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- Hymn CW 704 “Let Us Ever Walk with Jesus”
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July 2, 2023 Exodus 32:15-29 Pastor Wolfe
Loving God is Number One!
A lot can change in 40 days. 40 days ago at the beginning of June our lawns were green and the air was clear. Now everything’s brown and Canadian smoke is a more regular part of our weather forecasts than rain. 40 days before that, at the beginning of May, we thought the Minnesota Twins were going to run away with the division with great pitching and powerful bats. Today, they’re a .500 team looking for a way to lose in a terrible division. A lot can change in 40 days.
Some 3,500 years ago a lot changed for God’s people Israel in a span of 40 days too. That was the length of time Moses spent on Mt. Sinai receiving written instructions from God on how the Israelites were to conduct themselves. What we know as the Ten Commandments were a part of those written instructions. And as we start our series on what makes a Christian a Christian, it’s fitting that we start with the first item on the list. Can you name the first commandment? “You shall have no other gods.” But while Moses was on the mountain listening to God, the Israelites below were listening to something else. At the foot of the mountain they turned to revelry and idolatry instead, even making a golden calf out of the very Egyptian gold God had delivered to them. In just 40 days they forgot the Christian’s number one principle. We love God above all things!
When Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to speak with God and receive the Ten Commandments in writing, it wasn’t like he slipped away so that the Israelites didn’t know where he had gone or what he was doing. God made an impressive display of billowing smoke covering the peak of Mt. Sinai. Thunder crashed and lightning flashed. The earth shook and trumpet blasts filled Israelite ears. The people had heard God himself speak and they promised on oath to do whatever he said. The covenant had been sealed in blood. The contract was made. It was after all of that, in full view of everyone, that Moses climbed the mountain to speak with God and receive His written word.
But when Moses’ absence stretched to 40 days the Israelites got tired of waiting and decided to come up with their own plan for spirituality. I suppose we can understand how they felt. If you’ve been waiting in the ER for hours and still haven’t even seen a nurse, you’re tempted to walk out and treat yourself the best you can. That’s what the Israelites did – with disastrous results.
Moses began his descent back to the Israelite camp carrying two tablets of stone with God’s own handwriting and a record of the Ten Commandments. As he came to Joshua partway down the mountain they hear a distant noise. Joshua thought it was battle, but Moses knew better. Not shouts of victory or defeat, but singing—the voices of worship. When Moses came to a place where he could see the camp, he saw the object of worship – a glistening golden calf – a fool’s god made of foolish gold. When he saw the golden calf and the Israelites dancing around it with wild abandon, he shattered the stone tablets of God’s law on the ground just like the Israelites had shattered their promise to follow those laws.
I wish we had the whole text of Exodus 32 here. God told Moses to go down from the mountain because he knew what was going on. God was ready to wipe out the Israelites entirely and start a new nation from Moses’ own bloodline. But Moses asked for mercy and God granted it. Now Moses acts in love as he gets rid of that hunk of garbage they called a god. He burned it up and threw the powder into water which he made the people drink. Maybe Moses did that to show just how weak that false god was. Their false god would become something they take out to the latrine and bury in the sand. Worthless.
And then Moses called for those faithful to the true God to rally to his side. After the tribe of Levi snapped to attention, Moses gave this astounding order: “Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’ The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.” 3,000 Israelite funerals. At God’s command the Levites had killed their brothers, their cousins, their neighbors, and their friends.
It’s here that we want to slam on the brakes, bring everything to a screeching halt and shout, “What in the wilderness is going on!? How does a loving God order such a slaughter? And how come there are people willing to carry it out?” But that’s not the half of it. When the deed was done, Moses said to the Levites: “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.” The Lord blessed the Levites because of all this?
It’s a good thing we Christians worship the God of the New Testament right? I mean this Old Testament God seems like one grumpy guy. But wait. What was is it that Jesus said in our Gospel Lesson this morning? “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law— a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Wow. This is probably why so many people today say that they are spiritual, not religious. Not tied down to a specific God of specific will. But what the only true God is telling you today is that spirituality without truth is deadly. The Israelites who pranced around the golden calf were not atheists. They believed in God, but they wanted to worship him on their terms. They wanted a god they could see. A god who would let them be as they went out of control and did what they wanted. That’s an appealing thing isn’t it? A God who lets us have it our way? But to ignore the true God’s law is as foolish as ignoring instructions on how to wear a parachute before jumping out of a plane. God is serious – loving him is number one.
Think about what would have happened if God didn’t act through Moses and the Levites? What if Moses had just turned the other way and gone back up the mountain after he saw the golden calf? What if he hadn’t pronounced judgment on this false so-called god? What would have happened to the Israelites then? They would have all been lost, eternally. It’s grace that only 3,000 died when it sounds like the whole nation threw themselves away so quickly from God. What’s more, in sparing the rest God spared the billions who would be saved by the Savior born from these people hundreds of years later.
Friends, the defining characteristic of a Christian is one who puts Christ first. And helps others do the same. God is our number one, no matter what. When our families and friends and neighbors chase after that which glistens but provides no grace, we stand with Moses instead. When others pursue what is harmful or fruitless or fading, we fix our eyes on Christ instead and know our hope is not in vain.
In the Gospel reading last week we heard Jesus tells us to fear God and no one else. (Remember, “Fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell”? That’s God!) To only be worried about his judgment and his will. What’s truly amazing is that this God of justice, this seemingly grumpy Old Testament God, is the same God of grace who came into our world to turn his wrath from us. You know this: Jesus came to obey God’s law perfectly because we don’t. We can’t. Instead of judgment he gives us grace. Undeserved. Free. Complete. No wonder the Christian gives God our undivided attention in life and worship. Only he could save us from death and hell, and only he deserves our praise for doing it.
When God called you to faith in Jesus Christ, he set you apart from the rest of the world What will your response be? Shrug your shoulders at his grace the way the Israelites did? Turn a blind eye to sin the way Aaron did? Or will you, like Moses and the Levites, stand up for the Lord and separate yourself from sin? This is God’s will for us. This is what it means to be Christian. To make God number one. To love him above all things.
But before you think this will be as difficult as the task of the Levites here, I want you to turn to the Gospel lesson from Matthew. Because there Jesus shows us how to show him that he is number one. He doesn’t ask us to take extraordinary steps or do great and powerful tasks. Jesus says in verse 42, “if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”
So brothers and sisters, whatever it is that calls for God’s #1 place, turn away from it. Turn away from the obvious sins and the temptations we all face. When you fail to stand apart from sin, hang that failure on the cross of Jesus and know you are forgiven. But remember that God’s good things can become idols too. Cherish God’s blessings of family and work, relaxation and sport. But keep them in their place so that you can keep God in his. By grace, through faith in Jesus, you are a Christian. And that means no matter what, loving God is number one. God bless us with faith and faithfulness. Amen.