Summary: When the going gets tough, do you go with the flow or stand firm with confidence in God?
I thought about calling this sermon “Denial is a river in Egypt” but decided after considerable struggle that it was just a little bit TOO clever. Just because you forgive most of my puns doesn’t mean that I have a permanent free pass. But denial is a big part of what this passage is about, and of course even though the Israelites have left Egypt by this time they keep looking back. But it was a temptation. And, incidentally, temptation is also part of what this passage is about.
But denial... It’s a very big part of our culture. Just to give you a flavor of what I’m talking about, let me share with you a couple of tidbits from John Leo’s column in U.S. News and World Report called “The Top Ten Victims.”
Jeremy Strohmeyer went on 20/20 after being convicted of the rape-murder of a 7-year-old girl in a Las Vegas Casino, and portrayed himself as an unloved, abused, whacked-out, drugged-out alcoholic who should really not be blamed for his crime. At his trial he blamed the following: a therapist, a former girlfriend, Los Angeles County adoption officials, his friend David Cash, for not intervening to stop the murder, and the casino.
Harold Crall, a Kentucky gynecologist, surrendered his medical license in 1994 after having what he called “inappropriate contact with female patients.” The licensing board let him resume practicing medicine, but only if he worked for the state corrections department and never saw another female patient. Now Crall claims he is a victim of sexual addiction and is suing his insurance company for $8,700/month in disability benefits.
Blaine Gamble, a Canadian Indian, was charged with bank robbery in Pennsylvania. He told the court he was a victim of cultural insanity, due to “unwarranted exposure, victimization, and repetitive confrontation with white racism.”
Well, that’s only 3 out of the 10, and of course we could cite dozens more instances of people denying responsibility for their behavior. But it’s only one kind of the denial that pervades our society. We deny the reality of aging and death, warehousing unwanted seniors and advocating - first assisted suicide, and all too soon that slides into euthanasia. We deny truth by putting our perceptions and preferences at the center of our moral decisions.
Denial of death, denial of truth, denial of responsibility... when you say it too often it stops making any sense, doesn’t it? But what it all boils down to is attempt after attempt to avoid facing unpleasant realities. And it can work, for a time.
Today’s passage contains three kinds of unpleasant reality, and three different ways of facing it - or, to be more precise, one way of facing it, and two ways of avoiding it.
The first adverse situation comes right at the very beginning.
Seven chapters before this one, Moses disappears. The last verse of Chapter 24 reads, “Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” [Ex 24:18] That’s a long time, over a month. And the people begin to worry. There they were, out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by enemies, and the only man who knew where they were going had vanished. So they decided to take matters into their own hands.
They went to Moses’ deputy, Aaron, and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." [Ex 32:1]
There are a lot of things wrong with this scenario. How many can you think of, right off the top of your head?
First, 40 days wasn’t really all that long. It was the typical length of time for a ritual purification, a solemn occasion like a period of fasting.
Second, Moses hadn’t just disappeared. He told the elders where he was going and why, and said, "Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them." [Ex24:14] He was expecting to come back, and he hadn’t let them down yet, had he?
Third, the Israelites knew better. They all knew how powerful YHWH God was, and how much to be feared. They had seen what he had done in Pharaoh’s court, they had seen what had happened to Pharaoh’s armies. They had followed the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. God had fed them and led them and protected them. And he had spoken to them, as well, giving very specific instructions about how they were to worship. After Moses gave them the ten commandments,
"... all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, 'You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.' Moses said... 'Don’t be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.' Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. YHWH said... 'You have seen for yourselves that I spoke with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver alongside me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold..'" [Ex 20:18-23]