Last week, we had a great morning with our friends at the United Methodist Church. I read the story of the Hebrew slaves being freed from slavery in Egypt. They had to leave behind their stuff and were only able to take what they could carry. The coming journey was unknown and required them to trust God who spoke through Moses.
The next 40 years in the wilderness would be about freeing them from the mentality of slavery. They had left the oppression of their slave master, but their minds were still living with a slave mentality. They would need their time in the wilderness with God learning to trust that with God there is freedom and with God there is enough.
This story from Exodus chapter 32 I read this morning is a moment in the transformation of the Hebrew people. It is a story we think as familiar, but I want to interpret it differently for us this morning to offer us a new perspective on an old story. I’ll get to why I have all these images of Christ and symbols of our faith up here this morning. Some may think it looks nice; others may think it looks cluttered. But, I have a point.
Our story begins with the people gathered at the bottom of Mt Sinai waiting for Moses to return. Moses had gone up the mountain to speak with God and the people became impatient. I want to back up a few chapters to tell you what Moses and the people have been up to. Moses had spoken to God on the mountain. He came down and shared with the people everything God had said, including the 10 commandments. The people, in chapter 24 of Exodus, say, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.”
God invited Moses back up to the mountaintop to receive tablets with everything written down. At the end of chapter 31, we are told God gave Moses 2 tablets with the covenant law written by God. We don’t know how long Moses has been up there with God, but it was long enough the people got impatient.
The people went to Aaron, a priest, and asked for something. I know many of us think that the people asked Aaron to make them gods. We think Aaron is making a false God. But, the translation of the English from the Hebrew interprets this text for us rather than allowing us to interpret the text. The Hebrew says the people asked for Aaron to make them Elohim. Elohim is the plural form of the word God and was a name for The God of the people.
In the Hebrew, the people were asking not for a false god; they were asking for a false image of the True God. This is a difference in the violation of different commandments. Of the 10 commandments, #1 says “you shall have no other gods before me.” #2 says “you shall not make an image. You shall not bow down or worship them.” If we read the Hebrew, we know that the people were violating commandment #2 prohibiting them from creating images, not #1 about having other gods.
The people need this image because they have forgotten the presence of God. Without their leader Moses, they think they have no representative of God. In fact, they’re a little confused on who released them from Egypt. Verse 1 says, “As for this fellow Moses, who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.” The people seem to not understand who freed them from Egypt, God or Moses. Without Moses, God’s representative, they have forgotten what God did for them.
Aaron decided to make them the image of a calf. The calf would be a familiar image of a deity to them because the calf was associated with Egyptian and Canaanite gods. This would have confused the people even more about who God is and how He is present with them.
Aaron asks everyone to bring their gold earrings to him so he can make an image for them. So, they all took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. The earrings would have been a sign of their slavery. In Egypt, the Pharaoh wore a crown and slaves wore earrings. The way someone wore gold was a sign of their station in life. The people, though free from slavery, were still wearing signs of their slavery and oppression – a sign that the slavery was still in their mind.
Aaron melted down the earrings and made an image of a calf. He gave the calf to the people and said, “these are your gods.” We can see another problem with the Hebrew interpretation. The Bible says Aaron made A calf but says “these are your gods.” The word gods again is one of the Hebrew names for God. Aaron says God is the one who brought you out of Egypt.
This calf was to remind them of God. It wasn’t a false god to worship; it was a false image of the True God. Aaron said the next day they would hold a feast to the Lord. The Hebrew word for Lord is the word Yahweh, a more familiar name for God. In Aaron’s presentation of the calf to the people, he has not said the calf will replace God; he said the calf is God, the same God the people have been getting know this whole time in the wilderness.
The people needed a physical representation of God. In the absence of God’s representative Moses, they wanted something tangible to remind them of God and what God had done for them. The Hebrew people standing at the base of the mountain wanted a physical God, not a God of a mysterious presence with no audible voice. They wanted a Jesus. They wanted a man they could see and touch and hear.
We have a both / and faith. We had a physical God in the incarnation when God became human in Jesus Christ. We had Jesus who lived and breathed and walked among His people. He could be seen and heard. We both have and don’t have what they wanted. We had God in the incarnation, but He is now with us in a, once again, mysterious presence who cannot be seen or heard or touched with our physical senses.
We can understand what they wanted in a physical reminder of God’s presence. That’s why we have all these pictures of Jesus and symbols of our faith that remind us that Jesus is real and He lived and remind us what He did for us. They couldn’t melt down their earrings to make crosses. They couldn’t paint pictures of God, because no one had seen God.
So, Aaron melted down their earrings and made a calf. The calf was something they could focus on, something they could look at and be reminded of God. The calf wasn’t about the people forgetting about God and moving onto a new false god. The calf was a response to the people’s desperate plea to know where God is.
We wear crosses as a sing of our faith. We read our Bibles because we want to know the word of God. We eat the Lord’s Supper which offers us tangible elements representing Christ’s body and bloody. We come to church in the hope of our faith being renewed by the fellowship of other believers through singing and praying together worshipping God. We are inspired by messages on our church marquee. We have all these things to remind us of Jesus. They didn’t have those things.
If you’ve been out to Elim Springs Church of Jesus Christ out in the country between Bethany and Sullivan, you’ve seen that there are no signs or symbols in their sanctuary. Their stained glass don’t have images of Jesus or symbols that remind us of Jesus. They don’t have a cross. They don’t have a communion table. They don’t have a baptistery. If you’re like me, you’ve wondered why they don’t have those things in their church or why they don’t take communion or baptize. We who value these signs and pictures and symbols wonder how they can worship without those.
I wonder…what would we ask for if we didn’t have crosses and Bibles and communion tables and pictures of Jesus?
Wouldn’t we too be desperate for something we could hear, see, touch and taste to remind us of God?
I thought about this morning and how I wanted to set up our altar for this message. I thought about taking out all the crosses, including the Christian flag. I thought about taking out the communion table and not have communion this week. I thought about all the ways I could take remove our tangible or physical reminders of Jesus. I decided against that because I didn’t want to get up on a ladder and take down Larry’s cross in the back.
Instead, I took almost everything in the church that was a picture of Jesus or a cross, nativity set, or communion set and put it on display for us. Even when we don’t have the Christmas tree up or the big cross for Easter, we have lots of things to look at or touch that remind us of God’s physical presence in Jesus 2000 years ago and that reminds us that in some mysterious way He is with us today.
I don’t think we should judge too harshly the Hebrew people’s need for an image of God, because we have all these images. We would be as desperate as they were to see or touch or hear God if we didn’t have our pictures and crosses. Amen.