Kevin DeYoung / Apr 9, 2017 / Exodus 32:15-24
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Oh Lord, we come to you in prayer because we need your help. We’re not just praying before the sermon because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We truly need your help to listen, learn, and hear your voice. I need help to speak clearly, humbly, and by the power of your Holy Spirit. You have been so good to us, and we ask that you would be good to us yet again. Pierce through the noise and distractions of our lives, and speak to our hearts through your word and by your Spirit. In Jesus’ name, amen.
The Lord has seen what the people are doing at the bottom of the mountain, and he has spoken to Moses about their sin. Moses has interceded, and the Lord has relented from completely destroying them. Now, Moses will come down and see what has happened for himself:
Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets that were written on both sides; on the front and on the back they were written. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets. When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, “There is a noise of war in the camp.” But he said, “It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.” And as soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made and burned it with fire and ground it to powder and scattered it on the water and made the people of Israel drink it.
And Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” And Aaron said, “Let not the anger of my lord burn hot. You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, ‘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.’ So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” Exodus 32:15-24
Remember the moment in “The Grinch” when the Grinch imagines all the boys and girls in Whoville opening their presents, and he says to himself, “Noise! Noise! Noise!”? That’s what life often feels like, especially when you’re a parent. We have a piano in our family room. Mind you, none of the kids have had piano lessons, but they all love to play the piano. They’ll play various tunes that they have taught themselves to pick out—“Jesus Loves Me,” “Für Elise,” bits of “The Imperial March,” etc. That layer of noise is a pretty constant hum—and then add to that, as in many of your homes, the sounds of kids running, wrestling, screaming, crying, stomping, slamming doors, jumping on basketball hoops, jumping on other kids and so on.
Sometimes, I have a great deal of patience with this. My wife says that I have a unique ability, inherited from my father, for completely ignoring the needs of others around me as they’re clamoring for my attention. But there does come a time when the cacophony of sound overwhelms me, and I snap. My sinful inner Grinch comes out—and I have said, from time to time, “Noise! Noise! Noise!” Sometimes, I have more than half a mind to duct tape the piano lid shut. It just becomes too much.
For some of us, it’s not just noises. It goes even deeper than that. We have doubts and fears, parents that we never quite got over, conversations that have stuck with us for weeks, and the constant burdens and worries of life. There’s noise, noise, noise!
But not all noise is the same. There are the noises of disorder and disobedience, but there’s another, very different noise which you can have in your house: the noise of laughter—of playing, fort-building, tickling, and teasing. There are all sorts of noises in your house, your life, and your Christian walk.
This morning, I want to talk about four different noises. As we go through this passage, I want you to think about how many of these sounds are operating in your life now. I hope that at least one of them is, and it’s quite likely that there’s more than one. We’re going to spend most of the time on two sounds that we see in this text, and then we’ll finish by connecting some dots with the Triumphal Entry and briefly looking at two other sounds from there. Four sounds: the sound of singing, of shifting, of shouting, and of sobbing.
The Sound of Singing
Let’s start here in Exodus. In the first paragraph, we hear the sound of singing. Normally, we would think of that as very good, but this is the sound of sinful singing. The last song that we heard in Exodus was a very good song: the song of Moses. It was a song of triumph after the Lord had brought them through the Red Sea. They sang, “The LORD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him…” Now, in Exodus 32, the Israelites are literally singing a different song. As Aaron says in verse 4, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
There’s some debate about how to translate verse 18—whether it’s singing or some other kind of noise—but there’s clearly some sort of revelry going on in the camp, and I think the ESV gets the gist of what is going on.
Moses came down with some idea that the people are in big trouble, because God told him so, and he had to intercede for them. But Joshua…remember, he had been waiting halfway up the mountain. He was the heir apparent to Moses (well, not quite yet, but we know he will be), and already Moses’ right-hand man. However, Joshua hasn’t met with the Lord, so he doesn’t know what is going on. As they come down, he says, “What’s that noise? It must be war! There’s such a rustling, clamor, banging, shouting, and screaming.” But Moses says, “It’s not war, victory, or military defeat. It’s singing.”
This was a combination, no doubt, of dancing, music, drinking, and sensuality. It was like a pagan frat house, rocking and rolling. As Moses came down the mountain to see exactly what they were doing, he was incensed. Of course, singing itself is not the problem. We do lots of singing on Sundays, and biblically, it’s normally a very good thing, but here, it represents something else. At the end of Exodus 15, Miriam and the women were dancing for the king of the universe—and how quickly and far they have fallen. Those who danced for the king of the universe are now dancing for a cow.
