Exodus 32:7-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Don’t you wonder sometimes why God doesn’t just get fed up with people and walk away?
I mean, think about human behavior. For thousands of years, people have been judging each other based on meaningless differences, keeping others away from resources God has provided, and treating each other violently.
And think about our own behavior. When I offer Morning Prayer each day, and the time comes for the Confession of Sin, I find myself mostly confessing the same things I confessed the day and the week and the month before. That may mean that I suffer from a failure of imagination, but I don’t think I’m alone. Try this thought experiment: How do you take your own path and turn away from what you know God would prefer? Bring a few examples to mind. Got some? OK, now, if I’d asked you that question last week or last month or last year, would you have given very different answers? I imagine hearing our confessions must be incredibly boring for God, because the story really doesn’t change much as time goes on.
For the first people of the covenant, the people of Israel, their collective category of sin seems to have been idolatry, in the sense of embracing gods other than Yahweh. Sometimes those gods looked a lot like our own idols: possessions, privilege, power. But sometimes those idols looked like, well, idols – as in today’s reading from Exodus.
Moses goes up Mt. Sinai to receive God’s Law, and we know he’ll be gone 40 days. But the folks back in the camp, at the foot of the mountain, don’t have any idea what’s happened to Moses. Maybe they’re just looking for a chance to party, but maybe more than a month of silence has made them wonder whether this Yahweh really was the one who’d brought them out of slavery after all. Maybe it was the local deity – which is how people understood divinity in that day, different gods reigning over particular geographies. So, they create a representation of a local god, a golden calf. Maybe it’s celestial fishing, trying to see whether that god would take the bait. But for whatever reason, they do what people have been doing forever, which is to put the worries of the moment, and their own self-interest, first.
So, God sees this and goes into a rage. “What, it’s not enough that I inflicted plagues on your enemies, and freed you from enslavement, and gave you water from a rock, and fed you in the wilderness with the bread of angels? You want to worship something else instead of me?” God tells Moses to get out of the way while the Lord brings the hammer down. “Don’t worry,” God says to Moses, “I’ll just start the covenant over with you once I consume all of them.”
But Moses says to God, “Wait; hold on a minute.” And he talks the Almighty out of it.
OK, let’s hit the “pause” button on this story. Here’s Moses – not exactly a guy with a perfect history, a murderer who turned down his call from God multiple times – here’s Moses interceding for these stiff-necked people who are dancing around the golden calf. Now, put yourself into this scene. Imagine that God was speaking as directly to you as to Moses. And imagine that God was about to bring down judgment on everybody but you. Would you decide to ally yourself with the people God was about to “consume” in righteous anger (Exodus 32:10). What was Moses thinking?
I don’t think Moses was on the side of the rebellious people per se; I think Moses was on the side of the relationship with God that they’d broken. Once Moses got back down the mountain, he was just as angry with the people as God had been. It’s not exactly a happy little story that follows today’s reading: Moses and his supporters kill everybody who’d turned against his leadership, and God sends a plague against the ones who remain alive. Clearly, there are consequences for turning away from a covenant you make with God. Because keeping the covenant is job one.
So, back to the story. Up on the mountain, Moses explains to God why the Almighty’s plan is wrong. And then comes maybe the only thing more surprising than Moses’ response to God. It’s God’s response to Moses: God changes God’s mind.
OK, hit the “pause” button one more time. Isn’t God supposed to be omniscient? At least some Christians would say that God wrote the whole script for existence before the Big Bang ever happened, that God knows all and has worked out everything yet to come. But here, we see God changing God’s mind. What’s going on?
Maybe both for Moses and for God, the answer lies in the importance of honoring commitments. Moses pledged to God that he would bring the people out of slavery – slavery to Pharaoh and, now, slavery to their own temptation to choose the gods they want. And well before that, God pledged to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to bless them and their descendants with land and abundance. God and Moses are both fully aware that the people have failed utterly by substituting their own solutions for God’s. But in a covenant relationship, you’re not simply pledging to observe the stipulations of the deal. That’s a contract. In a covenant, you’re pledging yourself to the other party and committing yourself to walk along together.
We know a little something about covenants. Every time we celebrate Eucharist, we remember Jesus’ New Covenant with God’s people, eternal life for all who’ll trust and follow him. Every time we celebrate baptism, we renew our Baptismal Covenant, pledging to trust in God who is Father, Son, and Spirit; and pledging to live our lives following Jesus, in loving commitment to God and the people around us. When we get married, we stand before God and make a covenant with our beloved to invest ourselves in that relationship as long as we both shall live. When we’re ordained, we make a covenant with God and God’s people to live out the trust and responsibility of a new order of ministry. So, covenants seem to be our pattern of commitment, too.
I think it’s interesting that what God asks of us is not just our worship or our tithes or our following of the rules. Apparently, what God values most is covenant living – investing ourselves in relationships, with God and one another, even when the other covenant partner doesn’t deserve it.
Think about how crazy it is that the most influential follower of Jesus in all Christian history is the apostle Paul. At the start, Paul even beats Moses as the most unlikely hero, not just telling God “no” but “Hell, no!” In the second reading today, Paul describes himself as “formerly a persecutor, a blasphemer, and a man of violence” (1 Timothy 1:13), arresting and killing followers of Jesus because they were breaking the religious rules of the day. For having co-opted God’s role as judge, Paul was the last person to give us a gospel of grace, of divine love freely given – but that’s precisely how God asked Paul to change his mind.
Paul didn’t deserve a second chance any more than the people of Israel. The truth is, neither do we – and our redundant confessions confirm it. So, here’s the good news: that God chooses love over the highest holiness score. Remember the Gospel reading today: Where God works the hardest is with the one who’s lost. Where God works the hardest is in the areas of our lives that are out of alignment with divine purposes. Sure, God appreciates all the coins that are properly collected and kept neatly where they’re supposed to be. And God appreciates the 99 sheep who don’t go off on their own paths. But what makes God rejoice is when the lost one is found and brought back home.
So, in our own lives, what are the relationships that challenge us the most, the ones we might feel justified in letting go? Where do we need to consider changing our minds? Maybe it’s sticking with someone we’d sooner leave behind. Maybe it’s entertaining the possibility that there might be some truth, maybe even some holiness, in the “other side’s” world view. Maybe it’s remembering that being in relationship is what makes all people grow into the full stature of Christ – both “them” and “us.”
When we ask ourselves those hard questions, and when we do the work to strengthen the covenants that challenge us most, we gain the last thing we’d expect – peace. In the upside-down reality of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, we find that committing ourselves to hard relationships brings counterintuitive joy. We are blessed with being stuck with people we find hard to love. We are liberated from judgment when we bind ourselves to God’s grace.
In those moments when we think we know best, when the world tells us we’re completely within our rights to walk away from the people we’re bound to, or even to punish them for their sins, that’s when God says, “Wait. Grace beats judgment, even when judgment seems deserved, even when judgment seems righteous. After all,” God says, “even I changed my mind.”