Previously on Exodus: God has liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt, drowned the pursuing Egyptians at the Red Sea, fed the Israelites with miracle bread, and after three months brought them to Mount Sinai, where God manifested as a smoky cloud. Moses went up, came down to let everyone know it was cool, went up again, and has been up for forty days. Forty in the Bible rarely means 40. It means “complete” or “enough.” Moses was on Sinai long enough, long enough to receive the law, and long enough that everyone at base camp gets antsy.
What follows is a liturgy, a worship service. The people approach Moses’ brother, Aaron, the high priest, and say, “We’ve been here a while. Make gods for us to worship.”
Aaron asks everyone to contribute. It’s like a potluck—bring a dish to share! Only here everyone contributes what gold they can. Out of this community effort, Aaron melts the gold and molds a calf. The calf is a symbol of Baal, the Canaanite storm god. Historically, we know that Baal is a rival of The Lord, the God of the Bible. People called upon Baal for rain and fertility. When Baal is completed, the people cry, “These are your gods, oh Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” They credit Baal, who they just made, with doing what they literally not three months ago watched The Lord do! Then, Aaron declares the next day will be a “festival to the Lord,” who, apparently, is now Baal the golden calf Aaron just made who he claims liberated him from slavery.
Lots going on here, but I see in this story our tendency to spiritualize God at the cost of God’s presence in the physical world. The people have interpreted God as distant. They say God is gone and Moses is gone. God’s not distant; God’s other. Exodus describes God’s presence as a cloud of smoke. That’s different. Most people don’t look like that. It’s a way of saying God is wholly other, entirely different from us. The people at the foot of Mt. Sinai mistake “entirely different” for “entirely absent.”
We do this, too. We do not always see God in what is around us. Like, sometimes we are tempted not to see stewardship as Godly. We come to church, we give to the church. Those things are connected. They’re both about God. It’s why the offering happens in worship. But we may be tempted to think there’s a spiritual side to church and then a separate business side to church. You know, like God’s all powerful but not so good with money. Or outside of Church we’ll hear someone say they are Christian. Someone will ask them how they can say that when their actions seem to contradict God’s care for the earth, care for the poor, work for peace and justice, healing, forgiveness. And the response is, “you cannot judge my soul.” No, I can’t. And, to be clear, I am not advocating for a more judgmental Christianity! But this guy’s spiritualized God to where he can do whatever he wants. And that’s what happens at the foot of Sinai. The people decide God is gone, so, they create their own God. They pick what they value: storms, rain, fertility, they pick Baal. Their act of worship becomes the creation of this new god who embodies their values. Then, Aaron takes that last crucial step and declares that this Baal is The Lord. It’s the way we take our values and decide they’ve been what God was in favor of all along.
And that was previously on Exodus. That’s how we got to today’s First Reading. In today’s reading, God tells Moses what happened previously on Exodus. Moses is dumbfounded at first. God asks to be left alone so he can just burn everyone. Moses regains himself and takes two related approaches with God: liberation and promise. Moses reminds God that God liberated these people from slavery. God liberates. Killing everyone in the desert is not liberating them. Moses says, “If you do this, what will the Egyptians, the slave owners, say? They’ll say, ‘Look! Look what happens when you’re liberated! You follow some madman to your death. Your god is a charlatan. Better to stay here.’” That’s always the line with the masters: “it’s better to stay slaves because you’ll just get burned otherwise.” Moses says to God, “Don’t play into that. You liberate. For real.” That’s the liberation approach. The other approach is promise. Moses says, “You promised Abraham, Isaac, and Israel that you’d make them as numerous as the stars of heaven. Don’t destroy what you promised.” Moses’ appeals work. The author of this scripture writes it that way for a reason: they want us to know this is how God is. God liberates, God keeps God’s promise. God’s promise is liberation. God’s covenant, God’s testament, is liberation. And that’s the rest of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, basically Scripture: God continues liberating. God continues liberating us from not seeing God in the physical world.
That’s what Jesus offers: God in the physical world. It’s the thing that sets off the Gospel story today: repeated dinners with God. That’s what gets the Pharisees and scribes mad. “Why do you keep eating with sinners!?” They’ve separated the spiritual and the physical. God can’t be eating with these people. Jesus says, “That’s the whole point of being here! I came here to eat dinner with sinners!” Where in Exodus the people interpret God as absent and conduct a liturgy around a golden calf, Jesus offers a meal at which God is present. At Jesus’ meal, there is no need to make a God. God is already here. What objects are necessary for God to be present in this space? None. God’s already here.
Where in Exodus Aaron tells everyone, “Throw in your gold so we can make god together,” in this liturgy, Jesus gives himself. What do we hear? The Word, Jesus. What do we eat? The body of Jesus. What do we drink? The blood of Jesus. Now, yes, that doesn’t work without bread and wine. But bread and wine come from God. It’s God’s world, God’s earth, God’s rain, God’s wheat (or rice), God’s grapes, God’s people working the land, making the bread and wine. God provides. Where in Exodus there was an idol to cling to—a fairly hard-to-miss golden calf—in this liturgy there is no object, but rather movement as people approach, eat, drink, and return. God is moving in each one of us.
God is present. In this meal God is closer to you than you are to yourself. Being that close, God keeps liberating us from thinking God is absent. When we think God is absent, we make our own gods who embrace whatever we decide matters. Like my earlier list of values and hatreds. We call those God, and act like…well, like nothing matters as long as we get what we want.
I’ll give an example that was shown to me by Ashleigh Elser, who many of you know: she worshipped with us for two years while she was a visiting professor at VU, and now she teaches at Hampden Sydney in VA. Our Psalm today is Psalm 51. At some point in the history of transmission it acquired a header (which we did not read): “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone into Bathsheba.” In the David story, this is a horrible thing David does. He skips a war to stay home. He has a ton of wives but he’s ogling the neighbors. He rapes Bathsheba, his friend Uriah’s wife. Uriah is a soldier, and David arranges for Uriah to die in combat. David involves a lot of people in this. David sins against a lot of people. In Psalm 51, we read, “Against you, God, you alone have I sinned.” All the people David sinned against have vanished. It’s David and God. The physical world has vanished. And, then, we spiritualize God away.
Today, some faith traditions use this text and others—read in this sort of way—to argue that certain powerful people cannot be held accountable for their actions because it’s between them and God. A man builds his religious empire attacking homosexuality. Turns out he’s gay. Will he repent of the attacks? No, God “forgives” him, condemns everyone else. It’s spiritualized away. A man collects women, abuses women, uses women. Doesn’t he have to atone for that? No, it’s between him and God. But we’ll heap guilt upon you if you’re divorced, or have been unfaithful, or even looked at another person. An entire culture wastes everything it can, shoves its trash on other countries, because it’s more powerful and it can. Aren’t they responsible? No. God’s cool. Those other people, though, they live in filth, and need to stay in it. That’s what we get when we interpret God as distant and turn our values into God.
Jesus offers a meal. A liturgy. The Aarons, the high priests, the gatekeepers of values, say, “Jesus, why do you keep eating with these people?” At Jesus’ meal are David’s other wives. At Jesus’ meal is Uriah. Bathsheba. At Jesus’ meal is every person made to hate themselves because of sexual rhetoric. Every woman whose hated her body because people use it. Every person whose thought God hated them because of who they were. At Jesus’ meal is every person living in our garbage. At Jesus’ meal is every last lost sheep and lost coin. It’s lucky for us: we’re a lot more lost than we’d like to admit. And at Jesus’ meal Jesus…speaks, and flows, and feeds us, and…is here. Liberating us from thinking he’s not here.