Don’t think that any of us are above falling. We have confidence that the Lord will keep us in his mercy, but as Jude says, “keep yourselves in the love of God…” When I went through seminary, we had to take pastoral ministry classes. You tended to hear story after story of disaster. “That pastor was fired from his church. That pastor left his ministry. That pastor fell because of sin with money, sex, anger, or any number of other things.” Even today, I can think of people who I’ve known personally, and people whose books I knew who’ve sinned recently. I remember the counsel we received in seminary, which I think was good: “You ought to trust the Lord and fear your own heart. Don’t think that this cannot happen to you, because the same heart that led these brothers or sisters into sin is still at war within you.”
It’s a fine line. We don’t want to wake up every day, thinking, “Well, this is the day that everything falls apart,” yet Jesus tells us to pray daily, “…lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Every day is one in which we need new mercies from the Lord, and in which we will be faced with new temptations. If we aren’t aware of that, and praying for that, we can fall as far and fast as these Israelites did. In a matter of months, they went from singing and dancing, “Praise to YHWH!”, on the banks of the Red Sea, to this orgy to a pagan deity.
This scene that Moses encountered was one of misplaced delight. Note that very well. Sin doesn’t normally make us miserable in the moment. If it did, we wouldn’t do it. The temptation that the devil brings to us isn’t, “I’ve got a sin for you. I want you to lie, boast, or pursue that illicit relationship. You’re going to feel awful the whole time you’re doing it, though.” No, you may feel the sting of conscience later, but sin often feels delightful in the moment. We’re often wondrously happy when we’re sinning. They were having a party!
It’s possible that some of you may be mired in all sorts of sin this morning, yet you as if you’re having the time of your lives. Our own hypocrisy and self-deception is a scary thing.
Remember Psalm 73? Asaph said
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. Psalm 73:2-3
“I was looking at the sinners, and they seemed healthy and happy. They seemed to be getting ahead by their sin. They didn’t seem to have troubles. They seemed to be singing their way through life as they worshiped their golden calves.” But Asaph goes on to say, “Then I entered the sanctuary and considered their end. The Lord knew, saw, and would visit them for their sins.”
But make no mistake. We can be wondrously happy in the midst of our sin. That’s why it’s so dangerous when people say, “I’ve never felt more fulfilled in my whole life,” or “If you keep this from me, you’re keeping me from being happy.” No, we may be keeping you from Hell. There are many people who are happy in their sin on their way to Hell.
We can’t be the measure of our own righteousness. “Does this relationship feel fulfilling? Does this encounter feel engaging to me? I’ve never felt so alive in my life!” They felt pretty alive, with their singing, revelry, and dancing, but it was a sinful singing.
When Moses came down and saw the camp, he was not a happy camper. Verse 19 says that “Moses’ anger burned hot…” It’s one thing to hear about the wild behavior from God, but it’s another to see it for yourself. Notice that God doesn’t fault Moses for this anger. I don’t think this was just a sinful bit of road rage. This isn’t what happens in your household when mom and dad finally have it and throw down the paper. I remember my dad doing that once while watching the Bears do something dumb on a Sunday afternoon. Maybe that’s a good reason to turn that off sometimes.
But that’s not what Moses is doing. The phrase “anger burned hot” is normally used of God. Look at verse 10: “Now therefore, let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them…” It’s the same phrase. This is not a sinful anger.
In his anger, Moses does two things. First, he throws down the tablets of the law. As we see in Exodus 31:18, these were “the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” We receive more information about them in verses 15-16 of our chapter. We know from the end of Exodus 34, and from a few other places in the Bible (like Hebrews) that the Ten Commandments are written on these tablets.
Incidentally, doesn’t it say something about the unique and permanent nature of the Ten Commandments that, uniquely from the rest of the Mosaic Law, these were written on tablets of stone? In the ancient world, it was common to have different sorts of writing material. You could write on vellum (the skin of an animal) or parchment (the cheapest method), but if you wanted to write something with great permanence for public display, you’d etch it in stone. The Ten Commandments, apart from the other laws (written in a book) are written by the finger of God in stone. They were meant to be foundational for all the civil and ceremonial laws that followed.
