I find the nature of our faith and belief to be fascinating. They are the very things that we need in our lives in order to truly live and yet it feels like sometimes we treat them as passing articles, or things to only touch on in moments of convenience. I don’t know that we really mean to be like that, but things around us start to pick up speed and we start moving with the flow of the temporal traffic and before we know it we’ve ended up someplace that we’re not quite sure about without a lot of recollections on how to get back to the places we actually wanted to go. We thrive in our connections with other people – regardless of where you might fall on some personality scale or test – and we’re hardwired to seek out those connections. The biggest one we’re intended to seek out is our connection with God, though we’ve certainly come up with some rather unique methods of trying to establish that link. People do weird things in their attempts to bridge that gap and experience the divine; and while they may have a spiritual experience it ends up having nothing to do with the Lord.
Experience. This is something that’s been on my heart lately. When we met as leadership to talk about what we wanted to be our focus for 2020 and beyond for the church, we really wanted to get back to the basics. Our central desire is to see everyone fall more in love with Jesus and find a deeper and lasting connection in that relationship. We want it to be the defining part of our lives. That means being examples of the kind of relationship building that we’re guiding you towards. Modeling the spiritual disciplines that bear fruit and impact lives for the better.
What does that have to do with experience exactly? I have found that we really hold on to the experiences that we have had with God, those mountain top moments if you will. We talk about them. We crave them. We chase that high. I’m not saying it’s bad to hold on to those experiences or to want to have more of them. I think they’re amazing when they happen and that they can help carry us through the dry spells that we will inevitably have. We should be seeking after God with our whole beings and putting Him in the first place of our lives.
The danger in placing too much emphasis on the experiences we have is that they cannot sustain us indefinitely. Your experiences are yours, and no one can take them away from you. That can be powerful testimony. Even with that, you can’t build the entirety of your faith on an experience that you had. It’s a starting point, an emphatic point even. It can be the thing that drew you in and lit the fire, but experience is a brick – not the whole wall. We need other bricks and mortar to solidify the structure of our faith.
To illustrate this need, let’s take a look at an example from the book of Exodus. Before we dive into the specific passage, let’s do a bit of a recap to set the stage for the scene that will unfold before you. The Israelites spent 400 years in bondage to the Pharaohs of Egypt. God heard the cries of the people and remembered the promises that He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He called Moses to go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let His people go. Fast forward a bit. God pronounces judgement against the gods of Egypt through the plagues and the Israelites are released. They cross the red sea on dry land. They’re given food to eat daily in the Manna and quails. They are literally seeing the presence of God in pillars of cloud and fire all throughout their journey to Mt. Sinai. They can hear the audible thunder and see the cloud covering the mountain when God convenes with Moses. They have had some of the most incredible experiences imaginable when it comes to seeing the working of God in their presence, and it happened to them collectively, not individually. Despite all of that, it was not enough to sustain them when God called Moses further up the mountain to give him the tablets of the covenant. Moses and Joshua were gone 40 days and 40 nights, and then this happened.
Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make us [a]gods that shall go before us; for 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.”
2 And Aaron said to them, “Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf.
Then they said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
5 So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.” 6 Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.
So, wow. They’ve witnessed so many incredible things up to this point, but in just over a month they want to try something else. ‘We don’t know what’s taking Moses so long, or if he’s even coming back. How about instead you make some other thing that we can point to as god and we’ll devote our energy to it instead.’ They recognize that God has gone before them, and they still want that but they’re reverting to old habits and old vices in the idolatry practiced by the Egyptians. They want something physical that they can see and touch to present as the mighty deity that has delivered them.
It’s worth mentioning that this is not all of the people in the camp of the Israelites, nor is this desire or movement originating with the leaders and elders awaiting Moses’s return. Much like modern times, the will of the people grumbling the loudest and causing the most trouble often get their way in an effort to appease them and restore a modicum of peace. Aaron didn’t create this plan, but he facilitated it in an effort to appease the mob. He tells them to bring him their golden earrings – torn out per the word used here – and then he melts them down and fashions a golden “calf.” The word calf in English is kind of misleading in that it implies it was a statue of a baby cow. The Hebrew word used here – egel – is meant as a young bull in the prime of his strength. This statue is something Aaron carefully considered and created. The sin here may not have originated with him but he certainly facilitated it.
The people see Aaron’s work and proclaim it to be their god that led them out of Egypt. Aaron did not anoint the statue as god and did not proclaim it himself to be god…he simply went along with the will of the people, which is something a true leader would not have stood for. He may have even thought he was trying to steer them back in the right direction by proclaiming a feast to the Lord the next day, but the people were quickly falling back into ideas of worship that they would have learned in Egypt. They sacrificed to the idol itself and engaged in revelry that included drunkenness and orgies, based on the particular verb usage that is translated as ‘play.’
How is this possible? Less than two months prior to this, they heard the literal thundering of God’s voice as the Ten Commandments were read aloud to the nation and now they’re engaging in this? One could suggest that the experience did not change their hearts for the better but instead made them desire a less demanding god. They wanted a “safe” god. One they could look at and carry before them but wouldn’t shake the whole mountain with its presence and wouldn’t ask them to do anything contrary to their own wishes. Our modern age still echoes these same sentiments. We want a nice polite God that is at our beck and call when we need or want something but has the good sense to keep to himself otherwise. He doesn’t ask for much from us and fits neatly into our political and social boxes. He agrees with all of our thoughts and just wants to give us good vibes and a positive spirit. He doesn’t pass any judgement on us and just loves us with no expectation that we make any effort at holiness. That sound about right? Does that actually sound like God? Or more like you?
7 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. 8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ ” 9 And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and indeed it is a [b]stiff-necked people! 10 Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may [c]consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.”
