By Jacob Smith
The Old Testament reading from the Book of Exodus is a critical and tragic event in the history of Israel. In chapters 19 to 24, the God who has delivered and redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt establishes a covenant between himself and Israel, and the sign of this covenant is the law.
These are all the rules you’ve probably heard about in the Bible. These are the divine commands given to the Israelites, because they were to be holy and set apart from the other nations. At the end of chapter 24, after establishing this covenant between Israel and God, Moses returns to the top of Mount Sinai to commune with him.
Moses isn’t gone for just 10 days, Moses isn’t gone for 20 days, Moses isn’t gone for 30 days. Moses is gone for 40 days, and the people of Israel begin to doubt if Moses is coming back. They wonder if something happened to Moses and he isn’t coming back.
One thing is for sure though, they are stuck in the wilderness. Aaron, who is Moses’ brother and assigned to watch and assure the people, begins to feel the pressure from the people to do something: “Aaron, take control!”
You see how the law works? St. Paul makes this point in Romans. The law is holy, it is just, and it is good, yet it ultimately reveals that we, including Israel, are not. The law stirs sin and rebellion up within us.
Think about a fearful situation in your life. Someone says to you, or you say to yourself: “Do something, take control.” What does that do to you? Aaron is a perfect illustration. He soon finds himself in possession of a giant golden cow, yelling, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” And the Bible tells us they engaged in revelry, and we all know what revelry is.
Control is how we get ourselves into the biggest pickles in life, because control often becomes a way in which we try to save ourselves, even when we perceive the control to be good.
Ultimately control is a form of worship. Exodus teaches us that for worship to be true, it must be based on the correct revelation of God. That can only happen when we relinquish control and even confess that we are out of control, we are not our own saviors, and we are sinners.
At this point, we can deduce from our reading, God is livid. He tells Moses that he is going to destroy these stiff-necked people and start all over, making Moses a great nation. The wages of sin is indeed death. Yet it is important to note that even in his wrath, by making a new nation through Moses, God is still faithful to the one-way covenant he made with Abraham. God is not capricious, and what happens next makes that very clear.
Moses appeals to God for the salvation of his people. Moses doesn’t say, “Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people, pretty please, with sugar on top.”
Nor does Moses appeal to the Mosaic Covenant made 40 days earlier. Instead, Moses intercedes on behalf of his people by appealing to the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This covenant is based on faith, a one-way street, by which God makes the offer of relationship, and says, “I will do everything, despite what you do, good or bad, to see that this relationship is preserved and is eternal.” That covenant was based not on Abraham’s goodness but God’s goodness. The good news is that this promise made to Abraham blesses all the nations, including you and me, who are offspring of Abraham by faith.
Exodus demonstrates that our attempts to take control and fulfill the law only garner God’s wrath. You will not be justified before God by what you do, so ultimately what you and I need is a mediator and an advocate. In this moment in Exodus, that is exactly what Moses is for the Israelites. He is their mediator and advocate.
However, as we read the rest of the story, we see that these stiff-necked people never really trust God. The calf incident was not just a one-off. The Israelites were constantly trying to take control. Even Moses, their mediator, because of his sin, could not himself enter the promised land.
If you’re like me, you can see yourself in Israel over and over again, a big control freak, messing it up over and over again. The only message that enables me to let go, even just for a second, is what St. Paul writes to St. Timothy in our epistle: “This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”
Moses the law-giver drives us to Jesus the law-fulfiller. Jesus is the greater Moses who, as the author of Hebrews writes, mediates a new covenant founded on better promises: This is my body, which is broken for you. This is my blood of the new covenant, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.
And he does this so, as St. Paul tells St. Timothy in our epistle, “Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.” Jesus saves sinners, you and me, so that in Jesus God might show his patience to sinners, his mercy to sinners, his grace to sinners, and ultimately draw them to himself.
Some of you think that you are not worthy to be here, some of you don’t think you add up. That is to relate to God through the first mediator, Moses, and he and the law will always tell you you’re right, you don’t. But none of us do, and the point of the law is to drive us to the second mediator, Jesus. As he articulates in our parable: there is no sheep so lost, no coin so misplaced, that he will not seek, and seek, and seek until he finds what is his, and you are his.
I have a dear friend, and every time we eat together, with a massive and full glass of red wine, he proposes a toast: “To our Lord who welcomes and sups with sinners.”
There isn’t a sinner whom Jesus will not receive and welcome to his table, because sinners are all there are. And no sin is too great, and no idol is too big, for the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, for Jesus stops at nothing, Jesus gives everything. Jesus does it all, for you and for the world.
Every sinner is atoned for by his death, every sin answered by his blood. As we come around this table to receive the promises of the greater covenant, behold the Lamb, the Mediator of the new covenant. He most certainly doesn’t let sin off the hook, or allow it to stand in the way. Instead, he forgives it, pays for it, and wipes it out. And that includes my sins and your sins. Yes, even that! Enjoy your forgiveness!
The Rev. Jacob Smith is the rector of Calvary-St. George’s in Manhattan and is the cohost of Same Old Song, a lectionary preaching podcast.