A sermon on Exodus 32-34 by Rev Richard Keith on 10 January 2021
Our Bible passage today is special for a number of reasons. Firstly, because it’s from the Bible.
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.
Secondly, because it’s not only God’s Word, but it is his Word for you today. The Scriptures are our food and drink, our life and strength. Did not Jesus say,
Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that precedes from the mouth of God?
But thirdly, and in a much more profound way this passage is extra special and worthy of our full attention. Because in it we see the heart of God revealed. For the relationship between the Lord and Israel, sealed in a covenant of blood, was put to an early test. In many ways, what Israel did in this passage was a deal breaker. It could have been the end of them as God’s chosen people so soon after that relationship began. But it didn’t break. It didn’t break because of the character of the Lord who had chosen them. It survived, not because of them, but because of him.
And the truth about the Lord that is revealed in this story is a great reassurance to us today. We can know that our relationship with him will survive because of him.
In Exodus chapter 32 we see Israel’s sin. They sinned because they were afraid. They were afraid because Moses had gone up to the top of Mt Sinai to be with the Lord and he was taking so long to come back. They were afraid because Moses was absent. He wasn’t with them. The man who had struck the water of the Nile and the water turned to blood. The man who raised his staff at the Red Sea and the waters parted so that they crossed on dry land. The man who had spoken to them the very words of God. He was gone. He was no longer with them. They didn’t know if he was ever coming back. And they were afraid, deeply afraid, that the God who blessed them through Moses was gone for good too.
Do you think that God is absent from your life? Do you believe that he cannot see what you are going through? Do you find it hard to trust that his good will for you is assured? Then you understand what the people of Israel were going through.
They went to Aaron and said,
Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.
Can you see how they had already broken the first commandment in their hearts, so that they wanted to break the second commandment? The first commandment says,
You shall have no other gods before me.
And you can see in what the people said that their faith was not in the Lord, but in Moses. Moses, they said, was the one who brought them out of Egypt. Moses, the man who would still have been a shepherd for his father-in-law in Midian, except that the Lord appeared to him in the burning bush and sent him to Pharaoh and promised to be with him. How did Moses give the people water from the rock? How did Moses feed them manna in the morning and quail in the evening? Only because the Lord was with him. But the people gave Moses all the credit. In their eyes, Moses was their provider. In their eyes, Moses was their saviour. In their eyes, Moses was their god. And because he was gone they felt like they had no god.
They had broken the first commandment already in their heart. Moses was their blessing bringer. And without him they planned to break the second commandment.
You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth below.
Because if God was absent, if he was no longer with them, if they had lost him when they lost Moses, how else were they supposed to make him come back to them? How else were they supposed to summon his presence of blessing among them, except by making an idol?
Because that’s what an idol is. It is not just something that is meant to picture God. To show what God looks like. First and foremost an idol is a tool to control God. And if you can control God, you can control his blessing. It’s a common human failing. What Israel did is only what people do. We want to chain God to our sacred places and our special prayers and our favourite hymns and our favourite pew. We want to chain him so we know he’ll be there when we need him.
But the true and living God is wild and free. And his purpose is to speak a new word into our lives to set us free for his service. His purpose is not our comfort but our liberation. His purpose is not our security but our growth.
Israel, however, wanted comfort. They wanted security. “Make us gods who will go before us,” they said to Aaron. Aaron was Moses’ brother and really should have known better. But rather than giving them what they needed, he gave them what they wanted. He too was afraid and his fear led him into sin.
Take off your gold earrings and bring them to me.
They did what he said. Aaron took what they gave him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf.
The next day, they offered sacrifices to the idol and Aaron announced that they would celebrate a festival to the Lord. They ate and drank and indulged in revelry, with the strong suggestion that that means a drunken orgy. It’s a reminder that what we worship affects how we worship it. They worshiped a bull calf, a strong, virile, sexually potent creature. So if that is your god, you will celebrate it with aggressive displays of lust. The principle works the other way too. If you notice what a community really celebrates and how, you will find out what they really worship.
It is impossible to exaggerate how serious this sin was. As we see, as the story unfolds, it threatened their lives and it threatened the Lord’s continued presence with them. The Lord said to Moses,
Go down, because your people, whom you brought out of Egypt, have become corrupt.
“Your people,” he said, meaning, “Moses’ people”, not his own people. Your people whom you brought out of Egypt. Israel has rejected the Lord, so he threatened to reject them. He denied bringing them out of Egypt. He said that Moses did.
I have seen these people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.
What the Lord planned was not a change of mind. He had no intention of breaking any promise. Israel had rejected him, the giver of life. The only fit punishment for them was death, the very thing they had chosen. Instead, the Lord planned to keep his promise to Abraham through Moses. Abraham will still have a large family. It’s just that they will all be related to Moses.
