Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!
They got tired. After 90 days, they were weary of walking winding paths toward a Canaan they’d never seen and which had been mere mythology for centuries. The only thing they knew was the slavery behind them and the dirt caked beneath their feet and the mountain that lay before them. They needed to see the promise, to touch it with their hands, to call it out by name.
They were camping out in the wilderness at the foot of Mount Sinai. And they were restless. This God they’d heard of and cried out to seemed far away after many weeks of walking toward a place they’d never been. And then this God called Moses up to the mountain, telling him to leave the people below with instructions not to even touch it lest they face His wrath.
For forty days and forty nights, they waited while God gave Moses the new law of the land. They waited in the wildnerness and looked up at flashes of fire and billowing clouds of God’s presence, just close enough to see but too far away to touch. They became distracted in the waiting.
When the people realized that Moses was taking forever in coming down off the mountain, they rallied around Aaron and said, “Do something. Make gods for us who will lead us. That Moses, the man who got us out of Egypt—who knows what’s happened to him?” (Exodus 32:1)
So they made an idol – a golden calf – and bowed down to a god they could see with their own eyes. A god crafted by their own hands, dreamed up by their own imaginations. An impotent god, an image of a lowly beast of burden stood before them, ears deafened to their prayers and their songs.
They’d forgotten the songs of Zion. They camped out in front of a handmade god and sang its praises, forgetting the Egypt the Almighty had delivered them from and nearly forsaking the Canaan ahead. Their desire for normalcy plummetted them into chaos.
Moses came down from the mountain, ready to share all that God had given him. In his hands, he held the law written by God Himself, and on his heart, he carried the instructions for creating God’s dwelling place among the people. Imagine his dismay at what he saw when he descended. Moses threw the stone tablets of the law to the ground, shattering them in his righteous anger. God was ready to end it all right then and there. Their journey could have been cut short. It was only through Moses’ pleading with God did God stay His hand and not destroy them all.
Many still died that day. They’d forgotten the promise. They were so busy being angry with the God up in the mountain in smoke and fire that they missed the God who’d made plans to dwell among them. They were so busy worshiping an image crafted from their own jewelry that they forgot the One who delivered them.
Even then, God still did not forsake the Israelites. He again created order from their chaos and set them on the right path with a new law and a new focus for the journey ahead.
God said, “My presence will go with you. I’ll see the journey to the end.” (Exodus 33:14)
He dwells in fire and clouds of majesty and awe. But rejoice! The waiting may be dark. The journey may be winding and unclear. He may seem far away. But this God who dwells in fire and clouds also wants to dwell with us. Emmanuel, in darkness and winding paths and wilderness waiting, will see us through to the end.