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Remember Your People!

I want to continue our reflections in Exodus this week, for there is a lot there to reflect on. Specifically, I want to look at chapter 32 and what happens while Moses is on the mountain with God and the near disaster that is averted by Moses.

You recall that Moses was on the mountain with the Lord for forty days and forty nights. Meanwhile, the people, down below, began to get nervous about his absence. Fearing that he had been killed, they turned to Aaron and said, “Make for us gods who will go before us….” And Aaron, all too obligingly, did so, making a golden calf for them and telling them, “Here are your gods.” The people, forgetting completely the covenant they had made with the Lord, fell down and worshiped the idol and then rose up to eat, drink, and dance in a wholly pagan liturgy.

The Lord, seeing their idolatry, told Moses:

“Go! Descend quickly from here, for your people have acted lawlessly, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt. They have deviated quickly from the way that you commanded them. They made for themselves a calf and did obeisance to it and offered sacrifices to it, and they said, 'These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.' And now allow me, and, enraged with anger against them, I will destroy them and make you into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7-10, NETS)

Terrible stuff! But did you observe anything other than the final sentence and the threat of destruction? Notice how the Lord describes the people: “your people have acted lawlessly, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt. They have deviated quickly from the way that you commanded them.” The Lord, speaking to Moses, calls the Israelites not “my people” but “your people”.

What accounts for this terrible shift from “my people” to “your people”? Stated plainly, the people have broken the covenant. They had willingly and freely entered into covenant with God, and according to the covenant the Lord would be their God and they would be his people, keeping his commandments, the very core of which was that they would make no other gods and have no other gods before the Lord. And having broken the covenant by making another god for themselves they were on the very brink of losing the one, true God as “their God” and being destroyed, all according to the covenant agreement.

What I really want us to notice is what happens next.

And Moyses prayed before the Lord his God and said, "Why, Lord, are you enraged with anger against your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and an uplifted arm?…. stop the anger of your rage, and be propitious at the wickedness of your people, remembering Abraam and Isaak and Iakob, your domestics, to whom you swore by yourself and spoke to them, saying, 'I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the sky in number,' and all this land that you said you would give to their seed, and they will possess it forever." And the Lord was propitiated concerning the harm that he said he would do to his people. (Exodus 32:11-14, NETS)

Do you see what Moses did there: “your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and an uplifted arm”? Moses remembers the covenant before the Lord, not only with the Israelites at Sinai, but with the patriarchs. He goes back to the beginning, we might say, and intercedes for the people with the Lord to remind him, despite the people’s faithlessness, of his covenant with the patriarchs to whom he swore faithfulness.

Now this is of more than just passing interest to us, as if we were just reading the Bible to learn its history alone. No, this of great importance to us theologically, spiritually and even liturgically.

To be specific, think for a moment of the Divine Liturgy and particularly of the anaphora prayer said by the priest. The whole prayer has the character of a remembrance (the Greek word is “anamnesis”). We approach God and the primary thing that we do is to remind him of who he is, in particular his great works of creation and salvation, all coming to culmination in the great work of Christ our Lord in his death, burial and resurrection.

This is, brothers and sisters, through and through, covenant language and covenant action. We are rehearsing the New Covenant before God, with gratitude and reverence, “in the fear of God, with faith and love”. This culminates when the priest recites the words of our Lord himself:

Take, eat. This is My Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins…. Drink of it, all of you. This is My Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins.

(We should be reminded, here, that the word “testament” translates the Greek word “diathekes” which we more often translate as “covenant”. Thus, "This is My Blood of the New Covenant.…”)

So, brothers and sisters, when we come to the Divine Liturgy, far from simply fulfilling our weekly obligation to “go to church”, we are approaching God - the Lord of Sinai, of Golgotha, of Heaven and Earth - to renew our covenant with him: to be his people, walking in his ways, and for him to be our God.

And, lastly, we are thankful that the covenant is not dependent upon our faithfulness alone, as if we were sufficient by ourselves to keep it. Rather, like Moses appealing to the patriarchs - but in an infinitely greater way! - we appeal to God on the basis of Christ and his work of salvation for us:

Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious Coming, Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.

With love in Christ,

Fr John

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