Sermon: Safety

October 15, 2017
Exodus 32:1-14
Children’s Sabbath

I think most of us recognize the difference between being instructed in how to do something on the one hand, and having the experience of doing it on the other. Cooking, cleaning, carpentry, driving, singing, playing an instrument, writing, plumbing, weeding, gardening – we get better at these with practice.

And the first time doing them without supervision can get, shall we say, interesting.

As the carpenter’s complaint goes, “I cut this board three times and it’s still too short.”

That’s sort of the situation of the people of Israel when they waited on the slopes of Mount Sinai. God had announced the Ten Commandments to Moses, and God had given him the first structures of the law which would govern the people. Moses, in turn, had written them down and provided them to the other leaders. Then, God had summoned Moses to climb the mountain and receive both more instructions, and also the covenant, the Ten Commandments, inscribed in rock by God’s own hand.

The people found themselves waiting and wondering, and worried. Where was Moses? And if Moses wasn’t with them, where was God?

Kathryn Matthews writes: “…the scholars seem to agree that the people identify Moses’ presence with the presence of God: if Moses is there, God is with them, and if Moses isn’t there, well, obviously God has left them on their own.”

In a sense, Moses was already functioning as a living idol, as a visible representation of God. That didn’t mean they treated him particularly well; you might remember that any time there was a serious problem they tended to get pretty angry about it. The nice thing about using Moses as an idol, in fact, was that he could be manipulated. He could be fooled. He could be cajoled. He might even be coerced. He did, after all, fear them when they got angry.

Is it any wonder that, with Moses vanished, they decided they needed to shape themselves a new God?

Kathryn Matthews also writes: “…there is still a very real and persistent human tendency to shape gods that we can manage and manipulate, and from which we can receive a strange comfort to soothe our souls. Perhaps these false gods, these idols, represent something we long for, or long to be. Perhaps they provide spiritual junk food to feed our deepest hungers.”

Or, perhaps they provide us a shield, a barrier between ourselves and God. They give us something to hide behind. They keep God at bay.

Because as dangerous as it was to be out in the desert, it’s clear that the people of Israel thought being in the presence of God was more dangerous still.

A little golden calf was a lot more comforting than a God who thundered, and directed, and offered a covenant for creating a blessed community. The golden calf wouldn’t do any of that.

So they ignored, or disregarded, or discarded the Second Commandment, and made themselves an idol, perhaps to some god of their imaginations, or perhaps in honor of the God who had led them out of Egypt – you can argue both from the text. The idol offered them safety.

If I could choose one modern idol which is most worshiped by contemporary Americans, it is: safety.

I have an uncomfortable relationship with safety. I’m very fond of most of the safety regulations that protect me from things like contaminated food and water, from unsafe automobiles and drivers, from toys that choke children. There are dangerous items that I’d like to see more effective restrictions on, including the devices which permitted a man to kill fifty-eight people in about ten minutes in Las Vegas two weeks ago, and the carbon emissions which are changing our climate and raising our seas.

Safety, however, can easily become an idol. I like my comfort. I like to breathe freely without concern about what’s about to happen to me. But that’s not always consistent with living a faithful life as Jesus’ disciple. Aaron, now. Aaron played it safe. He both did what the people asked him to do – he made the image – he also tried to play both sides. He actually declared that the golden calf was an image of the Lord, the God who brought them out of Egypt. Whatever the people thought of that, he was hoping to satisfy both them and Moses (and God) whenever Moses should come down from the mountain.

It’s easy for me to say this millennia later, but he should have taken a stand.

Most of the time, you and I probably won’t be called to put ourselves in unsafe situations. We could easily find ourselves in uncomfortable ones, with the gaze of God directed straight at us, and without our shield of safety to hide us, God will see everything.

God will see everything anyway, but there’s some comfort in that shield.

I’m going to close with a song. It’s about a passage a little further along in Exodus, in chapter 34, where Moses’ face would glow after he’d talk with God. Moses began to wear a veil between conversations, so as not to frighten the people. Once again, we find them insisting on a veil of safety.

It’s a veil of safety that protects them blessing.

“Lift the Veil, Moses” by Eric Anderson

If you would live unchanging
Then do not scale the heights
Or gaze upon the sunbeams
As day overtakes the night.
When Old Moses climbed Mount Sinai
To learn divine detail,
He’d come back with his face ablaze,
With light that would not fail.

Lift the veil, Moses,
And let us see the light
That promises a divine dawn
To follow human night.
From ignorance and bigotry
And selfish pride we’d sail:
Lift the veil, Moses.
Lift the veil, Moses.
Lift the veil, Moses
Lift the veil.

It was not the fire of judgement
A-blazing in his eyes
But holy grace and mercy
And a love that never dies.
Still the people could not bear the light.
“O, Moses,” they would pray,
“When you talk with God, please veil your face,
And hide the light away.”


They couldn’t bear the gleaming
That came streaming from his brow.
Could we endure the fire of love
With courage even now?
Prophecy will pass away
And human tongues shall cease,
But the love of God will never die.
It will feed the warmth of peace!



Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Pastor Eric is known to improvise, so the text as recorded does not entirely match the text as written.

Image is of Moses breaking the golden calf after returning from the mountain, found in a larger manuscript in the collection of the New York Public Library.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on October 15, 2017

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