Saturday, September 10, 2016

Living, Breathing, Moving Images of God

Sverdrup Lutheran Church, Underwood, MN
September 11, 2016--God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday
Exodus 32:7-14

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

What makes a story so compelling that you just have to see how it ends?

Ask any author that question—and the answer will certainly be:   tension.  

Tension is what drives every good story…
....and tension simply overflows here in this story in Exodus chapter 32!

First there’s the tension that sets up the whole thing. 

Moses and God have been in a long, long conversation on the top of Mount Sinai—such an extended exchange that it seems like it’s never going to end…

….and this prolonged absence of Moses their leader…causes the children of Israel, who are encamped at the base of Mt Sinai, to grow restless and to start begging Aaron (who was second-in-command to Moses, his brother)….they start begging Aaron to cook up an alternative leadership structure for them to put their trust in.

So Aaron collects all sorts of gold jewelry from the Israelites, melts it all down and produces a golden calf for the people to worship and follow….even though that flew right in the face of the First of God’s Ten Commandments that had already been handed down from Mt Sinai:  “You shall have no other gods before me.”

This initial tension is immediately compounded when God catches wind of what’s happening.   

To say that God is not pleased with the children of Israel is an under-statement.    God is livid, so angry with his fickle people--whom he had just rescued from slavery in Egypt!—God is so ticked-off with them that he wants to let his fierce wrath “burn hot against them and…consume them.”    

God’s first inclination is to wipe out these brazen rebels and start all over again with Moses:  “Of you [Moses] I will make a great nation.”

Talk about dramatic tension!  Talk about turning up the heat!

But then Moses responds to God by doing something quite unthinkable:   Moses dares to disagree with the Almighty One!   

This introduces a whole new layer of tension to the story.  

Instead of accepting God’s offer—to start all over again with Moses and his descendants (which would have been a pretty sweet deal for Moses!)—instead, Moses risks getting sideways with God even though God has every right to punish his wayward people.

Here’s how Eugene Peterson, in his wonderful paraphrase of our text puts it:
Moses tried to calm his God down. He said, “Why, God, would you lose your temper with your people? Why, you brought them out of Egypt in a tremendous demonstration of power and strength. Why let the Egyptians say, ‘He had it in for them—he brought them out so he could kill them in the mountains, wipe them right off the face of the Earth.’ Stop your anger. Think twice about bringing evil against your people! Think of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants to whom you gave your word, telling them ‘I will give you many children, as many as the stars in the sky, and I’ll give this land to your children as their land forever.’”

The upshot of the amazing argument that Moses lays out is that “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

What’s going on here?   How can we make sense of this astonishing turn of events?

Let me suggest that both God and the people of God had one thing in common here:  They both, in their own ways, momentarily forgot the kind of God that God truly is.

The children of Israel, deprived too long of connection and communication with God, reverted to the superstitious notion that their God must be like every other god—a deity who can be depicted or “imaged” using lifeless, inert material taken from the earth itself---whether with carved wood, hewn stone or precious metals.  The children of Israel momentarily forgot who God was and imagined that God could be depicted as cold, unfeeling, impassive like a golden calf crafted from their melted-down jewelry….which is to say:  a god they could carry around and have at their beck and call.

What the children of Israel temporarily forgot was that they had a living God on their hands—a God of fierce passionate love, a God who is always connected and responsive to his creatures, a God who exhibits a whole range of emotions, a God who is anything but lifeless, impassive or inert.

And what God seems to have forgotten temporarily is that he’s more than a god of justice and consequences, more than all the garden variety “god’ll get you for that” kinds of gods that people continually approach with fear and trembling.

Moses reminded God—literally, in the heat of the moment--that God had already made a tremendous investment in this fickle people, God’s dear chosen ones.   God didn’t want to rescue his people from slavery in Egypt only to burn them to a crisp in the wilderness, thus making God the laughing stock of those wicked slave-masters in Egypt.  

Moses reminded God that his wrath is really the flip side of his love—God’s passionate, jealous love for his chosen people.  Moses reminded God of all the gracious promises he had uttered not just to this present generation but to all their ancient ancestors--to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob….promises God had sworn to keep if it would be the last thing God would ever do.

Moses, in this astonishing argument that he lays out before almighty God, persuades God to remember the commitments God had already made to his precious people—past, present and future.   Moses caused God to remember that although he could never be properly “imaged” or represented by inert matter, God had placed his image within the human creatures he had so graciously fashioned.  

God who is anything but aloof and impassive had chosen from the dawn of time to be represented on earth by living, breathing moving images of God…..persons like you and me through whom God stoops down to do God’s work on this good earth.

And there (in case you were wondering)—there is the surprising connection between this wild, wild story from Exodus 32 and what you and I are about here, today, on this God’s Work, Our Hands Sunday.

For today and every day you and I represent….we bear the image of the one true God who is anything but impassive or aloof or far removed from his whole creation.  

To put it another way:  God chooses to do nothing without us.

“God chooses to do nothing without us.”

Please hear that clearly, friends.   I’m not saying that God can’t do anything without us.   I’m saying that God chooses to do nothing without us.

This is God’s modus operandi, God’s M.O.   God imagines, speaks and acts always with us, the whole human family and the splendid creation that is our home, clearly in view

God is always finagling new ways to climb into human skin, in Jesus, and now in the community that bears the name of the Risen Jesus, for the sake of “getting at the world,” saving, restoring, renewing, transforming, making you and me and all things new.

God labors over, God aches for this whole groaning creation, this whole struggling human family….and the main way God gets at us, is through us—our voices, our hearts, our feet, our hands.

Simply put:  this morning God is going to do some painting, some cleaning, some picking up of trash, some packing of school kits and baby-care kits, some cheering up and encouraging of first-responders and nursing home residents…

God’s going to do all that, even though the paint spots will be on our skin, the blisters will be on our fingers, the sweat will be on our brows, and the satisfying warmth will be felt by our hearts.

As God’s chosen, named, claimed walking images on earth….we have the unbelievable calling to roll up our sleeves and care for our Creator’s beloved ones….our fellow human beings, all the other creatures on our planet, and this good earth itself.  

We are the ways, the vehicles, the means whereby our God continues to till and keep and tend the whole creation.

In fact, this is what we were created for….and in Jesus Christ it is what we were re-created for:   trusting God, loving our neighbors and caring for the earth.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

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