140720 Exodus 32:15-29

Last Updated on Monday, 21 July 2014 Written by Pastor Pagels

Text: Exodus 32:15-29
Theme: Discipleship Is A Matter Of Life And Death

What was left of the two stone tablets was lying at Moses' feet. They had broken into pieces when Moses threw them to the ground, much like the children of Israel had broken the commands the Lord himself had written on them. At the end of the forty days Moses had spent on Mount Sinai, the Lord warned him about what was happening down below. But not even that could prepare Moses for what awaited him.

Before Moses and Joshua saw anything, they heard loud noises coming from the camp. Joshua was quick to identify the shouting they heard as the sound of battle. But as the two men drew closer and the voices became clearer Moses said: "It is not the sound of victory; it is not the sound of defeat; it is the sound of singing that I hear" (18).

Moses and Joshua had come upon a party with loud music and people dancing and singing, and the guest of honor was a golden calf. Moses had been away for a little more than a month, and the people had already forgotten about him. They forgot how Moses stood up to their Egyptian oppressors. They forgot how Moses stretched out his staff and parted the waters of the Red Sea. They forgot how the Lord had delivered them from the angel of death, and instead of worshiping the one true God they were bowing down to an idol.

"This stops now," Moses thought to himself as he charged into the camp. He took the golden calf and threw it into the fire. Then he took what was left of it and grounded it into powder. And then like a mother who washes her foul-mouthed child's mouth out with soap, Moses mixed the idol's ashes into Israel's water supply and forced the people to drink it.

Next Moses turned his anger on his brother Aaron. He demanded: "What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin" (21)? "Aaron, when I stood before Pharaoh you stood right by my side. When I needed help in the battle against the Amalekites, you were the one who held up my arms (Exodus 17). How could you do this to me? How could you let our people do this to God?"

There was nothing Aaron could say to defend himself, but that didn't stop him from trying. He said to Moses: "Do not be angry, my lord. You know how prone these people are to evil. They said to me, 'Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him.' So I told them, 'Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.' Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf" (22-24)!

At first Aaron acted much like Adam did when the Lord confronted the first man with the world's first sin. Instead of taking responsibility, instead of admitting culpability, Adam and Aaron both blamed others. Adam blamed his wife. Aaron blamed the people. But perhaps because Aaron realized how weak his excuse was, he followed it up with an even weaker response. He wasn't at fault. He didn't make the idol. It must have been a miracle because the calf just jumped out of the flames.

Moses was angry with the people because they had forsaken God. Moses was upset with his brother because he had failed to lead God's people. And if that wasn't bad enough, there was another layer to this sinful mess. Moses knew that Israel's out of control behavior would be get back to Israel's enemies and bring shame on the people and the God they claimed to serve.

Somebody had to take a stand. Someone had to answer Moses' call to defend the Lord's honor. And someone did. The Levites rallied to Moses' side, and they executed Moses' command by executing three thousand of their guilty brothers and friends and neighbors. And that brings us to the end of one of the darkest days in Israel's history.

Accounts like this one make some people uncomfortable with the Old Testament. Accounts like this one make some people want to discredit the Old Testament. They find it hard to believe that God could be so bloodthirsty and brutal. Some try to explain it by claiming that religion has evolved over the past four thousand years. The people Moses led were much more primitive, and they practiced a primitive kind of religion. Religion in the New Testament era is much more refined, and the God of the New Testament is not a God of wrath and punishment, but a God of love.

God is a God of love. There are plenty of passages in the Old and New Testaments to support that. God loves all people and wants all people to be saved. Bible believing Christians should never forget that. But that does not negate the fact that the message of the Bible will also create conflict. The truth of God's Word will always create conflict. That is not one man's humble opinion. That fact is based on more than the experience of Moses. Using slightly different words, Jesus made the same point in the gospel lesson for today.

Jesus told his disciples: "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man's enemies will be the members of his own household'" (Matthew 10:34-36).

