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Monday, January 13, 2014

God - Complicated, Holy, Loving (Exodus 34:6-7)

We are on a mission to “get into the Bible,” and to “get the Bible into us.”   We as HillSong Church recognize that God has given a beautiful gift to humankind, a gift that helps us know God.  From hundreds of people in ancient times, the Bible comes to us.  The Bible is not from one hand but from many – writers, editors, prophets, priests, pastors – all inspired by the Holy Spirit over a span of more than 1000 years,.  It is a very human book.  At the same time it is the living word of God.
            We can only meet the God described in these pages if we fully accept what the Bible says about God even when it is inconvenient and not easily compartmentalized; even when it sounds different than what may have always thought.  God does not always fit the models we know.  Many passages show this.  We will focus on one – Exodus 34:6-7.

            Exodus 34:6-7 (NRSV)

The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.”

            Do you see the difficulty? The Lord keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generations, forgiving sin.  The Lord by no means clears the guilty but visits iniquity – the painful legacy of sin’s evil and hurtful consequences – on children, grandchildren, great grandchildren.
            God will forgive all your sins and you will be in good relationship with God.
            God will punish you for your sins.  God will punish your children for your sins.  God will punish your grandchildren for your sins. 
            We need God to be consistent.  We need God to conform to descriptive categories.  God is not all that concerned about our categories.  God forgives – we can count on it.  God also takes sin seriously – with extreme seriousness.  We may not forget it.  We have to deal with God – God in God’s entirety. 
            God is not a salad bar.  We do not have the freedom to select the carrots and radishes but leave the tomatoes in their place and off our plate.  Above all, God is holy and we have to meet God in God’s holiness.  We have to realize that when we pray, we are praying to one who is Holy Other.
            Worship in our culture has become casual and comfortable.  Pastors used to wear robes with colors matching the liturgical season.  Some still do.  In other traditions, pastors used to wear suits.  Many still do.  Worshiping church goers used to dress in suits and Sunday dresses.  Many still do.  However, in increasing numbers, churches like ours have become quite comfortable in blue jeans.
            Casual dress and easy informal environments are helpful when they remove obstacles that block the path between people and God.  One of the essential accomplishments of God in the flesh – Jesus – was to clear the way so that people could get to God.  Ethnicity, ritual, corrupt leadership – Jesus came to break through these roadblocks and open the way for all people to come to God.  If in 21st American culture informality in church life helps people get to God, then it is good.  This is why at HillSong worship is informal.
            Informal worship becomes damaging when the form leads us to think of God only as our buddy pal.  Jesus is my homeboy!  Um … No!  Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the master of my life.  Jesus is friend, yes, but a friend I turn to in desperation.  Jesus is not a friend I call back when I get around to it.  Jesus d0es not conform to my schedule.  He is King.  I am at his service.
            Exodus 34 does not say all of this in so many words.  It does give the Bible reader an early, forceful assertion of who God is.  Some background helps.
            God created the earth. God made human beings as God’s managers, the ones made in God’s image.  We are to run the world according to God’s ways.  That’s Genesis 1-2.  We have dropped this assignment.  We’ve rebelled against God, over and over.  In Genesis 3 Eve and Adam eat forbidden fruit.  In Genesis 4, Cain commits the first murder in human history.  Genesis 6-9 brings worldwide sin, the flood, and God starting over with Noah’s family.  By Genesis 11, worldwide sin has returned as humans have completely discarded God and attempted to climb to Heaven on the tower of Babel.
            God continually has to clean the messes we make.  To enlist humans as partners in the effort to maintain holiness, God selects a nation – Israel – to be his holy people.  But, Israel sins as much as the rest of humanity and by the end of Genesis, Israel is in slavery in Egypt.  In agony, Israel cries out and God brings the deliverer, Moses.
            Moses works the wonders of God and leads the people out of Egypt.  With the power of God, Moses parts the Red Sea so that the people may walk through.  Then then nation camps out at the foot of Mount Sinai while Moses climbs to meet with God.  But the people grow restless waiting.  Remember, you and I are part of the story and we are sinners.  We reject God’s ways.  We do our own thing and often, our own thing includes horrible choices that bring pain down on us and those around us.
            Israel sins as much as you and I do.  Sick of waiting for Moses and this God they can’t see, Israel makes a golden calf – a statue of gold shaped like a juvenile cow.  And they say, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).  We are wise to not point out how ludicrous this is, worshiping something of your own making.  God saw Israel’s foolishness.  God sees the idiocy of our sins too. 
            God raged at Moses and threatened to wipe the whole nation out and start over with Moses as the new patriarch of a new people.  Moses wants no part of this and bargains and manipulates and pleads.  He argues with the holy God.  Moses begs God to reconsider.  Exodus 32 tells us that God listens to Moses’ appeal.  It says, “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (32:14).
            That raises questions.  Does God know everything?  Did God know the future?  Did God know in advance that God would change God’s own mind?  If God knew God would change God’s own mind, then was it really a change of mind?  The Bible makes no effort to resolve this.  It says, “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” 
            God is a God who meets with human partners in all our sinfulness.  God reacts and responds to things humans do.  Banishing the first couple from the garden; the flood; the conversation with Moses: these are instances in which God changes course after a dynamic engagement with a person.  God does so all the while remaining who He is – God.  God’s sovereignty – His power and authority – are never compromised.  Yet, God is not predictable.  We cannot fit God into categories of sovereignty.  God is as free as God is sovereign. 
            The Lord changed his mind.  Read Exodus 32-34.  God’s chosen people were harshly punished, but not wiped out.  God met with Moses and re-established what had been given and violated.  God gave the 10 commandments and they were broken.  God gave them again.
            For Moses, a new let of law slabs was not enough.  Promises were not enough.  “Show me your glory,” Moses asked (33:18).  A cloud of smoke was not enough.  The passageway through the Red Sea – not enough.  He wanted to see God with his own eyes.  How would God respond to such audacity?  God had already thundered and threatened and now this tiny thing, a human, makes demands? 
            God said, “I will make my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name, Yahweh. … But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (33:18-20).  Adam and Eve did.  They walked with God, and enjoyed the intimate love of God.  They saw God’s face regularly.  They walked with God in the cool of the day, every day.  Then they threw it away and just as humans were stained with sin, God’s holiness changed.  It had been illuminating.  After Eden it blinding.  Deadly.  But, even with the degradation of sin it wasn’t over because God is not locked in.  God could speak with Moses in person as a friend.
            And in that meeting God said to his friend, “The Lord keeps steadfast love to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity.”  The Lord also said, “The Lord by no means clears the guilty but visits iniquity upon the children of the sinner to the fourth generation.”  The Lord forgives, the Lord remembers for generations.  It becomes unofficial policy.  We will suffer for what our forbearers did. 
            The Babylonian exile was the ultimate example.  The Israelites in the Southern Kingdom of Judah for several generations turned their back on God.  Finally, in 586BC God had had enough!  God sent the mighty Babylonian empire that destroyed Jerusalem and burned the glorious temple of Solomon to the ground, punishment for generations of rebellion.  The children of the sinners were sent to exile in Babylon. 
            But then, in exile, again, God said, enough!  These people have been punished enough.  And God does a new thing.  The people are not ready for it – we never are.  The prophet of exile, the prophet Ezekiel, tells of God’s new word (Ezekiel 18). 
14 But if this man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise… he shall surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, he dies for his iniquity.
19 Yet you say, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.

