control one’s existence, (Brueggemann 5765) and casts the molten gold around it. Then he proclaims “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Yahweh.”  (Strong’s Hebrew, 3068) So, yes, recognizing other gods is a violation of the recently received commandments, and so is making an idol, but Aaron still recognizes that Yahweh is God; why else proclaim a festival to Yahweh. What is he doing? The phrase “to go before” is used only to refer to divine messengers, so maybe Israel isn’t looking for another god, but a divine messenger. (Fretheim 2973)

Perhaps Aaron is trying to split the difference, trying to please the people, and at the same time keep the covenant. (Hoezee) It’s sadly ironic because what Israel and Aaron are trying to do is exactly what God is showing Moses how to faithfully do. (Brueggemann 5767) Still, Israel is disloyal by confusing a divine messenger with God and giving primary importance to the messenger. (Fretheim 2977) And to push their action over the top they rise up in revelry, a self-centered celebration, abrogating an earlier God centered celebration at the forming of the covenant.  (Ex 24:10) (Brueggemann 5768) Thus ends the first of this morning’s stories of remembrance; this one all about not remembering, or self-centered warped memories, either way God is forgotten.

Suddenly we are on the top of the mountain with Moses and God. God tells Moses “Look at what your people are doing! They are a stiffed necked people. Leave me alone, I’ll consume them and make a great nation of you.” I know this this conversation; more than once I have said to Angie “Look at what Your daughter did!” She would have none of it, ~ neither would Moses. The next thing to notice is that this is a court room drama. God has file a lawsuit accusing Israel of violating the covenant, and the consequence is to nullify the covenant; (Brueggemann 5769) which is far worse than annihilation it is removal from God’s presence, exclusion from  God’s care and concern. (Fretheim 2982)

Moses rebuts God’s command. He will not leave God alone. First he asks “What sense does this make, you only just saved them from slavery?” Then he asks “What will Egypt think of you?”  (Fretheim 2987) Then he reverses God’s opening complaint “Remember your people, Abraham, Isaac and Israel whom you promised …” Reminding God of God’s unconditional promise, made to Abraham way back in Genesis 15, (Brueggemann 5772) raises the importance of God being true to God’s self.  (Fretheim 2988) Although nothing has gone as it should have; nothing is like it’s supposed to be; God hears Moses “Remember.” and repents (Young’s) of the divine intent. Consequently, the very people who forgot are saved, when by Moses’ prompt, God remembers. (Hoezee)

From here on remembrance is central to the continuing story of God and God’s people. Till the end of Deuteronomy we continually hear “O Israel remember and do not forget.” In the coming of the Divine son we hear “Remember.” In the celebration of the Eucharist we hear “Remember.” At every baptism we hear  “Remember.” (Hoezee) At the edge of every grave we hear “Remember.”

Everyone at one time or another forgets that God is God and we are not. It causes us and others all sorts of difficulties. Sometimes some of us remember and balance is restored. But always God remembers so the way to God’s eternal care and concern is forever available.


Works Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Exodus. Abingdon Press, 2003.

Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 32:1-14. 12 10 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. Wordsearch, n.d.

Young’s Literal Translation. Olive Tree, n.d.