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Pentecost 14C Sermon
Exodus 32:7-14, Luke 15: 1-10
September
15, 2019

 

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Exodus 32:7-14

The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” ’ The LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’
But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, ‘O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth”? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.” ’ And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

Who is God? What is God like? That is a question with which people of faith have wrestled even before Jesus walked the earth! I am going to give you the answer to this question at the beginning of my sermon instead of waiting to the end so you don’t have to guess where I am going: Our God is a God of joy, who loves to celebrate with sinners who repent and are restored to the heavenly community. Now let me expand on that notion,

In our first lesson, God wants to wipe out the people for making an idol to worship. At the foot of the mountain the people have coerced Aaron into making an idol so he collects their gold, melts it down and carves the golden calf; then he proclaims a day of celebration for the Lord the next day. It appears that Aaron did not intend for this to be a new idol or god, but it ends up being a false image of the true God, which is a dangerous thing in God’s eyes.

Why is it so dangerous? What is so wrong with creating a statue or a picture of God? It’s because in our human nature we will worship only that image, and we will only picture God in terms of our limited, human vocabulary. I once heard someone talk about how people describe foreign or different phenomena using words and terms that are not fully adequate. For example, how would a tenth century peasant describe seeing the space shuttle taking off. Without a vocabulary to describe what they see, they might say, “Okay I have seen this thing and it flies, kind of like a bird, but it’s not a bird; it’s bigger than a bird, like the size of a house, but don’t think of it like a house, but it’s big like a house and it roars like a lion, but it’s not like a lion, it roars and makes a lot of noise, and there is fire that shoots out the back of it like a bonfire, but it’s not like a bonfire; it’s like a rock, but it’s not like a rock on fire; eventually from all of these attempts to describe it, you end up with a rocky flying house on fire which is not what the space shuttle looks like in real life at all!

God commanded us to not make any graven images of him first and foremost in the Ten Commandments so that we do not get stuck in our heads and on canvass and in stone or wood or gold how one person or one group of people would describe what God is like, especially when that person or group of people is not totally acquainted with what scripture says about God. This week I learned of the death of my absolute favorite, most influential college professor, Dr. Carl Skrade. Dr. Skrade loved to challenge 18 year-old, wet behind the ears college students in his religion classes because he knew we brought with us our own idols of who we thought God was in scripture. His frustration came when students would argue about the Bible but not know what is really in there! He challenged some of us who were considering Seminary and ministry early in our faith development to dig into scripture with a more critical eye toward what was really going on, and what it really said about God and Jesus. In so doing, he was breaking apart those golden calfs that many of us brought with us about God’s nature and essence.

One of those idols is that God has a solid plan, everything happens for a reason, and there is never any divergence on God’s part from any of that. In the face of that idol, we are told that God changes God’s mind about destroying the people even though they have angered him deeply? That is a hard idol to break! We like to think of a God who has a plan and everything he does is based on his all-knowing, all-present, all-powerful essence that is unwavering. How comfortable are you with a God that is passionately involved with humans, sometimes even surrendering to an unpredictable course of events all because of the gift of human freedom that God himself gave us! We have come up with images of God through our theological ponderings over the years, but then we have this passage that challenges those, and quite frankly many people would like to stick with the idol of God that they have come up with rather than saying, “Hey, the God of the Bible is more than I can describe in my own limited language!” We don’t know God fully; we cannot know God fully; and we cannot describe God in terms that others will know God fully. So it is important that we continue to return to the scripture itself to prayerfully consider God’s essence and being, especially as a God who loves to celebrate with lost sinners who are brought back.

Jesus’ two parables help to break apart that idol. What is God like? Is God like a shepherd who would merely write off one lost sheep as collateral damage out of a hundred? Or is God like a woman who would not go to great lengths to find one coin, since the other nine are enough for her to get by on? No, God has persistent, immeasurable love and grace and would pursue these lost things in order to experience the joy that comes when we get that feeling that come when we find something that we love intensely enough to drop everything to search for it. Remember, Jesus tells these two parables to the Pharisees and the scribes who are grumbling about how Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. Their image of God did not include having a heart for those who weren’t like them! Their image of God was of an aloof deity whose wrath burned hot against anyone who broke the commandments! Their image of God was set in stone and expressed with definite words and images that had become themselves false images of the true God. So, Jesus tells a little of what God is like, using images that they would be familiar with – God is the kind of shepherd who would leave 99 sheep to find one that is lost; the kind of woman who would stay up all night searching for a coin in the dark corners of her house. And not only that, God is like the shepherd and the woman who, when they find what they are looking for, celebrate with reckless abandon out of sheer joy. We matter so much to God that he shows the grace that can make our lost lives different when we are found!

So we have some challenging descriptions about God in our first lesson and Gospel today – God can and does change his mind about bringing his wrath down upon those who deserve it; God is like a shepherd leaving the entire flock behind to search out one dumb lost sheep; God is like a woman who tirelessly sweeps out her house until she finds that one lost coin; God is like one who finds something that he loves so dearly that he wants to celebrate with everyone around him that it has been found. And we are the “it” in that sentence. And those who we like to judge are the “it” in that sentence as well. That is the most challenging part of God’s nature and essence as one who rejoices when the lost are found … we don’t always want those lost to be found, especially when they have done things that are heinous or evil in the sight of many people. Whether it is Mike Davis, channel 10 weatherman who has been accused of pandering child pornography, Adolf Hitler or other serial killers of the past, or that family member that we just cannot forgive for betraying us 20 years ago … God has a way of tracking them down, loving them in ways that only God can, and celebrating when they are restored. That breaks the mold of the idol we have made of God!

I recently discovered that a young man of our son’s age that we knew in Oak Harbor took his own life. It broke our hearts to hear this, and we shared our love with his family over social media. His mother posted a picture of a note that someone put on her truck’s windshield that read, “Praying to God will not help you. Your son is not with him. Read your Bible!” This anonymous note came from someone who has built a golden calf-type idol for God. Dr. Skrade would be going crazy over this note, which claims that suicide is some kind of “unforgiveable sin” according to the Bible. In fact, the instances of suicide in the Bible are met with a range of reaction from ambivalence to praise!

Last week was National Suicide Awareness Week. In light of what Jesus tells us about God’s propensity for joy and celebrations at things that are found, we who have had family and friends who have taken their own lives can be confident that these loved ones have been perfectly healed and embraced by the extravagantly loving shepherd who has finally found them in the midst of the demons that haunted them. Whenever we think we know who God is, and those thoughts focus on wrath that burns hot, then we are to turn to Jesus’ words that break apart those golden idols of our images of God, and remind us of the mercy and reconciliation that are the hallmarks of God’s relationship with all of us. Let us always celebrate with joy when God restores the lost … especially when it is us! Amen!