When it comes to the past year, in all honesty I am probably just like you, at a loss for words. Even though we live in a relatively rich and free land, we have witnessed and experienced great insecurity and fear. And we are still not done. Let’s face that and not pretend that everything is crystal clear and these problems are short-lived. And I am talking about more than the virus.
Even if we managed to stay positive and we kept our faith in God and our hope for mankind, we have had to see how friends and relatives were petrified by the numbers of infections. Perhaps some of you have actually lost loved ones. There were those who behaved irresponsibly. Others became over-concerned or angry. Tensions, intolerance and patronisation increased. For many, the development of vaccines could not go quickly enough, others had great reservations. Even our governments soon entered a kind of survival mode, from which they have yet to emerge.
So I cannot make it any prettier than it has been. But I like to reflect with you on where we go with our questions and with our insecurity. And maybe also with a surprising lack of questions. Perhaps there were questions we did not even dare to ask. Could it be that we are looking in the wrong place for too much of our security, or that we are being seduced to adopt a world view in which there is little room for God?
Better not safe than sorry
Today I want to concentrate on the reading from Exodus. It is very interesting, because here we have the very start, the cradle of the temple service, of the worship of the people of Israel. But in order to understand it, we need to briefly go back to what happened immediately before, in chapter 32.
An idol, a golden calf, was made because the people had become impatient. Moses, who was meant to provide guidance and answers, was absent. It was all taking too long. It was getting irresponsible, you know. “Doesn’t the leadership have anything to say on our suffering?” I imagine the people argued somewhat like this: “What are the other nations doing? Shouldn’t we do the same?” “Yes, but is there evidence that a golden calf will work?” someone retorted.
“No, not really, but surely, even if it helps just a little, that would be worth it, right? Do you want to be responsible for not having tried everything in your power to alleviate the suffering of our people? Why hang on to your gold when you don’t really need it, anyway? Come on – it’s a small sacrifice for a good purpose. The sooner you cooperate the sooner we can all return to normal.”
Build back better
Some added that this was an excellent opportunity to do even better than “normal”. And before they knew it, they all felt guilty when they did not hand in their gold. Even Aaron, representing the clergy, dared not oppose the misguided will of the people. Very few would have acknowledged they were betraying the God of their forefathers and their newly found liberty. For that was the real sacrifice that was made here. How easily a desire for freedom can lead to a new kind of slavery!
How could they have missed that? Well, it must have been related to fear, so in that sense you couldn’t even blame them. When people think their survival is at stake, they switch to a different semi-automatic mode and become capable of the most incredible things, positive as well as negative. The sad thing is that people in this state believe they are rational and what they do is proportional and probably long overdue. Something similar happened in Germany when the nazi regime gained power. There was a great feeling of togetherness, of everyone working together for the prosperity of the nation. Ordinary life was not even that much affected, but, hidden from their sight, people and principles were crushed.
Inhumane in modern ways
Some modern thinkers believe we are in the early stages of a new era of dehumanization.
Nowadays, how well a country is doing is measured by stock prices. Not by the actual economy and how ordinary citizens are coping, let alone those in poorer countries. More and more countries and institutions have stopped genuinely listening to the voices of minorities. Thinking in terms of enemies is on the rise. There is a growth of new rituals and do-it-yourself religions, many aimed at maximum happiness and security, mainly for the richer segment of the population.
We care a lot about our health and the health of our family and friends, but what about those who have almost nothing to eat, and even less due to the corona restrictions? I sometimes wonder how we manage to fool ourselves that we are all in this together, because there is so little tolerance for other opinions and so little attention for other kinds of suffering.
The Israelites were lucky that their golden calf got destroyed. The idols of our society are still standing. True, it was traumatic for the Israelites to lose their golden calf and to receive punishment. That punishment, by the way, I believe to be a symbol of the inevitable disillusionment after we have trusted too much in our own capabilities and solutions. But at least they were able to make a fresh start after that. And as we will see, any real new start is characterized by prayer, not by more human pride. Of course we must use our intelligence, but not before we have acknowledged our mistakes.
