Monday, October 31, 2011
However, as November comes, I am feeling a fresh wind in my spirit. I'd love to write more.
What would you like me to talk about? I am grateful for people who take time to read the blog and I hope it is encouraging for you. My readers come from Netherlands, Russia, India, Slovenia, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America, as well as many other places. Shoot me a comment. Let me know where you are from and what concerns or interests you the most, and I'll try to offer my views and my thoughts on what scripture has to say about what is on your mind. I bet whatever topic it is that you bring will be relevant to many other readers. Just comment on this post to get a conversation started.
It was before we had kids, a Friday. Candy I went to a fast food chicken place near our home, Popeye’s. A group of women in the long line in front of us were talking away, carrying on. I don’t remember if I made a comment, or how it happened, but before I knew it, we were in their conversation. That’s when the river of time began to flow and all Candy and I could do was ride with the current.
The women discovered that I was a pastor. We discovered they were all wives of the head coach and assistant coaches of the local high school football team. It was just across the main road. They were buying the pre-game meal for the coaches. They invited us to come to the game with them.
Once there, they got word to the coaches that a pastor was sitting with them. Candy and I thought of ourselves not as pastor and pastor’s wife, but as a happy couple out on a cheap date. Without knowing it, we were caught up in something God was doing. After the game, one of the parents of one of the players asked if I would come down and lead both teams in prayer. It seems that the previous night, in the JV game between the same two teams, a player sustained a spinal chord injury. So, I did what was requested. I found myself, for the first time since playing over decade prior, on the field. This time, I was in the role of pastor leading young men, shaken up by recent events, in prayer. And, the team asked me twice to come back and lead them in pre-game devotions.
How did all of that happen? Candy and I willingly engaged in conversation with strangers, they extended an invitation out of spontaneous kindness, and we responded. God stepped in from there.
That won’t happen to you. It won’t happen to me again. Some of what took place occurred because of my official role in church, but much of it just happened. That’s the way unexpected experiences come. They just happen. Maybe something takes place in your life because you are a mom or because you are over 55 or because you work at a University or because you are shopping for batteries; whatever the causal event, the unexpected pops, well, unexpectedly! Then what?
He was in prison and deserved to be there. His name was Jesus Barabbas, and the gospel writer Matthew called him a ‘notorious prisoner’ (27:16). Commentaries say that Greek word was used to describe bands of thieves who would hide out in rural areas. They attacked processions of Romans, so in a sense, they were political rebels. However, they also robbed Israelites who traveled the remote roads. In those instances, they were common thugs, feared by all.
This one, Jesus Barabbas, was caught and scheduled to be executed by the merciless Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. Resigned to his fate, he bided his time, undoubtedly engaging in gambling and fistfights with the other inmates in the hellhole that was Pilate’s prison. Some dreamed of being freed.
Pilate, as a way of controlling the Jews through gaining their favor, would give amnesty to one criminal every year at Passover. He would invite the crowd to shout out the name of one destined for a crucifixion. Whichever criminal had his name shouted loudest was freed. It was a twisted game, one more way the Roman overlords manipulated the conquered peoples they ruled. No one among those incarcerated could honestly hope to the one freed. Still, some dared to dreamed about it.
But, Barabbas was as Matthew said, notorious; feared by soldier and peasant alike. He had to know his name would never be called. When the guards summoned him, he had to expect that it was his time for death. Did he pray for a quick death? Did he tremble, the savage killer now struck with fear at the miserable execution that awaited him? He had seen plenty of crosses. He knew what was coming. What did the notorious one think when he was released? How in the world did the crowd call his name?
Surely, Barabbas would eventually learn that Pilate limited the choices for amnesty to him and the controversial miracle worker, that other Jesus, the Galilean they said was the Messiah. Barabbas surely knew that that Jesus didn’t kill people. He healed them. Surely Barabbas knew that that Jesus wasn’t really guilty of a horrible crime; it’s possible he hadn’t done anything at all. He was arrested for political reasons. Now, he would be nailed to the cross that had been reserved for the notorious bandit.
This was unexpected. What would Barabbas do now?
I was at my former church when the call came in. Someone in the neighborhood had died. A lot of people who came to Washington DC for government jobs in the 40’s and 50’s lived in that neighborhood of duplexes in Arlington, VA. The decades passed and that community was flooded first by Vietnamese boat people, then by refugees from the civil war in El Salvador, then by people fleeing political unrest in Ethiopia, and genocide in Sudan. It was a complete hodgepodge.
Those post-WW II governments workers who flocked to the DC area from Western Pennsylvania, Maryland, Western Virginia, and Tennessee were mostly retired when I moved there in 1997. They were aging as the community changed. And one family of one of the old residents called because their mother had died. They wanted to donate her furniture to the church, which we would then give the furniture to needy families.
We set that up, and the day came to transport the pieces of furniture back to our church parking lot. As I recall, I was moving a coffee table that we were going to use in the church building in one of the classrooms. It was so close to the house, I could just carry the light coffee table the two blocks back to our building. As I did, a taxi cab sort of pulled up beside me and rolled down the window. The driver, a woman, asked what I was doing with all this furniture? Could she have some?
Sure! But a lot of it was back at the church. We met over there and loaded a few things into her car. She had her 23-year-old daughter with her. The young woman and I started talking and it was quickly clear that she needed two things very badly, a Bible and a job. It just so happened that we needed someone to answer the phones during the day and put together our newsletter.
As an aside, I do not recommend that churches fill important staff positions haphazardly. When we hired her, Jessica was not even a believer. She was seeker. I don’t recommend hiring unbelievers or seekers onto the church staff. Employees of the church should be followers of Jesus Christ. But this was a special case. I knew God was in this. I couldn’t identify specifically how God was in this, but God was definitely in this. I was terribly conflicted. We gave her a Bible, and we hired 23-year-old Jessica as our church secretary.
Then, she started coming to church for worship on Sundays. Then, she joined the church choir. And she formed friendships in our church. Next, she started bringing her family, her sisters and nieces and nephews to church with her. Finally, she gave her heart to Jesus and was baptized. And through my five years, here at HillSong, away from there, I have kept in touch with her through Facebook, and she had stayed connected with the church.
How did it happen? I did not expect for someone in the neighborhood to donate furniture. But we said, sure, we’d get it to people who could use it. I did not expect one of those people to request a Bible. I don’t know if this would surprise you, but in the churches I have served, we probably get 50 people who request financial assistance for every 1 that asks for a Bible or asks for prayer. But she did ask for Bible and she really did want it and she really did read it and take seriously what it says.
What do we do when the unexpected comes?
Simon came to Jerusalem for Passover. Many commentators believe this Simon was in fact Hebrew and had migrated to Cyrene which was in Egypt. He was part of the Jewish Diaspora. There were Jews all over the Mediterranean world and as far south as Arabia and as far east as present-day India. They made pilgrimage to the city of David annually so they could celebrate Passover at the temple. Simon was African and was also Jewish. He may have been a Diaspora Jew or he may have been a dark-skinned African person who converted to Judaism, a proselyte. Either way, he was in Jerusalem to worship not to get mixed up with the Romans.
