Image is Everything

Last week, we left the people of Israel in Egypt, awaiting the 14th of the month, when the plague on the first born was to be visited on the people of Egypt. They had their instructions, and on that night, they wore their traveling clothes and goin’ shoes as they ate lamb and unleavened bread for dinner.  They painted the lintels and sills of their doors with the lambs’ blood, marking their homes as Hebrew homes, keeping their oldest male children and animals safe.  As God told Moses to expect, this was the last straw for Pharaoh.  He finally let Moses and the children of Abraham go.

As we move forward through the story I want you to listen closely and make note of the ways God is described.  What do the people of Israel see and hear when God was present?   It might help us later if you to scribble down some notes…

God led the people out of Egypt, not in the most direct way possible, but toward the Red Sea.  They were prepared for battle, of course, but God was worried that if they actually faced war, they might choose to return to Egypt. So the Lord led them out along the edge of the wilderness, with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. Then, when it seemed that Pharaoh’s army had them surrounded on the shore, God provided a way through the Red Sea.

Time and again, the strength of the Lord was on display, revealing the difference between the rulers of human kingdoms and the power of the Creator,  revealing the faithfulness of the God who makes and keeps Promises.

Time and again, the generosity of the Lord was on display, revealing the care of the God who Provides. Manna and quail, water and safe passage. Whatever the people needed- even rest – was offered in love.  

They continued on, following the Lord in the cloud and fire, grumbling a bit, bringing their complaints to the judges and Moses, gathering their daily bread, resting every seventh day…  until they reached Mt. Sinai. The whole of Israel set up camp there, facing the mountain.

3-6 As Moses went up to meet God, God called down to him from the mountain: “Speak to the House of Jacob, tell the People of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. If you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure. The whole Earth is mine to choose from, but you’re special: a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.’  “This is what I want you to tell the People of Israel.”

7 Moses came back and called the elders of Israel together and set before them all these words which God had commanded him. 8 The people were unanimous in their response: “Everything God says, we will do.”

Moses took the people’s answer back to God. 9 God said to Moses, “Get ready. I’m about to come to you in a thick cloud so that the people can listen in and trust you completely when I speak with you.”  (Exodus 19:3-9 The Message)

God did exactly that… after a three-day ritual, the people were consecrated. They were warned not to touch or come near the holy mountain.  

And then…  at daybreak, there were loud claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud covering the mountain, and an ear-piercing trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp shuddered in fear.

17 Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God. They stood at attention at the base of the mountain.

18-20 Mount Sinai was all smoke because God had come down on it as fire. Smoke poured from it like smoke from a furnace. The whole mountain shuddered in huge spasms.

The trumpet blasts grew louder and louder. Moses spoke and God answered in thunder. God descended to the peak of Mount Sinai. God called Moses up to the peak and Moses climbed up.  (Exodus 19:16-20 The Message)

God sent him back down to remind the people not to come up, and to bring Aaron back with him.   God continued to speak to Moses from the cloud, and to the people it was like Moses was in conversation  with a horrible storm…  The cloud flashed with lightning and echoed with thunder and blasts from a horn like a storm siren.

God provided the rules that the people were to follow, like “Terms of Agreement” for the covenant between God’s chosen people and their Lord. Moses and Aaron returned to the people with those terms.

Moses took the Book of the Covenant and read it as the people listened. They said, “Everything God said, we’ll do. Yes, we’ll obey.” (Exodus 24:3, The Message)

Then God told Moses to climb up the mountain again.  

Moses told the elders of Israel, “Wait for us here until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; if there are any problems, go to them.”

15-17 Then Moses climbed the mountain. The Cloud covered the mountain. The Glory of God settled over Mount Sinai. The Cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day he called out of the Cloud to Moses. In the view of the Israelites below, the Glory of God looked like a raging fire at the top of the mountain. (Exodus 24:14-18, The Message)

Moses was on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.

This time God gave Moses all the instructions for creating and outfitting the Tent of Meeting, for selecting and ordaining the priests who would lead the people in worship, as well as a strong reminder that the people are to keep the Sabbath. Then God gave Moses two tablets of Testimony, slabs of stone, written with the finger of God.

It was at some point during this forty days and nights that the events in our assigned passage for today take place.  

