Grasping God’s Purpose: “Taking the Wrong Turn” – Ex. 20:18-21 and 32

“It happened before I even knew what was happening!” She said. I set my GPS to take my friend to the Port of Canaveral, and we left Sebring with no problem. We had a great trip, and I followed the GPS directions religiously. To come home, I set the GPS for HOME, and off I went. I forgot a simple detail – I have two homes – one up north and the other in Sebring. Without thinking, I was halfway to Jacksonville heading for the Virginia home when I realized I was going the wrong way! I had taken a wrong turn!” Did you ever do that in your car? Did you ever take a wrong turn and drive confidently, because you THOUGHT you were going in the right direction, but you were going AWAY from your intended destination?  Did you ever do that in LIFE?… That is, take a wrong turn, but do it with the confidence of someone who KNEW WHICH WAY to go!? Many of us would have to admit that we have on more than one occasion. How does it happen? How can I recognize it when I have done it? What can I do about the wrong turn? These are the questions that are at the heart of the story we want to explore today. It is a snapshot from the desert – a time when God’s people took a terrible wrong turn, and people were wounded, and some died.

Key Principle: We take a wrong turn whenever we forget God’s PERSON and God’s PURPOSE in our lives.

When we walk away from God, it is not usually to rebel, it is because we have been lulled into forgetfulness. We have forgotten Who He is, and we have forgotten WHOSE we are. I have long held close to me this quote from Dietrich Bonhoffer In his little book “Temptation”:

In our members there is a slumbering inclination towards desire which is both sudden and fierce. With irresistible power desires seize mastery over the flesh. All at once a secret smoldering fire is kindled. The flesh burns and is in flames. It makes no difference if it is sexual desire, ambition, vanity, love of fame, power, or money. Joy of God is extinguished in us, and we seek all our joy in the creature. At this moment God is quite unreal to us. He looses all reality and only desire for the creature is real. Satan does not here fill us with hatred of God, but with forgetfulness of God. I don’t hate God when I lust, I simply forget Him. I forget He is holy, I forget He is jealous for His name. I forget that my reputation is not at stake, it is HIS that is at stake.

The lust thus aroused envelopes the mind and the will in deepest darkness. Clear discrimination and decision are taken from us. At that moment we are altogether indecisive and indiscriminate. A woman can lust for a man not even knowing his name. A man can lust for a woman not even knowing what her face looks like or anything about her character. He can be aroused without even speaking to her.”

Anyone who has known me for a while has heard this quote before. I use it in my own life often. It jogs my memory and crystallizes moments in my walk with God. It forces me to think about what I really want in the big picture of life. It forces me to think back in my life to times when my walk was vibrant and other times when I allowed my heart to slip away from its grasp on reality and slide into forgetfulness – times when I allowed temptation to pull on my heart and allow me to rationalize rebellion and sin.

I first picked up on this exercise years ago, while studying the passage we will look at today. I noticed how different the crowd of Israelites were at the mountain, from the same group a mere month later – a “before” and “after” if you will. I then learned to use that comparison in my own life. Let’s take a look and see if it is helpful to you too:

Before: When the people saw God at work, they stood in fear before Him (20:18-21).

Israel stood before the mountain of God. He set them free with ten plagues on Egypt. He led them through the parted sea. He fed them quail and turned on a hose inside a rock to fill their canteens in the desert. He directed them with His own presence – seen in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He drew Moses up the mountain… while the people stood below. They knew the presence of God. They saw the power of God. They felt the very breath of God surging from the Holy Mountain. Look at the scene:

Exodus 20:18 All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance. 19 Then they said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may remain with you, so that you may not sin.” 21 So the people stood at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was.

The people PERCEIVED sight and sound, and at that time they TREMBLED (Hebrew: “nua”: quivered) and STOOD BACK (Heb: rachoq: at a distance). Moses’ reaction to the people’s obvious consternation was “DO NOT FEAR!” Then Moses gave the KEY to defeating temptation. Moses said “God did this to CAUSE THE FEAR OF HIM TO REMAIN IN YOU.” God knew if they recalled His power and His presence –they would not stray. What a treasure is found here!