But it was 33AD. It was the toxic, combustible climate of an occupied country that included people who had dreams of God’s intervention and some were willing to provoke violence to spur God on a bit. Roman soldiers were everywhere, and poor Simon got caught in the crowd when they moved to execute a rebel.
Did Simon even know who Jesus was? There was talk of all kinds of would be Messiahs. Jesus, after having undergone the vicious Roman flogging which some men did not survive must have been a sorry sight. Bloodied. Beaten. Mocked. Now he had to carry this heavy beam on his shoulders to Golgotha, just outside the city. There, he would be nailed to it; the Son of God, killed for the sins of the world.
Simon did not know this crucifixion would lead to the salvation of humankind. But then, that’s the thing about the unknown and the unexpected. We don’t know what God is doing behind the scenes. All Simon knew is he couldn’t avoid involvement. The Roman soldiers compelled him to carry the cross the weakened Jesus could not bear. The disciples had fled and were in hiding. But here was Simon, unexpectedly and perhaps unwittingly, standing on the precipice of history.
The Bible doesn’t give further explanation related to Barabbas or to Simon of Cyrene. Church tradition lists Simon among the thousands saved at Pentecost. Did that happen? And Barabbas, the other Jesus, the one whose life was spared when the priests convinced the crowd to call for the death of Jesus of Nazareth, what of the “notorious criminal?” What became of the bandit and the bystander?
More importantly, what happens in the unexpected moments and events of our lives? I deplore the phrase “all things happen for a reason,” especially when it is said in relation to an illness or a death. I hate it because people don’t attempt to discover the reason. All things happen for a reason. People say it because they don’t know what else to say when bad things happen or tragedy strikes or the unexpected comes.
Instead of passing off the unwanted and unexpected with All things happen for a reason, passionately devoted followers of Jesus Christ respond in faith. We earnestly seek the leading of the Holy Spirit. There may or may not be an unseen, divine reason for our experiences. Either way, God sees all things and God, omnipresent as God is, sees us in the places of our lives. God is with us in what we go through.
We know about being stewards with our money, resources, and time. We also need to practice stewardship in our experiences, even those we did not see coming. Is what I am going through an opportunity to share my faith or invite someone to church or practice kindness or love someone with the love of Jesus or aid someone who is in great distress or learn something about God that I didn’t know before that will affect me going forward or trust God in a way I not trusted God before?
In the week and month that is coming, the unexpected will happen in your life and mine. When it does, seek God in it. Represent Jesus and share his love. Think and act as one who is full of the Holy Spirit so that the unexpected is not an unwelcome surprise. Rather it is a divine appointment in which we are part of the story of God saving the world.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
She was very close to great power, that lady. Living in Jerusalem in AD 33, she did not hold an official office. But, like so many wily women of history, lack of official status did not diminish her voice. The chief priest in the temple, the visiting dignitary from another nation, and the Roman legionnaire needed permission to approach Governor Pontius Pilate. Yet, when he, the Roman ruler in the region, sat on his judgment seat, she could and did walk right up and offer her opinion. I am talking Pilate’s wife. She goes unnamed in Matthew’s gospel. In all of scripture, she is only mentioned in one verse. Yet, what this peripheral character says and when she says it is poignant.
A mob dragged Jesus in the middle of the night to the house of the high priest. The questioning was intense. Jesus was tired, physically beaten, and confronted with witnesses whose testimonies contradicted each other. In both form and content this highly irregular trial was from the start a miscarriage of justice. But the high priest asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of God” (26:63)? He was not asking if Jesus had claimed divinity. The prominent different Jewish groups expected a Messiah, but not God incarnated.
“Are you the Christ, the Messiah?” Jesus said, “You have said so. From now on you will see the Son of Man [Jesus here by saying son of man claims to be the Messiah anticipated in the book of Daniel] seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (27:64). Everyone in the crowded room understood Jesus to be saying the same thing – not only did he claim to be the Messiah. He said he was God. Only God comes on the clouds of Heaven.
They rendered a death sentence for blasphemy. Jesus was taunted and abused by the temple police (26:68). Already he had been betrayed by Judas Iscariot, abandoned by the other disciples, and denied by Peter. “I do not know the man,” Peter shouted. Previously Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (16:16). Now he sang a different tune.
Jesus was alone, seemingly without power or hope. But his questioners also had a problem. They decided Jesus must die, but they lacked the authority to carry out a death sentence. As religious leaders they held considerable political power, but like all 1st century Mediterranean cities, Jerusalem was under the governance of Rome. Rome had to proclaim the death sentence. The council had to turn to the Governor Pilate to carry out execution of Jesus.
So they drag him, chained before the governor. Jesus had probably gone without sleep the whole night. He had endured an intense interrogation along with humiliating, painful abuse. Now, aching and exhausted, he stood before the intimidating, shimmering splendor of Rome.
Pilate went straight to the point. “Are you the king of the Jews” (27:11)? If Jesus says, “Yes,” then he is rebelling against the Emperor, a capital offense.
“Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus looked at Pilate and said, “You say so.” What’s the governor supposed to do with this? He didn’t say “No,” but it wasn’t exactly “Yes,” either.
While Pilate interrogated Jesus, the agitating Jewish religious leaders gathered a crowd, people already on edge because of Rome and because of the various rebel groups and because it was Passover. With the political climate in Jerusalem, it was not overly difficult to rile up a mob to call for Jesus’ death. If their case wasn’t strong enough, and it wasn’t, they could manipulate Pilate into an execution for the sake of keeping the peace.
He played right into their hands. “Don’t you hear the accusations they make against you” (v.13)? Matthew tells us Jesus did not even answer a single question. Pilate’s anxiety rising. Pilate, the mighty Roman, ruler of this city, is losing control of the situation and maybe of himself. Jesus calmly stays silent.
Pilate tries to turn the tables on the leaders by calling for amnesty, but only for one criminal. He could free the known violent murderer called Barabbas. Or he could free meek, beaten, harmless Jesus. The crowd called for freedom for Barabbas and death to Jesus.
As this is happening, message comes from Pilate’s wife of all people. She’s supportive enough to be with him in this city. She could have remained in the comfortable governor’s palace in Caesarea Philippi. She could have waited for Pilate there. Jerusalem was obviously a city under duress, and brought particular stress to Roman nobility. Yet, out of support for Pilate, she came.
He did not think she was there to insert herself right into the middle of a testy situation, but that’s exactly what she did. She told her husband, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man for I suffered a great deal because of a dream about him” (v.19).
I don’t know if she regularly told Pilate how to govern based on her dreams. If she did, I don’t know if Pilate shrugged her off or paid serious attention. I think Matthew includes this verse, telling of the concerns of Pilate’s wife, because it was irregular and because it was significant.
My guess is God was giving Pilate a chance to avoid putting to death an innocent man who happened to be the Messiah and also happened to be the Son of God. This was God saying to Pilate through his wife, “You can prevent this. You have the power. Now show the courage to use it.” That’s my guess. Pilate was given a chance to listen to God and cooperate with God, but he balked.
