Scripture – Exodus 32:1-14 – Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost – October 9, 2016
Long ago and far away I made a terrible miscalculation. Well, it wasn’t that long ago – it was about 30 years ago…and really not that far away – just up the road apiece about 80 miles north of here. I had planned my son’s birthday party – it might have been his sixth or maybe seventh birthday. It was held at the local shop of a large pizza chain named after somebody’s papa. And this is how it worked: the birthday boy was honored by donning a chef’s hat and apron and standing behind the counter on a stool alongside the real pizza maker, to make his own birthday pizza. Rolling out the dough, tossing it in the air at the direction of the adjacent expert, spreading sauce and laying favorite toppings upon it and then shoveling it into the oven. All while a dozen little birthday guests watched enviously from the other side of the counter.
While the pizza baked, these little guests were led in a variety of games by a bubbly employee and then they were seated to enjoy their lunch of plain cheese pizza and a beverage followed by singing to the birthday boy, consuming birthday cake and observing the opening of presents. A fine plan for a birthday party; the terrible miscalculation I had made was that when everything was over, the parents of the little guests were not due to pick up their charges for another half hour. The invitation had read 12 to 2pm, which I thought was an appropriate amount of time to cover all the festivities, but we were out of food and fun and attention span by 1:30.
The bubbly employee who had led the gang in games had now disappeared; the bus boy was now collecting soiled paper plates and cups and sweeping under the tables; and I and the adult friend I had with me to help chaperone were totally on our own with no resources, supplies or engaging ideas and some 10 kids ready to bust. And bust they did. By the time 2:00 came, despite our attempts to divert and distract, these little people were literally running in circles and reveling with reckless abandon. We had no choice but to keep the party room doors closed and just let them go. As you can see, it still sticks in my memory these 30 years later as being one of the top moments in my life when I was totally unable to control the situation in front of me.
I wonder if Moses’ brother Aaron felt like that. When we meet him this morning, Moses has been up on the mountain of God for forty days and forty nights. In Bible-speak that’s a really long time. It happens back in Chapter 24 of Exodus where it is written in verses 13 and 14: “So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, ‘Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.’” Sit tight, fellas, I’ll be back – if anything happens, Aaron’s in charge.
My guess is that no one anticipated Moses’ being gone quite this long. Moses, with the guidance and help of God, had led the people out of Egypt and they were still on their way to the promised land, but now in a holding pattern waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain and get them back on the road again. We read this morning, “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.’” So Aaron comes up with the bright idea of collecting, melting and molding the people’s gold into a graven idol, in front of which they all revel with reckless abandon. (Sometime we’ll have to talk about Aaron who later on, when confronted by Moses, says, “So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’” Literally! Chapter 32, verse 34.)
Human beings have difficulty remaining patient in holding patterns, especially if left to our own devices. How soon we forget what we were waiting for in the first place. And how easily we are led in a totally different direction when we find we can wait no longer; we are easily distracted and on to the next thing sometimes without even realizing it. You may be aware of the study conducted by Microsoft in 2015 which measured the reduction in our attention spans since the advent of mobile technology. The headline in Time Magazine and The New York Times was that our attention spans had diminished to less than that of gold fish. Gold fish attention span? Nine seconds. Humans? Eight.
I don’t know what the span of attention was in human adults during Moses’ time but God says this morning: “Your people…have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them…”
Quick to turn aside. Tim Egan, a columnist for the New York Times in January quoted an observation from the 2015 attention span study: “The true scarce commodity” of the near future … will be “human attention.” Quick to turn aside.
Jesus says during his last hours on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Just a few days before, he was heralded as king by the crowds lining the streets on the way into Jerusalem. In about as much time as it takes for the latest poll results to be released and pounced upon by the news media, distracting us completely from yesterday’s story, Jesus was betrayed and arrested, tortured and tried and nailed to a tree. And scripture says the people stood by watching; the leaders scoffed at him; the soldiers mocked him, casting lots to divide his clothing. Quick to turn aside from laying palm branches in his path.
We understand and pretty much accept our human tendencies, if not our human nature, to quickly turn aside when things get old, boring, uncomfortable, dangerous, when something new catches our attention. In seminary we were advised to go no longer than 18 minutes with a sermon, lest we lose the congregation’s attention. In planning for a period of silence in a special upcoming Advent service, I know from experience that 5 minutes is too much silence for most of us. And we need not spend a lot of time this morning naming the myriad of idols in our contemporary lives and culture with which we break the first and second commandments time and time again. I am the lord your God; you shall have no other Gods before me; you shall not make for yourself an idol. If we but take a moment and examine our own consciences, we know what it is that we put before God. All we need do is look at our own individual strivings and priorities and attitudes and how we spend our time and be honest with ourselves. Our cultural idols of fame and money and success are obvious. What may not be so obvious is how those idols drive our own without our even realizing it.
So we recognize our human nature, but our passage this morning also hints at the nature of God and challenges us to examine how we understand that. Moses was able to get the Lord to change his mind, to change his plans. “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” Jesus asks his Father to forgive them for they know not what they do. Does God change God’s mind?
I don’t have the answer to that and certainly if you go down different theological paths, you will arrive at different answers. But I can say with certainty that ours must be a loving and forgiving God to raise a broken, betrayed, mocked and murdered Jesus in triumph over evil and death, not to punish those who quickly turned against him when it became too dangerous to stick with him and to grant us hope in a still broken world.
That is the good news, my friends, but we remain challenged. Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father to come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. And it has not been forty days; it has not been a fashion season or an election cycle; not a generation nor a century…it has been two millenia that we have been waiting for Jesus to come back. And goodness knows during that time God’s people have been blaspheming and idol-worshiping and reveling and warring and destroying; cathedrals have become condos; and Sunday mornings are now for sleeping. Our challenge is to remember who we are and why we’re here and who we’re waiting for and to do our darnedest to resist distraction. To resist turning aside from the way Jesus taught, from the promise he made, to remove all which gets in the way of our incredibly shrinking attention spans so that we may remain patient and focused and faithful and counter to this culture which constantly beckons us to fill up our few minutes of down time with more work, more shopping, more running, and more checking our phones and email – losing our primary identity altogether as children of God and disciples of Christ.
The challenge is that we have been left alone, but the good news is that we have not been left only to our own devices, ubiquitous as they are. Our faith tells us that the Holy Spirit is among us, as Jesus said, “…the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” My friends, we must clear our minds and our hearts of the false gods of distraction to listen for that Holy Spirit, to remain patient and faithful until Christ comes again.
On little Robby’s birthday some thirty years ago, I was never so glad to see anyone as those parents coming through the door to pick up the little guests gone wild. Only one raised an eyebrow and muttered something about “what happened here”. There was no unleashing of wrath; it felt much more like forgiveness and understanding for this parent who momentarily knew not what she was doing. I pray for the day when our God finally comes to rescue us from our darting around more quickly than gold fish. May we give thanks for a God who may think twice and does forgive, who is beyond faulty miscalculations and may that same God grant us the patience and the focus and the faith to wait humbly for his return. Amen.