|God Changes His Mind
God Changes His Mind
Reading: Exodus 32:1-6
Introduction: This week in my early morning watching of television news, I happened to catch an interview of Gabe Lyons, one of the authors of a new book entitled “unChristian: What A New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity….and Why It Matters” (David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Baker, 2007). The book details research done among young Americans, ages 16-29. In the interview, Lyons immediately began talking about the overwhelmingly negative attitude this group has toward Christians. The dominant understanding is that Christian are antihomosexual, judgmental, hypocritical, sheltered and too political in all the wrong ways. Hence the title of the book. “Young Americans share an impression of Christians that is unchristian,” they say on their website. In the interview that I watched, Lyons wasn’t suggesting that Christians abandon any truth claims for the sake of appeasing this generation. But he did want to make it very clear that American Christianity is being rejected by the next generation in overwhelming numbers. Something has gone terribly wrong with the model of evangelism and discipleship and community life in our churches and the vast majority of the next generation want no part of it. Their estimation of the Christian faith is based on their experience of those who claim to bear witness to it.
On a related note, I also saw this week the electronic version of Outreach Magazine, in which the lead article is about the top 100 fastest growing churches in America. But it was an accompanying piece that caught my attention: “Top Ten Things you should know about Unchurched People…if you want them to hear what you’re saying.” In fairness to this article, it is written from a very different perspective from that of the book by Kinnamon and Lyons. Their book describes the people that aren’t headed to a church service anytime soon, and this article describes people that actually show up for a worship assembly. Here are the 10 things the author (Kem Meyer) describes:
1. People don’t care about the church database.
2. People aren’t motivated by your need. They’re motivated by theirs.
3. People don’t care about their next step until they know they’re valued where they are now.
4. People don’t know who you are, no matter how long you’ve been around the church.
5. People multi-task and can’t remember squat.
6. People are turned off by lack of preparation.
7. People relate when you talk about them or people like them.
8. People feel left out and frustrated when you use insider’s language.
9. People aren’t impressed with your theological vocabulary and holy dialect.
10. People love stories, not lectures.
Some of these need an explanation, like the first one. The point is that visitors aren’t particularly interested in filling out cards or signing up for things for the sake of the church’s record keeping. My personal favorite – about multi-tasking and memory, could be said for all us. We need multiple avenues of seeing and hearing and experiencing for ideas to stick. And of course, I’m breaking rule ten by lecturing about this article! But the point of the article is to get those already engaged in a particular church to think critically about how we are perceived from the outside. I admit to having certain quarrels about lists such as this because words like “gospel” and “kingdom” and “Lord’s Supper” seem indispensable to our identity and they certainly are insider words. But at the same time, what is being asked of church insiders is that we consider what sort of message we are conveying. What people know of the story of God is what they experience in the lives of the human beings who claim to be living in the story. And all too often, what they experience is not the story of God at all but the story of God’s children losing our own way.
By now some of you who have been multi-tasking, looking at your order of worship while listening to York talk about his reading list, are wondering what in the world any of this has to do with “Tragedy at 10,000 Feet” because that’s the sermon title in your worship order and you’ve been multi-tasking. I do want to speak of high altitude tragedy this morning, but the distance above sea level is more like 3600 feet – that’s the height of Mt. Sinai. This story began a few weeks ago in our study of the book of Exodus, when God saved his people from slavery in Egypt and brought them out to himself and announced his intentions in Exodus 19:
“Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, ‘This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.’ So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the LORD had commanded him to speak. The people all responded together, ‘We will do everything the LORD has said.’ So Moses brought their answer back to the LORD. The LORD said to Moses, ‘I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you’” (19:3-9).
As the story unfolds at the mountain of God and God gives Moses the 10 words – the 10 commandments – as God speaks from the cloud and the mountain shakes and the thunder rolls, the people become afraid and say to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us or we will die” (20:19). As you read through this story there are some incredible moments of encounter with the living God. There is the constant sense of presence that comes with the cloud and the fire - the visible signs of God that accompanied the people from the moment they left Egypt – as both cloud and fire settle on the Mountain. At one point, God invites Mose to bring along his brother Aaron, and Nadab and Abihu and seventy elders and come up on the mountain. There is this moment recorded in chapter 24:
“Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank. The LORD said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.’ Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. He said to the elders, ‘Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them. When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, and the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the LORD called to Moses from within the cloud. To the Israelites the glory of the LORD looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (24:9-18).
