Some students don't "test" very well. They do great on assignments, keep great notebooks, but when the test comes they get so nervous that they don't do as well as they could. They get stressed out over test because along with the test comes the possibility of failure. And failure at a test or anything in life can be painful, costly or very inconvenient at times like taking your driver's license test over and over.
However, as many of you know, failure can also be a great teacher --- a teacher of lessons that we're not able to learn in other ways. Of course I'm not promoting failure as an educational tool, but I do want us to be aware of some of the important things that our failures can teach us. For that reason, I'd like us to look at an episode of failure in one man's life that taught him many things and continues to instruct us today. Lets briefly examine an incident in the life of Aaron, Moses' brother, and see what it can teach us today.
1. Aaron - Background
Before we look at Aaron's failure I want to give a little background on this man.We know that Aaron was Moses' brother (Exodus 4:14) who was appointed at first to be Moses' spokesman to the Israelites in Egypt and before the Pharaoh. Moses was reluctant to speak and so God gave Aaron the task of speaking on Moses' behave (Exodus 4:28).
Aaron and his sons were later selected by God to serve as priest in the ministry of the tabernacle while the Jews wandered in the desert. He was at Moses' side for most of their time in the desert and, (except for one time when he and Moses' sister, Miriam criticized Moses' leadership) Aaron was Moses' right hand man. Like Moses, Aaron was not allowed to enter the Promised land. He was told by God to pass on the priesthood to his son Eleazar and died on Mt. Hor. It seems Aaron was greatly loved by the people and at his death they wept and mourned him for 30 days (Numbers 20:27-29). Aaron was a great servant of God and the first to serve the people as a whole; however he was a man who experienced great failure in his life and ministry.
Let us set the scene: The people have escaped Egypt and camped in the desert. God has provided their food and water in miraculous ways, for example: Manna/Quail/Water from a rock. God has spoken to the people and their instructions in His laws and ways has begun. The people have been given instructions as the system and place of worship which Aaron and his sons are appointed to serve as priest. There is great activity in preparing the tabernacle and various elements that will be used in their worship. During these things Moses is called up unto Mt. Sinai to be given the laws for the people, commandments the Lord Himself inscribes on stones. Moses is gone for a period of time --- a period that the people find too long to wait. It is during this time that Aaron fails in his leadership and priestly role.
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.
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!'"
- Exodus 32:1-8
Note what happens here: The people are fidgety, restless. Their religion was the center of their lives and nothing was happening while Moses was gone. They wanted to have a religious feast, a religious activity and demanded that Aaron provide one.
Now, understand that the tabernacle and all the instruments for the sacrificial system of worship as well as the procedures for this have not been completed yet. But the people want to worship and celebrate now they don't want to wait for Moses or the completion of God's place and method of worship. So Aaron, who was raised in Egypt in Egyptian ways, tries to pacify a seeming revolt by giving in to their demands.
- Remember, Aaron is the spokesman, Moses is the leader.
- God speaks to and instructs Moses, not Aaron.
- He may not have known how to hurry up the completion of the work---but he knew who the leader was, and he knew enough to know that he should wait.
Aaron collects the gold and produces a statue of a calf which was, in Egypt, the symbol for fertility and prosperity. As far as pagan gods went, this was a creative and religious masterpiece in no way meant to dishonor God (e.g "Crystal Cathedral"). His intention was to quiet the people and give them a legitimate and satisfying worship experience.
Of course things go wrong quickly. The people revert back to the pagan practices learned in Egypt where they mix immoral activity with their immoral activity with their religious festivals. The situation is degenerating as people go from idolatry to excesses in impure and indecent conduct.
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.'" 14 So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
15 Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, tablets which were written on both sides; they were written on one side and the other. 16 The tablets were God's work, and the writing was God's writing engraved on the tablets. 17 Now when Joshua heard the sound of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, "There is a sound of war in the camp." 18 But he said,
"It is not the sound of the cry of triumph,
Nor is it the sound of the cry of defeat;
But the sound of singing I hear."
In verses 9-18 the scene switches to Moses on the mountain who, after being informed by God of His anger at people because of their sins, successfully pleads with God not to destroy them and rushes back to camp.
19 It came about, as soon as Moses came near the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses' anger burned, and he threw the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf which they had made and burned it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it over the surface of the water and made the sons of Israel drink it.