Pilate declared himself clean. In a grand fashion, he washed his hands before the crowd, washing off responsibility for the death of Jesus. He said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (27:24). Those in the crowd responded, “His blood be on us and on our children” (27:25). Throughout history, the church has foolishly used these verses in Matthew 27 to blame the death of Jesus on the Jews. Such idiocy ignores that Jesus was Jewish as were his disciples. Pilate could wash his hands 100 times, but Jesus still hung on a Roman Cross, erected under his, Pilate’s authority. And ultimately the sins of all humanity including us here today caused the death of Jesus on the cross.
Pilate’s wife was close to power. She could approach him in the midst of tense negotiations and she did just that. She told Pilate to get out of the mess. She didn’t say her dream was a vision from God. All she knew was that the bloodied man who looked so small was in fact innocent. Roman governors killed innocent people for political expediency. It happened all the time and she knew it. But in this case, she told her husband not to do it and he didn’t listen.
We meet another woman who lived close to power in Matthew 14 where Matthew gives the background of King Herod’s animosity toward and curiosity about Jesus. Herod was the Jew the Romans propped up as King. He had to do all his Roman overlords commanded, but he could exert force on his fellow Jews and he did so to advance his own wealth and to keep his people under heel.
One very loud and popular Jew was the zealous prophet John the Baptist. John lived an ascetic life and preached fiery sermons in which he called out unethical behavior. John said the Messiah was coming, the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit.
A favorite target of John’s sermons was Herod. Herod had married the wife of his half brother. Her name was Herodias. According to Jewish law, this marriage of Herod and Herodias was a violation. The strong-arming and manipulation Herod exerted to get his wishes, and his general disregard for God’s ways put him right in the locust-eating preacher’s crosshairs. John hammered Herod and Herodias repeatedly.
She got sick of hearing her sins publically called out. Herod did too, so John was arrested. Herod had that kind of marginal but also arbitrary power. He could blatantly bypass correct procedure and imprison someone. No Jewish courts could challenge him. He was supported by Roman muscle.
John wallowed in Herod’s prison for a while. Herodias would have put him to death upon his arrest, but Herod’s feelings were far more uncertain than his vengeful wife’s. He hated that John condemned him, but he also sensed the power in John’s words. Much like the sensitivity Pilate’s wife showed in responding to her dream about Jesus, Herod was sensitive to the spiritual power in John. Herod locked John up in prison, but then went and sat with him and listened to him for hours on end (Mark 6:19-21).
Things changed at Herod’s birthday party. Herodias knew her husband was given to drunkenness and lust. After he had imbibed and was feeling jovial, she had her daughter, probably a teenager, dance a seductive dance, and the smitten, sodden puppet king smiled and promised the young beauty anything she might desire. Her mother was in her ear the whole time. She told the girl to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
Herod was trapped. In front of the crowd, he had made a spectacle of promising the girl her heart’s wishes. Herod feared John’s spiritual power, and he feared the masses that admired John. But Herod had to save face. So, he, the supposed king, gave into the forces of his wife’s manipulations and his own unthinking promises. John was beheaded simply because Herodias effortlessly manipulated her husband.
Two women – the wife of Pilate and Herodias, the wife of Herod; both lived in close proximity to power, the power over people’s lives. Both spoke up in highly charged situations. One, sensing a power beyond herself or her husband, said, leave that man alone. He’s innocent and you need to get out of this.
The other, ignoring the presence of God in the heart of God’s prophet John and instead listening to her own thirst for revenge also spoke up. Using the power of her husband’s cravings, she manipulated him and he followed her will. In the end, John the Baptist and Jesus were both executed and in the story of their deaths, two peripheral characters were significant in the story.
God allowed these events which included the death of his prophet and the death of his son. God could have intervened at any point, but God allowed this sin and cruelty because God was speaking through John and through Jesus. God spoke a power that surpasses what we might think of as power.
Both John and Jesus spoke unwavering truth. They told the truth about sin, about humanity, and about how humans are saved from the death sin brings. Both men, in their lives, their actions, and their sermons pointed to Jesus as the means of salvation from sin. Human authorities – the Pharisees, the Elders, the Romans, Herod, Pilate – none of these could save a person from sin. All of these were guilty of sin. Jesus and John both spoke this truth and in the truth there is immense power.
Because they spoke the truth and lived the truth, they had to deal with the consequences wrought by men who hid behind lies. This is a second element of the power wielded by John and by Jesus. They were willing to sacrifice, even sacrifice their very lives. Truth-telling and willingness to sacrifice are the transcendent forms of power in this story.
This truth is set on the table we call the Lord’s Supper table. Everyone who dines at this table is a hell bound sinner whose only hope for life is the grace of God. That includes you, me, everyone. Like Herodias, we manipulate power. Like the wife of Pilate, we try to run away from it. And, like Herod and Pilate, we put up the mirage of power, but then in cowardly fashion, we just go with the flow and allow the circumstances to dictate our ethic and our actions. In short, we are sinners and are thus not invited by God to His table – except …
We are invited when we submit to the power of Jesus – his truth, his sacrifice. We acknowledge our sins and receive forgiveness. We open our hearts and submit our lives to him. We receive salvation and are born again.
Today, as we share the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper table, we reflect on the mistakes of Pilate’s wife and especially Herodias, the wife of Herod. Their errors were sins related to misunderstanding of God’s power and abuse of human power. We think of our own sins related to power – whether the fear of power, or the abuse of it.
We also praise God for God’s power expressed in truth and in the sacrifice of our Savior Jesus Christ. We receive the forgiveness he gives and we sit at His table knowing that with the salvation he gives, we will one day sit at God’s eternal, Heavenly banquet table.AMEN
Sunday, October 16, 2011
A spark … something deep within my heart. It’s God. The Holy Spirit of God has spoken. I know God is real and loves me. Because of what Jesus has done on the cross, the penalty for my sins has been paid. The Holy Spirit is at work in me. I am forgiven. I am born again; a new creation.
I tell my church-going friend who introduces me to her pastor. We all agree that my experience with God is real. I have been saved from by Jesus. Do I want to be baptized by immersion and thus publically announce my faith and become a member of the church? Yes, I do.
The day arrives. I come to church. My story of coming to Jesus is read to the congregation. I am baptized. The people applaud my second birth, the work of Christ in my life. I sing the worship songs as one who knows Jesus, a son of God. I am a new believer!
Now what? This is the first day of your new life. Now what?
When we come to faith in Jesus, we are rescued from slavery to sin.
Israel was a new community – called out of bitter slavery in Egypt. Israel was completely under Pharaoh’s heel. Powerless. God overwhelmed Pharaoh and freed his people.
We are baptized. As new believers we become members of the community of faith, the church.
Israel also came out of water, the Red Sea, which led to death for their Egyptian pursuers, but life for them. God saved Israel and then God commissioned Israel as his people and gave them the law to show who He is, what sin is, and who they were to be as the people of God, the worshipers of Jehovah.
