Exodus 32:1-20 New International Version (NIV)
32 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’
9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
15 Moses turned and went down the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands. They were inscribed on both sides, front and back. 16 The tablets were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.
17 When Joshua heard the noise of the people shouting, he said to Moses, “There is the sound of war in the camp.”
18 Moses replied: “It is not the sound of victory, it is not the sound of defeat; it is the sound of singing that I hear.”
19 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
The stinkbugs are back and stronger than ever. Every year as the days get shorter and cooler, these little pests find their way into our homes. No matter how tightly you seal up your windows, doors, and attics, they will find a way in. And I don’t like it.
There actually happens to be a person in my home that likes stinkbugs even less than I do. My wife, a calm, level-headed thinker most of the time, burns with anger when she sees a bug in the house.
That’s right, while some people get scared, scream, and run away at the sight of a bug, my wife gets angry, red in the face, and starts looking for a shoe with which to smash it.
Perhaps we can just say that bugs bug her. A lot.
It is easy to talk about the things that make my wife angry today because she is joining her family as they install her father as the new pastor at Lynside Mennonite this morning. But I could just as easily name a few things that make me angry as well: I get angry when my children don’t listen to me. I get angry when projects around the house don’t turn out the way that I want them to. I get angry when I go to make a cup of coffee and find that we are out of the black goodness. I get angry when my favorite teams don’t perform as well as I would like them to. We’re just scratching the surface here, my friends.
This past week I began a class at Union Presbyterian Seminary. The first day of classes is always the same. You do introductions, the professor passes out the syllabus, and everyone begins to panic a bit. I needed to have a book called Ethics read by next Tuesday, and I need to understand it well enough to discuss it.
So I come home from class and order the book online. I check a little box, pay a little more to have guaranteed two-day shipping, and then I wait. Of course I make good use of my time. I start working on my sermon a little bit earlier in the week so I can free up some time later to be reading my book for class.
But the book didn’t come. I check the website and it said that the book was “out for delivery” last Thursday. So I waited a little bit more. And I don’t like to wait. I wrote a little more sermon, I did a little more research, and I kept checking to see if the FedEx guy had dropped off the book without me hearing him. Still nothing.
I don’t like to waste time, so I kept writing my sermon on anger, waiting on my book titled Ethics and got more and more upset as the evening progressed and my book did not arrive until Friday.
I don’t think that I need to point out the irony involved in getting angry while waiting on a book about ethics and writing a sermon on anger. God have mercy on me, a sinner.
I want to ask you all today, is it wrong to get angry?
Didn’t Jesus get angry? I am pretty sure that there was a little bit of anger involved in his decision to overturn the money changers’ tables and drive out the animals from the temple. And we want to be like Jesus, to follow Jesus, right? What would Jesus do? He would overturn the FedEx truck. Or is Jesus just like one of those parents that says, “Do as I say, not as I do?” We will get there, but let’s look at today’s passage first.
The lectionary text from Exodus finds Moses on top of Mt. Sinai. He has already led the Israelites out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and into the wilderness. When the post-Exodus Moses first ascended the mountain he had quite the conversation with God. God opens by giving Moses what we commonly call “The Ten Commandments,” which includes things like Exodus 20:3: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
That seems pretty straight forward to me. But just in case you didn’t catch it, God repeats himself and goes into a little more detail in verses 22-23: “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.’”
Got it? So did Moses and so would the Israelites. God continues to give Moses various instructions on how to worship him. Then we find this in Exodus 24:3-4: “When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, ‘Everything the Lord has said we will do.’ Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said.”
So Moses, thinking he has everything running smoothly back at home base, goes back up the mountain and receives more teaching. He is gone for some time, 40 days the text tells us. The people are getting a little anxious and worried. The thunder is striking, the earth is shaking, who knows if Moses is even alive?
So they ask Aaron, Moses’ brother, to make them a god. They know better. Aaron agrees to do this. He knows better, too. But the tricky thing here with the Hebrew language is that it is not clear if they are asking Aaron to make them a representation of their God or to make them golden idols of other gods, like they had back in Egypt. It is tricky because one of the words that we translate as “God” in the Hebrew Bible is actually a plural word.
Either way, God doesn’t like it. God tells Moses in verse 10a, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”
Moses is able to calm God down a bit and Moses goes down the mountain to see what all the fuss is about. And sure enough, things are a bit out of control. As Moses is climbing down the mountain, he has in his hands two stone tablets which the author of Exodus is very careful to explain were etched by God himself with the words of the covenant. And we find Moses’ response to what he sees in verse 19-20:
When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.
