Before we begin let us consider what has happened before the stories we heard today. The Israelites have been slaves in Egypt until God, through Moses, launches a daring plague-based escape. They are now free! God has promised to take them to a land rich with milk and honey but at the moment they are waiting in the desert for a plan and a path. The only thing they have to eat is miraculous manna, which God provides each morning and they can’t stockpile beyond the day’s needs.
In the first reading today, Moses is away in discussion with God. While they were busy, the community crafts and then begins to worship a golden calf. In response, Moses destroys it, and has many of the men killed. Even more got sick. The relationship between the community, Moses, and God, is rocky to say the least.
By the time we get to the second story, things have calmed down a bit and God has given the go-ahead, has commanded that Moses to begin the trek to the promised land. So in our reading, Moses turns to God and says outright ‘go with us’.
We will come back to Moses. For now, let us sit with his community. It can be easy, for those of us who know how the story ends, to judge the Israelites for their golden calf. It can feel absurd that they, who through Moses have a direct phone line to God, would desire an idol.
Humans, though, when we experience change, can feel pretty destabalised. Generally, we can crave certainty, a clear path. We like causality, patterns. It calms our hurried minds to see everything be in order.
And the Israelites have been through a lot of change. They are not just homeless, but landless. They have gone from a structure where they knew their role and their place to an ambiguity of hope for a promised land but seemingly no actual plan.
And while the structure, role, and place they had in Egypt were not very good – they were being exploited, oppressed, sometimes murdered – it was known. And now, they are also dependent on God. They cannot make their own food, and must simply trust that each day they will receive what they need. They have lost all control over their lives – everything is in God’s hands.
Isn’t that terrifying?
I don’t know about you, but I like to know there will be food on my table because I cooked it and I put it there. I like feeling that I have an impact over the quality of my own life. When we talk about community wellbeing in the modern age we often talk about people being disempowered, and how this harms them. About how empowering people to feel they have an impact in their own life has great psychological benefits. When planning how to support people through retirement and aged care, through unemployment and disability, we worry about the harm of being disempowered.
Sometimes, to create a sense of control, we then flip the other way to idolise hard work and effort. The belief that we can create for ourselves the life we want as long as we control ourselves, use discipline. Sometimes this is the narrative of our efforts for ‘empowerment’. Soothing ourselves in the face of a fear of change through the belief that we can control what that change looks like.
Sometimes as well as creating a self we can control, we define a God we have controlled. We look for certainty and structure and where we cannot find it, we build it. Like a scaffold around the mystery and complexity of God, we build rules and expectations. We can define ‘faith’ as knowing exactly who God is, and what God wants.
From that position, of seeing our own desire for a clearly defined God, the Israelites behaviour in making a golden calf maybe makes more sense. Is more relatable. Like us, the Israelites response to change and lack of control, is to create something they can control. In moulding themselves an idol, they create a certainty. In the act of creating their own god they take back autonomy, they take back control, they assert their independence from God. They feel empowered.
Except it’s not real, is it? What power does the gold calf ‘empower’ them with? They can control it, because it is a statue. The golden calf can’t scare them with the question “will it give us food today?” because every day the answer is “no”. The golden calf can’t have them asking “when will it tell us the way to the promised land?” because it wont tell them anything, because it does not know, because it has not promised them any land.
Building the calf calms the feeling that everything is outside of their control, but the only new thing they have under their control is the calf itself.
Now Moses does not worship the powerless calf, but in this story we also see his discomfort with uncertainty. God has instructed Moses to go, and Moses says ‘not without you.’ Destroying the calf, and punishing the people has not changed the fact that the community feels destabalised, their lives upended. And so Moses comes to God and asks for certainty. A promise.
But he doesn’t ask for a plan. He doesn’t ask for five steps for success, and he doesn’t ask God to promise that things will be simple and smooth. In this deeply intimate and risky moment, he asks for an anchor: the certainty that God is with them. That God is pleased with them. As in Alan Marshall’s ‘Whispering in the Wind’: tell me that we are loved, that we are needed.
That still leaves a lot of room for ambiguity. It has far less structure or certainty than the golden calf, or belief in our own hard work. It is vulnerable. It cedes control to God, rather than taking it. It displays the precarity of the Israelites’ situation – their dependence on God – rather than covering it up or trying to hide it or replace it with independence and autonomy.
But that anchor is what Moses asks for. And that is what he is given. The Lord replied, “I am your friend and I am pleased with you.”
Unlike Moses, who by this point has a long standing spoken dialogue with God, for me and probably most of us here today, attempts to declare “Come with me or I won’t go” does not tend to lead to God’s verbal reply.
In the face of that uncertainty, we are left with faith. But not the faith that looks like defining, containing, limiting God. No. Without the scaffold of a God we can control, we are left with an anchor of belief in who God is: that God is with us, that God is pleased with us. We are left with the faith that however it plays out, God will be here too.
And that can feel more vulnerable than the golden calf. It can feel vulnerable to let go of a God who can be parcelled up neatly, or moulded from gold and placed on a pedestal. And it can feel less secure than a reliance on discipline or planning, and our own sweat and tears. But it is also more true.
Maybe that vulnerability feels anxious, where God and therefore the world is unknown and uncontrollable? I believe that that vulnerability can also be comforting – it can release us from the belief that we should be able to control either the world or our God. It can help us see that we have not lost all control over our lives – we never had it – everything remains in God’s hands. God’s church remains in God’s hands.
In our considerations, fears, and hopes, I believe it is important to be honest about our human wish for structure and certainty. And it is important to notice when we might let the desire for a knowable, but powerless, certainty win over the desire for the wild, ambiguous divine.
What would it look like, in this church, in your community, in your life, to choose that kind of faith, that kind of ambiguous vulnerable certainty? What does it feel like to sit with God’s promise, enduring as they all are, of “I am your friend and I am pleased with you.”
May faith hold us all, gently, through our anxieties. You are loved, and you are needed. Amen