They’re saved. They have the law. They need to know what we need to know. Then what?
Israel was to be a separate people, different from all other peoples around them. They were not to worship nature gods, fertility goes, or weather gods. They were to let go of all superstitions and look to the only true God and live in holiness. God put a special calling on His people.
It was too much. They fell into crisis, a disaster of their own making. God clearly distinguished himself from the idols and man-made gods of the ancient near east, but as soon as Israel found themselves of waiting on God, they couldn’t sustain their faith. They created the golden calf and in this sin of idolatry, they found out some things.
They found out God sees them even when they didn’t see Him. And they found out that God takes sin with deadly seriousness. If they would rebel, God would respond with holy anger. What is the nation to do? How can they follow such a terrifying God?
Moses became Israel’s mediator who talked to God on behalf of the people. They were paralyzed by the crisis of their sin and God’s wrathful response. Moses stepped in and showed what is next for the people of God. Moses talked to God, and God listened. The more Moses realized that this mighty God would pay attention to a human, a small, flawed man, the more Moses talked. And the relationship deepened.
Israel went from conversion to crisis to conversation (Moses conversing with God on behalf of the nation). When the moment of salvation happened for Israel and they stood on the far side of the Red Sea. Newly saved, they were right where we are today. They sang songs extolling God’s virtue. They celebrated God’s victory and proclaimed their faith him. They committed themselves to God’s ways.
We clap our hands with joy at the baptisms and celebrate the work of God in the lives of these who have announced their faith. We sing our songs of faith with joy and great energy. We commit our lives to God’s ways. We not only celebrate with these who have been baptized. We who have been believers for a long time are also reminded of our joy and our commitment to the Lord and of the day we were baptized.
Israel moved from that salvation moment into terrible crisis, and then from crisis into something deeper, an actual relationship with God.
As we see our own faith story on this baptism and draw parallels with Israel’s call into relationship with God, not all connections are direct. Israel went from salvation to crisis to new relationship. Crisis is not always immediate after baptism, and we don’t predict it. Part of what makes crisis of faith a crisis is the unpredictability of it. It does come.
Jesus said it would. Trials come. Through our own mistakes, as happened with Israel in Exodus, or through something that happens to us, we all face dark days. I think one of the ways for new believers of for veteran disciples to be ready when trials, persecution, and crises of faith visits is to constantly work on growing in our relationship with God. And again we turn to the Israelite community and the relationship of God and Moses.
In Exodus 33, God said to Israel, “I will not go up among you.” (verse 2). The the Sovereign of the universe was so angry, so flustered with the sin of the people, He distanced himself.
I think God takes our sin as seriously as he did Israel’s. God does not like it when do the wrong thing whether we sin with our eyes, our words, our thoughts, or our bodies. He’s as holy today as He was 3000 years ago. God has always given grace – even in the Old Testament. God has always been wrathful – even in the New Testament. God forgives and God punishes.
God pulled back from Israel in Exodus 33. “I will not go up among you.” At the same time, God drew near to Moses. Verse 11 says, “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face as one speaks to a friend.” Moses was unique in history and no one will ever be like Moses or be Spirit-filled as Moses was. Not me, not you, not the Pope, not anyone.
However, though we can’t know what Moses knew or be who Moses was, we are promised the Holy Spirit. The Spirit does not visit each person in the same way, but each who has put trust in Christ will receive the Spirit. The Spirit will come on us and fill us. This is a crucial part of the new life in Christ that’s come to these who were baptized today and to all who have been baptized. Our speaking with God may not be “face to face,” but because of the Spirit, we don’t need a mediator. We don’t need a Moses to speak to God for us while we wait at the foot of the mountain. You don’t need the preacher to speak to God on your behalf. We are invited into a relationship, a spiritual relationship with God.
In relationship with God, how did Moses proceed?
He said to God, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may find favor in your sight” (v.13). Moses asks for favor, and his credentials for asking is that he’s already found favor. He also asks to know God’s ways. Through the previous 10 chapters God has shown his ways. Was Moses getting a little loopy in that the thin mountain air? What was he asking?
He talked about favor with God. Next, he asked God to go with Israel. But, isn’t God already with them? As we read earlier, God did say, “I will not go up among you, or I would consume you the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” Instead God promised that an angel of God would go before the people. Apparently that was not enough for Moses. He knew what God said, but he wanted something different. He wanted God, not God’s angel.
And God gave in! “My presence will go with you,” said God (v.14). “I will do the very thing you have asked” (v.17). In this conversation, I am struck by the smallness of Moses and the magnitude of God. Moses has nothing to stand on, nowhere to go, no escape, no other option. It was him and God and he just kept digging, asking for more.
When God said, “I will do the very think you have asked,” Moses responded, “Show me your glory, I pray.” Moses had audibly heard God’s voice. Moses felt the mountain shake when God thundered. Moses had held the tablets that God inscribed. But he wanted more. He wanted to see God with his eyes.
This is where we want to be as baptized people, ones born-again, new creations, adopted sons and daughters of God, worshipers of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whether we made our commitment to Jesus in the past year or decades ago, this must continue and be a constant. Like Moses, we yearn for more and more of God. We want to see God’s face.
The desire for God leads people to passion-filled participation the worship service of the gathered church. The desire for God leads people to deep, full-involved worship in solitude, in the quiet prayer closet or the walk in the woods, a retreat into nature, or the quiet prayers lifted while one drives down the highway. The desire for God leads a disciple to commit to serve God on mission trips; in service projects; spontaneously in everyday life as opportunities arise. The desire for God drives a believer to scripture, to scour God’s words and drink God’s truth. We live out our faith the way we do out of desire for God. We might not always name it that way, but underneath our sense of calling, underneath those “mountain-top experiences” that happen on retreats, and underneath the passions in us we can’t quite understand except to know they drive us on – underneath all that we would define as compelling and as spiritual – underneath it all is in us a deep longing to know God.
My prayer for each one of us here is that we will in the highs and lows of life, pursue God and desire of God. In some seasons we thirst to know all we can about Jesus and to hear him speak in the depths of our hearts; these are seasons of learning. In another season we seek experiences with the Holy Spirit. We receive the power of the Spirit and the comfort of the Spirit; these are seasons of new insights and new experiences. In yet another season you are in awe-struck worship at the throne of the mighty Heavenly Father; these are seasons of wonder. Or, as we go through times of great pain, wounded, we fall into the tender arms of that same one we call Mighty; seasons of trust. There are seasons of growth, of endurance, and quiet seasons where it seems not much is happening but we remain faithful as God is always faithful. Following the example of Moses, one of the great pioneers and archetypes of faith in scripture, all of life is spent seeking more and more of God.
When seeking God becomes the essence of life, we are blessed beyond measure. We begin living the existence we will have in the afterlife, eternity in the Kingdom of Heaven. We begin understanding Heaven now as we pursue God with a worshiper’s loving heart.
As we seek more of God, we have to be ready to hear God say “no” sometimes.
