The Case for Grace
The story of Exodus 32 is one of the darkest chapters in the relationship between humanity and God. Moses has been gone a little too long; people get impatient. So Aaron allows himself to be persuaded to assume the mantle of Moses. The people want a god who will lead them out of the wilderness, so (by golly) Aaron is going to make one.
They gather as much gold as they can—they’ve no doubt learned in Egypt that golden gods are more impressive—and it is fashioned into the shape of a calf. The choice of that shape was probably obvious—that area has a long history of worshipping gods appearing as bulls or calves: there was Gugalanna in Mesopotamia, Apis in Egypt, Baal of the Canaanites, Seri & Hurri of the Hattians, Gavaevodata and others in Zoroastrian Iran, and so on. In the agrarian world of the Ancient Near East, bovids were obvious symbols of power, strength, fertility, food, and wealth—everything you might want in a god.
The golden calf whose construction Aaron oversees hardly seems to have cooled after coming out of the mold before the Israelites proclaim it to be the “gods…who led [us] out of the land of Egypt” (v.4). Aaron, seeing how quickly they have taken to the statue, tries to give their awe some religious shape. He builds an alter in front of the statue, and he proclaims the next day to be a feast day to YHWH. Aaron does seem to be trying to steer them back from the brink of idolatry, but his nuance—that the festival is to YHWH God—seems lost on the reveling Israelites, who are quite pleased with the god they have created.
Meanwhile, however…… Moses is with YHWH God, as he has been these past weeks, and when God sees what the Israelites are doing, God…flips…out…
Every parent has a breaking point. Your children can push and push and push and you can handle it……until you can’t. When the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back gently alights on top of the heaping pile that has been slung at you…… well… you’re done. In our house we remind the children that grown ups need time outs too.
My own mother had a particular “tell,” you might call it—something that she always did when you crossed that line. It was simple enough and quiet enough, but it never happened unless you were unfortunate or stupid enough to cross that line. When that happened: silence would descend on the room, as though all the oxygen was being sucked out of the space. And we would instantly recall her reminder that we were the four children who survived……so far.
When God realizes what the Israelites have done, I imagine the already thin mountain air seemed even more scarce. I imagine the silence and solitude of this mountaintop became suddenly crushing. And then God spoke.
God no longer feels a personal connection with these people. These are Moses‘ people. People who never do what I, God, have asked. These are people who have not and will not learn. They are too stubborn. They are too selfish to be who I, God, want them to be. I…am…done…with them.
God wants to quit the Israelites altogether—to wipe them off the face of the earth and start over with Moses.
But Moses won’t leave. Moses makes a case for grace.
A Case for Grace
It’s important to see that the argument Moses makes has nothing to do with the Israelites—not really.
He does not offer promises he cannot fulfill, claiming it won’t happen again (which, coincidently enough it does—1Kgs 12:28-29: golden calves set up by Jeroboam at Dan & Bethel, which are claimed to be the “gods…who led you out of Egypt”).
Moses does not try to make commitments for them (we Baptists know and profess that no one can make a commitment for anyone else).
Instead, his entire argument rests on who God is.
God is concerned about the Israelites belittling God’s name, but Moses reminds God that destroying them will do the same.
Not only that, but it was God who chose the Israelites—they are “your people,” Moses says (v.12). These are folks with whom God has a history and a relationship—not something to be tossed aside lightly.
And God is a God who keeps promises—that is what all the ancient stories are about, the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You can’t be a God who keeps promises if you’re going to break promises.
Moses argues (in a nutshell) that it is not true to God’s nature to destroy people who do wrong. God’s nature is faithfulness, loyalty, steadfast love, and mercy. That is who God is, so that is how God needs to act.
I can’t imagine being half as gutsy as Moses. But I’m glad for what he does here, and I’m glad that those putting together the canon of the Bible didn’t try to edit out the scenes where things went wrong. This story tells us a lot about who God is—then and now—and it can similarly reveal much of who we are.
If God’s actions need to be rooted in God’s nature, rather than the nature of those God interacts with, then the faithful should do likewise. Our actions should be rooted in our nature as faithful followers of God through Jesus Christ. Our relationships should be marked not by who others are, but exclusively by who we are. In other words: how we treat people should have nothing to do with who they are and everything to do with who we are.
Moses makes a case for grace, which should be the dominant characteristic of the Christian life, as well. Second Timothy 1:9 reminds us who we are in this regard when he says “[God] has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (NIV11).
The “holy life” for which we are saved and to which we are called is one that spreads God’s grace throughout the world, like the smell of something delicious and wholesome—like fresh baked bread.
In the Bible—and especially in the wake of Jesus Christ—grace is tied up in the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness might well be defined as “grace in action,” and reconciliation is simultaneously the will of God, the work of Jesus, and the ministry of Jesus’ followers—you and me.
According to Colossians 1:20, “[Jesus] bled peace into the world by His death on the cross as God’s means of reconciling to Himself the whole creation—all things in heaven and all things on earth” (VOICE).
This activity of grace—this work of reconciliation—is made possible through the cross of Jesus Christ. But without faithful people leaving into such a calling, God’s desires will not be achieved. That is why 2Corinthians 5 speaks directly about how we are to embody Jesus’ work of reconciliation by extending grace into the world.
There, we read that “[God] has given us the same mission, the ministry of reconciliation” (v.18, VOICE).
There, we read that “[God] charges us to proclaim the message that heals and restores our broken relationships” (v.19, VOICE).
There, we read that we are ambassadors—representatives!—of Jesus, charged with “urging all people on behalf of Christ to become reconciled to God” (v.20, VOICE).
This is who we are. Paul proclaims in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ—I am no longer alive—but Christ is living in me; and whatever life I have left in this failing body I live by the faithfulness of God’s son, the One who loves me and gave his body for me” (VOICE).
This is the reality of who we are that must drive all of our interactions.
Prayer of St. Francis
Today is the 15th memorial of the Sept 11 attacks. A colleague shared just this week of a chaplain friend working in New York City. She said over 1000 firefighters are experiencing illnesses related to 9/11, and they are doing a funeral every other week on account of it. Though a decade and a half have passed, there are many who are still in desperate need of physical, emotional, and spiritual healing from the trauma inflicted that day. The culture of our nation has shifted dramatically toward fear, a motivation (the Bible tells us in 1John) is diametrically opposed to the love we are called to breathe back into the world. Families and friendships are torn apart by offenses real and imagined, and we still have a month to go before the most polarizing election in our nation’s recent history finally comes to a close.
If we, sisters and brothers in Christ, do not make the case for grace in our world, then we have abandoned our calling and turned away from our Savior and from God’s desires for creation.
But if you, like me, want to repent of the idols you have built……
If you, like me, pray for God’s steadfast love and mercy to be enough for another second chance……
If you, like me, need your heart changed—aligned with God’s desires once again……
Then please join me as we pray together the Prayer of St. Francis, included as an insert in your bulletin today.
Let us pray:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.