When God repented (Exodus 32.1-14; Luke 23.34) [Sermon 10-09-2016]


October 7, 2016 by jmar198013

Manuscript for my sermon for Sunday October 9, 2016. Continuing our fall series, “The Faithfulness of God in the Hebrew Scriptures.”

The texts are Exodus 32.1-14 and Luke 23.34.

An audio link is embedded below for those who’d rather listen.

Father, forgive them …

Forty days ago, Moses had left Aaron in charge while he went up on Mount Sinai. The plan was for Moses to return with the stone tablets with the instructions and the commandments of God, so that the people could learn how to be faithful to the God who had proven himself faithful to them. Aaron and the tribal elders watched God’s glory cloud settle on the mountain. Then they looked on as Moses entered the cloud and went up the mountain (Exod. 24.12-18).

But after forty days waiting in the valley with no word from Moses or God, the Israelites panicked. We don’t tend to make the best decisions when we panic, do we? That’s how our story today begins. With agitated people making a very poor decision out of panic.

The people saw that Moses was taking a long time to come down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come on! Make us gods who can lead us. As for this man Moses who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we don’t have a clue what has happened to him.”

Literally, the Hebrew says that Moses was “shamefully-late in coming down from the mountain.” [1] The people grew quite restless during those forty days, and were now downright distressed. When the storyteller says that they gathered around Aaron, the language suggests an angry mob about to kill somebody and riot! They’re freaked out!

And this panicked, angry mob pressured Aaron into doing something awful—breaking first two commandments:

I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods before me. Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. (Exod. 20.2-4)

Israel’s neighbors had loaded them down with gold as they high-tailed it out of Egypt. Aaron snatched up a bunch of that gold in a hurry and formed it into a bull calf. The Israelites all cheered: These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!

It was a very stupid thing they did. But they weren’t in a clear state of mind, either. They let their restlessness fester into fear, and their fear burn into a rage, and that fearful, restless rage just consumed their faith.

And in their faithlessness, they were very reckless.

We really do make poor choices when we act out of fear instead of faith. Still, forty days was a long time to be left waiting out in the wilderness. I don’t want to judge them too harshly. I’ve done some unwise things myself, when I let a freak-out overwhelm my faith. Maybe that’s happened to you, too.

So as we hear this story, maybe it’s best if we listen to what Jesus said when the restlessness of a mob festered into fear, and their fear burned into rage, and their rage fell on him: Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.

I really don’t think the Israelites fully understood the gravity of their sin until later. We never quite do, do we?

The gold calf and the tabernacle

Remember why the people wanted the image made in the first place? At the beginning of our reading today, they had called Moses this man … who brought us up out of the land of Egypt. But now Moses has vanished. So they want Aaron to make them gods to lead them instead. There’s an important distinction to be drawn here. The gold bull calf was meant to replace Moses, not God. Notice that when they worship in front of the image, it’s still called a festival to the Lord. The people want a leader they can see. More than that, they want a visible sign of God’s presence with them. Moses had been their lifeline to God. I suspect that they were terrified that since Moses was out of their sight, they were also out of God’s mind.

You know what’s so ironic? Down in the valley, Aaron is scrambling to make this golden calf for the people, so they can have a visible sign of God’s presence with them. At the exact same time, up on Mount Sinai, God was discussing the plans for the tabernacle with Moses. God was telling Moses how to give the people what they wanted—a visible sign of God’s presence with them.

The tabernacle was something much better than a symbol of God’s presence with his people. It was how God would be present with his people. When they finally do get around to building the tabernacle, we hear that the cloud covered the meeting tent and the Lord’s glorious presence filled the dwelling (Exod. 40.34).

If you read the plans for the tabernacle—Exodus 25 – 31—it’s a breathtakingly beautiful and ornate structure. Its precious metals and gemstones and intricate tapestries told the story of God’s creation of the cosmos. The tabernacle was supposed to be this awe-inspiring testimony to God’s faithfulness to his people.

It was definitely about a thousand times more glorious than a stupid gold bull.

I wonder how many glorious blessings that God wants to send our way are delayed or even lost because we panic and take matters into our own hands, instead of waiting on God? Or because we stop trusting in God’s way, and go about trying to do what we think is right, our own way? When we freak out and don’t think before we do something reckless?

Because when Israel freaked out in the wilderness, not only was the gift of the tabernacle delayed; they came very close to losing everything.