1 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, 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.  (Exodus 32:1-14, NRSV)

FIrst, I have to confess that the conversation between God and Moses sounds to me like two parents, who have heard about their children’s misdeeds via the babysitter, as they linguistically disown the the Israelites.

“Your people,” God says to Moses, “whom You brought up out of the land of Egypt….  They are out. of. Control.”

“Oh no, God,” Moses says, “Remember you brought them out of Egypt with your strong and mighty hand!  Those are Your people”

I’m just going to claim that as scriptural evidence that we truly are made in the image of God… at the very least in terms of a universal conversation pattern.

But seriously… what were they thinking?  What got into those people?
And how did Aaron get suckered into aiding and abetting them?

Granted, “forty days” isn’t necessarily a precise counting of 40.  The number 40 is often used symbolically in the ancient Hebrew culture, denoting “a long time.” So it might have been 40 days, or six months….  Or a long weekend.

We all know that time can be slippery… Especially when you are anxious.

Like when you’re in the middle of a lot of change and transition, and your leader seems to have forgotten that he was taking you someplace better than Egypt, better than the wilderness.
Like when you’ve already been waiting for a while to get to some sort of “normal” life again.
Time might just mess with your mind a bit.
It gets slippery

The truth is, Moses was coming back.
The bigger truth is that God remained with and for them…

But it’s human nature to lose sight of the truth when we’re stressed. Am I right?

The proof was  was there… How many ways was the presence of God made visible, just in the trek from Egypt to Mount Sinai? Depending on how you count them… between 6-10…

What did you write down?  Yeah- God has been present in many ways…  and even incarnationally – in leaders like Moses, Aaron and Hur.

But now, in this moment of fear and anxiety, when Moses and God seem to be in an eternal side conversation without them, the people decide they need something tangible.  

The problem isn’t so much that they want to get rid of Yahweh, the Promising God who has delivered them out of Egypt and led them to this place.  The problem is their incomplete understanding of their God.

Their vision is blurry.  And thus, the golden calf is less the image of a false god than a false image of the true God.

But God is outraged.
They have created a graven image of God.
And this is not to be tolerated.  
It says so in those Terms of Agreement.
Multiple times.
Multiple ways.  

Even if they had created an accurate image, it would have been a breach of their covenant, their part of the promise to be in relationship with God.

I can only imagine how the God who Created Everything would be less than thrilled to seem confined to the form of a calf.  To be re-imaged into the form of one of the many local gods…  Those Ba-als and other gods are fickle and unfaithful, manipulative and even manipulated by the actions of those who worship them.

It’s no wonder God was ready to rip into the Israelites.  

But Moses reminds God that the promise made to Abraham and Sarah all those generations ago was still in effect.  And that even the Egyptians had seen God’s true nature.  After all, it really was God, not Moses who had brought the people up out of Egypt.  

In this pivotal moment,  Moses stands in the breach- turning away God’s wrath to make way for God’s mercy.  This was radical advocacy, as Moses stood against God on the people’s behalf.

He must have believed that even in rebellion, God would be faithful to the people.
And God was.
God is.  

Over and over again.
Present and faithful.
Even now.

It’s all still there in the Terms of Agreement pages. Archived for us in the scriptural records.

The original version in the chapters of Exodus I kind of fast-forwarded through, and a slightly updated version in the life and teachings of Jesus throughout the gospels. When we read them again, with fresh eyes in search of the true God, we see with fresh eyes who we are in relation to God.

We are God’s people, blessed to be a blessing.
Honored to be part of recognizing and naming God’s creative and merciful work in each beloved child we meet- whether or not they know or believe that God loves them..

We are God’s people, the Body of Christ, blessed to be a blessing.
Following in the way of Jesus, Watching for the signal from God to stay or go. Trusting the Holy Spirit to empower and encourage, to provide us the gifts we need.

Oh it’s easy for us to lose hope, to lose sight of God.
Way too easy.

We’ve got even more distractions at the ready than those stiff-necked people Moses was responsible for leading. And we’re still plenty stubborn.

We may not have altars and golden calfs, but we manage to erect plenty of sacred cows.  And should anyone come, even in cover of darkness, to do some sacred-cow-tipping, you can be sure that someone else will set it right back up.