And Moses smashed them. This wasn’t just fit of anger, but a deliberate, symbolic act. Remember the confirmation of the covenant in Exodus 24. Where were the people when that happened? “…at the foot of the mountain…” That could just be a generic term about where the people are—they’re not up the mountain or in the mountain, but at the foot of the mountain—but the same phrase is used again here. In verse 19, “…at the foot of the mountain,” Moses threw the tablets out of his hand and broke them. In other words, the tablets were broken at the very spot where the people had demonstrated their allegiance to God.
Remember, the people gathered there at the foot of the mountain and said, “All that you command us to do, we’ll do. Everything you tell us, we’ll obey. We’re signing this covenant. We’re ready to go.” Now, in colossal fashion, they have broken that promise, so it’s fitting that Moses would break the tablets of the covenant in response. It isn’t just in a fit of anger that he smashes them. No, he’s saying, “You have broken this covenant, so I will break the tablets of the covenant before you in the same spot where you declared your dedication to the Lord.”
But he didn’t just do that. In verse 20, he did three things to the golden calf. First, he burned it with fire. It may have been a wooden calf that was overlaid with gold, rather than being gold straight through. However it happened, he burned it with fire. Second, he ground it to powder. Imagine if it was wood, overlaid with gold. You’d have these charcoal ashes and some sort of sludgy gold mess—and then he got a pestle and mixed this whole mess of ash and sludge around.
Finally, he scattered it into their water source, so that they would all drink of it. Why did he do this? It sounds like a parent who says, “I’m gonna wash your mouth out,” or “Come here! You’re going to sit down and drink that little concoction of things you put together.” My kids sometimes do that. They put some ketchup in a cup, and some water and breadcrumbs. There’s still a kid somewhere in this world, growing old at a table because he won’t eat his peas.
But that’s not what Moses is doing. He is punishing the people (in a way), but he’s punishing this idol even more. He’s not just saying, “Okay, drink it down. Do you like that?” No, this was a way of utterly destroying and humiliating this so-called deity. Think about it: they worshiped this god as the one who had delivered them out of Egypt, and look what has become of him! Some god he is! He can be burnt to a crisp, ground up into powder, and scattered into the water. They drank of this god, and they will defecate this god.
Moses was saying, “Look, this is not a god who was worth worshiping. He has been so soundly defeated and routed that he’s burnt up. There’s no way that you can possibly reconstitute his being. He has been scattered into the water, and you all drank of him and passed him through your system. Some god this was—the one who supposedly saved you.”
The Sound of Shifting
The singing sounds of sin only last for a season. Our idols cannot save or satisfy, and (in the end) they cannot stand. When Moses came down, there was the noise of rebellious singing, revelry, and idolatry. He confronts it immediately, and there’s a second noise: the sound of shifting, as in blame-shifting. That’s what we see from Aaron in verses 21-24. Though Moses was upset with Aaron, he did give him a chance to explain himself. “What did this people do to you that you have brought such a great sin upon them?” The term “great sin” is usually used in the Old Testament for sexual sin. Think of Joseph speaking to Potiphar’s wife: “Why would you lead me to do this great sin?” Or the people of Sodom were called great sinners. “Great sin” normally refers to a sexual sin like adultery, or its spiritual component, idolatry, which is what we have here.
So Moses acknowledges, “Aaron, you led the people into a great sin,” But he gave him a chance. In Deuteronomy 9:20, we read that Moses not only prayed for the people of Israel, but for Aaron as well. Would you do that for your big brother, if you left him in charge and then this happened? Well, Moses did. He’s coming to his big brother with proper frustration, but also with an open mind.
Aaron, it’s safe to say, doesn’t acquit himself very well. Instead of admitting his fault, he tries to pass the buck. First, he blames other people (verse 22): “Moses, you know what these people are like! They are set on evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods!’” If you read between the lines, Aaron is saying. “What kind of choice did I have? Yeah, some bad stuff happened, but you know what these people are like.”
Are you like this? Is it always someone else’s fault? That isn’t to say that our upbringing and other people don’t have some influence in our lives to make righteousness easier and sin more difficult; of course they do. But are you always a blame-shifter? “You know what my parents were like. You know how hard my kids are. You know what my husband is like. You know how difficult my wife can be. You know the sort of coach and teachers I had. You know what my pastor is like. You know what the president is like. You know the people that I work with.” It’s always somebody else! When you are confronted with your sin, like Aaron, you say, “But you know what these people are like.”
