September 12. 2020 Worship
Inspired by Exodus 34: 1-9 (NRSV)
When I left Evergreen United Methodist Church for my new appointment at Hope United Methodist Church, I spent two months compiling an Operations Manual for the person who would eventually replace me at Evergreen. I had developed new programs that had just begun to take off, and I didn’t want my absence to deflate their flight.
I don’t know if my replacement looked at the detailed instructions that I left when she arrived, but I do know that everything I began ended the day I left.
t turns out that YHWH also likes to leave people with detailed instructions. The commandments are only the beginning of the Israelite Operation Manual. Following the listing of ten, concise commandments YHWH spends multiple chapters on the fine print outlining what these commandments should entail.
It’s a painful, exhausting chunk of the Exodus narrative. An explanation of worship way beyond the order of service for a Sunday morning, worship in Exodus encompasses a plethora of topics. These laws include the following: laws for living, laws about injuries, property laws, laws about relationships, laws about fairness, and laws about the sabbath. Thrown in there, we also find explanations around the three yearly feasts and details around how God plans to help Israel.
We get to catch our breath in chapter twenty-four when God and Israel finally finalize their agreement. The Israelites commit to abide by the commandments and the laws. Then, immediately after this agreement happens, God starts up again with more instructions! These laws feature details such as the ark of the agreement, the table, the lampstand, the holy tent, the entrance to the sacred tent, the altar for the burnt offerings, the courtyard for the holy tent, the oil for the lamp, clothes for the priests, the holy vest, the chest covering, the appointment of the priests, the daily sacrifices, the altar for burning incense, the tax for the meeting tent, the bronze bowl, the oil for appointing and the incense.
God spends all this brain-draining time going over every detail of what worship requires so that Moses can translate these to the Israelites only to have the Israelites break the contract immediately after it is signed. All of these in-depth explanations, and as soon as an agreement happens, we read this chapter heading;
“The people make a gold calf.”
As a working mom with prescription medication to help me fall asleep, it was not necessary to read through every line of God’s instructions. I scanned them just enough to get a general sense of how neurotic God was being and to know how affirmed I should feel in the struggles with my neuroses. Very affirmed, was my conclusion.
I didn’t study the instructions, and still, I knew when I read the chapter header that the people had made a golden calf that this was the antithesis of what God had asked the people to do. Melting down gold earrings to form a statue of a calf wasn’t a mix up on measurements for a vest or a mistake on the method for appointing with oil. Making a golden calf wasn’t an oversight or a misunderstanding. All this talk, this translating, and the people are melting gold earrings to make a gold calf to worship.
The scripture tells us that the people see that a long time has passed, and Moses has still not come back down the mountain, so they gather around Aaron and say to Aaron, “Moses led us out of Egypt, but we don’t know what has happened to him. Make us gods who will lead us.”
Biblical scholar, Ellen F. Davis, describes the scene that comes next as the first biblical account of pastoral burnout. For the sake of brevity, Moses comes back to see the people dancing around this golden calf, and he losses his mind. He throws the two stone tablets he was carrying with all the instructions with such anger they break into pieces at the bottom of the mountain.
And then comes the best part.
Exodus 32:19-20 says, “Then he took the calf the people made and melted it in the fire. He ground it into powder. Then he threw the powder into the water and forced the Israelites to drink it.”
That’s the comical part that happens right before Moses tells the people that God desires every man to put his sword and go through the camp, killing his brother, his friend, and his neighbor. That part skips the funny and goes straight to disturbing. That part is a whole separate sermon and a whole series of therapy sessions.
Luckily, our focus is not Moses’ burnout manifested as a murder rampage. Our focus is on the emotional experience and behavioral response of the people in the absence of Moses.
At this point in the Exodus story, the people are only four months out of the miraculous escape from their enslavement in Egypt. These four months overflow with God’s presence. God leads the people as a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night escorts them across the dry floor of the Red Sea, feeds them manna in Sinai, and produces water from flintlock to quench their thirst.
