Sermon - 14 Pentecost
In the Name...
I’ve always wondered why Aaron was not punished for making the golden calf. I found out he got off on a legal technicality. His lawyer pointed out that he made it before Moses brought the Commandments down from the mountain. But, Aaron did suffer because he had to melt it down to pay his legal fees.
In the first lesson, today, the Exodus from Egypt has been an incredible success and Moses has gone up Mt. Sinai to pick up his copy of the Ten Commandments. But, the people he's left down at the bottom are understandably getting a bit restless because he's been gone for a long time, forty days, in fact. They wonder if Moses and his God have done a bunk and abandoned them, so they make a god for themselves - a golden calf - and they curse Moses for leading them nowhere.
God, of course, sees all this and apparently becomes furious. He tells Moses, "Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely...they have been quick to turn aside...Let me alone that my wrath may consume them....and of you I will make a great nation."
Well, that sort of thing sounds very Old Testament, doesn't it? The god who shoots first and asks questions later. But, is that really a fair way to look at God, and is that, in fact, what's going on here? Now, what was it God said to Moses, "Your people, whom you brought". Excuse me, hold on. I believe God is mistaken.
Hey, it wasn't Moses' idea to lead the Exodus - it was God's. In fact, Moses did everything he could to try to get out of it and he was always complaining he didn't want the job. As for them being his people, they were God's people and had been since Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Did God just forget the entire Book of Genesis? And to top it off, God offers Moses the chance to be the founder of a new nation.
Forget the Hebrews. Moses could be the new Abraham. His name would be the one people would remember.
So, what does Moses do? Does he grab the prize and wash his hands of all his problems? No. He refuses the offer and he doesn't try to get out of the job he hates. Instead of cursing them, he defends a people who have given him nothing but grief and, on their behalf, he tries to embarrass and shame God. Think about that. Moses tries to shame God by telling Him that, if He destroys the Hebrews, the Egyptians will say nasty things about Him. "Their god brought them out to slay them."
Now, somehow, I don't think that God was very interested in what the Egyptians thought about him, as if ten plagues and wiping out their army in the Red Sea made them friends. So, Moses' argument is more than a little pathetic. But, it's exactly what God wants to hear. It's exactly what God wants to hear. You see, this scene isn't about God being angry, it's about Moses not being angry. God is testing Moses just as He tested Abraham. Never mind the golden calf; Moses has the golden opportunity. Would he take advantage of it?
That's a tough test. Remember, Moses had been an Egyptian prince and general. He could have been Pharaoh, the most powerful ruler in the Ancient World. And he gave that up to lead an ungrateful rabble of ex-slaves and herdsmen. Do you think he didn't have second thoughts? Maybe Moses was the angry one, carrying grudges, lost dreams about what "might have been."
Anger is a powerful force in our world and in our lives. We've all been angry. I get angry. In our anger we call down fire on those who have offended us, but, funny thing, we end up being the ones who burn within. We justify our anger with elaborate excuses. Maybe we say we're standing up for our rights, or the right way of doing things, or because someone has disrespected or offended us. Of course, we all know we're not perfect, we're just never wrong.
Well, it may seem that Moses gets God to change His mind, but, it's really Moses who changes. When the chips are down he puts aside his personal feelings and decides to stick to the plan. God never intended to abandon His people. But, He had to make sure that Moses wouldn't.
Jesus told two parables in our Gospel today - one about a lost sheep and the other about a lost coin - and the emphasis was on the joy that comes when that which was lost is found and these parables remind us both what God's purpose and our purpose is to be in this world.
The passage said, "all the tax collectors were coming to listen to Jesus". That's important. Tax collectors were Jews who had joined the Romans to oppress their fellow Jews. They were detested by their own people and treated with contempt by the masters they served. They were people who had to develop a thick skin to survive, who had to be totally self-centred and blind to the needs and suffering around them. They were angry people.
That's why the Pharisees couldn't understand how Jesus could claim to teach the word of God - a word which says that each and every person has to live a holy life - and yet socialize with the most unholy sinners on earth. They couldn't understand why Jesus didn't preach hellfire and brimstone, why he didn't berate them and call down curses on their heads. Instead, he told them not to lose hope and be less angry and hard-hearted. He told them that God loved them and even felt sorry for them.
He even told them that it was all right to be a tax-collector and work for the Romans as long as they didn't use their position to cheat or extort.
For the Pharisees, all this mercy was distressing, to say the least because the Pharisees practiced holiness by separation. They avoided contact with the ungodly and looked down upon them. The name "Pharisee" even means "the separated ones". Jesus, on the other hand, practiced holiness by encounter. He brought God to where He was needed most. He even marched into hell itself for a heavenly cause. Separation is the fruit of anger. Encounter is the fruit of love.
From India comes the story of an old man who would meditate by the river. One day, he saw a scorpion floating on a branch and reached out to rescue it, but, the scorpion stung him. Still, he tried again and was stung again, the bites swelling his hand painfully. Another man, passing by, saw this and shouted, "Hey, what's wrong with you, old man? Don't you know you could be killed by that horrible creature?" The old man calmly replied, "My friend, it is the nature of the scorpion to sting. It is my nature to save."
It is God's nature to save because it is God's nature to love and we are made in the image and likeness of God. In love, God seeks the lost, heals the wounded, forgives the offender, and gives hope to those who are in despair. We sting God by falling into sin, showing anger, and making golden calves. But, God still reaches out for us. That is what the Cross was all about. And, the least we can do, is reach out for each other.
So, let us relent of whatever anger we have and work to save as we have been saved; by encounter, not separation, and so fulfil the will of God.
In the Name...