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Monday, October 10, 2011

Sin (Exodus 32:1-14)

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.

What’s left?

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.


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