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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 10/09/2011

This is a day when it would have been more appropriate to have Tom read the lesson from Matthew first and then for me to read the Holy Gospel according to Exodus the 32nd chapter.  It’s one of those weeks when there isn’t much gospel in the gospel, not much good news what with people being killed, cities being burned, someone being thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The gospel of the Lord?  I don’t know. 

Believe it or not, there’s more gospel in the story of the golden calf than there is in Jesus’ parable.  It’s a story with two scenes running simultaneously and we have four main characters, Moses, the Lord, Aaron and the people of Israel. 

Moses had been gone for awhile up on the mountain, forty days and forty nights.  That is a long time.  With him gone that long, the people of Israel who he had been leading since they left Egypt, started to wonder, is he ever coming back?  Did something happen up there?  Had the Lord himself given up on this project?  So they go to Aaron, Moses’ right hand man, and tell him, “Make us a god!”  Now Aaron seems like a classic, “give ‘em what they want” kind of guy.  He doesn’t want a rebellion on his hands, he wants to stay in their good graces so he says, “Give me all your gold rings,” and they did. 

Aaron took all the gold, cast it in the form of a calf and the people said, “This is our God who brought us out of the land of Egypt.”  Now Aaron knew that wasn’t true, but rather than contradict them he tried, on the one hand, to play along, but on the other to get himself off the hook.  He built an altar in front of the calf, but then declared that “Tomorrow will be a festival to the Lord, Yahweh.”  So he feels like he’s giving the people what they want, but at the same time he wants to be able to say that the calf represents the true God, the Lord.  Nice try Aaron, but what he had done was to create a false image of the true God.  That would be like someone allowing the building, or the old red hymnal or the old building downtown or the writings of Martin Luther for that matter, to be more important to them than worshiping God and of course we would never do that. 

Meanwhile, back on the mountain, the Lord notes what’s going on and he’s not happy.  He says to Moses, “You better get down there.  Your people have screwed up in a big way and I’ve had it with them.”  Now, if I’m Moses, when I hear that, when I hear “your people” I’m ready to explode.  “What do you mean ‘your people??’  They aren’t my people, they’re your people.  I didn’t want to be here in the first place.  You called me, I didn’t call you.  I’m just stuck in the middle of all this all the time and I’m sick of it!

That’s what I would have said.  Moses was more patient though.  The Lord continued to vent, saying “Just leave me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, but of you I will make a great nation.  Now hold it right there.  Do you see the position this puts Moses in?  The Lord wants Moses to decide whose side he’s on as the Lord is ready to eliminate the whiny, disobedient people of Israel and start over with Moses.  I think this is what psychologists call triangling; one person is mad at another and tries to get a third party to side with them against whoever they’re mad at.  That’s what the Lord is doing with Moses.

In this case though, Moses is the more rational of the two.  He had reason to be upset too.  He had issues with the people, and as I said, he had reason to be frustrated with God too.  But he stays cool.  He stays cool rather than blow up like I think I would have.  Moses subtly and gently reminds the Lord that these are his people. “Why does your wrath burn hot against your people, who you brought up out of the land of Egypt with a mighty hand,” a little play on the Lord’s vanity there too and that play continues with his next statement.  “Why should the Egyptians be able to say the only reason you brought these people out of slavery was so you could wipe them out in the wilderness?”  It’s the old “What will the neighbors think?  What’s going to happen to your reputation?”  Moses plays on the Lord’s pride and vanity.  Don’t do this for them or for me, do this for yourself.

“Change your mind,” Moses says.  “Turn from your wrath.  Remember who you are.  Remember the promise you made to Abraham to Isaac and to Jacob.  And what do you know?  The Lord changed his mind. He changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on his people.

That doesn’t mean that they all lived happily ever after.  There was a price to pay.  Moses went down from the mountain and heard and saw what was going on so he confronted Aaron asking, “What did these people do to you that made you do this?”  And Aaron, true to form, trying to protect himself, in what I think is one of the more humorous exchanges in the entire Bible says, “Well you now how these people are.  They don’t trust you, they don’t trust God.  They told me to make a god for them.  I told them to give me their gold, I threw it all into the fire and out came this calf! Who woulda thunk it? 

There was a price to pay; there were consequences for all this, but the Lord didn’t give up on the people.  He wanted to, but Moses talked him out of it, and I think that’s significant.  This story is often interpreted as being a caution concerning idolatry, and it is, but I think even more it’s a story about God changing his mind.  It’s a story where God is not the only one who has something important to say.  It’s a story in which Moses is the truth teller, reminding the Lord who he is and in order to be who he is, he has to keep his promises and I find that tremendously significant.

God has invited us into a relationship where we can have our say.  It’s not a relationship where we are expected to be respectfully submissive all the time.  A story like this suggests that God can learn from us, that we too have important things to say, but that’s not how we usually think about ourselves or God.

Today’s parable is awful.  Nobody can make sense of it, especially the ending when people are invited in off the street and then someone is cast into the outer darkness for coming in off the street without the proper wedding garment.  Of course he doesn’t have the proper wedding garment, he just came off the street.  In all the commentaries I’ve ever read on the parable I have yet to find what I think is an adequate explanation.  The best one for me is that this version of the parable is more the work of Matthew than it is of Jesus so we can blame Matthew for it; he had some angry axes to grind and he’s just using Jesus to support his agenda.  If that’s the case he wouldn’t be the last one to use that tactic. 

Anyway, that’s a possibility.  I’m going to propose another interpretation though.  Let’s say this is the work of Jesus.  What Jesus needed was for one of the disciples to be Moses for him.  He needed Peter or someone to say, “Wait a minute.  This doesn’t sound like you.  Aren’t you supposed to represent grace and forgiveness and new possibilities?  Aren’t your people those last people invited to the banquet?  If you start throwing them into the outer darkness where there’s weeping and gnashing of teeth, how are you different from what the world is already doing to those people?  If that’s who you are, what’s the point of this suffering and dieing you’re talking about?  It’s not going to change anything.

Jesus needed a Moses to set things straight.  He needed a Moses to remind him that if he was the messiah he was to embody steadfast love not judgment that leads to the outer darkness. 

Nobody challenged Jesus that day though.  So maybe it’s a call to us to offer a challenge whenever Christianity is defined primarily by wrath and judgment on any who don’t fit the right mold.  It’s an awful parable, but maybe there is a message for us.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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