Dealing with Delay and Uncertainty (Exodus 32:1)
A lot of people in Uvalde, Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere are reasonably wondering what God is up to right now. Whether it's now or later, big or small, personal, communal, or global, we all encounter times where we wonder what God is up to, why Jesus is delayed in coming, what is really true, and if waiting through this delay and uncertainty will be worth it.
The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, but God sent Moses to lead them out through the Red Sea and the wilderness to himself at Mount Sinai. While Israel was at the foot of the mountain, God came down in fire and smoke and he spoke to the people with his thundering voice. But they were afraid and told Moses to speak to God on the mountain for them. While Moses was on the mountain, God explained plans to build the tabernacle. Adam and Eve had been exiled from God’s garden sanctuary in Eden thousands of years before, but now God was telling Moses how to build a copy of his heavenly throne so he could dwell with his people again. Other ancient peoples desperately used their own imaginations to recreate garden-mountain-temples for their idols, but God was giving Israel plans to copy the real thing.
But this took forty days and forty nights. So, while Moses was delayed because he was receiving these spectacular plans, the people were growing impatient over this seemingly meaningless wait.
“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods 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.” (Exodus 32:1 ESV)
From here Aaron asks the people for gold, forms a golden calf, the people declare the golden calf to be the elohim — the gods — who led them out of Israel, and then they party in honor of “Yahweh” who they may believe is represented by this golden calf.
Why did they do this? Exodus says that they (1) “saw that Moses delayed” and (2) did “not know what” had become of Moses. Do you see what’s funny about their logic? They say they don’t know, and yet they do something massive as if they knew. They filled in the gap.
I think on our best days we recognize a delay is a delay and a lack of knowledge is a lack of knowledge. But Israel shows us precisely what this uncertainty looks like on our worst days. When Israel said “Moses is delayed” and “We do not know what has become of him” they didn’t really mean it, not really; they meant “we choose to not live with uncertainty, Moses isn’t coming back.” “We don’t know” really means “We know.” Their pride broke them — insisting that they must know what God is up to.
Haven’t we all been haunted by that unbelieving demon? Uncertainty about God’s activity? It can lead to “certainty” that he is inactive. “He has not answered” can become “He will never answer.” “How could he let that happen?” can become, “He didn’t let it happen because he isn’t around anymore.” And like the Israelites, we won’t bring serious evidence or data to the table to engage wise people in a discussion. No: on our worst day we’ll follow what we feel in our guts is the grown-up conclusion.
Gaps in our knowledge about God, truth, the past, current happenings, and the future are reality. But Satan wants us to fill the uncertain gap with the certain proposal that Jehovah is a dubious God to trust: you’re standing on make believe ground. We all say “I don’t know,” but next time we say it faithlessly, let’s ask ourselves: do we mean it — that we don’t know? Or are we saying we can’t bear to not know? is this an excuse to make ourselves god? to do what is right in our own eyes? I have heard a saying somewhere that many in government see crisis as the excuse they were waiting for to seize extra power. “You need us to take control.” We may all be like governments. Crises can be opportunities for growth, but they can also be opportunities to declare that we need more concrete answers and power around here.
But it’s the age old journey of faith to keep going not knowing.
“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8 ESV)
Abraham went out not even knowing where he was going. And once he arrived, it turned out the land was populated by other powerful nations and giants, so he set up a tent because he didn’t know when he would have the land. One night Abraham asked — likely exasperated — “God, how can I know I will possess the land?” But at some point, if I understand Hebrews 11, it appears that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob came to see that they weren’t really looking for a city that would arise from man or from the earth, but a city built by God that would come down from heaven. And don’t we often forget about those two factors? God — the one who made everything from nothing. Heaven — the enchanted realm of God and of all manner of spiritual beings with spiritual powers that that even Disney can’t match. Do we forget to account for God and for the magical place from which all blessings flow?
Side note: this is why our world has Disney. It’s because we cannot bear our modern loss of enchantment — our loss of this sense of the “magic” of God’s presence and of heaven’s nearness. We are haunted by the cold spiritual emptiness of our world. We tell magical stories of enchanted worlds with heavenly music and stunning beauty so that — even if just for a few moments — we can make believe that the world is enchanted. It feels infantile to believe in God and heaven, it feels grown up to move on; but Disney’s success is evidence of how depressed our world is without heaven. Our amazement with the vast Marvel Multiverse and the expansive Star Wars Galaxy is evidence of how we also feel very suffocated — our ancestors used to look up and see the heavens as full of spiritual life, mystery, wonder, and possibilities; but we’ve probed them with our drones and found that: no, we’ve seen all that is and we’re alone spinning through cold, dark, lifeless space. And so, it ultimately feels more grown up to just rely on what we can rationally see, weigh, measure, prove, and to move on from God and heaven.
That was Israel’s “grown up” move. They constructed a god they could see and touch: a grass-eating ox. Moses was delayed because God was preparing a place where he and Israel could dwell together. But God responded to Israel’s idolatry by ending the tabernacle project and withdrawing his presence from them until Moses begged and God relented. They nearly sealed their fate to live without God and heaven because their doubt became a demand that God and Moses show up now.
Until the final day we are an expectant, waiting, hoping people dealing with the delay and uncertainty of how and when God and heaven will intervene. Hope is waiting on a miracle we don’t yet see. Noah waited, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph waited. And as Moses ascended up the mountain and delayed to come back down with the tabernacle plans, our Lord has ascended into heaven and it feels like he has delayed to come back down with the holy place he has prepared for us. Peter warned us, didn’t he, that people would start mocking, “Where is the promise of his coming?”
How Can We Deal with Delay and Uncertainty?
