Text: Exodus 32:1-20
In chapter 4 of St. John’s Gospel we hear the account of our Lord’s conversation with the Samaritan woman. Their conversation ended up being about the identity and true worship of God. The Samaritans, you might remember, were descendents of those left behind after the Northern Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians. Those people left behind intermarried with the surrounding nations and adopted many of their religious practices – along with worshipping the God of Israel. The term for this is syncretism, which means, combining elements of different religions. The Samaritans worshipped the true God, but they allowed their worship to include idols, as well.
At one point in the conversation, Jesus said to the woman, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” (John 4:22-23 English Standard Version). Jesus meant that both the Jews and Samaritans worshipped a God who they did not truly know. But, a time would come where people would worship God as He truly is – through the revelation of Jesus Christ. By faith in Jesus, we worship God in spirit and truth. To this we have been called by God; though, as we’ll see, we often prefer to worship golden calves. Thankfully, the Lord continues to relent from judgement and has mercy on us for the sake of Christ.
Our text today is a familiar one. Most of us remember it from Sunday School and we cover it Confirmation, too, when we’re learning the Old Testament. With such vivid imagery, it’s hard not to remember; but let’s walk through it again. The children of Israel, before this all went down, had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years. With an outstretched arm and mighty hand, God led them up out of Egypt through the Red Sea on dry ground – just as He had promised Abraham. After leaving the Egyptian army dead on the seashore, God led the people to His holy mountain, Mt. Sinai. There He delivered to them the Ten Commandments. The First Commandment is that they were to have no other gods. They were to make no carved images, no idols to bow down to, whether to serve or worship. After the giving of the Commandments, Moses remained with God on the mountain for 40 days and nights. That’s where things started to go bad.
We heard in the text, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, 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.’” (Exodus 32:1) The people assumed, Moses being gone so long, that although the Lord was still with them, they no longer had a visual reminder. Instead of worshipping God as He had been truly revealed to them, they commissioned Aaron to make for them a golden calf – a common idol in the nations around them – and they began to worship that calf in place of the true God. It says, “They rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” (v. 6) The Spirit speaks tenderly here because the word for “play,” really implies that Israel rose up to engage in sexual immorality – the prefered style of idol worship in the Old Testament.
The Lord, of course, saw these things and His anger burned hot. He said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” (vv. 9-10) Through Moses’ prayer, however, the Lord’s anger was turned away. Our text ends with Moses coming down the mountain. As a sign of judgment against the people, he threw the tablets of God on the ground and they broke. Then he burned the idol, ground it to dust, and made the people drink it. This, certainly, was a visual reminder of God’s Word to Adam, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen. 3:19) The punishment of sin is death.
The problem with the Israelites here is not just that they straight-up worshipped an idol; it’s that they refused to worship God as He had been revealed to them and instead applied His glory to a created thing. We learn in the Catechism that the First Commandment means that we are to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. That is what it truly means to worship God – that we trust in Him and expect all good things from Him. But is that what we always do? I hope that none of us are so lost in sin’s delusion that we would deny the true God, but do we really expect all good things to come from Him? Do we not, rather, trust in other things? We count on the government to protect us from the coronavirus. We’ll know we’re safe when our elected and appointed officials say so.
When we consider our wellbeing, both while in the workforce and in retirement, we keep a close eye on our bank statements and trust that what they say will allow us to live without worry. Now, we wouldn’t say that the government or money are truly where our good comes from but, in practice, do we turn more quickly to God or to the CDC and the mail? In practice, we often allow both the worship of God and trust in created things to dwell in our hearts. We set up golden calves, just like Israel did. Like them, too, we don’t always worship God using the means He provides. Rather than being devoted to His Word, gladly hearing and receiving it, we are reluctant to study and confess it. We do not truly desire the Lord’s Supper for the treasure that it is, but sometimes receive it out of habit and without thinking.
We heard in the text how Israel’s worship of the calf angered God, and rightly so. A just and righteous God cannot tolerate sin; it would be neither just nor right so to do. Neither does God abide our sin, but pronounces over us the same judgment as Adam, to dust we shall return. In the text, however, God’s anger was averted. Moses reminded God of His mercy. He reminded God of His promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to deliver His people and multiply them as the sand on the seashore. God heard Moses’ prayer and, it says, “relented from the disaster that He had spoken of bringing on His people.” (v. 14) In this passage, Moses foreshadows the role that Jesus plays for us.
You see, Jesus stands between us and the Father. When we fall into sin and rightly anger our God, Jesus stands between us and holds up His piercéd hands. He reminds the Father of His mercy toward us sinners, how, rather than punish us for our many transgressions, He sent forth His own Son. Out of love and mercy, Jesus took into Himself all our sin and the Father poured upon Him the wrath we deserved. Now, in heaven, Jesus continues to plead our case. He reminds the Father of His promise to remember our sins no more, to cast them away from us as far as the East is from the West. And so, they are. Just as God remembered His promise and relented from judgement in our text, so He continues to remember His mercy and forgive us, even now.
Jesus said to the Samaritan woman that true worshippers of God will worship in spirit and truth. He meant that, rather than worship God through idols, they would worship Him by the revelation of His face in Jesus Christ Himself. To this worship, we have been called. We worship God in Spirit and truth when we recognize that all good things truly come from God for the sake of Christ. Though we sometimes are given to build our own golden calves through trust in created things, Christ stands as the greater Moses and reminds the Father of His mercy. God grant us, as we near the end of another Church Year, to worship Him in the Spirit and truth of Christ. Amen.