Capturing God

Exodus 32:1-14

Last week, I talked about how God reintroduced himself to the Israelites as he gave them the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. It was a big, awe-inspiring introduction, shaking these people to the core.

Indeed, they expressed great fear of God to their leader, Moses, asking Moses to stand as mediator between them and the mighty God they had seen. They found God to be too much.

In Exodus 32, the story of these people and their reaction to God resumes. At this point, Moses had been on the fire- and smoke-shrouded mountain nearly 40 days, and the Israelites had given up on seeing their leader again.

Their solution, unfortunately, was to return to their former understanding of gods, little “g” gods, gods visibly before them in metal, wood or stone.

“Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us,” they told Aaron, Moses’ brother and the high priest. “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.”

Aaron fashioned a calf idol from their gold jewelry, while at the same time trying to maintain some control of the unfolding disaster. After building an altar before the calf, he proclaimed, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord,” using language contradicting the people’s declared need for “gods.”

Big “G” God was not impressed by Aaron’s nuanced language or the revelry that followed. Ultimately, only Moses’ pleas before God saved the Israelites from annihilation.

The Israelites’ sin, a violation of the second commandment, was rooted in their earlier demonstrated inability to accept the magnitude of the eternal God they were called to worship. By making an idol, they sought to capture in some sort of manageable form the power that had led them out of Egypt.

The story seems ancient and disconnected from us, with its talk of “gods” as people dance around a golden idol in the middle of a desert. But the sin of trying to reduce God, to capture and keep God in a manageable and comfortable form, is prevalent today.

The most obvious example I see is when we attempt to make God like us. We define him through a human lens, thinking that what we feel must be what God feels and what we desire must be what God desires.

I also see us committing this sin when we try to force God into a particular human ideology, claiming God resides in a particular political party or movement. This can result in serious perversions of the revelation of God in the Bible. Remember, the Nazis had “Gott Mit Uns” (God With Us) stamped on their belt buckles as they committed some of the great atrocities of the 20th century.

I have yet to find a political party that fully represents God’s will for a nation. God’s will still is best revealed through the study of the Bible, and Christians should fully understand how God is revealed there before aligning themselves with the platforms of political groups.

There also is that easy-to-commit sin of trying to put God in a box, in particular, a storage box, where he can be taken out when needed. Self-reliant people like this strategy: “I’ll take care of myself and turn to God if it seems I suddenly cannot.”

When we try to reduce God in such ways, we resist God’s efforts to grow us into the beings he would have us be. When we make God small, there seems to be no need for change.

Christians must constantly keep in mind that there is more to God than what we can see even in Jesus, God among us in flesh. To make himself more understandable, God did voluntarily limit himself in some ways to take on human flesh. (Matthew 24:36 is one of the better examples of this principle.)

But this choice did not actually shrink God’s eternal nature. It just made the eternal nature approachable.

Had the Israelites waited patiently and sought to grow into the mystery before them, those last couple of days at Mount Sinai might not have ended in so much violence and disease, the punishments that fell on the people. I cannot even guess at the glory they might have continued to experience.

With a much greater revelation before us—the revelation of the loving, sacrificial Christ—I pray we can continue to grow in our understanding of God and our imitation of what we see.

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