I don’t know any other way to say it, but I think the fact that Moses ground up the golden calf, put it in the water, and made the Israelites drink it is awesome.
But if you go to chapter 34 of Exodus, it would seem that God didn’t think that Moses’ actions were that awesome. Moses is made to do some physical labor. God makes Moses chisel out two new tablets from stone to replace the two that he broke. It would seem that God is punishing Moses for his act of fury, or perhaps just for being angry.
So why is it okay for God to be angry, threatening to wipe out the people, but not for Moses to be upset to the point that he breaks some stone tablets? Let’s look for the answers in the New Testament.
In his Sermon on the Mount, which Matthew records beginning in chapter five, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.” (21-22a)
Jesus goes on to say this about judgment in Matthew 7:1-2, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
We can begin to see the interconnectedness of judgment and anger. If you are angry, you will be subject to judgment. If you judge others, you will be subject to judgment. Those might be two things that you want to avoid.
The Greek word that we translate as “anger” is the word “orge.” This is going to be the easiest Greek lesson that I have ever given. The way to remember orge is to switch the g and the r around and you get the word “ogre.” And, as everyone knows, ogres are often very angry, and therefore will be subject to judgment one day. Please pray for the ogres.
That alone should be enough for us to avoid being angry. Really, who wants to be lumped together with the ogres? Now add to that the fact that Paul often includes orge when he writes his vice lists. When Paul is listing these vices that are the opposite of the way Christians should be living, he names things like sexual immorality, murder, lying, and anger. Not really a list that I want to be a part of.
Instead, Paul says in Colossians 3:12, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”
Now I know that some of you Bible students are just chomping at the bit to hit me with the clobber verse that justifies being angry. That passage is Ephesians 4:26: Be angry, and sin not.
This is a passage that Christians often refer to when they want to get angry or to justify their anger. Okay, I can be angry, but I can’t allow my anger to move me to sin. No, your anger itself is sin. It is missing the mark.
Look at the rest of that verse and the following verse: “‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.”
Anger is a foothold for the devil. All sorts of evil things can come from your anger.
In the church we justify anger and specifically angry pastors by saying that they are just passionate. I’m guilty of this as well. We even make up words like “righteous indignation” because we know that anger is a bad thing. If we are angry about the right things, we just call it righteous indignation and everything is okay, right?
Wrong. The Bible tells us that nobody is righteous, not one. So when you get that righteousness thing figured out, then you can be angry.
There is a connection between anger and judgment. When you become angry, you are making a judgment. When my wife gets angry about stinkbugs in the house, she is judging that they should not be there. When I get angry because my children aren’t listening, I am judging that they should be. Those are probably okay judgments to make. But when Moses gets angry at the Israelites for making an idol out of gold, he is judging them from a position of self-righteousness. God alone can judge because God alone is righteous.
So when Jesus overturns the money changers’ table and drives out the animals, he is judging them. And you might ask Jesus, Who do you think that you are, God? The answer would be yes.
I’m not saying that we never correct a brother or sister who is sinning. By all means, we need to be accountable to one another. In Matthew 18 Jesus gives us clear instructions on how to deal with sin in the church. We go and have a conversation, one on one. We don’t go and have a shouting match. And we don’t threaten them physically out of our rage. If you want to win someone back, you talk to them, not yell at them.
I heard an excellent sermon on this subject a while back by Bruxy Cavey, who has evidently been influencing my preaching lately. Bruxy notes that he and his wife grew up differently. He grew up in a fiery, Pentecostal church while his wife grew up in a non-church-going, intellectual family. It is Bruxy’s belief that his wife’s upbringing allows her to see things that he misses because he has never known anything different.
They were driving along one day, listening to a preacher bring the word of Gawd on the radio, when his wife asked him, “How can you stand to listen to this guy?”
Bruxy asked, “What are you talking about? This guy is bringing it!”
His wife replied, “That isn’t normal. What other career would that level of anger be considered okay, let alone a good thing?”
Imagine a used car sales person, yelling, “This is the car for you! You…must…buy…now!”
Or what about a daycare advertisement, “Bring your kids here for the most loving and caring service in the Valley!”
That tone works well to hype up a professional wrestling match, but how attractive is that to a non-Christian or a new believer?
We might try to pass anger off as passion in the church. But anger isn’t a good thing, it is a sin. Anger is rooted in judgment, and judgment is reserved for God alone.
When Moses saw the Israelites partying, worshipping an idol, he allowed his emotions to overtake him and he destroyed the tablets that God had given him, written by God’s own hand. Sure, God was angry, and Jesus got angry as well. But I am not God; I am not Jesus. And neither are you. When we correct one another, we must do it out of love.