Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
What do you do when the only world you’ve ever known has been torn out from under you? When the world as you’ve known it has crumbled and you’re left standing in a desolate place with an unknown future before you? How do you respond when it appears that the One whom you’ve trusted has disappeared?
I remember standing in the empty flat wilderness of northwest Kenya when we first arrived twenty years ago, listening to the silence of the wind, seeing only thorny scrub brush in every direction, and feeling very overwhelmed— and very, very alone. I wonder if that’s where the Israelites found themselves in this week’s Old Testament text of Exodus 32. Everything that was recognizable about Egypt was gone— both the oppression of slavery as well as the familiarity of the ordinary. The silent God of their ancestors has seemingly reestablished the relationship, and a leader has emerged to speak on God’s behalf. But now…God and Moses have departed.
This is a budding relationship; each party is learning to trust the other. The Israelites have seen the hand of God in the power of the plagues, the parting of the sea, and the provision of manna and quail. And Moses! This strange mestizo who speaks their language but sounds and acts Egyptian, who questions his own calling, who radiates a vibrant friendship with God. Moses speaks on God’s behalf, but do we really trust him? And do we really trust this God for whom he speaks?
God crafts a covenant with the people in Exodus 19: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. You shall be my treasured possession. Beloved. You shall be my Beloved People.
But like a wounded animal or an abuse victim, the Beloved People struggle from trauma. 430 years is a long time to live in fear, in scarcity, in the grip of an authoritarian system. We can’t blame them for having a hard time letting go, for leaning on the very symbol of the iron-fisted regime they just fled. At the first hint of God’s absence, the Beloved People return to their abuser.
Moses has been on the mountain too long. He’s living in the clouds, soaking up the glory of God, listening to God’s dreams for how the relationship will grow: I will dwell among My people in a tent, a tapestried tent lavished with royal color and abundant fruit design. My people will come to me as the wealth of the earth— they will be borne on the clothing as precious stones. We will eat bread by the light of the oil of my Presence. We will take delight in the aroma of one another and cherish each other. My people will be My treasured possession and I will be theirs. (Exodus 24-31)
God eagerly desires this relationship and Moses is anxious to convey it to God’s Beloved People. But Moses has been gone too long. The people doubt. Whispers echo through the wilderness. What happened to Moses on the mountain? Did he desert us? Did a wild animal devour him? What do we do now?
A false answer emerges: When you doubt, return to what you know. When you fear, go back to the beginning. When you question, fall back on the old ways. Build a bull. A golden bull. Just like the ones back “home” in Egypt. If we can’t see the Unseen one who brought us to this wasteland, we’ll rely on what we can see and touch and taste. We can’t trust the Unknown.
And God’s heart hurts. It won’t be the last time God’s Beloved People doubt the faithfulness of the One who self-bounded to them in a covenant promise. Like Hosea’s messy marriage with Gomer, God’s commitment to God’s Beloved People is tested time and time again. God desires to be in a relationship of love with God’s Beloved People, a relationship of trust— with both partners trusting and trustworthy.
But God knows God’s Beloved People are a skittish, wounded people; slavery is in their genes, built into their memories, rooted in their rhythms of being and doing. They build an idol to trust what they know, what they can see. The simple solution for God would be to start over. Moses is faithful; Moses trusts. Do an early annulment, cancel the covenant. Start over with Moses and maybe he’ll get right what the Beloved People can’t seem to do.
But God’s mind is changed: Be faithful to the very ones who are unfaithful to You. Show them what trustworthiness is like. Be a God who is faithful to a people who can’t be trusted.
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?…. Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 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.” (Ex. 32.11-13)
My friend Curtis Holtzen says that “God does not love from a distance.” God cherishes God’s Beloved People, desires love in return, but knows that coercion or manipulation will only replicate the long-suffering slavery of Egypt. Thus, God’s perpetual woo-ing of a wounded people, in spite of their perpetual fear of commitment. And People of the Kingdom know that God’s woo-ing of us continues, drawing us in to the heart of God, trusting us to trust the One who poured himself out on our behalf.
Many of my thoughts on this text were inspired by Wm. Curtis Holtzen’s The God Who Trusts: A Relational Theology of Divine Faith, Hope, and Love, (Westmont: IVP Academic, 2019).