21 Then Moses said to Aaron, "What did this people do to you, that you have brought such great sin upon them?" 22 Aaron said, "Do not let the anger of my lord burn; you know the people yourself, that they are prone to evil. 23 For they said to me, 'Make a god for us who will go before us; for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' 24 I said to them, 'Whoever has any gold, let them tear it off.' So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf."
- Exodus 32:19-24
Moses returns, destroys the golden calf and confronts his brother. Note how this great man, faced with his great failure, doesn't even have the strength to own up to his sin. His excuses are lame:
- They forced me to do it, you know how they are.
- It's not my fault; I just threw the gold in the fire and out came this calf.
- You were gone and I had to do something!
Because of his weakness and failure to stand up for what was right we read further on that:
- The people committed a great sin and were punished for it.
- Three thousand men lost their lives that day as a counter measure was begun to stop the spread of the religious rebellion.
- The people broke their covenant with God to be faithful and not worship idols --- the result was guilt and shame.
- And Aaron's reputation and standing before God, Moses and the people was seriously compromised.
He was the chosen one to be a minister unto God for the people and he had disgraced himself with this terrible failure. Of course we know that the story does not end here.
Well after this episode the people re-dedicate themselves and the work to complete the tabernacle, the equipment and special priestly garments is renewed. Moses receives and passes on a new set of commandments and the people prepare to worship God according to His command, purpose and design. So we fast forward to chapter 40 and read of another important episode in Aaron's life. After all is built and set into place the Bible say that the following instructions were given to Moses:
12 Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the doorway of the tent of meeting and wash them with water. 13 You shall put the holy garments on Aaron and anoint him and consecrate him, that he may minister as a priest to Me. 14 You shall bring his sons and put tunics on them; 15 and you shall anoint them even as you have anointed their father, that they may minister as priests to Me; and their anointing will qualify them for a perpetual priesthood throughout their generations." 16 Thus Moses did; according to all that the Lord had commanded him, so he did.
- Exodus 40:12-16
This miserable failure, this man who had demonstrated how incompetent he was to do the very thing he was called upon to do. This is the same man over whom these words were spoken by God Himself. What a happy ending to a sad story of failure.
Now at the start of my lesson I told you that failure is a good teacher and I've reviewed Aaron's failure in order to highlight a few lessons we can learn from his experience.
Lesson #1 - Even great people fail.
Aaron was chosen by God, given power and position but this did not guarantee a life without failure. God can use us to serve Him not because we're great, but because He's great. "A" types, over-achievers, those who've succeeded in many areas need to understand that they can fail and fail badly. When they do, they need to realize that God can still use them, even after they've failed because His love is greater than any of our post or future achievements.
Lesson #2 - Our failures are never forgotten but they are forgiven.
Poor Aaron, his failure is forever recorded in the Bible for all to see. But Aaron could go on with his life and his ministry because God forgave him this stumble. Some people think that so long as they can remember their own or somebody else's mistake, there's no real forgiveness. Aaron's story reminds us that we need to focus more on God's forgiveness instead of our failures if we wish to regain our confidence for the future as well as the ability and desire to forgive others. If you dwell mainly on your or someone else's failures you will never succeed at forgiveness and receive the healing that comes with it.
Lesson #3 - Failure lays the ground work for improvement.
Aaron learned a hard lesson from the episode with the golden calf. It was a lesson that prepared him for the rigorous ministry of the priesthood. His failure improved his capacity for understanding and compassion. Despite the splendor of the tabernacle and the divine mysteries of the sacrificial system; aside from the beauty and commanding presence of the priestly garments --- Aaron never lost sight of the fact that like the people he represented, he too was only a frail human being, in need of God's mercy.
This lesson had been indelibly stamped on his heart through failure and he was a more effective minister because of it. From start to finish the Bible tells and retells the story of man's continual failure in keeping God's commands. It also recounts God's continual effort at forgiving and restoring a failed humanity. This should give us confidence to approach Him the next time we think we've failed too badly to ask for forgiveness, to ask Him to be our Lord and we are His sons and daughters, or ministers again.
If you've failed, if you've failed badly and often --- take my message to heart today. Let God forgive you these things and let Him show you how to build a glorious life based on your forgiven past. Won't you let the God of love and mercy into your heart through repentance and baptism or a sincere restoration today?