By Sherry Black
A Reading from Exodus 32:21-34
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 wicked. 23 They said to me, ‘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.’ 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!”
25 When Moses saw that the people were out of control (for Aaron had lost control of them, prompting derision among their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 He said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.” 28 The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about three thousand of the people fell on that day. 29 Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of a son or a brother, and so have brought a blessing on yourselves this day.”
30 On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of the book that you have written.” 33 But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. 34 But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day for punishment comes, I will punish them for their sin.”
With their worship of the golden calf — feasting, dancing, and all kinds of revelry for their new god — the Israelites flunked the test. For the moment, they have rejected the one true God, the God who was with Moses on the mountain.
But let us step back and look at the bigger picture. Perhaps the 40 days of Moses’ absence was a test for Israel. A true covenant between God and his people must be freely chosen. The Israelites were free to fail, which also means free to choose God. Asking Aaron to make gods for them was their first action of their own accord as a new people. It was wrong, but it was a choice.
Freedom must mature — one way or the other. For most of us since the Fall, it has been in the context of trying, failing, rebelling, obeying, and disobeying. God never wants disobedience. He can surely bring about maturity without it — and as we see in the sinless Jesus, perfect obedience makes for a far greater maturity! But we have real freedom to choose — for or against — God. Why such a risky system? It is only by freedom that we can mature at all, become more like God, learn to give ourselves freely for others.
As parents, we don’t want our children to remain sweet babies; it wouldn’t be of any benefit for them. We help them to grow, we teach them so that (we hope and pray) they can make smart, discerning choices and be loving adults. All God’s people have to learn through being tested and tried. Most of us learn through failing and falling. And by God’s grace, when we fall, when we fail, we see again our utter need for God, and can turn back to him and try again.
The Very Rev. Sherry Black is a second-career Episcopal priest, and has been a full-time hospital chaplain for ten years. She also serves a small mission church as priest-in-charge, and is dean of her deanery.
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Diocese of Fond du Lac
The Diocese of Liberia – The Church of the Province of West Africa