Bible Passage: Exodus 32:15-19
Pastor: Pastor Berg
Sermon Date: July 2, 2017
Are you really on the LORD’s side? Isn’t that a ridiculous question for a group of believers gathered for worship? Isn’t that a ridiculous question for you? There is certainly evidence that you are. You’ve been baptized into God’s family. Your name is on the membership roster. You’re here, some of you far from home. If anyone is on the LORD’s side, it’s you, right? If I asked you, one by one, “Are you on the LORD’s side?” I have no doubt that all of you would say, “Yes.”
If you were to ask the Israelites the same question, it would have seeme just as ridiculous. After all, they were God’s chosen people. They were children of the promise. They were descendants from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And when they got to the foot of Mt. Sinai, about 40 days earlier, they essentially said the same. “We will do everything the LORD has said,” they declared, when Moses told them to obey God’s commands. In other words, “We are on the LORD’s side!” And then, right after that, Moses relayed the Word of God to the people. He spelled out in great detail everything God commanded his people to do. They knew exactly what God expected of them and again they responded, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” Again, “We are on the LORD’s side!”
It’s easy to say, isn’t it, when things are going well. It’s easy to say, “We are on the LORD’s side!” when life is good, when we’re having success, when it feels like God is blessing us. But what happens when things aren’t going well, when life isn’t so good, when we aren’t successful, when it doesn’t seem like God is blessing us, when it doesn’t seem like God cares at all? It all seemed to be going so well for Israel! They were making great time toward the Promised Land. After so many years in Egypt, in slavery; now they were free and heading for home with a fearless and capable leader. But all of that had come to a screeching halt. They’d been camped at Sinai now for weeks. The man who brought them out of Egypt, Moses, had been gone for more than a month, on top of the mountain. And the people were getting restless. Before he went up on the mountain, Moses left his brother Aaron in charge. So after 40 days, the people came to Aaron and they say, “Because this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt—we do not know what has become of him.” Maybe he’s lost? Maybe he left us? Maybe he’s dead? And God seems to be gone too. Aaron, you need to make us some gods so we can have someone to follow, so we can move on.
Are you really on the LORD’s side? Certainly Aaron, the appointed leader of Israel at the time would not acknowledge such a request. Certainly Aaron would point the people to the wonders that God had done for them in bringing them out of Egypt. Certainly Aaron would remind the people of the promise they had made just 40 days ago. But that’s not what happened. “Pull off the gold earrings from your wives and sons and daughters and bring them to me.” All the people pulled off their gold earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and shaped it with an engraving tool and made it into a bull calf cast out of metal. Then they said, “This is your god, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Then he builds an altar in front of the calf. He announces there will be a festival the next day to the LORD. But nobody in their right mind would mistake this calf as the LORD, would they? Yet, the people come together the next day for this “festival.” They offer sacrifices. They worship this calf, this false god. And once that ritual is over, things go from bad to worse. It turns into a day of wild partying. So wild, in fact, that as Moses and Joshua are ready to come down from the mountain, Joshua says, “There is the noise of war in the camp.” But it wasn’t war. The NIV calls it “revelry.” Our new Evangelical Heritage Version describes it as “celebrating wildly.” The King James called it “play.” It was the kind of “play” they saw in Egypt. It was one big orgy. It was sin. It was exactly the opposite of what God had commanded them to do. And that’s what Moses finds when he comes down the mountain.
It would be easy for us to put ourselves in the place of the majority of Israel and see the many times when we’ve disobeyed the commands of God. It would also be easy for us to sit here and point the finger at those silly Israelites who keep on rebelling against God despite his wondrous deeds. But this morning, I don’t want you to put yourself in the place of those rebellious Israelites. But I do want you to put yourself in Israel—with the Levites. Imagine that you are camped at Mt. Sinai as this blatant idol worship breaks out. And you know it’s wrong. You don’t join in the madness. The same is true of many members of your tribe. All of you know it should be stopped, that you should say something. But the sheer volume of the people, the anarchy of it all is so paralyzing, so you just stay out of the way. If only Moses would come back, if only he could stop this wicked behavior and st the people straight. What you don’t know is that Moses does know what is going on. God told him. In fact, God is so upset that he wants to wipe them all out. But Moses speaks on behalf of the people, he intercedes for them. So the LORD relents, and does not destroy them.