Traditions, preferences, habits, memorials, procedures…  all of them can become idols that distract us from our worship and work as the people of God. The very people and things meant to help us express our love for God become human-made images of false gods.

And certainly there are sacred cows in our broader culture… exceptionalism, nationalism, capitalism, individualism… that can lead us to worship secular idols of our own making – those tangible proofs of success…
a new car, the right style or brand of clothing, or a lovely house in the right neighborhood,
a respected career or one more advanced degree.
There are the idols of busyness or importance.
The idols of economic security and social standing.    

I’m pretty sure we could go on all day with a list if we wanted, but I suspect I’ve stepped on most everyone’s toes at least once already.  I know my toes hurt.  

I’ll be honest here… The other night, before we knew that Hurricane Matthew was going to make that wobble out into the ocean as it approached Cape Canaveral, our home was within the range of hurricane force winds…  the 100-120 mph range. I wasn’t scared of being hurt or even killed. But I was worried about my stuff. What if I lost all my stuff?   Yeah.  I know.

John Calvin was likely right when he said  “The human heart is a factory of idols…Everyone of us is, from [our] mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.”

But you know, in addition to creating images of false gods that distract us from our Saving and Promising God, we can also become a false image of the true god.  

Together, we are God’s plan for the world as we bear God’s image, reflect God’s image in the world. Or as the apostle Paul would say, we are the Body of Christ, knit together and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to continue God’s ministry of reconciliation

When I was at the Rosh Hashanah service the other day, celebrating the Jewish New Year with our friends, one of the songs we sang described 13 qualities of character that help us to reflect the image of God in our daily lives. Since the service was for children, they included an English translation in simplified language that I want to share with you:

Adonai Adonai God is apart from us and a part of us
Ayl God gives us strength when we are…
Rahum: Compassionate
V’Hanun: Accepting
Erekh apayeem: Patient
V’rav Hesed kind
Ve-Emet and honest
Mozayr Hesed extending kindness to people we know
La-alafeem even to those we don’t know
NoSay Avon by not letting petty people upset us
Va-Fesha by not letting mean people upset us
V’ha-Ta-A by not getting upset by people who just want to make us mad
V’Na-Kay and by forgiving those who are truly sorry.

I like that list a lot. I need those reminders of who God is, and what it looks like to reflect God’s image day by day.  But this isn’t a list just for me or for you, at least not alone.  This is a list by which we are all accountable to one another as we  bear God’s image into the world.

If people can see us being compassionate, accepting and patient, kind and honest, whether or not we know the people to whom we extend those kindnesses.  

If people can see us letting things go- the pettiness and button pushing, the ways that mean people treat us.  

If people can see us forgiving anyone who truly seeks forgiveness…

Then people can see and experience God.
In us.
Through us.

As I read that list, I thought… yeah, the Apostle Paul, he made good use of his knowledge of the Hebrew law.  He enfolded all of this as he described the fruit of the Spirit… the evidence that people are living according to God’s will in the power of the Holy Spirit.  And he described it again as he taught the church at Corinth what love was meant to look like in community. Not just for his fellow Jews, but for the Gentiles like us, who were being folded into family of God via adoption.

On the days that God seems far away for us, in this time between called pastors as our vision team and session pray and listen for the mission God has for this congregation, time might get a little slippery, it’s already been more than 40 days!

The truth remains  that God is with us and for us and that God has a wonderful plan for this body…

I just might become harder to hold tight to that truth, too.  

I’m here to say – keep your gold jewelry, unless God tells you to give it away or sell it to help the poor. I’m not going into the statuary business any time soon.

But do something for me…  in the coming weeks and months, make note of the things you feel most protective of, most concerned about losing.
As you run across them, ask yourself….
Are they more precious to you than relationships with others?
Are they more precious than your connection to the God who brought you out of your own Egypt, whatever that bondage may have been?
Are the things that prod you into conflict or frustration, or even the temptation to head back to Egypt or some other, easier place to dwell, are those things truly of God?  

When God calls us and empowers us to get moving… literally or figuratively… it is easy for seeds of doubt, fear and hatred to be sown This is why Paul reminded us for all generations that Faith, Hope and Love must abide.

In you, in me, in all of us together.

Then and only then are we true image bearers of the true God.

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