  • When I remember WHO God is – I stand in awe of Him.
  • When I recall what He has done to rescue me – I walk in obedience to Him.
  • When I recognize He is personally watching me – I act to delight His heart!

After: Time passed (40 days) and the process of forgetfulness played out (32:1-35).

Let a month pass by… then five weeks…then move toward six. Turn down the sound and light show of Horeb. In fact, even if it continued, the familiarity of the whole thing would make what was profound the first day start to seem… normal. The people stopped listening and stopped shaking. Now they were just BORED and disturbed that God was taking so long to get them to the Promised Land.

Moses may have been experiencing God, but they were FORGETTING GOD. They stood right there in the Church of the Holy Mountain – but they had seen the service too many times before to feel like it really meant much. In fact, if you really think about their past ninety days they saw many of the most powerful miracles that would ever be shown to a generation – but they quickly got over amazement and fell into temptation’s grip. Watch them in Exodus 32.

Exodus 32:1 Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2 Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3 Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” 5 Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” 6 So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.

What happened to the people between TREMBLING and SINNING? The ground between those two places is important to survey – because we will face it this week! The first few verses give us the seven mistakes the people made on their way to rebellion. Look at the opening verse again:

Exodus 32:1 Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

1)     The People made a choice based on Wrong Conclusions: The people followed what they saw (32:1a). They trusted their EYES and we must know this truth — You can’t always believe your eyes! This reminds me of  Eve, who was tempted to commit the first sin we find God’s description of the event. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate.” (Gen. 3:6 NKJV).

One of the popular advertisements on television is the bowflex conditioning machine. They always appeal to you through your eyes. I am thinking of two of their commercials. In one they show a muscular man who has bulging muscles. In another they show this great looking “fifty year old grand-mother” who looks like a swim-suit model. Who, in their right mind, would not want to look like those two people?

We need to be reminded that our eyes will lead us astray. Our eyes will rob us of truth, because they cannot see the REAL WORLD which is eternal, only the TEMPORAL WORLD which is EPHEMORAL. A.W. Tozer in I Talk Back to the Devil said “you can take two small ten-cent pieces, just two dimes, and shut out the view of a panoramic landscape. Go to the mountains and just hold two coins closely in front of your eyes–the mountains are still there, but you cannot see them at all because there is a dime shutting off the vision in each eye.” (Contributed to Sermon Central by: Troy Borst).

Remember that much exists in this world that your eye cannot see.Don’t be fooled into thinking that you can see what is really important with your physical eyes. Beautiful bodies may embody dark and dangerous hearts. Even in this world – it is only with a tool the eye can see a single cell. It is only with a machine the eye can see the inner working parts of the body. It is only with the aid of the Lord, the eye can see the spiritual forces at work. Our eyes are fine, but they can’t see most things that are going on! Don’t trust them!!! The people didn’t see Moses, so they were ready to write Him off! Remember: DELAY DOESN’T MEAN DENIAL! (Abraham learned the hard way!)

2)     The People made a choice with the Wrong Focus: The people were focused on a man and had forgotten God (32:1b). WHEN WE STOP SERVING GOD, IT WILL NOT BE TOO LONG BEFORE WE CHOOSE TO SERVE SOMEONE OR SOMETHING OTHER THAN GOD.

Duped into believing (if temporarily) that the power lay in the person of Moses, they forgot the thunder at the mountain. They forgot the wind that blew the sea, but remembered the staff and the guy holding it! Ironically, the opening chapters of Exodus reveal a timid man that does not believe in himself!

3)     The People made a choice with the Wrong Moral Standard: The people judged “right” by the insecure crowd, not the revealed covenant of God (32:1b). Next, we read the phrase “we don’t know”. That phrase reflects an insecurity in the voices of the people. IT IS IMPORTANT TO DETERMINE WHERE THE CROWD IS GOING BEFORE WE DETERMINE WHETHER WE WANT TO FOLLOW THE CROWD!

