Our story today might be one you know well, even if you didn’t grow up in the church. Sometime around Easter or Passover, at some point in your life I have no doubt, Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments comes on the TV and the splendor of the Golden Age of movies over takes for a few hours. After the basket, the burning tree, the plagues, and the waters we find ourselves nearing the end of the film. The primary conflict has concluded and we have been in the desert for 14 chapters. Which I think became an apt metaphor for authors—Frodo Baggins spends a long time walking and the last Harry Potter book is named by fans “Harry Potter and the really long camping trip.” Here we have Moses and the really long desert trip.
Of course, this isn’t just Moses. Moses is the guide of a vast people, a multitude, and, as we have talking about in the last month or so, they, despite all that they had seen and heard and experienced, they continued to be unsure of this leader and this God.
Remember how they have experienced God thus far in the narrative: there were plagues sent to the country in which they lived that did in fact kill people and animals, God had divided a water, lifted it from the ground so they could walk through, food and water showed up when they needed it. But these are the working of the invisible God, sometimes through God’s servant Moses. But, when the people traveled, God lead this mass of people, lead Moses, by showing up: as a pillar of cloud or a pillar of fire. So maybe it’s “God, Moses, the Hebrew people and the really long desert trip.”
But there’s the thing about the only visible representations of God that they have: a cloud, or fog, or smoke, really all have the same effect: it cannot be grasped or contained, it does not have clean lines or definable, it makes what is around it or beyond it hard to see. The fire: it is heat and untouchable and dangerous, to yourself and maybe to the land around it. Unseen, undefinable, untouchable, dangerous. This is the God that they have seen and is entering into relationship with. God has chosen these people to be in relationship with, these people to reflect the world as God intended it, to live in community. And they’re still not sure about this God. They camped at this mountain a year ago, and haven’t moved. Moses keeps going up and down it. They decided, yes!, we’ll be God’s people and Moses went up the mountain. He was gone a week, 2 weeks, a month, 40 days passed with no word, no message, nothing. Moses, and God, ghosted. Maybe Moses left them, or died on that mountain. Maybe God had left them. Maybe God decided to work with another group of nomadic Semites who have been waiting at the bottom of a mountain for a year!
It’s hard to blame that that they wanted something tangible, accessible, definable, containable. They wanted a god that they could touch, describe, relate. They took their spoils of their leaving Egypt, the gold they took from their captors and turned it into a bull: an symbol of power, virility, and strength. They took the tokens of a slave economy, twice stolen, once by the Egyptians through the labor of their slaves and then by the Hebrew slaves as they fled, and tried to turn it into a God that the needed right now. And there are 2 ways to look at what happened: either they made a god who resembled the gods of other nations OR they made an image of the God YHWH, who lead them out of Egypt who resembled gods of other nations, this is what Aaron tries to direct them towards. The first would mean that they abandoned the God who had just saved them, supplied water and food, set them free. The second would mean that they wanted the God they were entering into relationship with to be safe, manageable. One that stays where they put it and doesn’t disappear for 40 days.
But, as Audre Lord wrote “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” The Hebrew slaves would never become who they were called to be by participating in the slave holder’s economy and religion. They would celebrate for the day, but they would never really be free.
And up on that mountain, God sees and God knows and God isn’t pleased. I think that this is the God so many thing about when they consider the God of the Old Testament, an angry God but, that’s not really the God I see here. This is a God that was promised a faithful relationship and the people, before the ceremony was even complete, were off seeing someone else. This God is hurt, disappointed, broken hearted, and yes, that comes off as anger, like it does so often with us. And Moses, who the first time he was on this mountain pleaded to God not to send him to Egypt, now, not knowing what is going on, invites God to take a deep breath and remember the promises that God made to Abraham and Jacob and Isaac. These are your people, and they’re imperfect, like the ones with the fruit tree long ago, but they are still yours. And this is a moment where everyone decides who they will be.
Moses goes up and the down the mountain several times in the next few chapters, he never missing a leg day. In those conversation God revealed who God is, and who God intended to be to those Hebrew people. In chapter 34:
The Lord proclaimed,
‘The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation.
I wonder if God has ever seemed so far away. If days, weeks, months, years maybe even, have gone by without seeing God in the world around you, in the face of a loved one or stranger, without the miracle you have been praying for. First, I applaud your faithfulness to being here, online with today, still searching and waiting. Maybe it’s just been the last 6 months that feel like you’ve been stuck at the bottom of Saini, waiting for some answers, next steps, a plan, a leader.
I wonder if you’ve ever made an idol out of what you carry with you, become so impatient and fearful at the bottom of the mountain that you gave up the promised freedom and inheritance that you started to create something you can hold on to. No judgement, it’s easy to do. It’s easy to build security in things we can see, touch, contain, control. It’s socially acceptable to create based on what might give us power, virility, beauty, strength. If we built golden idols that reflected the world around us they might be to gods of wealth, power, privilege, sexism, racism, perfectionism, particular images of beauty, being the “right” kind of adult, checking off the right list. Anything we raise up to replace God with another. Or, we can look around and see that some have made God into these images: beautiful white Jesus, YHWH the God of guns and power, Jesus of a particular political party, hipster Jesus—because sometimes we think if we can make God to look enough like us, or them, we can convince them to join us. But we’ve just made God in our image, in the image of the world, and that image of God might serve us for a moment, but will never be liberating, will never set us, or anyone else, free.
God responded to the Hebrew people the same way God responds to all of God’s people: mercy, kindness, slow to anger, abounding in love and trustworthiness. There is forgiveness, grace, kindness, mercy. This God, who cannot be contained, will not be limited by our definitions, that might seem dangerous because we will never know what God will do next because God will not be controlled. This is the God that forgives beyond our comprehension, who keeps promises even when we miss all the marks. This God isn’t built on the past that we bring with us, on the baggage we carry, on the ways of the world. This God is something altogether different and all together new. So this is the God that can set us free from whatever holds us back and holds us down. Our own creations strength will fade, but God will empower us to act with justice and kindness. Our own concepts of beauty will never be enough but you are made in God’s image and called good. The powers and –isms of this world will topple, will succumb to the lies that they are, but God is steadfast in love and trustworthy, not going anywhere. God has not abandoned us, has not left us, has not forgotten us. God was faithful to the promises made with the Hebrews and is and will be faithful to the promises to us. Promises of hope, love, community.
So don’t give up hope, don’t’ give up on God or each other.