God is Guiding Us Through the Wilderness

Sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come make gods for us, who shall go before us; 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.” Exodus 32:1

What would you think if your popular and respected leader who had led you and your organization through some of its most challenging times suddenly wasn’t there anymore?  Someone who had built something wonderful out of nothing. Someone you’d shared remarkable experiences with. Someone who knew you and your family intimately. Who shared the same values.  Who was a natural leader who, again and again, was able to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat, performing one miracle after another. Who, just by being there, made all the difference in the world. Who was so charismatic that people were happy to be voluntold what to do.  What if that person was gone and showed no signs of ever coming back?

I’m talking about Moses, of course, the one who walked into Egypt one day from the Sinai Desert ready to lead a rag-tag bunch of slaves out of their bondage to freedom. The same Moses who confronted Pharaoh and told him: “Let my people go.” The same Moses who brought the ten plagues down on the Egyptians: frogs, and locusts, and flies, hail and fire, and a darkness deeper than any midnight. The same Moses who opened an escape route through Red Sea when all seemed lost. That leader. . . . Only now he’s been gone for a long time. No one knows where he is. No one knows when he’ll be coming back. No one knows whether he’s alive or dead.

That’s the situation the people of Israel are in when our first lesson opens this morning, the reading from the 32nd chapter of Exodus. Let’s set the scene with a little background.

After the miraculous deliverance at the Red Sea, Moses leads the people on a three-month march through the hostile desert to the foot of Mt. Sinai – the same place where God had first appeared to him in the burning bush.

You’d think that people would be grateful for all Moses has done for them, but no. Instead of showing their gratitude, the people grumble and kvetch to Moses about everything – from where their next meal will come from to why Moses led them out of Egypt in the first place. Every time the people complain, Moses takes their complaint to God, and God provides for their needs: When they complain that don’t have enough food, God gives them manna. When they complain that they don’t have enough meat, God rains quail down on their camp. When they complain that they don’t have enough to drink, God has Moses strike a rock with his staff and water gushes out.  God has been good, and Moses has been a faithful and effective leader, but no one says thank you. All they do is complain.

Finally, the people arrive at the foot of Mt. Sinai. There, terrified by God’s thundering voice, they ask Moses to serve as their go-between with God, mediating the covenant relationship that God proposes to have with them. After a few trips up and down the mountain, Moses takes his aide, Joshua, and leaves the others behind, heading back up the mountain for what will be a while. “Wait for us [down] here until we return,” he tells the elders and the people. “You have Aaron and Hur with you; if there are any problems go to them.” Then he disappears for 40 days and 40 nights.  The best translation I’ve heard for forty of anything in the Bible is the word, “umpteen.”  Moses was gone for umpteen days and night.  And when you have to wait for something for umpteen days and nights, time crawls. So it was for the people waiting at the foot of the mountain.

So let me go back to the questions I asked at the beginning: What would you think if your popular and respected leader wasn’t there anymore?  What if that person was gone and showed no signs of ever coming back?  You’d feel pretty anxious.  Commentators prefer to say that the Israelites grew impatient, and that was undoubtedly part of it. But I think what they felt more than anything was anxiety.

After all, it was Moses who had known the way from the Red Sea to Mt. Sinai. It was Moses who had interceded with God for food and water. It was Moses whose vision of a Promised Land had given them a goal – a glorious dream of a land flowing with milk and honey that helped them tolerate the hardships of the desert. But without Moses as their guide, they might end up wandering in the wilderness forever. Without Moses negotiating with God on their behalf, who knew what would happen to the quails, or the manna, or the water from the rock? And if Moses was gone for good, he had probably taken God with him – or else God had taken Moses away and had abandoned them. After all, God had called them a stiff-necked people more than once. Maybe God had had enough of them.

What do people do when they get anxious? We don’t really have to look very far for the answer to this question, do we? All we have to do is look around.

According to a report on NPR this week, one thing we are doing these days is self-medicating. Adults over 30 are drinking more – 14% more often during the coronavirus pandemic. The increase in frequency of drinking for women was more pronounced, up 17% compared to last year. Instances of heavy drinking among women, which for women was defined as four or more drinks within a couple of hours, spiked by 41%.

Last Sunday’s New York Times featured a front-page article in the Styles section with the title: “Parents’ Little Helpers.” The subtitle: “Weary of raising children in a pandemic, moms and dads are hitting the pot and booze.”  I’m not saying this to judge anyone – it’s simply a description of the impact of the pandemic. The director of the department of medicine, health and society at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Jonathan Metzl, said the increase in substance use is “just kind of understandable.” He said, “This is an incredible, once in an epoch stressful situation, and the kinds of outlets people usually have in their lives are just not available.”

