Our story from Exodus provides a couple lessons for us, one negative and one positive. It has been on my mind this week, in particular, as many of you have dropped in to express your opinions about what will happen at or to St. Alban's, even as you sought to understand why Karen and I were convinced God was calling us to Nashville. The story takes place after Moses' famous intercession on behalf of Israel. To refresh your memories, God freed Israel from Egypt. He led them through the Red Sea. When they hungered for bread, He gave them mana. When they hungered for meat, He gave them quail until they got sick of it. When they thirsted in the desert, He caused water to flow from the rock. Just before this scene, He has brought Israel to His mountain. He called Moses up the mountain to give Him the torah to give to Israel. While Moses was gone that forty days, Israel got impatient. Rather than waiting for Moses to return, Israel sculpted a molten calf and began to worship it. God was, understandably, furious. In fact, He is so angry with Israel that He tells Moses He is going to destroy them all and make a nation out of Moses.
Is God's anger understandable? Absolutely. Could He make a new nation out of Moses without violating the covenant He made with Abraham and Jacob and Isaac? Of course. Moses is a descendant of the family. Were God to destroy everyone and start all over with Moses, He would still be keeping His promise to Abraham and the other patriarchs and matriarchs. Moses, though, wants nothing to do with starting over in the scene right before this. In that scene, Moses appeals to God's desire to glorify Himself in the world to convince God to turn aside from His plan. Were God to destroy the Israelites, Moses argues, neither the Egyptians nor any of the “ites” would think God worthy of praise. God relents, but He tells Moses He is going to punish Israel for its unfaithfulness. The problem is how God is going to keep His covenant with such a stiff-necked, hard-hearted people.
As you might imagine, Moses does not relish the idea of the people being punished. Every time something goes wrong, they blame him. All he gets to do is listen to is whining and griping and complaining. And when they are not grumbling, they are sometimes plotting to stone him for leading them into this mess. Did you lead here because there were not enough graves in Egypt? At least in Egypt, we got to eat meat occasionally. We need water, and you lead us to a desert? Moses knows what the future holds for him, and he wants no part of it if God is not “all-in.” Moses has learned all too well that Israel needs God, that Israel cannot be saved if God is not shepherding them.
Moses reminds God that He has told him to lead these people, but not who will go with him. He asks God to teach him His ways, if He has found favor with His servant. God assures Moses that His presence will go with him and that He will give him rest. But Moses complains that it is not enough. If your presence will not go with us, do not lead us from here. Moses appeals to God’s selection of Israel to begin with. How will we and how will people of the earth know we are distinct? Again, God promises that He will give Moses the very thing for which he asks. But Moses wants a sign! The man who saw the burning bush, the man whose staff invoked the ten plagues on Egypt, the man who parted and then closed the waters of the Red Sea, the man who arranged for the manna, the man who got his people quail, the man who struck the rock in the desert so that the waters flowed, the man who went up the top of the holy mountain to get God’s instruction for the people requires a sign. He asks to see God’s glory so that he will know he has found favor and that God will keep His promise.
God tells Moses that what he asks is impossible. In the movie Dogma, there is a seen where the angel tells Bethany that he has to speak for God because the awesome voice of God causes the heads of mere mortals to explode. “It took us four Adams before we figure that one out.” Imagine what the glory of God would be like. God’s voice terrified Israel; His glory reflected in Moses’ face caused them to ask Moses to hide his face. Yet, here is Moses asking to see God’s glory and to see Him face to face. God tells Moses He will proclaim His glory while protecting Moses, but that Moses will be allowed to see only His back. It will be enough for Moses.
Our lesson today contains several lessons, but two of which are appropriate to us as we come to this point in our journey together. One is a negative example; the other is a positive lesson. By negative, I mean that it gives us an example of what not to do or be. My conversations with those outside our denomination the last couple weeks have brought up this story repeatedly as to why they think it is ok to stone certain groups, to ridicule certain groups, to support those who kill “evil” people such as abortion doctors, and the like. The argument goes something along the lines of “God takes sin seriously and sometimes uses us to execute His judgment.” They are absolutely right that God takes sin seriously. He takes sin so seriously that He cannot allow Moses to see His face in Moses’ current state. Just as you and I breathe or blink without thinking, God destroys sin. What He is protecting Moses from in this part of the narrative is Himself and His unwillingness to countenance any sin. We might say, though, we need to understand that we are grasping to define the undefinable, that it is in God’s nature to destroy all sin, that it is an autonomic response of who He is. It is such a part of Him that He does so involuntary. God understands this and acts to protect His servant Moses.
