When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods[a] who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
2 Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods,[b] Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.” 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’
By God’s mighty power Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt, where they had been slaves for 430 years. From the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, they headed through the desert to Mt. Horeb (Sinai) where God earlier had commissioned Moses, speaking from a burning bush. In the third month since leaving Egypt, they arrived at Horeb. There they stopped, and for forty days Moses was on the mountain receiving the Law from God. God gave him the moral law (ten commandments), the civil law (how to govern the people) and the ceremonial law (their new religion with all of its feasts and festivals).
But the people grew impatient when Moses stayed so long on the mountain. They wondered if something had happened to him, or if he had returned to Egypt, or if he had left them for some other destination.
So the people gave up on Moses and they demanded that Aaron, Moses’ brother, take the lead and make for them a new god that they could worship. Inexplicably, Aaron too got caught up in furor and he told the Israelites to collect all their gold jewelry. From that gold Aaron formed a golden calf (that gives you an idea of the immense number of people that came out of Egypt with Moses). The people quickly adopted the calf as their new god and planned a festival for the next day. To the calf they attributed all the mighty works of God which had freed them from the Egyptians: the ten plagues, the dividing of the Red Sea, the miraculous gifts of water and manna. “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.”
Moses came down from the mountain and was met with the sounds of the people partying and singing around their new golden god. God punished the people with a plague, and the faithful Levites slew many of the rebels with the sword.
40 days was all it took for the Israelites to forget Moses, forget the Exodus, and forget God. Moses was on the mountain, receiving the tablets of the law of God. He was not there on the plain to preach to them, to exhort them, to admonish them, or to encourage them with the Word of God. Aaron, or Miriam, or one of the elders might have taken up that work. If so, the people paid no attention. They neglected the Word of God for forty days, and they suffered the awful consequences.
How long can you neglect the Word of God, preaching, and teaching before you suffer the negative effects? Forty days? Thirty? Ten? How long can you be absent from God’s Word before you turn from God to fill your life with other pursuits?
The Israelites didn’t have a written Bible. They couldn’t sit in their tents for morning devotions using a Bible or a Meditations devotional book. They were dependent on a prophet who had God’s Word deeply planted in his heart and mind. Without the prophet present, they could not receive or hear the Word of God. No wonder they fell so quickly.
We are so blessed compared to those Israelites. Bibles are cheap and easily acquired. Meditations and devotional writings are distributed freely. The Bible is found on the internet or on an app on your smartphone. We have God’s Word at our fingertips any time of the day or night. We still need the guidance, admonition, and encouragement of well-grounded pastors and teachers and professors. God wants us to gather in our churches and together hear the Gospel, witness the Gospel in Baptism, and receive forgiveness and strength in the Lord’s Supper. In this time of pandemic, God has blessed us with the ability to record our worship services and supply them to the people via the internet. We provide safe, private Communion for those who feel they are not ready to rejoin the public service at church. Through these means of delivering the Gospel to you, God will keep you strong in the faith. How blest we are over the tribes of Israel, though we are tempted to see it the other way around. We think of how the Israelites witnessed with their own eyes the ten plagues on Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, God’s protection through the wilderness, the bread from heaven, the water from a rock. “Wow!” we think, “I wish I could have been alive to see all that back then.” But we are more blessed. We have the finished cross- the salvation accomplished by God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We have His Gospel in our hands, hearts, and heads. We have His Supper containing the very things he sacrificed to pay for our redemption.
Yet forty days away from God’s blessings, you might just start to forget. Your hunger and thirst for God’s Word might just start to switch to a hunger and thirst for something else. Stay with the Lord, who comes to you through His Word and Sacrament, and He will empower you to remain faithful until you reach the Promised Land.