Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Israelites gather at Mount Sinai: The Golden Calf & the Glory of God




The desert air is cold. A wind blows through the camp, and the smell of frankincense hints in the air from some distant shrubs along the arid landscape. You stand outside a small tent, and in all directions tents dot the landscape, beyond your vision. You’ve woken up early, and darkness still covers the land, with just a few hints of sunlight in the far distance. You look down at your hands, to the scars of the shackles you used to wear in Egypt. Now your free, or so it seems, but something in you longs for the slavery again, yet this raw excitement fills you, because you’ve found something greater, a whole new way of life, with a God of the universe. You smile looking up at the star filling the sky. Then you gaze at it again, a giant beam of fire licking the night sky, standing there like a pillar, unfueled, yet ceaselessly burning. You watch, as the first hints of the light of the morning touch it, and the pillar is suddenly replaced, by a strand of cloud, as the morning roosters start crowing.

Imagine it… 2 and a half million people traveling through the wilderness, they must’ve looked like a mighty stream from above. And now they’d come to a stop, around an ancient mountain.

Today we’re talking about The Exiles at Mt Sinai. So the Israelites had been delivered by God from slavery in Egypt, and they’d traveled for some time in the wilderness.

Soon God had led them to make camp near this mysterious mountain, called Mt. Sinai. On the screen you’ll see a picture of what historians believe to be Mt Sinai today.

What happens at Mt Sinai is something very special. We see here an amazing close encounter happen between God and man. God had already delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and now he calls them to himself, to set up his plan with them.

As the 2.5 million Israelites gather around Mount Sinai they see a dark cloud descend on the mountain, and flashes of lightning and thunder. And God spoke to them…

From Exodus chapter 20, “And God spoke all these words:

2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

3 “You shall have no other gods before[a] me.

4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

18 When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance 19 and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”

20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”

21 The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.”

So God gives Israel the laws they are to live by, the 10 commandments. God says, I’ve called you to be set apart as holy, different, starkly different from the world. And this is how you do it, you live by my laws.

Notice the order of events: Did God come to the Israelites while they were slaves in Egypt and say, alright, here are the laws you have to live by, and if you can measure up, then I’ll set you free. No. Freedom comes first, then comes holiness.

Similarly, today, God has saved each of us, before we were holy. We come to Jesus Christ completely helpless, sinful, a hot mess and he saves us like that. And how is he able to do that? God takes all that sin upon us, and he transfers it to Jesus Christ, crucified on the cross. He deletes our sin, with the heavy price of Jesus own blood, the blood of the son of God. Then our sins are gone. And much more, we are reborn, given the Holy Spirit, and set on a course of progressive sanctification. Have your sins been crucified with Jesus? Take a moment now to receive that.

We see Moses repeatedly acting as a mediator, between God and man, as one who intercedes for the people, and stands before God as a representative of the people. Does that remind you of anyone from the new testament? Jesus.

So they arrive at the Mountain and next Moses is called up to the mountain top to meet with God. Has God ever called you to the mountain top? Is he calling you today, to come to the mountain top, and receive something from Him? Or to tell you something? Often times God brings us to crossroads, and then meets us there.

Moses went up to the high reaches of Mt Sinai and met with the living God. What an incredible thing. And it says he fasted and communed with God for 40 days.


But while Moses is with God, time passes, weeks and weeks go by, and the people down below become impatient. And they appeal to Moses’ second in command, Aaron, to make them a god to go before them. Something physical that they can see, so they can worship God in such a way. Aaron gathers gold from the people, and they fashion it into a golden calf, set up an altar, and they even declare a day “To the Lord” in which they bring their burnt offers to the calf, and make sacrifices to God, mediated by this gold idol. Then after this solemn time of offerings, they throw a party, and everything goes crazy from there.

Today when we study this story, we think to ourselves: How foolish could these people possibly be? They’ve personally seen God split open the water, and they walked on dry ground. How could they do this!

But how often do we do the same thing in our Christian life? We saw God deliver us from sin. He gave our lives meaning. We were out there chasing after sin, sinning in all sorts of ways, lying, stealing, enslaved to lust, manipulation, and God didn’t hold that against us, He saved us anyway. We saw the transformation. We saw our lives go from darkness to light.

But one day we see one of those old sins, and we jump right back into the mud pile. And once that first compromise is made, it so quickly can become a new habit of behavior. And Satan has just built a beachhead in our hearts.

