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“Unbelievable!


Pentecost 12 – August 22nd and 23rd, 2009
Exodus 32:15-32

It’s funny how you and I can have the exact same reaction to two completely different situations. On the
one hand, when we see someone doing something incredibly stupid, something outrageous and foolish, like when
the late Michael Jackson dangled his child over a hotel balcony, we utter the word, “unbelievable,” as we shake our
heads in disbelief. On the other hand, when we witness someone going out of their way to save someone else in a
tremendous act of heroism, for instance, a firefighter storming into a burning building to save someone’s life, we are
often heard uttering the same word, “unbelievable,” as we shake our heads in disbelief at that too; two completely
different scenarios that provoke the same reaction from us, “Unbelievable.”
The Golden Calf incident of Exodus 32-33 is truly unbelievable for two completely different reasons. First
of all, how incredible the rebellion of Israel was. Many commentators refer to this sin as the “incredible” sin or the
“unbelievable” sin, given how quickly they rebelled in unbelief despite the many evidences of God’s grace and
deliverance in bringing them to Mt. Sinai. The plagues on Egypt, the Passover, the parting of the Red Sea, the
provisions of food and water in the desert, all served as concrete evidence of God’s immeasurable love for his people,
evidence that the people could have and should have drawn upon when their faith began to waver. Instead, look at
how quickly the nation of Israel turned to the fertility cult idols of Egypt? Shocking! Astonishing! Unbelievable!
As shocking and astonishing as the sin of Israel is to us, what is ultimately incredible about this account is
the grace of God towards the idolatrous Israelites. Instead of bringing the entire nation to ruin, as they deserved for
their idolatry, God chose in mercy to preserve them, to preserve his Messianic promise among them, and to renew
his covenant with them which they had broken so deeply and severely by their sin. God forgave them, and restored
them as his chosen people through whom the greatest promise to mankind would be fulfilled, the sending of the
Messiah, the Christ who would rescue the world from their sin. Thus, as we examine this section of Scripture
today, this gospel gem of the Old Testament, we will have the same response for two completely different actions –
Unbelievable! How unthinkable is man’s rebellion! And how unfathomable and incredible is God’s grace and love!

I. Man’s rebellion is unthinkable!

The question that we are left with after reading Exodus 32 and 33 is “why?” Why would the Israelites who
had witnessed so many miraculous acts of God in delivering them from evil, so swiftly and willfully abandon God
for the worthless idols of Egypt? Why would they ask Aaron to make a god for them out of gold, and then dance
around it as if it had parted the Red Sea and provided food and water for them, as if it could save them from
impending doom? Why would they do such a thing? The answer is really two-fold – they did this out of fear and
habit!
It had been about a month since God summoned Moses to the top of Mount Sinai. It had been almost 40
days since they saw their leader, Moses, disappear into the glory cloud of God on top of Mt. Sinai, which to the
populace, looked like a consuming fire, with the billows of smoke, lightning, and the sounds of thunder, all which
served to announce the presence of God. Standing at the foot of the mountain must have been an intimidating
sight in and of itself, and for that matter, they had vivid memories of God subduing the entire nation of Egypt with
plagues. They saw those things first-hand, and perhaps thought to themselves that the God who had unleashed
plague after plague upon Pharaoh, had consumed Moses in that frightening fire on top of the mountain.
Fear consumed them, which is odd especially in the light of the amazing grace which this people had
experienced at the hand of their Savior-God, who had rescued them from slavery, and had manifested his glory to
them in so many ways. He had even made a covenant with them and was at that very moment explaining to Moses
the way they were to worship him as the kings and priests of this covenant. Yet, as Scripture so often reminds us,
sin strikes when it is least expected, and it also committed by those who have repeatedly experienced the Lord’s
abundant mercy – people like David, who gave into his lusts and killed Uriah so that Bathsheba could be his wife –
or Judas Iscariot who learned from Jesus as a disciple for 3 years, and then betrayed the Lord with a kiss for some
silver. Similarly with Israel, how greatly the Lord had blessed the children of Israel, and how greatly and deeply and
seriously they transgressed despite God’s mercy toward them!
The Israelites were afraid – albeit completely unnecessarily – still they were afraid of what happened to
Moses, and what might happen to them. So, they drew on experience to comfort their fear, which is where habit
comes in to play. Why did they do this, why make a golden calf, specifically? Well, while in Egypt they were
accustomed to seeing the Egyptians engage in this idolatry, and often would participate in it themselves, which is
why generations afterwards, some Israelites were still being chastised by Joshua for clinging to the worthless idols of
their forefathers in Egypt. They were used to this kind of wild and out of control fertility cult ritual, which not only
was a celebration of freedom from any strict moral code, but also offered any number of carnal pleasures for
temporary satisfaction – if it can rightly be called that. Thus, they asked Aaron to construct a god for them, an
image of gold, and he chose the form of the Egyptian god Apis, a calf, so that they could worship it, and engage in
all the disgusting, despicable, disgraceful carnal pleasures that accompanied Apis worship.
Unbelievable! What an astonishing act of rebellion! In the 106th Psalm, David mentions just how foolish
and ignorant the people were at Sinai: “At Horeb they made a calf and worshiped an idol cast from metal. They
exchanged their Glory for an image of a bull, which eats grass.” It’s no wonder Moses smashed the tablets God gave
him! Instead of finding comfort and consolation in the words and actions of their Savior-God, who had proven his
faithfulness to them time and again, the children of Israel decided to prostitute themselves to a cow god and then
attempted to justify their idolatry by declaring this revelry to be a “festival to the LORD.” How delusional! How
unbelievable!
But let’s not stand in shock for too long! Today, the human heart continues to be capable of the wildest
delusions and the most rebellious behavior. Some claim to be “Christian” and then attempt to justify living in
lifestyles that are contrary to God’s commands. Some claim to be worshipers of the one True God, but insist that
corporate worship is not necessary, important or beneficial, even though the Scriptures bear witness to the
importance of worship. Many of us, in our fear, and in our weakness, and many times out of habit, look for joy and
happiness in places where it cannot be found, in our net-worth, in our accomplishments, in our luxuries, in
lascivious living, in just about anything instead of the words and promises and deeds of a holy and righteous and
loving God, who offers us real comfort and lasting peace in his great acts of deliverance for our salvation. Before we
start shaking a finger at the idolatrous Israelites for their Apis worship, and for engaging in the great hypocrisy of
trying to cover up their idolatry with sanctimonious language and behavior, let’s take a good long look in the
mirror, to find out just how unbelievable our own rebellion has been, and how prone we continue to be to sin. It is
really unthinkable!
II. God’s grace is unfathomable

