Scripture Readings: Exodus 32:1-14 | Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 | Philippians 4:1–9 | Matthew 22:1–14
What are we thankful for today?
We know this Thanksgiving weekend will look a lot different than it has in the past. Big family meals and gatherings are basically a no-go, and so much of our familiar ways of celebrating have had to be re-arranged. Yet even so, we really do have much we can be thankful for. And I hope we all take some time this weekend to reflect on, and share, our sense of gratitude… not only with our words, but with how we choose to live each day.
Saying ‘thank you’ is one thing. Being thankful is another.
This Fall we have been following the story of Exodus: How the Living God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, and led them into a brand-new life as His own chosen people. Last week we heard how God had let them safely to Mt. Sinai, and had graciously given them the Law to guide their life with Him: teaching them how to faithfully love and serve the LORD, and how to love and serve the needs of each other as well. God was giving this group of ex-slaves a key role within His Kingdom, inviting them to take part in His holy, blessed life. And for their part, the people of Israel are all on board. They vigorously say yes to all God asks of them: In Exodus 24 we can hear their response:
“Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord… Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient,” (Exodus 24:3-4, 7).
Twice they promise to do all that the LORD has spoken. To respond to His rescuing love with total faithfulness. So, God takes the Israelites at their word, calling Moses up the Mountain to flesh out all the details of how Almighty God would dwell among His new people. In that meeting, God gives all sorts of instructions to Moses about the building of the Tabernacle: the holy Tent of Meeting where God’s glorious presence would tangibly reside. And also about an order of priests: set aside to serve by offering sacrifices, helping the people to draw close to the LORD, and follow His holy ways. And then the LORD laid out a system of sacred festivals: to celebrate the story of God’s gracious love for His people. In short, God was giving Israel rich and elaborate ways to keep alive and nourish their faith and gratitude, giving shape to their relationship with God, each other, and the nations around them.
But as the LORD and Moses discuss what was to be a beautiful new beginning… the Israelites get impatient, and completely go back on their word. They get Aaron, the priest, to create for them a god of their own liking… an idol made of lifeless gold to bow down to in worship. They hold a festival to celebrate this idol, and to give themselves over to wild revelry. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, Israel was betraying the LORD at the very beginning of their new relationship with Him, poisoning the whole plan God had intended for them. As the scholar John Sailhamer points out: “the incident of the worship of the golden calf cast a dark shadow across Israel’s relationship with God, much the same way as the account of the Fall in Genesis 3 marked a major turning point in God’s dealing with humanity.” This wasn’t just a simple mistake, or a momentary lapse in judgment: the people were spitting in the face of the LORD who rescued them.
Some of us know the terrible damage that often comes with betrayal. Broken trust can be extremely hard to repair. And though there are some obvious examples of betrayal we could easily name, unfaithfulness can take all sorts of more subtle shapes and forms. What about taking for granted those we once promised to love? Of neglecting our commitments to those who rely on us? What about chasing after lifeless objects, images, and idols, that claim to offer excitement and joy, but only lead to death? Instead of keeping faith, and treasuring what we have been given in life, we can all be tempted to chase after our own selfish desires.
In the face of their betrayal, we hear God’s terrifying response. He says to Moses: ‘I’m done. I’m out. If they’d rather live for and worship that lifeless gold than Me, their Saviour, I’ll give them what they want. I am done with Israel.’ The stakes could not be higher for the Israelites. By themselves, they’d never have left the oppression of Egypt. And by themselves, they didn’t stand a chance in the wilderness. Israel’s only hope lay in God’s ongoing faithfulness. In His rescuing mercy, and life-giving love. And they had just trampled His gracious gift into the dust. Like a bride who runs away with a stranger during the wedding ceremony, Israel almost shattered their story with God as soon as it had begun.
But even in this terrifying moment of betrayal, where God threatens to wipe Israel out and start all over again, God also reveals His faithfulness in a surprising way: Brevard Childs points out that, “God vows the severest punishment imaginable, but then suddenly he conditions it, as it were, on Moses’ agreement. ‘Let me alone that I may consume them.’ The effect is that God himself leaves the door open for intercession. He allows himself to be persuaded.”  By inviting Moses into a place where he could stand up for Israel, God gave the people an advocate… someone who would have their back. Not because they deserved it, but because the LORD is gracious… and faithful to the end, even when we humans are not.
So Moses steps through the door that God opens for him, and he pleads for God to spare Israel and forgive their betrayal. But how he does this matters. As Brevard Childs explains, “Moses does not attempt to excuse or mitigate Israel’s sin, but he seeks to overcome it by falling back ultimately on what God can do in making a future possible.” Though Moses makes his case for the people, he knows that Israel’s only hope is in the steadfastness and mercy that defines the Living God. In the end, it’s God’s own faithfulness that saves Israel. Moses prays that God we be true to Himself, even though His people proved false.
And because the LORD is faithful, He listens to Moses’ prayer, and the story of God’s people goes on, though not without some scars. Their ingratitude and faithlessness did not end overnight, and throughout the story of the Bible they would frequently struggle to follow the ways of their Saving LORD. The theologian Peter Leithart points out that this is not simply Israel’s struggle, but the same temptation is there for all who seek to follow the Living God. We are all tempted at times to turn from Him, and giving our hearts to things that lead us far away from His side. “Already at Sinai,” Leithart writes, “we get a preview of Israel’s history of idolatry, image-worship, blasphemy, and Sabbath-breaking. Already at the foot of Sinai, we know we need God’s Word written on our hearts by the finger of the Spirit. We need a mediator better than Moses, one who can demolish the idols of our hearts.” Thankfully, the Living God has given us this better advocate: coming Himself to stand and pray for us in Jesus Christ His Son.
Christ as the greatest intercessor taking up the cause of our sinful world, and securing their salvation by laying His own life down for us all. Jesus alone has fulfilled “All that the Lord has spoken”, keeping the Law in total trust and faithfulness to His Heavenly Father. In His death and resurrection, Christ repaired our broken relationship with God, reconciling our rebellious, and ungrateful hearts to be united through Him to our merciful Creator. In Christ, God Himself bears the burden of our betrayal, and in self-giving, faithful love, refuses to abandon His people, but instead to sets us free, no longer to chase after dead idols, but to share in His divine life, with joy and thankfulness.
Friends, God’s ongoing faithfulness in Jesus is our hope. From beginning to end, we owe it all to the grace of God. Brevard Childs writes, “Israel and the church have their existence because God picked up the pieces. There was no golden period of unblemished saintliness. Rather, the people of God are from the outset the forgiven and restored community. There is a covenant— and a new covenant—because it was maintained from God’s side. If there ever was a danger of understanding Sinai as a pact between partners, the rupture of the golden calf made crystal clear that the foundation of the covenant was, above all, divine mercy and forgiveness.”
As we commemorate the story of God’s gracious love for His people, celebrating what Jesus has done for us, by drawing near to His table, may He nourish us through His Holy Spirit and keep alive within us hearts filled with gratitude and trust that shape the way we live, with God, with each other, and with everyone around us. Happy Thanksgiving, let us thank God for His faithfulness. Amen.
 John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 310.
 Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, ed. Peter Ackroyd et al., The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 567.
 Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, ed. Peter Ackroyd et al., The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 568.
 Peter J. Leithart, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty, Christian Essentials (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 28.
 Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary, ed. Peter Ackroyd et al., The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 580.