Moses’ reply was both daring and wise. Daring because he talked back to God to change his mind. Wise because he appealed to God’s character and promise.
What will the Egyptians say? They will believe that your purpose for Israel was evil rather than good. And what about your promises to Abraham? You said his descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky. Well, here they are. Please forgive them. If you can’t, destroy me with them.
And the Lord changed his mind. He did not bring on them the death they chose. But the alternative he planned was not a lot better.
In Exodus chapter 33 the Lord said to Moses,
Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt. Go up to the land I promised to Abraham. I will send an angel before you. But I will not go with you because I might destroy you on the way.
Again it is a fitting judgment. The people had been afraid of the Lord’s absence. They had built an idol to summon and control his presence. Now, because of their sin, the Lord was afraid that his presence would destroy them and that he must be absent. An angel will go with them, a guide who will go ahead of them to show them the way. A servant of the Lord, but not the Lord himself.
This was a bitter blow. How is this any better than the destruction he threatened? The absence of the Lord of life is death. The absence of the giver of joy is despair. What path through the valley of the shadow of death would we not bravely travel if our shepherd is with us? But even the yellow brick road without him would be the road to hell.
Again Moses’ response was daring and wise. He said to the Lord,
You have said to me, “Moses, lead these people, you have found favour with me.” Remember that these people are your people. If your presence does not go with us, do not send us from here.
Earlier, Moses had not wanted to live another day if the Lord was going to destroy them. Now, he did not want to take another step if the Lord did not go with them. Moses was their mediator. Their intercessor. The one who defended Israel and pleaded for them. And he refused to be treated any different.
We see this too in the life of Jesus. He shared our flesh and blood. He was born like us, grew up like us. Lived and breathed and walked around like us. He received no special treatment. He was tested just like we are and he knows all our weaknesses. And he sits at the right hand side of the Father to plead for us, to add his prayers to ours. If Moses can talk back to the Lord for his people, the Lord Jesus will talk back to his Father for us. What a friend we have in Jesus. All our sins and griefs to bear. What a privilege to carry everything to him in prayer.
Again the Lord changed his mind.
My presence will go with you.
In the Lord’s threats we see the serious consequences of our sin. In his forgiveness we see his grace. How can our relationship with the Lord endure our many failings? How can we appear before the holy God and live? Because of who he is and what he has done and not anything we can do or say.
It had been a roller coaster couple of days for Moses. At the end of it he had got what he wanted, but his confidence was shattered. The Lord had relented and not done what he had threatened. But Moses wanted more. He wanted to know that the Lord’s changing of his mind, his relenting from the punishments he threated, and his sparing of his people Israel, rested on something secure. Like a boat might rock in a storm but be stabilised by its keel. Like a bridge might sway in a strong wind, but rest secure on its footings. Moses said to the Lord,
Show me your glory.
Moses wanted some assurance that this sort of thing wasn’t going to happen again every couple of weeks. That there was going to be a real, genuine future between the holy God and his stubborn people. What Moses wanted was to stare into the heart of God, to see what the Lord was really like, and to find hope and strength in that vision. “Show me your glory.”
The next day, two days after the golden calf incident, the Lord came down in the cloud and stood with Moses and proclaimed his name. This is the answer to Moses’ request. This is the Lord showing his glory. This is God revealing his heart.
The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.
These are not just words, empty and meaningless things like dead leaves blown by the wind. They are promises proven by what God does. Thy are the pledge of the holy God that his mercy is just and his justice is merciful. His pledge that he will remain his people’s God and that they will remain his people, because he will bear the cost, because he will pay the tab, because he will carry the burden of their sin.
They are words put to the test in the life of Jesus Christ, when God’s rebellious children did their worst to him. They rejected him and mocked him and spat on him and killed him, because they loved their idols more than him. They are words proven in his death when he prayed,
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
In the cross of Christ we see that our idolatry, our self-worship, our rebellion, our heartlessness summon the destructive judgment of God and the pronouncement of his absence. And yet that judgment falls on Christ who bore the cost and paid the tab and carried the burden that we may not die, nor may we live without God which is no better, but that we may see the living God and live.
This is the heart of God. Words, yes, words that kill, words that kill our pride, our hate, our own lack of mercy and grace. But words that heal. Words that give life. Words which are our life, our strength, our assurance and our hope. Though our faith may rock like a boat in a storm, though our courage may sway like a bridge in a cyclone, our relationship with God rests secure. not on our faith or our courage, but on the solid ground of his grace. For he is the Lord. The compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.
It is the pledge of the presence of the merciful God, and on that solid ground we can stand secure.