Moses asked for so much. God kept saying yes. Then Moses asked to see God’s glory, and God said, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (v.20). It seems odd because we heard earlier that the Lord spokes to Moses face to face as one speaks with a friend. How can that be true if one dies upon seeing God’s face? I think the answer lies in who God is. God can come to us in a relationship of love and spiritual intimacy, but even in that closeness, we don’t see all of God. God is so great, to see all of God would consume us. We’d just be gone.
So we ask God for it all and then we joyously receive however much God decides to give us.
If, like Elijah, we get a quiet whisper, that is enough. If, like John of Patmos, we are given a spectacular vision, we receive it as John did. If like the disciples and Paul and James, we see the resurrected, glorified Jesus, we rejoice. And if, like Moses, we see God’s after glow, his retreating glory, then we shine. His light is reflected from our faces so that others look to us and see Him.
As we near the end of our time of worship and come to the conclusion of six weeks spent in the book of Exodus, we reflect on what it means to be called the people of God. That’s what Israel was. And that’s what we are – baptized people, people who put complete faith in Jesus Christ, and people who are because of Jesus sons and daughters of God. As the people of God, we are always to be seeking our Father, living for His glory.
We ate delicious chicken pot pie a church member had given for pastor-appreciation month. We had a massive kickball game in the backyard (which is really too small for such a game). Then we ate moist, rich brownies my wife Candy made. Brownies with vanilla ice cream mmmm ....
It was, admittedly, a lot of excitement and stimulus for our 2-year-old daughter who's only been home from Ethiopia since June. We're still pretty protective about her, limiting her exposure to people and experiences. Yesterday was a lot for her. As was the previous day.
That day, a Friday, after school, a throng of neighborhood children gathered in and around one neighbor's yard. There must have been 20 or more kids. Several games were going - tag, some sort of war game, lawn mowing (the toddlers with plastic mowers). The ages ranged from 2 (my daughter and another two-year-old) all the way up to one high school freshman. It was great fun.
Those two maddeningly fun days accumulated dizzying over stimulus for our dear daughter. Last night, Saturday night, she could not fall asleep. Normally, she falls asleep in the stroller with me pushing, and it typically takes 10-20 minutes. Last night, I had to push her around in the dark for almost 55 minutes (a nice 3-mile walk for me). She finally conked out and we put her in bed.
I went out to watch my beloved Detroit Tigers get knocked out of the playoffs by Texas, an ugly 15-5 game (not ugly if you're a Rangers fan). I got home and got ready to get into bed around 11:15PM. I was not yet asleep when she popped away and would not go back to sleep.
Midnight ... 1AM ... 2:30.
It did not matter if I was with her or if Candy was with her. She preferred Candy, but she insisted on being awake. If either of us tried to lay her down or walk her or do any of the techniques to get her to sleep, she screamed, wailed, protested, and did it all very loudly. That girl has power with her lungs. It was enough to wake her 9-year-old brother and he was fuming mad. Miraculously, the 4-year-old brother slept through it.
Finally at 5 AM - yes - she and we were still awake at 5 AM (I put her in the van to see if taking her for a drive would get her to sleep). It worked. Thankfully, we got the 9-year-old back to sleep around 1 or 2AM. But, mommy, daddy, and baby girl were up most of the night, mommy and daddy, the entire night.
And today, as senior pastor, I get to baptize 4 people and preach the sermon.
Monday, October 10, 2011
It was just a white lie. You needed some extra time off, so you made up a little story that isn’t really true, but your boss doesn’t know that. Your co-workers won’t even miss you. You did good work that morning. What’s one afternoon away? No one is really affected. It’s a small thing. No big deal. Everybody makes up excuses that aren’t entirely true. You did nothing, really. So why do you keep thinking of it, now a week later? Why won’t it leave you alone?
What leads to sin? Frustration? Disappointment? Fear of mystery or fear of the unknown? Seduction? A sense of entitlement? Could we go on and on citing endless examples that lead people to miss the mark, do the opposite of what we know God wants for us and expects of us? Yes.
How quickly does my mouth utter a harsh, unloving word – me sinning against my neighbor? Whoops! The sin – it’s just out there. How easily does it happen, a church made up of good-hearted people, day-by-day, month-by-month, and before you know it years go by. All the while the church ignores the call of God to love the poor in its community, and gradually gets used to ignoring the call of God as if God wasn’t there.
Wait a minute, we say! It’s great if we do works of compassion or wonderful ministries of one kind or another, but it’s not a sin if we don’t! Really? Read Luke 16:19-31. Read Matthew 25:31-46. When we fail to answer the call of God, we commit the sin of omission. Our sin is not murder or theft or idolatry; rather it is failing to do what God clearly wants us to do, and often the sin of omission is committed by a community, not just an individual. The passages I mentioned, Luke 16 and Matthew 25, make it plain that this type of sin, not doing what God wants us to do, has grave consequences.
All sin has grave eternal consequences. Big sin and small sin. Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death.” There’s more to that verse, but for the moment we focus on the first half. Sin is death, eternal death. Cruelty to friends or peers, lying, cheating, immoral sexual activity, sins of omission as we’ve described, abusive language, haughtiness, and a thousand other sins we commit and sinful attitudes we harbor in our hearts as individuals and as a group lead to our death. We can’t blithely ignore our part in communities (churches, industries, nations) that sin against God. Sin leads to death. Sin, such as the creation of and worship of idols, which Israel found out.
There they were, oblivious to the reality that God saw all they were doing – God always sees us. They thought Moses was long gone. The were not sure of themselves or of God or of anything. In their anxiety, in their uncertainty, and in the waiting, they took matters into their own hands. They decided to take up work that belonged God, and the dictated the terms of worship in a way that was direct violation of the commandments they had pledged to obey.
So there they were with the golden god of their own creation. Ignoring God, forgetting God, tired of waiting on God’s man Moses, they partied with their golden statue, their man-made god. In Egypt, under Pharaoh’s whip, they pathetically cried out, and God responded with deliverance. In the desert, starving and dying of thirst, they complained, and God provided bread and meat and water.
Now, at the foot of the mountain, waiting, they run out patience and lose interest in the God who saved and fed and strengthened.
Moses showed up. His “anger burned hot” (32:19). He smashed the tablets containing the 10 commandments. He ground the golden calf into a fine powder, poured it in water, and made the Israelites drink it. He put swords in the hands of the Levites and had them kill 3000 of their fellow Israelites because loyalty and faithfulness to God is even more important than brotherhood. “Go through the camp … kill your brother, your friend, your neighbor” Moses said.
Reading that, I thought of Jesus who said.
I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:35-37).
He does not say these things because he’s anti-family. Jesus’ words throughout the gospels show that he understands the importance and strength of family bonds, and he kept his own relationship with his mother Mary right to the end. His intent in these harsh words – “I have come to set a man against his father” - is to dictate where our first loyalty must be. What he says only makes sense if he is God.
Moses’ actions, killing and making people drink gold dust, only make sense if he is God’s man and the people have committed sins so heinous that they have offended God. It’s just a golden calf; it’s just a theological error and bad worship practice. Don’t we sometimes make mistakes in worship? Is it that bad?
