Brothers and sisters in Christ: Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus, who is the Christ. Amen.
We’re in week 3 of our sermon series – “God Is/God Isn’t” – in which we’re exploring various attributes of God to better understand who God is and how God has been (and continues to be!) at work in the world. Through the wonderful story of Creation in Genesis 2, we looked at what it means that “God is Dialed In” to the deep desires and needs of the people God created. Last week, we were reminded that “God Isn’t What You’d Expect” as we saw God’s boundless love and mercy play out through the story of the prophet Jonah.
Today’s sermon title is, “God is Jealous.” I’ll be honest – – I’m excited to be here, and I’m grateful that Chris has given me the opportunity to preach – – but of all the attributes of God that I would love to talk about, “jealousy” is probably toward the bottom of the list. But that’s okay – it’s a great text, nonetheless!
But before we delve into the text, we need to look at what comes before it so we can see the bigger picture. In the prelude to the story of the Golden Calf, Moses has led the Israelites out of 400 years of slavery in Egypt through the wilderness to Mount Sinai, as they make their way to the land that God has promised them. It’s here, at Mount Sinai, that God creates his covenant relationship with the people – a covenant that began with Abraham, and that is now being more firmly established.
“If you obey my voice and keep my covenant,” God says, “you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation….” The people are to proclaim the one true and living God, bearing witness to the other nations of the earth. And they respond: “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do” (19:8), a promise they will repeat two more times (24:3, 7).
Then God gives them the Ten Commandments (20). And he begins with these words: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” It’s important to note that God doesn’t say, “I am the Lord God.” He says, I am the Lord your God.” From the very beginning, God establishes a relationship with the people – they are his people and he is their God!
And the very first Commandment is: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The people are to be absolutely loyal to the God who has claimed them as his own and has entered into relationship with them. This command is followed immediately by the prohibition against the making of idols, and God adds: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…”
Between the creation of the covenant and the events in our text today, God has called Moses back up to the mountain. And there, for 40 days and 40 nights, Moses receives detailed instructions from God about the construction of the tabernacle, which is the means by which God will bless Israel with his presence and make himself available to the people.
But at the bottom of the mountain, trouble’s brewing. The people are getting anxious. It seems that Moses has been up on the mountain forever! “Where is he? What’s taking him so long,” they wonder. They need a sign of God’s presence.
Earlier in the wilderness, God had appeared to them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. And here, at Mt. Sinai, God had made himself known in smoke and lightning and thunder! But they haven’t seen or heard much from God lately. And with Moses nowhere to be found, the people are floundering. They’re losing faith. They have a desire for something tangible that can lead them as they continue on their journey.
And so, in spite of the promise they’ve just made to obey God and remain faithful to the covenant, they appeal to Moses’ brother, Aaron, who was left in charge while Moses went up to the mountain: “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Without batting an eye, Aaron complies with their request. He tells the people to hand over their gold (which, by the way, was intended to be used for building and furnishing the tabernacle), and Aaron uses it to cast a golden calf. The people respond by bowing down to it and proclaiming: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
God is furious! He tells Moses to get down from the mountain ASAP because “Your people, whom you brought up out the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” I love the fact that God’s initial reaction is to try and pin this on Moses! It reminds me of the times when my own children got into trouble and I’d say to their father: “Guess what your son did today?” (Of course, when they were well-behaved or did something that made me especially proud, they were my sons, too.)
God relays to Moses everything that has happened at the base of the mountain because Moses, of course, can’t see any of this. And then God tells Moses, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” These are frightening words! God’s description of the people acting perversely is essentially the same that God used in describing the people just before he flooded the earth, back when he started over with Noah. Clearly, God is serious – he’s had it with these people!
And then he says to Moses: “Of you I will make a great nation.” A tempting offer, I would imagine, but Moses doesn’t take it. And surprisingly, he doesn’t leave God alone, either. In fact, he intercedes on behalf of the people and begs God to change his mind and not bring disaster upon them. How does Moses do this? By posing three very compelling arguments:
- “First God, in case you forgot: These are not my They’re your people, whom you brought out of Egypt!”