But look at where the story occurs in the timeline of salvation history. Has Israel been taught that sin requires a blood sacrifice? No. They do not yet know about the torah. They do not yet realize that it will take blood to wash their sins. Naturally, if they do not yet understand the Temple system, they have no idea that God’s Son will come in ultimate fulfillment of that requirement, that all who claim Him as Lord will be washed clean in His blood. The Cross is not even a wild idea in their heads, even if it is already accomplished in God’s mind as He speaks with Moses.
When we or other Christians look back on the story of the molten calf and use it as justification for “executing God’s judgment,” we are guilty of misusing God’s Word and of dishonoring Him in the world around us. Does God take sin seriously? Absolutely! Does God sometimes execute judgment? Of course. Could He use human beings to execute His judgment? He can, and I think sometimes He does. I wonder, however, how many of those whom He uses in such instances know they are fulfilling His purposes ahead of time? By that I mean that Jesus, whenever He is describing Judgement Day, always teaches that it is He and His angels who will do the culling, who will do the separating, and who will do the judging. Yes, you and I are called to take sin seriously. Yes, we are called to call our brothers and sisters into repentance when they sin and to call the world back into relationship with Him. But the effectiveness of that call to repentance and the power of that call are not determined by us. Christ’s offer on the Cross made repentance acceptable before God; Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross made it possible that all humanity could see God’s glory without being destroyed. When God teaches that He who knew no sin became sin, this is what He meant. Jesus has paid the price! In full! Jesus has made it possible for us to get back into right relationship with God. Jesus has made us worthy to stand before our Lord. None of it, absolutely none of it, depended upon us. All we can do is share the wonderful story.
When we hear people in our daily life and work claiming that we are called to mock certain groups because of their sin, that some lives are not as important as others because of their sins, or that it is ok for us to take an active point in their punishment and death, we need to be the voices that are saying “no!” We need to be the voices that are reminding others that our efforts cannot atone for our sins, that our judgements can be wrong, that we are just fishers of men and women, that He is the one who decides punishment. Might such a reminder upset our friends? Naturally. But when we remain silent in the face of such comments, that this group deserves to die or that group deserves to suffer, we are closer to the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Worse, our silence carries a cost. By remaining silent, we allow our Lord to be dishonored among those who do not yet know Him! And make no mistake, when people ask what we think of this behavior or that behavior, we are called to tell them. But never are we to ridicule them, never are we to called harass them, never are we called to execute His judgment on them. They, like us, are cross-bearers who follow the Lord. They, like us, sometimes stumble, sometimes tire. More amazingly, He died for them, even if they ultimately reject Him. He, not us, decides when their time and their chance to repent is up.
Now, I said at the beginning that there is a negative lesson and a positive lesson. We focused on Matthew and so missed the reminder of the power in a faithful Intercessor. But as I reminded you of the story, I told you that Moses convinced God to turn aside from His wrath and the new plan He was going to execute. Have you thought about the audacity demonstrated by Moses? Moses has the temerity to argue with God! Argue. And Moses is not alone. I have joked in the past that I should be serving at a St. Jacob church because I fight with God constantly. I fuss, I fume, I tell Him how things would be better if He did them my way. And, while He has not had to resort to dislocating my hip, He has, from time to time, had to take that holy 2 X 4 and crack it over my head! How many of you are the same? How many of you argue with God and His plan?
We speak on occasion around here of being called into His family. We talk in the language of the perfect adoption. Because of our faith in Christ and His faithful obedience, you and I are seen by God as first born sons and first born daughters. We are entitled to a double share of the inheritance because of Christ’s work on our behalf. The sins which would cause us to be destroyed by His glory like Moses in today’s are so covered by Christ that He sees Him in us! He longs for that wonderful parent-child relationship with us that all humanity craves. He wants nothing more than for us to think of Him as abba, daddy.
