This week, we launched a new season of the Bible study, “Garden to Garden.” In the course of six months, some of us are going to read the whole Bible, cover to cover. We began with Genesis and have already moved into Exodus. Before Easter we will make it through the Book of Revelation. It’s an ambitious project because we’re reading ten or more chapters a day, but we’re doing it together, and we’ll support and encourage each other along the way. We’ve been told there will be lots of grace if we fall behind. (If you’re intrigued by this project, it’s not too late to sign on.)
Our guide for this study is Danielle Parish, a pastor at Spark Church in California. She’s leading us through written materials and a video lecture each week, and when she welcomed us to the study this week, she invited us to leave our idols at the door, to set our preconceived notions of God down and let God have the opportunity to teach us something new about Godself – to be open to the surprises we might find as we explore these holy writings in which God reveals Godself to us.
So today I’m going to unpack my bag just a bit and set down one of my assumptions about God, one of the things church people tend to say about God:
God is like a rock: constant; the same yesterday, today and forever.
Today’s text is a story that just has to be told. You saw it in the Time for Children and heard it read a few minutes ago, but let’s unpack it a bit. There’s a phrase that you may have noticed gets repeated again and again – “the people are brought up out of the land of Egypt.” But who brings them up? It seems there’s confusion….
While the echoes of their vows were reverberating among the hills, the people lose their way. Moses goes up the mountain to confer with God and is gone a long time – 40 days and 40 nights – and the people become afraid. “We don’t know what’s become of this Moses who brought us out of Egypt,” they say to Aaron. What they’re saying is half true. Moses did bring the people out of Egypt. But it’s only half true, and half truths tend to cause problems. On a deeper level, it was God who rescued the people from slavery. But the people couldn’t see Moses or God, so they pressed in on Aaron and implored him: “Make us an idol.”
With very little argument, Aaron complies. “Take the rings of your fingers and the earrings out of your ears, and give them to me,” he says. He takes their gold and melts it down and produces a calf, something they can touch and see. Aaron makes a false god…or at least a false representation of the true God. And then he gives them something to worship in place of God. And the people say, “These gods brought us up out of the land of Egypt.”
We also tend to misplace our trust in God and have a holy reverence for things we can see and touch and feel – things like money, power, fame, and career. While they’re not bad in and of themselves, their allure and the ease with which we can grasp them can misplace our allegiance. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish: What has our deepest devotion? What things have we put in front of God?
Scene Three takes us to the top of the mountain.
God has noticed what’s going on down below and says with great alarm, “Moses, you’ve got to get down there immediately! These people that you brought up out of the land of Egypt have turned aside from me and made an image of a calf, and they have worshipped it and sacrificed to it. Like a parent who says to his or her spouse, “Do you see what your children have done?” God even seems to be confused about who brought the people up out of Egypt.
It’s rather disconcerting for us to find God overcome by jealousy. Sure, we know that God has said, “I am a jealous God.” In fact, God even says, “my name is Jealous.” (Ex.34) But here we see it lived out, and it makes us a bit uncomfortable.
We’re in the midst of the sermon series called “God Is(n’t),” and we’re grappling with the difficulty of describing God. How can we possibly speak about God whom we can’t even wholly imagine. And yet this unknowable God desires to know us, to love us, and to be in relationship with us. So God has given us clues, signposts to help us understand who God is and who God isn’t, and God says, “I’m jealous.”
Impoverished as this image is, here’s my best shot at describing what it means to be jealous:
When I was 17 years old, I dated a guy who was year older than me. He was a nice guy; we had fun together; but then he went off to college, and we decided it was best to part ways. He needed to immerse himself in his new adventure, and I wanted to enjoy my senior year.
A few weeks later, I met another guy, and we started dating. It was casual, no strings attached. We had mutual friends, so it was fun to hang out. Christmas vacation rolled around, and I ran into my old boyfriend at a basketball game. I told him I was dating someone new, and that was fine, but we stayed out late that night talking and said, “Let’s go out tomorrow night.” The new guy called the next day to ask me out, and I said, “Hey look, I’m going to see my old boyfriend tonight; I hope you don’t mind.” But the new guy said, “Yes, I do mind. I don’t want you to go out with anyone else. I want you to be loyal to me. I want to be in a relationship with you.” My new boyfriend was asking me for fidelity. He was protective of the new relationship that was forming; he was jealous.
There is a subtle difference between jealousy and envy, I think. I might be envious of your new sweater or your job or your house. I might even covet your life. But to be jealous in a relationship is to ask for faithfulness. A committed relationship requires the safeguarding of loyalty.
In the story of Exodus, we see that God is jealous. We see that this God who rescues Israel from slavery also makes demands. God wants us to be committed to God, as well.
God is a mystery. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann asks, How is it that a ‘mystery’ can be demanding? We expect a mystery to be without shape or form and awe inspiring; we expect a demand to be intimidating, visible, and political. These two incongruous ideas come together in God.
In this story, God is so angry that God tells Moses to get out of the way. “I have seen how stubborn these people are. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”
And then comes Scene Four:
Moses asks God: why is your anger so hot against these people? Why would you destroy them? You are the one who brought them up out of Egypt. Would you destroy them only to have Egypt say, look, this is what their God has done? You are God. Remember your promise – the one you made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.
Here’s the good news: God is a God of promise, and God changed God’s mind. God might be angry with us, but God’s faithfulness to us is greater than God’s frustration with our inability to love God back. The core of who God is – “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in love” – wins the day. This theme gets repeated over and over again in Hebrew scripture. God is slow to anger. Funny thing, the literal translation of this phrase is that God is “long-nosed”. Earlier when God’s wrath burned hot, the original Hebrew located the heat in God’s nostrils. And when it says that God is slow to anger, it literally says that God is “long-nosed.” God’s nose is long enough to let the wrath cool down by the time it makes its way to the surface!
So what of my preconceived notion that God is unchanging; that God is the same yesterday, today and forever? Immutable, we say. Absolute and irreversible. We catch a glimpse of God in this story that tells us otherwise. God changed God’s mind. The thing that is unchanging is this: God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God keeps promises!
The mercy, the grace, the love that is embodied when God comes to us in Jesus was here from the beginning. We’re remind each time we hear these words:
“Again after supper, Jesus took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to all to drink saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this for the remembrance of me.’”
Each time we receive communion, we remember that God has claimed us for God’s own. Our lives matter to God. Each life matters. God hears our cries when we struggle, and God bears us up like on the wings of an eagle.
God calls us to live into the promise, to live in the covenant of our Baptism – to share the work of healing and forgiveness, to share the work of redeeming God’s creation.
Just like the Israelites of long ago, we are drawn to the things we can see, the things that give short-term satisfaction. But God says: Love God – love me, for I love you – and love people. There’s promise in these words, a promise to last through the ages and a rock on which to stand. Amen.