Exodus 32.1-14; Psalm 51.1-10; 1 Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10
Today we heard quite the dramatic story from Exodus. The people of Israel commit what Moses will later call the ‘great sin’, which results in a really ticked off God. I don’t know about you, but when I hear this story I tend to think of it as it is portrayed in the movie “The Ten Commandments.” Since it’s been a while, I took a look at that scene, and sure enough, it supports how I think most of us remember or know this story. On one of Moses’ trips up the mountain (he’d already gone up and come down with the Ten Commandments), the people get restless and decide to worship a golden calf instead of God. This is the sin of idolatry - worshipping something other than God. When we talk about idolatry in our context today, we talk about being tempted to worship money, power, fame, career, ourselves, Seahawks, among plenty of other things, instead of God.
But when we go back to this story as it is written in the Bible, we find that perhaps this sin of idolatry is a bit more nuanced and different that we know or remember. In fact, while the Israelites are committing idolatry, it is a bit more nuanced that simply worshipping a golden calf instead of God. The Israelites are in fact not rejecting or casting aside God at all. Aaron specifically says that “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD”. And then they proceed follow all the instructions previously given by God through Moses as to how worship of God, or a liturgy, is supposed to happen. There is an altar, burnt offerings, and a festival. “These are your gods, O Israel” would actually be better translated as “this is your God, O Israel,” Which really makes a lot more sense when it’s connected with the rest of that sentence: “who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Since it is clearly the God of Israel who did that.
So no, the Israelites didn’t reject God to worship a golden calf instead. But they were missing Moses, they longed for something concrete to hold on to, a symbol to cling to, a way to focus their worship. While their intentions may not have been idolatrous, they made a false image of the true God, clearly violating God’s commandments by making their image of God equal to God. They weren’t worshipping something other than God, they were worshipping something as if it WAS God.
Which we still do today. We are tempted to equate the church with God. We see this inclination when we are shocked to hear about harmful gossip or embezzlement or abuse within church structures. The church is certainly a community where it is proper to have high standards for behavior, but it still human. The church is not God. We are tempted to equate Scripture with God. We see this inclination every time we start a sentence with “But the Bible says…” Yes, Scripture says many important things: Scripture reveals who God is, Scripture is integral to our lives as Christians, but it is not God. Martin Luther reminds us that “The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.” and the cradle and the baby are not the same.
This version of idolatry, this worshipping something as if it is God, enrages God to the point of being ready to wipe out the Israelites. Why is this sin such an offensive one for God? Well, for one, the Israelites worship had become more about them and their comfort and their joy than it was about God. Perhaps we too at times prioritize the benefits we get from worship instead of prioritizing worship and praise of God. Yes, it is true that we often leave this place “filled up.” While this IS a very good thing, if that is the primary reason we are here, we are prioritizing our feelings over God.
Also, this version of idolatry attempts to limit a limitless God. When God is boiled down to one specific image, we have attempted to restrict the boundless, control the divine, and claim we understand the mysterious. We have manipulated God. And God is not an object for us to manipulate so God appears how we wish.
Finally, this sin angers God to the core because it is about so much more than breaking a commandment, it is at its heart a violation of a relationship. Instead of worshipping God for who God is, God is being worshipped for who we want God to be.
And so yes, God is angry. Which often makes us uncomfortable. How does this image of a God of wrath fit with the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep and the woman who frantically looks for the lost coin?
The question I’ve been pondering this week is: what would a relationship with a God who never got angry look like? What would that feel like? If you had a parent who never got angry at ridiculously poor choices you made you would think they didn’t love you. A God without anger is a God without passion, detached from creation, from humanity. And because of Jesus’ presence on earth, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that our God is not detached.
And alongside a God who is sometimes angry we also have a phrase that gets repeated again and again in the Old Testament: “The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” Perhaps God doesn’t have to be only angry or only gentle, God can be both.
By the end of the part of the story we heard today, God has changed God’s mind about destroying the Israelites – which often seems outside of the God we understand. It’s uncomfortable to think that God might be arbitrary or fickle. But this change is not something that happens on whim, or because Moses stumbled into the ‘correct’ argument. God changes God’s mind because of a relationship. In fact, the door is left open for Moses to engage in serious and important dialogue. “Let me alone”, God says, “so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” As if Moses could truly stand in God’s way. With the door left open, Moses appeals to God’s reasonableness, reputation and God’s own promises. And Moses is taken seriously because of the relationship the two of them have.
While at the end of today’s reading we may find respite in God’s decision not to destroy the Israelites, the story is far from over. This story arc continues for a few more chapters before we get to forgiveness and restoration for this ‘great sin.’ And while, through study we may be able to put God’s wrath and God’s changing God’s mind into context and understand it a bit better, we should be careful not to use that study and reflection to ignore these things. God’s anger is real and should be taken very seriously.
But the end/rest of the story is grace, which is also real and should be taken very seriously. Yes, God’s methods and direction may change, but the ultimate goal does not. God is unchangeable in love and in faithfulness to promise. An angry parent still loves their child. The grace of an angry God is still grace. In fact, grace in the face of ‘great sin’ may be the greatest love of all.