We are about halfway through our current sermon series called “The Wandering Church”. We are exploring the life of Moses and the events of the exodus. This is one of the most compelling adventures ever told. Over the course of this study we have discovered many truths that God taught the children of Israel some 3500 years ago that still have direct and meaningful application to His people today.
In the last verse of chapter 24, which we spoke about last Sunday, Moses and Joshua climbed up Mt. Sinai again. Joshua stopped at some point, while Moses went on ahead alone to the peak. This was Moses’ sixth trip up the mountain, and he was there for forty days and nights. God instructed Moses to build a tabernacle and gave him specific instructions for doing so. He also gave Moses two stone tablets that had the Ten Commandments written on them.
Meanwhile, back at the camp, the people waited for their return. With both Moses and Joshua gone, Aaron had been left in charge of the group. Everything was fine at first - no major problems to speak of - but soon the people became restless and impatient. Their leader Moses had been gone for several weeks - apparently much longer than any of his previous ascents. They began to wonder. What might of happened to him? When would he come back, if ever? What if he had abandoned them there? What were they going to do?
Their needless worry and irrational fear prompted them to make a horrible decision. They chose to commit an unthinkable sin against God, which resulted in severe and fatal consequences. In the message this morning we are going to consider the people’s idolatry at Mt. Sinai and discuss how God responded to it.
I. THE PEOPLE SIN (Exodus 32:1-6)
After Moses had been gone to the mountain for many days, the people surrounded Aaron and urged him to make a god for them to lead in Moses’ absence. It seems that, for whatever reason, they did not believe that Moses was coming back. Astonishingly, Aaron agreed to their request. He collected jewelry from the people, much of which had been taken when Israel plundered the Egyptians, and melted it down to form an a golden calf. He then built an altar to it and led the congregation in worshiping the idol.
Bible students have differing opinions regarding Aaron’s willingness to participate in the sinful actions of the people. Some say he had such a lukewarm faith that he voluntarily went along with the whole Golden Calf incident. Others go so far as to say that much of it was his idea. I disagree with this line of thinking. Remember how the people had complained so severely at times that Moses had felt threatened that he’d be stoned. I choose to give Aaron the benefit of the doubt (to some degree), and suggest that he too felt threatened and cowered into making and worshiping the golden calf. This is my personal interpretation of the story - somewhat reminiscent of Pontius Pilate. Still, he exhibited weakness and shouldn’t have done what he did.
The actions of the congregation were even more deplorable when you consider that God had spoken audibly to them from Mt. Sinai not long before and had commanded them, among other things, not to make or worship idols. Their obedience to these commands was the basis of their covenant agreement with God. Yet here they were, the ink not even dry on the contract so-to-speak, violating the very terms that they’d promised to follow.
II. THE LORD'S ANGER (Exodus 32:7-14)
Meanwhile, at the summit of Mt. Sinai, the all-knowing God saw what the people are doing down below and told Moses to hurry down the mountain and put a stop to it. God was furious that His own children had so quickly forsaken the commandments. The LORD expressed His intention to destroy the people and to make His nation from the descendants of Moses instead.
Despite the sinfulness and stubbornness of his followers, Moses still loved the children of Israel. Immediately he began entreating the LORD not to destroy them. Moses reminded God of His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel) and urged Him to relent. Upon hearing Moses’ heartfelt plea, the LORD changed his mind and decided not to utterly wipe the people out.
I am stuck by the contrasting events that are occurring simultaneously in this chapter. While the assembly below was practicing gross acts of sin, the leader above was interceding desperately on their behalf. This causes me to think of Jesus’ parable about the Prodigal Son. Whether you are the parent of a wayward child, the teacher of a rowdy class, or even a citizen of a rebellious nation - we need to pray earnestly for those who have lost their way.
III. MOSES TAKES CHARGE (Exodus 32:15-29)
On his way down the mountain, Moses rejoined his friend Joshua. As they neared the base, the two of them could hear noise coming from the camp, but were unsure what is happening. When they get near enough to see what was actually going on Moses exploded in anger. He threw down the stone tablets that God had given him and they shattered. He then seized the golden calf, burned it, and ground the charred remains into powder. He then poured the powder into the stream (see Deuteronomy 9:21) that the people drank from - yikes!!!
Then Moses turned to his brother Aaron and began to chastise him. Moses had left Aaron in charge and trusted him to maintain control over the people. Instead Aaron had allowed the people to digress into idolatry, revelry, and wickedness. The entire congregation was in chaos, and Aaron himself was actively involved in their sinfulness. When confronted by Moses, all Aaron could do is offer lame and empty excuses for his incompetence and guilt.
The people were out of control, so Moses took drastic measures to restore order. He gathered the sons of Levi who were faithful to God and, on the LORD’s orders, sent them through the camp to kill the chief offenders in this incident. Some 3,000 men were executed as punishment for their idolatrous behavior in association with the golden calf. It took severe and drastic measures to curb the people’s rebellious spirit and bring them back under control. Unfortunately, this is often still the case today.
VI. THE SEVENTH ASCENT (Exodus 32:30-35; 33:1-3)
The next day, Moses publicly charged the people of committing a great sin. By this point his righteous anger against them had subsided, and now he sought only their forgiveness and restoration. So he scaled the mountain for the seventh time - to see God and to make atonement for the people.
Moses asked the LORD to forgive the people for their sin, but went on to say that if He wouldn’t do it, to hold him accountable along with the people. In other words, Moses stated that he did not want to be associated with an unforgiving god. This presented an important teaching opportunity in which God revealed that people are held accountable individually for their own sin. This is an important and timeless truth for us to grasp.
Of course, our loving God forgave the people and promised that His angel would still go before them as they journeyed. But the punishment for and consequences of their sin still remained. God stated that His manifest presence would no longer go with them. You see, forgiveness of guilt is not the same thing as dismissal of punishment. God is always willing to forgive those who sincerely seek His forgiveness, but often times the dire consequences of one’s sin can linger for years to come.
I don’t presently know anyone who literally worships a golden statue shaped like a calf. As a matter of fact, I have never known anyone that did so. But I do know of many people who worship idols in other forms. The painful reality is that idolatry is alive and well in our world today.
“American Idol” is one of the most popular television shows in recent memory. I have nothing against the show per se, and have watched it myself on several occasions in the past. That said, I want to consider its title for just a moment. For many people in America (and elsewhere by the way) the fame, fortune, and celebrity represented on the show have become idols. We worship those who have attained them and aspire to do likewise at all costs. We often place these graven images, which we’ve crafted in our hearts and minds, before the LORD. We mistake worldly success for the blessing of God - and we suffer the consequences.
As we close the message, can I ask you honestly - what golden calves are present in your life right now? Who or what are you truly worshiping? Where does the bulk of your time and money go? To whom or to what is the best of your energy given? Does your lifestyle testify that you are a child of God? Perhaps it is time to realign your priorities, to burn your idols, and to make God first again.