The contrasts between the tabernacle God planned for the people, and the golden bull Aaron made for them, are quite striking. [2]

First, God took the initiative for the tabernacle. With the golden calf, the people took the initiative. They wanted to make for themselves what God had already given them as a gift. As God’s people, our work is to embrace the gifts that God graciously gives us. Not to try and do for ourselves what God is already doing for us. We don’t make our own way to salvation. We can’t manufacture God’s presence among us. We don’t even create fellowship among ourselves. Those are all gifts from God. We can certainly choose to reject the gifts God has for us. We don’t have the power to make them, but we do have the power to break them. So let’s learn a lesson from the golden calf incident. We need to patiently wait for God’s gifts, and embrace what he has in store for us.

Second, God requested freewill offerings from the people to build the tabernacle. He told Moses to receive my gift offerings from everyone who freely wants to give (Exod. 25.2). God wasn’t forcing the tabernacle on the people; he wanted them to buy into it. God’s vision was the people freely giving whatever they could, so that they could freely receive the gift of God’s presence among them. But that’s not what happened when the people bullied Aaron into making the golden calf. To give you a flavor of the Hebrew, Aaron commanded the people to, “Break off”—you could even say tear off—“the gold rings that are in that are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters, and bring them to me.” [3] This wasn’t a freewill offering! This was a bunch of freaked out people violently yanking each others’ earrings out! God’s way of invitation and giving and grace leads to people willingly buying into the plans he has for them. But when we go our own way, it leads to impatience; it leads to confusion; and it leads to people hurting each other. That’s not what God desires for his people.

Finally, God’s vision for the tabernacle involved painstaking preparations. It meant paying close attention to all the details of its construction. It embraced the contributions of the gifted artisans among the people. It wasn’t going to be a rush job. God spent seven chapters giving Moses the details for its construction! But when it was finished, they would have a beautiful monument to God’s faithfulness to them. But even better, they’d have God’s personal presence with them wherever they went. But what about that golden calf? That was a rush job. It wasn’t carefully planned—it was hastily thrown together. Aaron did all the work himself. And when it was done, they didn’t have God’s presence. They didn’t even have Moses’ long-suffering, tried and true leadership. They just had a shiny statue of a calf.

The lesson for us: Be patient with God’s process. Embrace what God is doing among us. Trust God’s planning, even when you’re uncertain about the outcome. The outcome is God’s business, anyway—not ours. And lean on the gifts that God is giving us—and know that many of the most precious gifts flow through your sisters and brothers. If we do all that, it’s going to take a while. It may not always be comfortable. But if we’re faithful to the God who is faithful to us, we’ll have a lively, colorful fellowship that’s a blessing to everyone, and God tabernacling among us.

To really appreciate what happens next, I’d like you to maybe close your eyes and imagine this part of Exodus like a movie. See Moses, up on the mountain, deep in God’s glory cloud. Like when you’re in a dense fog. Moses has no idea what’s going on with the people and their golden calf down in the valley. God has just finished speaking, and gives Moses the two covenant tablets, the stone tablets written by God’s finger (Exod. 31.18). No sooner does Moses take the stone tablets in his hand, God gasps and shouts: Hurry up and go down! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, are ruining everything! They’ve already abandoned the path that I commanded. And then he tells Moses all about the people and their golden calf.

That’s how the Exodus storyteller wanted you to see the story. You can open your eyes, now.

God keeps his promises, even when it hurts

Did you hear what God called the Israelites? Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt. Back in Exod. 4.22, God had called Israel my firstborn son (NRSV). In Exod. 7.4, God promised: I’ll bring my people the Israelites out of the land of Egypt. But now he turns to Moses and calls them your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt! Do you know what that means? God has just disowned his firstborn son!

Even worse, God tells Moses: Now leave me alone! Let my fury burn and devour them. Then I’ll make a great nation out of you. In other words, God tells Moses to get out of his way and let God open a can of fiery wrath on the lot of them.

But Moses does something unthinkable. He refuses to get out of God’s way. Moses doesn’t stand down; he stands up to God, and begs God not to destroy Israel. First, he refuses to let God off the hook for Israel’s survival: Lord, why does your fury burn against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and amazing force? Moses insists that Israel is still God’s people. That God is still the one who rescued them from Egypt. And he insists that God is still responsible for the people, no matter how badly they’ve strayed from his path. Besides, Moses argues, how will that look to the Egyptians? You rescued these people for what? To bring them out to the desert and kill them?

