Sunday, February 26, 2006
Exodus 34: 1-11
Anxiety is about control. Anxiety is about feeling like you cannot control the world around you, or perhaps your own life. It’s about control. We see it here in the story from the book of Exodus of the Israelites in the wilderness, the story of the Israelites and the golden calf. The Israelites had reacted in two ways to the anxiety of being in the wilderness and feeling vulnerable and not in control of their world, their environment or their lives.
First of all, they reacted to that anxiety by making a golden calf and naming it “Yahweh,” the name that Moses had taught them to call God. The golden calf is a god that you can always find when you need one. It will always be where you last left it. It will always be available, not like Moses’ God, Yahweh, who apparently can disappear for forty days at a time up in the mountains somewhere. The golden calf is a god you can control. Every fundamentalism, every attempt to reify or objectify or harden God comes from a desire to have a god whom we can define and, therefore, control. Every fundamentalism is an effort to try to tell God what God has to be like, what God is supposed to do every time, what God thinks. Every fundamentalism is a golden calf, a god whom we can keep and control.
Now one of the lessons that the Israelites learned in the wilderness of anxiety is that God does not react well to efforts to control God, not Yahweh, not the God of all creation, the God of freedom. Yahweh God is uncontrollable. Yahweh is free. Yahweh will not live in the houses we build for God. Yahweh will not follow the scripts that we write for what God ought to do. Yahweh will not react in the way that we tell God he ought to act. Yahweh is a free God. Yahweh will not allow us to control God.
When we are feeling out of control, when we feel that the world is undependable to us and we become anxious, we all tend toward fundamentalism because we want a god who will make the world safe and predictable for us. But Yahweh is never safe or predictable.
So, when the Israelites in the wilderness discovered that they couldn’t control God, they tried to deal with their anxiety another way. They dealt with their anxiety by becoming what the Book of Exodus called “stiff-necked” – stiff-necked, stubborn, intractable, counter-dependent. The way this works is that if I can’t control God, if I can’t control the world, if I can’t control you, at least I can keep you from controlling me, and thus feel less vulnerable and anxious.
Almost every parent who has raised a teenager has experienced this. What parent of a teenager hasn’t heard the words: “You can’t make me! You can’t make me do that!”? When I would lay out an expectation for one of my teenage children, especially one of my daughters, and they would object, and we would talk about it, and finally I would say, “Well, sweetheart, that is just the way it’s going to be.” And one of them particularly would answer, “You can’t make me.” In my best preacher’s, pastoral tone, I would say: “Yes, sweetheart. The poet Gibran said: ‘You children are not your children. Though they are with you, they do not belong to you.’ Sweetheart, you do not belong to me. But I would like to point out that that television does belong to me. And that telephone does belong to me. Until I give it to you, your allowance does belong to me. If you want access to any of those things this coming month, you will be home by 11:00 p.m. tonight.” Fortunately, my daughter had a sense of humor.
Anxiety comes from a sense that we are vulnerable and not in control of our own circumstances and destiny. The two things, the two ways that the Israelites and all of us tend to respond is to try to turn God into a god whom we can manipulate and control and get the world to be the way we want the world to be, to try and make God into a golden calf, to reify God. The other option is to become stiff-necked, to close in on ourselves, to become defiant of God and others to prove, at least, that we will be in control of what we can control, to become rigid and out of relationship.
In either case, we become slaves again. We become slaves either to the god that we have made or we become slaves to our own need to be in control over against others. Anxiety is about control.
But the golden calf story in the Book of Exodus offers us a third way of responding to anxiety. We see it in the lesson for this morning. The third way of responding to anxiety is to allow anxiety to transform us. It might be better to say to allow God to use anxiety in order to transform us.
The golden calf interlude in the Book of Exodus, chapters 32, 33 and 34, ends with this account of Moses praying to God. In Exodus 34:9, Moses prays: “Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our sin and take us for your inheritance.” Moses’ prayer in the midst of this anxious situation is to God: “take us for your inheritance.”
It is a funny expression if you try to understand it. What sense does it make to think of God inheriting something, inheriting a people? It is a verse of scripture that is often translated in different ways by translators because it doesn’t seem to make sense on the surface of things. So, sometimes you will find a translation that looks at this and says “inheritance” doesn’t really make sense. They must have meant something else. Inheritance is something you have, so they translate Moses’ prayer as “…take us for your possession.”
But the good translators look back at the Hebrew word and say that no matter how hard we try, it doesn’t say anything else but “inheritance.” It means inheritance. Moses’ prayer in this anxious situation to God is “…take us as your inheritance.” This is the point: in order for there to be an inheritance that someone receives, someone needs to die. The very point of this prayer is that we can become God’s inheritance when we die to self, when we die to the need to control God, to control our world around us, to control everyone around us. Then we can die and become God’s inheritance, that is, we can come into relationship with God.
Anxiety, if we allow it to transform us, can take us away from the need to control to the possibility of being in relationship. The only way through the wilderness of anxiety was for the Israelites to die to self, to die to the need to control the world and others and God so that they could come into relationship with God and the world and others.
suspect the war in
the war in
Christian churches have done almost nothing to be in relationship with the
Muslim people of the
you’re not in relationship with people and they make you anxious and they threaten
you, the impulse is to try to figure out how to control them. But you cannot
control God, or the world, or others. The only way that we can move through
that wilderness of anxiety is to learn to die to our need to control and to
become an inheritance to one another, to belong to one another, to be in
relationship with one another. I think that is what we are going to painfully and costily learn from our experience in
We can’t control God. We can’t control others. We can’t control our children. We can’t control our partners and spouses. But we can be in relationship. Relationship becomes a possibility when we die to self, to the need to control what we cannot control.
You and I cannot control whether someone else treats us badly or not. But we can control the way we choose to treat others no matter what. You and I cannot control whether someone is going to decide for some reason to hate us. But we can control whether or not we are going to be hateful people ourselves. You and I cannot control our fortune and our lives in the world. But we can control whether we are going to be sad and blaming of others or whether we are going to choose joy for our lives. You and I cannot really very much control our success or failure in different aspects of our lives. But we can control our integrity and how we choose to live in the midst of either success or failure.
But it takes a dying to do this. It takes a dying to self. It takes a dying to the need to control the world, a willingness to live through anxiety and into relationship.
I have a friend who went through an awful, awful experience in life a couple of years ago. He lost his title. He lost his position. He lost his job. He lost his status. He lost the future he thought he was going to have in life. He lost some very important relationships in his life for some pretty unfair reasons. In the midst of it all, he told me one day that he had gotten about as low as any human being could go.
suddenly one day, everything seemed to change for him. He stopped being
anxious. He stopped trying to control the people around him and the situation
around him. He started saying to himself: “Well, whatever happens next, I’ll
bet it will be interesting. I’ll bet it will be interesting.”
We cannot control God. We can’t control our world. We can’t control much but our own attitudes and behaviors. But we can choose to die to self and choose to reach out to others.
This is the story of the Israelites in the wilderness and their anxiety, dying to self so that we might belong to one another. It is also the story of Jesus Christ that we prepare to hear anew in this season of Lent ahead of us.