Exodus 32:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9
Sermon The Church Where It Happened
Good morning! My sermon title is a play on the song, “The Room Where It Happens,” from the musical Hamilton. As you know, I’m a big history nerd. Three years ago, I visited Germany, because, well, I’m a big history nerd. I wanted to engage with our religious history, because 2017 was an important anniversary.
On October 31st, 1517, the German monk, Martin Luther, published his 95 Theses, a list of charges against the Roman Catholic Church. By publishing these charges, Luther set off a chain of events that would lead to the Reformation. This is one of the most important events in Western history in the last 500 years. The Presbyterian Church comes out of the Reformation.
Being a history nerd, I wanted to be in Germany because it was the 500th anniversary of this event. I wanted to be in Wittenberg, the place where Luther was when he wrote and published the 95 Theses. I wanted to see the cathedral door where he is said to have nailed the document. I wanted to see his house. And I wanted to see the pulpit where Martin Luther preached. I wanted to see and touch the history and the person who changed our world. I wanted to be in the church where it happened.
I offer this up, in part, because I think we need to have a little sympathy for the Israelites. It’s so easy to sneer at them and think, “How could you be so foolish? Why can’t you see all the wonderful things that God has done for you?” But that’s not fair—and it ignores our part in the story.
First, we have to acknowledge our perspective; most of us have heard these stories in church for years and some of us have read them over and over. We know this story. We know the Israelites will eventually cross into the Promised Land; they don’t know this. And if we forget parts of the story, we can read it again. The Israelites couldn’t read their own history. It wasn’t in writing and most of them couldn’t read. They had stories that had been handed down from one generation to the next. They had Moses, who had led them out of Egypt. They had manna and quail every day, but they didn’t have a god that they could see or touch. They didn’t have a temple or an altar; a place for proper worship.
So, the Israelites made a statue, a golden calf. “This statue, at last, they can see and touch. They can bring offerings before it, feast and dine with their chosen god, and truly celebrate with this god the miracle of their deliverance.” They had Moses, but they don’t know where he is, so they want some other god to which they can give thanks and praise. They want a god like the Egyptians had.
But God has commanded them not to make any idols or graven images. God’s chosen people are not to worship any other gods; they are to worship God alone; they are called to place their full and complete trust in God. These are the First and Second Commandments:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:2-6)
Sometimes we miss the governing language of the Ten Commandments, the very reason for the Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Israelites are free because God brought them out of slavery. God did this to fulfill the covenant with Abraham. The Ten Commandments provide order for relationships; the Commandments tell God’s chosen people how they are to be in a right relationship with God and with one another.
This is a new covenant between God and Israel, but the Israelites can’t even remember the First and Second Commandments. Almost as soon as they entered into this promise with God, they broke the agreement. And God is angry. Very. Very. Angry.