Second, he blames the messenger. It’s very subtle, but it’s clear in verse 23: “For they said to me, ‘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’s a subtle jab. “What was I going to do, Moses? You did disappear, and the people didn’t know where you were. You didn’t tell us. You didn’t text. You didn’t send Joshua down the mountain. You were just gone for forty days and nights. We had no idea where you were, so what else could you expect from us?” More often than not, when you confront sinful people about their sin, they will redirect the conversation to be about you. It’s suddenly about something you did that made their behavior unavoidable and/or excusable.
Finally, Aaron blames his circumstances. This is the worst of all. You can’t help but laugh at it: “I just threw the gold into the fire, and boom! golden calf. That’s what happened.” “I don’t know how it happened. We were making nachos, and I thought it would be cool if we got some gold. They would be golden nachos! It would be amazing! And all of a sudden, we’re dancing, singing, and worshiping. Beats me.” See the passive construction? We do this all the time” “I threw it into the fire and out came this golden calf.” It’s the famous line: “Mistakes were made.” You don’t have to take personal responsibility for it. You just say, “There were mistakes. Bad stuff happened. Things were done that I’m not proud of.”
Aaron has done the same thing that we do when we’re caught in sin: he turns himself into a minor character, when he was actually one of the chief actors. When there’s a great success or triumph, we’re always the main actors and actresses in this great, heroic story: “By God’s grace, I was able to do this. Please, no applause. Letters are fine.” Yet when it comes to sins that you’re involved in, notice how you’re always a small character: “Yeah, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bad stuff went down, but it wasn’t me. I wasn’t the chief actor. I was just the bystander.”
Aaron uses all of the excuses that we use. He says, “It’s not my fault. I had no choice. It just happened.” Have you ever heard those things come out of your mouth, your kids’ mouths, or your parents’ mouth? Have you ever felt those echoes in your heart? It’s one of the most difficult, painful, and (therefore) rare things in the world for people to actually admit fault and repent of sin. The Puritans said that repentance is the vomit of the soul. Nobody likes to vomit. It’s painful, gross, and excruciating. Everything in your body is going in the direction that you don’t want it to go. That’s like real repentance—not just, “I wish this would have gone better,” but “Look, I did it.”
Aaron should have had the maturity, as a leader and future priest of the people, to say, “You’re right, Moses. There was a great sin here, and I am responsible for it. I asked for their gold, and I took it, crafted it, and called out that it was their god.” But that’s painful. We’re all masters at defending ourselves, finding these circumlocutions and passive phrases. Of course, we’ll admit that we aren’t perfect and that we could have done some things better, but we don’t like to actually say, “That was me. I don’t blame anyone else. It’s not the fault of the people, of my circumstances, or of the fire. It was me. I did it.”
I wonder if you hear the sound of shifting in your life—and not from others. That’s what we tend to do when we’re listening to sermons like this: “This is a really good sermon. I really need to send this to some folks in my life.” Leave that to the Holy Spirit for now. Think about yourself. What sorts of sins have you cast aside as little sins—not worse than other people, not really your fault, and just the way that you were brought up; and no real detriment to you or anyone else? You’ve shifted the blame for them.
Do you hear the sound of shifting in your own life? We use that sort-of psychological jargon: “blame-shifting.” But it’s called that because of what shifting physically is. The Holy Spirit is trying to get you at the conscience level, and as that’s coming from God’s word to you, you instinctively shift in your seat. “Oh, was that meant for him?” Maybe you get a little uncomfortable, or maybe you know how to direct that onto someone else: “That’s really good. I’ll keep that in mind for later.” You’re shifting around, instead of owning up to your sin and rebellion.
The Sound of Shouting
Lets talk about the last two sounds, briefly. Here we come to Palm Sunday. As many spread their cloaks on the road, others spread leafy branches they had cut from the fields. Those who went before (and those who followed) were shouting, and it was a good shouting. They were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the coming King of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”
In the reading we did earlier, you may have noticed that it said that his disciples were with him. These were likely a group of disciples and a larger group of Galilean pilgrims who have come down with him for the feast in Jerusalem. As much as preachers like to make this point, it’s not exactly true that the crowds who yelled “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday yelled “Crucify him!” on Good Friday. By and large, they were not the same people. Anyway, for at least one day, these disciples and pilgrims got it right as they shouted and worship.
