Scriptures: Exodus 32:1-24
Written in Stone
(Based on Journey of Stones: A Sermon Series for Lent and Easter by Steven Molin)
In our Bible studies – both of them – we are going through a book called Written in Stone, and it deals with the Ten Commandments. We're studying the Commandments and how they impact our lives. They were, for the people of Israel, a set of laws that God Himself had created.
I've always wondered – it says that God did the workmanship, shaping the tablets, and apparently He was ecologically-minded, because He used both sides of the stones – but I wonder what God's handwriting looked like. We'll never know, because Moses smashed the tablets when he got down off the mountain, in his anger. Then he had to go back up and get another set.
Those tablets represented a covenant between God and His people. This covenant was a lot like a marriage covenant. God had made promises. And He had kept His promises. The people had made promises. They had said, “We'll wait. We know You're God. We'll wait while Moses goes up on the mountain. Go talk to God, Moses, and then tell us what He has to say.”
The people apparently were a little impatient, or they didn't mean it when they said it, because despite the thunder and lightning and fire and things that were on top of the mountain, after forty days they decided, “Let's do our own thing. Let's create gods.” They essentially tore that covenant up, that they had made with God. It's really no wonder that the stone tablets were shattered when Moses came down off the mountain.
It's amazing to me how quickly they gave up on Moses. He was called up to a high mountain to meet with God face to face, yes, but Moses was already a hero, having been used by God to bring the people of Israel out of slavery and into a land of their own. Now God was offering those same people a promise, a relationship that was so special that the people of Israel could only be called “chosen.”
God said, “If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, then you shall be my special treasure among all peoples. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” When Moses brought God's offer to the people of Israel, the people were ecstatic and they immediately agreed. “We'll do it,” they said, “everything the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.”
So Moses went back to the top of the mountain to seal the deal. It was not a kiss between lovers, like you see at the end of a wedding. It wasn't the applause of angels. It was contract time. And God's expectations were written in stone.
It's an interesting phrase, isn't it? Written in stone. We use that idiom still today to describe something that is secure and long-lasting, in fact, something that is to be permanent. That is exactly what God intended the Ten Commandments to be – a covenant that would last forever.
With His own hand, God cut the tablets. With His own fingers, God engraved the words. And God's love for His people was written in the stone.
But apparently the problem was that it took God forty days, and the people got restless. I want you to note that it was Aaron who had the bright idea to tell the people, “Quickly, take off your jewelry, your rings, your bracelets, your earrings. Let us make a golden calf, a god for us to worship that we can see and touch and believe in.” And so they did.
I note, on the side, that of course when Moses came back, what did Aaron say? “The people gave me this gold and silver and said they wanted something, and I threw it in the fire and out came the calf.” Yeah, sure...
So by the time Moses came down the mountain, a party was in progress. People were singing and dancing and drinking, and not playing ring-around-the-rosie, at an altar with a golden god upon it. When Moses smashed the tablets in his anger, it was not just a symbolic gesture. It was a sign that the covenant was ended. The deal was off.
In my mind's eye, I can see the people of Israel picking up small pieces of the tablets, maybe fragments of rocks, with thoughts of what might have been, holding these broken rocks in their hands, some of which still held the handwriting of God. It must have filled them with grief and guilt and shame. It wasn’t Moses who shattered the covenant, that much they knew. It was their own sinful, selfish lives, and the breaking of a promise which they had made to God.
This all happened over three thousand years ago, and three thousand years is a long, long time. Long enough to remove the guilt that accompanies a broken promise, and certainly long enough to relieve us from feeling responsible for others disobeying God. What were those foolish Israelites thinking, we might say. How could they be so blatantly and intentionally break God's laws?
But then the honest ones among us realize that we wouldn't have acted any differently than they did, because we break God's laws all the time, don't we? In our book Written in Stone, on of the things that was noted was that we can't break just one commandment. It's a guarantee that if you're breaking one, you're breaking more. All of them, ultimately, deal with stealing glory from God.
The Ten Commandments were not merely intended for the people of Israel around 1000 B.C. They were written in stone, remember? The laws of God are timeless, changeless expectations. But you and I so often choose to violate them, or ignore them, or rewrite them to fit our own circumstances, then we assume that God will look the other way. We frequently tell people, “Well, everybody is doing it.” We read in our Bible study today about a statistic that over half of people lie on their resumes. That's a lot of folks.
We're told by God that He alone wants to be our God. Author Leith Anderson suggests that everybody has a center of life. It is that thing which is most important to us, and it controls everything about us. If God is at our center, than that will be obvious by the way we live. But if our god is, say, wealth or power or popularity or our spouse or our children or our hobbies, then we have broken that which was written in stone.
We're told by God to honor our father and mother, and most of the time we do. But there are those times when we fail. “My old man says I have to mow the lawn.” “My mom thinks I'm at the library studying, but what she doesn't know won't hurt her.” “My parents are the stupidest people I know. Oh how I hate them.” I know a lot of teenagers feel that way. (Though I will also tell you, it's amazing how much smarter my dad got when I went through my twenties.) Once again, we have broken what was written in stone.
We're told by God we're not supposed to lie, and we say we agree. But a recent poll showed that 91% of Americans lie regularly, and only 31% believe that honesty is the best policy. Whenever we lie, whenever we fail to tell the truth, we have broken that which was written in stone.
We're told by God that we should not steal and we say we will obey. But even religious people fudge on their income tax forms and think nothing of it. The academic cheating has reached epidemic proportions on our campuses, and students don't see the problem. “No blood, no foul,” they say. And again, we have broken that which was written in stone.
We're told by God that we shouldn't commit adultery, and we think that's a good suggestion. But since 1960, there has been a 400% increase in illegitimate births in America. Ninety-five percent of couples married are sexually active before their wedding day. If you want to get technical, Jesus was quoted as saying, “Anyone who divorces his wife, and marries another, commits adultery.” Jesus also said, “Anyone who looks at a person with lust in his heart has already committed adultery.” It is written in stone, but apparently it just doesn't matter.
The issue here is not that we have broken the commandments, but rather that we have become broken people. We're guilty and ashamed of the things we have done and said. We have hurt others and hurt ourselves. Ultimately, we come to this realization: we need a Savior who will save us from ourselves.
The season of Lent is our time to ask God for forgiveness for our foolishness. It's a time when we should look at our lives in detail, and at our faith, to understand where we stand with God.
Tonight you hold in your hands pieces of stone. Notice that they're not smooth stones. The edges are somewhat sharp or jagged, as if … broken. We have a choice tonight, and will every Sunday through the season of Lent, as to what to do with these stones.
We can hang onto them as a painful reminder of our sin, and it will continue to make us bitter, broken people. Or we can let them go. We can lay them at the foot of the cross, and ask God to give us another chance. Before we leave this evening, I will invite you to leave your broken stone with Jesus Christ, and may we give thanks to God. Amen.