Proper 23A

October 06, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 22:1-14

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Exodus 32:1-14

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments and Observations

    As Exodus 32 opens, it has been just over a month since Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive from God the full corpus of divine laws. Moses went up alone because the people found they just couldn’t take it when God thundered at them directly. But before Moses left, in Exodus 24:3, the people had heard the first portion of God’s Law and with one voice had responded by saying, “Everything Yahweh has commanded, we will do.”

    That was forty days ago. Not a long period.  If you preach from this text in the Lectionary Year A cycle for 2014, then 40 days prior to October 12 was September 2, the day after this year’s Labor Day in the United States.   Not long ago at all.

    But in the case of Exodus, forty days was enough to introduce among Israel a grave calamity. Indeed, if you pay close attention to this chapter, then you may note something that crops up again and again: namely, the phrase “brought out of Egypt.”

    “I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” That is the ringing opening line of what has become known as the Ten Commandments. It is the place to begin because knowing who God is, what God has done, and how that properly motivates us to worship this God alone is the linch-pin in all true discipleship. Yet here the phrase “brought out of Egypt” pops up six times in the span of just 23 verses but there seems to be no consensus on who did this mighty deed. Was it Moses? The golden calf? Is there an outside chance that the right answer is Yahweh?

    Just who brought them up from out of the land of Egypt??!!

    The people don’t seem to know.

    Their collective memory has grown altogether foggy.   Beyond the tragic events confined to just chapter 32 there is an even sadder tragedy to note in the larger sweep of this entire book. In general the Book of Exodus stands as one giant answer to the question, “Who is God?”   Back in chapter 5 Pharaoh himself famously asks Moses, “Who is Yahweh that I should listen to him!?” Pharaoh asked the question, and God then took matters in hand to answer it. Pharaoh got the education of a lifetime in learning the hard way who Yahweh is. But the people of Israel were supposed to learn right along with Pharaoh and for the most part, it seemed as though they had. Their song of jubilation at the Red Sea surely looked for all the world like testimony to the fact that they had discovered who their God is and why he is worthy of praise.

    Yet now it comes to this sad business in Exodus 32. The people get bored. Their attention span isn’t worth much. They figure Moses had gone on holiday, maybe permanently, and so they go to the man Moses had left in charge, brother Aaron, and demand a god. Arrestingly enough, Aaron seems not even to hesitate. He asks for all the gold they can muster, melts it down, gets some metal-working engraver’s tools, and handily fashions the image of a bull calf. Earlier the people said they wanted such a thing because Moses “who brought us out of Egypt” had disappeared. After the calf is created, Aaron and the others say that this calf now is the God “who brought us out of Egypt.”

    But then Aaron says something curious in verse 6: he announces that the next day they would (in front of this calf) hold a festival to Yahweh. Having just made an idol, why would Aaron turn right around and start talking about Yahweh, again? Apparently because he had convinced himself that there was no disparity between Yahweh and the calf. The people could serve Yahweh through the golden calf.

    Before the sun had set that next day, however, Aaron should have had a pretty good clue that he was wrong. The moment you make a god out of something blind, deaf, and dumb, it becomes easy to indulge yourself, do whatever feels good, because after all, this god isn’t going to scold you in any event.

    Meanwhile, up on the mountain, Yahweh knows what’s happening and so dispatches Moses back to the camp. But notice in verse 7 that even Yahweh says to Moses, “the people you brought up out of Egypt are corrupt.” Even God is so fed up that he is putting some daylight between himself and Israel. Later in verse 11 Moses will boldly come right back at God and say, “Now wait a minute! These are not my people. These are the folks whom you, O God, brought up out of Egypt!”

    If this were not a scene filled with so much gravity, this exchange could almost be funny. God and Moses are like some married couple, embarrassed over the antics of their child at the church picnic and so saying to one another, “Dear, your daughter just kicked the minister in the shins. Fetch her, would you please!” “Well, honey, she’s your daughter, too!”

    But beyond the oddities of God’s and Moses’ exchange, notice what is the key that unlocks this chapter: since the people had forgotten God, God now returns the (dis)favor and forgets them. In verse 10 God says to Moses, “Let’s ditch the whole lot of them. Just you and me will head to the Promised Land and I’ll make a great nation out of you, Moses!” In short, forget Israel! At the end of the chapter, in verses 32-33 (which falls outside the prescribed Lectionary reading), we find an even more chilling conversation that centers on God’s literally blotting out of the book of life those who have sinned. Moses once again stays Yahweh’s hand by saying, “If you blot them out of the book, then blot me out, too.” God relents, but notice what the stakes are here! This is not just a matter of life and death, it is a matter of existence and non-existence, of being remembered by the God whose memory spells life or forgotten by the God whose forgetting of anyone is the equivalent of his or her being banished to the hell of divine amnesia.