More than a few of us – including many at the highest echelons of government – are choosing another old coping trick – denial. In spite of clear evidence to the contrary, they say, “The virus isn’t that bad. Don’t let it dominate you. Mask-wearing is for wimps.” And that message is having a terrible impact.  When I traveled back to Ohio recently, I was shocked by how many people weren’t wearing masks at gas stations and rest stops along the way. And when I got home, less than half of the people walking down the village’s main street were wearing masks. 

As for my own response to pandemic anxiety, I can identify completely with the person who said, “My hobby is doom scrolling.” I know how bad it’s gotten when, every Sunday, my phone alerts me about how much time I’ve spent online during the past week. It keeps going up and up and up. Clearly I need to stop endlessly scrolling down my news apps and social media, and reading all the bad news. Instead of getting reassurance from all the information, all I get is more and more anxious.

The people of Israel didn’t have cell phones, or pot gummies, or alcoholic beverages delivered by Doordash to ease their anxiety. So instead, they mobbed Aaron and pleaded with him, “Do something. Make Gods for us who will lead us. That Moses, the man who got us out of Egypt – who knows what’s happened to him?”

Aaron did what happens to a leader whenever that leader’s ability to stay differentiated is overwhelmed by the level of people’s anxiety. He forgot everything he knew. He abandoned his core values, and he succumbed to the allure of the quick fix.  Ronald Heifetz, the leadership guru, says that when leadership is on the line, there are several dangers for a leader. People will use an array of tactics to get what they want. They will try to marginalize the leader, or try to divert them, or attack them, or – when all else fails – try to seduce them to get the leader to ease their anxiety. You can see elements of all these different strategies being used by the people of Israel in the story of the Golden Calf

What was it that the people were after? I’ll tell you what they were after. They were after certainty. In the middle of the crisis caused by Moses’ absence, their beliefs were shattered, their security was threatened, and their vulnerabilities were exposed. “Make Gods for us who will lead us. Give us something that we can see, and touch, and turn to. Take away our uncertainty. Resolve the ambiguity.”  And Aaron capitulated.

Now . . . Aaron was smart enough to know that answers to problems shouldn’t come cheap. Any answer had to cost the people something. And since the problem was big, the cost needed to be big, too.  After all, solutions are only worth what you pay for them. “Take off the gold rings from the ears of your wives and son and daughters and bring them to me,” Aaron said. They all did it, and he cast all the gold into the form of a bull calf – a religious symbol of strength and power and macho virility they would have recognized from the days when they were slaves back in Egypt – something familiar from the past – something tangible that already had legitimacy. Something that seemed far superior to the God Moses has talked about – a God who wouldn’t even let them use God’s name, much less let them know what it was.

It’s too bad that Aaron didn’t live in the 20th century where he could have been helped by a very wise Family Therapist and Rabbi named Edwin Friedman. Friedman developed the concept of a leader being a non-anxious presence, a self-differentiated leader – someone who has “clarity about his or her own life goals, and therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious processes swirling about.”  Someone more like. . . well, like Moses.

The sound of the wild rumpus as the people danced around the calf down below reached the top of the mountain where Moses and God were having a conversation. God, as the story goes, was so angry that he wanted to wipe the people out and start all over again.  God offered Moses the same promise that Abraham had been promised. God said, “Of you, I will make a great nation.” But Moses held his ground, reminding God that it would look bad if God wiped out the people of Israel after going to all the trouble of freeing them from slavery in the first place. After convincing God not to do anything rash, Moses went down the mountain and straightened things out in the camp. It took some doing, needless to say, since things had gotten so far off track. And it was costly, too. In the end God seems to have recognized that the people were just “having a moment” and gave them another chance.

The story of this incident got handed down from generation to generation as a cautionary tale – about how poor leadership can intensify people’s anxiety to the point where they will sacrifice anything.  About how easy it is to replace the real God with substitute gods that leaders sometimes fashion for us. And about how our need for certainty leads us to worship some dangerous things – especially if those things look bright and shiny and strong.

I don’t know how we could possibly live in a more anxious time than the one we are living in now. Times filled with this much anxiety call for sound leadership. Rabbi Friedman wrote that sound leadership is the “capacity to define oneself to others in a way that clarifies and expands a vision of the future.” Aaron couldn’t do that.  Moses could – and his vision of the future made it possible for the people to continue their journey through the wilderness. 

What I believe with all my heart is that God – the God Moses knew – will continue to guide us through this current wilderness.  Our God is a faithful God we can trust. If anyone offers to make you a golden calf, watch out! I can hear them now, “Take off your gold rings and bring them to us. We’ll make you something that will solve your problem right now!” 

Don’t do it.