Summary: A Sermon on the holiness of God amidst a people of stiff necks who tend toward idolatry and seek to domesticate God.
INTRODUCTION: Not to be Bargained With
One of the volumes of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is the creation story of the world of Narnia, where animals talk; a land ruled by the Christ-like Lion Aslan. In this book, called The Magician’s Nephew, a little boy named Digory, whose mother is dying, finds himself in a newly-created Narnia, brought into existence by the voice of Aslan. But Digory has also brought evil into this pristine world, and so he must now face Aslan:
“Son of Adam,” said Aslan. “Are you ready to undo the wrong that you have done to my sweet country of Narnia on the very day of its birth?” “Well, I don’t see what I can do,” said Digory. “You see, the Queen ran away and—”
“I asked, are you ready,” said the Lion.
“Yes,” said Digory. He’d had for a second some wild idea of saying “I’ll try to help you if you’ll promise to help about my Mother,” but he realized in time that the Lion was not at all the sort of person one could try to make bargains with. But when he had said “Yes,” he thought of his Mother, and he thought of the great hopes he had had, and how they were all dying away, and a lump came in his throat and tears in his eyes, and he blurted out:
“But please, please—won’t you—can’t you give me something that will cure Mother?” Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great front feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at [his] face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.
“My son, my son,” said Aslan. “I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another.”
There are two very profound thoughts here. The first is that Aslan is not one to be bargained with. He cannot be manipulated. He cannot be controlled. He is not a tame Lion. But secondly, when Digory looks up into the Lion’s face, he finds not wrath, but sadness and compassion, love and mercy. Now, in the story of the golden bull, the story of Israel’s greatest sin, we see the face of God’s wrath, but we end with the face of the LORD’s mercy. The people of God were playing with fire, and they were very close to getting burned. But because of Moses, who pleads for them, who defends a people who are indefensible, we see the face of God’s compassion, his devotion to those who, for all the world, seem like a hopeless case.
I. THOSE OF THE STIFF NECKS
This is the story—not just of something that happened thousands of years ago. It is a story that reveals who God’s people are, not just something they did once. It is the story of those of the stiff-necks. It is a story about all of us.
First, a little Bible history review: The Hebrew people were slaves in Egypt, toiling away to build Pharaoh’s pyramids. But they were the LORD’s people, not the property of the Egyptian king; so the LORD warned Pharaoh, afflicting his nation with ten nasty plagues until Pharaoh relented. But then Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army after Moses. The LORD opened up the sea for his children to pass through, and then destroyed the army of Pharaoh with a flood when he let the walls of water come crashing down.
But the children of Israel turned out to be grumblers. They grumbled against the LORD, and they grumbled against their leader: God’s spokesman, Moses. For them, it was “out of sight, out of mind.” Whenever there was not a visible, tangible sign of God’s presence, they assumed he had left them on their own. “Where’s that Moses fellow?” they start to grumble. “Well, if he’s not here to boss us around, then we’ll do things our own way, and take matters into our own hands.” And that is the beginning of every sin; it’s the first step away from God, and into disaster.
The people want Aaron to make this golden bull because they want a visible sign of God’s presence with them. The ironic thing is—Moses is up on the mountain getting instructions to build the Tabernacle—the tent-temple that will be a concrete, visible sign of the LORD’s presence and protection. But these people have no patience for that. They want something now.