- Then Moses gets even bolder: “Destroying your own people in the wilderness would not be good for your reputation! The Egyptians could say, ‘Look at this so-called faithful God – – he brings his people out of Egypt and into the mountains only to annihilate them!’”
- And then comes the real clincher: “Remember the promises you made to your servants, Abraham, Isaac and Israel! You gave them your word that you would multiply their descendants like the stars of heaven and that they would inherit the land forever. You can’t go back on your word! This isn’t who you are!
And with this, “…the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” Even in the face of disloyalty and rebellion and abuse of freedom, God keeps his promise to love and to bless and to prosper his people!
What an amazing turn of events! Moses intercedes for the people, and God changes his mind! In discussing this text, Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim says, “Human prayer (in this case, Moses’ intercession) is honored by God as a contribution to a conversation that has the capacity to change future directions for God, people, and the world…. It is this openness to change that reveals what it is about God that is unchangeable: God’s steadfastness has to do with God’s love; God’s faithfulness has to do with God’s promises; God’s will is for the salvation of all.”
This story provides a wonderful illustration of prayer – – prayer is, after all, simply being in conversation with God! And if we follow Moses’ example, sometimes it’s being bold enough to get right into God’s face and plead with him, challenge him, and even remind God of God’s own character: one who is faithful to his promises and to his people!
Of course, when we pray, there’s no guarantee that God will change his mind, or that our prayers will be answered as we want them to be (which is sometimes a really good thing, since in spite of thinking we know what’s best, God is ultimately the only one who really knows!).
And then, if you’re like me, you sometimes wait so long for an answer to prayer that you begin to wonder if God is listening, after all! But God does hear us! And this story, with all its drama, is a wonderful reminder that we have a God who invites and welcomes us to dialogue with him, who listens to the deepest desires of our hearts, and who is always faithful in the end.
But back to another attribute of God: jealousy. God is jealous. There’s no doubt about it, because God tells us so! But at first glance, seeing God as jealous makes us uncomfortable – at least, it makes me uncomfortable. Jealousy has a negative connotation, after all. We’re not supposed to be jealous!
But God’s jealousy is different than what we typically think of when we hear the term. For us, it’s associated with the feeling that comes over us when we become envious of someone – for whatever reason – because they have a lovely cabin on a beautiful lake in northern Minnesota… they have money to travel the world… they’ve achieved a level of success some of us can only dream of… they’re eloquent or funny or talented or brilliant… they can fit into a size 10….
God’s jealousy is, of course, completely different than this. It’s born out of the covenant that God and his people willingly entered into – not unlike the marriage covenant made between two people who promise to love one another and to remain faithful to each other through whatever comes their way, good or bad.
“God commanded faithfulness – he wouldn’t tolerate the worship of other gods (a common practice in Egypt and other nations). God was ‘jealous’ in the sense that He expected full devotion, not a partial, lukewarm commitment, on the part of his people.” And he had every right to expect their full devotion – they had given their word, after all. “Everything that the Lord has spoken, we will do.” The words were no doubt still echoing in God’s ears even as the people bowed down to their golden calf.
Yes, God is jealous. But thankfully, God is also loving and merciful and faithful! And that’s incredibly good news for us because – let’s face it – we’re no different than the ancient Israelites. Our golden calves may not look like theirs, but if we’re honest about it, every one of us has them – those things (or people) that compete for our attention, that bring us some degree of pleasure and satisfaction (however fleeting it may be), and that ultimately draw us further and further away from the God who loves us and who has claimed us as his own.
The temptation can be so subtle, so insidious; we barely know it’s there. We want to be faithful – our intentions are good (“Whatever you want, God, I’ll do it!”) – but like the Israelites, it seems that as soon as we have declared our intent to be faithful to God we are off worshiping our idols.
Again and again, we turn our backs on God. And yet, while God may be justifiably outraged at our behavior, God’s very nature will not allow him to turn his back on us. What does God do instead? He opens his arms and gives us the gift of a Savior: Jesus, the Christ.
As you come forward this morning to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion, may you taste the goodness of the Lord and remember the One who gave himself up for you – and for all of us – that we may live in the loving presence of God now and forever. And then, having been nourished, may we go out with courage and joy to bear witness to the one true and living God.