Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Exodus 32:1-20)

Lucas Cranach - The Law and the Gospel

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) + November 10, 2018

Text: Exodus 32:1-20

The congregation got impatient when Moses was gone for 40 days and nights.  We are coming on 2000 years since our Lord’s ascension. It doesn’t take long to find some of the foolish things people have done hoping for or trying to hasten the Lord’s return.  

We’re more impatient than we’ve ever been as a race.  Two or one-day shipping, broadband Internet, text messaging, Skype calls to the International Space Station—it’s amazing what can be done and how small it’s made the world.  But the side effect is that we get impatient even waiting at a 40-second-long traffic light or balk when our first-world comforts are out-of-stock.

But this isn’t a new problem.  Impatience is borne in the heart, and it was just as much a problem for people thousands of years ago.  The lesson is the Lord says, “Wait on Me” and we do stupid stuff thinking we can help God along. We get impatient and want our own solutions to help the time pass.  In that delusion, it’s easy enough to sweep God’s will under the rug and turn “the Bible says” into a stamp of approval on whatever we want to do.

The people pressured Aaron into doing something which made them feel better about the wait.  Make us gods like the rest of the nations. Come on, Aaron, that’s what will let people know we’re really the chosen people of Abraham.  And the people we all behind this plan, so much so that they let go of the wealth which hung around their necks and on their ears (which God had given them as a gift in Egypt) and poured money into this project.

There’s much to learn from the parallels between this story of Moses going up the mountain and leaving Aaron to lead the people.  Several times, the Lord compares the Kingdom of God to a man going away and returning after a long time. He leaves stewards in charge who are to keep things running.

I mentioned earlier that it’s been far more than 40 days, nearly 2,000 years actually.  But where the Spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. When our Lord gives us the account of Moses on Sinai and tells us parables about a long journey, He’s helping us to understand our own place as the people of God.

Forty days after His resurrection (hey, there’s a significant number), Jesus ascended—not just a mountain—but into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  Before He left, He gave instructions, appointed stewards of the mysteries, and promised, “Lo! I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

It is our place, as the children of God on earth, to live by faith in and through faith in His Word.  There’s a distinction: 

  • We live by faith in His Word, meaning we hold to it and trust it as the living Word of God which He inspired to be written for our learning (2 Tim. 3:16).  Whenever the children of God add to or subtract from this Holy Word, they fall into grave errors. If we add to it and try to bolster it with talk of history, church councils, and precedent, we minimize the sufficiency of the Word alone to sustain the Church until Christ’s return.  If we take away from it, to gloss over the parts which offend people who are proud of their self-made religion, then we let people go merrily to perdition. We live by faith in His Word.
  • We also live through faith in His Word.  As cute as the acronym is, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth,” the Bible is not like other instruction books, like assembling a chair from Ikea.  One of the ways sin has infected our hearts is with the idea that we can do something that can get us in good with God. We see God’s command to jump (so-to-speak) and we say, “How high?”  When in fact our legs are broken and our muscles have atrophied on account of sin. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength.” And after all that we can do, the judgment is still “By works of the law shall no human being be justified in His sight. For through the Law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20)  Instead, our life is given to us as complete gift.  “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom. 1:17) The reason we are able to sit here today having peace with God is because of the life of faith that continually comes from God.

And this is possible because Jesus far exceeds what Moses could ever do. 

Moses went up on the mountain and was no longer with the people.  As a man, he could only be in one place at a time, and God had called up to Sinai to receive the Law.  Jesus, on the other hand, ascends into heaven, and by personal union of God and Man, He can truly say that He is with us until His return (Eph. 4:9).  He is with us through His Word being spoken, through forgiveness being shared (“where two or three are gathered, there I am among them” Matt. 18:20), in His very Body and Blood given for us to eat and drink, and with His Spirit who comforts and preserves us.

Like Moses, our Lord appoints men to keep watch over His congregation.  It’s true they can err and fall. But that’s no reason to write off all clergy as if they were a manmade after-thought.  Think of it this way: The Lord has also preserved faithful preachers and members of His flock through the millennia. You don’t have to look anywhere further than where the pure Gospel is preached and the Sacraments are administered according to the Lord’s command.  Where you see that, you can be confident that you have found His chosen people.