    But before we pursue that grim theme a bit more, let’s note one other wrinkle in this story. As much as anything, the role played in this sordid scenario by Aaron that is most distressing. Moses charges straight at Aaron, eyes ablaze, and Aaron says something that is either one of history’s lamest of excuses or something that contains a scary truth. Moses asks, “What in the world happened here!?” and Aaron recounts events very accurately, right up to the end when he implausibly says, “So I took all their gold, just threw it blindly into the fire, and–presto, poof–out popped this calf!” Now, of course, we as readers already know that Aaron himself formed this calf. It did not appear out of thin air.

    So Aaron’s reply looks hardly better than the school boy who when the principal asks how the chemistry lab blew up, shuffles his feet, looks down at the ground and says, “I dunno. Just happened.” But suppose Aaron is not merely being immature and evasive. Suppose that from his vantage point, this is pretty much what happened. Oh, not that he had really forgotten the hard work he devoted to forming that calf. It’s just that he had never intended it to become a false god. When in verse 6 Aaron stood right in front of this idol and declared a festival to Yahweh, he was serious. But before he could blink twice, presto, poof, the silly thing turned into a false god after all.

    But, of course, the only reason Aaron made this calf in the first place is because he himself was suffering from a bad short-term memory. Aaron forgot that in the Ten Commandments, following God’s declaration that it was He who had brought the people out of Egypt, immediately Yahweh went on to forbid not only the worship of false gods but also the production of any graven images. Aaron was shocked at what the people did with his golden calf. Truth is, this should not have been even mildly surprising for Aaron. God said this would happen. That’s why he forbade it to begin with.

    The role of sacred memory is key here. Notice in verse 13 that Moses saves the day not by mounting up some grand argument but when he jogs the divine memory. “O Lord, remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!” No sooner does Moses remind God of the covenant and we read that Yahweh relented. Just like that. The people whose memories were like a sieve were saved because God’s memory is so very good!

    Remember.

    From this point forward in the balance of the Pentateuch, this will become the rallying cry for Israel. By the time you get to Deuteronomy and Moses’ last great swan song of a sermon, the phrase, “O Israel, remember and do not forget” pops up over and over like a kind of holy refrain. That cry echoes down along the centuries as we see Israel repeatedly forgetting, then remembering again for a time, and then forgetting all over again. Finally in the biblical story it takes no one less than the very Son of God himself to come down here in person, hold up some bread and wine, and say once and for all, “Remember!” And so each time we baptize a baby, we promise to remember and to nurture a holy memory bank in also this little one. Each time we come to the Lord’s table, we not only jog our memories all over again but vow to re-commit ourselves to an ongoing sacred remembrance of all that has gone into our great salvation through Christ Jesus the Lord.

    In Exodus 32 the people are saved when Moses asks God to remember his promises. This is not the only place in the Bible where memory spells salvation. The thief on the cross knew what he was doing when he asked, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” But even before that, it was Jesus who looked at his disciples to say, “Remember me!” The question that echoes down along the ages, burning with an intensity no other question could, is whether or not we do, as a matter of fact, remember him.

    Illustration Idea

    It has now been 30 years since in 1984 Frederick Buechner published a collection of sermons and essays bearing the title of the first piece in the book, “A Room Called Remember.”   In this piece Buechner recounts a deliciously good dream he once had of staying in a wonderful hotel room somewhere—a room in which he felt completely comfortable, at ease, and at peace.  But then in the dream he left that hotel for some more travels, returning later only to be put into a different room that was dark and cramped.  So he went to the front desk to request his prior room and was told by the clerk that, no problem, he could have it back.  He only had to ask for that special room by name.   And the name of the room, he was told, was Remember.

    Buechner said he woke up in a startle at that point but has ever since pondered the power of memory.   Among the many lyric things he said is that one reason memory is so powerful for us as Christians is because “To remember the past is to see that we are here today by grace, that we have survived as a gift.”   But sacred memory is so key, too, because it puts us in touch with so much of what our Savior has done.   Buechner concludes:

    “The past and the future.  Memory and expectation.  Remember and hope.  Remember and wait.  Wait for him whose face we all of us know because somewhere in the past we have faintly seen it, whose life we all of us thirst for because somewhere in the past we have seen it lived, have maybe even had moments of living it ourselves.   Remember him who remembers us as he promised to remember the thief who died beside him.  To have faith is to remember and wait, and to wait in hope is to have what we hope for begin already to come true in us through our hoping.  Praise him.”   (A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces, Harper & Row San Francisco, 1984, p. 12.)

    Exodus 32 stands as testament to what all the people of God can lose when they move out of the room called Remember.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 106:1-6; 9-13

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Philippians 4:1-9

    Author: Stan Mast