The Moses begs God: Calm down your fierce anger. Think about that—Moses, the human, told God to calm down. And just when you think Moses can’t get any bolder, he tells God: Change your mind about doing terrible things to your own people. The word translated change your mind here is one of the words the Hebrew Bible uses for repentance. Moses begged God to repent! How weird is that?

Other passages say that repenting is something God never does. For instance, 1 Sam. 15.29 clearly says that God doesn’t take back what he says and doesn’t change his mind. He is not a human being who would change his mind. Samuel uses the same word there. Twice!

God had offered to start over with Moses after he wiped out all the Israelites. Since Moses is one of Abraham’s descendants, technically, God could do that and still be faithful to his promise to Abraham: I will make of you a great nation (Gen. 12.2). But Moses won’t even let God use that loophole! Moses refuses to be the replacement Abraham. He holds God accountable to the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. He basically says, You made those promises to them, God—not to me!

And you know what? It worked. God did what Samuel said God doesn’t do. Then the Lord changed his mind about the terrible things he said he would do to his people.

Even though God didn’t incinerate Israel that day, there was serious fallout. First, Moses went down and smashed the stone tablets God had written on. This was so the people would see how badly they’d sinned. They’d not only broken faith with the God who’d always been faithful to them—they’d broken God’s heart. Afterwards, Moses completely pulverized the golden calf, poured the remains in their water supply, and made them drink it. Hey—I didn’t write it. Then Moses sent an army of Levites to execute the ringleaders who pressured Aaron to make the golden calf. The Levites mowed down about three thousand people. After that, God also punished the people with some sort of plague, which may or may not have had something to do with drinking the water polluted by the debris of the golden calf.

But after all that, God, Moses, and Israel carried on. They eventually got around to building the tabernacle. And a short time later, God revealed himself to Moses with these words:

The Lord! The Lord!

    a God who is compassionate and merciful,

        very patient,

        full of great loyalty and faithfulness,

        showing great loyalty to a thousand generations,

        forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion,

        yet by no means clearing the guilty. (Exod. 34.6-7)

Later on, one of the prophets would tweak that last part to say that God is  very patient, full of faithful love, and ready to forgive (Joel 2.13). That phrase, ready to forgive? In Hebrew, it’s the same word that was used when Moses convinced God to change his mind about destroying the people. So Israel first learned this truth about God after their sin with the gold calf.

Ps 15.4 blesses the person who keeps their promise even when it hurts.  In our story today, we saw God keep his promises, even though it hurt him. Moses reminded God of the promises he’d made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And because God is a faithful God, he kept his promises to them. So God didn’t give up on Israel—even when they broke his heart, and he really wanted to.

And he still hasn’t given up. Not on humanity. Not on his creation. He’s still the God who is faithful, even when it hurts. He proved that once and for all when an angry mob freaked out and committed an even graver sin than worshiping before a golden calf. As they nailed God’s Son Jesus to a cross, Jesus pleaded: Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.

So God did just that; he forgave.

And he hasn’t stopped forgiving.

Because God is faithful.

[1] Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, a new translation with introduction, commentary, and notes, The Schocken Bible: Volume 1 (Dallas: Word, 1995), 441.

[2] See Terrence E. Fretheim, Exodus, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), 267-68, 280-83.

[3] Fox, Five Books, 441; cf. Waldemar Janzen, Exodus, Believers Church Bible Commentary (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2000), 381.


3 thoughts on “When God repented (Exodus 32.1-14; Luke 23.34) [Sermon 10-09-2016]

  1. Jeremy, thank you for this message. It hit me where I lived, today.

    I was praying earlier today, and doing some Benedictine Rumination on John 1:3-5. My thoughts were circling round and round. I happened to mention to Lord Jesus/the Creative Word that I was feeling far away from any sense of God in my life. I see Moses as having a very active dialogue with God. Far more active than I would want, given my fallen nature and lackadaisical prayer/spiritual discipline practices … I’m afraid that I might be incinerated.

    • jmar198013 says:

      Moses was a very unique person, wasn’t he? The book of Numbers calls him the meekest man that ever lived. But before God, he was always so bold! I often wonder if that’s something we miss? That we are called to be humble with our fellow humans, but bold with God? I know, “humble yourselves before the Lord and he will lift you up.” But that seems to be aimed at those who are lording it over other people. So it proves my point, doesn’t it? 😉

  2. […] to destroy them, and he didn’t do it. Again, this is language of divine repentance. We saw this a few weeks back when we heard the story of Israel worshiping the gold bull calf after the Exodus. God was going to […]

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