I read about a three year old girl who was frightened by a burst of thunder. She called out to her mother “mommy, I’m scared”. Her sleepy mother responded by saying, “Go back to your bed. God will be there with you.” The little girl stopped at the doorway, turned and said, “Mommy, why don’t I sleep here with Daddy, and you go in there with God.”

Insecurity often drives people to make foolish decisions. The athlete that is unsure about his strength or ability may turn to steroids. An insecure teenager may turn to permissive sex or drugs to pacify their friends. An unbelieving adult may withhold his giving because he does not think he can afford to give. A lady who is insecure may dress in improper clothing to get men’s attention.

4)     The people chose to follow the Wrong Leader: The people chose a leader that would tell them what they wanted to hear (32:1b).

A lot of people will tell you what you want to hear. There was a young man in his early 30’s who was single and was beginning to get worried about it so he went to a local church and met an attractive young lady. He went up to her and struck up a conversation with her. They chatted about everything under the sun for a while until he got up the nerve to ask her what kind of men she liked. She replied, “I have always been attracted to native Americans for their survival instincts and Jewish men for their moxie and practicality. But I have really enjoy cowboys for their rugged individualism.” Then she said, “By the way what is your name?” Thinking quick he replied, “Well my given name is Geronimo Bernstein but my friends call me Tex.” Everyone wants to make a good impression on other people.

A church in Pensacola advertised a 30 minute worship service. They promised to get you in and out fast. They promised convenience. We need to be reminded that faithfully following Jesus Christ is not always easy, convenient or comfortable. Yesterday I was reading in Revelation about the thousands of people who have been and will be martyred for their faith. If you think faith is supposed to be convenient, comfortable and something you can control then God owes martyrs an apology for all the suffering they experienced.

5)     The decided to follow the Wrong God: The people looked to fashion a god of their own making and will (32:1b). Every choice you make is important. I did a bit of reading on “making good choices” this week and discovered these jewels:

A wife found a list on her husband’s desk one fall. It was entitled: THINGS TO DO BEFORE WINTER SETS IN…

  1. Install Franklin fireplace & Chop firewood.
  2. Check weather-stripping & clean furnace.
  3. Clean and repair snow blower & Replace broken storm window.
  4. Get out of Wisconsin.

If that didn’t get you to smile (especially those reading in Wisconsin).. try this: Getting guys to choose the right benefits in the military is a tricky job, but one guy figured out a way to motivate men to choose well. You see, this sergeant served his tour of duty and was reassigned to a stateside induction center. It was his job to advise the new recruits about government benefits, especially GI insurance. Soon he had a nearly 100% insurance sales record. His officers were amazed. To find out how he did it, an officer stood in the back of the room one day and listened to the sales pitch. The sergeant explained the basics of GI insurance to the new recruits, and then said, If you HAVE GI insurance, and go into battle and are killed, the government has to pay $35,000 to your beneficiaries. If you DON’T have GI insurance and go into battle and are killed, the government has to pay only a maximum of $3,000. Now, he concluded, which bunch do you think they’re going to send into battle first?

Choices are important. Yet using choices to shape truth is never a good thing. God is who God is. Trying to reshape Him or His Word is a mistake many people make.

This thing of building a faith based on comfort, convenience and control is reflected in our convictions and beliefs. J. P. Moreland, in Apologetic Reasoning and the Christian Mind: “One afternoon I was sharing the gospel in a student’s dorm room at the University of Vermont. The student began to espouse ethical relativism: ‘Whatever is true for you is true for you and whatever is true for me is true for me. . . . But no one should force his or her views on other people since everything is relative.’” Moreland says, “I knew that if I allowed him to get away with ethical relativism, there could be for him no such thing as real, objective sin measured against the objective moral command of God, and thus no need of a Savior. I thanked the student for his time and began to leave his room. On the way out, I picked up his small stereo and started out the door with it. ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ he shouted. . . . ‘I am leaving your room with your stereo.’ ‘You can’t do that,’ he gushed.” But Moreland said, “I happen to think it is permissible to steal stereos if it will help a person’s religious devotions, and I myself could use a stereo to listen to Christian music in my morning devotions. Now I would never try to force you to accept my moral beliefs in this regard because, as you said, everything is relative and we shouldn’t force our ideas on others. But surely you aren’t going to force on me your belief that it is wrong to steal your stereo, are you?” Moreland looked at him and continued: “You know what I think? I think that you espouse relativism in areas of your life where it’s convenient , say in sexual morality, or in areas about which you do not care, but when it comes to someone stealing your stereo or criticizing your own moral hobbyhorses, I suspect that you become a moral absolutist pretty quickly, don’t you?” The story has a happy ending, for Moreland says, “Believe it or not, the student honestly saw the inconsistency of his behavior and, a few weeks later, I was able to lead him to Jesus Christ.

