Summary: Sheep wander off and get lost because they’re stupid. We know better and still do it anyway, so I’m not sure just how smart that makes us.
Other Scripture used:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God, grant me the Serenity to accept the people I cannot change, the Courage to change the one I can, and the Wisdom to know it’s me.
Naval aviation training includes an indoctrination session in what looks like a ride from some amusement park. The device takes up an entire huge room, and has individual containers attached to a larger wheel, allowing the person inside to be spun in multiple directions as the main wheel spins around. It’s also pitch black inside, except for a tiny pinpoint of red light you’re told to focus on so you can report whether the light moved left or right. And most of the time, we get it wrong.
The official name of the training mechanism is the “Multispatial Disorientation Device,” but no one ever calls it that. Everyone refers to it by the more popular nickname: “Spin and Puke.”
Its purpose is to let you feel what it’s like when your eyes and your inner ear, which controls your balance, are fooled either by darkness or clouds or g-forces. The future pilots learn that if they trust their own eyes and ears and instincts, they will crash and die because our bodies are easily fooled. Flight instruments are not so easily fooled. So the students learn to trust their instruments and live, or trust themselves and die.
Our reading in Exodus today shows what happens when we rely on ourselves instead of the instruments of salvation that God provides.
The Israelites had witnessed ten plagues while they were slaves in Egypt. After the final plague killing the first-born of everyone who did not follow the guideline the Lord gave Moses for Passover, the Egyptians even gave the Israelites gold and jewels as they sent them out of Egypt to be free.
When Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army after them, the Israelites saw the waters of the sea open up so they could all pass through on dry ground, and then saw the sea close back up on top of the Egyptian army.
They had seen God’s presence when they were instructed in building the tabernacle, a portable temple in the wilderness to worship God. They had seen the consecration of Aaron as their priest and the offerings and sacrifices each day.
As Moses went up the mountain, receiving the Ten Commandments from God, these same Israelites became anxious because they believed Moses was taking to long.
So they went to Aaron to explain the situation and find a way to calm everyone down. And like a typical human leader, Aaron chose the path of least resistance.
The Lectionary leaves out verses 2-6, but I think it’s important for us to realize that Aaron’s actions had a disastrous effect on God’s people — and he was the highest ranking clergy member there. Verses 2-6 read,
"Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.”They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel."
Aaron wasn’t trying to do something evil, he was actually trying to keep God’s people quiet and at peace with each other until his brother Moses could come back down the mountain with a better idea.
The people were used to worshipping golden statues of various animals in Egypt, so this Golden Calf could focus their attention again. And if they were all focused on worshipping something, even if it’s the wrong thing, at least it’s worship — and that means their hearts are in the right place doesn’t it?
We hear the same thing today, don’t we? “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe in something,” “all religions are true and lead to God,” “being a good person is all that matters, not what you believe.”
But those ideas, just like Aaron’s idea about the golden calf, are examples of following our own idea of what’s good or bad, instead of obeying God’s idea of what’s good and bad. The Book of Common Prayer, on Page 848, defines sin as seeking after our own will instead of the will of God.