All these miracles lead up to the moment where we find Moses on Mt, Sinai fasting and listening to YHWH at the same time where we find the people freaking out in Moses’s absence. Here we have Moses doing all this spiritual labor to remain a clear conduit for God’s teaching so that he might return with stone tablets bearing the instructions for the people. And, the people freak out because Moses still isn’t back.
Exodus 32 begins, “The people saw that a long time had passed, and Moses had not come down from the mountain. So, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Moses led us out of Egypt, but we don’t know what has happened to him. Make us a god who will lead us.”
And Aaron proceeds not to retell the story of the wilderness and the commitments of their covenant, but instead asks people to bring him gold earrings, which he then forms into a statue of a calf!
Maybe Moses wasn’t coming back. Perhaps he gets eaten by a lion or accidentally falls off the cliff.
But even with Moses out of the picture, what makes the people think that a God who just spent all this time going over all these details would then decide to go out for cigarettes never come back?
It’s a likely scenario that God is as annoyed about needing to give the people all those instructions as I am bothered about needing to read all of them.
Communicating these instructions was an enormous investment of God in a group of people. God thought through everything, outlined and described it all, so there was no confusion, and the people scan the headers, skip the footnotes and sign off like it’s some liability form from The Land.
Now, I don’t read about the people boiling up a golden statue of a calf and think having the people go out and murder one another seems logical. But I do feel like this is a maddening meltdown in a plot twist that defies logic. Considering everything that leads up to this moment, the response of the people given the context doesn’t make sense.
I wish this were a madness less relatable to our current context, but we have a few golden statues of our own.
Creating statues, systems, and structures to worship happens when we lose ourselves in the wilderness. It’s what we do when we don’t want to go home, but we aren’t fully committed to where we are supposed to be going. It’s what happens when our faith is strong enough to not give up on God, but not brave enough to believe that God won’t give up on us. Frightened by our freedom, somehow, it becomes more comfortable to think that we have been left all alone.
Without conversation or consensus, the world becomes a place we understand to be absent of anything divine.
The problems we face are so overwhelming, so ingrained, so complicated that there is no way they could be solved. We are so lost, so wretched, so broken that this could only be a result of a God who has given up.
The people don’t know where they are, but that isn’t their problem. Their crisis occurs because they failed to take the time to read the fine print of their agreement with YHWH.
Founder of the Orphan Wisdom School, Stephen Jenkinson, explained in a recent podcast that when he officiates wedding ceremonies, he frames the ritual as crafting something that wasn’t there before. Beyond a rubber-stamping of two people’s love for one another, Jenkinson explains the wedding is a ritual that inserts the culture and its problems and its betterment in between the two people. In the wedding ceremony, Jenkinson puts the world between two people. The world exists between the two people and their feelings for one another. Jenkinson explains that love between two people passes through the world before it reaches the other person, that it is the world which is the beneficiary of the willingness to enter into this matrimony, not the two people.
I wonder if this is where the Israelites got lost; in the understanding of their agreement with YHWH? I wonder if they imagined a straight line of love between YHWH and themselves? A line so straight it would cut out all tragedies, hardships, and mistakes.
If there is any truth in this theory, then it is possible that what the Israelites misunderstood continues to be the same misunderstanding we have today. An ignorance that our love for YHWH and YHWH’s love for us is not merely a love received and given. We enter into a covenant that exists for the betterment of the world—a commitment positioned to hold the brokenness of the world and draw love into darkness.
If we learn anything from this Exodus series, I pray it is a renewed understanding of our command and covenant as a people of faith. An understanding that the most challenging part of this relationship will be to maintain committed to a situation that we will never be able to fix …and to stay faithful to our vows anyway. It helps to see the world and all its tragedies held within the embrace of this covenant. For me, it is a reminder that there are no winners or losers, only the whole of creation laboring together, continually connected, regardless of how violently we attempt to tear things apart.