It’s then you notice Moses coming back—with anger in his eyes. He smashes some stone tablets on the ground, tablets he didn’t have when he went up there. Little did you know, God himself had written on those tablets. Moses marches on in and burns the golden calf in the fire. He melts it down and grinds it into powder, showing to all the worthlessness of this false god. Then he sets his sights on Aaron, no doubt asking how in the world this could happen. Aaron makes excuses, blaming the people, but Moses doesn’t even dignify his excuses with a response. He scans the camp at all that is taking place; even after the idol has been burned up, people are still partying and carrying on. So he calls out, “Whoever is on the LORD’s side, come to me.” Immediately, the Levite men rush to Moses’ side, ready to do whatever he commands. But you could not have expected his next words: “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel says: ‘Every man is to strap his sword on his thigh and go back and forth throughout the camp, from one gate of the camp to the other, and every man is to kill his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor.” Your mind races, filled with questions. “Is this really what the LORD wants? Isn’t there some other way? Can I really bring myself to do this?” But there is no time for deliberation, there is only time to act. Your decision boils down to this: Will you stay true to the LORD your God, or will you turn against him for the sake of your fellow Israelites?
Are you really on the LORD’s side? What are you going to do? Could you really strap on your sword and go through the camp killing your brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors? Are you really on the LORD’s side? It is nearly impossible for us today to relate to this story, to understand what it was like, or to even think that we could have done what those Levites did. It is beyond comprehension to think that it was right for these men to kill people, people they knew, people they were perhaps even related to, simply for what some today would call, “having a little fun.” Just think about the reaction to the man from Illinois who opened fire on the congressmen in Virginia a couple weeks ago. Thankfully, God does not command us to do such things. If he did we would be waging war every day, slaughtering our own family members, and probably being attacked ourselves. So then, what is the point in remembering this story? Is it just to remind us that God is rather serious about his laws, and so we better be careful or we’re going to get it too? While there is some value in remembering this truth about God, there’s more to it than that. Why did I ask you to put yourselves in the shoes of the Levite?
In the gospel, Jesus told us to love him even more than our family members. We hear that and think that we got it covered. We are here, aren’t we? So much of the rest of the world is not in church, so clearly we are doing a better job than them. And we probably all have family members who aren’t in church either. So we must be ahead of them also, right? But is that what it really means to be on the LORD’s side? Is it that simple or easy? This story says otherwise. So how do we respond when someone is going the wrong way? Are we willing to step up and do the hard thing? Are we willing to confront the sin even if it means we might offend someone? Are we willing to be unpopular in the community or even in the church? Are we really on the LORD’s side? This is one of the ultimate tests of loving God more than anything else. Even though it seemed as though everyone was going the other way, even though everyone else was having a grand old time, the Levites still didn’t give in. They went the other way. And then when the LORD really put their faith to the test, they came through once more.
Perhaps the easiest question to ask is “Who’s getting the love?” Is it God or the world? Is it God or your friends? Is it God or yourself? All too often, God isn’t the answer, is he. That’s why Jesus had to take our place. It wasn’t easy for Jesus to step in on our behalf. Because even while Jesus was wildly popular in his day to some, to others he was hated beyond belief. And being human, he knows what it’s like to be rejected, to be embarrassed, to be thought of as weird and different for doing God’s will. He knows just what that’s like. But he did it anyway, because he loved his Father, and wanted to bring his Father’s message and carry out his Father’s plan. So he did. He stood up for the truth and lived it every day of his life, even when it went against the grain. But he did not do this only for his Father, he did it for us as well. By living perfectly, he earned for us the holiness that we so desperately needed. And then by carrying that holiness to the cross for us, he made himself the perfect sacrifice for sins. All the rage and holy anger that God has against our idolatry, that went to Jesus. He didn’t deserve it, but he took it all, because he loved his Father; because he loved us, his Father’s people. And on the cross the payment for sin was made, so we now stand righteous before our holy God.
And so who else shall we love more than him? Who else deserves to be listened to, to be obeyed, to be worshiped? There is no one else. God has done more for us than we could have ever asked or imagined. So let us love him above all. Let us put his approval at the top of the list. Let us make him the focal point of our lives instead of ourselves. That’s what it means to be a Christian. The more you learn about what Christ has done for you, the more you can put him first. So make the effort. Make it your heart’s desire to love God above all, no matter what the consequences. Then it may also be said of you, “Begin your service of the LORD today. Yes, because every man among you took a stand against his son and against his brother, the LORD is bestowing a blessing on you today.” You are on the LORD’s side! Amen