I don’t know about you, but I find change to be a bit scary. Whether that’s
starting a new job or moving to a new town. The Exodus was the beginning of
many new changes for the Israelites. They left their homes, taking with them only
what they could carry. They left Egypt, which is all they had known, to travel
to the Promised Land – the land of milk and honey; a land of hope. But it was a
land they had never seen before.
After fleeing Pharaoh’s army, and narrowly escaping with their lives when Moses
parted the Red Sea, they found themselves in the harsh and unforgiving desert.
They were free. But they didn’t know where their next meals would come from or
how they would manage the journey. Were there wild animals? Would roaming
marauders attack them? Would they run out of water crossing the desert?
Change can produce a lot of anxiety. We may know the goal, but often we don’t know the
particulars. Often, we can only discover them along the way. We step out on faith and take a risk. And while the first step may be difficult, it is often sustaining the journey that proves the most challenging. First come the decisions about what to take with you on the journey. Many movies depict people exiled, forced to leave their homes, not knowing what to expect.
The movie Empire of the Sun, follows the story of Jamie, a British boy living in
Shanghai just as the events of Pearl Harbor unfold, and fighting breaks out in
earnest between the Chinese and Japanese armies. As the Japanese occupy the
city, his family tries to get to escape to a safer location. Forced onto the
street, Jamie and his family struggle amidst the press of people trying to get
out of the city, holding tightly to one another’s hands so they won’t become
separated. As the Japanese fighter planes fly overhead, Jamie drops his most prized
possession, a small toy replica of a Japanese “Zero” fighter plane. As he bends
down to retrieve it, he pulls out of the grasp of his desperate mother. In a
heartrending scene, we see Jamie atop a car screaming for her as she is swept
away by the crowd.
The first question when things change is what do we take with us? What are our
prized possessions? Whether these are actual objects, ideas or ways of doing
things. The Israelites
. . . took their dough before it was leavened, with their kneading-bowls wrapped up in their cloaks on their shoulders. The Israelites had done as Moses told them; they had asked the Egyptians for jewelry of silver and gold, and for clothing, and the Lord had
given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them
have what they asked. And so they plundered the Egyptians.
The Israelites journeyed from Ramses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. (Ex 12:33-39)
Sometimes, change come upon us quickly, as in the Exodus, where there was not even enough time to leaven the bread before hastily leaving, or the beginning of the movie
with the panic to get out of Shanghai. Other times it comes more slowly.
After Jamie is separated from his mother, he returns to their home in a wealthy suburb; following her last yelled instruction. But he finds the house empty. At first it seems fun, every child’s fantasy of how life would be without adults. At one point we even see him riding his bicycle down the hallway and through the dining room. But little by little the food begins to run out, the water has been turned off and he is forced to go into the city. As the story progresses, Jamie eventually ends up in a Japanese Internment camp.
In addition to the things we bring with us on the journey of change, there are also the things we acquire or make. When he first arrives at the internment camp, Jamie (now dubbed Jim) is captivated by the actual planes that his small toy replicates. As he approaches one of them, he is nearly shot by a soldier – until several Japanese pilots come upon him reverently running his hands along the fuselage of the plane. As the perplexed soldier watches, Jim salutes the pilots. The pilots solemnly return his salute, giving
him his next prized possession, one of their bomber jackets.
A short time later, having adjusted somewhat to his new surroundings, we see Jim with a suitcase. It is full of the objects he has acquired, traded for, or robbed from the dead in the camp – including pictures from a Time magazine, a pair of aviator glasses, and a pair of golf shoes inherited after the death of one of the men in the hospital. These things make him feel more at home, and give him identity.
The Israelites, too, wanted to feel secure and comforted. They were in a strange
land, and Moses, their leader, had been gone for 40 days. When the people saw that Moses
delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and
said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ (Ex. 32:1-4)
Anthony B. Robinson in his blog writes,
There are two thrusts to this wonderful text. First, is a story of anxiety. The people grow anxious when Moses is gone for a long time. They want something to fill the emptiness, to ease their pain. And Aaron caves, agreeing to their foolishness. Maybe Aaron even said, “but the people were so uncomfortable; I had to do something!”
And that something is, of course, making the golden calf, as the “new gods” that
the Israelites can see and touch. He goes on to say, “Anxiety is rife in our culture and in our church. We grab onto gods/ idols we create and can control. In the church, it is often church buildings, or “the way we’ve always done things,” or the Sunday schedule.”
Dave Perry notes,
There is something deeply human about trusting in what we can see, touch and comprehend. In these matters of trustworthiness, reliability is prized and to be dependable is a real asset. Small wonder then that the people of God craved regular and tangible signs and reminders of the divine presence; because these were what they felt they needed in order to keep them on track. Their plea to Aaron in Exodus 32 could not be clearer: “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” The fickle and fraught nature of their attachment issues blights their faith/ and their sense of God’s presence is in fact more accurately described as an abiding fear and suspicion of God’s absence. The fact that God has led them out of Egypt and taken them from the ‘there’ of servitude to the ‘here’ of freedom doesn’t [seem to matter much]. A golden calf they can see and touch: God they cannot. And Moses is nowhere to be seen either.
He concludes by pointing out,
That these raw feelings are narrated in such an up-front way is a sure sign that there is a vital object lesson being communicated here: faith demands a different sort of perception of presence and a more demanding basis for trust. That both God and Moses are apparently elusive at this point drives the people to a basic state of need in which they revert to what they know will bring temporary comfort. . . .
In so doing they ignore the fact that these symbols and behaviors are powerless to set them free and are in fact more reminders of captivity than agents of liberation. In the absence of tangible and reliable reassurance that God is real, and is always present with them, they default to what actually amounts to a de facto state of non-faith and reliance on idols. And how contemporary that sounds!
If change engenders what we bring with us and what we acquire, it also illustrates what we lay down as too heavy a burden to carry any farther, or as no longer necessary.
As the war nears an end, food for the prisoners is scarce. The Americans bomb the camp, and the British prisoners are marched to another area. They are told that they can bring one suitcase. The camera cuts to the parched countryside; the road the prisoners walk along is littered with their belongings, shiny objects, discarded as the journey grew longer and more tiring. Eventually, Jim throws his own suitcase of possessions into the river they’re walking past. Only the bomber jacket and golf shoes remain. The Israelites try and cope with the insecurity and anxiety caused by their changes.
When they begin to worry that Moses is not coming back or that God has abandoned
them, they revert to solutions they might have believed before God brought them out of slavery: Appealing to any and every god; and breaking the covenant they had so recently promised to obey.
Barry J. Robinson points out, “This deliberate action to make a golden calf out of
the people’s Egyptian gold, the status symbol of their deliverance, was a fundamental act of disloyalty to the God who had delivered them.” Their need for security leads them to break the commandments. They forget that they are free – and freed to rely on God’s providence, mercy and love.
When we face changes (whether in our lives, or in the life and structure of the church), what valued treasures will we bring with us? What gifts and skills will we pick up along the way? What things will we honor as having been useful, but lay down as something that is no longer needed? How will we face the disorientation of walking through a new landscape that accompanies all change?
God is steadfast in God’s limitless mercy and grace. We need not cling to our versions of the golden calf. We are reminded of God’s covenantal love in the reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi.
The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus Christ. (Phil. 4:5b-7)