Rev. Teri Peterson
9 October 2016, NL3-5, H1-5 (In God We Trust)
When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses made several trips up the mountain to speak with God, receiving the ten commandments and many other laws and instructions for how the people should organize their lives as a religious, social, and economic community. The story we will hear today happens during the fourth trip Moses makes up the mountain, which lasted 40 days and 40 nights as God and Moses spoke. Among the instructions given to Moses on this occasion was the call for the people to make an offering of precious metals and stones and fabrics for the building of a tabernacle—a moveable temple where God could dwell with the people wherever they were—with its furnishings, the ark of the covenant, the priest’s clothes, and the altar. As God is finishing up giving the law and instructions and Moses is preparing to take the tablets down to the people, today’s story takes place. It is from Exodus chapter 32, and can be found on page ___ of your pew Bible if you wish to follow along.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, 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 do not know what has become of him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, ‘O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
“And the Lord changed his mind”—these are words we don’t hear often.
As we read the Bible in 90 Days this summer, it came up a few times, and each time it was a little bit of a shock to many. Before deciding the flood the earth, God regrets making humans on the earth…there are discussions between Abraham and God where God listens to Abraham and adjusts the course of action…and of course there’s the story of Jonah, where God reverses a decision and God’s ability to change makes Jonah angry. It makes us uncomfortable, to think of God changing God’s mind. Somewhere along the way, we decided that is impossible—God can’t do that.
As soon as we start uttering words like “God can’t do that” we should be getting nervous.
It’s one thing to say “the God we see in Jesus is like ____” or “in scripture we learn that God does ____.” It’s a whole other thing for us to claim what God can and cannot do.
One of the core tenets of the Reformed tradition, of which Presbyterians are a part, is the Sovereignty of God. We believe that God is free to order and rule creation according to God’s will, and we—who are not God—can’t restrict God. Which sounds so obvious when we say it out loud, and yet we are so uncomfortable with God’s ultimate and eternal freedom that we have placed all these bounds on how God should behave, when really the unchanging thing about God is Love—that is God’s nature, God’s essence. From that core reality, God is free to do whatever God will, including changing direction.
We are so used to metaphors like God is my rock and my fortress, the ground of being, the foundation, our refuge and strength…our hymns and our creeds describe God as eternal and unchanging…and we forget that is one side of a metaphor, one aspect that isn’t the whole story. We like our God to be stable and reliable, right there when we need someone to lean on, and not too demanding as we face a world that could never have been imagined by the writers of scripture.
Which is, in many ways, exactly what the newly freed Israelites wanted too. They had seen what God could do—witnessed plagues, crossed through the sea on dry ground, been fed by manna and quail, seen water gush from a rock, heard God’s voice rumble at the top of the mountain, and committed themselves to following God’s way. But now…Moses had been gone a long time, and they were getting antsy. This just wanted something more stable, more visible, more… unchanging.
It isn’t that they made themselves a new god, exactly. After all, they use the same liturgy—here is the god who brought you out of Egypt. It’s more that they made a static image to stand in for our dynamic God. Rather than give their offerings of gold and fine linen and precious jewels—as they had been called to—for a tent that would symbolize God living among them, they give them instead to capture what they want God to be, and hold on to that image they have built as if it is the real thing.
We often talk about how easy it is to find ourselves worshipping things that are not God—things like money, opportunity, power, fame, relationships, social status, nation, celebrity, sports, nostalgia. And that is true. We need to be aware of just what story our lives tell—where is our time and money and energy going, and how does that relate to following Jesus? But there’s another, far more insidious, form of idolatry that I think is shown by this story. It isn’t only about placing something other than God as the focus of our lives, it’s about solidifying what we think God should be and do into a statue we can carry around but will never change. We take the One true God, maker of heaven and earth, redeemer and sustainer, with all the complexity and possibility of love incarnate…and flatten it into something that works for us but bears little resemblance to the original. God cannot possibly be captured or contained in a stagnant medium, because God is the God of the living, always working for a new creation where everyone experiences abundant life, and because the promise “I will be your God and you will be my people” is always growing and flexing as the people’s lives change over time and travels.
That’s what Moses reminded God up on that mountain that day. “Remember the promise you made to Abraham and Sarah? Remember your relationship with Isaac and Rebekah? Remember the wrestling and blessing you did with Jacob, and the promise you made to all his sons and daughters? You are a God who keeps promises.” And God remembered…and changed God’s mind, choosing faithfulness over rejection, choosing mercy over judgment, choosing love. Because that is what God does…and what God is free to do, whatever we think of the choice.
This is good and beautiful news. It is also hard news, because it can be difficult to come to terms with the freedom and sovereignty of God when we are so bound to what we believe God is like and what Love means. When we have decided what God can and cannot do, who God can and cannot call, how God can and cannot love or save…we have made an idol—a false image that we have carefully shaped to be unchanging and predictable and reliable, something we think we can trust. Too often what is most reliable about this image is that it makes God out to value the same things we value, and to dislike the same things we dislike, and to love within the same boundaries we allow. But behind this image is a real, living God who won’t be trapped in our beliefs and words any more than God will be contained in a statue or a picture or a box or a tomb.
But it’s also hard because we do this same thing—flattening reality into ideologies we don’t question and refuse to believe can change—with other parts of life too.
We have hardened our conception of what it means to belong to a political party until we can’t see or accept when things have changed.
We have a pretty solidified image of our elected officials or candidates, insisting they are who we say they are, whatever evidence is available to the contrary.
We have turned sexuality and gender identity into a single image of predatory lust that makes it impossible to see multi-faceted human beings who long for love and acceptance.
We have dug in our heels and insisted racism and sexism are over and this is as far as we’re willing to go, and everything beyond this line is dismissed as “just being politically correct.”
We have claimed that there is just one meaning to the words “black lives matter” or “Muslim” or “refugee” or “Christian” or “pro-life” or “feminist” or “American” or “civil rights” or “freedom”…
the list goes on and on of ways our society, our churches, and each of us have solidified our limited understanding into a statue we can point to, insisting there’s no change to be had, that the bounds of our understanding of normal and good are also God’s. Our idols, just like the golden calf, provide a sense of comfort and stability, an illusion of control in a world where everything seems to be falling apart. And, like Jonah when God changed his mind about destroying Ninevah, we will have to come to terms with the fact that God doesn’t play by our rules, and that is actually good news—for us and for the whole world.
God is Love, and Love will not be bound by what we think God can and cannot do, and will not consent to live in the carefully constructed belief systems we have built. As 2 Timothy says, “the word of God is not chained.” Instead God asks us let go of our idols and join in the dance of doing a new thing. In God we trust, not because God can never change, but because our God is living and active, breathing life, creating community, feeding and healing, freely choosing to keep promises time and again, to be faithful and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, both ever-changing and ever-the-same—no matter what we think about that.
Thanks be to God. Amen.