40. What does that mean to you? Maybe nothing. Maybe it connotes a birthday where you entered “middle age”? But the number 40 is one of those special numbers in the Bible. Think of all the things that happen in 40’s. 40 days and nights of rain in the great flood. 40 years of wandering in the wilderness for the people of Israel. 40 days of temptation for Jesus. 40 days of appearance to the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection.
Now Moses has an extra close relationship with this number 40. The book of Acts tells his life story as a series of 40’s: 40 years living as the prince of Egypt (and then he ran into the desert to escape a charge of murder); 40 years getting married and having children, and being a herder in the wilderness (where he finds himself in the presence of a burning bush); and then 40 years of getting the Hebrews free from their captors and wandering around the wilderness, being a mediator between God and the whining of the newly forming people of Israel.
40 in Bible terms means “a looooong time.” And often 40 “days/years” suggests a time of testing, of trial. But 40 is not an infinite period of time. This long time may seem forever, but it does have an end.
Today’s reading from Exodus occurs after Moses and Joshua go up on that “little, nondescript” mountain of Sinai, and they stay a LOOOOOOng time. So long that the people on the ground start to get nervous. So it’s interesting that at this juncture we are not told exactly how long Moses stayed up on the mountain. Interesting because after Moses has broken the first set of the 10 commandments and has to go up Sinai a second time to get a carbon copy, THEN we are told that he is up there 40 days and 40 nights.
Maybe the Hebrew people, including Aaron who had been left in charge, didn’t know about the “rule of 40,” or maybe they forgot to count, or maybe they were just like us and got lost in the anxiety and uncertainty of life in a time of change. Whatever the case, the people at the foot of the mountain turned away from God—and in fact created their own god, a golden calf.
Now before we tsk, tsk, too much, let’s be honest with ourselves. Aren’t we sometimes like the people at the bottom of that mountain? Aren’t we sometimes prone to asking: “Where is God?” “What is happening?” “Why is it taking so long?” And don’t we sometimes turn away from our relationships with God and with one another? Don’t we sometimes worship other gods?
Neil Gaiman wrote a novel called American Gods, which has gone on to become a TV show. In it Neil personifies the “new gods” that are growing in popularity and power, like the gods of TV, Wi-fi, fast food, and convenience.
“The TV’s the altar. I’m what people are sacrificing to.” (says Lucy whose real “god” name is Media)
“What do they sacrifice?” asks Shadow (the main character in this world of old versus new).
“Their time, mostly,” says Lucy. “Sometimes each other.”
We do live in a very complex world, with high stress levels, and competing claims on our time, talent, and treasure. But from the parable that Jesus tells about the wedding banquet, it is obvious that this is not just a problem for our age. The first invited guests didn’t pay attention, didn’t feel it was worth their while, didn’t show up for the wedding. And in Matthew, very bad things happen when you don’t accept invitations from the king.
So what are we to take from our focus reading today? What does the story of the golden calf mean to us? I want to share some musings about it, started by commentary from Seasons on the Spirit.
What if we looked at ourselves in the shoes of each of the main characters in the story. Often, I think this passage is preached so that we are made to be the disobedient, idol-making masses. Interesting questions to think about in this vein include: when we get restless and feel leaderless, do we turn to other forms of authority? Have we ever used our wealth, the things we have, to “buy” into a religious relationship? Martin Luther comes to mind, once again, in his insistence that the church not “sell” absolution, not “sell” the grace of God. One person who infuriated him was John Tetzel, a priest given the job of raising funds for the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He was an extreme case, known for his sales’ pitch: “As soon as the gold in the casket rings; the rescued soul to heaven springs.” We laugh, but probably not too loud. We too may think our relationship with God either has too much, or too little to do with what we spend our money on.
But I was intrigued by the other people whose shoes the commentary invited us to fill. What about Aaron? Have we ever been there when disastrous things have happened on our watch? Have we ever stalled for time, hoping “the boss” will show up soon and make the decision for us? Have we ever not taken a stand when things were going wrong? These are sobering questions.
And what about Moses? Do we ever have to entrust responsibility to others while we are doing something else? Have we ever had to clean up a mess created in our absence? Have we been willing to intervene, forcefully, with the authorities (insert God) on behalf of those we love? Do we have convincing arguments to plead that case (for another) in front of these authorities? Do we have a relationship with God where we can try to change God’s mind? Do we hear and believe God’s generational promise that God will keep “steadfast love for the thousandth generation”? (Ex. 34:7)
Now I don’t want to pretend that this story has a totally happy ending. In verses just after our lesson, Moses first makes the Israelites drink water mixed with the ground up golden calf, and then after asking “Who is on the Lord’s side?,” slaughters those who did not answer correctly.
I am certainly not advocating that we follow in these footsteps, assassinating those who do not see eye-to-eye with us. But maybe the meaning of this difficult passage is that our decisions are not trivial. How we live our lives, who we put first, what we worship, matters. It is like the decision that Moses sets before the people at the end of his life—looking out over the Jordan Valley that he will never get to walk on, he says, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your descendants may live” (Deut. 30:19).
What does this mean for us? I was captured by Pepper Choplin’s refrain, “only worship, only worship, only worship you.” Maybe what happened in this golden calf story was the people forgot who they were. They forgot that even though God was “up on the mountain” with Moses, God was also right there with them. They forgot they were standing on holy ground. They forgot that every second, every minute, every hour, every day, every year, is holy time. Time for us to worship, to pray, to thank, to cajole, to argue with, to rail at, to have that honest and taxing relationship with God and also God’s people.
It’s so easy to forget. We get wrapped up in all the urgent, important, senseless, even mundane ticks of the clock of our lives. We think we can make up the time later. We allow our agitation to swallow up everything else. And we are ripe for hitching ourselves to an idol—that may promise the moon, but will never deliver.
The story of God, and Moses, and Aaron, and the people is a cautionary tale—a road traveled that need not be repeated, and yet we all know we as humans constantly do so.
So let us commit ourselves to spending more Holy Time with God and with each other. It may not quell the fear of the unknown. It may not excite the way glittery baubles do. But it is a life choice. It is life itself. Spending our valued time doing valued work:
“Only worship, only worship, only worship You.”
May it be so. Alleluia, Amen