There is no real difference between what Jesus said and what Moses did. Both were zealous for God and God's Word. Both recognized the dangerous and damning consequences of sin. Both Jesus and Moses understood what is at stake in this battle between good and evil. Discipleship is a matter of life and death!

There are very few things in life that are truly a matter of life and death. That's why we don't throw out those words casually. That's why we shouldn't take those words lightly. If something is a matter of life and death, it is very serious, and we should be too.

But the sinful nature in us doesn't want to see it that way. Instead of trying to understand why Moses was so angry with God's people, we want to make excuses for them. They were just blowing off some steam. They got a little carried away. Things got out of hand, but only because Moses was gone so long. Maybe the people weren't totally innocent, but did three thousand people really deserve to die for having a little fun?

I'm not sure which is worse, the flimsy excuses sinners invent to excuse sinful behavior, or Aaron's actual excuse when Moses asked him how a leader of God's people could lead those people into such a great sin. Really, the golden calf just appeared. It popped out of the fire, as if out of thin air. The lie was so unbelievable that it was almost laughable, but before we start laughing we should compare Aaron's lame excuse with some of our own.

A young couple uses the financial burdens of getting married to justify living together, as if what they do with their money is more important than what they do with the bodies (the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit). A husband looks at pornography and blames it on his wife's coldness. A wife constantly complains about her husband to her friends and dismisses it as venting. We talk with our unchurched neighbor or co-worker about anything and everything, except for their need for a Savior. After all, we wouldn't want to offend them. The excuses we make for our own sins would be just as laughable as Aaron's, if they weren't so sad.

There is a reason why Moses sent the Levites into Israel's camp with their swords drawn. He didn't want the people to think that God didn't care how they lived. He didn't want to give them the impression that they could serve God part-time and satisfy their sinful desires the rest of the time. He needed to send (them and us) a clear message that sin is serious. Sin has serious consequences, deadly consequences, eternal consequences.

Three thousand people died for their sin that day, and so will we. Every one of us is destined to die because of our sins. Maybe not immediately, and probably not as dramatically, but for sinful people death is a fact of life. But for Christians, death is not a dead end. For Christians, the grave will not be our final resting place. For Jesus' disciples, life is also a fact of death.

No, I'm not confused, and I'm not trying to confuse you either. It's true. Life is a fact of death. Jesus' death gives us the hope of eternal life. Jesus never made excuses. Jesus never gave in to temptation. For thirty three years Jesus lived perfectly on this earth, and then he gave up his life sacrificially on the cross, to make things right with God, to take away our sins, to give us hope.

But Jesus' love for us doesn't stop there, and the gifts Jesus gives us don't end there. Not only do we have the sure hope of eternal life. Jesus also gives us purpose and meaning in this life. Why are we here? How can we find fulfillment in life? What is the secret, what is the key to true and lasting happiness?

Jesus addressed those questions in today's gospel lesson when he said: Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39). Or to put it another way, Christian discipleship is a matter of life and death. Christians don't waste all their time chasing after things that will never satisfy. Disciples of Jesus don't dedicate their lives to accumulating things that will not last.

In order to live, we need to die. We need to acknowledge that we are by nature dead in our sins. Every day we need to drown our Old Adam and with its evil deeds and desires. We need to take all of our faults and failures to the cross, to the Place of the Skull, to the place where Jesus died. And when we do we will live.

We live because we have a living Savior. We live because the Holy Spirit has breathed into our souls the breath of life. We are alive because we have received the washing of rebirth through the water of baptism and the power of God's Word. And now we live. We live for the One died to save us. We live to serve the One who became the servant of all.

C.S. Lewis once said: "Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important." Being a Christian isn't a one hour a week thing, or a one day out of seven thing, or something we do only when other people are watching. Discipleship isn't just a part of a Christian's life. It is our life. It includes everything we do to honor the One who has saved us from death. It is how we give thanks to the One who gives us life. Amen.

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