Perhaps you have been a child. Maybe you have been a parent. Ever had cause to argue with a child or your parents? Family relationships at their best are such that we can love each other and argue with each other. God, by virtue of our faith in His Son, allows us to be in that kind of close relationship with Him. He expects us to argue with Him. He allows us to argue with Him. Every now and then, He even allows His mind to be changed by our arguments, so long as our arguments are in keeping with His character. Moses caused Him to change His mind because He appealed to His honor among the nations. What would the nations think if You destroyed Your people? Would they know it was Your judgment? Or would they presume You were weak? Think of that for just a second, God allows us to argue with Him. Now, most of the time we will lose, but we lose because we do not see and hear and understand clearly. We may be like Jonah and prefer that God zap our Nineveh’s, but God shows mercy to our enemies just as He showed mercy to us. We may think a winning lottery ticket will meet our provision needs better, but God knows the pull money has on our lives. Many of us are better off getting our bread daily. And unlike us as parents or our parents, God makes no mistakes. Better still, even when we screw up, even when we ignore His plans for us, no matter how badly, He can still redeem our messes and our mistakes! That, brothers and sisters, is the relationship He offers and to which He calls each one of us!
Why do I mention all this fighting and arguing and provision? The elephant in the room today, the pastoral problem, is my announcement this past Tuesday that we are leaving. Starting Wednesday, I had a steady parade of parishioners and others in orbit of the parish who wanted to express their concerns. Thankfully, many of you were supportive and recognize that this call was not our doing but His. Some of us, however, forgot that the Lord who calls me also calls you. In the midst of this week, there has been a natural angst. What will happen to us? Will we ever attract another priest? Will the bishop close our doors and sell our church? By Friday, I had grown a bit short in my answers. Were the church to die when I left, it would be an indictment of my time among you and of your ministry in the community around us. As a group, we were seeking to do God’s will for St. Alban’s and not our own plan. The ministries that we do around here, I believe, we do in accordance with His call on our lives and on this parish. Better still, we do them to God’s glory, hopeful that our service of them in His name will cause them to ask us why or even draw them in themselves. As Moses’ argument with God reminds us this weekend, He will glory Himself in us and give us peace.
Will the future look like what we hope or expect? Most likely not. Most of you know my call story. I wanted to wait until I had banked money and the kids had grown to go through discernment. In my mind, churches could not support a priest with four kids. I know His plan so far for my life and that of my family is more amazing than I could have ever dreamed. And, in case you weren’t paying close attention, Karen and I have seven children! I daresay His plans for St. Alban’s is more amazing than any parishioner’s wildest dreams. Do you really think St. Thelma thought her dream of feeding the homeless would continue for forty-seven years, let alone get picked up by national radio to encourage others to go and do likewise? Do you think St. Grant ever thought in his wildest dreams that a returned underwear ministry would produce between 5 and 10 thousand pairs of underwear for the homeless and needy in the QCA, let alone get copied by other communities? Do you think St. Julie herds the ECW through the Bazaar because she likes stress? And, let’s face it, did you ever think you would hear someone refer to Vern or Julie or others as “saint?” Do you believe that St. Michelle runs SmartChoice for our parish, cleaning up after St. Robin’s and my mistakes, because she has nothing better to do during the weeks or on Saturdays? Did you even in a million years believe that slavery existed in our midst or that your priest would be tapped by the Archbishop of Canterbury to help craft the response by our Communion and the wider Church? Do you think St. Robin and St. Larry just like hanging out in prison because their evenings are boring? Do you think St. George and St. Annette just like the challenge of making questions for Trivia hard, but not too hard? Do you honestly believe that St. Nicole likes her ministry with the choir because she relishes the challenges of herding cats, that it makes being the mother of teenage twin boys seem like a piece of cake? Looking around the room today, each you present has a ministry or more that you do in joyful obedience to God. Our Lord knows that every bit as well as He knows each one of you and me. He knows and loves each one of you well enough to give you the freedom to argue with Him, to share your ideas and dreams with Him, and to ask that He show you His glory in your life. Best of all, though, He is a loving Father who will not allow you to settle for your dreams and for your hopes. He has even greater plans in store for each one of us than we can ever ask or imagine. It is that Lord, that God, who will see us each through this transition and however many more we will face in our lifetimes, and who promises to bring us home in peace!