The next seven chapters contain the conversation God has with Moses on the mountain. Not only does God write the 10 commandments on tablets of stone, he lays out intricate plans for a sanctuary that he wants built in the center of Israel’s tent city – a place for the people to come and experience Creator God in their midst. The details of every piece of this sanctuary and even the garments to be worn by the priests who enter it are described and God names the people specifically is gifting with craftsmanship to build it.
But meanwhile back at the base of the mountain, six weeks is passing by, and the cloud and the smoke and fire on the mountain top have become old news. And the people decide Moses isn’t coming back. Chapter 32 begins with these words:
“When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, ‘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.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.’ They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel” (Exodus 32:1-6).
As readers of the story, we can’t miss the contrast: seven chapters to describe a setting appropriate for worshipping the LORD who brought the people out of Egypt; six verses to describe the people making an alternate decision, fashioning a golden calf and throwing together a worship service. I’ve always concentrated on the statement of Aaron in verse four, “they said, These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” It’s a curious statement because there is only one golden calf there, and not Aaron, but the people speaks of gods, not a god. But even more curious is the proclamation Aaron makes in verse 5: “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” Whenever you find the word “LORD” in our English translations written in all capital letters, that is the translator’s way of telling us that the divine name, Yahweh, is being used. This was the word reserved for the one true God.
So how is it that the people could build this golden calf and then worship Yahweh? What were they thinking? The golden calf was a tangible image of the worship and the life they remembered back in Egypt. This week I saw something in this text I’ve never seen before. The people are not seeking to replace Creator God with the golden calf. They’re trying to replace Moses! The statement, “these are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of Egypt” refer to the way in which they had come to view Moses. Moses was the one they had seen doing the miracles. Moses was the one with outstretched arms over the Red Sea. Moses was the one they wanted to speak to them – and Moses was gone. The idolatry that is so obvious in the golden calf already was present before Moses went up on the mountain. They had turned the messenger into a god! Thus, all of the experiences of God’s presence can be lost in an instant because the presence they have come to rely on is missing.
That leads to the most intriguing part in the story:
“Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” I have seen these people,’ the LORD said to Moses, ‘and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.’
But Moses sought the favor of the LORD his God. "LORD," he said, "why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: 'I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.' " Then the LORD changed his mind and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened” (Exodus 32:7-14).
Do you hear the irony dripping from God’s words as he says “Go down because your people whom you brought out of Egypt have become corrupt”? This is double idolatry! First Moses, then the golden calf. In six weeks – while God is laying out plans for a dwelling place among his people. Creator God is ready to call it quits with these people because they just don’t get it. Aaron was one of the people who came up on the mountain. There are seventy elders down there who should have known better. But they have substituted the messenger for God, and now substituted a golden calf for the idol they made of Moses. Worship that day seems to have been one of the best ever – burnt offerings, sacrifices of well-being, eating and drinking.
But the heart of worship in this story is the conversation Moses has with God when God is ready to bring fire from the top of the mountain down onto the valley floor and consume them all. Moses reminds God of the promises – to Abraham and Isaac and Israel; he reminds him that the name of God is at stake in the minds of others if he destroys these people in the wilderness. And God changes his mind.
I have to confess being somewhat sympathetic to young people’s reactions to Christianity. My generation and the ones that preceded me in the 20th century wound up with sharp distinctions between the secular and the sacred. We separated church attendance and right religious answers about church questions from the rest of our existence. And we created a church allegiance system often tied to the performance of particular individuals.
You see, what the survey shows about the attitudes of young people is what we already knew about ourselves. We’ve idolized the messengers and then moved on to other idols in efforts to secure our world and our own personal identities. Everyone wants that dynamic, charismatic church leader to follow – the fastest growing churches always seem to have that one person that everyone wants to hear. We all want a community of faith that meets my needs, that speaks my words, that brings me comfort and security, that provides the best worship service ever every time. And when the messenger disappoints, or the community fails to meet my needs, or the assemblies get dull, we go off in search of new images to follow. And while we now have some churches in this country that have more than 20,000 attendees, sometimes at multiple sites, the next generation nation finds us sheltered, judgmental, irrelevant.
The good news this morning, according to the writer of the book of Hebrews in the New Testament, is that the Son of God is now at Creator God’s side interceding on our behalf. The good news, according Paul in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians, is that God has made followers of Jesus Christ his permanent dwelling place in the Holy Spirit and the Spirit cries out on our behalf. The good news this morning is that we have been invited into the same kind of conversation with Creator God that Moses had that day on the mountain. The good news this morning is that if the people of God cry out in repentance, God will hear our cry and perhaps change his mind once more.
Delivered at Woodmont Hills, October 14, 2007.
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