When the people heard the thunder and the loud blast of the ram’s horn, and when they saw the flashes of lightning and the smoke billowing from the mountain, they stood at a distance, trembling with fear. Exodus 20:18 (NLT)
One of the biggest tragedies of our time is probably the demystifying of God. It’s a result of humanity trying to make things workable, I know. We don’t understand, so we cast off. We create an explanation. We look at things we do understand and we tie what we see to what can’t possibly be fathomed by human minds. The result is a safe but false picture of God which satisfies our minds but doesn’t do much for our hearts.
I don’t claim to have any unique angle on this, my take is pretty much Isaiah 55:9: “For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” That doesn’t excuse us from learning. It’s not Isaiah saying, “Oh well, nothing more to learn here. I guess I just give up.” It is such a deep awareness of God working even in the smallest details that you recognize that you can’t possibly take it all in.
Big badda boom
Look at the Exodus verse again.. God was “flashes of lightning and smoke billowing from the mountain.” I don’t think that was just God showing off. I think that was God being himself, and thunder and lightning follow him. The people looked up and they knew, way beyond a doubt, that God was right there. He wasn’t in their minds or the subject of a story. He was right up a mountain that every single one of them were too afraid to climb. The horn call? That was a ‘call to worship.’ A lot of churches that use bulletins have that term marked off in their programs even today. It basically means, “stop what you’re doing, come worship.” Not a lot of pomp and circumstance. Look how it started, though: God was sitting on a mountain in the form of fire.
Hold that image in your head. The people were afraid to go. The thunder and lightning were swirling. Moses makes several trips up the mountain, and God gives him the law, the plans for the tabernacle. Sets up the rules for holy living and how to become a priest. I can’t imagine that it ever got less dramatic, because Moses is still the only one going. I believe that if the thunder and lightning would have stopped, everyone would have wanted to scamper up behind him.
That goes on for twelve chapters, and then things take a turn.
When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.” Exodus 32:1
It’s familiar now. The thunder and lighting has been up on the mountain for weeks, and it’s become commonplace. The people get impatient, so they decide they need something practical. Thunder and lightning were sooooooo last week, time for something new. So they make a golden cow.
I’ve always been intrigued that the person they talk into making it is Moses’ own brother. This part of the story zips by so fast, it’s almost missed. I have to think that Aaron had some position of authority because he was Moses’ brother, and he was listening to a lot of whining (especially since it’s a huge part of the story past that point) and just wanted to do something to SHUT THESE PEOPLE UP. With thunder and lightning still billowing on the mountaintop, he makes a cow out of the gold they had. (Side note: look at Exodus 12:34 -36. This gold was probably gifted to them by the Egyptians.) The story doesn’t go well from there.
Nothing has changed. We haven’t learned much from our history. The God who made a mountain look like a volcano is the same God who is near us right now. The people who can look at all he is, hear about all he does, still make a cow out of their earrings. We’re doing it in our churches every week.
I read this story and I totally get why God doesn’t show up like this today. What good would it do? The Holy Spirit is right there inside of us, and that’s not enough to keep us from turning God into a smiling old man who we want to grant our wishes but ask nothing from us. We approach him casually on Sunday morning, going to his house to eat donuts and talk sports and hope that the music is decent. It’s a show we put on mostly for ourselves that has very little to do with him.
Allow your heart to be broken, let God be who he is. Figuring him out will not happen.