Exodus 32 =:1--24 NRSV
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around 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.” 2 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.” 3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold,[a] 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!” 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6 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.
7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” 9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant[b] in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. 16 The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. 17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” 18 But he said,
“It is not the sound made by victors,
or the sound made by losers;
it is the sound of revelers that I hear.”
19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
21 Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” 22 And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods, 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.’ 24 So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”
Have you ever made a promise and then gone back on your word? Most of us have at one time or another.
Sometimes it is because we didn’t think it is important. We made the promise carelessly.
Sometimes we can’t help it. We have promised things that weren’t within our grasp.
But there are times when we break really big promises, like the vows we make in marriage. Or the vows we take when we join the church or when we are ordained as deacons, elders, or pastors in the church.
I will never forget when I was ordained as an Elder. It was unusual, but I was the only new Elder, since I was taking over an open position. So there, in front of several hundred of my closest friends, I went forward. It really did feel like I was being married, because I knew something important. Ordination in the church is permanent. All of you who have been ordained do not drop the title just because you go off Session.
In fact, the whole experience might have been overwhelming if the pastor hadn’t made a mistake and called me by my daughter’s name. To this day, we swear that she has been officially ordained as an Elder in the church.
Next month our youth will begin to study the promises they will make as they undergo confirmation. They will learn the seriousness of these promises.
But the other promises you make that might be more familiar is the promise of marriage. This too is intended to be permanent.
I checked with the national statistics on marriages, and found something very interesting. It was a paper that compared cohabitation to marriage.
In the first five years, the likelihood of divorce is only 20%. However, couples who were simply living together had a likelihood of separating of 49%.
The statistics for 10 years were equally as dramatic, with divorce being at 33%, but split ups of couples living together being 62%. Marriage vows matter.
As much as I love weddings, they can be particularly hard to perform. We are not going to go into detail about issues I have encountered, including couples forgetting their license, blizzards, dresses not showing up, and other scary things that happen.
It is easy to talk about bad things happening, but even more horrific to live through them.
I remember the first wedding I was supposed to conduct at Longwood. I had met with the bride and had invited her and her fiancé up to Longwood for a meeting and mandatory counseling session. The wedding was coming quickly, and we wanted to go over everything as well.
I arrived early and waited. And waited. And waited. At one hour, I called her, and discovered her cell phone was not available. At two hours I left.
A few days later I finally received a call. The very day that she and her fiancé were scheduled to come up to meet with me, he called the wedding off. Actually, he moved out and moved in with the other woman he had been seeing. Since she was on the same cell phone plan, he had shut hers off.
I cannot imagine the betrayal she felt that day.
I told you these stories because I want you to understand how important it was that the Israelites broke their promises on that day.
They hadn’t just been introduced to God, they had been following God all the way to this point.
It started with the miracles of the plagues. It wasn’t just that God inflicted them upon the Egyptians, but that he protected the Israelites. The very night they left Egypt they celebrated the Passover meal, and their firstborn were protected.
From the moment they left, God went before them, and guided them. He was a pillar of fire by day and a cloud by night.
When they arrived at the Red Sea, he parted the waters, allowing them to go and covering the armies Egypt.
When the desert water was bitter, God made it drinkable.
When they were hungry, God had provided them with manna and quail.
When even bitter water dried up, God brought water out of rock to quench their thirst.
And when they arrived at Mt Sinai, God spoke to them out of the cloud. They cheered and promised that they would do all that God commanded.
Here are the words from Exodus 19:5-7, NRSV
5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
7 So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. 8 The people all answered as one: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.
And the Lord came down and spoke directly to the people. We know these words as the 10 commandments.
Exodus 20:1-21 NRSV
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.
4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation[b] of those who love me and keep my commandments.
7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
13 You shall not murder.
14 You shall not commit adultery.
15 You shall not steal.
16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
17 You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
18 When 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, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”
20 Moses said to the people, “Do not 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.” 21 Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
Now, if you want to put this in marriage terms, up until this point, they had been cohabiting with God. They were enjoying His protection, but they were not under a commitment to Him.
In this solemn act, they became betrothed to God. God gave them the terms, and they agreed. Betrothal, as you know from Mary and Joseph, is more than engaged, it is the final step before marriage.
Then God called Moses up to the mountain. He would carve this agreement into stone so that it would never be forgotten.
Exodus 31:18 NRSV ends with these words:
18 When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.
But the Israelites became impatient. It took 40 days, the length of our Lenten Journey. A little over a month. And while God was preparing the final covenant between them, they turned their back on God and prepared an idol to follow.
Like the bride to be whose fiancé moved out as she was planning her wedding, the Israelites had rejected God before the covenant was even signed.
Moses and God had a long talk, and when he came down the mountain, carrying the covenant of God to the people, he threw it down, shattering it into hundreds of pieces. There was no covenant, they had already broken it, the very first thing God told them. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Imagine that moment. What was supposed to happen didn’t. What was supposed to be wasn’t.
God would forgive the people, God would make another contract, but the relationship would never be what it was intended to be.
This was as critical as the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden.
This was as final as Cain killing his brother.
This was as much of a betrayal as the people of the days of Noah.
This was a foreshadowing of what would come when Jesus came to renew the covenant with God. He would eventually pay the price.
The words written on the stone were intended to be permanent. It is, in fact, where we get the very words we use of something unchanging, “Written in Stone.”
We continue as heirs to the contract that God eventually made with Israel. We are bound by the same laws, and if Jesus simplified them into loving God and loving our neighbor, he did it not because the laws were too complex, but because people get very picky about what laws mean.
God says, “Do not bear false witness,” and we ask if white lies count. We forget that truth matters.
God says, “Do not steal,” and we wonder if it counts if we don’t get caught. We forget that our integrity is at stake.
God says, “Honor the Sabbath day,” and we ask it it really matters in today’s busy society. We forget that God isn’t calling us to rest because He needs it, but because we do.
God redeems. Always. And just as he redeemed the Israelites, He will redeem us.
But here, at the beginning of our Lenten Journey, I am passing out small rocks to remind us.
Let them remind us of the importance of our relationship with God. Let them remind us that God is the rock upon which we stand. Let them remind us of the shattering of the covenant. Finally, Let them remind us that no matter how often we fail, God is good and will redeem us.
Celebration of the Lenten Journey – the stones we bear
As we begin this Lenten Journey, take these stones, let them be your anchor. Carry them with you, today and throughout the journey.
Christ alone is our Rock and our Redeemer.