If we allow sin to live in us too long as Christians, it begins to separate us from God. Instead we must allow the Holy Spirit to convict us, and cooperate in His process of change in us. Early in my walk as a Christian I struggled with just such sins in my life, and I had to dig into Christian books, and prayer, and accountability relationships. And I had to fight those battles, to be free from sin.

Maybe we aren’t so different from the Israelites and their golden calf. Maybe our golden calves are just a bit more modern, and socially acceptable.

So as the golden calf rises up in the camp, God tells Moses what is happening below, and He says, “I see what they’re doing.” And Moses is led to intercede for the people, and ask God for mercy, which God grants.


So Moses goes down with the stones tablets, and Moses is so upset at what he sees that he throws down the tablets, and they smash on the ground.

Moses asks Aaron, “What is going on?” And Aaron is like, “Bro, I swear, the people threw their gold in the fire and out came this calf. Isn’t that crazy?” So Aaron lies, and Moses goes to work.

Exodus chapter 32:26-29 says, “Moses stood at the entrance to the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” And all the Levites rallied to him.

27 Then he said to them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” 28 The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died. 29 Then Moses said, “You have been set apart to the Lord today, for you were against your own sons and brothers, and he has blessed you this day.”

What do we do with all of this? What most scholars believe is that this was dealing with the instigators behind the golden calf incident. Possibly some of them were Egyptians who had gone with the Israelites into the wilderness. These corrupt leaders of the people had been the ones orchestrating this rebellion. And God ordered their deaths to prevent sin from infecting the camp once again. This is where we struggle to understand the seriousness of sin. We’re appalled at the slaughter of three thousand people, even if it’s ordered by God. But maybe that’s because we don’t take sin seriously enough. Sin is like an infectious disease, that spread so quickly, and ruins people’s lives. We’re pretty tolerant of sin in our day and age. But God isn’t. God knows sin must be confronted and dealt with, or it will spread, and lead to more chaos, sorrow, and suffering for humanity.

How do we understand these events in our modern context? Obviously God doesn’t order us to go and kill false teachers. That’s not how things work in the new testament period. We are told as Christians to pray for those who persecute us, and love our enemies, and to speak out against false teachers. We know that ultimately God himself will deal with false teachers at the last judgment at the end of time.

To us today, three thousand years later, these events seem alien and difficult to understand. But maybe it’s because we tend to be pretty cavalier about sin today in the modern church. God isn’t so cavalier about it.

These events give us a stark contrast, the contrast of the way the modern church sometimes portrays God, as a god who doesn’t care about sin, and just wants to bless us, and the God of the Bible, who is much more complicated than that. The real God of the Bible cares about things like justice and truth, and goodness and holiness! God is pure love, and full of mercy and grace, yet also a powerful mighty Being of glory, sovereignty and judgment. He is so infinitely beyond us that we can only glimpse a mere image of His expansive omnipotent nature. To exclude the aspects of God we don’t like, or find uncomfortable, is to make a false god in our own image, in fact, it is to make a golden calf of a sort, and call it god.

In the incident of the golden calf, we see a tragic event for God’s people. They’ve failed God already, and it seems like they’ve only just begun their journey. In fact, we know that they will continue to fail God in various ways throughout their wilderness trek. And at the end of Exodus 32 we see that God even strikes some of the people in the camp with a plague as punishment for their sin.

Have you ever had a time in your life when it felt like God was disciplining you? I’ve certainly had those times in my life. But thankfully the story doesn’t end with discipline and punishment. The page turns, and things get better.

Flip the page in your Bible, to chapter 33. Despite all the Israelites have done, once again God and Moses speak. And God still promises, verse 3, You will go to the land flowing with milk and honey. But Moses insists, “Lord we need you to go there with us.” And God replies, verse 14, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And again in verse 17, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” And Moses asks God to “Show Me your Glory.” And God shows Moses his glory. Basically he is asking God: “I need to know who you really are.” Have you ever asked God that? Do it. I dare you. You won’t be disappointed.

In the final analysis, despite everything that had happened, Moses interceded for the people, and the covenant that was broken was restored. And today in the same way, when we fall short, when we fall into sin, when we set up our golden calves, the very best thing we can do is come to God, ask for forgiveness, and repent. Then we begin to move in a new holy direction. We ask to see God, and God shows us his glory.

One of the greatest things a saint can do, is go even deeper with God, to a new level of intimacy. Make a declaration before God: I want more of you. Lord, show me your glory. Lord, break every chain of sin in my life. Lord, I confess my need in this area. Lord, I throw my golden calf into the fire and I repent.

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