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“The Living Wilderness”
Sermon on Exodus 32: 1-8
How have the Israelites arrived at the train wreck that is the episode of the Golden Calf? Certainly there have been trying experiences in the wilderness, when their faith has been tested and found deficient, but nothing like this calamity. They have received the ten commandments, a set of fairly straightforward rules for living in God’s covenant that are hard to argue with: the first five say to love God and the second five say to love your neighbor. And of the first five, the ones about loving and honoring God, one is very explicit: “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of any created thing; you shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Ex. 20:4-5). Yet that is exactly what Aaron has done, with the full cooperation of the people. What on earth were they thinking? Why have they taken their future into their own hands in such a disastrous way?
Moses has remained up on Mount Sinai in a top-secret meeting with God, leaving a leadership vacuum at the foot of the mountain. Aaron, whom Moses has deputized to lead the people in his absence, has had what the rabbi and therapist Ed Friedman calls a “failure of nerve.” Aaron is aware of the increasing anxiety of the people as Moses shows no sign of coming down from his summit meeting. Aaron knows they are getting testy and impatient, complaining about their lost leader. The Israelites clearly have mixed feelings about Moses: they are alternately grateful for him and suspicious of him: they frequently complain that he has brought them out of the safety and good food of Egypt to die in the wilderness. But with Moses gone, they feel more anxious than ever, and the uncertainty about what lies ahead is torturing them. Aaron knows what is on their minds and in their hearts, but he doesn’t seem to know how to reassure them. It would help if he had simply said, “Don’t worry. It’s going to be all right. We’re in this together, but even more important, God is in this with us. God has made a covenant with us, and God keeps promises. We will not perish.”
If Aaron had sent that message to the people, they might have stopped their clamoring for “gods to go before us.” Instead, he got sucked into their anxiety, and capitulated to it. When things are uncertain, the easiest thing to do, the most expedient thing to do, is just to do something, and ask questions later -- anything to relieve the mounting stress. So Aaron calls the people together and asks them for their gold jewelry. They willingly hand it over, and Aaron – presto! -- produces the calf.
Now, it is quite likely that the incident of the golden calf described in Exodus 32 was written as a satire on the worship of the surrounding Canaanite tribes, who did craft bulls and other creatures as deities. It is almost certain that the people of Israel, if they did produce such an object, did not actually see it as a substitute for God. It was Moses they were missing, and Moses was just God’s messenger. When they asked Aaron to make “gods to go before us,” they were not really rejecting their true God, YHWH – at the same time, though, they were elevating this man-made object to a status it didn’t deserve and couldn’t fulfill.
The story of the golden calf is about a community that has lost its bearings. It is also a community in transition – they’ve been released from the bad old days in Egypt, but they haven’t yet reached the Promised Land. They are in that liminal space where the future is wide open. For some, the future shimmers with hope and possibility, like a shining city just barely visible on the horizon of the desert; for others, the future is full of threat and hopelessness, a place where nothing but danger and disappointment await them. The destiny of the people Israel is still to be determined: will they move forward in faithfulness, trusting in God to lead them in the right direction, or will they get stuck in the wilderness, filling the void with empty worship and riotous parties? Only trust in God, and patient waiting for God’s guidance, will help them to find their way forward.
When I became your interim pastor, one of my first jobs was to guide you in a mission study to help you define your congregational identity (values and personality) and begin thinking about some directions for the future that would be reflective of that identity. Over the course of several months, I met with your mission study team, which was a mixture of long-time “heritage” members and members who had joined MPC more recently. This team then led you in a series of small-group discussions around questions of core values, as well as hopes and worries about the future. As part of our scriptural reflection, we looked at some biblical images of “wilderness wandering” and tried to answer the question, “What does a church wandering in the wilderness look like and feel like?” Here are some of the responses: “a loss of focus,” uncertainty”; “a lack of clarity about direction”; a lack of ownership.” These responses reflected what many people who study churches say about churches that have lost their sense of direction: a loss of hopefulness, a sense that the past was more glorious than the present or the future; a fear of taking risks; feelings of anger or blame over the present situation (“we don’t know what this man Moses is doing”); looking for a quick fix to assuage the anxiety (“make gods for us”).
I will just say that I don’t think that this is a description of MPC now. I have seen in many of you a real sense of excitement about the future, a willingness to take some risks, and thankfulness for what the church has provided for you and your families over the years. When asked what they were grateful for, members of the mission study team pointed to things like the music and education program; ministries of compassion, like the Deacons and Stephen Ministers; ELC and BEACON; and the way members respond to the needs of members in crisis or trouble. They also expressed a wish, which has been echoed by many of you, for more hands-on ministry and mission trip opportunities, and especially a wish for “strong leadership” and a “readiness to do things.” I believe that going through this process of self-examination and looking at possibilities for the future helped you reduce your feelings of anxiety about an uncertain future, gave you the courage to try some new things, and restored hopefulness – the hopefulness and energy that led to the formation of a PNC and the search for your next pastor.
And then, just as you were getting through the “wilderness” of the interim period, and as the PNC moved through the last stages of preparing to call a new pastor, we entered the far more precarious, frightening wilderness of the covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing shutdown of the church building and curtailment of in-person worship and programs. You are now in a period of uncertainty greater than any of us might have imagined at this time last year. I know many of you are wondering, “When will we be able to have in-person worship again, and how will we get to know our new pastor under these conditions? When will we be able to do a hands-on mission project, or go to Montreat, or simply have a coffee hour?”
We are all suffering from quarantine fatigue, communities no less than individuals, and a faith community is sorely tested when its members can’t be together. But look at all the ways you have stayed together as a church: gathering every two weeks in the parking lot to make donations to SERVE, which are at an all-time high for this congregation; receiving new members from the 2019-20 confirmation class; offering in-person music and education on a safely-distanced rotation basis to our children and youth as well as adult classes via Zoom; carrying out an innovative stewardship campaign; electing your new pastor in MPC’s first online congregational meeting; and simply gathering virtually each Sunday for our live-streamed services. You are not just anxiously waiting for a change in circumstances, you are embracing a new situation with energy and imagination.
God provided the commandments and the tabernacle in the wilderness to assure the people of God’s continuing presence with them. They were still a long way from the “promised land,” but the wilderness – that place of uncertainty and risk – was not at all a dead place, it was alive with the Spirit of God. Along the way in the wilderness journey, God provided the people with the means to sustain them: the law, the foundation of the Hebrew Scriptures, and the tabernacle, a place and context for worship. Later, much later, after the wilderness, after the monarchy, and after the exile, God revealed the divine self in an even more miraculous way, in the person of Jesus Christ, who has brought us into the covenant, who assures us of God’s enduring presence with us, and who tells us not to be afraid.
The wilderness is a difficult place to be, but it is not a bad place to be. For the people of Israel, it was a place of spiritual formation and a time of transformation, a time of both struggle and joy as a frightened band of refugees became the people of God.
So, brothers and sisters in Christ, as you celebrate the past and the accomplishments of MPC’s “heritage” members and look to the future by preparing to welcome your new pastor, embrace the time you are in and live without fear of uncertainty. And then, with full and open-hearted trust that God is indeed with us, go into the world and offer hope, show compassion, and spread the word: God is always working.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
October 18, 2020