Two times prayer
First, at the end of chapter 32, Moses prays to God for forgiveness on behalf of the people. But there is no cheap grace. The people will have to repent. However, a few remarkable things happen immediately. The first is God instructing them to leave that place. Before they do anything else, they must distance. For them, the most “social” distancing meant: to leave the place and circumstances in which they had sinned. Also, repentance is more than confession or obsessing about your sins. It is a change of heart. It is picking up your things and moving in a new direction. At least, in what seems to be a new direction, for you were meant to go that way all along.
And here is the next remarkable thing. God says – as if nothing has happened – “go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob… Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey”. His promise still stood firm. God would send an angel before them to help them conquer the land. This was later changed into a promise to accompany them with His own Presence, i.e. in person. And again, prayer, Moses speaking with God, played an important part.
Off center worship
For what did Moses do? He used to pitch a tent at some distance from the camp, calling it the tent of meeting. Here is that word again: distance. Remember that this tent was the earliest precursor of a temple, a mobile tabernacle. Later on this tent would be in the middle of the camp, with the tribes camping around it. We read about that in Numbers, chapter 2. In a theocracy, God lives, as it were, in the middle of the people. But at this stage, the relationship between God and the people still had to be restored, so they could not meet God in the centre. I think it is similar today.
When contemporary society regards our faith in God as something outlandish, it is perhaps better not to want to occupy centre stage.
The same thing with Jesus. When He came to this earth, he dwelt among us, but he was especially active in the margins of society, among the poor, the sick and the rejected. He was satisfied being part of a minority of people surrounding John the Baptist, who called for repentance and announced the kingdom of God. Only much later would Christianity grow into a powerful movement. Perhaps in our time we are once again called to act as prophets in the margins of society, announcing a kingdom which is different from the “new normal” of the rich, who can easily survive lockdowns no matter how long they last. Perhaps we should mentally leave that place where gigantic sums of money and technology are believed to usher in a new utopia. Perhaps we are called to go to those who are marginalised, ridiculed and impoverished and bring a message of real hope, the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. This way, social distancing acquires a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?
Here we are of course looking at the more psychological and spiritual dimensions of distancing. It is not healthy to remain locked up in that camp of fear, within a system that caused our problems in the first place. We are invited to go outside the camp, outside the trodden path, to face the deeper questions and to seek Gods presence and His guidance. When we go through a desert period, we are invited to go a little bit further into that desert. At first it will seem more dangerous, but then we discover that this is where God speaks to us. Not only that, but there He speaks to us like a friend.
Our need and God’s action
When I read this chapter again, I was struck by the order in which things happened. It was not so much God coming down with Moses then having to run towards the tent. No, anyone with a question would go to the tent, Moses would go into the tent and then a pillar of cloud, which represented the glory of God, would come down and they would speak. Amazing how God lets us take the initiative. When we turn to Him in prayer, He will meet us where we are. This is how it would be with a friend. You don’t have to make an appointment or gather so many signatures or bring a sacrifice first. Sacrifices were instituted later, after the Mosaic law was complete and they were abolished when Christ brought the final sacrifice for our sake.
God and Moses speaking like friends may also remind us of the beloved disciple. This disciple is mentioned six times in the gospel of John, causing the Church Fathers to believe that he was the apostle John himself. So was there an apostle who was more special than the others, so that he was known as the beloved apostle? Not necessarily. The expression does not appear in any other gospel. If John was the author of the gospel that bears his name, it may well be that all he was saying was: my relationship to Jesus was special. But that does not necessarily indicate favouritism. When Peter asked “what about that one”, Jesus answered that it was none of Peter’s concern. He was to concentrate on following Jesus.
So Jesus’ relationships with other followers of His in no way interferes with our access to God. And that means that we are all treated as friends, as comrades, unconditionally. How wonderful to know this and to be able to act on it. But like Moses, we would do well to first leave the camp, this hectic “place” full of peer pressure and disinformation. We need to become silent again, shake off our illusory certainties and open ourselves to what the Holy Spirit wants us to hear. This may be different for each one of us, simply because we are all different and we have different needs. But I am sure of one thing: our eyes will also be opened to the needs of others, needs which are often neglected or misrepresented in the newspapers and the speeches of politicians. May God bless us with ears to hear, with true compassion, with strength to take up our cross in the new year, and may nothing distract us from His boundless love and Christ’s peace.