10.15.2017 Preaching Text: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he had planned to bring on his people.” (Exodus 32:14)
With apologies to John the Baptist, I sometimes feel as if I too am “crying out in the wilderness.” My entire ministry, in other words, has been dedicated to separating out the dominant influence of our ever-changing and increasingly secular culture from the biblical narrative.
Our reading from Exodus this morning offers a perfect example. To us it’s nothing short of bizarre.
As Moses is “delayed” on the mountaintop while receiving the “10 Commandments,” the Israelites grow restless. Forgetting that it was Jahweh who liberated them from Egyptian slavery, they’re now eager to abandon him. It’s as if to say, “What has Jahweh done for us lately?”
In their impatience they demand that Moses’ brother Aaron also forsake Jahweh. Their wish is to turn to the pagan fertility gods for sustenance and succor. (The bull calf being a common symbol for the paganism of the day.)
Aaron, wishing to please the mob, gives them what they want. He gathers all the gold from the community and fashions from it a golden calf. He then calls for a ritualistic celebration, replete with eating, drinking, and dancing to honor the fertility gods.
For the biblical writers, this is apostasy, and a willful break with the covenant made to their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is, as it turns out, only but the first of numerous examples where Israel abandons the true God for the pagan gods that dominated the then Near East.
For Israel’s theologians, this is the worst sin imaginable: to abandon God and worship another. Nothing comes close. And as a result, we’re told, Jahweh is burning hot with anger.
So much so, in fact, that he tells Moses he plans to bring the full force of his wrath upon the Israelites, and from Moses’ lineage create a new people.
Moses protests. He argues that Jahweh’s enemies will scoff when they learn that Israel’s God brought them out into the wilderness only to “consume them from the earth.” Most importantly, he reminds Jahweh of the covenant he had made with Israel, promising to multiply the nation “like the stars of heaven” and to give them as an inheritance the land they are about to inhabit.
Moses pleads with Jahweh, saying, “Turn from your fierce wrath; and change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.”
In response, the narrative says this: “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he had planned to bring on his people.”
Now, believe it or not, this is where the biblical story confronts our modern sensibilities. For here, we are told, God “repented,” a word that means to “change one’s mind.”
Yet how can this be? It’s one thing for us to repent. But God?
In my last Beacon article I referenced the Declaration of Independence where it says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
The history behind this is that Thomas Jefferson’s original language maintained that these “truths” come from God. It was Benjamin Franklin who persuaded Jefferson to change this to say these truths are “self-evident.”
That’s because Franklin was a Deist, as were many of the Framers of the Constitution, including, perhaps ironically, Jefferson himself.
In short, Deism holds that God is the “divine watchmaker,” that while God did indeed create the world and everything in it, he then absented himself from everyday life. He simply wound up the watch and let it go.
Thus God the Creator is not involved in the affairs of human beings, but merely observes from heaven what we do with the laws and truths he launched at creation. God therefore cannot intervene in our lives. It’s entirely up to us to make good on the eternal laws and truths he established at the dawn of time.
Not surprisingly, this accords seamlessly with the thinking of the Enlightenment which argued that human beings, not God, are the “measure of all things.” It is therefore entirely up to us to utilize God’s divine and earthly laws and truths to create, in effect, heaven on earth.
No longer can we rely on God’s ongoing directives, but must discover God’s laws and expertly apply them. Through enlightened ‘management’ of these laws, civilization can move progressively away from the comforting but blinkered belief that God is in charge and actively involved in human affairs.
Freed from self-imposed dependence on this mystical ‘sky god,’ humanity is now finally able to reach maturity and to release, by means of its proper application, the innate promise born of science and reason.
At best God becomes merely the author of these laws and principles. (At worst he’s no longer even necessary.) He’s even bound by his own set of rules. His freedom is now limited.
Yet in Exodus, as elsewhere in the Bible, the God we encounter is altogether different. Here God is more like a person and not an abstract law or idea, as the Enlightenment would have it. In its pages God is at all times existentially present and involved, insistent even. Nothing is “self-evident.” All of life is premised, and bound to, God’s active and living spirit.
In Exodus God “repents,” as elsewhere in the Old Testament. Here God acts like a living being, continuously interacting and interceding – and with a mind of his own. He is not an abstract Idea much less a dispassionate Judge. In the New Testament Christ is portrayed as the “living Word” who reveals and enacts the often unpredictable force of the Providential God in our midst.
In the end, all the philosophical constraints we moderns place on God are a mere shadow of God’s true being. We Christians pray not to an Unmoved and Immovable Divine Being or ‘Godhead,’ but to a powerful, passionate, loving Person, a Person who, we are told, may on occasion even change his mind, that is, repent!
When we pray, therefore, we pray not to an abstract, inanimate Idea, but to an actively loving Holy Parent. When we seek intercession, we do not seek a response from a set of unchanging mechanistic laws of, say, physics or mathematics, but from a living, beating Sacred Heart.
One of the oddities of the biblical God, one that challenges our modern worldview, is that God rejoices when we rejoice and even feels our pain when we feel pain. The biblical God is not impassive or detached. The God of the Bible is instead a personal God, one who shall not ever leave us to our own meager devices. Amen.