There are times when His people make a mess of His Church on earth and profane His holy Name.  Sometimes we may wish that God would open the earth or strike down all false teachers. He doesn’t squelch Korah’s rebellion, or kill Uzzah for mishandling the holy things (Numbers 16, 2 Samuel 6:5-9).  Instead of destroying heretics, what He does is pray for them, that they turn from their error and save both themselves and whoever listens to them. And this is what we should to, because it could just as quickly be one of us who is deluded and has a corrupt view of the Word.

The day is coming when our Jesus will come down out of heaven.  He will not come down with tablets of stone that will be smashed in anger.  That’s because all the wrath against our disobedience has already been poured out on Calvary.  He—the Son of God Himself—was forsaken, not you or me (Matt. 27:46). He will come again to gather the faithful—those who waited for Him and live in and through His Word.  

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 25) + November 11, 2018

Text: Exodus 32:1-20

Waiting is hard.  I don’t know anyone who is perfectly patient about rising above their present troubles.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could always do what the Apostle to the Hebrews admonishes us to do: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross.” (Heb. 12:2 NIV)  Would that we had such undivided devotion to our Lord and the unshakable kingdom He has prepared for us.  But the reality is, we get impatient waiting on God’s timing when He doesn’t work on the schedule we’re so convinced is right and reasonable.

How true this is also of the Church as a whole.  After the Ascension of Christ, believers were in eager expectation that Jesus’ return was right around the corner.  Apostles were martyred—that’s okay; Jesus is coming back soon.  They had all things in common and nobody lacked within the tight-knit Christian community (Acts 2:44-45).  Doctrinal controversies came—circumcision and early Gnosticism,[1] but the Apostles were present to clear up the confusion.  When the Galatians had false teachers come to them, they got a personal letter from the Apostle Paul himself!  Take heart, brothers, this is only for a short time; the Lord is at hand!

Then the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD and, the believers remembered His words like those in Matthew 24.  This is happening just like Jesus said!  Surely, Jesus will return is in a few years!  Then over twenty years pass, and the last apostle, John, dies of old age.  Now we’re starting to get worried.  By the time the generation of the resurrection eye-witnesses fell asleep, waiting started to get real hard.

Over the next two hundred years, persecution and martyrdom were commonplace.  Compromisers got off scot free, and false teaching was rampant at times.  Then the public church came in 312 AD.  By now people were pretty sure that the Lord’s return wasn’t immediately around the corner.  The down side of this is that the Church began to get complacent.  When Christians received public approval, when they built large buildings, and the Church became an institution with earthly property and influence, there came with it the temptation to get comfortable with this life.  Now, that is a big generalization, and certainly not true of every Christian, but it’s a lot easier to be in it for the long haul when you can look at church buildings, bishops, and large assemblies as affirmation of what the Church is.  The church is the hierarchy under the pope, the church is the building, the church is how many believers we can count, the church is long-standing tradition!

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods 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.”

It had been all of 40 days since Moses went up on the mountain.  They had seen the smoke and the thunder, and been terrified by the peals of trumpets and the threat that no creature must touch Mount Sinai.[2]  But I mean, it’s been over a month now, and we don’t know what happened to this Moses fellow.  In their impatience, they took matters into their own hands.  You know what would really help this group stay together?  A cast image!  Every great nation has its idols, and that really brings unity.  We’re the people the Lord has brought out of Egypt, so let’s make a god[3] to go before us!

Now at this point, we know that what the Israelites did, and asked Aaron to do was clearly idolatry and against the plain command of God.  But there’s something to this request of the people: “Up, make us gods who shall go before us.”  The word there in Hebrew is asah which means to manufacture (in contrast, God is the only one who can create banah out of nothing).  It’s the work of human hands, a creation by a creature.[4]  The people were asking for something tangible that they could put their trust in, and they wanted that something to be what their hands built.