Exodus 20 – Moses gives the 10 commandments, commandments that declare God’s sovereignty and might and right to rule over these people. Exodus 24 – “The people answered Moses with one voice, and said, ‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.’” It’s not just a golden calf or little sin or a simple error in worship practice. It is a people undoing all that God has done on their behalf. God wasn’t enslaved by Pharaoh. God wasn’t hungry in the wilderness. The rugged desert declared his glory. All of creation is “good.” God made it. The salvation of Israel from Egypt was not something God needed. The people needed God, not the other way around. Their exodus was God’s way of again creating – creating a people for himself. This was God’s statement – I am your God, you are my people.
The people’s decision to create their own god for worship was also a statement. They would undo God’s work of salvation. They would reject God’s declaration of authority. They would deny God’s sovereignty over them. God said to wait. They got tired of waiting and weren’t going to wait any more. Every time we sin, small or large, we reject God’s work of creating us as his people; we reject God’s ways, and the redemption Jesus accomplished for us on the cross. Really? Our sins are that significant?
Really! In all arenas of life, every little corner of my life and your life, we either live God’s way – in our attitudes, words, thoughts, actions, and relationships; or we don’t. It is God’s way, or we are living in sin.
The people broke the second commandment – you will have no idols – because they didn’t accept the first commandment where God says, “I am the Lord.” They they wanted to be sovereign. We do it all the time.
We reject God’s authority in our lives, go our own way, and suffer the consequences. Sin with words leads to broken relationships. Sin through violence leads to more violence. When we sin by neglecting of the needy, we perpetuate the brokenness of the world. We drink gold dust and we die because sin has consequences. My sins hurt me and others. The sins of others hurt them and me.
The Bible is God’s story. Sin messes up God’s story. If we stay in sin, God kicks us out of his story. Other than removing sinners like us from the story, does sin impact God in any other way?
7The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!< 9The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
Exodus 32 presents the resolution for human sin, but to understand and hear the good news in this passage, we need to agree to something. My intent is to hear this as it is written, without appealing and contesting any major theological positions. My belief is that the best news we can hear is this: no matter how awful we are, God hears our prayers and answers our prayers.
Did God know what we would pray before we prayed it? I am not even attempting to answer that question. Did God know in advance that Israel would create a golden calf? Does God know right now that this week, I will sin against my wife with my words, and I will sin against God and my community by neglecting a good work of compassion God calls me to do? I have no problem if you say, “Yes, absolutely, God knows!” I am not calling into question your salvation if you aren’t so sure. I readily admit, I am not certain of what God knows and doesn’t know.
I am confident that Exodus is the word of God and what I read there brings me hope in spite of the fact that I am a sinner. I say not because Exodus is about me. It isn’t. I say that because Exodus is about God and what it says about God is still true about God and is true in relation to all people. God is a responsive God, and God responds to sins and to sinners. We’ve already discussed the response to sin. People drank gold dust and got killed. What about God’s response to sinners? It begins with the sinner right there with Him, Moses.
Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“
God listened to Moses. This narrative is not presented as if the golden calf incident was a part of God’s original plan. It reads like the people thwarted what God had in mind. It’s like God made a discovery. “I’ve seen this people, how stiff-necked they are” he said in verse 9. God had plans for a people who be his own, but he discovers that he doesn’t like them, sinners that they are.
That’s easy enough to fix. He’ll wipe them out and start over. He’s done it before. Remember Noah, and the flood. It’s a familiar approach except that there’s no guarantee that the new people, descendants of Moses, would be any better. Not only that; Moses is not interested in being the new Noah.
It’s astounding to speak of God “discovering” what the people are like, stiff-necked. It’s even more unexpected and possible unpalatable to think that Moses had to talk God out of killing the people. But that’s exactly how this reads. Moses appeals to God’s heart, to God’s reputation, and to God’s promises. And God listens. Just stop there. I don’t care if you think God knew what he was going to do all along, or if you think God was surprised by the people’s rebellion and surprised by Moses’ chutzpah. I don’t know what God know. But I trust Exodus, and Exodus says God listened to Moses. This isn’t about Moses; it’s about God.
When the people were slaving under Egyptian overlords and they cried, God listened. When they hunger and cried, God listened and fed them. When Moses begged God not to kill them for their sin, God listened. Throughout the book of Judges, the people fall into enemies after they have sinned, and then they cry out. No matter how grotesquely they sin, when they cry out, God listens. That’s the redemptive part of the story – in Israel and in my life and yours.
There are painful consequences when we sin. The relationship with God is damaged. But we stay connected, through prayer, confession, & repentance. We stay connected to God and God listens.
Exodus 32:14: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
That’s the New Revised Standard Version. The Holman Standard Christian Bible is virtually the same. If you prefer, here is the Kingdom James Version: “And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.”
You can wrestle with the disturbing idea that God has to repent or that God might bring evil. I won’t solve those problems this morning. Neither will I pretend they aren’t in the text because they clearly are. For me, struggling with my sins, hope comes in the knowledge that God allows a change, even of his own mind. The story I am living, a story of sin and the failure to overcome it doesn’t have to be the final story. God has an alternative in mind.
The change God proposes, from annihilation to re-creation is ultimately seen in the coming of God in human flesh, Jesus, the bringer of a new covenant, the one who gives new wine. In Him, we are new creations. Before Him, we confess our sins, turn from them, and declare allegiance to Him even as we receive the forgiveness he offers. On the cross, He takes the death for our sins on himself. We die in sin, and with him are raised to new life – new creations in Christ. Because of Jesus, we read not a portion of Romans 6:23, but all of that verse, the Gospel in a single sentence.
23For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Sin is real and has consequences on us and on the relationship with God. But God never stops loving us. When we cry out to him from our sin, he responds in love. As terrible as little white lies and golden calves and mean words and all the others sins the book are, God still hears us, responds to us, and loves us. Due to His grace, we have life.
Monday, October 3, 2011
(I preached this sermon three years ago at my church, and was tempted to preach it again. But then I sat down and thought about who all was present then and is still here now, and I decided, I'll redo this one when this lectionary text rolls back around in 2014.)
Have you every stood in line and watched the rollercoaster as it slowly climbs the big hill before going over into the abyss. The line you’re in while waiting for your turn creeps along as slowly as a steamy, tired July afternoon. First there’s boredom. Time passes. As you get closer; thoughts race through your mind. It seems that the hill is higher than it was at a distance. It takes about a day to get through that line. It’s just long enough for you to realize you want to be anywhere but on that rollercoaster. But you can’t back out – what weenie you would be. So, you face the executioner with much less courage than you’re showing. He fastens your safety bar over you and you and the 13-year-old behind you who is screaming bloody murder even though the ride has barely begun and everyone else gets buckled and begins the ascent. This is when time stops. You creep along, higher, and higher. You see the rest of the amusement park as it gets smaller and smaller below you. Creeping higher and higher, you enter the cloud bank. O when will we get over the summit, crash down to earth, die and be done with it. Higher, … oh … we’ve reached the top. The car up at the front goes over. It disappears. And then the next; only two more to our car. The next one disappears over the great expanse. When will this end. Could this go any slower?
