Before I was humbled I went astray . . . (Psalm 119:67)
So I turned and went down from the mountain, while the mountain was ablaze; the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. Then I saw that you had indeed sinned against the Lord your God, by casting for yourselves an image of a calf; you had been quick to turn from the way that the Lord had commanded you. (Deuteronomy 9:15-16)
When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. (John 2:23-25)
When you read about the wanderings of the ancient Hebrew people in the Old Testament, they seem like a roving band of idiots. Time after time God rescues them with some miraculous event, and then they turn around and do something stupid, as though nothing ever happened. Their leader, Moses, is mad at them most of the time because they aren’t getting what is going on: God has saved them from slavery in Egypt, provided for them in the wilderness, and is committed to their well-being. I don’t know if they think that God is just a nomadic deity who happened to be passing by Egypt when they cried out for help or what, but they sure are quick to forget about God’s great deeds and then recreate him in their own familiar images.
It appears that things hadn’t changed much when Jesus arrived on the scene. He healed people, chased away demonic spirits, raised the dead and a whole variety of other amazing things. People got excited about Jesus because of this, and believed that he was the long-awaited Messiah. Why wouldn’t they believe that, with all the benefits he was bringing to the people?
Yet, Jesus knew that behind that belief was something untrustworthy. Later in the story we learn that he was right, as the same people who cheered for him ended up populating the crowd that supported his crucifixion. Again, another band of idiots.
The only problem with my assessment is that I’m pretty sure we’re all part of the same idiotic family (okay, maybe me and not you). I’ve had things happen in my life that were, from my perspective, clear answers to prayer. Sometimes those answers have come in such a startling way that I’ve had to look around and see if God has materialized behind me just to enjoy the surprise. But it only takes a day or two and some more trouble and I’m discouraged and lamenting about how the pain of life now dominates my world. I may not build golden calves to worship, but I can create all kinds of familiar mini-gods as I attempt to solve my problems.
On one level it seems hopeless that Jesus knows what is in everyone. If he knows about my duplicity and my capacity for going astray, then why would he want to have anything to do with me? But on another level, it is a comfort that he knows what is in us, because in the midst of the brokenness that often rears its ugly head, he sees the ones always loved by God; the ones with whom God has fully identified in the person of Jesus; the ones on whose behalf Jesus lived, suffered, died, and was raised. We may be just a band of idiots, but we are also the objects of God’s love and care.
I also believe that God does not intend to leave us in our idiotic state. By degrees we keep learning to trust him, and to turn from all the mini-gods that we have created in an effort to make God into a predictable certainty. Along the way the awareness of our tendency toward sin humbles us, and in our humility we can cease going astray.