Don’t miss that they were shouting. Jesus had been such a controversial figure. Everyone had heard about him. The Pharisees and scribes didn’t like him, and he was coming into the capitol on the holiest week of the year. Yet they shout. You would have thought that they could have said privately, “Jesus, I just want you to know that I’m with you. Just between me and you, I think you’re the Messiah. I’m rooting for you!” But what does that take? Any of us can do that. It doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t willing to shout it. If they didn’t, Jesus said that the very stones would cry out, so they’re doing a bold thing as he comes, shouting it to everyone. “Hosanna! YHWH, save us! This is the king we have been waiting for! The kingdom of our father David has come!”
What kind of sound is playing in your head and heart these days? I’m not talking about right now at church. It’s easy to say and sing the right things now. But what about the sound when no one else is around to make a sound with you? You know the old saying: character is who you are when nobody else is looking. What’s coming out of your heart when no one else is around to hem you in or hear what you say? Is it a song of rebellion? Is it a sound of blame-shifting? Or is it the sound and shout of worship? “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him.”
The Sound of Sobbing
Finally, I want you to notice one other noise that also comes on Palm Sunday. It comes from Jesus, and it’s different from these others, because it’s the sound of sobbing. Before he even reached Jerusalem, Luke tells us:
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” Luke 19:41-44
Moses approached the camp and was smashing mad. Jesus approaches the city and was weeping sad. Why was he sad? He was sad for the same reason that Moses was mad: because the people who should have known, didn’t. Does that describe any of you?
We’re uncomfortable with Moses’ burning hot anger—we don’t like to think of anyone, let alone God, having burning hot anger toward us. This should make us just as uncomfortable. Think of Jesus weeping over us. If he were here, approaching our city, and your home, would he weep? Would he say, “Friend, you have every reason to believe and you won’t do it? You think you have endless days to consider my claims, but you don’t know how few your days are.” None of us think our days are coming to an end—that everything is going to go downhill in a matter of weeks or months.
Perhaps Jesus would be weeping over some of our lives tonight: “You thought you were secure. You thought this party would last forever. You thought you would have all the time in the world. You don’t know what’s coming! You don’t know how short the time is. You don’t know the things that make for peace. You don’t know the time of your visitation.” Jesus was coming, and they would reject him, crucify him, and kill him. They didn’t know! But they had him physically there for a week.
Some of us presume upon the Lord: “I’ll have a long time. I’ll have years, and even decades, to consider this.” You don’t know the time of his visitation. Sooner or later, your sins will be confronted. Here, Jesus is thinking of just a generation later, when the Romans would come in and destroy the city of Jerusalem and tear down the temple. There would be much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Sooner or later, our sins will be confronted. It may be swift, like on Sinai. It may be a generation later, like it was in Jerusalem. It may even be at the end of the age, but it will happen.
God cannot be mocked, but he can be satisfied. In other words, it’s not too late to turn the sound of sobs into the sound of salvation. Think about Moses. At the moment he came down from the mountain, he was holding in his hands (this is not an exaggeration) the most valuable material objects in the entire universe. There is no physical thing more precious than what he had. Can you imagine carrying stones that have the law of God written on them by God’s own finger?! You’ve just been with him, he wrote it supernaturally, and you’re carrying those. The most valuable thing in all the world—and you smash it.
Think further about this holy week that we’re entering upon, when someone even more valuable and precious was broken. There is no more valuable or precious physical reality in all the universe than the Son of God. They broke the covenant, and their false gods were destroyed. We break the covenant, and the true God is put to death.
Do not neglect such a great salvation. The sobbing over your life can yet turn to shouts of salvation. God doesn’t give us any guarantee of everything bad turning good in your next week or year, but he does give us the guarantee for all eternity: when we belong to his son, Jesus Christ, he will ever be for us, never against us. You will not be cast out or mashed at the foot of the mountain, because his Son died for your sakes. Turn your sinful singing and shifting to shouting, and move from rebellion and blaming to repentance and worship.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, we have broken your covenant and laws—perhaps not as noticeably as a golden calf, but no less vile. If we know ourselves, we know our own rebellion. If we haven’t done some of the things other people have done, it’s probably because we’re just too afraid to do them. We need a Savior who can really save, not a calf or a statue. We need the Son of God, who was broken and who sobbed for our sakes. Turn our sinning into shouting and our wandering into worship. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
Transcription and editing provided by 10:17 Transcription
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