What’s it like to wait for something?
In little baseball, I would look at the batting order taped to the fence. One, two, three … going down … ah nine – Tennant. Forever and day and a number of innings that seemed mathematically impossible went by. It was plenty of time to size up the opposing pitcher. It’s hard to believe a 12-year-old could be 7 ½ feet tall and throw a baseball 150mph. You’d think Sports Illustrated would have discovered him. I was unnerved when they had a ready made hole in the ground to bury the kids he hit in the head with one his frequent wild pitches. Up they go, and down. He seems to be getting faster and bigger. “Tennant you’re on deck.” O S---- (nope, can’t say that in church). Why does this bat feel like it weighs 40 lbs? And what’s that racket – oh, just my knees. Finally, the kid ahead of me strikes out. It seemed like three pitches would take less time. But, now, I am standing there staring at Nolan Ryan and I remember I insulted this kid in science class and he told me I’d get mine on the ball field, right below the chin. Does he recognize me in this helmet? When is he going to throw the ball? I can’t move a muscle. I am petrified.
What’s it like to wait for something?
What’s it like to be in a holding pattern? In basic training, we went to the reception station where we picked up uniforms, shined our boots, marched in formation and heard stories of how bad it was going to be when we went “down range.” They were going to introduce us to new experiences of pain. And we couldn’t wait to get there, and get it over with. But we had to wait. Worse. The hospital waiting room – waiting for the report from the surgeon. Success or failure? Will his face tell? Oh, how longer must we wait?
What’s it like to wait for something? What’s it like to go from childhood to old age in slavery, waiting for God to send a deliverer? The descendants of Jacob’s 12 sons whom we meet in the book of Genesis, the 1st book in the Bible, settled in Egypt. Those 12 families multiplied the way families do and prospered economically in Egypt. A couple of generations passed and the large family grew to be a small, rich nation. There was no waiting.
When all is good, we don’t wait for things. We’re caught up in success, joy, and prosperity. But, the new Pharaoh was not caught up in anything. He was Egyptian and he had no thought for Hebrew opulence. He took the small country, the people descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God’s chosen people. Pharaoh took their riches, and enslaved them and worked them in brutal conditions. All they could do was cry out to God and wait. How long oh Lord? This is the anguished cry of faith.
They found out how long, when God sent a deliverer – Moses. This stuttering, second brother performed mighty works of God including the parting of the ocean, and they weren’t waiting any more. They were moving. They followed him through the Red Sea. They followed him into the Sinai wilderness. They were on the go, headed to the Promised Land!
But you know what? Even when we’re moving, we can find ourselves waiting. After the thrilling victories, the bizarre wonders of the plagues and the spectacle of God’s parting of the sea, what came next was a whole lot of walking. Put down the left foot and then the right. Repeat. Haven’t we done this 10,000 times? Is today any different than yesterday? Nope. More walking. The nation of God’s chosen people became an eight-year-old on a long car trip. “Are we there yet?” What’s worse than slowly plodding along with countless miles ahead? Coming to a full stop with countless miles ahead. The interstate becomes a parking lot.
Moses said, “OK everybody, you wait here. I am going up on the mountain to talk to God, and I’ll come back down and tell you what he said.” Moses went up on the mountain. There were flashes of lightning and bellowing thunder. Nobody in Israel’s camp was bored. Nobody was waiting. Everyone was terrified. Then Moses came back, his face aglow, and there were important ceremonies. Some of the other leaders got to get closer to God. Everyone heard as Moses read the 10 commandments and everyone pledged to obey all the Lord had said. Then Moses went back up to get more instruction from the Lord. The cloud of the Lord’s presence covered the mountain. It was like a devouring fire. Oh no, no one was bored. No one felt the monotony of waiting. This was awesome and spectacular. How many people in history have seen something like this? They would be happy to stay down and wait and hear what Moses had to say. And that’s what they did. They sat at the foot of the mountain and waited. And waited. And Moses was gone for 40 days. Over a month, they waited.
What’s it like to wait for something?
Let’s leave Israel there at the foot of the mountain for a moment. They’re not doing anything anyway. They’re just waiting. They’ve done that before. We all have. Let’s talk about God.
When he put Adam in the Garden, he did so out of creative love. God was creating and admiring what he made. He made the ocean and saw that it was good. He made the plants and animals – oh, it was good! Then God said, “Let’s make human kind in our image.” That, my friends, was described by God as very good. Creative Love!
Then God invited the man he had made to join him in creation. God created the animals, and had Adam name them. Adam could make no claims about anything. He was a created being. Yet God invited him into a partnership. This was collaborative love. God includes people in His plan.
God also considers our needs. He saw that Adam was lonely. Adam had animals under his leadership. He had untainted fellowship with God. But he needed more, so God took his rib, and gave a partner. God, out his compassionate love for the man, created woman. Creative Love; collaborative love; compassionate love. Even after Adam and Eve sinned, God made a way for them. Even after their son Cain killed their son Abel, God protected him. Even after every human being turned away, except Noah and his family, God preserved the human race. Can God be defined, contained, captured, or summed up with a few words? I don’t know. Can love be defined, contained, captured, or summed up? Any love story will include some bumps and some pain. Any story of God is a love story because God is love. In his relationship with us, we ignore Him, reject Him, and turn from Him. He hurts because he loves us and sees how our sins bring us suffering.
Don’t miss the fact that in His love, God gets very angry. He did send the flood that wiped out life on earth. Following the story through Genesis and Exodus, we see numerous examples of how severe God’s punishment can be. God is harsh enough that we would fear Him and judge Him to be cruel. We must though remember that His anger is connected to and related to His love. From Eden to the flood to the tower of Babel to the Sinai wilderness and the traveling, waiting Israelites, God displays passionate love for people.
Speaking of those Israelites, let’s get back to them because they got tired of waiting. Moses must have gotten too close to God and died. Something happened. It had been 40 days. They were not going to wait anymore. Their impatience awakened in them just enough boldness to confront Moses’ weak-willed second in command, Aaron. He had no defense against the rush of the mob action. “We don’t know what’s happened to Moses. So, you make a god for us.”
Does that make any sense to you? The people did not have the educational framework to interpret their situation in scientific or logical terms. I don’t know that we do today. Our best and brightest logicians and physicists will be hard pressed to explain the whole Red Sea miracle. So, rational thought was not a resource. They had been slaves. They were led out of bondage by a poorly-spoken miracle worker. They walked through an ocean that conveniently parted for them and then swallowed their pursuers. Now, they were at a standstill in the desert waiting for the aforementioned mumbling Moses on whom they were completely dependant. And he had been gone for over a month.
If logic wouldn’t work – and it wouldn’t – they would turn to religion. But it had to be a religion of their own making. They had tried faith. In faith they followed Moses. In faith they committed to obey all the word he said God had given him up on the mountain. In faith, they were now here waiting. Just waiting. No more! They didn’t know about reason or scientific advancements, and faith had failed them. So, they’d create religion based on whatever god Aaron created for them.