Some people want a faith that only requires one hour a week. Some people want a faith that does not require them to give any of their money. Some people want a faith that does not require them to change their behavior.  Some people want a faith that does not require them to do anything but come and sit on Sunday.

Notice the use of the plural personal pronoun “us“. Notice what the people said “make us gods who will go before us”; “this fellow Moses who brought us”; “These are your gods”. (NIV) These people wanted a comfortable, convenient god they could control because they were self focused. Many people want a faith that caters to them.

6)     They had Wrong Stewardship: The people made their god from things they stole from God’s goodness! (32:2a). They took God’s blessings, and surrendered them to a pile for religion.

7)     They offered the Wrong Example: The people got all their families involved in the defilement (32:2b).

What happened when they FORGOT GOD? What were the consequences?

Their choices led to a series of the wrong outcomes (look at verses 6). “Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” (NKJV) Notice the outcome as recorded in our text.

  1. The first wrong outcome was empty worship. Aaron “built an altar in front of the calf” (vs. 5 NKJV). Their worship was cold, dead and lifeless. They put the time in, they built the buildings, paved the lots, had the covered dish dinners, but it was all empty. It didn’t work in real life. Listen, God created you and I to have a meaningful relationship with Him. He wants to be in the center of your life, not on the edge. He wants you to find your fulfillment in Him. Idol worship is an empty ritual.

That may be true of much of our worship. Gordon Dahl said, “Most middle-class Americans tend to worship their work, work at their play, and play at their worship.”

2. The second wrong outcome was an inappropriate lifestyle (vs. 6). True worship of God should be a life changing experience. In our text we are told the people could hardly wait until their worship was over so that they could start the party. This was a common theme in the Bible:

a. Amos faced it. “When will the new moon be over, so that we may sell grain, And the Sabbath, that we may trade our wheat? Making the ephah small and the shekel large, falsifying the balances by deceit, that we may buy the poor for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals even sell the bad wheat?’’ Amos 8:5-6 NKJV

b. Jeremiah faced it. “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and walk after other gods whom you do not know, and then come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, and say, `We are delivered to do all these abominations’? Jer. 7:9-10 NKJV

3.     A third outcome was surrendering to a lie (32:8). “This is your god!” They cried. But it wasn’t true. They cried louder and louder and sang to each other, but the song (32:18b) was empty! They knew in their hearts it wasn’t true.

Exodus 32:7 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, “Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8 “They have quickly turned aside from the way which I commanded them. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and have sacrificed to it and said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’”

4. A final outcome was they stood in the path of the judgment of God (32:9,10). Had it not been for a mediator, Moses (32:12-14), the people would have been crushed.

32:9 The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, they are an obstinate people. 10 “Now then let Me alone, that My anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them; and I will make of you a great nation.” 11 Then Moses entreated the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does Your anger burn against Your people whom You have brought out from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 “Why should the Egyptians speak, saying, ‘With evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to destroy them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your burning anger and change Your mind about doing harm to Your people. 13 “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants to whom You swore by Yourself, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of the heavens, and all this land of which I have spoken I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”

People who had experienced the most profound outward display of God defected from walking with Him for one reason – they forgot God. They forgot WHO God is and WHOSE they were. For it they paid the price that anyone will pay if they don’t take God seriously. He is not vengeful, and He is not angry – but He is Holy and Just. Would it be right for us to ignore His Word, replace His person in our hearts with another, and still act as though we were OK?

If we forget Who God is, and what He wants to be in our lives, we lose our way completely!