In Romans 1, St. Paul explains what sin does in the heart of man:

21 Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things… 25 they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

They worshiped and served the creation over the Creator.  The creation for them became more significant, more worthy than the Word of the Creator.  That’s what happened when Eve saw that the fruit of the tree was beautiful, good for food, and desirable for wisdom.[5]  Those attributes of a created thing became a higher pursuit than fidelity to God and His command.

As all things in the Scripture are written for our learning, what’s the lesson from the incident of the Golden Calf?  Of course, don’t copy pagan worship practices, making an idol and ask it to save you, as if you could treat a crucifix like a lucky charm.  But more to the point for us: We are waiting, have been waiting, and likely will continue to have to wait for the Lord’s return.  In our waiting, the Church collectively and as individual souls, need to be watchful that we don’t start worshipping the Church instead of our Lord, or the things that serve the Church at the expense of our devotion to the Word of the Lord.

How much different the Church today would be if all of us actually believed that Jesus’ return was imminent!  We might actually take His Word seriously and not have our hearts weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness (Luke 21:34).  We would have a much clearer focus of what the Church is, and what she is to be busy doing as she waits.

“Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19): We would be more interested in sinners who repent and believe than if they’re the kind of sinners we want to sit next to in the pew.  But there’s a world of difference between the law-based weeding out that ICE does and the soul care that happens in the Kingdom of Heaven.  What makes the difference in God’s eyes between someone who is “deported” versus a citizen of heaven is whether they hear the Word of the Lord, confess their sins, and believe that only Jesus is able to save their sorry self.

“Preach the Word in season and out of season…with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2)  Have you ever thought about why pastors give sermons?  It’s not the same as a stump speech from a politician, or a keynote address from an expert in the field.  What happens from the pulpit is God’s Word being applied to His people—both Law and Gospel.  A wise homiletics professor told his students to preach every sermon like it’s the last your people will ever hear.  While the Lord’s return may not be next week, your death might come before next Sunday.  And for your part, listen to the servant the Lord has sent you.

From the Gospel today: “If they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” (Matt. 24:26)  If we truly believed that the Lord’s return was imminent, we wouldn’t take doctrine and Bible study so lightly.  It’s a matter of spiritual life and spiritual death which Christ you follow.  When you are confirmed in the apostolic faith, you can be sure that you have the real Christ because He is the one who speaks from the Scriptures.  If ever you are tempted to leave the Church where this true Christ is proclaimed because you are turned off by outward fluff like music, I beg of you consider the health of your soul!

So it’s clear that we sin and put our trust in the wrong things just as much as our forefathers.  Holy and mighty God, have mercy upon us sinners!  We truly deserve to have You sweep us away and give Your kingdom to others.  But that’s where the other part of the story of the Golden Calf applies to us: Moses interceded (vv. 11-14).  He implored God to not give the people what they deserved for their disobedience and foolishness.  And that is what Jesus Christ does for you and me.  St. John, the Apostle who died in old age penned these words for us before He entered glory:

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2)

We have an intercessor better than Moses, one who has offered Himself on behalf of our sins.  While many make take advantage of God’s grace and take His patience for granted, may we believe and appreciate the wrath of God which Jesus has saved us from.  The reason God is so gracious to us today is because the blood of Jesus is so powerful.  Brothers and sisters, let the Spirit move you to greater devotion to your Lord.  When you are called out for something that is not God-pleasing in your life, repent immediately; don’t put it off to tomorrow.  When you are offered forgiveness, run, don’t walk to the altar of the Lord.  What we believe is no trifling game, and the Lord truly is coming soon.  Against all that our slothful, proud, and arrogant flesh tells us, live each day as if tomorrow you will face the Judgment Throne of Christ.  Now, in terms of the readings, you will have to wait till next Sunday to hear that Gospel.  In the meantime, go in the peace which Christ has purchased for you, and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept blameless until the coming of our Lord.  He who calls you is faithful and He will surely do it.  Amen.

[1] 1 John 5:4-12, Heb. 10:19-25

[2] Exodus 19:10-15

[3] The name for God in Hebrew is Elohim, a plural.  It’s possible that the people weren’t asking for multiple gods, just a single god after the manner of pagan worship.

[4] Isaiah 44:9-17

[5] Genesis 3:6