In July we’ll delve into habits and rituals that can keep us grounded and committed. But until then, How can we intellectually, mentally bear with this uncertainty about God, his plans, truth, reality?
1. See that we are the church in the wilderness. One of the most significant perspectives offered by Hebrews is a vision of who, where, and when we are. He tells us to “hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (3:6) and then he compares us to Israel who failed to do that in the wilderness. And by the end of the book this picture becomes clear: we are Israel in a different wilderness living at the foot of the heavenly Jerusalem (not Mt. Sinai) waiting for the coming of the heavenly promised land.
Paul does this in 1 Corinthians 10 too. Israel’s experiences are a type of our experiences. As we are baptized, they were baptized in the Red Sea. Augustine makes an helpful observation about this. “Notice this point, brothers and sisters. After crossing the Red Sea the Israelites are not given their homeland immediately, nor are they allowed carefree triumph as though all their foes had disappeared. They still have to face the loneliness of the desert, and enemies still lurk along the way… So too after baptism Christian life must still confront temptations. In that wilderness the Israelites sighed after their homeland; and what else do Christians sigh for, once washed clean in baptism? … Let all the faithful listen and mark this; let them realize where they are. They are in the desert, sighing for their homeland.” (Cited in Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine, p. 17)
Just this perspective can help us breath a sigh of relief. Baptism in the Red Sea or in the Lord is not supposed to feel like the end — its supposed to feel like that beginning of a long, difficult sojourn home. We’re not home yet. We are on the greatest sojourn ever, but Hebrews needs to repeatedly warn us because we’re in the desert: keep boasting in your hope, don’t grow dull of hearing, don’t become sluggish, don’t cave to unbelief like Israel or else you will trade away God’s rest.
2. Recognize unbelief as an exchange for something worthless. 2nd Peter 3 warns that when people mock about God’s delay, they are really using this as an opportunity to follow their own sinful desires. They are exchanging hope in God for tempting desires. Reflecting on the tragedy of what happened at Mt. Sinai for Israel, Psalm 106 mourns: “They made a calf in Horeb and worshipped a metal image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior, who had done great things in Egypt…” (Psalm 106:19-21) If we let the ever-mounting pressures of what we do not and cannot know crush us, we will always fill the gap with some stupid thing that seems brilliant in our frantic state. But it is an exchange of the glory of the God who has done great things for an image of an ox that eats grass.
What may we give up God for? Our marriage vows for independence? our marriage bed for someone forbidden? faith-filled prayers in fasting for the bloated discomfort of cake or a hangover? Or will we exchange the adventure of following God not knowing where we’re going for a boring-safe-comfortable spot on the couch? The approval of God for the approval of people? sleep that comes from trusting God for more money, more problems? We may exchange the peace of the gospel for a quick press of the button to just nuke ‘em; matrimony with Christ for life with a “partner” who only wants what’s now; eternal clothing with bodies we won’t be ashamed of for temporary comfort in a transitioned clothes and bodies of our own choosing. It is tough. Really. We don’t know how or when our marriage or fasting or prayer or the church or the kingdom of God will really pan out, so lesser things truly seem appealing.
But it all boils down to the same question: will we choose God’s promised dwelling with us in the unseen, uncertain future… or the “solid” image of an ox now? Esau traded his unseen birthright in the uncertain future for a bowl of lentil stew he could have now. We can sell out for the lamest things! As C.S. Lewis wrote, we’re like children making mud pies in the slums not understanding the offer of a vacation at the beach. Let’s take care that uncertainty doesn’t lead us to settle for too little. As Dee Bowman often said: “If you miss heaven, you just missed everything there is.”
3. Know the cross provides shelter in the uncertain wilderness (Rom. 8:32, 35). We must remember the cross and the empty tomb in uncertainty. This is what Paul is arguing in Romans 8. There is a lot we do not know. We may not know what our marriage will look like in a year, how things will turn out with our kids, or what our streets and schools will look like. Governments may not do justice and healthcare may fail. We may uncover truths that cause us to question everything we know. We may question whether the church is what it should be. We may wait 10,000 years before Jesus comes. Or, as in Romans 8, people may mock, exclude, and kill us for proclaiming Jesus is Lord, King. But when we look to the cross we should ask ourselves this: if he did not spare his own Son, how will he not also with him give us all things? I do not know when, I do not know how, I may not know what is up or what is down until then, but it is a historical fact that Jesus died on the cross, was buried, and that God raised him from the dead. And because of that, I am sure “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is a shelter in the wilderness. In fact, the cross also provides for us a table in the wilderness to nourish us with Jesus and the cross until our sojourn is over — like the spiritual food and spiritual drink that sustained Israel.
4. Know he left to prepare a place beyond all imagination where we will live together (cf. Rev. 21). As Moses delayed to come back down the mountain because he was receiving plans to build God’s house, Jesus gone up into heaven. But he told us why he left. “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:1–3 ESV) The “Father’s house” is temple language. Only Jesus is not speaking of the temple in Jerusalem, but of the real temple in the heavens. As with Israel, he’s preparing a place for us to dwell together. Revelation depicts it as a new heavens and new earth — everything made new. It depicts it as a massive, beautiful city coming down out of heaven adorned like a bride — decked with gold, pearls, precious stones. There’s no night, no tears, no death, no weapons (swords and spears will be beaten into farming equipment) — all the former things have passed away. And there we will look upon the face of the Father and of the Son. What wonders await us!
At Moses’ pleading God pardoned Israel’s sin and renewed his tabernacle plan. We too have exchanged God’s glory for lesser things, but thank God for Jesus, he has pardoned us and renewed his tabernacle plan to dwell with us. God will be faithful. Nevertheless, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Our knowledge is only partial now. Have faith through the wilderness till the Son of Man comes — then, all will be made new and clear.