Tomorrow is our nation’s commemoration of Columbus Day. I remember from my childhood that it was a day on which we remembered Columbus’ discovery, so to speak, of the New World, though as everyone knows now, he did not actually set foot on the mainland of North America and to his death believed that he had landed on the western edge of Asia. But Columbus Day was a day when we acknowledged our immigrant past, remembered the story we tell ourselves of how we came to be a nation and to possess this land.
It was only when I moved to Boston in the 1980s that I learned Columbus Day was also a day for Italian-Americans to celebrate their heritage, as Irish-Americans do on St. Patrick’s Day. But Columbus Day has also become one of those symbolic battlegrounds of which we have so many in our nation as many people see it as an occasion to remember not only Columbus and European discoveries, but also the horrendous toll taken on the indigenous populations of these two continents. We tell ourselves many stories as a nation and many of the stories are complicated by the very different and difficult history that lie behind them.
We have been hearing a similar story these last weeks as we read from the books of Genesis and Exodus. The stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, of Abraham and Sarai, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, the stories of bondage in Egypt, Passover, and deliverance at the Red Sea are the stories the Hebrews and Israelites told themselves as they sought to understand who they were and who their God is.
The remarkable thing about this story is how different in tone it is from the story we Americans usually tell about ourselves. The version of American history I learned in school, the version most Americans want to hear and to tell, is a story of American Exceptionalism. It’s also a story in which the tragedies, the injustices of our past are usually glossed over. We know about Europeans coming to America and creating democracy and a thriving economy, and a melting pot. We know much less about the violence, racism, slavery, oppression and injustice that accompanied our expansion westward and our rise to the Great World Power.
The story the Hebrews told about themselves is, as I said, very different from the story of American exceptionalism and triumphalism. We may not get a full sense of it here, because we’re not reading the whole narrative at one sitting. But to cut to the chase. Last week, we heard the Ten Commandments, including the very first two: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt. You shall have no other gods before me. and You shall not make for yourselves an idol.” Although today’s reading comes from much later in the book of Exodus, chronologically, it occurs forty days after the giving of the law and the covenant, forty days after the people had promised solemnly, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.”
So, in a little over a month, after experiencing God’s presence and voice coming from the mountaintop in earthquake, smoke and fire; being so afraid of that voice and of God, that the people requested Moses alone interact with and mediate between the people and God, after saying, yes, we will keep all of your commandments, a few weeks later, they feel abandoned by Moses and God, and ask Aaron to make an image for them so they could worship it. And Aaron agreed.
I would like to highlight for you how beautifully and carefully this narrative is constructed. Remember the verses from the 10 Commandments I read a few minutes ago, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” That phrase, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt” is repeated five times in this passage. Notice of whom it is said. The first instance the people describe Moses as “the one who brought us out of the land of Egypt.” After fashioning the golden calf, Aaron announces to the people, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” When God sees what is going in the camp, God says to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt…” But Moses rejects God’s construction of this event and reminds God of what actually happened and who they are: “your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt.” He reminds God also of the promises God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. All of that is enough to convince God to change God’s mind.
I would like to point out one important thing in this story that’s often overlooked or misinterpreted. When Aaron makes the calf, he is not making a false god, an idol, if you will. Rather, when Aaron says, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” he is connecting the image of the golden calf with the God who has called and chosen this people. In other words, Aaron has fashioned a false image of the true god.
This is where the story should hit home for us. What image of God dominates our understanding and experience of God—the loving, heavenly Father? The stern judge and punisher? A God who confirms all of our prejudices and opinions and banishes others to perdition? We all create such images. Sometimes we do it unconsciously; often we do it because the God beyond our images and prejudices is too scary for us to contemplate. Sometimes we do it with the best of intentions, to provide us comfort when God seems distant or absent. That’s what the Israelites did in our story today.
That story, our story, does not end with God’s wrath and judgment. It ends with God’s repentance and forgiveness. That’s why the story of the Israelites retains its power after 2500 years. In spite of their acknowledgement of their own sins and shortcomings, in spite of their experience of defeat at the hands of their enemies, defeat that they interpreted as God’s punishment, they did not abandon God, nor did they believe that God abandoned them. They persisted in their faith against all odds and against all evidence to the contrary.
Israel’s story has become our story through the coming of the Messiah and our faith in Jesus Christ. Israel’s God is our God. But our story did not end two and half millennia ago when the text we read was written down, nor did it end two millennia ago with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are still living the story, writing and telling new chapters of it. As individuals, we continue to experience our own sin, rebellion, and brokenness as well as God’s steadfast love and mercy. As a community, we continue to experience God’s presence among us as well as God’s call to move faithfully into the future. Where is God challenging us to go? What false images is God demanding we destroy?