How can you tell if you are really alive? I couldn’t find the quote this week which I think is from Frederick Beuchner, but I remember the third and final question in the test is this: “Is there anyone that if one of you had to suffer great pain, you would volunteer to be the one to suffer?” I think that’s what my son meant when he told me once that he loved me so much he would “run through a wall for me.” I’m not sure what that would accomplish, but it touches my heart every time I think about it.
The lectionary lessons for October 9 from the Hebrew Scriptures are about that kind of risk-taking love. Both deal with a time when Moses put his life on the line for the people of Israel.
Psalm 106 is the Cliffs Notes version of the famous Golden Calf story in Exodus 32. The Psalmist says, “They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous things in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea. Therefore God said he would destroy them—had not Moses, his chosen one, stood in the breach before God, to turn away God’s wrath from destroying them.” (vs. 19-23)
We can all think of times when we have needed someone to stand in the breach for us, to be our advocate—to stand up to a bully or a predatory lender, to help us find our way through the morass of a complex tax code or indecipherable medical bills from a half dozen different health care providers, all for the same medical procedure. Perhaps it’s getting help for an addiction or support in escaping from an abusive relationship, or an elderly patient needing a health care advocate. When do you need someone to stand in the breach for you? Who are the others around us that need us to be their voice when they cannot find their own? Where do breach standers find the courage to put themselves on the line?
It takes great courage to speak the truth to one who has the power to do us great harm. A whistle blower who exposes unjust practices by his employer is often very soon among the unemployed. A witness who testifies against a criminal may risk retribution. Christians who are called to witness to their faith need to know that the Greek word for “witness” is also the word for “martyr.” Breach standing is not for sissies, and yet the courage of those who stand up to human forces of injustice pales in comparison to what Moses does in the Exodus 32 account.
It may help to sketch in a few more details that aren’t included in the Psalm 106 summary to remind ourselves of the context of the Golden Calf story. In the last few blog posts I’ve talked about the complaining the Israelites do about Moses’ leadership and his failure to provide for their comfort in the way to which they would like to become accustomed. The Psalmist reminds us that in every case God has responded by meeting the needs of the people. God has liberated them from slavery, fed them when they were hungry, given them a GPS in the sky to direct their travels, and provided water when they were thirsty. Now their leader Moses has gone up on the mountain (called both Sinai and Horeb in the scriptures) to receive the 10 Commandments.
Moses is gone a lot longer than the people think he should be. Granted 40 days does seem like a long time to get 10 Commandments. That’s four days per commandment, but remember there were no Kinko’s where the printing could be done quickly, and God has a good union contract that provides for a day off every seven days! The bottom line is that the people get restless and worried. You know how hard it is to wait and worry about a loved one who is driving home late at night; or how hard it is to wait for test results from the doctor that could be a matter of life or death. The Israelites are missing their leader, the one who has led them to freedom and they are lost without him. They say, “Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (32:1). Translation: Who is going to take care of us out here in the wilderness if Moses doesn’t come back?
That part of the story is understandable. Fame is fleeting and fans are fickle. Look how quickly a football coach is hung in effigy when his winning team starts losing or a political leader’s popularity goes south when unemployment numbers go north? What is amazing about the story in Exodus is how quickly Moses’ brother Aaron caves in to the demands of the people. The other part of Exodus 32:1 says, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us.” And without hesitation, Aaron says, OK, give me your rings and any gold you have, “and he formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf” which the people proceed to bow down and worship.
I don’t know about you, but the image in my mind of this golden calf is a lot like the full-sized butter cow the dairy farmers display at the Ohio State Fair. Influenced by the Hollywood version of this story, the picture in my mind is of a large impressive gold statue of a full-grown Holstein. But let’s do a reality check. These Israelites were homeless runaway slaves who fled Egypt with only what they could take in a carry on. How much gold do you think they had? Probably not enough to create a very big idol. And that adds to the irony of the story. On one hand we have Yahweh who turned the Nile into blood, sent plagues of locusts, killed off all the first-born sons of Egypt, parted the waters of the sea, fed the refugees manna from heaven, and made water come out of rocks to quench their thirst. In the other corner we have a tiny, lifeless inanimate piece of metal. That’s like somebody in a shiny new Lexus pulling up next to a rusty old VW bug and asking the driver if she wants to trade. Or maybe it’s like the choice we’ll wrestle with in next week’s Gospel lesson where Jesus tells us to “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Back to Mt. Horeb where God is watching this little Golden Calf drama unfold. God immediately pronounces destruction on these idolatrous, “stiff-necked” people (32:10). I like to think God is as long-suffering and patient as a Cleveland sports fan, but it looks like there is a limit to God’s mercy and this seems to be it. That is until Moses steps into the breach and argues with God. I have trouble standing up to my wife or my grandkids, and here is Moses arguing with God. You have to have a pretty trusting relationship to have an honest argument. People who know how to argue fairly and speak the truth in love to each other have relationships that last. Moses has that kind of relationship with God, sort of like Tevye in “Fiddle on the Roof.”
But as amazing as it is that Moses has the courage to argue with God, the most incredible thing is that he wins the argument! You can read the details in verses 11-13, but my paraphrase of Moses’ case is, “Yahweh, this is going to be a PR nightmare if you go back on your promise to Abraham to make this little rag tag bunch of nomads a great nation. How will that look back in Egypt on CNN? You can’t afford to mess this up.” And verse 16 says “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
Three reflections on God’s dramatic reversal:
1. One person can make a difference. If God can be persuaded to change, don’t let anyone tell us we can’t fight city hall. Read John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage to see how often one person of integrity has changed the course of American history. Or the story about a young boy saving starfish that were washed up on the beach to die by throwing them back into the ocean. When a passerby told him he was wasting his time because there were thousands of starfish on the beach and he couldn’t make a difference, the boy picked up another starfish, threw it into the water and said, “It made a difference to that one.”
2. What does Moses advocacy for the Israelites tell us about the power of intercessory prayer? No, it doesn’t mean we can expect God to do whatever we ask. A god like that would be weaker than a Golden Calf. It does mean we all have an obligation and duty to stand in the breach for those who need an advocate; to pray without ceasing, to work for peace and justice, or as the Epistle lesson for this week (Philippians 4:1-9) tells us, “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
3. Before Psalm 106 retells the Golden Calf story it assures us that our God is a God of mercy whose “steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 106:1), even when “both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly.” (Ps. 106:6) God gets justifiably angry at the Israelites and us for our unfaithfulness, yes, but one can be angry and still love the sinner. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that, and that’s exactly what Moses does in his argument with God. He reminds God of his promises and of his love for his people. And that reminder helps God “turn from his fierce wrath and change his mind.”
We need reminders too. Regular acts of worship and study of the Scriptures help us remember our own sin and God’s deliverance, the promises we have made to live in the ways of peace and love with those dearest to us and with all of our sisters and brothers in the family of God. Partaking of Holy Communion, a sacrament of remembrance, reminds us of Christ’s sacrificial love as he stood in the breach for humankind’s redemption. And we are reminded that God has not left us alone but has given us the Holy Spirit, our eternal advocate to strengthen us so our fears do not tempt us to bow down to any false gods.