His wellspring of creativity was dry and shallow. He collected everyone’s gold and fashioned a calf that looked remarkably like Egypt’s sacred bull and Canaan’s fertility gods. Thick as he was Aaron provided ample confirmations of his dimwittedness. Later on when Moses would confront him about being the point man in this direct violation of the first two of the Ten Commandments, his well-crafted excuse was “I dropped the gold in the fire and this calf popped out.” The people wrested control of their fate away from God and set up Aaron to be their fall guy because it was so obvious that he was a nincompoop.
Then the people partied!
Do you remember what we said about God? God is a passionately devoted lover of His people. When he gave the 10 commandments and led Moses to share them with the leaders and the people, food was also provided.[i] There is similar language used to describe this golden calf party. The people didn’t have a golden statue. They had the word of God. And they were invited to look at God. They were invited have dinner with God. It’s right there in Exodus 24. “They saw God. Under his feet was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. God did not lay his hands on the chief men of the people of Israel. They [saw] God and they ate and drank.”[ii] Fast forward ahead to the motley crew intimidating poor Aaron; they too ate and drank, but the verbs indicate a self-indulgent party. Previously, they ate and looked upon the face God. The meal was a holy experience; an act of worship. This time, staring at their statue of a baby cow, they were partying and celebrating their own ingenuity. No science; no faith; they would live with a religion of their own making that they could fully control.
Every love story includes some heartbreak. God was giving this law as a gift of his love, so His people whom he cherished would have peace, order, and prosperity. At the same time he was raging with righteous anger because he saw everything they did. God loves us too much to ignore us. He doesn’t always intercede the way we want Him to or when we want Him to. But, he always sees us. He’s always aware of our lives and interested in our lives. God broke off his dictation to Moses. His fury was piqued.
“Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt![iii]
Analysts make much of God’s pronouns. He calls Israel “your” people indicating that Moses is their leader. Why would God be so wishy-washy? When he recruited Moses for this job, he called Israel “My people.” Now, they’ve messed up, and they are Moses’ people. It’s like when a mom is fed up with her rambunctious, head-strong boy, she says to her husband, “Do you know what your son did today?” It’s not ‘our’ son; when he’s naughty, he’s ‘yours;’ when he’s adorable, he’s ‘ours,’ or maybe even ‘mine.’ God called Israel Moses’ people. He said, ‘I have seen how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation” (32:9-10).
Moses didn’t like that plan. It was a repeat of how God re-created when his people were mired in sin in the days of Noah. He started over with Noah’s family. Moses did not want to be this generation’s progenitor. He, if I may say it plainly, sets God straight.
“O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“
What’s more out of bounds, arguing with God, or winning the argument? First, Moses reminds God that these are God’s people. They do not belong to Moses. Once he’s got the pronouns straight, Moses reminds God of Egypt. Because of course, God is terribly concerned about what the Egyptians think of him. His divine reputation is at stake and Moses doesn’t want to hear any Egyptian gloating and he knows God doesn’t want that either. Third, Moses reminds God that he made a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He’s got to keep his word. He is after all, God! How could God forget all of this? It’s a good thing Moses was there. He functioned as God’s personal assistant.
This all sounds inane, but it has been the fodder of Bible commentators for ages on end. Some think God was testing Moses to see if he would stand in the gap. God all along knew what he was going to do, but he wanted to see if Moses would speak on behalf of the people. Other scholars paint a picture of a capricious, diabolical God who intended evil until the real hero of the story, Moses interceded. There are theories beyond that.
This is a troubling narrative. If God is all-knowing, why did he need Moses to remind him of things? If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever – immutable as the theologians say – why does it say in Exodus 32:14 that he repented and changed his plans based on Moses’ impassioned argument? I hope you won’t be too frustrated when I state that I do not know those answers. Often, I read the Bible, pause, think, wonder, pray, and close it unsure of the answers to all my questions. This story would be for me one of those cases.
Even with that confession that I can’t answer all of the questions of the Golden Calf narrative, I do walk away with some conclusions. First, a big part of our faith is waiting. What we do while we wait, reveals what kind of faith we have. God’s people had been through a number of disorienting ordeals. But, they had also seen the evidence of God like few people in history. They knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was in control, that God heard their prayers, and that God loved them. They knew it, but it wasn’t enough. They wanted to dictate the terms of the relationship. Fed up with waiting, they broke the very first two rules God gave. If they were trying to force God’s hand, it worked. He did not destroy them as he said he wanted to do. But, he punished them severely. Many did die. The rest had to eat the golden calf. It was ground into dust and they were forced to consume it.
One of the lesser known figures in the New Testament is an old, righteous man named Simeon. His story is told in Luke 2:25-25. The Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he saw the Messiah with his own eyes. When Mary and Joseph brought their little boy Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem to be blessed, the Spirit nudged old Simeon and said now is the time. He never questioned that the salvation of Israel was this little baby he held in his arms. Through tear-filled eyes, he said, “Master now you are dismissing your servant in peace … for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29-30a). After Jesus rose from the grave, and ascended to Heaven, the disciples huddled together in Jerusalem and waited. For 40 days, they waited – the same amount time the Israelites waited at the foot of the mountain. However, the disciples didn’t create a golden calf, they prayed. And after 40 days, at Pentecost, they were filled with the Holy Spirit.
A second conclusion I walk away with after reading of Moses and God and the golden calf is that God cannot be contained, explained, or controlled. God is real dynamic, unpredictable, relational, passionate, and interested in us. God knows what’s going on in our lives. Just as we are waiting for Him to step in, He’s waiting for us to invite him. He wants us to turn our attention off ourselves and toward Him.
Look at the two activities that took place in periods of waiting. Those who followed Moses saw more miracles and more spectacle than anyone before or since. It didn’t produce faith. Instead of trusting God they, decided to displace God. God responded with harsh punishment because His loving heart for them had been rejected. The disciples in the same period of waiting prayed and worshipped. God responded with a violent rush of wind that filled them with the Holy Spirit and empowered them to share the gospel and establish the first churches in history. God loves us and responds to us. That’s the kind of God He is.
This leads to a third conclusion. What we do, how we spend our waiting time, has an impact on the life we have with God. Those who grow in faith through prayer and worship in times of uncertainty will be filled with the love God. Those who dismiss God and turn away and reject Him fall are punished. I think most of the time he simply lets us suffer the consequence of his absence and our own mistakes. What if God had done nothing with the Israelites when they made that calf? They would have been overrun by Egypt or enslaved by one of the other powerful nomadic that dominated Sinai. As rough as their discipline seems, when it ended, they were still God’s people headed to the Promised Land. I believe the reason it went that way is as angry as God was, he still loved them.
He loves us. Sometimes in our walk, we have to wait upon the Lord. The period of waiting is our opportunity to worship, pray, and grow. When we take that opportunity we are ready for whatever God has next. Even as we wait, He sees, He loves, and He plans grand things for us. Together, in faith and trust, let us wait upon the Lord.