Exodus - The God Who Guides and Provides
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August 8, 2021
“Prone to Wander”
There is a sobering line that we sang in this morning’s hymn of praise, and I wonder how you reacted when you sang it? It’s the line, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” It’s a line that picks up the reality, as commentator Chris Wright puts it, that “the story of God’s people seems like a never-ending rollercoaster. No matter what heights of praise and promise they attain, there always follows the sickening plummet into sin and disobedience.”
Has that ever been your experience? The prophet Isaiah sums it up this way, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way” (Isa. 53:6a). If we are honest, I think we can all include ourselves in that “all” or “each of us” category. Our relationship with God can be like a rollercoaster and we are prone to wander. But we also have a God who, as we’ll see this morning, takes sin seriously, yet also provides a way back for his people when they’ve wandered from the fold.
Let’s hear how this begins to work out in our final reading in our series from Exodus. Recall from last week that we’re in the climax of the book, the section dealing with the tabernacle, or portable worship tent that God instructed his people to build. It reveals, we said, God’s desire to dwell among his people, a desire that continues to be revealed in increasing ways through the temple, then Jesus, then the Spirit and the church, and finally God’s new creation. We noted that chapters 25-31 contain the instructions for the tabernacle and that chapters 35-40 record its construction. In between the Israelites wander all over the map, and, instead of building the tabernacle, enter into idolatry with a golden calf.
I. Moses, where did you go?
A. The problem started when Moses was gone too long. In their minds, the people had given their leader the weekend to go mountain climbing and hang with God on the summit of Mt. Sinai, but 40 days later he still had not returned. Without Moses, the people had lost their only contact with God and they began to worry. But, like a child who begins to worry when his or her parent is late picking them up from school, worry can turn to panic which can turn to fear which can turn to making some really bad decisions. As for the Israelites, they gathered around Aaron, Moses’ brother who had been left in charge, and demanded that he take action. “Gathered around” is actually much too nice a phrase; it actually indicates a hostile event. “Do something!” they demanded of Aaron.
B. So, Aaron asked them to take off their golden earrings and he melted them down and formed an idol in the shape of a calf, a common image linked to divinity in the ancient Near East, often thought of as something a god stood or was seated on. It’s not altogether clear to me whether the calf was to replace God in the minds of the people, or to serve as a representation of him. Either way, both the first and the second commandments seem clearly to have been broken, and, if we understand the phrase, “indulge in revelry” correctly, it is likely that a few more commandments came crashing down in the way the people began to worship this calf.
C. Idolatry is a subtle thing, or at least it can begin that way. Idols often reflect or come out of and are valued by the culture in which we live. They’re a part of what we see all around us. As someone quipped, you can take the Israelites out of Egypt but it’s harder to take Egypt out of the Israelites! Idols can also have an addictive nature to them, something we keep going back to, something that begins to possess us rather that something we possess. With an idol, we attempt to fill a void in our life, often even with a good thing, but this good thing never fully satisfies. And an idol almost always comes with a host of excuses and rationalizations. As Aaron later told Moses, when confronted by his brother: “You know these people, they are prone to evil…when they gave me their jewelry, I threw it into the fire and out came this calf!” (vv. 22-24). You may, even now, be coming up with reasons why the thing that popped into your mind when I started talking about idolatry isn’t really an idol. How do I know? Because I’ve been doing it all week!
II. The Anger (Justice) and Mercy of God
A. So, what does God want us to know about the idols we pursue? Frankly, that they can be hazardous to our health because they cause our life to become seriously off track! God initially responded to the golden calf with burning anger, by declaring that he would destroy the whole lot of his people and start over again with Moses! However, following the intervention and prayerful pleading of Moses, God relented. There were still consequences to the people’s actions, and at the end of the day, 3,000 people who had not declared their allegiance to the Lord were dead, and a plague had come upon those who were left (vv. 25-35). Yet, what we need to remember is that the intensity of God’s response is linked, not to an inability to control his anger, but to his pursuit of justice and what is best for his people. Recall how he poured out his heart for his people, rescuing them from slavery and calling them to be his own. Remember how he provided for them in the wilderness, bringing them food and drink and shelter along the way. Remember how he blessed them with the guidance of his law and the promise of his presence. And yet, they responded by acting as if he never existed, or had not done a thing for them!
Illustration: Most of us, at some point in our lives, can identify with being rejected by someone we love. Maybe we have been rejected by a child, one we have spent many years caring for but who heads off in another direction. Maybe we have been rejected by a spouse, who has promised to love us forever but no longer honors that promise. Or possibly we have been rejected by a close friend, who seemingly without reason hurts us deeply. If so, we might have an inkling as to how God felt when his children, the Israelites, rejected him, not once, but multiple times.
B. But through the intervention and mediation of Moses, who, among other things, held God’s toes to the promise he had made to Abraham, God didn’t turn his back. His ultimate response is recorded in Exodus 34. Moses had come down the mountain with the law of God written on stone tablets. He had seen the idolatry and revelry of the people on full display, he had hurled the tablets to the ground in disgust, breaking them to bits. But God invited Moses to come back up that mountain, for a second time, and bring new tablets with him in order to renew the promise God had made. There, God passed in front of Moses and offered the following self-disclosure:
The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,
maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.
Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished;
he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation. [34:6-7]
C. Maybe the most significant word here is “compassion.” Commentator Beth Tanner points out that the Hebrew word behind our English word can also mean “womb.” She therefore suggests that “motherly compassion” might be a more helpful translation.
There is no doubt that our actions have consequences. This is what it means for the sin of the parents to affect the next few generations. It’s an affect we have all witnessed as we look at an extended family. Yet, by contrast, God’s love and faithfulness extends “to thousands,” which means for a thousand generations. The contrast, not the exact length of time is what’s significant. It reveals a love that just won’t quit, despite our propensity to wander and seek satisfaction elsewhere. Is not this the love of a mother, who certainly calls her children to account for their sin, while at the same time, would never forsake them, but even give her life for the fruit of her womb?
This self-disclosure, you may not be surprised to hear, is referred to often throughout the rollercoaster ride that is the story of God’s people, Israel, from the days of David, to the days of Jonah, to those of Nehemiah, just to name a few (e.g., Neh 9:17; Psalm 103:8; Jeremiah 32:18; Daniel 9:4; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3). In effect, when things go south, they remember: Take heart, God could have wiped us out, but he didn’t. He stuck with us then and so we can be confident that he will stick with us now.
D. Our response to this love cannot be like Aaron’s – “Don’t blame me; I have no clue how this happened!” Rather, it must be like Moses who, when presented with the holy character of God, bowed to the ground at once and worshipped. And then he acknowledged his sinfulness and that of his people: “If I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness, and our sin, and take us as your inheritance” (34:8-9).
As we come to the table of the Lord, we come to celebrate God’s holy character. And, we come to acknowledge that we have an even greater mediator than Moses, one to whom Moses points, the one named Jesus, the one who Hebrews declares “always lives to intercede” for us (7:25). Jesus did what Moses could not: he took the full brunt of the righteous anger of God at the sin of his people, and enabled us to return to the fold and remain in the family, cleansed by his blood and nourished by his body. Let us celebrate that good news together.