11 Then Moses pleaded with [d]the Lord his God, and said: “Lord, why does Your wrath burn hot against Your people whom You have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians speak, and say, ‘He brought them out to harm them, to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your fierce wrath, and relent from this harm to Your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” 14 So the Lord relented from the harm which He said He would do to His people.
Just in case you think God is not paying attention to what’s happening, He is. And He was quite unhappy about the actions of the Israelites in the camp. He was ready to incinerate them all, based on the way that it’s described. He was ready to disown them, wipe them out, and start over with Moses. All Moses would’ve had to do was stand aside and let it happen. Thankfully, Moses intercedes and calls on the merciful nature of God. He pleads for them. “God it was in your grace that you led us out of Egypt, please don’t turn from dealing with us in grace and mercy. Please don’t let your glory be diminished in the eyes of the nations who saw the great works only to have you lead us out into the wilderness to be killed.” Moses is concerned for God’s grace and for His glory. He pleads for the Lord to remember the promises He made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Moses approached God in intercession for what he knew to be the heart of God for His people.
15 And Moses turned and went down from the mountain, and the two tablets of the Testimony were in his hand. The tablets were written on both sides; on the one side and on the other they were written. 16 Now the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God engraved on the tablets.
17 And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.”
18 But he said:
“It is not the noise of the shout of victory,
Nor the noise of the cry of defeat,
But the sound of singing I hear.”
19 So it was, as soon as he came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing. So Moses’ anger became hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 Then he took the calf which they had made, burned it in the fire, and ground it to powder; and he scattered it on the water and made the children of Israel drink it. 21 And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?”
22 So Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord become hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. 23 For they said to me, ‘Make us gods that shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 24 And I said to them, ‘Whoever has any gold, let them break it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out.”
From here it’s Moses’s turn to share in the righteous anger of the Lord at the actions of the people. He gets close to the camp and sees the idol and the people celebrating it, and he can’t stand it. He throws the two stone tablets to the ground and breaks them – tablets written on front and back by the very finger of God. One could even say this wasn’t just an action of mere anger but a ceremonial representation of the broken law and covenant he was witnessing upon his return. He utterly destroys the idol, grinding it into powder and forcing them to drink it. This was symbolic in multiple ways:
- It showed that the statue was nothing more than the work of human hands – easily destroyed and worthless
- It was an immediate punishment for their sin
- It made the gold completely unusable for any other purpose due to its now corrupted nature
Then he confronts Aaron – What did these people do to you that you would lead them into so great a sin? What were you thinking?! Aaron does a good bit of blame-shifting and scapegoating, and also outright lying:
‘hey man, take it easy…you know the hearts of this group are set on some bad things. They told me to make them some gods since they weren’t sure if you’d ever be coming back man, so I told them to tear out their earrings and bring them to me. When they did so, I tossed all the gold into the fire and then this bull statue came out….it was wild!’
Aaron messed up, and he knew he messed up. Rather than just admit it and ask for mercy, he decides it’s easier to make up a bit of story. He was lazy and opted for the path of least resistance when dealing with the people rather than standing up for what was right. This leads to some serious consequences for a large number of people in the camp.
25 Now when Moses saw that the people were unrestrained (for Aaron had not restrained them, to their shame among their enemies), 26 then Moses stood in the entrance of the camp, and said, “Whoever is on the Lord’s side—come to me!” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. 27 And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘Let every man put his sword on his side, and go in and out from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and let every man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.’ ” 28 So the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And about three thousand men of the people fell that day. 29 Then Moses said, [e]“Consecrate yourselves today to the Lord, that He may bestow on you a blessing this day, for every man has opposed his son and his brother.”
Moses isn’t having it and issues the call – You’re either with the Lord or against Him. This incident with the golden idol ends with 3,000 men dead – probably more people total considering the women aren’t numbered here. It’s likely that the people killed in this incident were those who were most flagrant in their idol worship or those that had lead the call of the people that instigated the whole mess.
30 Now it came to pass on the next day that Moses said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. So now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” 31 Then Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Oh, these people have committed a great sin, and have made for themselves a god of gold! 32 Yet now, if You will forgive their sin—but if not, I pray, blot me out of Your book which You have written.”
33 And the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book. 34 Now therefore, go, lead the people to the place of which I have spoken to you. Behold, My Angel shall go before you. Nevertheless, in the day when I visit for punishment, I will visit punishment upon them for their sin.”
35 So the Lord plagued the people because of what they did with the calf which Aaron made.
Having seen the full measure of the sin committed by the people, Moses again goes up to intercede on behalf of the people, even offering himself up as a substitute to face their punishment if God will be merciful. God does indeed extend His mercy to the nation as a whole, but He reserves the right of judgement on the individual hearts of the people. This entire generation does not make it to the promised land, and that is the meted justice for their sins throughout their time in the wilderness.
So, this might seem like a bit of an extreme example from where I started this whole topic, but it resonates all the same. Life is full of uncertainty and we are going to walk into some days not being able to feel the joy and power of the previous experience we had and unable to see when the next one will happen. If we haven’t been putting in the work to build our faith on a stronger foundation to stand on, we might fall for the first easier thing that comes our way and miss out on the moments that He is preparing us for. We talked last week about the rhythm of the rain seasons in Israel and learning the differences between them so that we can operate optimally. This is much the same, in that we are walking through the valleys and pressing on through the difficult moments so that we can make the climb and enter into that next experience that fuels and sustains us as move on to the next season. It is a journey and it is not a sprint. He is there with us in every step, we just need to listen for His voice and the guidance of His spirit. Sometimes that means taking action, other times it means we pause and reflect. The discipline is in learning to balance the two.
*Scripture quotations are from the New King James Version and copyrighted to Thomas Nelson Publishers*