What a crime this Golden Calf incident was! Yet, the story does not end with the children of Israel
disgracefully prostituting themselves to a cow god. Salvation history continues with an astonishing act of mercy on
God’s part, as he exercises patience with the people who had so flagrantly broken the first and foremost
commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” Listen to what happened the very next day, “The next day, Moses
said to the people, “You have committed a great sin. But now I will go up to the LORD; perhaps I can make atonement
for your sin.” So Moses went back to the LORD and said, “Oh what a great sin these people have committed! They have
made themselves gods of gold. But now, please, forgive their sin – but if not, then blot me out of the book you have
written...The Lord replied to Moses, “Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of and my angel will go before you.”
Unbelievable! What unbelievable and unfathomable love God has for his people. Instead of destroying
them, as they deserved, he allowed the mediator of the people, Moses to approach him and plead for mercy on their
behalf, which he did by asking God for his forgiveness and offering himself to punishment as payment for the sin of
the people. And then, as if it were not merciful enough that God had an audience with the mediator of the people,
instead of abandoning the Israelites because of their wickedness, the Lord made them a promise through the
mediator, that he would send his angel with them, he would remain present among them, and would bring them to
the promised land, as he had said all along, despite their sin, despite their rebellion, despite their unworthiness to be
beneficiaries of God’s grace. Unbelievable! What amazing grace, which goes far beyond the limited reaches of our
human comprehension.
When you and I act in rebellion against our God, he does not cut us off from his presence forever. Instead,
he deals with us through a mediator – not an imperfect one, like Moses, but through a perfect substitute, Jesus
Christ. Out of love for us, God sent his one and only Son Jesus to bear all of our sins and guilt, representing us
before the Father. And it was he, Jesus, the greater Moses, our mediator who offered himself over to punishment on
the cross of Calvary as payment for us and all of our unthinkable acts of rebellion; the innocent offered in place of
the guilty, so that we would be set free from sin, guilt and blame, so that our names would be written in the book of
life. And as our great mediator, Jesus comes back to us from the Father and declares to us that our sins are forgiven
through him, that our God will remain with us by his Holy Spirit, and that he will continue to guide and protect us
and all believers until we are brought to the promised land of heaven.
Unbelievable! While the sin of the Golden Calf could certainly invoke that kind of reaction, ultimately it is
the grace of God, the undeserved love of God which causes us to say today “Unbelievable,” both in the way he
preserved his chosen people and re-established them as his covenant people despite their rebellious idolatry, but
especially in the way he continues to offer his forgiveness and his heaven to sinners everywhere through the perfect
sacrifice of the great mediator, Jesus Christ our Lord. Unbelievable! What amazing grace! Amen.