The 32nd chapter of Exodus recounts a mighty bad day in the life of the Israelites, one that is hard to imagine anyone fully recovering from. The background to the account is that, after the people have been rescued by God and escaped from oppression in Egypt, they have been led through the wilderness and given daily food on their journey. Now they are encamped at the foot of Mount Sinai and God has called Moses to come up the mountain for instruction.
Despite all that has been provided for them, the Israelites panic after Moses has been gone longer than they expect. They approach Aaron, Moses’ brother, and ask him to make for them other gods they can worship. Life has been pretty hard for them and their God isn’t one that they can see in person. They fall into victim mode, fear the worst and think melting some gold and making portable gods might make things better. Called to be faithful in worship, they turn to superstition.
Moses gets wind of all this, panics a bit himself, and comes storming down the mountain to straighten things out. In his hands are the two tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments written on them. He sees what the people have done and pitches a fit. He throws the tablets on the ground where they shatter. Then he goes about in a rage destroying all the idols of gold. He burns them up, grinds them to a pulp and mixes the ashes in with the drinking water, trying to get the people to see how flimsy their solution really is.
But now things are in a total mess. The people are all scared and angry. Their portable gods are gone, along with all the gold they were cast from. And the tablets outlining the covenant from God are also destroyed. All in all a pretty devastating day.
During a junior high basketball game, several of us dove for a loose ball. In the frenzy, a player from the other team hit me in the face either with an elbow or a fist. Before I could even process what was going on, I lashed out and punched back. Very quickly things got out of control. The benches emptied. The coaches were involved. Even people in the stands came down on the floor. It was like no one could control themselves. And my reactive punch was the catalyst.
Invariably in life, we are hit with things that throw us into a rage. The situation is bad enough on its own. But then the actions we take, in reaction to our own anger and fear, make the situation so much worse. Families get all locked down in conflict as various reactions to offending behavior spill out. Couples get lost in fights and really have a hard time tracing their way back to how it may have started. Something bad happens and, as more and more people react, the situation is simply irreconcilable.
As we read on in chapter 32 and we see that 3000 people get killed. It all started with the people getting scared. Fear turned into panic, panic into rage, rage into chaos. Sometimes life is a junior high basketball game writ large.
But as we keep reading, we do see some resolution. God is not pleased, that is clear, but God never gets lost in panic like we do. He lets them experience the consequences of their actions. Eventually God works to forgive the people and uses it all to teach them that he will abide with them through thick and thin. God assures them he will be there on their worst days and invites them to live into behavior which will help bring about better days.
Scripture, and life in general, is full of pretty horrible days. The bottom line is that, no matter what kind of fit we pitch, God continues in relationship with us. Unfortunately some of our panic-filled rages cause irreparable harm to human relationship but, amazingly, most of the harm we cause does seem to get healed over time.
After we have been pulled out of the muck we have participated in, we see that God’s grace is even bigger than the messes we get stuck in. And, as those times of grace continue, we can even begin to choose a higher way ourselves. We can’t really control the rest of the world, or even the rage we may feel, but we do have some control over whether we react or allow the rage to pass and then respond in a more helpful way.
The cross of Christ, on top of a myriad of scripture illustrations, shows us that God will not dissolve into rage like we do. His grace prevails and allows us to find peace, if we’ll take a moment to look for it.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.