It’s a well-worn story line: a partner in a relationship disappears without trace. Time passes, and the partner left behind eventually moves on with his or her life, perhaps remarrying or pursuing a different lifestyle. But then the missing partner returns, and drama ensues. We’ve all read books and seen movies with some variation of the plot. But the common ancestor of all those stories is found in the 32nd chapter of the book of Exodus, the story of the golden calf.
As happens so often, our Sunday lectionary only gives us part of the story. So let me give you the bigger picture.
Way back in chapter 24, the Lord invited Moses and his deputy, Joshua, to come up the holy mountain and receive the ten commandments carved in stone. Well, off they go into the clouds that wreath the mountain and that’s the last anybody sees of them for a long time. Do you remember how long they spent on the mountain? 40 days and 40 nights, is what we are told, and knowing how often that formula shows up in Scripture we can safely assume that the phrase is a Biblical way of saying “a good long chunk of time”. In fact, the ensuing eight chapters consist of a very, very long set of instructions for how, when, where, and with what to worship the Lord. Reading those chapters, I can see that it would feel like a very long time.
So Moses has disappeared and nobody knows if he will ever come back. He isn’t answering texts; smoke signals aren’t getting through the cloud. What to do? The people of Israel are milling about in their camp in the desert, day after day, getting bored and restless. Rumors, start to fly: Moses is dead. Moses has abandoned them. Fake news abounds: God is an illusion. The Exodus was all a conspiracy by the Egyptians to commit genocide. Things start to fall apart.
Aaron, the priestly brother of Moses, has been left in charge, and he starts to panic. He needs to re-establish control over this mob, he needs some kind of supernatural authority on which he can stand. So he has the people give up something they value: their treasure, the gold jewelry which, you’ll recall, they stole from their slavemasters on their way out of Egypt. Aaron melts down the gold, puts it in a mold – or carves it into shape as one translation has it, waves his hands over the fire, pronounces a formula, “These are your gods, O Israel”, and in an impressive-sounding ritual pulls out of the hat, so to speak, a golden bull – a young one, a symbol of power and fertility and, not coincidentally, of some of the local gods. The people are easily persuaded to worship this object, and the celebration turns pretty rowdy.
But up on the mountain the Lord, who sees all, notices what’s going on and tells Moses of the people’s perfidy. “Your people,” says God, in the time-honored way of an angry parent, “Look what your children have done. Get out of my way while I smite them.” Moses cleverly turns the tables: “why does your wrath burn against your people?” he says, and he appeals to the Lord’s honor – don’t give the Egyptians a reason, he says to doubt your word. And his persuasion works, and the Lord relents. The Lord listens to the faithful and turns from judgment to mercy.
That’s where our lectionary stops, but you’ve got to hear the rest of the story. Just as a parent closes the front door on the police officers, having successfully persuaded them that the teenager was just being high-spirited, and then proceeds in private to castigate the kid up one side and down the other, so Moses, having turned away the deadly wrath of God, hurries back to the camp, which by this time is in an uproar, so noisy that it almost sounds like a battle. He storms into the midst of the party and gets the revelers’ attention by smashing the stone tablets, the symbol of the unique covenant Israel has just made with the Lord. Then he grabs the golden idol, grinds it up, mixes it with water and makes the ringleaders drink it, thus ensuring that it will be thoroughly defiled by passing through their guts. When Moses confronts Aaron, we hear the feeblest excuse in all of Scripture: “I just threw the gold in the fire, and out came this calf!”
Moses and Aaron give us two beautifully crystallized examples of leadership: how to do it and how not to do it. The good leader humbles himself to protect his people from the external threat and then whips them into shape behind closed doors. The weak leader refuses to take responsibility for his failure. But more than that, here is a story that speaks to all of us today.
It speaks of our failure to remain faithful to a God whose voice we cannot hear in the noise that we ourselves generate.
It speaks of our readiness to put our trust and our energy in material things rather than in our covenanted relationships.
It speaks of our squandering of our treasure in pursuits that damage our relationship with God.
It speaks of our dogged rejection of the grace and generosity of our God, who once offered the people Israel the priceless gift of a law to live by, and who now offers each of us a free seat at the banqueting table.
And it speaks of God’s willingness to forgive our most egregious betrayals and welcome us back as beloved children.
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” urges St Paul. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” We can rejoice, always, that ours is a God who listens to the prayers of the faithful; who relents from giving us what we deserve and instead gives us what we need, and more than we need; who showers us with blessings and abundance, and who asks only that we accept the invitation to cultivate holy community, investing our treasure in the work of the Kingdom, and inviting others to join us at the wedding feast.
The Very Rev Penelope M Bridges
October 15, 2017, Proper 23