The journey through the wilderness was a journey about meeting God, growing in faith, losing faith, and having to start all over again. The Israelites were in the spiritual wilderness as well as a physical desert. No wonder it took 40 years in the end. And our spiritual journies can take a lifetime.
Every time there was a problem, the Israelites had to learn once again to trust in God, to have faith, to learn once more that God loved them and wanted to be in a relationship with them.
And today’s Old Testament story is another occasion. This time, however, their failure is also a real act of betrayal.
Moses had gone up the mountain to encounter God and receive the stone tables of the Ten Commandments. He was gone a long time, a very long time, and the people were becoming impatient. They assumed Moses had gone for good, fallen down a cliff, or been consumed by the fire of God or something. Moses had gone. So who was going to lead them? What was going to intercede between them and God? And with Moses gone, did that mean that their relationship with God had ended?
So they asked Aaron for a god, a proper god like the gods they had known in Egypt, one they could see and touch and make sense of. What use was there in an invisible god whom you couldn’t see and who just comes and goes in his own time, and you have no control over?
So Aaron makes the image of a calf and they plan a great inauguration party.
But God, the one true God, know what is happening, and he is furious! He sends Moses away and he’s getting ready to destroy the Israelites all in one go.
Moses prays and he prays hard, asking God to think again, reminding God of the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Israel, pleading for forgiveness.
“And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
Prayer made all the difference! That’s worth remembering for a start.
And the challenge to us from these stories of the Israelites in the wilderness is to look at our own faith in God. Think about the times when you haven’t entirely trusted in God. Remember when you have betrayed God by placing your trust in other things, probably human things. Recall the times when God has felt absent and you haven’t gone to look for him.
These stories are a reflection of our own weaknesses, our own lack of faith. They are a call to us to turn to God once again, to renew our faith and trust and to grow in faith and hope and love.