            Is this a violation of Exodus policy?  No, this is God exercising God’s freedom.  Both punishment and forgiveness are expressions of God’s love.  The ultimate new act of God’s love was to come in human form, Jesus.  Jesus is God’s new thing.  Jesus is God’s definitive statement of sovereignty and freedom. 
            Jesus is every bit as complicated as the God who forgives to the 1000th generation and at the same time I punish to the 3rd and 4th generations.  Religious experts could not understand him, yet he was accessible to children.
Jesus certainly is holy.  The New Testament book of Hebrews also testifies to Jesus’ holiness.
Most of all, the God who would not punish his people forever, who forgave after the forbidden fruit was eaten, who protected Cain even though Cain was murderer, who opened the Red Sea to let his people pass through knowing they would sin with the golden calf on the other side – that God is fully seen in the love of Jesus on the cross. 
We have the Bible so we can know that God, worship that God, follow that God, exalt that one, the only God.  Before we attempt to define God, we admit our attempts will inevitably come up short.  We’ll try to define God any way.  But we find life and our joy is fulfilled completely when we enter the Bible and meet God.  We get to know God a bit more with turn of each page.  Like any relationship, some points are hard – even painful.  But we keep going deeper and deeper because we know there is nothing else we want or need than to know God. 
Last I week I recommended memorization as a pathway into God’s word.  Then in my newsletter article I recommended reading the Bible through in a year.  I imagine the memorization piece will work for some people and the read-through pathway will help others.
This week, I recommend that you write out specific knowledge of God.  Whether you read 4 chapters or one verse, keep a “God notebook.”  Write how your reading of the Bible helps you see and know God.  It would be interesting to do this daily for 6 months or so then go back and see who this God is that we meet in scripture.


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