You know the saying that the best things sometimes come in small packages. Well, sometimes sermons that are on the short side come with titles that are a bit on the long side. In any event, I ask you to consider with me for a few minutes this morning the pictures that we have of God in our Old and New Testament texts, and what these might have to say to us about how we might be more faithful in our own lives as people of God.
Both of our texts are very familiar. The Old Testament text is most remarkable. It begins with what the people of God begin to do when their leader, Moses, is off on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. Moses is delayed; it is taking him longer than they expected; they have begun to doubt that he is ever coming back. They are getting restless, so they tell Aaron, the brother of Moses and his right-hand man, that they want him to make gods for them, to go before them, to take care of the leadership vacuum that seems to have resulted from this absence of Moses and his God. Aaron obliges, takes their gold, and fashions the golden calf. The people say to themselves, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" Aaron sees this and decides it's time to call a special festival day. Strangely, however, he says, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD." What's going on here? Does Aaron think you can worship the LORD, your God, and still have any other gods?
The LORD apparently doesn't think so. Moses doesn't know what's going on back in the camp, but the LORD sees only too well. "Go down at once!" God commands Moses. "Your people"--notice, not "my people" but "your people"!--"whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely . . ." Already, God is trying to disown this people. God doesn't want anything more to do with them. They belong to Moses. He is the one who "brought them up out of the land of Egypt." The way the story reads, God is virtually ready to place all the responsibility on Moses for creating this intolerable situation. But God doesn't really want to finger Moses. There must be somebody left from whom God can make a great nation. So God says, "Now let me alone"--get out of my way!--"so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."
It's almost as if God offers Moses a little hush money here: "Moses, you just be quiet, you just stand aside, you just let me come on down and wipe these people out-- "and of you I will make a great nation." You know how you can get fed up with people, the way they behave sometimes? Well, God is really fed up with the people of Israel in a big way. Where is their appreciation for all that God has just done for them, rescuing them from slavery, delivering them out of the hands of the Egyptians, leading them off into the wilderness where they don't know where their next meal is coming from!? What a bunch of ingrates! Here they are, already making themselves other gods. The H-E-double L with them!
It takes Moses to put the cool on God! "O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people"--not just "my people" but "your people"--whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand." Here Moses is reminding God. It wasn't Moses who pulled off this miraculous deliverance from Egypt, it was God. Basically, Moses is saying, "God, you got us all--Yourself included--into this situation, not me. This is no time to be pulling out. What would the Egyptians think if, after all this, you end up destroying the very people you've been trying to save? Change your mind"--or, as the King James Version puts it, 'repent of this evil against thy people'--"and do not bring on this disaster." Well, for all his self-professed inarticulateness, Moses succeeds in getting God to cool down. The LORD repents--"and changes his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people."
This is not the end of the story. Interestingly enough, when Moses goes down the mountain and sees first-hand what Aaron and the people have been up to, he gets just about as angry as God has been. This is when Moses throws down the two stone tablets and breaks them at the foot of the mountain. Then, according to the story, it is Moses, not God, who passes judgment upon the people and wreaks violence against them, giving orders to have thousands of them killed. At the end of the chapter, however, Moses and God seem to reach some sort of accommodation that includes both punishment and the resolve to continue to lead the people remaining to the place that God has promised.
There are times when every one of us feel a kind of "wrath of God" towards people who behave in selfish and ungrateful and faithless and heedless ways. Sunday morning in church we can pray to God to have mercy and compassion, to deal with the peoples of the world with graciousness and kindness, to forgive us all our sins and make us more forgiving, more loving, more compassionate ourselves. God hears our prayers, we believe, and calls us to live accordingly. But then comes Monday morning, and we go back into the thick of things, and it is all we can do to restrain ourselves from passing the very sort of judgment and condemnation upon others that we have just asked God not to do! Often we fail, and we write other people off, and we engage in a wholesale rejection of all those who are not acting and living up to our expectations of what they ought to be. Religious people, in particular, are prone to want to claim the wrath of God for themselves.
Where, really, is God is all of this? That is not entirely clear. Does God sometimes get angry? Surely, if God cares about us, then sometimes God must get angry. Anyone who cares sometimes gets angry. But is God vindictive, jealous, unable or unwilling to countenance any rejection or disobedience? Does God engage in blanket condemnations, passing wholesale judgments upon us indiscriminately, without regard for anything but the fact that we are not the sort of loyal, faithful, trusting, obedient people that we are supposed to be?
Our New Testament text provides a rather different perspective on God--not necessarily better, but certainly different. Maybe, if we consider the picture of God that we find in Luke together with the picture of God we have found in Exodus, we might have a bigger and better picture of God, as well as a better picture of our calling as people of God.
According to Luke, all the sinners of that day were coming to listen to Jesus. For some reason, the up-standing, law-abiding, totally respectable folks were bothered by this. Apparently, instead of being happy that all these sinners had somebody to teach them and help them to put their lives back in order, they were upset that these sinners were getting so much attention. So Jesus tells the parable of the missing sheep. And he tells it in such a way that we are to believe that God is like the shepherd. I am not sure whether the shepherd in this parable is true to life, but Jesus apparently thinks that the shepherd is like God.
What happens in this parable? One sheep gets lost in the wilderness. The shepherd leaves all of the rest to go looking for this one. Can you imagine the pastor of a church saying to his flock, "You all fend for yourselves for a while. There's someone who seems to have lost his way, and I need to go looking for that one"? Out in the wilderness, the haunt of wolves and jackals and demons, what are 99 sheep going to do without a shepherd? As I say, I am not sure the parable is true to life. But it seems pretty clear that Jesus is trying to tell us something about just how much God cares for the individual who stands in need. It is not only the flock that matters, it is the missing individual. It is not only those who already have their lives in good order, it is the one who still has not found herself. It is not only the righteous, the up-standing, the law-abiding, it is also the poor lost soul who does not know where he is going or how to get there. It is the sinner, the person on the margins, the one who does not seem to fit in or belong--perhaps even the one who is always causing trouble.
Jesus imagines that when the shepherd has found the lost sheep he will come home, carrying it on his shoulders, and will tell his friends and neighbors, "Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost." "Just so," he says, "I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." What a marvelous portrait of Divine mercy and compassion and love for the individual in need! At the very point where we might "beg off," saying that it is better to look after all those who remain safe at hand than to take the risks of leaving them in search of one more, God opts for the most vulnerable individual, the one who wanders furthest away, the one who has been paying the least attention to where he was going. The shepherd refuses to "cut his losses" and attend only to those who are already safe at hand. So, apparently, does God.
In Exodus, God seemed willing to write off almost an entire people. Here, God seems unwilling write off even a single individual. Could it depend, at least in part, on how we look at people. Look at them impersonally, as a whole, and it is often hard to be very sympathetic, very compassionate, very understanding. Let's face it, people as a whole often behave in really terrible and unpleasant ways. They deserve the wrath of God! The upright people of Jesus' day looked at so-called sinners in this way, and saw little reason to attend to their needs.
But when we regard each other in more personal terms, as individuals with particular circumstances and particular needs, even the one who seems least attractive or desirable, even the one who seems most expendable, may invite our understanding, and evoke our compassion and concern. The parable of the missing sheep is about a Divine love that does not discriminate against those whom we would judge at a distance and keep at arm's length. It is about God's indiscriminate love and mercy and compassion for each as well as all.
I think that Jesus meant for us to conclude that we are to be more particular in our judgments, more open in our appreciation and understanding, and more prodigal in our compassion and love. AMEN.